By Mary D. Scourtes
Some rush out to see a play during its opening weeks because they think there’s less enthusiasm in repeated performances. While some restaurants share this same malaise, this isn’t true about Café Ponte. Having enjoyed dinners there a considerable time ago, we happily found an encore performance.
As soon as you enter, the welcoming host assures that you are in good hands. Proprietor Christopher Ponte, who trained at Johnson & Wales University and later at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, has also worked at the famed Taillevent in Paris and continues to earn a litany of accolades.
Although you might be anxious to skip to the entrees, stop and sip one of eight creative Grey Goose martinis. The Blood Orangetini is splashed with Cointreau, and Fire and Ice is a Grenadine and Blue Curacao combo. Dreaming Dragon, with pomegranate and lime, and Raspberry Jack, with sour mash and muddled raspberries, offer memorable cocktails.
Chef Ponte and Chef Tony Banno have assembled a menu with an American core yet full of French, Asian, Italian and other worldly influences. They execute, present and decorate entrees on classic white plates with the flourish of a food stylist. Swirls of parsley oil and mango-ginger vinaigrette, for instance, decorate rock shrimp-crab cakes, which frame a crab rangoon atop an apple and celery root slaw. Each bite is a delightful, sea-salty sensation. A balsamic vinegar glaze, caramelized onions and circus frisée figure prominently in a fig and prosciutto flatbread. A server offers a popular Kalamata olive foccacia and solidly satisfying Parmesan lavash.
Soup lovers will adore the full-flavored curried crab and pumpkin bisque enlivened with shiitake mushrooms, star anise cream and coriander oil. Aromatic truffle oil and tuffs of trumpet dust enrich the wild mushroom soup. Beet tartare and candy stripe beets, with goat cheese mousse, compose a salad that is worth sampling. A towering foie gras appetizer is built from layers of brioche with Spanish almonds, fig jam and a sweet German eiswein.
Main courses reflect the traditional and the new. Purists claim a “bouillabaisse’’ can’t be made without the Mediterranean rascassé but this one with scallops, shrimp and calamari, accompanied by little toasts and gruyère cheese, is a worthy variant of a classic. Charming celery root puree and a Calvados sauce elevate prized, diver scallops.
A rib eye goes from mundane to memorable when rubbed with dry espresso and is served with roasted garlic, a wild mushroom ragu and a sherried, shallot sauce. Serrano ham and Parmesan cheese accent braised veal tortellini with truffle-leek broth. Seared foie gras mingles with Maple Leaf Duck Breast while butternut squash ravioli is effectively accented with hazelnut butter and smooth mascarpone cheese. The potato crusted, Chilean sea bass, adorned by sugar snap peas and braised leeks, holds its own.
Desserts are always in fashion here. Dense chocolate soufflé is irresistible with vanilla bean ice cream while a flourless chocolate cake is complete with burnt caramel ice cream.
Entrees range from $18 to $38; a $36 prefix menu is offered before 6:30 p.m. The wine list is varied and extensive.Clubby and chic, the black and sage-hued restaurant has tasteful design, handsome appointments, crisp white tablecloths and soft lightening. A lively bar showcases a well-traveled crowd, a mix of business clients and neighborhood residents. Service is exemplary and our servers were charming and knowledgeable enough to make smart recommendations. We ate well.
Find It: 13505 Icot Blvd., Clearwater, Fl
Hours: M-Thur: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30 to 9 p.m.; F and S: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Way to pay: V, MC, Amex, Discover
Drinks: Full bar
Call: (727) 538-5768