Entering Cafe Ponte for the first time, I felt a little like Lewis Carroll's "Alice" must've when she stepped through the looking glass. How can one be in the ICOT Center parking lot on Ulmerton Road one minute, and standing inside what could easily pass for a high-end, "real city" resto in downtown New York, Philadelphia or Chicago the next? How have you managed to evade me for so long, Cafe Ponte? And why didn't Emeril tell me about you (he usually keeps me in the loop)? From the sleek furnishings, ultra-modern zigzag bar and gleaming open kitchen, it was a case of infatuation at first sight; then, shortly thereafter, obsession at first bite.
Underdog has taken clients to this upscale eatery for lunch on multiple occasions and suggested more than once that we try it for dinner, but for some reason I always balked. Groupon finally made the decision for me when I received their email offer of two 6-course tasting menu dinners for $80 (a $170 value). With Dogboy's birthday mere weeks away, it seemed like good way to kill two birds with one stone (and save some $$$ in the process). After the fact, I have to say that this was the bargain of the century...so much so that I was left with the vaguely uncomfortable feeling that I might have stolen something. Having sampled multi-course tasting menus by Thomas Keller, Wolfgang Puck, Alain Ducasse and Masahara Morimoto (none of which were less than twice as expensive as Ponte's regular price and one that was not nearly as enjoyable as far ambiance and service...sorry, Thomas), Chef Ponte held his own amidst the aforementioned culinary major-league players in my humble, "regular food-loving girl" opinion....especially considering the price point and the fact that Clearwater is not exactly the epicurean hub of North America (at least not yet). Dishes were uniformly stunningly presented, fresh-tasting and creative without being ridiculously pretentious in the overly-foamed/nose-to-tail consumption/perpetually "deconstructed" kinda way that tends to tire me out a bit. Behold "The Precious"...our menu for the evening:
UD opted for the $35 wine pairing, while I stayed true to myself and ordered a bottle Wente Chardonnay to nurse. First off, a dedicated "bread server" stopped by so we could make our selections from a large basket of bountiful (and beautiful) freshly-baked offerings. In the interest of saving time and space, because this post is going to be stupidly long and image-heavy, I'll just say that both my kalamata olive bread and my better half's sweet onion foccacia were off the chain. A crock of soft, creamy butter was deposited on the table to go with (no foil-wrapped butter pats, here...thank goodness).
Our gastronomic journey was officially kicked off with an amuse-bouche of Goat Cheese Mousse with Candied Walnut and Chive. Two little spoonfuls of heaven.
Our first course, Mushroom Bisque with Black Trumpet Dust and Light Truffle Cream, was a mushroom-lover's dream. Velvety, earthy and funghi-riche with a tantalizing hint of truffle, nary a drop remained in either of our bowls.
The Bibb Salad was a miniature work of art. A perfect, single leaf of lettuce doubled as the "bowl", cradling fiji apple, shreds of jicima, butternut squash, pumpkin seeds, tiny tomato halves and bleu cheese crumbles...all drizzled in a refreshing orange-champagne vinaigrette.
Butternut Squash Agnolotti (a form of ravioli) was a real treat for the taste buds. Adorned with hazelnut, quince, brown butter sauce, sage, mascarpone and nutmeg, this pasta dish did a wonderful job of marrying savory and sweet seasonal flavors as well as providing textural interest. Plus, it was red-carpet gorgeous on the plate!
Oh, lookie...an intermezzo! Lime and Juniper Berry Gelee appeared just in time to cleanse our palates of all the previous nastiness before the main courses arrived. While it looked a little strange (and maybe even a little like anti-freeze), it was cool slurp of piney/citrus-y delight. Imagine a high-end, flavor-intense Jello shot without the booze...and without the Jello.
Given our sole opportunity for menu divergence, Dogboy the Coffee Hater went with the Spinalis (or cap of the Ribeye) sans the standard espresso rub (a request which was graciously accommodated). These juicy, flavorful slabs of bovine flesh were served atop a Potato Leek Pave (definition for my fellow rednecks: a veryspecial "hash brown patty") along with roasted shallot, wild mushroom ragout and sherry-shallot sauce. He proclaimed this unusual cut, which was exquisitely cooked to order, "the perfect steak".
And look what happened when I stepped away to the Ladies' room. I can't leave him unattended for 5 minutes. Honey, are you eating it or snorting it?
My Coriander-Crusted Black Grouper with Green Apple-Leek Risotto, Baby Carrots and Butternut Squash Chardonnay Sauce. A picture is worth a thousand words. Simply exquisite.
The Artisinal Cheese Course was petite and most precious...any more protein on the plate and it would've taken a sausage stuffing machine to get a bite of dessert down. Candied nuts and a delightful house-made sesame and caraway seed cracker made it even more special.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the incredible Safet, our Head Waiter (or whatever richly deserved deity-esque title is bestown upon him by his employer) who guided us through the menu and spoiled us rotten over the course of the evening. I always seem to develop little crushes on handsome, elegant European men who ply me with food and wine (even when I'm paying for it) and tonight was no exception. While the spousal unit is not the jealous type, he still always draws the line at letting me bring them home. All kidding aside, we got some of the most amazing, Continental-style service we've ever received in Florida at Cafe Ponte.
The dessert trio was mind-blowing, as was expected by this point in the meal. While not usually bowled over by creme brulee-type desserts, this white chocolate version was sheer decadence and my favorite of the three (tight race, however). The custard was creamy yet sturdy, and somebody had used a well-practiced hand with the torch. The Caramel Walnut Tart was only beaten by a nose and the Flourless Chocolate Cake certainly gave me nothing to complain about, although chocolate desserts don't thrill me like they did when I was younger and I never order them anymore. Ummm...that said, it was still really good. I was graciously presented with a complimentary glass of flowery, peach-and-honey forward Seven Daughters Moscato with my dessert course when the spousal unit received his pairing pour. Drool on!
I was just having fun with the "face-plant" pose. I know how to behave myself...truly, I do!
Happy Birthday to the very best husband in the world and thank you, Cafe Ponte, for making our celebration amazing!
My blog entries contain the unmitigated, and sometimes unforgiving, dining truths and perceptions I experience as an ordinary restaurant patron. Every meal I post about has been fully paid for by one of the participating members of my personal dining party. I do not engage in the gratis blogger freebie dining events I'm constantly invited to attend and never will. If I ooze font-like love for a restaurant in my blog, it's because they totally earned it…not because they gave me free food or knew I was going to share the experience on the internet.