TAMPA — Ilya Ben Goldberg opened Stone Soup Company in Ybor City in the spring. On a typical cycle, that might have meant a review sometime in summer. • Did you want to be reading about soup in July? Not so much. Seems like a pretty good idea today, though, right?
Goldberg has taken a red-brick sliver of a location and turned it into a destination for soup, salad and sandwiches. As in the rest of the neighborhood, the crowds are biggest on weekend evenings, but the menu is certainly very lunch-friendly.
Ten soups are listed on the menu, and any given day there are five or six of them available, as well as specials. Goldberg sources the produce he uses locally, makes everything from scratch and bakes his fries and chicken instead of frying. Portion sizes are kept in check, all with the stated intention of being more healthful and responsible.
The soups are available by the cup ($3.99-$5.99), by the bowl ($4.99-$6.99) or as a sampler ($4.99-$5.99 for three). Here are the five we tried:
• Pimpin' chili: It was different each time we visited. Once, it was mild, and another time it was ear-flaming spicy. There are two ways to look at that. The pessimist views it as inconsistent. The optimist sees it as an indication that it is fresh and dependent on what the ingredients are doing that day. Jalapenos are part of the stew, and their heat can vary widely. A perfect chili would have been somewhere in between these two on the spice scale.
• Zee French onion: The best soup we tried. The broth is a combination of beef and chicken and is very rich, and it covers a bowlful of sweet caramelized onions. The requisite slab of bread with melted provolone floats on top.
• Thai "me up" chicken laksa: Again, the menu described it as spicy, but it was more sweet. Coconut and curry broth with a little bit of rice noodle.
• Lobster seafood risque bisque: As suggested by the name and menu description, which calls it a chowder, this one has a bit of an identity crisis. There is lobster in there, and the rest of the seafood in the pool includes crab, shrimp, fish and crawfish, each a viable star in a bisque or chowder. But it isn't as thick, smooth and creamy as a bisque or as chunky as a chowder. The broth is flavorful and sherry sweet and is full of small bits of the various seafood. Quite good at lunch, but disappointing at dinner, when the meat was mostly tough, seemingly from being subjected to heat for an extended time.
• KGB borscht: There are any number of borscht permutations out there, likely as many as there are borscht cooks. Goldberg's is vegetarian, without beets. It ends up as a surprisingly rich vegetable soup, with cabbage and a host of root vegetables. Even without beets, there is a sweetness in the broth. I was hoping to be beaned in the head with blood-red beet flavor, but this was hearty.
All of the soups we tasted were hotter and fresher at lunch than they were at dinner.
Among the nonsoup options, the Italian salad ($4.99 small, $6.99 large) was beautifully presented in a rough wooden bowl, an antipasto-like plate of lettuce, olives, tomatoes, meats and cheeses with vinaigrette on the side.
The Stoney panini ($5.99) works well. A choice of meat forms the base for tomato, spinach and an herb-mustard sauce, and the Cuban bread is pressed. Less successful is the Cubemanti ($6.99 small, $9.99 large), which aims to be an amalgam of a Cuban sandwich and a Primanti Bros.-style sandwich, the Pittsburgh specialty where fries and slaw are stacked on the sandwich. The problems: Rather than use classic Cuban meats, you are given a choice of meats, and the classic Cuban meats aren't among them. And the potatoes are baked, not fried. The health implications of this are laudable, of course, but the reason the Primanti Bros. sandwich works is that the fries are crisp and salty. The air-baked version is not, and flattens out the flavor of the meat and a good house-made slaw.
Goldberg takes the name of his business seriously. The name comes from a parable in which small contributions are put together to feed the masses. Goldberg makes a pot of soup each week to donate to the Tampa Crossroads, a halfway house that promotes responsibility. In six months, he has donated about 6,000 cups of soup.
"Crossroads has people doing organic gardening. We'll put zucchini in the soup, and it might be the first time they taste the thing that they are growing in their garden," Goldberg said. "We're giving, but it's to people who are learning to fish."
Jim Webster can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8746. He dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.