TAMPA HEIGHTS — Dinner one day last week for a lucky few — 40 or so — was a sample of ice creams vying to make the menu of soon-to-open Ulele.
Six flavors of fresh ice cream, served up in half coconut shells with a view of the Hillsborough River.
Rank them according to your favorite.
Fourth-generation family restaurateur Richard Gonzmart, of the Columbia, has been tasting possible menu items for months for the highly anticipated native-inspired restaurant he calls his legacy. One day it was jumbo lump crabs and five types of gulf snapper, and another it was candied duck bacon and maple fried ice cream. He tasted tequilas for eight hours straight on another day.
When Facebook followers clamored to join him, he posted an invitation: Now accepting volunteers to sample ice cream and give us your honest opinion of each flavor.
The responses were eager and plenty, so he whittled the list of participants to about 40, including this reporter.
Chef Eric Lackey started working at 9 p.m. the night before the event, combining fresh cream, eggs and cane sugar. He boiled more than a dozen Florida mangoes into a puree and toasted coconut. He brought out Ugandan vanilla beans and Valrhona chocolate. He double-brewed Naviera espresso to make swirls. He finished the job at 12:45 a.m. the morning of the testing.
My top pick: Naviera Espresso Swirl. But after a few days, the lemon with wildflower honey from Sarasota is calling me back. And the toasty flavor of the coconut.
Before the ice cream was served, Gonzmart gathered the testers to talk about his passion for the restaurant, which is situated in the old water works pump station that opened in 1903 to supply water to the city of Tampa.
"My great-grandfather used this water to make garbanzo bean soup in 1905," Gonzmart said, referring to the opening of his family's famous restaurant, the Columbia.
He calls it fate that he is opening Ulele four blocks from where his grandparents lived. He's adamant about sourcing foods and supplies locally and repurposing, like the natives who first lived in the area, farming and practicing sustainability, he said.
During construction, workers dug into a network of brick tunnels with old pipes and a water cistern, which Gonzmart salvaged and uses in an outdoor display. He pointed these items out after the tasting.
A filtration system was turned into a tabletop. Other tabletops were made from a 100-year-old barn.
Gonzmart's collection of arrowheads and shells are inlaid into an oyster bar, near an open 10-foot citrus wood-burning grill.
The hostess stand is made from an old fishing boat, and a long high community table was made from a tree that fell locally.
Nearby benches came from the federal courthouse.
The 225-seat restaurant has a budget estimated at about $5 million. It includes a rooftop bar, a beer garden and a microbrewery with a beer room.
"I hope I can smell it brewing from my house," said Nicolle Azar Thompson, who lives just 1.2 miles away in Riverside Heights. She calls that walking distance.
There's one question people ask Gonzmart more than any other, he said.
"When are you going to open?"
He doesn't have an answer. The latest hold, he said, is Mayor Bob Buckhorn's vacation. He's waiting for the mayor's return in August.
Contact Elisabeth Parker at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.