A prediction: The next time Zagat or Food & Wine publishes a list of the country’s best food destinations, Tampa Bay will be there. Charleston, S.C.; Seattle; Denver; and Richmond, Va., have had their day in the sun, and for good reason, but the stars have aligned for us and we are ready for our closeup.
What makes a great food city or region? It’s food at every price point that is fearless and fresh — street food, mom-and-pop ethnic spots, fine dining and at every level in between; it’s dishes that reveal a new, even defiant take, without ever losing sight of the national dialogue about what’s current. It’s a place that showcases its indigenous dishes and culinary history, celebrates its farms and seasonal ingredients, and yet is not mired in “this is the way we do it because this is the way it has always been done.” It’s food that honors tradition but values creativity more. It’s food that comforts but also has the freedom to surprise.
How did we get here? The stage was set. Craft beer arrived, which is often galvanizing, igniting consumer interests but also begetting other forward-thinking and “artisanal” food and drink businesses. Compared to many other metro areas, there is still relatively inexpensive real estate to be had. And demographically things are just right: Millennials grew up, moved away and went to college, then came home and started businesses, many of those related to food.
From the young’uns to snowbirds, there’s a lot of disposable income in these parts, which supported the 2017 debut of dozens of new independent restaurants in places like downtown St. Petersburg, downtown Tampa, Seminole Heights and the exurbs to the north of Tampa. (Take a look at Wesley Chapel these days.) Great food cities like New York depend upon demographic diversity, partly because it means a single table can be turned multiple times per evening (early birds and tourists, then regular folk, then those crazy Europeans who eat around the time I’m donning pajamas).
In March, I will have been the food critic at the Tampa Bay Times for 10 years, and each year I’ve done some version of a top restaurants story. This list reflects the incredible dynamism the area has experienced — there may be places you’ve never heard of, there may be beloved places that didn’t make the list. You won’t find a lot of steakhouses, although there are plenty on Boy Scout Boulevard and elsewhere doing a fine job. This is because steakhouses tend to be fairly static and frequently don’t reflect the vision of a single authorial voice. (Also, I’m telling you, steakhouses, you’re going to have to figure out how to market to millennials, roughly 22 percent of the population and extremely reluctant to plunk down $50 on a protein. They will spend the money, but they like to do it in smaller increments.)
“Audacious” was a word I found myself using frequently, especially within the Top 10 (a word the paper’s crackerjack copy editors helped me excise). Many of this year’s Top 50 are not fancy, some are downright humble, but they almost invariably have something to teach us.
Restaurants play an increasingly large role in our lives: We spend more money eating out than we do cooking at home. There are a million restaurants nationally employing nearly 15 million people. In 2017, restaurant sales reached almost $800 billion. Restaurants are entertainment, safe haven, home away from home. Herewith is this year’s list, from which I hope there are a few new places you can call home.
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When you work long enough at whatever you do, you recognize an ebb and flow. There are years you’re fired up and years your eyes wander to the clock more than they ought to. For chefs, it’s the same. Because so many chefs are siloed, stuck 80 hours a week behind their own four walls, they may turn to cookbooks and the internet for fresh inspiration. Or, increasingly, they throw themselves a party, or as they like to call it “a guest chef series.” Rooster’s Ferrell Alvarez and partner Ty Rodriguez threw themselves a great one in 2017, collaborating with nearby Ichicoro, then Maximillian Petty (chef-owner, Eden Hill, Seattle; two-time semifinalist for James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef of the Year), George Sabatino (chef-owner, Aldine, Philadelphia; Foodable No. 1 restaurant), Gabe Erales (chef, Dai Due, Austin, Texas; Noma Test Kitchen, Tulum, Mexico) and Michael Gulotta (New Orleans' MoPho, Maypop; Food & Wine Best New Chef 2016). It has clearly reinvigorated them. They’ve got another series this summer, women chefs from around the country (launching in May with an all-female James Beard Celebrity Chef Tour dinner), and this is in addition to launching two new concepts this spring, the first the Nebraska Mini Mart in Seminole Heights (bocce ball, shuffleboard, global street food) and a second more casual concept near the downtown area. (I promised I wouldn’t say precisely what, but it’s going to be good.) They are spearheading an indie chef week in April and are participating in the celebrated Atlanta Food & Wine Festival. And through it all, they’ve been sending out some of the most consistently exciting, sometimes audacious food in the area.
Best Dishes: The menu changes all the time, so it’s not super helpful to list things I’ve enjoyed. They riff on things, exploring certain flavors (burnt onion, burnt toast to impart a bitter-smoky counterpoint to something); they appreciate toothsome textural elements (brown butter rice grits, different kinds of puffed grains) and love to celebrate lowly cuts (Vietnamese-inflected crispy cobia collar with sesame turnip salad). And right now they have a nice list of low-alcohol shims worth checking out.
It was a gamble. When Freefall Theatre co-founder Kevin Lane, his husband Kevin Damphouse and partners Jessika Palombo and Lauren Macellaro opened the Reading Room last spring, they knew they were banking on the pretheater traffic from Freefall to make up for whatever they would lose by being off the teeming streets of downtown St. Petersburg. Plus, no way could they have their ginormous kitchen garden downtown. I’ve been waging my own campaign to make sure justice is served. Readers call: Anniversary meal? Reading Room. Out-of-town guests? Reading Room. Feeling a little peaked? Reading Room. Here’s why it’s good. I brought my favorite 11-year-old, a serious foodie but with some textural squeamishness. Our waiter collaborated with her, respectfully, until a dish was arrived at. There was no talking down, there was no chicken nugget ghetto. They strove to make her happy on her terms. The food is the best kind of farm-to-fork New American, Macellaro sending out plates that are ravishing, with great use of vegetables. The dining room is masculine, unfussy and spare with a faint wood smokiness to it, all of it reminding me of downstairs at Chez Panisse, the country’s original farm-to-fork restaurant.
Best Dishes: Without a full liquor license, they still make darn fine wine-based cocktails. You cannot not get the house-made crusty bread with its house-made butter, also offered with a daily changing spread. Salads shift but are always good, recently seasonal lettuces getting texturally interesting puffed black rice and zingy pickled shallot. In general, I’m judgy when people order the chicken entree (cheap or timid or both?), but at Reading Room the poulet rouge, probably from Joyce Farms, is a marvel with a changing array of accoutrements. They now do a tasting menu for $56, offering a veggie version and pescatarian version as well.
Sundial, second floor of Locale Market, 179 Second Ave. N, St. Petersburg727-523-6297 | farmtablecucina.com
Sundial, second floor of Locale Market, 179 Second Ave. N, St. Petersburg727-523-6297 | farmtablecucina.com
I like celebrity chef Michael Mina. In an idle reverie, I might fantasize about kicking back over supper in his kitchen, just me, Michael and Steph Curry. (They’re buds, and I said it was a reverie.) But occasionally when I talk to him by phone for a story about Locale Market, I hang up and realize he has given me nothing I can use. When I heard that Locale’s upstairs restaurant would reconcept in 2017, I asked him what had failed; no one changes something that ain’t broke. Many words, few answers. So when I went to check out the new squarely Italian FarmTable Cucina, still helmed by the ebullient Jeffrey Hileman, I was skeptical. Holy smokes, the restaurant is better than it has ever been, the dishes more assured and vivacious. For a while the restaurant and market blurred into each other, the restaurant seeming in support of the market somehow. It feels like a traditional sit-down restaurant now, the market downstairs much more of a grab-and-go kiosk-based forum for prepared foods, less a grocery store. There are many ways to enjoy FarmTable: weeknight happy hours from 5 to 7 p.m. with discounted drinks, snacks and pizza; a quick nosh after a movie night on Tuesdays (your ticket stub gets you $5 off); a deep wine list that can be marauded on Wednesday (bottles half off); or an eight-course chef’s dinner in the tiny private dining room Thursday to Saturday. But for me, the best way is to go with a bunch of friends and order a scattershot of shareables from the one-page menu.
Best Dishes: Be sure those shareables include the fried cauliflower with finger limes, golden raisins, guanciale and sea urchin aioli; as well as the ragu of wild mushrooms with a softly poached egg. Oh, and you’ve probably got to get Bill’s lasagna; and if you order the 16-ounce Niman Ranch 35-day dry-aged Kansas City strip, it’s expensive at $55 but all that dry aging makes it intensely sumptuous and easily shared between a bunch of folks. Can’t pass up Alicia Sherrill’s desserts, either: Go budino or panna cotta.
I had reason to sit at the bar for a couple of hours in September and eat five tiny, exceptional, jewel-like courses of Ora King salmon, chef-owner Eric Fralick developing the dishes as a competition entry with the highly prized New Zealand farmed fish company. The first course was a shot with a dashi ponzu, watermelon pearls and a plush swath of uni; the second paired salmon sashimi with a cardamom pickled kumquat; the third crispy salmon skin juxtaposed with a tempura-fried Kumamoto oyster. Then came a puree of vanilla-scented mascarpone on a square of nori, draped with whiskey-cured salmon, and it culminated in a sumptuous cooked salmon belly set on a pave of Okinawa purple potato with tart barley shochu compressed cherries. Fralick made it to the finals, with a trip to Japan, a country he fell in love with years ago. Opened in 2016, Fralick’s South Tampa gem is extremely personal and extremely ambitious: He is one of the only restaurateurs in these parts to source fish species straight from the Tsukiji fish market in Japan. He and crew execute an extensive list of yakitori and kushiyaki, essentially little grilled nibbles, but it is the place to go for omakase (a multicourse chef’s choice), reservation only, offered in three tiers: $75, $100 and $200. Plan on eating for an hour for the first tier; allot three hours for the top.
