It has been a relatively quiet year or two for International Plaza, with a handful of new high-end stores and just a couple of new restaurants along tony Bay Street.
At the end of 2010, the Pub transformed the Bamboo Club space into a gorgeous English gastropub, and at the end of March, Hoang Le opened a second outpost of his Zen Bistro Grill, a resoundingly popular Westchase Pan-Asian hot spot since 2006. We stopped in to see how these two newcomers mix with Tampa's swankiest retail therapy.
Le took over the unit that housed Cafe Japon, overhauling the space, including work on the floors, ceilings and restrooms, plus the addition of a distinctive exterior facade that makes it stand out along the fairly homogeneous Bay Street. With a couple dozen patio seats and about three times that number indoors, it's still a smaller restaurant than his Westchase location. Given that, he has wisely chosen to pare his menu, offering a range of "greatest hits" dishes from Thailand, Vietnam and Japan. Pairing deftly with the menu's bold flavors, general manager and chief mixologist Natalie Haney has done smart work with the full liquor license Le procured.
Haney's clever ideas are realized in a signature infusion of Absolut vodka flavored headily with kumquat and kaffir lime leaf, lemonade ice cubes and a spritz of Perrier lightening the mood ($9). Or they can be tasted in something as simple as Tito's boutique vodka from Austin, Texas, (one of few places in the area to carry it), or the fruit-forward list of lovely rieslings and other whites that marry so nicely with sweet/spicy/zingy Asian foods.
Although I jumped the gun a bit in visiting (I generally like to wait several weeks after a restaurant opens), it was obvious that Le's experience in the local market, coupled with seasoned staffers from his Westchase location, have meant a bobble-free opening at IP.
A Zen noodle bowl ($12.95) brought a classic Vietnamese vermicelli dish topped by lemongrass-marinated chicken, bits of pickled daikon and carrot, herbs and a plucky nuoc mam vinaigrette of lime and fish sauce.
A big bowl of beef udon noodles ($12.95) was another hit, shiitakes, scallions and peppers mingling with the fat wheat noodles in a sweet-savory barbecue sauce.
In addition, a long list of signature sushi rolls (most $9.95-$10.95) makes for an elegant post-shopping nosh — many rolls have a "more is more" aesthetic, like a "rock 'n' zen" roll of snow crab, tempura shrimp and cuke topped with eel, avocado, eel sauce, spicy aioli and tempura chips. Even if you're more H&M than Gucci, this is serious sumptuousness at International.
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A quick walk and you'll find yourself at the Pub, an outpost of a small chain of English gastropubs clustered in Ohio, Kentucky and Florida. It took over the Bamboo Club space, with great outdoor tables, cozy leather booths and lots of bar seating. It's a sprawling place, emphasis on what's on tap, with a menu that is fittingly pub grub (bangers and mash, shepherd's pie).
Beverage options can cause panic. Do I go for a cult beer like the Belgian Delirium Tremens, or maybe one of the house layered beers (snakebite, half and half or maybe the more exotic "bumblebee," Guinness layered over bitter Boddington's?)? On the other hand, a range of small-batch bourbons are mighty tempting. Drink deals over the week can streamline decisionmaking — on Tuesdays it's $4 pints, on Wednesdays it's half-price bottles of wine, on Thursdays there are $4 martinis and cocktails, etc.
Monday night is quiz night, with half-price fish and chips to sustain the quizzlers. I wasn't particularly wowed by the Pub's version ($13.95), the batter fairly thick and slightly greasy, the fries limper than I'd like. But a big squirt of malt vinegar and a dab of tartar sauce and I was off to the races. Frankly, the classic English pub dishes were somewhat disappointing (the shepherd's pie, $11.95, had a vigorous and incongruous sprinkle of dried oregano over the top of an otherwise bland potato-pea-beef ensemble). Better options include the Welsh dip ($12.95), a happy-messy pile of sliced prime rib, peppers, onions and gooey cheese atop a pretzel bun, served with a bit of au jus to up the drip ante. And all right, with a pint and some buddies, a plate of curry fries ($4.95) can make any trip to the mall seem like a successful mission.
Hungry International Plaza veteran knows the drill: Before or after the lunch rush, wander through the food court and keep your eyes open. Vendors hawking their wares will offer you a spoon of ice cream, a toothpick of grilled chicken. Troll long enough and it starts feeling a little like a meal. Or pull up a chair at one of Bay Street's new restaurants for something more sustaining.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.