Bowling for dinner at Bowled restaurant 

Bowled's unique take on comfort food

Serving everything in a bowl -- or as many menu items as possible -- is more than just a restaurant gimmick or an excuse for an endless series of pot-smoking jokes. It's a clear declaration of what St. Pete restaurant Bowled is all about.

You can put anything on a plate, except soup, but a bowl evokes a profound sense of comfort. Hands cupped around an offering. Birds' nests. That Campbell's commercial with the thawing snowman kid. A packed pipe. And although Bowled makes some fine grub, the overall effect is more about good, hearty food at a good price than fine dining from a bowl.

You might not get that feel, though, just from looking at the menu. It offers a globe-spanning array of fine dining, middle America and Westernized ethnic classics. There's spicy Thai beef and chicken piccata, Bolognese and surf-and-turf, meatloaf and pad Thai. An odd mix at first glance, but look a little closer and you'll get it. Everything at Bowled is familiar. Yep, comfort.

And in execution, that comfort shows in the often simple, home-cooking style Bowled's kitchen puts into the dishes, although with a modern bent that often shows up in a generous hand with spice. That spicy Thai beef carries enough chile heat to warm your blood, but the soupy mass of coconut milk tames the burn and fills your belly with fatty heft. Mex-Ital lasagna is doused in an asiago cream sauce fortified with a blast of smoky chipotle.

Diablo features just enough decently cooked seafood to keep a bit of the sea in every bite of linguine, with more heat in the background. Cioppino cuts the heat in favor of sweeter tomato jus accented with golden fennel and a pile of soft polenta. The Bolognese is a heaping mass of pasta and sauce that's worlds apart from the Muellers and Ragu you might make after a hard day at work.

Meatloaf is just right for Bowled's culinary zeitgeist. Knowing that this dish is a cornerstone of American comfort food, the restaurant is smart enough to offer a stripped-down take that drapes the moist slabs of ground meat in a salty blanket of rich mushroom gravy. It's fine, but Bowled serves another version with the added kick of chile-laced barbecue sauce reminiscent of my mom's "experimentation" when I was in high school, as she tried to wake up her kitchen table standards. Just like then, the alternate rendition is a welcome change.

Starters push the comfort food envelope, and perhaps because of that are the least successful items on the menu. The Portobello mushroom wrapped in phyllo is a tad soggy and bland and the orange-cashew shrimp taste so perfumey it's like eating a scratch and sniff. Calamari is fine and crab cakes are better than most, but all seem like token placeholders while you're waiting for a big bowl of tasty warm calories. None of the appetizers really feel like they fit.

If Bowled was a fancier joint, I might ask for more from the kitchen. The reliance on crowd-pleasing recipes almost veers into lowest common denominator dining, saved by the frequent application of spicy heat and accurate seasoning. But, despite the surprisingly nice surroundings, Bowled doesn't try to be more than it is, and the prices go a long way to support that.

With entrée's averaging around $15, Bowled is the kind of place you can eat at once a week or more -- even with the economy in a shambles. Lunches are cheaper versions of the dinner dishes, with capable sandwiches thrown into the mix. There's also a weekend brunch with decent burgers and ricotta crepes.

Sit in the dining room during rush hour on a weekday and you'll see a steady stream of people picking up take-out, most often a single bag that looks like a bachelor special. While those people take their meatloaf or cioppino home for TiVo'd Daily Show viewing, you'll be enjoying a small, but damn fine beer selection -- Left Hand Milk Stout goes perfectly with so many things on the menu -- and the company of the Bowled staff. While not as funny as John Stewart, these folks are just as familiar and easy-going as the food.


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