Best Dishes: The restaurant is funky-hip, set in an old guitar shop, the service staff equally hip-funky (one server has a tremendous gargoyle tattoo on the length of her swanlike neck), but the plate presentations are spare and exact. Work your way through nigiri, sashimi, hosomaki (the traditional thin rolls), uramaki (the rolls with the rice on the outside) and temaki (cone-shaped hand rolls), interspersed with various chicken yakitori, medallions of super tender beef tenderloin topped with discs of black truffle and scallion compound butter, or cider-braised Brussels sprouts.
In December 2013, the small storefront on Central Avenue was a stretch for David Benstock, then 28, and his wife, Erica, then 25. David had gone to Johnson and Wales in Denver; had worked at Spago at the Ritz-Carlton in Colorado, the Spice Market and the Modern in New York, Scarpetta at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach. But this was the Benstocks’ first restaurant, something of their own to shape and push toward excellence. And what they did was remarkable. I went to watch a trial run for a James Beard House dinner they did in July in New York City. My takeaway: We’re lucky to have Benstock, and boy is this kitchen minuscule. In the fall, Il Ritorno closed for expansion and renovation, emerging just weeks ago doubled in size, with two private dining rooms (one seating 36, the other 14), a stunning exhibition kitchen, an expanded bar (with full liquor license) and a much bigger staff to accommodate all the new seats. He is doing prix-fixe dinners of eight to 13 courses for people at the chef’s bar, a front-row seat to everything happening in the kitchen. I sat there one recent evening and commend Benstock on his Food Network-level patter (plus, no salty language from anyone in the busy now-open kitchen), as well as his, as always, elegant plate presentations and steady vision of contemporary Italian.
Best Dishes: He said he’d never do meatballs and he’d never do tomato sauce. He’s doing ’em, but on his own terms. He celebrates local (microbasil and pea shoots from Alchemy Farms, lettuces from nearby Brick Street) but also casts a wide net for quality. (I enjoyed a scoop of French osetra caviar on top of a crispy polenta pancake and generous shaves of black winter truffle from France aboard a simple risotto Milanese.) He can’t ever ditch the short rib mezzaluna or regular customers would revolt, but I was won over by a celery root tortellini in a puddle of Parmesan brodo with lemon leaf, shiitakes and a few rounds of tangy pickled ramp. General manager Ronald Randall’s wine knowledge and service standards are also a big part of what makes this one of the area’s top offerings.
Jeannie Pierola’s tour de force has many decorations: Wine Spectator Award of Excellence the past three years, Florida Trend Golden Spoon award the past four, Open Table kudos and Food Network shoutouts. She has picked up four James Beard semifinalist nods over her career, but what has kept Edison thronged since its 2012 debut is that mix of bold and inventive fine-dining food served in a casual, loud, sometimes frenetic setting. Its vibe is big-city hip, with servers who can and will talk menu minutiae at length and bartenders who are dead serious about what they do (lots of house-made tinctures and liquors infused with local TeBella teas) but still a hoot to kibitz with at the bar. When Pierola did a James Beard House dinner a couple of years back it was basically an autobiography in many courses, dishes a paean to this part of Florida. That holds true at the restaurant, too, with Florida fishes, citrus and ingredients like hearts of palm, but preparations and flavors drawn from Latin American and the Caribbean, too. The problem with being a cult favorite, though, is that some dishes are too hard to part with, customers won’t stand for it. The potato-crusted oysters, bone marrow, buffalo cauliflower and other stalwarts are entrenched, which made the menu a little more static in 2017 than I would have liked. Well, Pierola’s not ready to talk yet, but she’s got a second restaurant project in the works for 2018, so that sounds like a whole bunch of fresh canvas.
Best Dishes: Sugar-crusted butter cake with brown butter ice cream, pineapple, macadamia and a bit of toffee sauce is one of those dishes Edison can’t seem to shake. That’s okay; I could eat it on the regular, especially when paired with a coffee cocktail or press pot from Per’La specialty roasters in Miami. This probably reflects my own chronic FOMO (that’s “fear of missing out”), but I generally opt for sharing a bunch of hot and cold starters rather than committing to a single big-protein, big-price tag entree. On the entree side, Pierola and chef Allison Beasman do great work with Florida grouper, snapper and swordfish. This year, though, I’ve grooved on the steak tartare with its peppery pappadam, the char-grilled octopus and a changing presentation of seared foie gras (dark rum, house bacon and banana making unexpected bedfellows). And starting a few days ago, they began doing lunch seven days a week, with brunch to be unveiled soon.
Toward the end of 2016, Hope Montgomery and Jason Ruhe’s adorable downtowner had a special guest: the world’s most famous avant-garde chef, Ferran Adria, visiting for the opening of his "Ferran Adria: The Invention of Food" exhibit at the Dalí Museum. They served him foie gras terrine, their signature lavender basil panna cotta and a bunch of other dishes. He ate them all with gusto, licking pate off his wrist at one point. Maybe Adria is just an enthusiast (Julia Child, after all, was said to have never met a dish she didn’t like), but it’s probably that he agreed with what many of us have come to understand: Brick & Mortar, small and a little homespun, is among Pinellas County’s most ambitious restaurants. It doesn’t take reservations (you can make a call-ahead request, but you’re still going to wait a bit) and the black chairs can be a little unyielding if you are without sufficient junk in your trunk, but whatever. The couple spent years figuring out the foods that resonated with people as the brains and brawn behind In Bloom Catering, parlaying it all into the idiosyncratic vision at B&M, which they opened almost three years ago. (They will have an anniversary party in late April.) There are anchor menu items with absurd Instagram documentation: the truffle fries, the octopus two ways and, my fave, the house beef carpaccio topped with capers, shaved cheese, microgreens and — the showstopper — a house-made ravioli that, once punctured, seeps out leek and goat cheese mousse and velvety egg yolk. But they have recently begun adding daily featured items: whole local fish (sheepshead, snapper), grouper collars and a variety of steak cuts.
Best Dishes: There are comfort foods here from different parts of the world, from a really good hamburger to ahi tuna tartare scooped up with Indonesian shrimp crackers (Ruhe’s paternal grandmother is Indonesian, so you see fillips from that part of Southeast Asia) and on to doughnut bread pudding. A recent dish that has met with wide approval is a whole branzino stuffed with olives, fresh herbs and candied orange zest, wrapped in prosciutto and served over saffron butter-poached potatoes. It is little wonder that B&M has received fierce praise this past year from USA Today, Travel & Leisure and others.
It’s pronounced “chay-na,” and chef Michael Buttacavoli is the one who walks through the dining room periodically wearing all black and a bandana, Axl Rose-style (often red or blue; he says it doesn’t mean anything particular when it shifts to beige or puce, but I’m not so sure). Cena is almost 6 years old and poised for a dining room remodel this year. It was one of the early settlers in the Channel District’s Grand Central, still a bit of an outlier in a setting that skews a bit Melrose Place. The restaurant gets a bump when there’s a big concert at the Amalie Arena, but what has built Cena’s reputation is its rigorous but personal Italian food. Buttacavoli is the reigning king of risotto. For instance, his current preoccupation is one that plays on a supreme pizza, the arborio crowded with sausage, mushroom, onions and peppers and topped with fried pepperoni. Recent changes in Hillsborough County liquor laws meant the restaurant could expand to a full liquor license in 2017, but as with everything, Buttacavoli and team have done things their own way, offering a curated list of cocktails (Italian mojito, negroni, barrel-aged boulevardier and a few others) and not an encyclopedic bar. The dining room is fairly formal but spare, so much of the focus is on the plates.
Best Dishes: Buttacavoli has done some version of mortadella-stuffed fried olives for a while. Get them. Share a risotto or get the smaller of two sizes, and follow it up with my favorite “secondi” of the moment, a branzino accessorized with softly stewed white beans with roasted peppers and just the right touch of bitter escarole, the whole dish given a whiff of fruity olive oil and lemon. I haven’t mentioned Cena’s secret weapon yet, pastry chef Evan Schmidt, who has been there since the beginning. Some of his desserts are like Transformers made out of sweet things, a cookie affixed to a moussey thing from which a chocolate plank juts like wings. He likes textural contrasts: a crumble with a mousse, a foam with something creamy.
Station House owner Steve Gianfilippo would have you believe that this was his vision all along. And maybe it was. Having worked in Tokyo, we know he jonesed for ramen and izakaya so much that he would head over to Seminole Heights’ Ichicoro. Ichicoro Ane, the flagship’s much bigger, much more ambitious sibling, opened mid-December with a quiet flourish, partners Noel Cruz and Kerem Koca remarkably calm given all the moving pieces of this new project. (In addition to the flagship location, there’s an outpost of Cruz’s Imoto,"little sister," food hall ramen concept in Birmingham, Ala., and another poised to open at the Heights Public Market in the Armature Works building in Tampa Heights.) Ane has a no-reservations ramen room, a main dining room that takes reservations, a big central bar and a more private lounge off to one side that also takes reservations. It’s still a work in progress (originally, ramen was in the ramen room only but they’ve relaxed that; they are soon to open for brunch and lunch), but Ane already seems like the place you take someone to prove once and for all, “See, St. Petersburg has gotten really hip.”
