When Cheap Eats wrapped the shoot in St. Petersburg, I walked away surprised and impressed with the level of cooking happening there. Once dubbed “God’s Waiting room”, St. Petersburg has transformed from a retirement haven to a destination city on Florida’s Gulf coast. Sometimes on Cheap Eats, we feature restaurants that serve up deals despite offering a menu that upon first glance would be way out of our budget. Enter Red Mesa Cantina, whose sprawling three story set up(in an old firehouse) will take you through a packed lively restaurant, a private dining hall with vaulted ceilings and a rooftop bar serving up a myriad of the world’s best ceviches(Mexican, Peruvian), mixology style cocktails and some pretty sweet views of the cityscape at night. Chef Chris Fernandez of Red Mesa offered to take me around town to meet some noteworthy local chefs and test out the St. Petersburg fine dining scene. Are you ready for it? Hang on. Now imagine you are watching the opening to Law and Order and cue . . .
“these are their stories“
the spot: Red Mesa Cantina 128 3rd st south St Petersburg FL 33701
the eats: Gulf Grouper and Shrimp ceviche, Poke Tuna, Shrimp and Avocado tostada
the bucks: $14, $4(a spoon), and $9 respectively
the full nelson: who said sushi had to have all the fresh fish fun?
The first image that should enter your mind when I say St. Petersburg Fine Dining should be top notch seafood. After all, we are by the sea and when it comes to eating fresh fish, one would assume to spare no expense. Well it is also 2018 so fresh fish means more than a filet being sautéed and then smothered in a beurre blanc. In today’s food centric world fresh fish means fish served raw, which usually means sushi. But don’t sleep on the “almost raw” aka ceviche. “Cooked” in an acidic citrus marinade, ceviche is as fine a way to enjoy pristine seafood as sushi, and in some instances become a more affordable affair. At Red Mesa, expect a combination of Mexican and Peruvian versions, the latter where the aji pepper is typically utilized plus some Japanese sashimi style dishes as well. Above, you will see tuna poke in serving spoons. Not pictured is a version filled inside a crispy shell aptly dubbed “tuna tacos”. If you thought chips were meant to go with guacamole . . . try bite size pieces of sashimi grade tuna marinated in sesame oil, soy sauce, green onion and chili paste with your fried tortilla. While these meals are hand held and thus informal, they are also sized like tapas and when filled with top shelf seafood, means a fine dining price tag to get your fill. Hey, I never said St. Petersburg Fine Dining meant being served by a guy dressed like a penguin. But this food deserves to be.
the spot: Brick and Mortar 539 Central Ave St. Petersburg FL 33701
the eats: Coddled egg yolk crispy mushroom fettuccine with pine butter. Branzino wrapped in prosciutto , candied orange zest, scalloped potatoes braised in shrimp paste and butter saffron. Scallops with house made squid ink fettuccine with Romesco sauce, english peas and mint.
the bucks: $25, $38 and $34 respectively
the full nelson: When your entrée needs have something to prove
If you are looking for some bang for your menu reading buck to go with your St. Petersburg Fine Dining, look no further than the menu at Brick and Mortar. The lines of description for each entrée come off like that moment before a judge on Chopped takes their first bite. As far as the food goes, it’s as serious as the ingredients sound. Coddled yolks, an egg yolk that has been gently cooked till just set, have been in vogue in professional kitchens for some time now and for good reason: you create a wonderfully rich sauce that is instantly familiar and comforting. Mix that with house-made fettuccine and the savoriness of well cooked mushrooms and you have a go to pasta dish for a relative bargain at $25. I like big scallops and I cannot lie, as long as they develop a beautiful sear while remaining soft and juicy in the middle. If these qualities float your boat, I would chart a course for the scallops with English peas and mint, served over a snug little bed of squid ink fettuccine. I have found the tastiest fish entrées are indeed the whole fish ones and if you can handle the site of a roasted sea bass head on your plate, make room for the Branzino wrapped in prosciutto with candied orange zest and scalloped potatoes braised in shrimp paste and butter saffron. If that last dish strikes you more as Southeast Asian than Mediterranean, as the star protein might imply, you are picking up on the fact that Chef Ruhe has Indonesian blood in him. Being of Bengali descent myself, I know the draw and ire a whole fish, face and all, can create. But give this dish a chance and see where the intense umami of shrimp paste and aromatic lift of saffron takes the mild sweet flavor of this Mediterranean Sea Bass. It’s worth the $38 to find out. Steep? Yes. But I said this was St. Petersburg Fine Dining, didn’t I?
the spot: Il Ritorno 449 Central Ave St. Petersburg FL 33701
the eats: Smoked Meatballs with smoked Pomodoro sauce. Charred Octopus with Cannellini beans, capers and tomato. Pork Campanelle pasta in a shishito bolgonese, crispy pig ear, Grana Padana and lime
the bucks: $14, $16 and $22 respectively
the full nelson: Free form Italian cooking driven by locally sourced and at times, non conventional ingredients
Growing up I think I loved meatballs as much as I loved hamburgers so whenever I see ’em on a menu, either on pizza, or on a bed of spaghetti(or even better pappardelle), chances are I’m gonna get it. Which made the smoked meatballs a no brainer(cue the Beiber). I am also a fan of octopus and again, when considering the subject of St. Petersburg fine dining, seafood is also a no brainer(cue the Beiber again). But the dish that truly took my breath away(cue the Berlin) was indeed the Pork Campanelle: a pasta dish hit with a pork and shishito pepper bolognese, crispy pig’s ear, Grana Padano and lime. The lime and shishito peppers should instantly stick out here, as even the idea of a pig’s ear is not unheard of in Italian cookery. That move can only be explained by Chef David Benstock’s time at the flagship of Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant empire Spago, where using Asian ingredients, like shishito peppers, in non traditional dishes, was(and is) the norm. As far as the lime goes, that can be connected to the use of the pig’s ear. Rather than being braised à la the Milanese dish Cassouella, the pig ears are instead brined, braised, dehydrated and fried; producing a final product similar to chicharron. And what goes perfect with chicharron? How about a squeeze of lime. If all of this doesn’t impress let me add one final detail: this dish has been served at the James Bread House.
And on that note let me leave you with this: St. Petersburg Fine Dining isn’t just noteworthy within the confines of a city on the Gulf of Florida but to the esteemed palates of James Beard Foundation judges. Which makes St. Petersburg fine dining really just straight up . . . fine dining, that can hold its own anywhere in the country.