St. Petersburg … Where Sunshine Lane Meets Beach Drive

I found a new “crossroads” earlier this month … the corner of Sunshine Lane and Beach Drive in St. Petersburg, Fla.

You’ve heard of the legendary “crossroads” where bluesman Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil, where Routes 61 and 49 intersect in Clarksdale, Miss.

Well, at my bayfront crossroads, it is art, culture and fine dining that all converge.

Coincidentally, it was the blues that brought me to this new crossroads, as I was visiting St. Petersburg to attend the Tampa Bay Blues Festival.

Oysters, Oysters and More Oysters

Close to the crossroads of Sunshine Lane and Beach Drive is one of the best restaurants I’ve ever experienced – the Ceviche Tapas Bar and Restaurant. That place alone, with its gorgeous and delicious tapas, is enough to lure me to this waterfront town.

I couldn’t seem to get enough oysters on this trip, diving into a couple of platters of my favorite shellfish. But the oysters served at Ceviche went above and beyond. Ceviche a la Rusa was as beautiful as it was delicious, with seasonal oysters in lemon, lime, cilantro and onion, dotted with big, red caviar, and served with a very, very, very chilled shot of Russian vodka. Spanish sardines with tomato and sweet onion on crostini was another taste treat, as was the dish of artichokes, onions, peppers and giant caper berries.

My mouth is watering again as I think about that luscious lunch.

I sampled more oysters at 400 Beach Seafood & Tap House – this time, a dozen raw, as well as a half dozen cooked with garlic leek butter and parmesan. They were accompanied by Surf and Turf Sushi, which was a roll of tempura lobster, onion, asparagus and tataki tenderloin topped with a dot of spicy horseradish aoli.

The oysters at Cassis American Brasserie, located at 170 Beach Drive NE, were delicious again, but my entree overshadowed them: large, luscious scallops were sitting atop smashed English peas, sauteed mushrooms and a rich pool of truffle jus.

Although the choice at Cassis was easy, there were other entrees on the menu that caught my attention: fried chicken with lobster mac and cheese, and rosemary gravy; braised beef short ribs with a creamed potato and leek fondue, and red wine sauce; and the 10-ounce veal T-bone, served with wild mushroom risotto and balsamic-roasted cippolini onions.

And if the entrees weren’t enough, the desserts were delectable. I went for the healthy choice: one scoop of cassis-flavored sorbet.

But, I had the pleasure of tasting the chocolate and nut bread pudding with brown sugar ice cream, as well as the apple galette with caramel sauce and cardamom ice cream.

A true sign to me of a great restaurant is that I need to go back. All of these fit into that catagory, for sure.

So Surreal, With a Bit of Glass

Sandwiched in between these great meals was world-class art.

St. Petersburg is certainly a cultural mecca, with the Museum of Fine Arts, the recently opened Dali Museum, the Chihuly Collection, the Morean Arts Center, the St. Petersburg Museum of History, the Florida Holocaust Museum and a number of small galleries.

On our “museum day,” we chose to visit the Dali Museum and the Chihuly Collection.

The Chihuly Collection includes 16 of glass artist Dale Chihuly’s large-scale installations as well as several series works, such as Macchia, Ikeban, Niijima Floats, Persions and Tumbleweeds, displayed in a 10,000-square-foot setting.

Once you’ve been introduced to Chihuly, you find you want to search out more and more of his colorful, unusual, original pieces. Giant balls of glass, tall blade-like pieces, chandeliers of colorful curlycues – Chihuly’s work is unmistakable Chihuly.

Chihuly’s works also can be seen at the hotel where we stayed, the historic Vinoy Resort and Golf Club. A white chandelier is the focal point in the hotel’s ballroom, and another of his works is encased in glass in the hotel lobby.

We would have liked to have had time to hit the Glass Studio and Hot Shop at the Morean Arts Center. There, working glass artists demonstrate their craft and explain the process.

For the Dali, allow at least two hours – and another 30 minutes for the extensive gift shop! Any fan of Salvador Dali’s work will be in heaven here.

Not only can you see his wall-size imaginative works as well as the small ones, up close and personal, but you can even take home a deck of cards graced with 52 of his images.

In 1942, Reynolds and Eleanor R. Morse began collecting Salvador Dali’s work, exhibiting the work in their home. When they started looking for a larger home for their collection, it was a St. Petersburg attorney who gathered community leaders to help. St. Petersburg offered to build a museum, and the first Dali Museum opened in 1982.

The Morse’s collection includes work from every period of the artist’s career. The new building houses about 2,100 works: 96 oil paintings, as well as sculptures, drawings and an archival library.

The new Dali Museum, which opened on Jan. 11, is itself a work of art.

“The design of the new building combines the rational with the fantastical: a simple rectangle with 18-inch thick hurricane-proof walls out of which erupts a large free-form geodesic glass bubble known as the ‘enigma.’ The ‘enigma,’ which is made up of more than 900 triangular pieces of glass, stands 75 feet at its tallest point, a 21st-century homage to the dome that adorns Dali’s museum in Spain. Inside, the Dali houses another unique architectural feature – a helical staircase – recalling Dali’s obsession with spirals and the double helical shapes of the DNA molecule,” according to information provided by the museum.

A docent tour is the best way to experience the museum. Visitors also can borrow audio guides that highlight the collection and Dali’s life and career.

Our docent pointed out a number of details in his paintings (most need to be deciphered!), while giving us a glimpse of Dali’s life as well.

Walk It

A walk around the expansive downtown area of St. Petersburg will bring you to a variety of ethnic restaurants, shops, residential high rises, hotels and parks. Art is everywhere. The St. Petersburg Judicial Center, for example, sports a display of 13 red metal chairs, a sculpture by artist Douglas Kornfeld called “Face the Jury.”

The streets are wide, and the area is clean. It’s also very green – more than palm trees grow throughout the area. Egrets, pelicans, seagulls and ducks fly, swim and swoop among the sailboats on the bay.

Board the St. Petersburg Trolley and, for just a quarter, you can get to any of the major attractions.

St. Petersburg is home to the Tampa Bay Rays, Progress Energy Center for the Arts, the Florida Orchestra, the Mahaffey Theater and the Pier Aquarium.

Golf courses, marinas, hiking, beaches, cruises, ghost tours, parks, sporting events can all keep tourists busy for days.

There are arts festivals, food festivals, music festivals, markets, concerts, Broadway shows and theater at a number of venues.

Culture, good food and sunshine. I don’t need much more to be happy. Oh, and shopping. Well, and maybe a job.

St. Pete, save a spot for me. I’m coming back … to the corner of Sunshine Lane and Beach Drive. Oh, yeah. That’s my kind of crossroads.