Best Dishes: Cruz and co-chef Branden Lenz have fashioned a multipage flip menu divided by category (seafood, vegetables, etc.). Pick something from each, most small and priced accordingly: Maybe the gochujang-dressed chopped wagyu called yukke; skewers of king oyster mushroom; silken tofu with its creme brulee-like top; and broiled salmon with miso butterscotch. On the soup side, the niku udon with luscious braised wagyu beef shoulder is the bomb. And if you’re on a boring date and need to spice things up, order the daily sashimi platter, which arrives atop its own strobing illuminated disco platter.
What makes a restaurant great and not just really, really good? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a quarter century. I nattered some pretentious, long-winded folderol early on, but now it’s something like this: It’s a restaurant with a clear authorial point of view, one that is constantly being re-examined and tweaked, and that takes customers’ tastes into consideration but also strives to lead us somewhere new that we should go, somewhere that makes us better versions of ourselves. Can a pizzeria do this? Yep. By Gregory Seymour’s own admission, he’s an acquired taste. National Public Radio is too conservative for him, and don’t get him started on Monsanto’s glyphosate. His personal quest to understand food’s provenance makes him an exhausting dinner date; he eats fermented local long beans as a treat. But he is pizza royalty, and his small, charming restaurant in Safety Harbor makes a delicious pie. Order at the counter (pizza, but also definitely a salad, maybe the beet) and take a seat to watch Greg work. It’s about economy of motion, knowing the dough and the fire — it’s the 10,000 Hour Rule.
Best Dishes: Seymour presses sugarcane with a buddy from whom he buys his water buffalo milk; talks seed saving with local treasure Mehmet Oztan; buys whole hogs from a local farmer and uses the whole animal. But it’s the dough that’s his passion, a work in progress that right now is 70 percent Nu East cold stone milled wheat (a hard red winter wheat from Carolina Ground) and 30 percent Hard Red Spring wheat from Natural Way's Mill in Minnesota, sifted in house. “To sum it all up,” he says, “I am narrowing the focus to the dough and grain and will peel away some of the peripheral items on the menu.” What you need to know: puttanesca; sausage and peppers; the Lombardy; the mushroom with fontina and gremolata. All good, most around $17.
Mi vit tiem, Vietnamese and Chinese egg noodle soup [LARA CERRI | Times]
Seven years ago, I worried that this little sweetheart was too off the beaten path to thrive, and that its vision — a Parisian-style Vietnamese-French cafe, not fusion but both cuisines side by side — would be perplexing for St. Petersburg audiences. Boy, is there egg on my face, which reminds me that they do a great egg sandwich on a croissant with Gruyere and jambon de Paris for their Saturday brunch. Sisters Sandra Ly-Flores and Erika Ly and co-owner Paul Hsu had never been in the restaurant business (Alesia is the name of the street they grew up on), but they’ve learned on the job, Sandra and Erika’s mother responsible for the French pastries and all of them pitching in for the top sellers: the pho, banh mi and bun vermicelli bowls. With a great, pet-friendly outdoor patio and a spare, sunny dining room, it’s one of the prettiest hangouts in town.
Best Dishes: This is a place to linger over a latte, to camp out over cappuccino, but there’s no reason you can’t accompany that with a dumpling soup or a plate of garlicky sauteed baby bok choy. Here’s an interesting thing about Alesia: There’s a kids’ menu with hot dogs and such, but look around the room and the elementary school set is macking on pot stickers and grilled pork noodles. Wise beyond their years.
Blackened grouper sandwich, onion rings. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
What smote me originally about Big Ray’s was the grouper sandwich. Nick Cruz opened this little charmer in 2015 and immediately muscled the longtime grouper sammy stars (Dockside Dave's, Frenchy's, the Tavern at Bayboro at USF St. Petersburg) from my heart. Plus, there was the lobster corn dog, an absurd decadence that I could hold to my chest like a single white lily while quoting Oscar Wilde: “Nothing succeeds like excess.” But Cruz has kept going. In a couple of months he will open Teepee Taco next door (complete with a fully functioning wrapped teepee out back for dining and private parties), making that two restaurants connected by a patio of picnic tables shielded from the sun by gently bowed canvas tarps, bringing the formerly negligible seating up to about 60. Also, ground is about to be broken at the Sail Pavilion bar at the Tampa Convention Center for another Big Ray’s, which Cruz will oversee and Aramark will administer.
Best Dishes: The short Big Ray’s menu still has its cult dishes (oyster po’ boy and the aforementioned items), but Cruz has added a yucca dish in honor of his grandmother — boiled, seasoned and then put on the flattop, which you can have topped with blackened shrimp or “noche buena” roast pork. And new general manager Kathy LaCrosse, formerly with Outback Steakhouse, keeps service friendly and efficient.
A Cuban sandwich and an aqua fresca. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
You’re hearing it here first, folks. Bodega, the beloved purveyor of lechon and Cuban sandwiches, pollo asado and cafe con leche, in St. Petersburg’s edgy EDGE District, will open a second location in Seminole Heights on N Florida Avenue this spring. And, says Debbie Sayegh, she and husband George aim to open a third concept in St. Petersburg later this year, something not Latin. Restaurateurs from New York, they took a gamble on St. Pete (George’s parents were snowbirds and they came down to make sure the ’rents weren’t making a mistake), fell in love (said it reminded them of Brooklyn) and opened what was a walkup, mostly outdoor cafe almost five years ago, just before the neighborhood started getting hip, crowded and pedestrian-friendly. They expanded into the Creative Clay space and added more seating in 2016, but the Latin street food menu has stayed fairly stable.
Best Dishes: The Cuban and the pollo asado sandwiches are the top sellers, but the recently added frita sandwich, a Cuban-style burger with a changing cast of accessories, is gaining on them. Sometimes it’s beef and pork, it has been chicken and even fish, but it always is topped with crisp shoestring potatoes (a total Miami thing). Debbie and general manager Kaylie Birdsail will relocate to the new Tampa location (same menu, with some talk of frozen drinks), a bigger space with a courtyard.
Cochinita Pibil taco [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
27209 State Road 56, Wesley Chapel813-973-3777
8530 Ridge Road, New Port Richey
6765 Land O’Lakes Blvd., Land O’Lakes
119 W Bloomingdale Ave., Brandon
27209 State Road 56, Wesley Chapel813-973-3777 727-339-3879 813-501-4976 813-315-8752 | capitaltacos.com
Bobby and Kristel Heskett now have a taco empire. Four is an empire, right? They have an app, so that clinches it. Also, I have it on good authority that they are looking at Citrus Park-Westchase, South Tampa, Bradenton-Lakewood Ranch and Orlando, and to launch an “all-out assault on St. Petersburg,” says Bobby. The first location was a little rough-hewn spot in a strip mall in Land O’Lakes, a far cry from Bobby’s parents’ longstanding Pancho’s Villa restaurant in San Antonio, Fla. In 2015, that first little Capital Tacos was ranked the third-best taco place in the United States by Business Insider, and Yelp consistently puts it among the top restaurants in the area. At the end of that first year, the Hesketts opened a second location in Wesley Chapel, later a third in New Port Richey and just some weeks ago a fourth in Brandon. Each location has gotten successively fancier, with more bells and whistles. Brandon has a sleek open kitchen, lots of stainless steel and a smart hanging menu at the counter; at the original, Bobby made the furniture out of wooden packing pallets and the menu was a funky chalkboard.
Best Dishes: All items can be served as a taco, burrito, rice bowl, salad or nachos, some of the fillings falling into the classic category (the Peacemaker, Catawampus, Ace High carnitas, Simon Pure with grilled portobellos) and “specialties” (the tacos are $1 more, everything else $2 more) that include the West Coast Special with tiger shrimp, Johnny Reb with smoked sausage, corn and jack cheese, and the Longrider with seared tuna. New on the menu are street corn (note to self: bring floss), ice pops from the Hyppo and fillings like the Big Kahuna (fried white fish), Three Little Piggies (sous vide carnitas, bacon, house-made chorizo) and a paleo option.
Masala dosa and mango lassi drink [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
Feather Sound's Flo Lounge was ambitious and, even worse, vast. When it failed repeatedly as an “ultra lounge” (remember when that was a thing?), it was hard to imagine just what kind of concept might fill all that space. Grand Siam Thai tried valiantly, but it wasn’t until Mother’s Day 2017 that the spot really came into its own. That’s when Deccan Spice opened: full bar, Northern and Southern Indian dishes, utilizing former dance floor space for a very respectable lunch buffet. The restaurant is a franchise, with other locations in New York, New Jersey and Virginia, its cuisine more specifically Hyderabadi, the native cooking style of the Hyderabadi Muslims, its dishes categorized by the events at which they are served (weddings, festivals, etc.) and broken down by the amount of time they take to prepare. What you need to know is that at lunchtime you’ll find a phalanx of about 16 hooded steam trays, on weekdays split between familiar vegetarian and chicken dishes, with hot naan delivered to your table and a nice tray of condiments (coconut chutney, tamarind, tangy mint chutney).
Best Dishes: Dinnertime is when to go, everything a la carte. You can go the butter chicken route, but the real allures are Mysore masala dosa, huge, crisp-edged tangy crepes rolled around a filling of hot chutney and soft potato curry; uthappam, kind of a cross between a crepe and an omelet, studded with veggies; and idli, a savory rice cake that soaks up sambar like a sponge. And while many Southern Indian people are not drinkers, you should pair it all with an Indian-inflected craft cocktail.
