By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
TAMPA — Cafe Con Trey was a longtime fixture on Kennedy Boulevard, a drive-through coffee shop with a high funk factor. Michael Wuliger had other ideas for it. The first-time restaurateur bought it, performed major surgery on the space and reopened on Dec. 17 as Bin 27 Bistro.
The name is a little bit of a red herring: The "Bin" part promises a deep and far-reaching wine list. The list is pleasant enough but short, a collaboration between Wuliger and Brian Kramer, the sommelier at Cafe Dufrain and formerly with National Wine Distributors.
No matter. You can tell Wuliger has greater ambitions for the list's future — the economy necessitates baby steps for a new independent; it might take a while to assemble a cellar that complements the go-getting menu of chef Jason Cline.
A Johnson & Wales grad, Cline spent time cooking in California, with a stint as executive chef at Sausalito's drop-dead-gorgeous Ondine. Like the menu at Ondine (coincidentally, I once reviewed it), Bin 27 Bistro's isn't hung up on geographic boundaries. It's a California fusion menu that draws inspiration from Latin America and the Pacific Rim, in dishes that aren't contrived or disjointed.
South Tampa is enthusiastic. On two recent evenings the place filled up entirely, a fair number of customers addressing Wuliger and staff by name. No mean feat to nab regulars so quickly in this climate. Some of that is the decor: It's hip and cozy, with a modern aesthetic that is the handiwork of Wuliger's mother, Jan. Some of it is the very personable service staff, especially at the bar. Mostly, though, enthusiasm is about what's on the plates.
Best dish, hands down: panko-coated and fried goat cheese ($9) served with a spicy jumble of tomatoes and a drizzle of balsamic reduction. Second best was the house green salad ($9.50), an expertly made citrus vinaigrette elevating the mesclun mix along with just-crunchy lengths of heart of palm, spiced pecans and fried onion bits.
Fish entrees are especially well conceived, such as a grilled salmon ($18) paired with a bitter note of braised chard, a sprinkling of salted almonds and a mound of citrusy-cumin couscous. Another winner brought crisp-topped striped bass ($24) lent savor by soft corona beans (white, but larger than a lima) studded with chorizo, dabs of olive tapenade and a poof of gently bitter baby arugula.
Dessert has been a work in progress. As of now they're all made in house, ice creams and sorbets included: A luscious kahlua creme brulee ($6) and a poached pear and apple puff pastry tart ($6) show a sure hand with sweets as well.
It's a pleasure to welcome a newcomer with such a sense of self already. A little time may serve to bulk up the wine offerings and for Wuliger, Cline and staff to work out any tiny kinks.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is 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.