ST. PETERSBURG — If there’s one dish that perfectly encapsulates the ethos of Lingr, chef Jeffrey Jew’s ambitious new restaurant, it’s probably the salt and pepper fish cakes.
Somewhere in between a Norwegian fiskeboller and the curried fish balls you’d find on a Hong Kong street food cart, the golf ball-sized orbs are plump with Faroe Island salmon and flavored with white pepper and Sichuan peppercorns. They’re delivered in a mustard sauce that’s inspired by a hot Norwegian mustard and a Chinese sauce made with tamari, black vinegar, soy and what Jew calls “that old-school secret Chinese ingredient”: ketchup.
I can’t tell if he’s joking about that last part, but I don’t care: The fish cakes are delicious.
So, this is a fusion restaurant, right? Sort of. Not exactly.
The shtick here is Norwegian and Cantonese, or more broadly, a Nordic-inspired restaurant with Asian?influence. It’s an homage to Jew’s background and upbringing — his mother is Norwegian and his father is Chinese — peppered with some of the culinary chops and techniques he’s honed throughout his career. Jew, 43, was previously the chef at downtown St. Petersburg’s Stillwaters Tavern and BellaBrava, a contestant on Bravo’s?Top Chef Seattle?and spent time working in Europe and Washington, D.C.
I hesitate to call his first solo venture a fusion concept because, unlike so many other globetrotting spots that borrow from a hodgepodge of cuisines, this one has a pretty strict roadmap. This isn’t the popular tactic where chefs paint with broad strokes, pulling an ingredient from several cuisines and a concept from another while trying to make the group harmonize. Often, that approach fails.
While the constraints here mean that the Lingr menu won’t appeal to everyone, the flavors and ingredients emblematic of both cuisines pair remarkably well together. Star anise, cardamom, ginger, fennel, aquavit, dill, Sichuan peppercorns — there are repeat performances from these throughout the menu and, for the most part, they complement each other well.
Not every dish includes examples of both cuisines. In fact, a large portion of the menu does the opposite, focusing instead on one set of ingredients that have proved to play well together.
A dish like the hamachi crudo ($16) features thick slices of the silky fish swimming in a tangy citrus and buttermilk sauce, flavored with Sichuan peppercorns, orange and dill oil. The pieces of fish are topped with thin wisps of crispy-fried lotus root chips and dusted in a bright crimson dried cranberry powder — a simple and beautiful start to a meal here.
There’s no bread service, but a plate of local bakery Jamison B. Breadhouse Bakes’ pan seeded and round rye breads served with a whipped fish roe butter ($7) is a nice accompaniment to some of the following dishes. Definitely don’t skip the homemade Sami bread ($14), an impressive and creative starter that features the puffy round bread named for the indigenous group inhabiting portions of Norway, Finland, Sweden and parts of Russia. The bread is made with nigella seeds and burnt leeks and arrives topped with smoked lion’s mane mushrooms, hawthorn cream and brunost cheese, a Norwegian whey cheese that’s creamy and the color of light caramel. It’s garnished with chili oil and sea buckthorn, and each bite features layers of flavor and texture.
Lingr is a modern and progressive restaurant, reflected as much in the dining room’s minimalist decor and sleek aesthetic as it is in Jew’s overall approach, which includes touting COVID-19 safety protocols like advanced air purification and an HVAC system lined with UV lights. (The restaurant was constructed at the height of the pandemic.) The menu also does a good job of describing any allergens and ingredients that might affect dietary preferences and features a healthy selection of vegetarian-friendly and vegan dishes.
Char sui-style shiitake mushrooms and steamed gai lan (Chinese broccoli) are delivered inside a pillowy bao bun ($5), and smoked potato- and asparagus-filled dumplings ($12) come flavored with dill and fennel pollen. Guests also have the option of nonvegetarian dumplings, which are made with a spicy Key West pink shrimp medley ($15) and have more dimension than their vegetarian counterpart, flavored with garlic, shallots, ginger, broad bean paste, Aleppo chiles and tamari. Both sets of dumplings arrive swimming in a spicy sauce made with soy, garlic, sesame seeds and a hot chili oil. Depending on the evening, the kitchen might use a heavier hand with the last ingredient. (On one visit the sauce was searingly spicy but pretty tame on the next.)
One of the restaurant’s best dishes, the mapo ho fun ($16), is a savvy play on mapo tofu, absent the characteristic protein (usually beef or pork) but with the addition of wide, chewy rice noodles that arrive swaddled in thick, flavorful sauce. The tingle of Sichuan peppercorns partnered with a spicy broad bean paste lends the dish a slow but steady heat that builds with each bite.
For larger plates, one of the restaurant’s most popular offers is the wok-fried snapper (market price, usually around $34), which features a generous fillet dusted in potato starch and flash-fried, served on a bed of rice with crispy fan jiu (those crispy bottom-of-the-pot rice bits) and studded with fermented black beans and featuring an herb vinaigrette made with black vinegar, hoisin, scallions and ginger. It’s a perfectly fine dish, but I prefer the seared grouper (market price, around $34), which arrives plated atop a comforting grain porridge made with oats, lentils and rice dotted with hunks of roasted parsnips. It’s topped with a snappy and refreshing fennel salad and finished with an aquavit brown butter sauce.
A ribeye steak ($60) is dry-aged using koji, the heralded Japanese fungus that’s responsible for the conversion of grains into things like soy sauce, miso and sake and also acts like a curing agent when applied to meat. The result here is a crust boasting lots of umami flavor. Though great on its own, the accompanying Cantonese curry and corn fried rice didn’t do much to elevate the dish.
The restaurant’s service is excellent, and during a time when restaurant staff is hard to come by. General manager and wine director Zach Groseclose has put together one of the ‘burg’s most interesting and dynamic wine lists, with sections dedicated to skin contact wines and chilled reds. Servers are well-versed on the list, and under Groseclose’s guidance, you won’t be steered wrong. (He’s apt to bring over a few wines to taste throughout the evening.)
Coupled with a creative, if pricey, cocktail program (drinks are $16) that features riffs inspired by the five elements (try the Fire, a Negroni-esque drink made with aquavit, Campari and beets) and a tableside tea service, drinking here is half the fun.
A short dessert menu features just three items, and the one not to pass on is the parsnip cake ($9), which imbues strong carrot cake vibes with plenty of warm spice and layers interspersed with a sweet mandarin cream.
On the several visits I’ve made to Lingr, I’ve found myself drawn to the smaller, shareable plates each time. They’re the strongest, and with such an enjoyable beverage program it’s tempting to snack, share and linger here a little bit longer.
The original press release can be found here.