Quail egg montadito [LARA CERRI | Times]
Is DeSanto Bar the best of the growing flock of Red Mesa group restaurants? I don’t know, but it’s the newest and the one most folks won’t know about. On the first floor of the gloriously reimagined historic McNulty Station there is Red Mesa Cantina. The Veytia family and team saw an opportunity when Push Ultra Lounge closed: Expand vertically and scoop up the rest of the space for banquets and other carousing options. On the second floor they have added the Cantinita Bar, really an extension of the Cantina downstairs. And on the third floor, the open-air DeSanto Bar, with its own world-beat assortment of small plates, is a gesture to the late DeSanto Latin American Bistro (once helmed by Jeannie Pierola of Edison) that was in this spot, essentially a victim of the great recession. So it’s three levels and three concepts, with an ambitious banquet space still in the works. This is in addition to the flagship restaurant at 4912 Fourth St. N, where for decades chef Chris Fernandez has done careful and appealing renditions of dishes from his home state of Oaxaca and other regions in Mexico. And there is Red Mesa Mercado, an indoor-outdoor, Cal-Mex, order-at-the-window picnic table sprawl adjacent to Green Bench Brewing.
Best Dishes: Mercado is the go-to for quick tacos, the Cantina is preferred when you’re looking for a stellar tequila or mezcal, the flagship is better for a leisurely enchilada trio. At the Cantinita Bar you can get chips and salsa with your liquid refreshment. And DeSanto? Think Korean barbecue ribs, Asian pork meatballs, shaken beef lettuce wraps and eggplant caponata. In short, a bunch of easily shared small plates that have no family resemblance to any other Red Mesa project, beyond being things that seem to taste great with a cocktail.
Budae jjigae [LARA CERRI | Times]
Let me just compliment us all for a moment. The rest of the world caught on to the allures of bitter flavors and fermentation years ago. And now we in Tampa Bay are all like: “I love negronis! Bring on the kimchi and gochujang!” We’re not late to the party, we’re just making a dramatic entrance. Korean cuisine in these parts has been limited to a handful of DIY hotpot and barbecue places. I owe this recent find to my friend Kit. A half-Korean former chef, he said Dooriban was legit and I said yes, please. It’s set in what was originally a fast-food drive-through (I’m guessing Taco Bell), but I did visit it recently when it was Little Pepperoni, an Indian pizzeria. (Chicken tikka pizza? Not going to win on Shark Tank.) At dinner, your table is crowded with a passel of banchan bowls (cabbage kimchi, cubes of radish kimchi called kkadugi, a squeezed-out sesame spinach called sigeumchi namul and a changing lineup of others), which you alternate among to cool the heat of ddeok boki (a gochujang-amped stew dominated by stir-fried rice cake logs, kind of the Korean answer to gnocchi) or budae-jjigae, a hearty stew crowded with Spam, hot dogs and kimchi.
Best Dishes: I have to go back and try a bunch more from the fairly lengthy menu, but the galbi (sweet, tender beef short rib lengths) and the japchae (translucent, slithery stir-fried sweet potato starch noodles with veggies) were both great. At lunch, most boxes are $9.99 and come with bulgogi or galbi, a couple of dumplings, rice and four traditional banchan — a big feed for a single Hamilton.
A variety of the dishes from vendors [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
There are now more than 100 food halls around the country, and that number is predicted to double by next year, according to real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield. What’s not to like? Lots of choice — everyone gets to round up the food that works for their taste, budget and dietary restrictions — and there’s a festive ambience, like a cocktail party careening out of control. Wait, there are things not to like: the constant getting up and down to hunt and gather, the paying multiple times, the limited table service. What if, first-time restaurant owner Jamal Wilson said, we do it differently? This is Tampa’s first food hall (the Heights Public Market nearby is in its soft-opening stage now), with seven vendors that work synergistically and logistically like a restaurant. The sexy reimagining of a 1920s yellow brick building features four bars; high-tops, regular-tops and low tufted leather couch seating; glamorous chandeliers and cool parquet floors. Sit anywhere, start ordering and the food finds you.
Best Dishes: This is an eye-of-the-beholder thing. For my money, I am definitely sipping a cocktail from Ro Patel’s the Collection (classic cocktails and some hip new drinks, but nothing so cerebral it requires a dissertation) and/or a coffee from Ty Beddingfield's Kofe. Liquids dialed, I’m likely to grab something spicy from North Star Eatery, a Viet-Korean fusion concept from Kevin and Sing Hurt of Anise Global Gastrobar, and the signature Poke Rose bowl from Jason Cline's Poke Rose. But there’s plenty of good seafood at Heights Fish Camp, some sinful cheesy sandwiches at Heights Melt Shoppe and come-hither desserts at Bake'n Babes.
Lamb biryani [OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Every few years, Ybor City has had a little burst of growth, a plan for breathing new life into the city’s most beloved historic district (remember when it was going to be the next Provincetown or Key West, an LGBTQ destination par excellence?), but it never quite gels. I think we might be at the tipping point, with Darryl Shaw, CEO of BluePearl Veterinary, leading the charge, buying up property and talking big future plans. This is why Manashi Boruah and partner Amit Ghorpade, first-time restaurant owners, are smart. From Orlando, they were looking for restaurant space that would cater to a mix of tourists and locals, settling on the Ybor property that was most recently Cristino’s pizza and previously housed Spurs and Play bars. It wasn’t altogether a logical spot for an upscale Indian restaurant — the pizza oven wasn’t really removable and the courtyard seated a daunting 150. No worries: They drywalled over the pizza oven and use the space as pantry storage, and the large amount of patio seating qualifies them for a full liquor license, so they’re introducing locals to Indian rum and whiskey. (Fun fact: India is the biggest consumer of whiskey and rum in the world.) Rasoi opened in November, the top seller chicken tikka masala. That should come as no surprise, but everything at Rasoi is a bit different, a little unexpected, from the tandoori chicken wings (very homemade-tasting, marinated in a spiced yogurt, no bright red coloring, cooked in the clay oven) to Hyderabadi-style bagara baingan, the spicy, nuanced sauce cradling whole tiny roasted eggplants. Navi Avard is the big gun in the kitchen, and Arun Rana is responsible for the 11 different kinds of bread. When your server asks if you’d like things mild, medium or hot, don’t be a hero. Medium had us sniffling pretty good.
Best Dishes: At night it’s a la carte, so if you want to do some recon on what’s good, head over for the lunch buffet, $10.49 on weekdays, $12.49 on weekends (includes bubbly and a few extra dishes). You’ll find about a dozen rotating dishes weekdays: tandoori chicken, some kind of lentil or mung bean dal, chicken tikka, a few veggie dishes, a biryani (likely chicken during the week and goat on the weekend) and dessert that may be rice pudding or gulab jamun, those doughnutlike cheese balls bobbing in rosewater-scented honey syrup.
Special pho and banh mi [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]
The hours aren’t great (just until 5 p.m.) and the guy behind the counter can seem a little tetchy if you are indecisive, also if you linger overlong at a table, a table that is likely to be a little sticky on your forearms. But it’s all fine, because of this: The grilled pork banh mi is ridiculously delicious. And it’s $3. And big. Vietnamese food fans have been hunched over bowls of steaming pho here since 2005, so this is not news. Even as Vietnamese food has become more prevalent and mainstream, Saigon Deli remains a steady performer. Sandwiches are ordered mostly to go; if you’re dining in, branch out and try something like the dry seafood noodles with broth on the side. And if you’re there on a Sunday, head for the congee, a rice gruel that is the definition of comfort food.
Best Dishes: It’s known for banh mi and pho, but here’s a pro tip: The countertop is crowded with grab-and-go impulse buys. You won’t precisely know what they are, but grab them and go, especially the che bap pudding with coconut milk studded with corn and tapioca, chewy seaweed and little reddish beans. To drink, try a goofy boba smoothie, maybe green apple, or the intensely sweet-tart limeade.
House-made chili-lemongrass tofu [ZACK WITTMAN | Times]
Since its opening in 2016, this place has teemed with enthusiasts. There’s not enough parking and prices have crept up just slightly, but my ardor remains undiminished. Owner Thomas Mang and family launched with a formidable agenda: We’re making our own tofu, only place around to do so, and we’re offering seven different versions. The lemongrass tofu creeps into my dreams and waking fantasies, as do many of the Viet-French takeout items offered on the grocery half of the property, long aisles containing flaky sausage-centered pastries (banh pate so), perfect baguettes, cha bo and cha lua sausages and refrigerators full of green papaya salad, fresh house-made soy milk and che dau hu, a gorgeous soft soybean custard with ginger honey syrup. If I’m eating in, working my way through a vermicelli bowl and then an egg puff waffle stuffed with mango and strawberry ice cream with whipped cream and passionfruit popping boba and maybe some mochi (it’s imperative to get an embarrassingly ornate dessert here, something with sprinkles and a lot of neon-colored pearl jellies), I finish things up with a little shopping on the take-away side.
Best Dishes: They debuted a new laminated, spiral-bound menu in the middle of 2017, a long read with lovely pictures of each dish that allow even the gastronomically timid to dive into some of the more esoteric chef specials, udon soups and broken rice dishes. They do a good job with the familiar, but those pictures let you take a walk on the wild side. Psst: The prepared summer rolls and pastries make it a one-stop-shop for your next cocktail party.
