We started seeing it a couple years ago. There, in tiny print at the bottom of menus, along with the warning about eating raw shellfish: "We use local products whenever possible." But "whenever possible" just wasn't that much of the time.
Along with a growing group of Tampa Bay restaurants, the new Boca Kitchen Bar Market isn't satisfied with a little local lettuce and some backyard herbs. Owned by Gordon Davis (mastermind of Ceviche and Ciro's), Boca employs two "runners" who head to Davis' Lake Hiawatha Farm in Odessa for veggies, to Nature Delivered in Brooksville for pork, Lake Meadows Natural in Ocoee for chicken and duck eggs, and a number of other farms. Meanwhile, Suncoast Food Alliance pulls up a van to the back door and unloads produce from farms in Manatee and surrounding counties. A blackboard lists the daily fish and the boat captain who brought it in.
The locavore fervor wouldn't mean much if what Boca did with all this bounty was ho-hum. Executive chef Ted Dorsey and chef de cuisine Chad McColgin are brilliant. For a restaurant less than a month old, it has the occasional bobble: a Sunday night with a fair percentage of dishes sold out by 7:45, a couple of sludgy desserts. But the fundamentals are all in place for Boca to be among the area's shining jewels. Servers know their beer and wine, can speak ably about cheeses and obscure vegetables, and they seem genuinely happy to serve you this great stuff.
And it's hip. Gordon's old Smoke BBQ has been enclosed, with lots of wood and cozy hightops in the bar area, two intimate dining rooms with glamorous lighting and cool rock posters (Wilco, Flight of the Conchords, etc.). Bathrooms are funky-posh, and there's free valet parking. It feels like the kind of neighborhood cult find you'd see in San Francisco or Brooklyn.
I'm starting with the nonlocal items: Wine and cheese. The beer list is stocked with Cigar City offerings and more far-flung craft beers (plus PBR, which seems to have a place in chefs' hearts, go figure). But what do you do for wine? Our state offers little in the vitus vinifera arena. Okay, Boca chooses to showcase a fair-priced list packed with wines that are marked as sustainable, organic or biodynamic (a kind of growing that maximizes the interrelationships of animals, crops and other plants). There are some unusual, even quirky offerings, everything available by the glass for a quarter the bottle price.
Cheeses, too, are not local (there is good west Florida cheese now made, but not in quantity that might suit a restaurant), but the list is a lovely mix of artisanal soft, hard, stinky and tangy, paired with local honeys, imported olives, house-smoked medjool dates (ridiculously good) and other accoutrements. The list looks eerily like Datz's cheese offerings, but here it is served on lovely wooden cheese boards with drawers for the cheese knives.
Two of my favorite dishes feature produce from King Family Farm in Bradenton: tiny shishito peppers are blistered on the grill and served with a drizzle of roasted red pepper coulis ($7). It's a great shared finger food, smoky and salty and fruity, and — here's the kicker — every 12th pepper is wicked hot. It's like bingo. The other is a lovely salad of roasted candy cane beets, shaved chevre, spiced candied walnuts, arugula and a subtle blood orange vinaigrette (I didn't perceive any of the advertised kaffir lime, but that's just as well; $9). It's something Alice Waters or a chic French home cook would throw together.
Florida beef is in its infancy, so Boca goes with naturally raised Meyer for a drop-dead fabulous prime hamburger ($12). Can't-stop-eating fries, juicy patty, great bun, white cheddar and pickled onions make it memorable. Another beef offering is a head-scratcher: the ribeye flank ($18). A mythical cut, it's really the cap of ribeye, served dramatically hanging from a metal rack, its juices dripping down on come-hither parmesaned frites and caramelized cippolini onions, plum tomato and baby portobellos. A great and hearty dish.
I enjoyed Lake Meadows offerings two ways, on an egg-white frittata ($12) packed with tomato, spinach, aged cheddar and roasted red peppers, and in the free-range roasted chicken ($17), juicy and crisp-skinned, served with herby roasted potatoes and sauteed spinach and another flavorful green I couldn't quite identify. This isn't fancy food, but it is gutsy and wholesome, with a clear hats-off to the farmers.
I wasn't quite as charmed by desserts, but I'll concede that they push the envelope. A Newcastle beer float ($8) features "beernut brittle," and Ybor City gets a wink with an apple cobbler ($8) paired with dulce de leche ice cream and a crumbly topping that supposedly contained smoked coconut.
The menu's most provocative item is an unspecified "staff meal, $16." With Dorsey and McColgin at the helm, I'd have no hesitation ordering it without even a hint. It's bound to be local, thoughtful and, most importantly, delicious.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.