TAMPA — It was the year of the Chernobyl disaster, the year the Pet Shop Boys explained some things about West End girls, and the year Aliens was the blockbuster movie. And in Tampa, 1986 was the year that Marty Blitz and Maryann Ferenc started a little catering operation with just a handful of tables to serve diners. Certainly not as dramatic as Sigourney Weaver coming back to kick some alien butt, but the restaurant's launch proved to be its own kind of intergalactic shakeup in the universe of local dining. There was nothing else like it at the time.
Marty Blitz's brand of New American fusion, drawing colorfully from Asia, Latin America and regional cuisines of the United States for flavors and techniques, may be less unprecedented now. Eat well and widely enough and it's an idiom that will seem familiar. But this in no way detracts from the skill, care and verve of what Mise en Place is doing these days. I took the opportunity of the restaurant's 25th anniversary to revisit this local landmark and found Blitz, Ferenc and company in a period of renewed creativity and inspiration.
The last times I'd visited I had felt like some dishes verged on busy, the plates sauced and garnished so lavishly that the main attractions were sometimes lost in the shuffle. Now, by his own admission, Blitz is in a period of a more pared-down simplicity. This suits his enthusiasm for bold flavors, and it marries more elegantly with the somewhat spare black-on-gold dining room and the spot-on expert service. Ferenc's team of servers has always been well versed in menu explications, but now rundowns are more haiku than novella.
Mise en Place is a restaurant of many moving parts. An active catering schedule (and second venture, Sono Café at the Tampa Museum of Art), combined with Ferenc's responsibilities as past chairwoman of Tampa Bay & Co. and a role with the U.S. Travel and Tourism Board, or Blitz's pet projects like the Taste of the NFL or the Tampa Slow Food chapter, might have overwhelmed a lesser team. (The duo has stayed together as business partners after a 2001 divorce.) Somehow they manage to stay focused on what's on the plate and the grace with which it is served in the dining room. In addition, they have perhaps the most ambitious cheese program in the area and one of Florida's most audacious bar managers and cocktail engineers (Nate DeWitt).
On a recent visit, I adopted a "something old, something new" approach: A first dish of a shallow ramekin of velvety chicken liver and pear mousse ($10), paired with a handful of thin toasts and a tangle of punchy fennel/radish/red onion slaw represented the old, having been on the menu forever. On a long rectangular plate, the dish comes with a couple of cornichons and caperberries for sourness and what tasted like pickled cherries for sweetness, both savvy directions for the earthy pate. For something new, we tried out one of the kitchen's forays into sous-vide, with several snowy rounds of vacuum-poached lobster meat ($9) juxtaposed with a swath of zingy tomato horseradish gelee (but not too zingy so as to obscure the delicate flavor of the lobster) and a bit of dressed celery root.
Juxtaposition is a key word at Mise en Place. Something tart with something sweet, a crunchy element alongside something plush. One of my favorite examples of this is the hamachi crudo ($9), several thin slices of raw young yellowtail fanned and topped with crispy bits of fried serrano ham, and set against a pile of julienned watermelon radish (lovely) and cucumber. A few drips of a white balsamic vinaigrette and crunchy grains of Maldon sea salt and no bite is without surprise and drama.
For some reason the first and second plates capture my interest so fully that I seldom commit to a main course, preferring to double and triple up on smaller plates. Still, the current curry-rubbed tofu ($19) is about as stylish a veggie entree as I've found, the flavor of star anise haunting amongst its vegetables and fragrant jasmine rice, and the coriander-crusted snapper entree ($29) is a knockout. At first glance, I worried it might be too busy (a grilled pineapple chayote coconut salad, a spicy avocado puree, etc.), but beyond the gorgeous piece of fish, the dish was dominated by a luscious, deep purple scoop of mashed sweet potatoes, a perfect counterpoint to the exotic floral scent of coriander.
The wine list, while not exhaustive, is filled with cult wines and the efforts of the wine world's iconoclasts and dreamers. In short, many are splurge wines, even by the glass — the California cab lover may need to breathe deeply and muster restraint. I applaud their commitment to offering half-bottles, as well as the fact that by-the-glass options are by the "taste" or the full glass (the former being a great way to have something suitable with your cheese course).
Ah, the cheese. Yes, you can end with something sweet (the molten chocolate beignets with bruleed bananas, say, $8), but why not seize the rare opportunity to sample artisanal cheeses (three for $18, five for $22) expertly stored and served? Maybe a tart Spanish Cabrales blue, paired with a crumbly, buttery cow's milk Castelrosso from Piedmont and a scoop of bitter/floral sheep's milk La Serena from Spain, a cheese with the faintest whiff of the artichoke used to curdle its milk. These are all served with oily Marcona almonds and classical accompaniments like quince paste.
As any fan of cooking shows knows, "mise en place" is a French kitchen term that means "everything in place." After 25 years, that's certainly the case at Mise en Place.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] sptimes.com 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.