Salt and pepper tofu [LARA CERRI | Times]
And now there are seven. The first Yummy House on Waters Street, opened in 2008, was no reservations, no booze, no frills, an instant hit on the strength of its authentic Hong Kong-style food. Owner John Zhao realized he was on to something. He followed that with the Hillsborough Avenue location in 2011, a Sarasota outpost in 2012, Gainesville in 2013, Ocala in 2014, then Orlando and, finally, South Tampa at the end of 2017. For a couple of years, he had been talking about doing something different, not a Yummy House but a more loosely Asian noodle concept. When he found the old bank building on Dale Mabry near Kennedy Boulevard, there was one problem: It was too big for noodles at 12,000 square feet. So he decided to go for another Yummy House, this one two stories with a private party space upstairs that can be utilized for regular service when the dim sum throngs get too dense downstairs. Turns out, there’s no such thing as too much Yummy. The new South Tampa location does monster takeout business, especially in light of the fact that the original Waters Street spot continues to be closed because of a fire in the adjacent nail supply store. South Tampa is still working on a liquor license (right now, BYOB, no corkage fee) and still needs desperately to annex some extra parking. But the menu is a strikingly consistent replication of dishes from the bistro on Hillsborough Avenue, bright greens, burnished-skin Peking ducks, whole fish confettied with ginger and scallion.
Best Dishes: The snow pea tips with garlic, salt and pepper tofu, hot and sour seafood soup, anything with the pungent XO sauce — I’ve been talking about these dishes to anyone who will listen for years. But Zhao is gearing up here to do something new, launching a Chinese tapas menu in February. Because who doesn’t like Yummy small plates?
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La Bestia pizza [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Owner Michael Stewart seems forever pushing forward, amped about the next thing. He has partnered in the new Lure, which recently opened in Tampa on MacDill Avenue where Catrinas was, a sister restaurant to the billiards-and-sushi concept in downtown St. Petersburg. He’s poised to open a smaller version of Ava inside Heights Public Market in the 22,000-square-foot Armature Works building and is brainstorming other concepts with partner Joe Maddon (yes, that Joe Maddon). His flagship in South Tampa has always been 717 South, with Ava blooming several years ago across the street. At Ava, Joshua Hernández still mans the Acunto pizza oven, and J. Ward still presides over much of the rest of the menu, both experts at a rustic, unfussy style of wood-fired Italian. This type of pizza — blistery at the puffy outer edge, soft and tender toward a slice’s point — is an oft-misunderstood Neapolitan classic, best eaten with fork and knife. The dining room is stylish, with great use of brick, tile and open beams, with a shielded outdoor patio that nearly doubles the restaurant’s capacity.
Best Dishes: The Bestia pizza (spicy pork sausage, pureed San Marzano tomatoes, arugula, ricotta) is the one to beat, best accompanied by the wood-grilled veggies, smoky but still tooth-resistant. And I have a hard time stepping away from the beautiful simplicity of the warm ricotta topped with fennel pollen and served with grilled bread rusks. Hernández says he has been working on some new salumi we’ll be seeing soon.
Red wine- and black pepper-infused capellini in oil and garlic served with seared scallops [Times file]
I’m ambivalent about self-serve wine machines. Or beer machines. Heck, even pouring yourself a Big Gulp makes me ask: What are we losing by circumventing human interaction, and is it a good idea to indulge without the guidance or vexing oversight of would-be judgers? That said, what started as a wine shop-restaurant in 2014 remains one of the notables in New Port Richey, named for three partners Rich Scherch, chef Mark Malowski and Dan Clark (now no longer involved) and a reference to wine sugar levels. This New Year’s they went full bar, which meant they had to nix the wine shop (some Byzantine law), but they still boast more than 300 labels, 40 by the glass, 30 craft beers by tap and bottle and 16 wine-dispensing nozzles accessible by a preloaded wine card, offered in 1-, 3- or 5-ounce samples. You’re going to need to eat something. It’s the kind of place to go with a gaggle of buds, everyone confabbing over a cheese and charcuterie board, someone queazing everyone out by eating a crock of escargots under a dome of golden puff pastry, someone else rigidly opting for a kale salad studded with dried fruits and nuts. (A friend is someone who gives you total freedom to be yourself. Jim Morrison said that.)
Best Dishes: Chef Mark has the heart of a French chef, with loads of Continental touches and nods like airy duck mousse pate, classic French onion soup and sauteed chicken paillards freckled with fresh tarragon. The single best dish is probably the hot smoked salmon paired with kale and walnuts with a soy and honey mustard gloss, but the cheese selection remains fierce.
Kale fattoush salad [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Since 2001, this has been the place for Lebanese classics — kebabs, hummus, falafel and a side of belly dancing — but brothers Roger and Ziad Estephan decided in 2017 it was time for a change, an upgrade, a makeover. Byblos went dark, re-emerging at the end of the year with a much more date night-appropriate setting. (The candlelight and moody lighting on the patio beat your go-to Instagram filter.) All of the classic meze and kebabs are still there, but new executive chef David Puatu has broadened the menu to include a more loosely Mediterranean array of pastas, whole roasted fish and sides, and general manager Manny Quinones has followed suit with a strong lineup of craft cocktails and an expanded beer and wine list. There will be those who grouse that it’s more expensive and less quaint and overtly Lebanese than it used to be, but the Estephans knew that in order to keep up with nearby titans like Datz and the new Lure, Byblos needed some sizzle.
Best Dishes: Zero in on roasted cauliflower glossed with herb butter and nestled on herbed labneh; a greatest-hits “Taste of Lebanon” platter that serves a whole table ably; and the smoky-nutty-garlicky baba ghanouj, which looks like spackle and tastes like heaven.
Gin and tonic cocktail [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
What do you think of when you hear “gin joint”? It’s a blind pig, a blind tiger, a “speak softly shop,” to use the parlance of Prohibition. A place to sip hooch on the down-low so the po-po don’t know. It is not, precisely, what Carolyn Wilson debuted in November near the Tampa Theatre. This place is opulent, illuminated moodily by dozens of chandeliers, the light ricocheting off the rhinestones and sequins on all the ladies’ period gowns (yep, people dress up — lots of spats and suspenders). The walls are covered with vintage Tampa photos (best one: the grim guy in the extravagant chicken suit), the ceilings are pressed tin and the waiters wear crisp white shirts and natty vests. But that’s not even the best part. It’s that mixology genius Dean Hurst (formerly of Bern’s) has designed a “gin matrix” and a dreamy craft cocktail list with pretty barware and fancy ice cubes, which pair elegantly with the menu designed by chef Gui Alinat and executed by Cody Tiner (formerly of Piquant).
Best Dishes: Start with a gin drink (the girly, egg-white-frothy Clover Club?), then pick your way through the most Continental dishes on the menu: canned white asparagus spooned with a tarragon-inflected cream, shrimp bisque with saffron cream, maybe the endive salad with fluffs of blue cheese, and a sumptuous ribeye with peppercorn sauce. Don’t overdo it, because you need to avail yourself of the shiny wheeled dessert cart with its domed metal cloches and tableside theatrics. In the dim light, and perhaps only for a bit, you’re nowhere near 2018.
Salt- and sugar-cured heirloom tomatoes [LARA CERRI | Times]
Why are restaurants at the beach often so disappointing? With an ever-changing base of tourists, many restaurants adopt a “turn and burn” strategy: There’s always a fresh customer, so why bust it? There are also financial pressures: If the guy down the block is serving a $9 shrimp basket, there’s only so much you can do. It’s true, beach vacationers want outrageous happy hour specials and mountains of fried seafood more than they want sunscreen. But then in June, Grace opened and shook things up. Lisa Masterson and Marlin Kaplan, longtime Cleveland restaurateurs, thought they had one more restaurant in them. Their 150-seater features white banquettes, one tomato red wall, lapis blue water glasses and a gorgeous central mirror-backed bar that has already attracted a fair number of regulars. It’s vivacious, with playful color photos of underwater dogs on the walls and cocktails named after Pass-a-Grille canines, but the food is serious and sophisticated.
Best Dishes: From the fairly tight one-page menu, don’t miss the grilled Caesar: long leaves, smoky and just charry at the tips, plus squiggles of pickled onions on top and a couple of anchovy hush puppies on the side providing the requisite fishiness and supplanting croutons. Or the salt- and sugar-cured heirloom tomatoes, the vinaigrette's splash of orange blossom water and sprinkling of fried pistachios spinning it subtly Middle Eastern. The best entree sounds simple enough: A lemon and herb-stuffed chicken breast comes paired with roasted fingerlings and crisp-tender haricots verts, sitting in a pool of lemon- and thyme-inflected chicken broth with hints of nutty roasted garlic.
Bread and butter plate [GABRIELLA ANGOTTI-JONES | Times]
Last year I squeaked Hotel Bar in under the wire. It had just opened and it barely qualified for “cheap eats,” the theme of the 2017 roundup. But this year, the collaboration of co-owner Leslie Shirah (longtime owner of Fly Bar) and partner Mark Culbreath qualifies fully. It’s sexy, dimly lit by twinkly chandeliers, open most nights until 3 a.m. and it serves food late. Good food. It’s got this outrageous blue mosaic tile bar front, a pressed-tin ceiling and an illuminated bar library that makes your mouth water, imagining all those amber liquors in crafty combinations. Fly Bar bartender Daniel Guess spent time researching signature cocktails from hotels around the world, some dating back to the 1890s, re-creating them in a way that speaks to Tampa audiences circa 2018. They shake and stir with grace, putting drinks in appealing glassware. Go classic Sazerac, Vieux Carre, Sidecar — and the Hotel Nacional slays me.
