Saturday, June 20, 2009

Diner 437 and Chef Domenica

In a community ripe for good food at reasonable prices, there’s a new face on the scene that might just make a few foodies turn their heads. I had the pleasure of stopping in for lunch at the recently opened Diner 437 in St Petersburg and what a great time I had. While the preparations are simple, they are unique, delicious and reminiscent of meals found in far more sophisticated settings. The kitchen is open, the atmosphere is casual, the bar is half the length of the room and one might expect to get some really greasy spoon kind of fare here. One look at the menu though and you begin to notice this is no average diner. The sandwich offerings include filet mignon with roasted garlic sauce, braised short ribs with fontina cheese and a sirloin burger big enough to save your life if you landed on it from a high rise fall. They make French fries with duck fat. Need I say more? This town needed a menu like this.

The creator and overseer of this menu is Chef Domenica Macchia. Now I have to confess, Domenica and I hooked up as Facebook friends (because we’re foodies) a short time ago and I’ve been following her endeavors at trying to get up and running at a restaurant. She was looking forward to opening a place with a different owner elsewhere but as that deal soured, she became involved with Diner 437 and boy should downtown St Pete be grateful. If you want a quiet meal with little attention, do not sit at the bar. There are plenty of back corner tables to enjoy your lunch. Domenica works in her open kitchen and her passion for food pours out in conversation. This was our first face to face meeting and I had no idea what a treat I was in for. Calling her a colorful conversationalist would be a significant understatement. Our exchange began as lunch service was starting and even as tickets came in, we chatted for the entire hour plus I was there. Tiring from an engineering career at “30 Rock” (NBC Studios), she decided her calling was in the kitchen. Inspired by her mother and grandmother, Domenica attended culinary school and we are the lucky benefactors of this decision. Clearly it was the right one.

I asked her to make me whatever she liked and a short time later I was presented a bowl of potato soup with crispy leeks atop. Now I make a pretty good potato soup and I have to say it’s not as simple as one might think. It can easily be bland. This was thick and rich and seasoned just perfectly. The fried leeks were a great compliment. I have to admit, I am going to steal that idea.

The star of the show was the BLT that followed. Substitute lobster for lettuce as the “L” and you have this chef’s version (they actually call it a Lobster BT to avoid the letter confusion). I’ve had many a sandwich or salad with lobster on it. Usually there are scant traces of lobster flavors hidden by a gloppy mayo and vegetal mix. Even the coveted New England lobster roll is too often served like this. At Diner 437, however, the first things I see in my sandwich are big chunks of lobster meat unencumbered by the thick dressing. Served on toasted brioche, the flavors are clean and oceany. Lobster is one of those foods that says, “Don’t mess with me” and Domenica listened.

She also insisted I try a sample of another original dish of hers. Her twist on the Sloppy Joe (called a sloppy Jim) is infused with smokey chipotle and orange flavors. Sweet, savory and extremely spicy, this picks up where the original Sloppy Joe creator left off. As with all of the dishes I observed, simple ingredients put together thoughtfully and passionately is a great recipe in my book.

Domenica and I seemed to hit it off and she invited me back to cook with her. This is the first such invitation I’ve had and I do plan on taking her up on it. If you are part of the Downtown St. Pete lunch or dinner crowd, you must stop in and try the new little place at 437 Central Avenue (hence the name, Diner 437). Tell them Louis sent you.

By the way. I came late to this party. This restaurant has already been given great reviews by all of our local print media. Try it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've been going to Diner 437 since it's opening and boy, is it good! GREAT choices for food - the Tuna sandwich with Avacado and tomato are to die for, and the Gorgonzola bread MUST be illegal!