Restaurant preview of Restaurant BT: Great food in Tampa

Photo credit: Jeff Houck

Back in April 2010, after struggling for months with her landlord in Hyde Park Village, Chef BT Nguyen decided to declare bankruptcy and walk away from her restaurant’s home for the past five years (read the story). After being absent the food scene only a short while, she has set up shop in a former kitchen supply store on South MacDill in Tampa.

Responding to warm support from her fiercely loyal fans, BT kept most of her former menu intact as well as her young, hip staff. The formerly blah retail space is remarkably transformed, with nary a modern decor detail overlooked. Especially in this new location, dining at Restaurant BT makes me feel like I’m in a real city… a place that’s “with it”… like I’m not in the tragically unhip Tampa and more like I’m in SoHo… the one in NYC. And I like that. A lot. Smaller, private dining areas, clear plastic chairs and a cozy bar complete the cool scene.

Like her other location, the food menu prices feel a bit NYC-ish too, but somehow, I don’t mind. Starters range from $8 for Fresh Rolls to $13 for Crustacean Bisque, however, the portions come large enough to take some home. I couldn’t finish the massive plate of Spicy Squid and Hydro Lettuce Cups ($10), steamed and bathing in a chili-scented garlic vinaigrette. Ethereal in their cooked perfection, it’s impressive how some chefs seem to coax the chewiness out of squid. Less exciting was the Hawaiian Hearts of Palm Salad ($14) which lacked much flavor except for the overpowering mango. That ripe fruit kicked the hearts of palm to the curb and laughed.

Vietnamese Bouillabaisse

Highlights on the main course menu include an interesting Top Chef-esque Deconstructed Beef Stroganoff ($34). Essentially, a filet mignon skirted with Chanterelle mushrooms and a red wine reduction, over fresh pasta. Rich, but not over the top in its decadence. But my favorite of the evening was Vietnamese Bouillabaisse ($29). A fresh riff on the traditional French seafood stew, this hearty, homey dish reminded me of Cafe BT on Gandy Boulevard long ago, when BT would effortlessly combine classic French cuisine with the fresh, aromatic flavors of Asia. The Bouillabaisse arrived brimming and briny with local Gulf Prawns, salmon and calamari nestled with barely cooked okra, pineapple and tomato in a tangy, slightly spicy seafood broth. Quite perfect, actually… wish I could eat that every night…

…and drink off her wine list. I’m giddy that she broadened the bottle and by-the-glass horizons at the new location. The selections at the Hyde Park location lacked imagination and breadth. Charles Heidsieck Brut Champagne, Quivira Fig Tree Sauvignon Blanc, Elena Walch Chardonnay, Viridian Pinot Noir, Jaboulet Parallele 45 and Chateau d’Aqueria Rose are all sportin’ a place on the by-the-glass list. And she must have more room to store wine, since the bottle list exploded with more bubbly and interesting bottles. Highlights: Truchard Roussanne, Sinskey Abraxas, Delille Cellars Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon, Chateau Saint-Andre Bordeaux, Velvet Devil, Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel, 337 Cabernet Sauvignon and Amavi Syrah. I could go on, but need to stop.

I feel like BT has stretched her legs again, no longer constrained by high rent and stress. Good to have you back.

To see more photos of BT’s lunch offerings, check out the story by Tampa Tribune’s Jeff Houck

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