Best Dishes: This is a tiny menu, largely in support of the cocktails: palate cleansers, gut ballast, however you prefer to frame them. First off, the bread and butter ($6) shows off the work of Tampa’s best baker, Jamison B. Breadhouse Bakes in Ybor City, fine just with butter but even better with a little cheese and charcuterie razzle-dazzle. There’s a Brie-mortadella-Dijon grilled cheese on the menu right now that haunts, a not-huge-but-satisfying mushroom risotto and a cauliflower bisque paired with a curry sourdough toast I’d like to reverse engineer.
Rigatoni and short rib ragu with creamy burrata and Calabrian chili [ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times]
8300 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg727-329-6041
28330 Paseo Drive, Wesley Chapel
11618 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa
8300 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg727-329-6041 813-703-2602 813-463-0193 | noble-crust.com
TJ Thielbar and partners have hit cruising altitude. They opened the first Noble Crust in January 2015 in St. Petersburg, the second in the middle of 2017 at the Shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel and a third location in Carrollwood on Dec. 12. Thielbar says that’s it for the time being, the team focusing on dialing all the details, as well as getting their 15-acre Fat Beet Farm on Hillsborough Avenue up to speed. (It will have a farm stand and small healthy-foods restaurant component.) The three restaurants share a similar funky-industrial aesthetic and mostly the same menu: a hip Italy-meets-the-American South vision that consistently charms (think pimento cheese arancini and a pizza that pairs Italian sausage with slow-cooked collards). At each location there is live music Thursday and Friday evenings, and the Sunday DJ brunch bounces between locations. Pinellas County native Rob Reinsmith remains the executive chef for all three, overseeing the production of pastas and other dishes, and his brother Colin has moved from the Wesley Chapel location to Carrollwood. Wesley Chapel has been said to be one of the fastest growth areas in the country, but why was Carrollwood the next logical spot? Noble Crust management watched newcomers like Sacred Pepper take off like a rocket, seeing a void on Dale Mabry at their price point and ambition level. Interesting: They chose the space that housed the second-ever outpost of Outback.
Best Dishes: There are two camps: the oh-my-god-the-brunch camp (the Southern Benny, the lemon ricotta pancakes, the free mimosa) and the nope-it’s-dinner camp (the country ham pizza with fluffs of peppery arugula, the four-cheese grits, the beef, pork and veal meatballs). Can’t we all just get along? All three Noble Crusts have great outdoor spaces and all are full bar, with smart craft beer lists and wines on tap.
"Honey it's Thyme" cocktail [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Advice I’ve heard seasoned restaurateurs frequently give to rookies: Don’t try to be all things to all people. So why is it that On Swann, the collaboration between Cafe Ponte’s Chris Ponte, his wife Michelle Ponte, former Outback Steakhouse execs Trudy Cooper and Chris Arreola and former Bonefish Grill president John Cooper, seems to appeal to everyone? You’ll find elder South Tampa statesmen, families with little kids, girls-night-outers all glammed up, businesspeople and tourists. This anchor in the dramatically improved Hyde Park Village opened in June 2016, exceeding the owners’ expectations its first year and blowing by them even farther in 2017. Part of its appeal is visual: It’s among the prettiest dining rooms around with bold Spanish tile in the bar area, long communal tables and two stories of weathered brick punctuated with all manner of fashion-forward light fixtures. But it’s the easy, shareable, pace-it-yourself menu that seems to have resonated like a gong. Lots of world-beat nibbles and veggies, rib-stickers like a ribeye and steak frites, arrayed to pick over with a couple of buddies. Chef de cuisine Wes Roderick isn’t reinventing the wheel, but he knows how to roll.
Best Dishes: As much as I’d like to mock the kale salad (2016 called and wants its leaves back), it’s darn fine, incorporating black quinoa, bacon, cherries, Brussels sprouts and a snow flurry of ricotta salata over the top. And of the “share boards,” the Farm is a visual example of “go big or go home,” a board with so many shaved meat piles and pates and mousse swirls and cornichons and those big capers everyone secretly hates that diners just stare for a moment, dumbstruck. Bread is from Jamison B. Breadhouse Bakes and is excellent, the cocktail program is smart but not precious, and if you eat the house-made chocolate chip cookies with a glass of milk, one of your tablemates will post an Instagram pic with the closest thing to a Leave It to Beaver filter.
Black squid ravioli with tomato basil sauce [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
There are no reservations. They discourage kids under 9 from dining here. The water-looking glass is your wine glass, the wine-looking glass is for water. If you don’t see it on the menu, Spartaco Giolito can make it for you. This is what you need to know about Osteria Natalina, South Tampa Italian cuisine royalty for years. Later this year, Top Chef’s Fabio Viviani will open an Italian restaurant called simply Osteria, no relation (seriously, that’s like calling a restaurant Restaurant), but O.N. is the O.G. (you know, original gangsta). Giolito cut his chops as a waiter at Donatello, then had an eponymous place on MacDill Avenue before taking time off to pursue other things. He reopened at the same location, naming this new restaurant for his mom, who has periodically made a showing in the kitchen. The short menu leans to coastal Italian seafood, one of the best dishes the strozzapreti, a toothsome, elongated cavatelli noodle that holds a sauce well and translates as “priest choker” (many theories, the kindest being that it was so good that men of the cloth tended to gobble it).
Best Dishes: It’s where I go when I’m not working. We share a chianti, a Caesar salad, then I waffle: Should I go lasagna (Giolito and wife fleetingly had a Mr. Lasagna shop on El Prado Boulevard) or, what I usually opt for, linguine with clams, white wine sauce but with chopped tomato, extra spicy? Before Giolito tallies our bill (by hand, punching a tiny calculator), I wheedle my way into sharing a limoncello cake and an espresso.
Bouillabaisse [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Sure, you could buy those Rosetta Stone tapes with their fancy speech recognition technology. But let’s be honest, most of what we need to know when we attempt a new language is numerals, how to say “how much does it cost,” and food words, lots of food words. French is the best, its dishes lip-smackingly evocative. Ragout de lapin, poitrine de porc, vichyssoise. Whisper it now: vichyssoise. So why do so few restaurants serve this cuisine these days? Chris Orrung, a Swede, opened Parts of Paris in 2012 in a charming 1936 Florida bungalow. (Safety Harbor is swimming in them, and most of the area’s savvy restaurateurs have availed themselves.) There were some staffing changes early on, but for the past four years it has been Ryan Steffensmeier in the kitchen. A few years back, they expanded to Sunday brunch (best eaten on the patio shaded by old oaks), and Orrung took the huge gamble of adding a full liquor license, a move that cost him $180,000 but that he doesn’t regret for a minute. Prices have inched up just slightly over the past few years but are still fair-minded for textbook versions of the classics on a one-page dinner menu. (Bargain hunters can scoot in on Mondays for half-price apps.)
Best Dishes: The bouillabaisse has been a constant, changing a bit daily depending on what seafood has come in fresh, but it always has that heady white wine and fennel je ne sais quoi. I’m partial to the steak tartare, which comes in a pretty cylinder with an adorable raw quail egg like an unblinking beady eye at its center, the rest of the plate given over to the zingy accoutrements like capers and onions and rusks of bread. And for dessert, a perfect creme brulee with its gossamer crunchy cap and velvety custard.
Scottish salmon with roasted moscato grapes [SCOTT KEELER | TIMES]
This was the first restaurant I ever reviewed for the Times, opened in 2006. My affection for it is unswerving, Pia and Tom Goff’s consistent personal attention making it the undisputed best restaurant in Gulfport. A couple of years ago, their big news was a remodel that enclosed the back patio and expanded the dining room, but in 2017 it was the arrival of a new Arcobaleno pastamaker. I didn’t ask whether it’s the “Lola” or the “Jemma,” but either way it means Pia and crew can make a whole lot of different shapes and sizes, faster, which allows them to more easily accommodate their increasingly robust vegan clientele (pastas made with water and flour, no egg). With this pasta expansion, the menu now gives more guidance on which pasta with which sauce (it previously was mix-and-match), and the Pia’s special menu now changes every other week. It is booming in high season, reservations recommended, and the Goffs have branched out with a lot more weddings and other catering gigs these days.
Best Dishes: Their expansion a couple of years ago brought it up to 170 seats and, with that, a full liquor bar. Lasagnas come in individual cast iron skillets, always sumptuous and involving internal battles: It’s so rich, I’ll take half home. Revise to a quarter. Whittle to tiny square. Eat whole thing with a sprinkle of self-loathing. But the mussels with shallots and white wine have few detractors (well, the vegans, but I would submit that there is a case to be made that mussels are not sentient or motile, and thus not unlike plants). Pia’s desserts have always been a high point, classically Italian and clearly homemade, the current Florida sour orange pie garnering serious plaudits.
