TAMPA — The much anticipated Ulele Native-Inspired Food and Spirits serves four kinds of oysters: on the half shell, in kale and apple cabbage cups, charbroiled with garlic and cheese, and fresh as a shooter, with or without tequila.
Eat one and you're biting into Tampa's history.
The entire menu of the restaurant opening Tuesday in Tampa Heights pays tribute to early-Florida Indian fare and the pioneers who came later, from jalapeno corn beer biscuits to crackling port shank and alligator hush puppies.
Area foodies, media representatives and downtown civic leaders got their first taste Sunday during a preview of the $5 million project, which includes a two-level restaurant, a rooftop bar, beer garden and microbrewery. The 225-seat restaurant occupies an old pump house built in 1903 that supplied the city with drinking water from Ulele Spring. It sits next to the recently restored natural spring and the city's new Water Works Park along the Hillsborough River.
"We live in Old Seminole Heights so we are really excited about the location and we're happy it's going to be dog-friendly'' said Trisha Rothman, while sampling oysters and shishito peppers with her husband, Ari.
Fourth-generation Columbia restaurant owner Richard Gonzmart, who developed Ulele with managing partner Keith Sedita and the city of Tampa, described the opening as melancholy and emotional.
"It's been six years to become a reality and when you want something so badly and you get it, the excitement kind of ends,'' he said. "But now the hard work starts.''
The restaurant is filled with paintings and artwork Gonzmart and his family have collected through the years. Above the kitchen doors are large stained-glass, French panels from the 1700s that his parents had in their home. Dividing the dining room is a huge metal horse he bought at an auction. Above the bar are five paintings of Ulele's handcrafted cocktails, including the Dirty Richard Martini and the Pisco Morado.
The restaurant is named after Ulele, the young daughter of a local Tocobaga chief believed to have saved a member of a Spanish expedition out of love. A bronze statute of her surrounded by a water and fire feature will go outside the restaurant in the next few weeks.
Gonzmart, who spent much of his childhood playing along the riverfront, said he wanted the statue to be accessible to everyone, not just restaurant patrons. His grandparents lived a few blocks from the site.
On Sunday, as guests dined on lobster cakes and seafood pot pie, he looked for frogs and fish in the spring with his grandchildren, just as he did with his grandfather decades earlier.
"History is repeating itself,'' he said, content to welcome Ulele for the next generations.
Contact Susan Thurston at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.