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Located in the middle of Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, USA, under a stand-out crimson canopy, is a local restaurant putting a more affordable – and not to mention delicious – flair on the usual European cuisine. Our first impression upon walking into the St. Pete Brasserie was that the place was classy, but still very warm and inviting, with a dark atmosphere that was only somewhat combated by the lighting and jazzy music. First impressions are sometimes right on the dot; we felt welcome and well taken care of the moment owner Justin Chamoun stepped up to greet us at the door.
A personable, charming man, Chamoun has obvious pride in his little piece of St. Petersburg – and with good reason. Having been an enthusiast of European food for as long as he can remember, specifically of the French variety, Chamoun spent over a year looking for the right kind of restaurant to run. The St. Pete Brasserie was a place he frequently enjoyed dining at as a patron, a fan of Chef J Ward’s food from the get-go, and when the opportunity arose for Chamoun to buy out the place from a financial backer, he leapt at the chance. So fond of the Brasserie as it was, to this day he retains almost the entire staff from before he took it over. A wise choice on his part; the staff members we interacted with and observed were all incredibly knowledgeable and pleasant.
The superstar, of course, is the chef. J Ward has been with the restaurant space since the days when it was named Table and served an entirely different menu. Not only did he bring Table’s menu to life, but he crafted an entirely new menu when the restaurant transformed into the St. Pete Brasserie. So much trust does Chamoun have in Ward, he leaves all menu decisions to the chef, allowing him almost total control over the menu. Ward’s interest in European cuisine comes from the years he spent overseas as the son of an Air Force father, and he uses much of his time trying to replicate the flavors he experienced and loved. With no real formal training, Ward is one of those special individuals with a talent and passion for food that is evident in every bite you take.
In terms of food, only the highest quality will do. Practically everything is fresh and made in-house, and in doing their part to Keep St. Petersburg Local (an organization of which they are a member), they strive to keep a healthy relationship with local businesses, purchasing most of their ingredients from the area. The only real exception to this is their meat, which they ship in from Niman Ranch, a distributor from San Francisco that prides itself on its sustainability and focus on animal welfare.
As proud of the food as he is, it is not the sole focus for Chamoun. The man is truly what you would call a wine aficionado – and in wine is where his passion lies. A self-described “wine fanatic”, he is a connoisseur of wines (preferring French over Californian) and can easily launch into a dialogue of the fine nuances of more than just his favorites, suggesting exactly which type goes with which meal and why. He strives to soon turn the lounge area of his restaurant (a separate room that is mainly used for additional seating on weekends at the moment) into a space where he can host wine parties and tastings. The few gatherings he has attempted in the past have given him encouragement that he can add such events to the overall experience of the St. Pete Brasserie.
The Dining Experience
Upon being seated, our drink orders were taken and a basket of house-made bread was served. Well-toasted and warm, the bread was crusty and hard on the outside, but melt-in-the-mouth soft on the inside. It set a high bar for the rest of the night, which easily kept being met.
We had a chance to look over the menu, extensive for only two pages (but not overwhelmingly so), and after having the specialties explicated to us, we suggested that Chamoun make the final decisions with whatever he thought most embodied his restaurant.
First up were samples of a few of the appetizers: the Tuna Tartar, the Escargot en Cocotte and the Moules Gratinee (mussels). The tuna was obviously fresh and sliced to order, a littering of capers complimenting the lemony tone, which made this dish more refreshing than any sort of fish. It was our photographer Ines’ favorite part of the meal. The all-stars of the three dishes for me, however, were the escargot and mussels – and it had very little to do with the sauces and seasonings (a simple garlic sauce for the snails that is perfect for a lighter palette, and smothered in sharp cheese for the mussels). One thing that I usually presume is inescapable at most restaurants is a slightly chewy texture when eating escargot or mussels; not so at the hands of Chef Ward. The meat of both items were tender and thick, melting the moment you bit down like eating the perfect cut of marbled beef. Both tasted incredibly fresh and the way they were prepped complimented the natural flavors of both the escargot and the mussels, rather than trying to hide or detract from them. It was my first indication of the night that Chef Ward is a man who knows exactly what he’s doing with every shake of a pan.
Next to sample were portions of their Mac & Cheese, their Red Snapper, their Half-Roasted Chicken, and their Cassoulet (a typically French casserole containing meat and white beans). The Mac & Cheese was phenomenal (and as someone who is not usually a fan of the classic dish, I can only imagine how the many who swear by it would feel). It was rich, creamy and garlicky, with slivers of bacon, four different types of fresh cheese, and each noodle cooked to perfection.
The snapper was flaky and fork tender, lightly seasoned to take advantage of the fish’s full-bodied flavor, and the capers made a return in a sauce that paired well with the fish. The fish was served with brussel sprouts and sliced potatoes that were just as excellent as the snapper.
While the chicken was well-seasoned with a delightfully crispy skin, Ines and I found the meat to be a bit dry and completely outshined by the Pork Belly White Bean Escarole Ragout that the chicken was served on. However, when the chicken was eaten in the same bite as the ragout, the combined flavors created such a delectable experience that the small issue with the chicken meat hardly mattered.
Cassoulet is described frequently as “comfort food”, and the moment I tasted Chef Ward’s version (with duck confit and several types of sausage) those were the first words to fill my brain. Heavy, rich, the filling melts on the tongue and sets warm in the stomach. The various meats mixed in with the beans made for a zesty meal, with so many layers of flavors that I couldn’t really label them aside from the feeling they give me – which was “warm”.
The final stage of the night presented us with two of the Brasserie’s desserts: their triple crème brulee and their lava cake. The crème brulee was an experience all on its own, with three different compartments that each housed a different flavored version of the custard (chocolate, vanilla and espresso), and three different dessert wines were suggested to us by Chamoun that were each to pair with a specific flavor. The overall texture of the custard was not the standard, silky smooth you usually find in crème brulee – it was lighter and airier, which made for a dessert that was decadent, but not overly sweet.
Chef Ward managed the same with the lava cake, creating a fluffier and gentler version of a dish notorious for being rich and heavy. If you’re disappointed that the lava cake isn’t that punch of decadence you’re used to, however, Chef’s house-made ganache is paired on the side with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
On a whole, the service was exemplary and the food was ambrosial. The only disappointing moment of the night was when Ines and I realized we had forgotten our leftovers at the table.
What makes the St. Pete Brasserie a place that I would recommend highly to others is not only the brilliant menu, but the relative affordability of the cuisine. Many restaurants that one would dine at with a similar level of service and quality will be comparatively more expensive. Chamoun prides himself on their ability to keep the price down enough that locals can enjoy a night out with great food and not have to worry about the cost.
“People know they can come in here, have a good time, and not spend an arm and a leg,” he says, his pride for his restaurant shining through once more. And indeed, the St. Pete Brasserie is a warm and welcoming piece of downtown St. Petersburg that offers a reasonably priced menu for anyone looking for a great meal.
For more pictures, visit our Facebook gallery.
Prix Fixed Menu (M-Thurs, 5pm-7pm): 3 courses for $23
Hours: 5pm-10pm (M-Th)