Despite its lack of world-class views — Cafe Ponte is located in a strip mall near where Ulmerton and I-275 collide — the restaurant has survived and thrived in the dog-eat-dog world that is the restaurant business. What’s even more surprising is that there’s nary a grouper sandwich in sight.
What, pray tell, could possibly be their secret?
Hmmm… if you guessed spectacular food instead of spectacular views, you win the prize. I named their short ribs as Best of the Bay for 2012, but went back recently to check out the chef’s tasting menu.
Our evening begins with a tasting spoon of light and creamy blue cheese mousse topped with chives and toasted, chopped nuts, putting the taste buds on notice.
Then the printed formal menu begins, with a delicious creamy butternut squash soup topped with soft sous vide cooked Anjou pears for sweetness and balanced by a port-cranberry coulis and some spiced cream. If you’re not a squash fan, or if anyone in your party has an allergy to gluten, the chefs are happy to substitute the equally delicious creamy mushroom soup with black trumpet dust and a light truffle cream. Either way you can’t go wrong.
Next, the beet salad features roasted earthy beets, candy-striped beets, a luscious goat cheese mousse, crunchy pistachios, peppery arugula and a tart citrus coulis. Because the tasting menu is drawn from the regular à la carte selections, it’s also easy to substitute for the salad course if your palate is not beet-friendly, since two delicious options are available for the asking.
The appetizer is a creative variation on surf and turf featuring a beautifully seared New Bedford scallop atop a rich braised oxtail ragout with a creamy cauliflower mousse. Briny capers, sweet golden raisins, and crunchy Marcona almonds add dimension to the dish and are rounded out by a luscious citrus butter sauce; multi-dimensional and simply delicious.
The unlisted palate cleanser is a bright orange passion fruit gelee served in a one-bite Chinese spoon and topped with three tiny liquid-filled marbles that explode in your mouth for a flavor surprise.
Two stunning choices make up the tasting menu entrées: BOTB short ribs or plancha salmon, which is a great seafood option. The short ribs are perfect; braised for 24 hours and served atop a parsnip and Bosc pear purée with red wine salsify, baby spinach, and surrounded by caramelized shallot-port sauce. Truly a great dish. But the salmon is no slouch — perfectly cooked with nice caramelization on the outside and just past translucency on the inside. It’s juicy, luscious, and served with a confit of earthy beech mushrooms, an organic potato-bacon salad and absolutely delectable and creamy herbed béarnaise sauce. Another delicious mix of flavors that makes for a choice where there are no losers.
Next is a cheese course featuring two artisanal selections, in this case a slice of ripe goat cheese and two small triangles of tangy semi-hard cheese that seems to be a cousin of Manchego. Well-chosen accompaniments include dried fig, Marcona almonds, a small square of fruit panettone, and a large thin toasted slice of dark fig nut bread that provides both sweetness and crunch.
Our tasting menu ends with a bang. A trio of three smashing small desserts line up on a long white rectangular plate atop a chocolate line. The flourless chocolate cake is rich and dense, with a crisp chocolate tuile and creamy burnt caramel ice cream; raspberry crème brûlée features a velvety custard infused with Verveine Tea that’s topped with crunchy dark, melted sugar and a fresh bright red raspberry; and a diminutive pastry tart filled with caramel and topped with walnuts completes the plate. It’s a delicious ending to a wonderful meal.
Just when you think you may pop from all the goodies, your server swoops down with a small plate of four tiny mignardises to make one last assault on your sweet tooth. Is there still room for a perfect French macaroon or a nut-covered truffle? Maybe it’s the shiny white chocolate candy spattered with tiny dots of milk and dark chocolate just for fun, or an itsy-bitsy dark chocolate pastry just big enough to support a fresh red raspberry that strikes your fancy. Whichever one you get in the battle with your tablemates doesn’t really matter.
The service at Cafe Ponte also deserves mention. Whether it’s the excellent bread selection, creative cocktails, or just the general sense of hospitality, the servers do exactly what’s expected at a fine dining establishment, they serve impeccably — glasses are filled, food comes and goes smoothly, and there’s the comfort of quiet attentiveness.
At $75, the tasting menu isn’t an everyday affair, but it is a real bargain, saving nearly $20 off the à la carte prices, and that doesn’t include the extra surprises from the kitchen. A flight of well-chosen matching wines is also offered with each course for only $35. Since the bar serves a three-ounce pour for each match, it’s enough to share, and the bar is happy to split the pours into separate glasses to accommodate you.
As previously established, our regional restaurant scene isn’t chasing the culinary avant garde, but Cafe Ponte’s kitchen is consistently turning out food at a very high level, beginning with fresh locally sourced ingredients and delivering multi-layered flavors. So, whether you order the seasonal tasting menu or choose from the delicious à la carte selections, Cafe Ponte remains at the apex of Tampa Bay’s dining options.