Elizabeth Graham sold the Bungalow Bistro a couple of months back to Greg and Michelle Baker, recipe columnists for the Tampa Tribune, also known as the Culinary Sherpas and as Cooks & Company personal chef and catering service.
Those aren't the only names they go by. Surf the Web on Tampa's foodie sites and you'll find entries by someone called Mal Carne (Mr. Bad Meat is Greg) and someone else named the Urban Eater (that's Michelle). What distinguishes their blog posts, harangues and one-liners is a serious knowledge of food and a steadfast iconoclasm.
Both of these things come into play at their just-opened Refinery, certainly Seminole Heights' most exciting culinary development since the opening of Ella's Americana Folk Art Café. Committed to sourcing local, seasonal and sustainable, they've got a weekly changing one-page menu of dishes that explore pretty much untrammeled ground in the area. Greg graduated from the Western Culinary Institute years ago, but while his foundations may be Escoffier and all the classical mother sauces, his temperament and palate are untamed.
The restaurant itself is a two-story house Graham and her husband saved from demolition in 2000 when Hillsborough Avenue was widened. The Sherpa team gave it new paint and some quirky fresh art, the results homey and unfussy. The menu's small-plate/large-plate prices, $2 to $20, make it an affordable Tuesday night impulse, especially if they're holding a "cheap date" wine night with select bottles for $15. And service staff — high funk factor and quick with the riposte — keep the proceedings far from formal.
There are a couple of menu items under the cryptic heading "Craig's List" that are essentially foods for the gastronomically timid (a burger, a steak); the rest of the short menu is a hold-on-to-your-hat wild ride. On my first visit I had a salad with roasted fennel and roasted sliced radish ($7), with a teeny whiff of coriander and what tasted like orange. The roasting gives the radish a mellower character, kind of like a rutabaga mated with a daikon. The second time a salad of peppery dressed arugula ($7) was encircled by paper-thin beet and potato slices, each with a nice crunch to them (if they weren't raw, they were blanched for like a second).
Dessert on first visit: little roasted apples in the shape of sea scallops, sitting on a bed of salted caramel dotted with bacon ($6). Second visit: a banana split with peanut butter-bacon ice cream ($6). It's audacious and decadent.
This last word really characterizes Greg's food, and that may be my only problem with the Refinery. I would like to see Greg turn his superpowers toward good — too many dishes show a disregard for calories or fat grams. Tempura-battered apple slices served with a snifter of blue cheese fondue ($6) is not a monster portion, but it's insanely rich (and a great combo of flavors). A spin on poutine ($5), a Canadian creation featuring fries and cheese curds topped with gravy, brings a monster pile of fries topped with pulled pork in a cheddar sauce flavored gently with green chilies. It verges on debauched.
Sweet potato gnocchi ($10) were plush and delicious, paired with lengths of silky portobello and sauteed just-bitter rainbow chard, all brought together in a cream sauce. A lot of cream sauce.
There's a lot of exciting stuff here — housemade Saltines with smoked salt served with Apalach oysters, duck beignets, a tiny quail egg toad-in-the-hole served alongside a rich tomato soup — and it's great to see such a distinctive signature style. A chalkboard in the corner lists the names of the farmers whose ingredients are used each week.
If a tiny bit of that care and attention were refocused on lightening the caloric load, the Refinery would be utterly true to its name: a place where raw materials are converted into products of value.