As a lover of all types of Asian food—I’ve taken Asian culinary courses (including a sushi masterclass), cook it at home several times a week, and have eaten it since I was a kid growing up in New Jersey back in the 1970s—you might be surprised to know I was actually a bit apprehensive when I saw the announcement on the opening of Fortu, a new Pan-Asian restaurant in St. Pete.
Why? Because I was anticipating disappointment. There is not a lot of good Japanese and almost no good Chinese in St. Petersburg. The title of this piece is already a spoiler, so you know that in the end everything turned out well.
Pan-Asian roughly means inclusive of all, or most of Asia. Asia is really, really big. I’m not sure we have most of Asia on the menu, but what we do have, as of this writing, is mostly Japanese, with some Chinese, and Korean items.
The name Fortu is a made-up word that pays homage to fortune and Asian culture. The restaurant is located in the former location of Ceviche, attached to the Ponce De Leon Hotel, which was constructed in the 1920s. It’s old, and it looked old when Ceviche was there. Walking in there now, you would never know it. The design and renovation team did a spectacular job of transforming the place into a modern Asian eatery.
When my friend and I arrived for our 6 o’clock reservation, the place was about 1/3rd full. By the time we left at 7:40, it was at capacity.
All of the items I chose for the first visit fulfilled the criteria that I have had them at other restaurants, and that I have made them at home, so I know what they are supposed to look, smell, and taste like, and how they are made.
The service was top notch, and of note was my first inquiry. Roku Gin is an excellent Japanese gin, and Suntory, it’s maker, suggests to have it as a gin & tonic with a fresh ginger matchstick as the garnish. When I requested this, I was told that they didn’t have the ginger matchstick as a garnish, and was given a puzzled look. I said that a lemon wedge would be fine. I didn’t really expect them to have the ginger garnish, so no points taken off. However, I was pleased when the server returned to tell me that he looked it up and knows what I am talking about, and that he is going to work on having them in the future.
My other beverage was Tentaka Shuzo “Hawk in the Heavens” sake, which I highly recommend.
A couple examples of the fine-dining level of service provided at Fortu – when asked for a straw for a tall glass drink, or a serving spoon for a shared plate, they were delivered on a platter, on a cloth napkin – whenever any crumbs or condensation soiled the table, they were immediately cleaned in between each dish.
From the “For the Table” section, we had Pan Seared Gyoza – Braised wagyu shoulder, corn silk, shiitake jus, and the Truffled Congee – Risotto style rice, black truffle.
I’m frequently let down when I order gyoza. I make Kenji Lopez’s pork and Napa cabbage version from his book, The Wok. No gyoza I have ever ordered out has been as good as this until now. Fortu’s is different as it is Wagyu beef instead of pork, but it is on the same delightfully delicious level. The corn silk and shiitake jus take it over the top, and the perfect sear adds flavor and crunch.
The Truffled Congee was excellent, but notice that it says “risotto style”. Congee and risotto are not the same thing, and this is really a risotto. I don’t mind a little creative license, and it was delicious. No points taken off, but if it was a congee competition, points would be taken off. Don’t let that stop you from ordering it. Just know that you are getting risotto.
From the Raw Bar section, we had two items – the Spicy Salmon – Crispy rice, fermented chili, scallion, and the Hamachi Crudo – Blood orange ponzu, spring citrus, cilantro air. I’ve had Hamachi crudo innumerous times at restaurants, and I’ve made my own version at home several times.
These two items were good, but they were also our least favorites. The hamachi fell a little flat on flavor. The fish itself lacked the creamy, butteriness that I’m used to. The spicy salmon by itself is a winner. However, the crispy rice underneath takes away from the flavor and texture of the salmon. The rice is formed the same as for a piece of sushi, but then fried. I think a better treatment would be a poke stack with regular sushi rice on the bottom. This is just my take on it, and you might want to order them anyway to see if you disagree with me. I have heard from others that this is one of their favorites.
Now for the really big test from the Signature Dishes section of the menu – Miso Black Cod. Michelin Star Chef Nobu Matsuhisa created this dish and introduced it to diners in the 1980s at his Beverly Hills restaurant Matsuhisa. I had it in London at his Michelin Star restaurant, Nobu. I’ve made it at home twice. Fortu executed it quite nicely. It looked perfect, and the flavor and texture was great. It had a slight sweetness that I don’t usually find, but it was still great.
Side Note: Black Cod is actually just a nickname, as the fish isn’t cod at all. It is Sablefish and comes from the Pacific Ocean. Actual cod comes from the Atlantic Ocean. Cod is more flakey and likely wouldn’t hold up to the marination time for this dish. The original recipe has the fish marinating for three days. Fortu marinates it for two days. I couldn’t tell the difference. It just seems they make their marinade a little sweeter.
