When people find out I write restaurant articles, they always ask the same questions. The questions are, “What is your favorite restaurant” or “What is your favorite thing to order?” Recently, a friend asked me, “If you could create your perfect dinner, from your favorite dishes served by your favorite local restaurants, what would be on the menu?” After giving it some thought, here is my answer. My perfect dinner would start with the oysters at Donatello.
Oysters Florentina at Donatello
This is the best version of the classic dish, Oysters Rockefeller, I’ve ever eaten. The best oysters, depending on the season, and availability, nestled into a bed of sauteed spinach and are presented on the half-shell. What makes these different, and special, is the sauce. It’s made with white wine, shallots and heavy cream. The cream is aerated a little, creating a lighter version than the classic Rockefeller, and allows the flavors of the spinach and oysters to be front and center. Oysters Florentina and bottle of Cristal Champagne is the perfect way to start a celebration dinner.
Wahoo Crudo at Olivia
Ever since I wrote about this dish for Tampa Bay Business and Wealth’s March 2021 issue, I cannot stop thinking about it. It’s cool and delicious, with a mélange of flavors and a stunning presentation. Brilliant colors of orange, vermillion and violet fill the plate, but don’t linger at the sight. The best part of this dish comes on the end of your fork. Mild wahoo is perfectly balanced by citrus, sweet soy, Calabrian aioli and sushi sauce. It’s garnished with edible flowers and is so light, and refreshing, it’s perfect for any time of day, any season of the year.
Sushi at Ocean Prime
A little sushi needs to be part of a perfect dinner and The Ocean Roll at Ocean Prime might just be my favorite. Grade 1-plus ahi tuna and avocado are wrapped in seaweed, then topped with thinly sliced yellowtail hamachi. Then, it’s topped with a crunchy chili-garlic oil. The crunchy oil really makes this dish. It adds both flavor and texture that are subtle and forward at the same time. This makes a great starter to share with friends or a wonderful lunch, sitting at the bar with a glass of lush Chardonnay.
Pasta at Il Ritorno
Like most people, I love pasta and have eaten it almost everywhere. But the best pasta dish I’ve ever eaten, anywhere, is the short rib mezzaluna at Il Ritorno. Short rib-filled pillows of pasta, butter and white truffle oil are the foundation of upscale comfort food. Garlic and slow-roasted tomatoes add flavor and color. Everything is blanketed with Piave cheese and chives. The cheese strings from the tines of the fork, you mouth is coated with a rich blanket of butter and the pasta has the perfect bite. This dish proves there is a higher-being, looking down and wanting us to be happy.
Filet at The Black Pearl
A steak is a steak. When I want one, I buy the best quality meat I can find, and grill it at home on my Big Green Egg. I almost never order one out. But the Hereford filet, served at the Black Pearl, makes me re-think my steak-eating strategy. Chef Chris Artrip sears the beef in cast iron, for an even crust, then places it on mashed red potatoes, studded with a pomme gaufrette. A drizzle of chive oil is followed by a malbec-braised shallot glace de viande. It can be ordered with a butter-poached lobster tail or foie gras. The foie gras is scored and seared for an impressive presentation. The flavor of the liver is mild but distinct and feels lush on the tongue. The flavor of de viande takes this dish to the stratosphere.
I still grill steak at home, but when I want something really special, I make a reservation at the Black Pearl.
Cannoli at Casa Santo Stefano
The dessert that stole my heart last year was the cannoli at Casa Santo Stefano, and the shell is the reason why. The shell is made with a little Marsala wine, creating an extra-crisp, but delicate, shell that crumbles instead of breaking into big shards. The classic filling is studded with chocolate chips and stays on the right side of the sweetness line. This cannoli is unique and a shining star in a constellation of great desserts I enjoyed last year.
That’s my perfect dinner, based the restaurants I reviewed last year. Reading back over this article reminds me of other great dishes I’ve eaten at other local restaurants. My calendar is filled with reservations so I can relive my experiences. And that’s what I recommend for you. Support your local restaurants by dining out and trying new restaurants often. The Tampa Bay area is home to some great chefs, and restaurants, that are still struggling to recover from the COVID curse of the past two years. Grab someone special and enjoy dinner out. ♦