Just had dinner at what I think may be--purely food-wise--the best restaurant in the area: Gulf Bistro in Madeira Beach. 15225 Gulf Blvd. 727-392-8627. I'm kicking myself that I haven't been here before, and can't wait to go back. First, the cons:
It's in a slightly odd/hard to find location: a very small strip mall next to a nail salon. Very easy to pass right by. But it's right on Gulf Blvd, between 152 and 153 ave. Just go slow and you will see it. And don't let the exterior deter you.
It's also quite quiet. Granted, it's an off-season weekday, but if you're looking for a buzzing scene, this is not the place to go.
That said, I have to admit I was totally taken by surprise. I've spent a lot of time in France, and this place just took me straight back to some favorite French bistros. The cooking here is not experimental--traditional French dishes like lapin à la moutarde, ris de veau, confit de canard, maybe a bit more 'modern' with the fish dishes (a special we didn't try but that I'm sure was good featured filet of salmon with a pomegranate glaze). But the chef has a wonderfully light touch. Riz de veau with a mushroom cream sauce was perfect: creamy sweetbreads, enriched with an earthy mushroom sauce, but nonetheless delicate, letting the sweetbreads themselves shine, and served with a perfect square of pommes dauphinoise and some crisp mixed vegetables. One of my companions had a special of rabbit with mustard sauce, and I have to admit I was fearing something dry with a heavy cream sauce. What arrived instead was perfectly moist rabbit leg and thigh, with a tangy, and again, light, cream sauce. Exactly the sort of thing my host family would serve when I was an exchange student in Paris, but maybe even better. Another had a wonderful tilapia special--very lightly breaded, I think, with a lemon sauce. The fish was perfectly fresh, rich and flaky. I'm not a huge tilapia fan, but this was quite good.
For dessert: an exceptional creme brulee and a classic chocolate mousse (my only recommendation would be to ask for it without the whipped cream). As I said: not flashy, not innovative, but perfectly executed classic dishes. And again, with a light touch that makes all the difference.
Recently had a couple of very nice meals at the Maritana in the Don Cesar, and enjoyed them quite a lot. Gulf Bistro is a much more casual atmosphere, of course, but food-wise it beats the Maritana by a long stretch, in my view.
For the quality of the cooking, it's also quite reasonable. Entrees are in the $16-20 range, and all include a very nice house salad. We had a fruity, chewy Languedoc-Roussilon (somewhat hard to find regional French wine down here, but one of my favorites) for $34/bottle.
The chef and front-of-the-house server/maitre d' seem to be a husband and wife team, a French couple, charming and hospitable. I look forward to sampling more of their menu soon.