Have a heaping helping of the head scratcher du jour: Just-opened Knife & Co. on Kennedy Boulevard is about to cede its space to pop-up restaurant KitchenBar4. For most of December.
Peripatetic chef Jeannie Pierola has been doing red-hot pop-up restaurants for a few weeks at a time around Tampa, utilizing the space of existing restaurants. Fans from her Bern's and SideBern's days, as well as those from way back when she was at the helm of Cool Beans and Boca, have been excited to follow her to KitchenBars 1, 2 and 3. First last November at Pinky's, then at the now-closed Chefs on the Loose, both on Bay to Bay, and most recently at Restaurant BT on MacDill, Pierola showboated her way through cool themed menus and then—poof—she was gone again.
What's in it for customers? It's fun and dramatic, reading like "performance art" or "secret club" as much as "dinner." What's in it for chef Pierola? She keeps her name in the news, reminds her fans of her mad talents, gets to try out new menu ideas for an as-of-yet-unspecified restaurant concept, and doesn't have to deal with the day-in-day-out hassles of a permanent brick-and-mortar lease.
So now, what's in it for the restaurants that "go dark" during her run? In each case, it's been something different. For Pinky's, which is only open for breakfast and lunch, it was a way to levy some cash out of the unused day part. Pierola uses the space at night for a spell, Pinky's gets a cut, and the Pinky's crew isn't working 24-hour days. In the case of Chefs on the Loose, owners Laura Schmalhorst and Eddie Shumard were doing some cool classes, had some great ideas, but they weren't utilizing their space every night. Voila, a brief but steady stream of new "foodies" to introduce to their interactive cooking and dining concept. Chef BT Nguyen was heading for a delicious month abroad, so her restaurant was going dark anyway. Pierola wanted to come in and use the space and pay her to do so? Great, turn out the lights when you're done.
But Knife & Co. is a mystery. This restaurant, which took over the space vacated by Algusto at 912 W Kennedy Blvd., just opened in November. There's already been drama: Tensions ran high during the restaurant opening and owner Ron Stewart and executive chef Gary Moran and his dining room-manager wife, Amy Moran, sparred. As a result, Gary Moran walked out four days after opening, in the middle of service. Stewart promoted Allison Beasman (formerly of SideBern's) to executive chef — the show must go on.
And it did. Cool space, great soundtrack, stylish open kitchen and some of the most exciting "new Southern" cooking Tampa has seen in a long time. In two recent visits, I had fried chicken with black-eyed peas and an okra salad with buttermilk dressing that knocked my socks off. Problem is, my socks were among the very few in attendance either night. No one knows about it yet, and it's a shame. Whether the menu reflects Moran's talents or Beasman's, this place is exciting.
So KitchenBar4 and Jeannie Pierola will have a four-week run with "holiday ingredients and traditions from cross-cultural selections. Like the 12 days of Christmas, only 18, to include more food and wine," with a la carte service and tasting menus. For reservations call (813) 374-4537.
Having been to KB3, I'm sure it will be good. But I think Knife & Co. management is missing the mark. A month-old restaurant shouldn't be ceding its concept or the limelight for its chef, especially since both seem laudable. Gearing up to write a glowing review of Knife & Co., I'll have to cool my jets, like the rest of Tampa, and see what this new restaurant chooses to do in 2012.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293.