Picanha certified angus beef [Posto 9]
It’s not Tampa Bay, per se, but I’m including it because it’s worth the drive. It’s impossible not to think it: What on god’s green earth is this sophisticated Brazilian-inspired gastropub doing in Lakeland? Lakeland has not historically been a gastronomic mecca, but Grace and Marco Franca, originally from São Paulo, Brazil, moved there almost five years ago and found themselves driving back and forth to Tampa for dinner. Surely there are other locals, they thought, who would appreciate good food right here. Marco had been in technology startups for decades and was accustomed to doing market research. Truth is, Lakeland sits in the middle of 9 million people, 40 minutes from Tampa, 40 from Orlando. They took the plunge in December 2016, opening a glamorous, upscale restaurant with an 80-seat main dining room, a second-floor event space for 150 and a rooftop lounge that seats another 100. (They serve Sunday brunch up top.) They tweaked things as they learned: Chicken and waffles became an early hit, the waffles made with Brazilian cheese bread. Traditional feijoada, a black bean stew, never quite took. They began with a more European-style no-tipping model, but shifted away from that when it was hard to maintain staff.
Best Dishes: The No. 1 seller is the picanha, that fat-capped U of rump steak you see in Brazilian churrascarias (this is not a gaucho steakhouse, however, no dudes wandering around with meat on swords), here served with zingy chimichurri and a scattering of sweet and tangy Peruvian sweet drop peppers. Another crowd fave is the grouper moqueca, a nod to the Brazilian stew slow-cooked with fish, onions, peppers and coconut milk. Executive chef Daniel Schubert (not Brazilian, but can certainly fake it persuasively at this point) sends out attractively composed plates and the full bar offers a nice array of mojitos, caipirinhas, classic cocktails and a few risk-takers (Scotch and chai, hmm).
The Refined burger [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
Higher wages, higher rents, higher food costs and fiercer competition: 2017 was a tricky year for Tampa Bay restaurants, with independent cult faves like Z Grille biting the dust. The Refinery went in to the year having shifted focus somewhat, expanding the burger portion of the menu and relying less on its farm-to-fork identity. Seminole Heights then had to endure protracted Hurricane Irma anxiety and the specter of a series of slayings in the neighborhood. There’s no doubt it affected the area’s restaurants, Greg and Michelle Baker taking the time to tinker with the Refinery menu a bit (less burger focus) and streamline things at sibling restaurant Fodder & Shine. (Fodder’s menu is now “food that makes people happy,” Greg says, largely in a Southern comfort vein.) On the horizon for them is a commitment to doing restaurant-industry and farming advocacy work, as well as to embark on a cookbook, but 2017 was largely about rekindling relationships with farmers, and building new ones, in light of the dissolution of John Matthews’ Suncoast Food Alliance, a farmer-to-chef distribution service.
Best Dishes: Greg feels he has been doing some of the best food of his career, with a slight turn back toward the Italian pastas of his early cooking years. I ate there twice in 2017, once for a burger (got the one with peanut butter and marshmallow fluff, not my thing) and once for a series of veggie-oriented small plates, most that read like unfussy home cooking but with the professional chef’s showmanship when it comes to presentation and juxtaposition of colors and textures, most dishes coming in under $20 despite loads of national accolades.
Salmon is paired with fennel, tomatoes, cucumber and pistachio. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
From Day One, Erin “Cricket" Plunkett and Jason Borajkiewicz have done it their way. They opened the Restorative in 2017 on a shoestring, not in craft-beer-and-hipster-hangout downtown Dunedin, but rather in a strip mall on Patricia Avenue that also houses Sully's Tavern and is across the street from Dunedin Lanes. They decided to open a restaurant with only 18 seats because that’s the size they like. And they decided no reservations and no phone because, well, they didn’t want to be answering phones. It has continued like that. They recently decided to shift their days of operation to Monday to Friday so they could add a Monday hospitality industry night and so they could do wine dinners and private parties on Saturdays (also, says Borajkiewicz, so they could take more naps). These two lovely young iconoclasts have this in their favor: They are great at what they do. Their deftly composed plates are precise but playful, with exceptional use of negative space. Vibrant veggie purees and proteins cut cleanly and architecturally; it feels Scandinavian to me, although they said if they’ve got to remind people of someone, they’d choose chef Kyle Zachary in Nantucket, Mass. (I looked. His plates are gorg.)
Best Dishes: They offer a couple of lunch options weekdays, but dinner is the thing, usually five small plates, three larger plates and three desserts, one of those something fairly savory and cheese-based. Go with three other people you like, order everything, swap it all around and try not to get feisty if someone bogarts the last bite. The menu changes constantly, but in general they are gifted with soups, salads, slow-braised meats lifted by bright acids and pickley things, savory panna cottas, pastas and use of runny yolks.
Key West pink shrimp entree [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
I sat at the bar one night recently and listened to the bartender describe what Stillwaters is all about. Americana with a twist, she said. I’m not sure if that’s how executive chef Jeffrey Jew would describe it, but let’s run with it. Opened in 2015, Stillwaters has settled in as one of the anchor restaurants on Beach Drive, just down the way from sister restaurant BellaBrava and within eyesight of Parkshore, Tryst, Cassis and all the others that have made this waterfront stretch a tourist destination. Parent company 2B Hospitality invested in a glamorous dining room with all the buzzy accoutrements (Edison bulbs, subway tile, cool tufted leather bar chairs and a subtle nautical theme that never stoops to crab traps), as well as in an executive chef who is a Culinary Institute of America grad and was a contestant on Top Chef. When it opened, the culinary focus skewed a little to New England coastal classics, but it has since broadened to include things like beef bao buns with a tangle of pickled onions, tuna poke and poutine with smoked pork. So, um, eclectic Americana with a twist? Here are the other things you need to know: They run a happy hour every day until 7 p.m. with discounts on draft beers, wines and tap cocktails (their tap cocktails are some of the best things they do); the patio is resoundingly dog friendly; and Stillwaters offers you a free entree on your birthday.
Best Dishes: My favorite cocktail remains the No. 22 (they’re all numbered, cutting down on preconceived notions), which features Bulleit bourbon, cold-brewed coffee, house-made bourbon bitters and one fat ice cube that melts glacially. They’ve incorporated local St. Pete Distillery vodka and rum into several drinks, a nice touch. Fried cheddar curds with buffalo ranch and tots with spicy Korean ketchup are both fun bar snacks, as is the smoked fish spread with house-made crackers. For something more substantial, a recent grilled Norwegian salmon came perfectly cooked and set atop cheddar grits with braised greens, a scattering of corn and chopped vegetables and a dribble of umami ham jus.
Bronzed fresh Atlantic halibut [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Beatles versus Stones. That used to be a hotly contested question. (The answer, obviously, is Beatles.) A couple of decades back it was impossible to predict which English rock band would resonate with future generations, would stay fresh and have something new to teach baby music lovers. With classic, old-school restaurants, the same holds true. Some wither into quaint decrepitude or irrelevance. But some make us remember what we love about white-tablecloth service, make us pine for the starchy-collared meals of our youth, with their upright posture and polite conversation. I had reason to spend a little time at the Beachcomber recently and called Bob Heilman Jr. to chat. He was leery. Restaurant reviews hadn’t always gone his way, and he and staff had been busting it 365 days a year for decades. There’s the relish tray, the hyperbolic old-timers at the bar and the prime rib and baked Alaska, all of it good, all of it reminding us of what we lose if UberEats brings us meals in plastic foam clamshells.
Best Dishes: The Back-to-the-Farm chicken dinner, with its storied poultry pedigree, is a crazy good deal at $18.95, especially with the aforementioned gratis relish tray (plus the bread basket — what’s with the muffins and banana bread?), but it’s hard to pass up prime beef appropriately cooked and gulf finfish (around $33) often fancied with beurre blancs.
Snapper a la nage [LARA CERRI | Times]
I have never met Dominique Christini in person, but I have skulked around him and been his phone friend for a decade. Sure, it’s because he seems like one of a tiny fraction of humanity who relentlessly focuses on the positive, but it’s also because he’s got chops: nails the French “mother sauces”; teaches breezy classes on macarons, the heartbreak cookie; owns one of the few Tampa Bay restaurants making its own, utterly excellent bread. The restaurant celebrated a 30th birthday in 2016, the dining rooms an accretion-of-stuff style of decor you find in the most genial Parisian bistros. You can hear yourself talk, the pacing allows for moony-eyed romance, and the wine list is occasionally bolstered by the ingenuity of Christini’s brother, a French wine buyer.
Best Dishes: Christini’s restaurant is frequently one of the 2,000 worldwide asked to participate in the Gout de France, a one-night global celebration of French cuisine each March. Why? Execution of classical French dishes. This means velvety swaths of foie gras, seared and set upon a bed of apples flambeed with cognac, tenderloin au poivre, perfect rosy lamb chops with a dusky demiglace. But let’s get serious. This place dominates with dessert, from the Grand Marnier souffle (order at the beginning, and you and your sweetie must both order it) to the poached pear with sorbet or a changing glazed fruit tart. Pro tip: In honor of the recent death of French icon Paul Bocuse, Christini will be cooking Bocuse recipes for the next month or so.
