The second half of 2012 may be remembered as a time when women stepped into prominent roles in Tampa Bay area restaurants. Historically underrepresented in notable chef positions locally, XX chromosomes have roared into kitchens on both sides of the bay recently: Celebrity chef Jeannie Pierola opened Edison on Kennedy Boulevard; Mary Paff took over kitchen duties at Ciro's Speakeasy and Supper Club; and Thuy Le just opened La V, her second Vietnamese spot, in downtown St. Petersburg.
And now, 31-year-old Felicia Lacalle, who began her love affair with restaurants years ago as a hostess at Bern's Steak House, following that with a culinary education at Johnson & Wales and some big gigs in Miami before returning to her hometown of Tampa and putting in 10 years at Roy's, has been tapped to head up the kitchen of the Samba Room, the glamorous new project of seasoned restaurateurs Gordon Davis, Kevin Enderle and Mike Bleser.
The three partners already oversee proceedings at Ciro's Speakeasy and Supper Club and Boca Kitchen Bar and Market, both of which have garnered national praise since opening. The Samba Room is something a little different, though. It was a small chain concept that was orphaned when Orlando's E-Brands was sold a couple of years back. It was a slick "nuevo Cubano" idiom with gutsy but moderately priced Latin-inspired food and suave cocktails.
Davis and Enderle bought the concept with the aim of broadening the fare to incorporate South American tapas, traditional Brazilian dishes, Colombian rodizio meats, Caribbean small plates and even modern Spanish cuisine. That's where Lacalle's considerable talents come in.
But it gets even better. At Boca, the focus is on sustainable and meticulous sourcing, with much of the fish, meat and produce drawn from local vendors and Davis' own nearby land in Odessa. The Samba Room gets the benefit of these purchasing avenues, as well as the encyclopedic cocktail repertoire of Ciro's beverage director, Bob Wagner. And, though Ciro's focus is on classic and historic libations, Wagner has fashioned a sultry lineup of Latin-inflected drinks for Samba.
Start with a creamy-tangy pisco sour ($11) or a bracing Hemingway daiquiri ($10) with grapefruit, and then dive into the two-page, tiny-type menu. Some of the most exciting stuff is right there on the upper left-hand side, 14 veggie tapas of which we had nary a clunker. Think a flurry of nutty Brussels sprout leaves ($6) flash-fried and tossed with crystalline Parmesan and a bit of bacon in a subtle sherry vinaigrette. Or a passel of still-snappy haricots verts ($7) in a vanilla brown butter with a handful of toasted pine nuts. This last is hardly a dish you'd find on many Spanish/Latin menus — it's more likely something that came straight from Lacalle's hippocampus, a riff on a pine nut/brown butter cake she likes.
And at the risk of skipping ahead to dessert, this chef knows her way around cake. Her tres leche cake with salted caramel ($7) may be the best dessert I've had this year, the bitterness and salt of the plate's dark caramel swoosh amiably counteracting the lush sweetness of the cake itself. But I digress.
Lacalle and her kitchen crew (largely female too) like to smoke 'em when they get 'em. They smoke fresh tuna over Cohiba cigar tobacco, toss chunks of the smoky-but-still-rare fish with grape tomatoes and fairly mild shishito peppers, then present the dish with a tiny carafe of sour orange mojo vinaigrette ($12) and what tasted like toasted pita chips. Scoop it, fork it, whatever — it's gorgeous. They smoke chicken for a green salad with pickled red onion, blue cheese and bacon ($10); they smoke tomato for a sauce that accompanies malanga (a starchy Cuban tuber) chips ($5); and they smoke shrimp to pair with an avocado mousse ($12).
Beyond all that smoke, there's a little bit of fire. Lacalle doesn't like things incendiary, but she's willing to let things sizzle a little, whether it's a habanero aioli on a plate of shishito peppers ($7; a dish reminiscent of one at Boca) or the subtle warmth of pimenton (smoked paprika) in a number of more classic Spanish tapas.
In a space renovated since its last life as Ceviche (St. Bart's Island House and Le Bordeaux before that), Samba Room has expanded the patio and opened up an exhibition raw bar, from which a quintet of dramatic ceviches emanate ($9-$14). Still, for my seafood dollars, I'd opt for the fish of the day on the grill ($19), ours a lovely fresh grouper accessorized lavishly with a roasted pepper chimichurri, a dab of Puerto Rican hot pepper sauce, a traditional Argentine onion relish and a swirl of cilantro aioli. Even in this scrum of flavors, the moderately priced wine list, weighted heavily to Spain and Argentina, provides a range of fine marriages. And then when Lacalle's high-stepping culinary moves have concluded, you can take your party into Samba Room's bar for live Latin music, a little dancing and perhaps just one more caipirinha.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.