At last, unique and fun eateries are starting to pop up around North Dale! While this neighborhood is increasingly packed with new families as well as long-time residents, the restaurant choices on the main business strip down Dale Mabry were growing more and more stale with each passing year. A few plazas have introduced standard suburban fare, such as Chipotle, Pei Wei Asian Diner, and the incomparable Jimmy Johns (hallelujah!). Now, other unique, lesser-known dinner spots are appearing. My husband and I visited a few during their busiest times (Friday or Saturday evening at around 7 p.m.) and have a few comments to share:

Burger 21 Carrollwood - My first impression of this classic burger and shake joint was that it reminded me of a gussied-up Steak n' Shake. The stark florescent lighting, ubiquitous tile and minimalist décor turned me off, as it was a cold night and I was hoping for a cozier atmosphere. But after sinking my teeth into one of their enormous hand-crafted burgers, I got the message loud and clear: who cares how we look, our burgers will blow your mind. I tried the stylish Cinco Burger, seasoned with spicy and smoky Mexican flavors balanced by a few generous dollops of cool cilantro sour cream, musky guacamole, and topped with oozing monterey jack cheese.

My husband indulged in the OMG!, a double-stack of 100% USDA choice beef, topped with crisp bacon and a creamy, pungent cheddar. Needless to say, we had to ask for a fork and knife to plow through those bad boys. We also shared an order of sweet potato fries, which were nothing special until our server suggested we try the marshmallow dipping sauce. Subtlety sweet and just sticky enough to conjure up childhood memories of toasted marshmallows at summer camp, this unlikely component ratcheted up the entire meal, like cranberry sauce to the Thanksgiving turkey. For the grand finale, try an Ybor City Double Espresso or Key Lime Pie shake (we recommend two straws): the thick, frozen creaminess and whimsical presentation makes a perfect end to this taste-bud-stretching food fest. Also in Westchase (which we reviewed on our Taste Tour of 813).  Beer and wine only.

The Red Elephant Pizza and Grill - It was all there: the hand-tossed crust, the red sauce, enough mozzarella cheese, and all the correct toppings. But after splitting a large pie at Red Elephant, I walked to the parking lot knowing we would toss the leftovers I was carrying. This casual pizzeria offers a fun, jovial atmosphere and festive outdoor seating, but the pizza lacks the pizzazz the high prices promises (say that five times fast). The cheese was gummy and the pepperoni was more greasy than crisp.  Flavor-wise, it wasn't much better than frozen pizza. It might not be a bad choice for taking the little leaguers after a game or a large office group because the dining area is spacious and will readily accommodate large parties.

Your best bets are probably the Elephant Classic (pepperoni, sausage, green peppers and onions) or the Margherita Chicken (white pizza with mozzarella, grilled chicken, pesto and tomatoes), or you can choose the build-your-own option. They also have a decent selection of sandwiches and appetizers.  Again, this place could work if you need to feed a lot of people on the fly, but is not a great choice for a special birthday dinner or a romantic evening for two. Full liquor bar.

Toasted Pheasant - Ambience, beautiful presentation of food, quiet corner booths and excellent service all characterize this romantic bistro, located in the same plaza as the Red Elephant, but is a world away from it in elegance and mood. Chef Peter, the owner, originally from Surrey, England, has carefully crafted all the menu items which range from Wild Mushroom Porcini Risotto to Duck Confit Salad- and yes, they do actually feature Toasted Pheasant on the menu. After being greeted and led through the soft light of the dining room, we were treated to a few slices of buttery focaccia, topped with pancetta, roasted tomatoes, kalamata olives and an  herby extra virgin olive oil on the side.

We started with a goblet of Lobster Mac & Cheese, a creamy, dreamy blend of cheddar, mozzarella and parmesan cheeses, and a few morsels of succulent lobster meat, topped with a generous slice of brie, toasted to a golden brown. For dinner, I tried the Three Course Crepe Dinner, which included a vegetarian lentil portabella soup and a Beef Burgandy crepe served with a well-seasoned vegetable medley. Although beautifully presented, the Beef Burgandy filling was under-seasoned and its brown sauce nearly drowned the tiny crepe, making it my least favorite dish of the evening.

My husband had the Old English Fish & Chips, Chef Peter’s specialty, served like it is in his native England. The batter is prepared with the restaurant’s own Tucher ale from behind the bar, and fried to a deep golden brown, wrapped in newspaper and served over a mound of fries. We completed our meal by sharing the third of my three courses, a light and airy crepe, delicately encasing sweetened fresh strawberries and peaches, with whip cream. On our next visit, we will try the Wine Dinner, offered only once a month, which includes four unique courses, each course paired with a three-ounce glass of wine, priced right at $45.00 per person.

Toasted Pheasant is a gratifying departure from the chain restaurant and bar food frenzy which seems to be taking over suburbia, and is an ideal destination for couples. Neither the menu nor the atmosphere is suitable for children. Serving beer and wine only.