Four-star café 

When it comes to taste, St. Petersburg’s Banyan Cafe gets it right.

My head is spinning. Last week’s review was a high-end rave from the white tablecloth circuit. And now I find myself in a tiny coffee shop far from the beach and the gorgeous sunset. The menu offers only a limited breakfast and some sandwiches before closing the doors at 2 p.m. On its face, this would seem the alpha and omega of restaurant criticism.

Except that this particular coffee and sandwich shop pays real attention to detail, with an expressed emphasis on local produce and ingredients. And they happen to make a perfect risotto.

One need only catch a screaming Gordon Ramsay berating a cowering chef to know that this seemingly simple amalgam of rice and stock is fraught with peril. If you don’t know exactly what you’re doing, your rice can end up somewhere on the continuum from chalk to goo. And if you get the texture exactly right so that the rice is creamy but just slightly al dente, you still have to nail the seasonings. Regular readers of this column will note a high failure rate.

Fortunately, Banyan Café hits it right on the nose. My tomato and finely diced veggie version with accompanying crisp flatbread is absolutely scrumptious.

Daily soup specials are offered by the cup, bowl, or with half a sandwich. Both the tomato-garbanzo and sweet potato-apple versions that I enthusiastically slurp are full of multi-dimensional flavor, have marvelous texture and are well balanced — everything a comfort soup should be.

Banyan’s sandwiches and wraps are as imaginatively varied as they are consistently delicious. However, you’ve got to remember this is not fast food; everything is fresh and made to order, so it takes time. You can’t rush the pursuit of perfection.

Juicy slow-roasted pork loin is combined with beautifully caramelized onions, tangy banana peppers, sharp white cheddar and a schmear of mayo and Dijon mustard on crisp toasted Cuban bread. Delish.

Cuban bread reappears in a mouthwatering BLT that reminds you why this perennial combo is so popular. Crisp hickory smoked bacon, crunchy dark green romaine lettuce and ripe juicy red tomatoes are delicious enough, but the wasabi mayo kicks it up a notch.

The fennel-roasted turkey breast combines moist anise-tinged poultry with sage stuffing, mixed greens, mayo and sweet cranberry chutney on lovely multigrain bread. It’s a wonderful combination, especially if you have a bit of a sweet tooth.

The flavorful flatbread that accompanies the risotto serves as the base for two more wonderful sandwiches. Honey-roasted Portobello mushrooms are balanced by spinach, pickled red onions, creamy ripe Brie and, as happily noted by my dining companion, warm homemade bread and butter pickles. The mindfulness of detail and balance of flavors makes this sandwich a vegetarian winner.

The same is true of the grilled goat cheese, paired with pungent scallions, hickory smoked bacon and chewy, sweet, gem-like dates drizzled in sticky balsamic syrup on crisp flat bread. It awakens the entire range of your taste buds.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the locally roasted Kahwa coffee selections; pick one (or several) to go with a delicious handmade warm scone. Their splendid daily iced teas range from standard black and green to citrus and ginger, and there’s also a variety of hot teas from Mighty Leaf as well.

And, as my dining companion testifies while holding back the drool, there are the multi-option breakfast sandwiches or burritos with smoked bacon or sautéed spinach, fried or scrambled eggs, and/or cheeses on Cuban bread. Plus, you might encounter a mouth-watering creation like the vanilla bean Belgian waffle, a recent brunch offering.

So here’s the scoop: the food at Banyan Café is so fresh and inventive, with surprises at every turn, that I wish the Earl of Sandwich could miraculously descend on MLK St. N. to savor Erica Allums’ sublime culinary jewels served on Banyan’s colorful Fiestaware. Every single bite that I put in my mouth screams excellence — and that means 4 stars, even without a sunset view.

[Editor's Note: Due to a proofreading error, the final sentence in last week's review of the Maritana Grille was truncated. The complete sentence should have read: “Chocolate-espresso truffles then appear, just in case you need a jolt before you leave the table, retrieve your car from the valet, depart the elegant ‘pink palace,’ and disappear with a smile into the night after one of the Bay area’s finest meals.”]

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