From the Sides section, I had to try the House Special Fried Rice. It was funny that I was telling my friend Colin, that the name of the dish sounds like something the restaurant invented itself, but it is not. It is actually a standard Chinese menu item of fried rice with chicken, shrimp, pork, scrambled egg and vegetables. This is true. However, in this case it was actually a house dish that Fortu created.
Our server told us that it is a barbecue pork fried rice. This is completely different than the street-food-style pork fried rice that you get at a Chinese takeout joint. The pork in the Chinese dish is char siu pork with the deep red, sweet and sticky coating. The pieces are smaller and harder pieces too. The pork in Fortu’s House Special Fried Rice is more like Korean BBQ pork with larger, and softer pieces. The rice is less greasy, and more soft and silky. It’s a great dish that is more elegant in style.
We ended the first visit with the Chocolate Espresso Cake – Chocolate sponge, espresso cream, hazelnut crunch and the Coconut Mille Feuille – Crisp pastry, whipped coconut, mango confit, marinated pineapple. They were both delectable, but the Chocolate Espresso Cake wins.
On the second visit, I returned with Lori and started off with the Emerald Samurai Gin Fizz – Bombay dry gin, sake, bergamot, madeira, matcha orgeat, citrus, foam. Lori had the Agave Citrus Paloma – Patròn tequila, wine aperitif, melon, agave, citrus. We definitely recommend both drinks. They were balanced and flavorful.
Our starters were delectable. Two must-order items are the Wonton Tacos and the Crispy Potato Mille Feuille. Lori wanted the tacos, but I was reluctant since past iterations I’ve had were either bland, hard to eat, or greasy. Fortu’s wonton tacos did not have any of these undesirable qualities. They were clean, crisp (not greasy) and full of flavor.
They are easy to eat in two bites, and do not fall apart. We were told they have a special high-end German deep fryer that has a mechanism for removing any leftover food particles from the oil to keep it clean. Of the three wonton tacos, we ordered two–the flavor-packed Wagyu tartare with shiitake and sesame, and the Salmon with avocado and chili oil. This dish was flawless. Be sure to eat the daikon and carrot garnish too. It has a wonderful dressing of sesame oil and Champagne vinegar. The finely-sliced tsuma cut is fun to eat, and shows superior knife skills.
Mille Feuille literally means “a thousand sheets”, and I could eat the Crispy Potato Mille Feuille 1,000 times. The potatoes are sliced paper-thin, salted, buttered, par-baked and then compressed with heavy weights for a day. They are pan-fried to finish with a crispy outside, and soft, buttery middle. Paring with the black truffle aioli completes the flavor-bomb and provides a nice creamy texture contrast with the crunchy outer layer of the potatoes. The chopped chives and finely grated cheese complete this gustatory pleasure.
We just continued down the sharables “For the Table” section with the Crispy Rock Shrimp with sweet soy and chili-garlic aioli. This is another craveable dish that you will want to order every time you go to Fortu. I rarely see rock shrimp on restaurant menus, and it is one of my favorite types of shrimp. They have a firm and sweet meat and a lobster-like taste. The delightfully extra-crispy outer coating is a great contrast to the chewy center with the aioli and soy sauce perfectly finishing the dish to make it addictive.
We ended the evening with Korean Fried Chicken, Miso Creamed Corn, and Carrara Farms Australian Wagyu Bavette Steak. From Munchery.com, “(A Bavette steak is) slightly thicker than a flank steak and has more marbling. The bavette is unique in a few ways. While the taste profile is similar to a flank steak, it has an even deeper and more savory flavor. Due to its marbling and loose texture, this flat cut of meat holds onto its juiciness better than a flank steak.”
The Korean fried chicken was tangy, sweet and crispy. When I read the menu description, I thought it was genius to use chicken thighs as they have more fat, which equals more flavor. My personal tastes lean away from sweet, and I love spicy fried chicken, which is what I was hoping for. However, I didn’t find any spiciness from the hot honey, but only sweetness. I couldn’t tell that they were thighs either as they looked like white meat chicken tenders.
The miso creamed corn was surprisingly sweet. It tasted more like a dessert and reminded me of rice pudding and vanilla. With the miso I was expecting umami, so this one was puzzling.
The steak on the other hand was a dream. It had the perfect sear, and ideal medium rare cook. Treat yourself to this one. It’s worth every penny.
There are (unofficial) future plans for sushi and sashimi to be added to the offerings later in the year, but don’t wait. You should go now, and definitely make a reservation.
Note: As of this writing, Google has Fortu at 97 Central Avenue, which is actually the address of the Ponce De Leon Hotel. Fortu is part of the same building, but its actual address is 95 Central Ave.
Pan-Asian Cuisine focused mostly on Japanese with Chinese and Korean. Includes raw bar items as well as Wagyu steaks.
PLEASE NOTE: Reviews reflect a certain moment in time. Some restaurants stay extremely consistent over many years, and some change for the better or worse. Some things that may change are: chefs, recipes, food suppliers, ingredients, philosophies, ownership, etc. We always hope that you have the same good, or great experience we had.