The first word I think of when Cafe Alma comes to mind is ambiance. Alma is draped in it. Rustic brick walls, soft lighting and the elegant bar area all beckon a respite from the hustle and bustle of downtown. But how is the food? Consistently good, with a couple of very minor exceptions.
Cafe Alma has gone through some changes over the past few years, but through it all the newer owners have preserved the inimitable style of this downtown gem. Now, with an expanded tapas menu, they are adjusting to their customer’s desire for exceptional food at a price that doesn’t empty the wallet.
Recently, I visited for Half Off Wine and Tapas, offered every Tuesday night. While I have made many visits to Alma over the last months, I had not ventured out for Half Off, so I thought I’d give it a try. My dining companions and I ordered the Crispy Calamari and Sole ($4), the Pulled Duck Quesadillas ($5), Applewood Bacon Wrapped Scallops ($5), Crab Stuffed Mushrooms ($5) and Beef Carpaccio ($4.50). These are all half-off prices. Yep, we were hungry!
I am always a little skeptical about having anything wrapped in bacon. It is one of those things that seems easy to cook, but if you’ve ever had a filet wrapped in bacon, for instance, you know that sometimes the bacon is lifeless and gummy, ruining the whole dish. Scallops can be another tricky item. If they are even the slightest bit dated, the scallops can have an off taste and if they are overcooked, you end up with the consistency of a pencil eraser. Not yummy at all. This was not the case with Alma’s scallops. In fact, they were the best scallops I have had in St. Pete. They were fresh, sizeable, cooked to perfection and had that sweet, distinctive taste of a properly handled dayboat scallop. They were served with a refreshing, crispy slaw. The bacon was also spot-on, not too crispy and not undercooked. Sublime.
The Pulled Duck Quesadillas might sound a little pedestrian, but one bite will change that perception. The full, earthy flavor of tender duck with asiago cheese and roasted peppers was outstanding. The duck had a peppery seasoning that worked well with the other flavors.
Beef carpaccio is a classic that is served on many a menu these days. The carpaccio at Alma was good, with the accompanying capers, chopped egg and onion, but Parkshore’s carpaccio with olive oil, capers and shaved parmesan is still my favorite. It may have something to do with the way the beef is sliced, I’m not sure. Some chefs chill the beef almost to the point of freezing to make it easier to slice thinly and this can slightly affect the texture.
By the time I got to the Crab Stuffed Mushrooms and Crispy Calamari with Sole, they were nearly gone! I tried one of the mushrooms, and while the seasoning was perfect, I didn’t get a lot of the crab in my bites. There was a sweet background that hinted of crab, and they were very tasty with the roasted pepper coulis. The calamari was crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, as one would expect. Both the red sauce and the remoulade were pleasant accompaniments.
They also offer a Prix Fixe lunch from 11am-3pm, Monday through Friday. It includes soup or salad, a burger or sandwich, a side dish and soda or iced tea for $9.95. Selections range from the Grilled Chicken Club topped with Applewood bacon, cheddar, avocado and mango aioli on Ciabatta bread to an Angus burger cooked to your liking.
Soon, they will begin offering breakfast and I can’t wait to try it. Everything coming out of Alma’s kitchen is always seasoned properly and cooked as it should be. I venture to say that Cafe Alma has one of the best chefs behind the stove downtown.