By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
TAMPA — Construction is moving along apace at the 66,000-square-foot, Stanley Saitowitz-designed Tampa Museum of Art. Across the street, the sleek, glass-and-steel SkyPoint condo tower represents one of downtown Tampa's few recent success stories in a troubled real estate market. On the ground floor of SkyPoint, Taps Wine & Beer Merchants is poised to be a cornerstone in this new Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park area.
Owner James DeVito moved to Tampa a year ago from New York, looking around Westchase, Brandon and Hyde Park before settling on downtown as the site of his ambitious restaurant plan. It took guts and a leap of faith (perhaps skills honed after 14 years on Wall Street), but he opened a stylish, wood-paneled neighborhood clubhouse that already exerts its magnetism on hipsters from Ybor, Hyde Park and farther.
Beyond the pretty interior and — a downtown rarity — sidewalk tables, the big draw at Taps is the well-priced beer menu, packed with a couple hundred bottles and dozens of drafts arranged by categories like lambics, India pale ales and pilsners. The wine list, though not nearly as extensive or interesting, offers the added allure of one of the bay area's only Enomatic systems, a debit-card, pay-by-the-ounce self-serve option, its stainless steel spigots adding a stylish design element to the space.
The food, in a mostly supporting role, is very competent, sometimes tipping into squarely delicious. In descending order of excellence, when was the last time you enjoyed a butter-brushed, just-from-the-oven soft pretzel ($5) and spicy mustard with your beer? A heavenly marriage. Then there are the warm, crusty pesto chicken sandwich ($10) on ciabatta and the turkey and Brie with apple-pear chutney ($10) on crisp baguette — both balanced, carefully constructed and ample enough to serve a couple of people.
The rest of the menu is split among appetizers, salads and desserts (no formal "entrees"), but the salads, served in deep, square bowls, are generous and filling. My favorite was a sesame ahi tuna number on mixed greens ($11), lush and punchy with spiced cashews, radish and a wasabi vinaigrette.
Chicken satay ($10), its plate swirled with Sriracha; Italian sausage sliders with caramelized onion on baguette wedges ($10); and chipotle apricot chicken wings ($10) were all pleasant but somewhat forgettable examples of their breed — perhaps just outshone by the quaffables. And for dessert, only the Belgian waffles with vanilla gelato and Nutella ($9) spurred our forks to fighting.
Happily, Taps can be thronged on weekends and post office hours during the week — which, sadly, can cause servers to scurry and forget things. Still, I'll gladly exercise more patience if it is evidence of Tampa's downtown renaissance finally happening.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found 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.