Something is going on. Last September, Bon Appétit named Husk in Charleston, S.C., "The Best New Restaurant in America." Putting contemporary spins on traditional Southern foods, Husk was not alone. In 2011, Zagat insisted Southern food was the year's top trend in New York, buoyed by newcomers like Marcus Samuelsson's Red Rooster and the Cardinal in the East Village. Perhaps it was the food porn scenes in The Help that kept the nation salivating for fried green tomatoes, smothered pork chops and okra, but the South continues to rise.
In Tampa, the end of 2011 was marked by the opening of Knife & Co., a hip and exciting purveyor of "New Southern" cuisine. At first, owner Ron Stewart partnered with chef Gary Moran and his wife, Amy. Disagreements over the direction of the restaurant made it a short-lived arrangement. The Morans left, Stewart went dark in December to welcome Jeannie Pierola's fourth KitchenBar, and as of this writing Knife is still closed. Meanwhile, the Morans found a new home base in the space vacated by Delizie Bakery on S MacDill, unveiling Wimauma at the end of December.
Moran, who spent time as executive chef at Datz and has a long resume of prestigious kitchen jobs in New York, reprises some of the flavors and combinations that his Knife & Co. menu had, but with a more Florida-centric focus and as many regional ingredients as possible. There's some exciting stuff here, things Tampa hasn't seen much of before. Perfectly fried Florida oysters set on dollops of lush guacamole and paired with dabs of smoked tomato jam ($8). Or pickled golden raisins lurking in the bottom of a balanced carrot/ginger/coconut milk soup ($6).
But before I get too deep in evaluating Moran's food, I must express some serious concerns. Amy Moran and her servers sometimes overchat and overstay, often without effectively reading cues from diners. Amy may sit down at your table and tell her life story. Meanwhile, if there was a thought bubble over some people's heads, it would read, "Should I keep eating? How long will she sit here?" Everyone is different. Some customers go to restaurants to be entertained, to be chatted with. But some look for unobtrusive service as they commune with their tablemates. In restaurant service, the Golden Rule gets tweaked. It's not "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It's "do unto others as they would like to have done."
This is not my only service concern. My vegetarian companion asked what could be done for her. The answer: "Nothing." "Well, could I have the fried green tomatoes without the crispy country ham?" "Yes, I guess we could do that." The fried green tomatoes arrive with the crispy ham. To correct the problem, the plate is briefly removed and returned with most of the crispy ham removed. Unacceptable. This is a betrayal of the fundamental agreement between restaurateur and customer. In no other retail environment is trust so essential. You say this fish is Dover sole and I must believe you. You say there is no meat in this dish and I must believe that.
In a new restaurant, service is always working out the kinks, Wimauma no exception. Servers are harried and lack menu knowledge — no surprise in a restaurant where the menu changes every couple of days. The issues above are more egregious though. Also, while the space itself is essentially a blank canvas at this point, awaiting a renovation and personalization as the Morans settle in, the restaurant has a plumbing problem that needs to be addressed posthaste. On two visits, an unfortunate smell in the dining room marred our enjoyment.
And there is indeed much to enjoy. The fried chicken ($13) is moist, crispy, homemade-tasting and super generous. It comes in a fun metal bucket and is flanked by a trio of crunchy hush puppy spheres, a mound of golden fries and a ramekin of simple honey mustard. The shrimp and grits ($16) is lovely, with smoky pork "bark" flavoring the creamy grits and the perfectly cooked Florida shrimp getting a high note of basil.
There were a couple of dishes that need more attention in the kitchen: The smoked brisket was tough ($13) and desserts like a bacon brownie and peanut butter and jelly creme brulee seem more like stunts than really well-executed sweets. But I'm charmed by Moran's collard greens, his smoked pork belly and his spin on disco fries — so often a heart-stopping avalanche of gravy-cheese blanketing unsuspecting fries, Moran's version is topped with a sophisticated braised oxtail stew and just a soupcon of melted cheddar.
Moran's schtick is giving Southern comfort foods a little polish. I'd like to see the service and dining room follow suit.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.