Located in the Icot Center in Clearwater, Café Ponte is an unexpected diversion in an otherwise non-descript strip mall. Serving “American fusion cuisine,” Chef Chris Ponte has an impressive culinary pedigree. Chef Ponte is a Cordon Bleu graduate with a stint at the famed Tailleventin in Paris and internships with culinary royalty like Daniel Boulud. He opened Café Ponte in 2002. Based on glowing recommendations from acquaintances and the buzz about Chef Ponte, Mister M and I arrived at the restaurant with high expectations.
The atmosphere at Café Ponte is a mix of cozy sage green and red upholstered booths and white-linened tables circling a panoramic wine cellar that is the dining room’s focal point. After being seated, we found our server to be friendly and knowledgeable. After he brought us our skillfully crafted martinis, our server returned with a hefty serving of wild mushroom bisque with truffle oil for an amuse bouche–a curious selection to start a summer supper, but a tasty beginning nevertheless.
Mister M ordered the lobster salad special. This tantalizing salad was exactly what I was craving on that hot evening and I managed to steal most of it from him. The lobster and hearts of palm, tossed with cherry tomatoes, oranges, mangos and a citrus vinaigrette–served in a glass cone tenuously suspended in a bowl of crushed ice–left both of us wanting more. Sometimes, chefs try to pair foie gras with too much sweetness, but this was not the case with Café Ponte’s Foie Gras “A” appetizer. The foie gras was perched on “french toasted” brioche with toasted walnuts, amarena cherries and drizzled with an ice wine syrup and was smooth like a velveteen pillow. It provided the perfect savory and sweet duo and was one of the highlights of our meal.
The other highlight was the Chilean sea bass, which was evidence of Daniel Boulud’s influence on Chef Ponte’s menu. Boulud’s crisp paupiette of sea bass in a Barolo sauce is the stuff of legends from his tenure as executive chef at Le Cirque in New York City. Chef Ponte’s interpretation of this favorite was flawlessly executed. The Yukon potato-encrusted sea bass was pan-fried to crispy perfection and was resting on braised leeks. The red wine reduction sauce provided an elegant finish to the dish. From this entree, it is clear that Chef Ponte’s staff has classic French cooking techniques mastered.
Unfortunately, some of the other dishes we ordered were not as successful. One of the reasons we were looking forward to trying Café Ponte was that they feature pizzas cooked in a wood-burning oven on their menu. Their pizza dough was crisp on the bottom with a satisfyingly chewy crust that would have been a great foundation for most anything. However we found the pizza selection to be uninspired. Our ultimate choice—the blue cheese, wild mushrooms, caramelized onions, toasted pine nuts and basil with a balsamic drizzle pizza —was generous in size but was too rich and heavy for the perfectly baked dough as well as a summer meal. In addition, the Hatfield Ranch Reserve pork chop with smoked bacon, caramelized gala apples, toasted pecans in a calvados sauce could easily have fed two, possibly three people. The presentation was contemporary and eye catching, and the chop was properly cooked to the temperature ordered (medium-rare), arriving to the table juicy and hot. However, the pork paired with apples and bacon felt somewhat pedestrian and would have been better suited for a chilly fall day. For that reason, it was a chore to finish and I found myself wishing for lighter, more interesting flavors like the lobster salad.
As for value, our dinner for two, including two pre-dinner cocktails, but not including a bottle of wine, amounted to a pricey $173. (Café Ponte’s wine list is short but sweet.) Appetizers and salad prices range from $5 to $17 and entrees range from $12 to $32.
Despite the shortcomings of an out-of-season menu, there are many things to like about Café Ponte. The service was excellent and the dishes that maximize the restaurant’s strengths—namely a kitchen staff that has a firm grasp of advanced cooking methods—are special and worth the visit. Ultimately, the menu at Café Ponte was too heavy for our tastes for a warm summer night, but could hit the right notes when cooler weather returns. 13505 Icot Blvd, Suite 214 , Clearwater, FL 33760. Tel: (727) 538-5768.