Zesty Latin flavors perk up seafood at Tamara's: 4 hats

The tubs of lush banana trees have given way to added seating. And years of seven-day lunch and dinner traffic have worn the dining room right into the character of old-fishing-village Apalachicola.

Otherwise it's the same, intriguing Tamara's Cafe Floridita we met and reviewed when it was young: the dark plank floors, brick walls and sky-high ceiling; the doweled, drop window shades fashioned by a local sailmaker; the gaily colored oilcloth table covers. All are there, a little bit older, a lot more famous.

And the food, the zesty originality of the Latin accented cooking - from a grilled, herbed and marinated Pork Chop a la Espanola, topped with shrimp and scallops and served with spicy tomato-tarragon cream sauce, to delicate Tequila or Rum Flan - is just as fine.

It wasn't only the character and cuisine that hooked us. It was the star quality of the restaurant's pixie-haired creator, Tamara Suarez, a Venezuelan telejournalist turned world citizen, chef and, at the end of a winding, 20-year journey, Apalachicola restaurateur.

Through several years of its snowballing popularity, Tamara operated the restaurant alone. Then, fate smiled when her daughter Marisa Getter married veteran chef Danny Itzkovitz. At the time, she had just completed studies at The Savannah School of Art and Design, in Savannah, Ga., and he had owned a restaurant called The Great Savannah Soup Co.

But Apalachicola has a persuasive kind of magic. In 2002 the chef and his bride joined forces with Cafe Floridita, he in the kitchen, she out front. More's the luck, Chef Pam Miers O'Toole, once of Kool Beanz, Mozaik and Food Glorious Food in Tallahassee and now a Carrabelle resident, agreed to make the desserts.

With this team in place, a newly free Tamara turned to another venture, Cafe con Leche, a coffee house and internet cafe that serves light breakfasts and lunches a block away on Avenue D.

Aside from the Cafe's daily specials and an occasional seasonal or market-prompted change, Chef Itzkovitz and Venezuelan sous-chef Gabriel Garcia have kept the original menu intact. What's new, though, are every-Wednesday-evening Tapas, a lively party of small plates and libations that rocks from 4 p.m. to exhaustion. Reservations are a must for this one.

After a savory, complimentary fresh Tuna Dip served with tortilla corn strips, we launched a recent dinner with a near waffle-sized Crab Cake ($8) accompanied by mixed greens and herbal sauce. And for our dinner companion, a whale of a Seafood Salad ($15) starring oysters, shrimp and scallops arranged atop a bed of mixed baby greens, grapes and black beans. Either would have made a satisfying supper.

Partial to soup starters? On tap are Venezuelan style Creamy Black Bean Soup ($5), tomato-tinged Seafood Bisque ($8), and fresh, spicily creamed Apalachicola Oyster Stew ($7).

Seafood dominates the ($16 to $21) main courses. Choose from sesame seed seared Yellow Fin Tuna with ginger-soy dipping sauce. Or a prosciutto-wrapped Salmon Filet napped with mango-cilantro sauce. Or maybe pan-fried Bay Snapper with Shrimp in ginger sauce.

We opted for acclaimed, chef-suggested, Tamara's Pecan Crusted Grouper complemented by creamy jalapeno sauce. Our guest went for another, more complex favorite, Tamara's Paella, wherein shrimp, scallops, grouper, mussels, sausage and chicken scamper through a casserola of layered white and saffron rice. Be hungry. Be very hungry. It's big.

Accompaniments to dinner included Norman Vineyards' "The Monster," a red zinfandel whose quality belies its curious name (glass $10). Also Santi pinot grigio (glass $6.50) and daily-baked Focaccia.

Steer clear of OK but rather bland Key Lime Pie. Try instead the good Rum Flan, or Torta Tres Leches, a decidedly delicious cake made with three milks. Or have a rather spectacular Caribbean Banana Split containing caramel-sugared fried banana halves topped with vanilla ice cream and fresh tropical kiwi, strawberries and mango, all drizzled with chocolate syrup.

Calories? Calories who?

Tamara's Cafe Floridita. Worth a journey any day.

Tamara's Cafe Floridita

Address: 71 Market Street, Apalachicola; (850) 653-4111

Hours: 11:30 to 10 p.m. daily
Payment: Major credit cards and Florida checks with proper I.D.

Average bill: $28, dinner and a glass of wine.

Dress code: Casual.

Wheelchair accessible: Yes, via rear door.

Beverage service: Beer and wine.

Reservations: Suggested for Wednesday Tapas and on weekends.

• What's cooking?: If you have culinary news, send information to Ashby Stiff (e-mail; din ing@ashbystiff.com, or fax: 386-1997) or Zilpha Underwood, Democrat features editor
(e-mail: zunderwoodtallahassee.com).

• On the Web: Look for restaurant listings and reviews, plus maps and directions to the restaurants, at www.tallahassee.com/entertainment.