Maestro, may I have some more? 

An edible overture awaits you at the Straz.

As established in earlier columns, I spent a lot of time in the theater before taking the gig at Creative Loafing. And that meant many evenings exploring the culinary options in and around some great performing arts centers. I had many happy restaurant meals close by, but few memorable gastronomic experiences inside an art center (or museum for that matter). Even at its best, pre-theater food service usually feeds too many people in a narrow window to be very exciting. And since you’re also generally paying extra for the convenience, it’s hard to get too jazzed about eating art center food.

So as I park at the Straz Center, and trudge up the stairs above the Jaeb Theater to Maestro’s Restaurant, my expectations are firmly in check.

To my astonishment, Maestro’s is a rare exception. Not only is Chef Benito D’Azzo’s food terrific, the room is airy and inviting and the value for money is exceptional. I had as much pleasure eating as I did seeing Wicked, all without the outrageous ticket “convenience” charges (but that’s a rant for another time).

As you enter Maestro’s to be seated, you can’t help but notice the handsome bar with glowing backlit bottles hugging the left side of the restaurant. An entire wall of glass made up of floor-to-ceiling windows let you gaze upon the downtown Tampa skyline through tree branches sprinkled with tiny white lights.

The dark ceiling is dotted with warm lights; large red-orange canvases of piano keys and guitar frets line the walls. Despite the buzz of the pre-theater crowd, the noise level is much lower than you’d expect because there’s ample room between the tables.

Your meal begins with a visit to the long antipasto buffet table in the center of the room which includes a selection of gourmet salads, fresh and fire-roasted vegetables, delicious seasonal fruits, artisan cheeses, rustic breads and crackers, cured meats plus two homemade soups. A new menu is created for each show with thematic tie-ins as appropriate. Wicked is a tough one: I’m not aware of any Oz cuisine. But there is a large oversized glass/vase filled with green liquid bubbling with dry ice; it’s a nice effect.

The buffet may not be inspired, but it is impeccably fresh. The soups are both excellent. The roasted chicken includes shreds of poultry, wild rice, and carrots in a savory broth, while the house seafood bisque is creamy on the palate with a perfect balance between tastes of the sea and those hints of sherry that are traditional in balancing out the flavors.

Next comes a choice of five entrées. For Wicked, Chef Benito offers coq au vin nouveau (substituting white wine for the traditional red); pan-seared line-caught Atlantic swordfish with balsamic brown butter; and lemongrass lamb chops. However, we opt to try the short ribs, having just revisited the Best of the Bay-winning version at Café Ponte. While not quite as sigh-inducing, Maestro’s delicious version features boneless red Angus beef in a rich merlot-laced beef demi-glace. The tender beef sits on a creamy mash of hand-milled celery root and Yukon Gold potatoes with a garnish of pearl onions, leeks, wild mushrooms and earthy baby roasted beets; it is a lovely dish.

But even better is the daily chef’s plate that calls upon what is fresh, seasonal and locally available. I’m lucky enough to have a tender filet of Dover sole wrapped around a delicious lobster and crab filling. Add tender, buttery julienned zucchini and yellow squash with a fluffy wild rice mix enhanced by citrus zest and golden raisins, and you’ve got a winning combo. And the grilled starfruit and over-the-top Dendrobium orchid garnish belie the value that this complete meal represents.

The four dessert choices look equally tempting, but we skip over green tea cheesecake and chocolate layers to try the pink lemonade cake. It’s covered in a bright pink glaze and moist, but not too sweet; I wish, however, that the citrus were more assertive. There’s also a sampler trio of small desserts: a fudgy chocolate triangle with basil that I wish were less assertive, a diminutive tropical fruit tart with sweet pineapple notes, and an impeccable pistachio macaroon.

The wine list is selective but well-chosen, and each entrée is matched to a suggested wine that is worth trying. The servers are attentive and friendly but often seem to be scurrying about while leaving empty plates on the tables for an extended period.

Still, all things considered, Maestro’s is a pleasant surprise.

Even though the entrée choices are limited, the menu is well thought-out and impeccably sourced. The chef’s embrace of a “responsible kitchen initiative” pays off in spades; you can check out his philosophy on the Straz website, but the proof is on the plate.

Also, it’s important to check the calendar, because the restaurant only opens when there’s a major musical or opera at the Straz, with reservations saved for patrons. Since I’ve got both Anything Goes and War Horse on my calendar in the coming months, I look forward to returning to Maestro’s to see what magic Chef Benito has up his sleeve.

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