This Cat Can Cook 

It always surprises me how efficiently people find a great new restaurant.

The Laughing Cat, for instance, opened in June 2000, offering take-out from a hot hole-in-the-wall that nevertheless attracted a devoted clientele because of its impressive menu. Its terrific $6 lunch specials, like a filet mignon with a side of homemade pasta, attracted regulars from among Ybor City's daytime denizens and its weekend party hounds. You could eat in, but there were only few small tables.

Five weeks ago, the fledgling restaurant moved out of its tiny hovel and into more spacious, newly-renovated quarters across the street, beginning its tenure there as a full-service eatery.

On a recent Saturday night, every table was filled with people who had somehow found The Laughing Cat through word-of-mouth, accident or simply good karma, and were enjoying Chef Franco LoRe's huge and varied dinner menu. The new place immediately drew crowds as well for its weekday lunch buffet, a lavish affair featuring six hot entrees and four cold ones, along with bread, priced at a reasonable $7 per person.

Anyone who has been in Tampa for a while will recognize the building that houses The Laughing Cat. For decades, it was occupied by El Encanto Cleaners, and in fact, the cleaners' sign remains where it has always been. Inside, the clothes racks are gone, and in their place is an open restaurant kitchen in back, with simple tables covered in plastic tablecloths occupying the front.

Out the street-side windows you can view one of the Bay area's few truly urban vistas: people strolling by on the sidewalk, cars stopping, delivery trucks making their rounds, people hanging on the street, smoking.

The day I tried the lunch buffet, it was pretty spectacular. The fare combines a variety of culinary styles, from continental Italian and French to American regional specialties, reflecting the chef's 35 years of experience, beginning in his native Sicily and continuing through Venice and various other European locales to Jerusalem, Queens, and Long Island, N.Y., and finally, to Tampa.

Among its offerings were an elegant piece of sauteed chicken breast, drenched in a sherry wine sauce, dotted with mushrooms and chopped onion; an Italian-style penne, delicate pasta colorfully flaunting a frisky homemade tomato sauce, fragrant with herbs; even Madeira-flavored duck. However, my favorite was the chef's version of eggplant Parmesan, a moist slice of eggplant draped with a thick mantle of Mozzarella and bright with tomato sauce.

Cold dishes that day included simple blanched carrots tossed with string beans, and a homemade egg salad pocked with onion and slathered with mayonnaise. Usually, the chef said, there's a cold seafood salad as well. One demerit: The mashed potatoes were pretty tasteless.

The lunch buffet operated in collegial confusion, traffic flowing around the two parallel tables like cars shimmying around Rome's Coliseum. Part of the problem: When the cooks replaced the first round of depleted entrees with something new, the regulars returned to the buffet to rejoin the melee for seconds or thirds.

At night, when the improvised buffet tables are gone, the restaurant is much calmer, even serene, and the food is still terrific.

I enlisted the services of The Martini Tester for a trip there in the evening. He had been out of circulation for a few months, and gin deprivation was etched all over his face. Since the restaurant as yet only serves wine and beer, though, he settled for an Italian brew called Peroni ($3.95/bottle), made the same way since 1846 and touted on the bottle as "Italy's number one beer." In a few minutes, its smooth, golden lager had him purring.

I started with one of a small selection of wines the restaurant offers, a Chianti Classico Reserve 1997 ($10.50/glass, $38/bottle) that proved to be perfect -- while the menu is a wonder of various culinary styles, my meal leaned decidedly toward Italian specialties.

We started with the hot antipasto platter ($9.95), an assortment of baked clams, oysters, fried calamari, stuffed mushrooms, eggplant rollatini and shrimp oreganata. The shrimp was ocean-fresh, lightly breaded and finished with garlic, white wine and lemon. Every item was delicious, and though the baked clams and oysters were simply cooked, they looked glamorous on the plate in opened shells, glinting with pearlized blue and black.

The efficient young waiter brought crusty bread and real butter, more wine and beer, and kept the water glasses full.

When we ordered entrees, the waiter managed to quell any sign of astonishment when The Martini Tester order his T-bone steak ($18.95) cooked medium-well, which of course, ruins it completely. It came exactly so, no sign of pink at its center at all. "Just right," The Martini Tester judged approvingly, reminding me why his official testing duties are restricted to alcoholic beverages.

After getting lost for a time in the 130-item menu, I finally settled on No. 101, "gamberi del marinaio ($21.95)." The dish entailed sauteed jumbo shrimp and sea scallops served in a creamy white wine sauce and scattered with mussels, all artfully residing atop a hearty haystack of cappellini pasta. It was more than fabulous.

The seafood was fat, abundant and fresh, the cappellini tender and luscious, and the sauce luminous. It was the edible equivalent of starlight or gold dust, or the scent of lilac.

It was so rich I kept having to stop and regroup. More wine? Sure! More bread? Sure! Dessert? Yes! Out came a chocolate mousse ($4.95) in a thin-stemmed glass, its satiny body flecked with bits of dark chocolate. Yum. And a perfect cannoli ($3.95), its blistered crust obviously handmade and its filling light with air.

One of the Laughing Cat's most attractive features is its European sensibility; its staff allows you to linger. You don't feel like you must hurry to clear out for the next party.

For at least a half-hour after we finished, we sat unbothered and unhurried, watching stiletto-heeled night-crawlers try not to trip on the old bricks in the street; we witnessed the flirting and schmoozing and couples choosing which emporium they would patronize for the evening's entertainment.

A rare moment of sheer indolence. I recommend it.

Contact food critic Sara Kennedy at sara.kennedy@weeklyplanet.com, or call 813-248-8888, ext. 116.

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