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Restaurants & Bars 3

Clearwater - Café Ponte Shines

BeaN | Jan 23, 200407:30 PM

The Spousal Unit (SU) had a birthday this week, so we took advantage of the occasion to visit Café Ponte, located at 13505 ICOT Blvd. in Clearwater. I don’t have a copy of the menu to refer to, so I’m winging it on some of the details.

Located in the ICOT office/retail park that fronts Ulmerton, Café Ponte sports several inviting alfresco tables, but it was too chilly (Jan. 20) to eat on the sidewalk. The interior is every bit as chic, sleek and sophisticated as that other place that made me feel so uncomfortable, but this time the feeling was intimate, and the sophistication did not feel studied and deliberate.

We were seated at a table on the central banquette where we could observe the line cooks working in the open kitchen as well as the dining room. The line cooks moved with the grace of a well-choreographed dance, and the service staff moved across the floor with an apparently effortless and unconsciously graceful ebb and flow. More than once, SU and I remarked about the dance-like quality of it all.

We were served by a waiter named Richard who was obviously knowledgable about the menu’s ingredients and preparation techniques. After delivering SU’s cocktail and my iced tea, I changed my mind and asked for a cocktail alongside my iced tea. I apologized for changing gears, but Richard smoothly replied, “you can have anything you want.” Wow! I felt pampered and catered to instantaneously.

After we had perused the menu, Richard told us about the specials; everything tempted me. We opted to start off with the carpaccio of beef for the SU, while I had the foie gras. The carpaccio covered the plate entirely, delicate beef slices draped gently over a mound of baby greens and decorated with sauces. The foie gras had been kissed with flame and was topped with tiny sprouts of water cress (I think) It sat atop an elegantly fanned sliced poached pear and a croissant-like crust. The plate was decorated with sauce and gem-like cubes of what seemed to be a savory wine jelly, and white raisins (or maybe currants) which had cooked and plumped up in the sauce.

We traded many bites. I don’t think that the carpaccio (about $8) was quite as good as one I had at Delmonico’s in New Orleans, but it was awfully good, nonetheless, and cost about half as much. The foie gras (about $14) was nothing short of divine. It was only my second experience with foie gras, and I must say that, unlike other things that I have grown to love to eat, no learning curve has been required for me to “acquire” a taste for the fatted liver of a goose.

For entrees, SU chose the rack of lamb (about $38), and I had the osso buco ($23?). I’ve never eaten it before. Generally, ordering lamb is my MO. Both dishes were delightful.

The rack consisted of four frenched, hefty bones-worth of luscious lamb, served rare as ordered. It was accompanied by an artistic baked potato which had been hollowed out, mashed with gorgonzola and other goodies, and reassembled in a standing-on-end manner. The gorgonzola/potato mash rose up behind the rack of lamb. Some equally elegant baby vegetables also graced the plate. I want to say that the beautiful burgundy-colored sauce that pooled on the bottom of the plate was a red wine, balsamic reduction. While my recall of constituent ingredients is almost certainly inaccurate, my memory of the taste is not. It was lovely.

I’m not a great fan of veal, so I’m not sure exactly why I ordered the osso bucco. But, on this occasion, SU and I were in synch. We both wanted the carpaccio as well as the foie gras, and I’d have ordered the lamb if he had opted for the osso bucco. The humble shank cut of veal was cooked to fork-tender perfection. It rested on a bed of special risotto (special ingredients lost to my memory, but the loveliness of the experience retained) and baby carrots and small, succulent onions.

We stuffed ourselves beyond decency. Although, to coin Patrick O’Brien, “[we] just aint genteel,” I could not bring myself to pick up the lamb bone after cutting the meat off of it, although it called to me from the plate incessantly. Unfortunately, SU does not suffer from this compunction to civility and he gnawed his three lamb bones clean. Then he grabbed my veal shank bone and spread the marrow on some bread, which he then proceeded to gloat over while making primeval, satisfied noises.

Oh! I forgot the bread! We got a basket of the most beautiful artisanal bread, with a small crock of whipped butter and another of olive tapenade before our appetizers arrived. Mea culpa.

Things came to the table and things went away transparently. Glasses magically seemed to refill themselves.

In the end, Richard artfully tempted us with sinful deserts to no avail.

The total came to around $120. After tip, we were still under $150. This was great. You can certainly eat at Café Ponte more thriftily than we did if you are so inclined. I have spent three times as much for a meal that wasn’t this good. This was money well spent.

Vive Chef Ponte, and may Café Ponte prosper!

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