Maybe there’s something about the building at 1113 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg that gives it a Southern vibe. It’s a beautiful space, with plenty of brick and glass and a wonderful loft that feels like a balcony overlooking the dining room below. The atmosphere fit the low-country Southern cuisine of previous occupant Savannah’s quite well, but it seems tailor-made for the new Ricky P’s Orleans Bistro.
You might know Rick Parsons from his incredible Ricky P’s Po Boy Shop on Fourth Street, a tiny storefront that’s mobbed during the few hours it opens during lunch. That little shop serves some of the biggest flavors in St. Pete, from fried oysters with fresh veggies and mayo on crusty French bread to a serious muffaletta, easily one of the best sandwich recipes in the world, and one of New Orleans’ finest culinary creations.
At the Po' Boy Shop, Parsons has also offered a few blue plate specials featuring some of the Big Easy’s other iconic dishes, like jambalaya, gumbo and shrimp etouffee. For some customers — especially considering the profound dearth of Louisiana-inspired cuisine in the Bay area — those entrees were more of a draw than the eponymous sandwiches.
With the opening of Ricky P’s Orleans Bistro, both Parsons fans and lovers of New Orleans cooking have a more elegant option to fill their Cajun and Creole needs.
Elegant, but not expensive. Few items on the menu top $15, and most of the entrees stay much closer to that $10 sweet spot. That might be because the menu tends to focus on the basics of New Orleans cuisine, the high points, sticking close to classics with little elaboration.
You can see that distinctly in the appetizers: oysters Rockefeller, Bienville and on the half shell; grilled andouille sausage served with Creole mustard; crab cakes seasoned with bright Creole spices. The oysters in the Bienville get lost amidst plenty of garlic, red pepper, salty breadcrumbs and cheese, and the crab cakes are crisp patties of shredded shellfish that seem more a vehicle for the seasonings than a celebration of the main ingredient. But with these flavors that may be the point.
Rarely are onion rings done as well as at Ricky P’s, distinguished by a crisp, salty batter and sides of tangy remoulade and more of that sharp Creole mustard. The boudin balls — deep-fried pork and rice croquettes — can handle serious seasoning in ways oysters and crab can’t.
Parsons' seafood gumbo is much like you’d find at the Po Boy Shop, built on a decent roux and chock full of shrimp and shreds of crab. But the chicken and andouille version is a better option, thanks to the dose of flavor leached from those hunks of sausage. The tasty red beans and rice receive the same sausage infusion, rich and hearty enough to make carnivores understand the appeal of bean and starch. Of the three entrée carryovers from the shop, only jambalaya is somewhat disappointing, the flavors never coming together.
The rest of the entrees primarily focus on seafood, with shrimp etouffee at the top of the New Orleans greatest hits roster. Parsons does this well, with a restrained hand on the spice shaker and plump shrimp that make this one of the classier dishes on the menu.
The bistro’s fresh fish has the same potential thanks to a slew of nicely executed sauces, from the creamy and rich Crab Louie to the dark Crawfish Cardinale. Sadly, the fish is overcooked, so you may as well order a bowl of sauce and be done with it.
Of course, you could just order a po’ boy. Parsons kills two birds with one stone by replicating his sandwich success at the new place — offering fans a place to grab a favorite outside of the lunch hours of his original shop and putting a proven performer on display to get people in the door. Hopefully, the move doesn’t backfire — the sandwiches are just as good here (if not better), the atmosphere is miles ahead of the shop on Fourth and there’s more on the menu to choose from.
Since the bistro serves lunch (and cocktails), it might draw fans away from Parsons’ other location. Then again, maybe it will just relieve the pressure of the line that snakes out the door there.
Either way, Parsons has done an outstanding job transitioning from a tiny space to a big operation. It’s only been a month since the doors opened and the service needs a little work, but the food is already there. Ricky P’s Orleans Bistro may not be a temple to the New Orleans culinary heritage, but it covers all the bases with a quality that fits the eminently affordable prices.
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