Perhaps even more so than other careers, in cooking one often moves up by moving on. You learn the ropes under the watchful eye of a particular chef and it's hard to reinvent yourself as the Big Boss, even once that mentor is long gone. The other kitchen staff and even the dining public keep comparing you, looking for similarities, noting deviations.
I'm guilty of this. Chad Johnson moved up to chef de cuisine at SideBern's at the end of 2007 after the departure of a much-decorated chef, Jeannie Pierola. His subsequent work at Bern's hip little sister shouldn't live in anyone's shadow. The SideBern's team is doing tons of things right these days.
They closed for a week at the end of June to renovate the main dining room. Really a minor gussying with paint, but it freshens the already pretty room. Since the reopening it has been all systems go: Mixologist Dean Hurst goes to Las Vegas with his Upsy Daisy Bombay Sapphire gin cocktail at the end of August to compete for the nation's "Most Inspired Bartender" and a shot at being a snazzy GQ profile.
The kitchen has done some soul-searching and has decided that, above all else, diners are looking for choice. There's a new, affordable lounge menu of small plates; smaller portions of hot dishes offered at dinner (so, there are regular-sized entrees $24 to $35, but small hot dishes offered at $10 to $20). On the other hand, for when customers have something to celebrate, there's a six-course tasting menu offered for $70, plus $35 with paired wines. There's Tampa's best cheese course to finish things up and a sophisticated array of summer cocktails to get the evening started. Then, in the wine shop, they've instituted a three-course take-away menu on Wednesday nights for $19.95, with free wine tastings while you await your order.
Whew, that's a lot going on, all moot unless it's executed effectively. And, almost without exception, it is. Tough love first: The takeaway meals aren't a bargain, based on one night's eggplant Parmesan. The three-compartment to-go container had plenty of tasty fried eggplant (more sauce, please), but the fennel, arugula and pickled ramp salad was teeny and didn't quite marry, the same for the fig and Gorgonzola in the third compartment. It didn't hang together and the portions weren't sufficient to merit a $20 charge. Also, the heat from the warm eggplant frizzled the arugula leaves. These days there are so many to-go options — this needs to be streamlined and service time expedited if it's going to succeed.
What struck me on a couple of recent dinners at SideBern's was just how contemporary and big-city the menu has become. Just like in New York, the cocktails read more like exotic recipes (chili-infused Corzo tequila with watermelon, lime juice and agave nectar, $13). The lounge menu has all this great charcuterie, each meat paired with a dreamy accompaniment. I'm not sure how many orders they're getting for top-of-the-line Iberico ham ($21), but just knowing these plush, richly marbled slices are there, paired with toasted hazelnuts, is a comfort. They are importing the good stuff, but also curing and making their own these days: a delicious ham hock terrine ($8) with Georgia peaches, a warm sweet-and-sour beef tongue ($10). Then pair that with an order of Bellwether Farms fresh ricotta ($8) enlivened with mint, chili, olive oil and citrus. Gorgeous.
I had that same ricotta as part of a summer peach salad ($9), a marsala vinaigrette drawing together the ripe fruit, butter lettuce and toasted almonds. Johnson is clearly experimenting with assertive flavors like pickles and intensely acidic fruit (preserved lemon, gooseberries) and contrasting them with lush nut butters and sauces. An interesting example: Rounds of heirloom tomato get a swirl of hazelnut aioli, but a high note of tart, crunchy sea beans and pickled razor clams, then a salty-crisp element of fried ham ($11). I loved it for its balanced flavor range. A trumpet mushroom dish ($11) may have been top-heavy with crispy potato strands, but its roasted almond puree and shaved lardo (very Mario Batali) showcased the velvety mushroom eloquently.
Two other striking new directions caught my attention. SideBern's desserts have been influenced by national trends like molecular gastronomy and bring savory ingredients into sweets: There's a stunning sweet corn ice cream ($7) and a more mad-scientist smoky chocolate paprika marshmallow dish ($10), its best element a hazelnut chocolate ice cream (that marshmallow just prompted head scratching). Meanwhile, full-sized entrees have moved in a simpler direction, very comforting and honest: a rosy fan of pork tenderloin ($25) gets a scoop of tiny beluga lentils and then a handful of black olives, roasted baby carrots, peppery arugula and a pool of pistachio coulis. May sound fancy, but it reads like home cooking.
It takes a magician to be all things to all people, and I'm impressed by just how many tricks Johnson has up his sleeve.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.