From his initial start in the Icot Center, in Clearwater, to expanding his brand in Hyde Park and South Tampa to his newest venture in Midtown Tampa, Chris Ponte’s journey has developed within the Tampa market as he continually builds roots with flagship dining concepts including Olivia’s, On Swann and now Bare Naked Kitchen.
But the pinnacle of the Ponte restaurant family is the newly opened Ponte Tampa. This massive undertaking was more than three years in the making with every possible obstacle delaying the opening, from the COVID-19 pandemic to having to move the manhole cover in the outdoor space. However, the impressive 7,000-square-foot space with expansive 20-foot ceilings opened in 2022 with much anticipation for the next level of the posher dining experience.
From the moment you step into the inviting hostess area, your eyes are drawn to the statement chandeliers, soft-colored palate and the backlit, glass-framed wine locker room. Although the ceilings extend, for what seems like forever, the sound within the restaurant is subdued, allowing each table its private space and conversation. The modern luxury vibe, envisioned by designer Danice Doganiero and Ponte’s wife Michelle, exudes fine taste dining.
Running a restaurant of this magnitude takes a mighty team dedicated to the highest level of service with the vision to make it memorable for every guest. With more than 100 staff members, it takes several weeks of detailed training to establish excellence for Ponte. The program includes tasting and comprehending the dishes, and beverages, and spending time in the kitchen to understand the efforts, and operations, of the back of the house. Ponte’s philosophy is always to lead by example so he is ready to jump on the line as needed.
Ponte’s stepsons, J.T. and Andy, bring forth new technology and advanced processes to Ponte and are instrumental in developing the checklists to ensure the experience is consistent, on a large-scale basis. As Ponte likes to tell his team, “All you have to be is a little better each day and we will get to where we want together.”
General Manager Doug Pazin introduced Ponte to chef Paul Morrison who has a deep passion for steak as evidenced by his tenure with Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse in Chicago. A 45-minute conversation about mashed potatoes, between Chris and Paul, sealed the deal that he is the perfect fit for the restaurant. The combined forces have the goal not to be just the best steak program in the Tampa Bay market, but to be the best in the country. Morrison’s passion for hand curating, drying and aging the meat, plus his knowledge to discuss details on the quality of cuts and the DNA behind the beef enhance the foundation to take the modern steakhouse concept nationwide.
Enough about the background of how Ponte came to be, let’s talk about how they are taking the dining experience to the Posher Palate. Ponte takes a fresh look at libations by offering nine cocktails in two forms—classic or modern. The Modern Cosmopolitan perfectly blends EG lavender and combined with a lavender injection topped with the most vibrant flowers, making it almost too pretty to drink. However, if that isn’t posh enough, the beverage to splurge on is Michelle’s Martini, as the elevated dirty martini is served with Sevruga caviar and blini.
The amuse bouche of Toro bluefin tuna, known as the wagyu of the sea, black truffle cream and ponzu teased the tongue while pleasing the palate. Toro, the fatty belly of the tuna, is a true delicacy. All the appetizers appeal to the finer taste including foie gras, oysters, escargot and Oscietra Royal caviar. The flakiness of the puff pastries for the escargot en croute soaks up the nduja garlic butter for perfect bites. The Parker House-style rolls, baked in-house, drizzled with honey and served with black truffle butter, sell out quickly. The salmon wagyu has a unique and delicious variety of textures with crispy fried rice, spicy uni aioli, salmon cake and kicked up with a jalapeno on top.
The shining star of Ponte is the steak, and Morrison takes great pride in every step of the process from selecting the meat, aging it in-house and cutting it to perfection. The Kansas City strip, procured from Meat by Linz in Chicago, is USDA Prime and aged for 45 days. The sea salt on the steak is the only seasoning needed to bring out the nutty and earthy flavor of the beef; additional spices will dilute the magic the natural juices the steak creates. The New Bedford, Massachusetts, scallops sourced from Ponte’s hometown friend, are presented beautifully with a rainbow of cauliflower, prosciutto, sultanas and hazelnut-brown butter. Jumping to the desert, if you like carrot cake, this is a must-try for a unique take on the classic. The candied carrot cake and cream cheese brulee rests atop a lemony sauce, topped with ginger and walnuts, almost too pretty to eat, but worth every single bite.
Anyone that has been to a Ponte restaurant may notice there is no mention here of the mushroom soup that Ponte made legendary. As Ponte says, the people really dictate what the signature dish is based on the demand. What will the signature dish be for Ponte Tampa? ♦
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