TAMPA — Here's what so smart about Jeannie Pierola's new Edison: It's funny. Its full name — Edison: food+drink lab — sets up expectations of beakers and lab coats and very serious scientific inquiry. Nope. The celebrated former chef at Bern's and SideBern's is having a whale of a time at her new place, riffing on contemporary trends in the culinary world, freestyling on current fetish ingredients and faddish techniques, and all at a price point that makes Edison an everyday prospect for most Tampa Bay diners.
This makes sense. She left Bern's/SideBern's in 2007, did some consulting and then orchestrated a series of KitchenBar pop-ups, equal parts dinner and performance art. Each one had an organizing theme, a canvas against which Pierola's fertile imagination could go Jackson Pollock wild.
After months of brown paper shielding the windows of the short-lived Knife & Co. from prying eyes, Pierola opened Edison on Aug. 7. She's assembled her dream team — in the kitchen and dining room — of people with whom she's worked successfully over years. The upshot is that Edison started off functioning like a veteran restaurant, its pacing and menu knowledge already slick.
That's not to say there aren't elements Pierola and crew might tweak as they settle in. On a couple visits, I watched diners bonk their heads on low-hanging metal lanterns; the chairs are unforgiving on the tush; and when the dining room gets cranking in high gear, the noise and poor ventilation can be rough stuff. But I'm going back soon on my own dime. I want to taste everything on this initial menu.
So what do I mean by "funny?" Here's an example: the kitchen sends out tiny housemade crullers served with a ball of creamy carrot ice cream ($6), the plate swirled with white raisin puree. It's all the flavors of carrot cake, only in an utterly new format. It's playful, like celeb chef Thomas Keller does out at the French Laundry in Napa Valley with his "coffee and donuts." And as Atlanta chef/restaurateur Richard Blais does as his Flip Burger, Pierola is doing liquid nitrogen milkshakes ($4), borrowing a technique from molecular gastronomy and cooling ice cream base super quick so it doesn't get ice crystals and doesn't require fancy ice-cream-making equipment.
More liquid nitrogen kookiness: oysters on the halfshell (super fresh and briny; $16) come with a yuzu mignonette, the citrus sourced from an organic farm in California, each oyster then gets a super-cooled bead of kaffir lime for a whoosh of exotic floral flavor.
Menu categories would stymie Thomas Edison and probably his buddy Henry Ford, too. "Spark," "cold start," "soluble or solid," "constants," "C8H10N4O2" — that last one means caffeine — but the basic idea is some things are hot, some are cold, some are a little bigger, all of them are totally mix and match, suited to a shared noshing approach. Small plates are the new black around here.
For the Republican National Convention, Edison did prix fixe three-course red and blue menus.
In the name of partisan eating, I chose the blue menu, my companion the red. For $20.12, she got a bowl of red curry mussels, fiery, with sweet potato fries and a bit of toasted coconut. Then a fillet of snapper skating atop lentils dotted with nicoise olives, pluot and blood orange/tomato nectar (an unusual grouping of flavors, but utterly successful), and finally an individual red velvet cake (get it?) with a warm ganache center and a little ball of raspberry cream cheese ice cream. That's a whole lot of food, and excitement, for $20.
For my Andrew Jackson, I got a spin on blue corn fried tortillas topped with a softly poached organic egg (good, but overall a bit soggy), then a Kobe bavette steak, sliced and paired with a warm heirloom tomato salad amped with Maytag blue cheese and blue foot mushrooms. For the dessert, I think the Dems had it with a stunning pear blueberry cobbler accented by a ball of buttermilk ginger ice cream and a couple spiced walnuts.
You can see from the dish descriptions that plates are packed with elements, sometimes in perfect harmony and sometimes verging on over-the-top. In the former category, we raved about a pork cheek terrine ($9), its meatiness craftily showcased by grilled compressed pineapple, a few dots of chipotle in adobo and a handful of lime-dusted chicharrones (okay, pork rinds). Whoo, a great dish. The cube of tenderloin tartare ($12) on a dramatic granite slab didn't fare as well with all of its accessories, its kimchee, fermented black beans, tangle of blanched bean sprouts and what tasted like jicama cubes coming together so ferociously that the delicate tartare flavor was hijacked.
Still, from the glazed baby root vegetables in cardamom "soil" ($8) to the salt and pepper crackerjacks ($4), this menu is capital-F-fun. And to drink, the smart wine list is offered by the glass, the bottle or these hilarious flared Erlenmeyer flasks that fit about 2½ glasses of wine. Edison would approve. In fact, I think the great inventor would approve of much of the exuberant innovation Pierola and crew are bringing to South Tampa.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.