Monday, October 17, 2011

Cafe Ponte, Clearwater, FL: If you Blink, You'll Miss It

The Cafe Ponte is an unassuming little restaurant set in the front of a mostly unoccupied strip mall.  I would not have gone if my hotel manager had not recommended it.  I had passed it earlier and decided immediately to keep going.  For once, the hotel manager made a great selection. A small sign at the front door revealed a healthy Zagat star approval, and a framed newspaper article boasted this was a favorite of Wolfgang Puck's when he was in town (not to drop names), because it reminded him so much of Paris cafes.  Really?  I didn't get that vibe from the street.

But open the door, and the opinion changes.  Warmly greeted by the hostess, she asked if a booth in the bar would be ok.  They were busier than expected for a Monday night, and though she didn't say it, I know she wanted to keep her prime seats open for a party larger than one.  Just made good business sense.

The bar lights dimmed to a pleasant glow almost immediately after I was seated in the tri-color booth.  Finished in a faux suede, the booth evoked an earlier time than 2011.  The low lights, white tablecloths and waitstaff in white shirts and ties made me think of supper clubs, the type you see in old black and white movies from the 40's.  Light, jazzy piano sounds in the background enhanced the atmosphere, and provided some protection against the loud voices of some of the bar patrons.

Brittany arrived soon after the waiter and menus were delivered.  I orderd a Sacred Hill Sauvignon Blanc '08.  I thought I would start with a nice crispy white from the Marlborough region of New Zealand.  Unfortunately, it arrived over-chilled to the point where the only aspect that could be determined was the acidity of the wine.  As it warmed up, I was pleasantly acquainted with the release of grapefruit and lemon grass.  It has a warm, fruity finish that lingered.

The bread boy made his rounds amidst the booths.  "Asiago, raisin-nut, calamata olive or lavache?"  He swooped the calamata olive bread onto my plate with a silvery set of tongs, then laid out a little bowl of butter with sea salt and rosemary.  It was not warm, but the bread was slightly chewy and crusty, and perfectly complemented by their special butter.
I had planned to order just and entree and keep the evening short and uncomplicated.  But the continuous oohing and aaahing from the booth beside me changed my mind.  Like that lady in "Sleepless in Seattle", I ordered what she was having for an appetizer.
There are many ways to serve calamari, and I've tried and loved most of them - breaded, fried, sauteed, spicy, sweet, with marinara sauce, with chilies, with pesto.  But tonight provided another first, Asian Calamari.  Served on a bed of baby spinach, the calamari nestled cozily with peanuts, onions, bean sprouts and red peppers.  To keep things friendly, the chef drizzled a complex aioli sauce of cilantro, mustard, ginger and red hot sauce over the calamari, then added cilantro and sauteed red onion to complete this tasty treat.  Dare I admit?  It was the best I've ever tasted.  Just divine.

Brittany returned to check on things and to see about another glass of wine.  She recommended the McManis Viognier.  As a matter of fact, she'd been recommending it to anyone who asked all night.  I was planning to order a ravioli, so how could I resist?  A crisp Viognier would be a nice, clean accompaniment to a rich sauce.  The choice was between an unoaked chardonnay and the Viognier.  Brittany made the right recommendation.

When she returned with the Viognier, she included a pleasant little surprise - a mini-taste of their  Pumpkin Curry Crab Bisque with white truffle.  Served in a white demi-tasse, it was a lovely way to offer a sample.  How good was it?  Just delicious, perfectly crabby and mushroomy, silky and warm.                                                                                                                         The McManis Viognier was equally delightful.  Crisp and cold, it had a sweet apple and tart pear forward flavor, followed by a mouthwatering acid finish - nothing like the painfully acidic finish the Sauvignon Blanc exhibited.  One nice surprise was the clean, mineral aroma.  Good one Brittany!
And then the final link fell into place.  (I guess that's a mixed metaphor. Perhaps I should say the final puzzle piece fell into place, but that's so cliche, and hardly a food-worthy expression, don't you think?)  Brittany served the Butternut Squash Ravioli.  Even though it was a warm night in Clearwater, Florida, the season had changed to Autumn, and it just felt like the right night to enjoy an Autumn-inspired dinner.

The ravioli was filled with a slightly cinnamon-enhanced butternut squash, then sauteed in a hazelnut brown butter sauce.  The squash had been diced and cooked to a perfect consistency.  At first the ravioli had a slightly fishy taste, then I realized it was not fish I was tasting, it was the brown butter sauce.  Rarely do chefs cook with it, and it gave the ravioli almost a baked dessert smell.  Tart apple slivers and tangy goat cheese combined with sage, ginger, mascarpone and hazelnut rendered the perfect fall topping to the butternut squash ravioli.  One bite into a ravioli pillow with a hazelnut provided all the sweet flavors of fall with a nutty bite.  The next bite could combine the cheese and apple and you feel like you're eating dessert.  Assemble all the ingredients together on one fork and you have a satisfying but light autumn dinner.


  1. Even though I just had dinner, I wouldn't say 'no' to that ravioli with a nice glass of wine ;-)

  2. Yep, it's bedtime, and I'm hungry. What a time to visit YOUR blog!