The valet parkers were hustling. Every table was filled, the dining room's clear Lucite chairs having the unexpected benefit of revealing just how gussied up patrons had gotten for the evening. It was 9 p.m. on a Thursday and we'd just arrived at [email protected]
Huh, you say? That's KitchenBar the Third, residing at Restaurant BT until Aug. 27. Famed ex-Bern's chef Jeannie Pierola has taken her culinary show on the road this year in a series of pop-up concepts, temporarily inhabiting spaces around Tampa for a performance-art-meets-restaurant experience. First at Pinky's, then at Chefs on the Loose and now at Restaurant BT (chef/owner B.T. Nguyen is spending the month in France), Pierola comes in, puts together a menu, then hangs a shingle, Facebook-style.
Perhaps a testament to the influence of social media, perhaps to Pierola's star power, KB3 appears to be a resounding hit. We didn't dine at 9 p.m. by design; that was all we could get. No matter. It was an exciting evening of thought-provoking food and high spirits, worth missing a reasonable bedtime for.
At BT, she has stepped into the space of Tampa Bay's other top female chef (adding her own design touches like a big, sexy tomato poster and clusters of tomatoes as centerpieces and decor highlights), inheriting Nguyen's kitchen and service staffs as well. But what she's doing bears little resemblance to the regal Vietnamese-French fare Nguyen has made her name on.
It's much more of a culinary romp, sidling through the street foods of Bangkok, a few Roman classics, summer foods of Spain and some old French standbys. She's using Florida's bounty (Cedar Key clams, Key West pink shrimp), and she's organizing each week's entirely new menu around a particular ingredient (corn, mango, etc.). Could be gimmicky, could be overly frenetic — remember, she's essentially parachuting into unfamiliar kitchens and going live far sooner than a regular rookie restaurant.
The results? Mostly thrilling. Our favorite dish was a hootenanny of those pink shrimp, grilled perfectly and set atop delicate, chewy coconut gnocchi, tangles of soft enoki mushroom and tender-crisp shaved snap pea, crumbles of cashew and a whisper of sweet-tangy mango tamarind brown butter. So, Italy meets Southeast Asia right here in Florida and the sparks fly. There were misses (the mustard sauce on the chocolate mousse with pretzels sounded cuter than it was; tuna nicoise crostini would have been punchier with good preserved tuna in olive oil rather than subtle fresh tuna).
What makes it exciting is the idea that a talented chef visualizes and implements a menu lickety-split, it runs for a week and then is gone, as ephemeral as a sand castle, to be replaced with a new one. And then a new venue is found and the whole thing starts again with a fresh set of constraints and challenges. Pierola's pop-ups aren't a quixotic culinary whimsy, though. As Thursday night's dinner drew to a close, she explained that she's trying things out, seeing what the public responds favorably to, with an eye to opening her own, more permanent place. Where and when, she wasn't saying. So for now we'll just have to be on the lookout for KB4.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. She dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.