Goat cheese gnocchi [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
Chris Ponte recently did the food for a 375-person sit-down dinner at the Mahaffey Theater’s Sting concert. Other people got to meet Sting, his wife got to meet Sting. For Chris? There was work to be done. That’s how he is. I check in with him every January: What’s new? And he says something to the effect of, “Not much, I guess I’m kind of boring.” Not true: In 2017, Ponte had a James Beard semifinalist nod; the year before that he and partners debuted the wildly successful On Swann in Hyde Park Village. His particular kind of boringness is a more steady-as-she-goes, attention-to-detail, take-the-long-view kind of thing. The Taillevent-trained, New Jersey-raised chef has been at the helm of his eponymous Icot Center restaurant since 2002, slowly building it in to one of the region’s most reliable go-to’s for fine dining, business dining and, more recently, catering. He hires good people and keeps them (chef de cuisine Jason Lutzk, fairly new general manager Eric Touse), every few years giving the dining rooms a spiffing up and tweaking the menu to reflect current trends. The best way to experience Cafe Ponte depends on what’s in your wallet. I’m loath to call it an early bird with all that that connotes, but from 5 to 6:30 p.m. there’s a four-course prix-fixe that’s hard to beat at $36: choice of soup (mushroom bisque by a mile), choice of salad, entree from the regular menu and then a wedge of flourless chocolate cake with caramel mousse. (Oh, and there’s always a $40 bottle of wine option.) On the spendy side, Ponte offers a six-course tasting menu for $95 that often seems like a compendium of his best dishes.
Best Dishes: At lunch, go Maine lobster roll or Yukon gold potato pizza with bacon and truffle oil. If it’s a business thing and you need to be all fancy and use a fork, the duck confit salad or orecchiette with spicy Italian sausage won’t let you down. Ponte has always had a way with soups (there are usually a couple on the dinner menu), and most of the main courses reflect classical French underpinnings, from a potato-scaled halibut to the perfect pool of dusky bordelaise with a butter-tender filet.
Antipasto misto Italiano [ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times]
Look at the Yelp pictures. Notice anything? They are all dark as a crypt. Guido and son Gino Tiozzo have run this bastion of Italian fine dining since 1984, with its moody lighting, long red roses for the ladies and suave tuxedoed service. This stretch of Dale Mabry hasn’t aged well, and even the pebbly cinder block exterior of the restaurant is looking a little long in the tooth, but once your eyes have adjusted, the interior is still among the most opulent in the area, with its gold leaf-edged ceiling tiles, oversized gilded paintings by Italian painter Simone Bolla and pale pink linens. Some nights it’s light jazz, other evenings they bring in live opera, but every visit you can count on the assured pacing of career waiters like David or Pedro, people who unobtrusively intuit your needs and give guidance without being officious or pedantic.
Best Dishes: The wine list is stunning, with a breadth of prices, regions, varietal and large and small production represented, but it doesn’t come cheap. Food-wise, it’s a driving tour of Northern Italy, Milan to Venice to Florence with just a dip down to Rome: lots of cream sauces, veal saltimbocca and classics like slow-braised veal shank. You may find a tomato sauce or two, but usually lightened with cream. Regulars swear by the rack of lamb for two, with its mustardy bread crumbs and inky swirl of rosemary-scented demiglace, but when I’ve visited I have aimed for something that is proof positive of the simple being sublime: brilliant green linguine al pesto preceded by a theatrically assembled tableside Caesar (a titch more anchovy, yes, and keep going with the garlic). Finish with house-made ricotta cheesecake.
Tuna crudo with sorrel, spring vegetables, harissa, saffron vinaigrette [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Opened in March 2015 at the site of what was previously SideBern’s, Haven operates synergistically with elder siblings Bern’s Steak House and the nearby Epicurean Hotel and its Élevage Restaurant. Hotel guests have three very different dining options at three price points without ever leaving the Bern’s empire, and all three properties share talent, purchasing power and a nationally respected name. But Haven is my fave. Some of Bern’s foundational elements (the decor, those carrots, the waiter disquisitions) seem tired to me, and while I’ve had plenty of good dishes at Élevage, I’ve had some clunkers, too. Perhaps David Laxer’s key strength is an ability to retain good people. At Bern’s you’ll encounter servers with tenures of well over 40 years. At Haven, executive chef Chad Johnson and chef de cuisine Courtney Orwig have been with the company for years, here given the latitude to pursue intellectual passions and culinary fetishes. Three years ago, we couldn’t say the word charcuterie with any conviction. Now we’re all experts. Haven still dominates with its exacting cheese program (and cool glass-fronted cheese cave) and has a laudable cured-meat philosophy: Make it if you can rock it; buy the best if you can’t do it better. The rest of the menu is easy-share small plates supported by a thoughtful wine list and an awe-inspiring whisk(e)y stockpile orchestrated by now-departed Dean Hurst.
Best Dishes: My initial heartthrob was the cheesemonger plate, an absurd excess of 18 different cheeses for $47 with a handy cheat sheet (the cheese, the mammal in question), but I’ve since leaned in to their charcuterie program, a supergroup of cured meats, from Tuscan fennel salami to prosciutto di San Daniele. Now you augment: the vindaloo carrots, fried Brussels sprouts salad, the hamachi and avocado toast. Some folks knock Haven for small portions and zaftig prices, but the happy hour deals are a treat (weeknights 5 to 7 p.m.).
The Gulf grouper coated in orange dust, with roasted fennel and ginger jasmine rice [LARA CERRI | Times]
The Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club, 501 Fifth Ave. NE, St. Petersburg727-824-8072 | marriott.com/hotel-restaurants/tpasr-the-vinoy-renaissance-st-petersburg-resort-and-golf-club/marchand's-bar-and-grill/74470/home-page.mi
The Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club, 501 Fifth Ave. NE, St. Petersburg727-824-8072 | marriott.com/hotel-restaurants/tpasr-the-vinoy-renaissance-st-petersburg-resort-and-golf-club/marchand's-bar-and-grill/74470/home-page.mi
Mark Heimann started at the Vinoy in 1995 and has worked his way up to director of restaurant operations, and as of recently there is a lot of restaurant flux to direct. Alfresco closed Jan. 1 to make way for Paul's Landing, set to open mid-February. The 6,000-square-foot restaurant near the pool deck will showcase citrus and citrus wood-smoked Florida seafood and is an homage to William Paul, a U.S. Navy surveyor team’s carpenter who built a settlement where the hotel now stands. Meanwhile, the Vinoy Golf Club Grille functions as the property’s private club, freeing the Fred’s space up to serve for special events and popup nights. This leaves Marchand’s as the hotel’s workhorse breakfast-lunch-dinner spot. Although Heimann says it might get a reconcepting at some point, what chef Ross Clingman is doing right now is appealingly contemporary New American with a slight Southern drawl. Visually not much has changed at Marchand’s, even as the rest of the hotel is in the middle of a $50 million renovation, but still the restaurant feels like a spiffy fine-dining option.
Best Dishes: The dinner menu is short and doesn’t specify purveyors as in years past. Still, sourcing seems important to Heimann and team, and the $19.25 early menu (nightly 5 to 6:30 p.m.) is among the best deals in Tampa Bay. Right now, you might start with a creamy lobster bisque with celery root and carrot top, slide into plush short ribs given the overnight pot roast treatment and finish up with a still-kind-of-Christmasy eggnog creme brulee, saving yourself plenty of green for one of the suave new barrel-aged cocktails from the bar.
House-cured charcuterie plate [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Mise co-owner Maryann Ferenc is now the chairwoman of the board of Visit Florida. Who can guess how many of the record 60 million-plus tourists she personally brought in in 2017. But being a civic booster is a teeny part of her job. The third week in February, she and partner Marty Blitz will open Cafe by Mise en Place in Airside F at Tampa International Airport, and this summer they will debut their Berkeley Beach Club in Pass-a-Grille with its signature restaurant, the Dewey. (Dewey was their beloved border collie; Berkeley was a border collie-shepherd mix.) She describes the Dewey’s food as Mise’s answer to casual beach cuisine. The new airport venture will do the kind of sophisticated American quick lunches Mise en Place has become known for, as well as give the pair an opportunity to try their hand at breakfast. And at the Tampa Museum of Art, their Sono Cafe services museumgoers by day and does a monster number of private parties other times. So what’s Blitz doing back at the ranch? What has gotten him excited this past year is niche dinners (wine dinners, beer dinners, etc.) as an opportunity to cook for a couple dozen people and pull out all the stops. The upside at Mise continues to be incredible service from pros like sommelier Katie Povey and server Danny Torres; the downside continues to be parking.
Best Dishes: Blitz is grooving on poutine these days, offered with a savory oxtail gravy, with lobster and brandied gravy, or with a spin of the day. Raw fish always gets careful attention, whether as a composed plate of hamachi crudo, a tuna carpaccio or a mixed fish and shellfish ceviche with an interesting yuzu and smoked soy marinade. The kitchen has always had a way with duck, and it continues to be one of the few places in town you’ll find venison.
Oysters on the half shell on a seafood tower [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Oystercatchers has always been in the shadow of Armani’s, the Grand Hyatt’s top restaurant (literally and figuratively, perched on the 14th floor of the hotel with its panoramic views of a 35-acre nature preserve on the northern shores of Old Tampa Bay). I visited both restaurants recently, and for the first time in my memory, Oystercatchers outshone its sibling by a good bit. I’ve historically recommended it for its sybaritic Sunday brunch buffet (unlimited mimosas and bloodies, carving stations, heaps of shrimp, not cheap at $55, so arrive wolverine-hungry). But a recent dinner — expert and knowledgeable service, convivial and contemporary dining room, seafood from around the world in straightforward but cosmopolitan preparations — had me wondering whether there’s a better seafooder out there right now. But first you have to get there: Enter the property but don’t go to the main tower or parking garage; keep driving off to the left where the tennis courts, secondary swimming pool and casitas are. Bingo.
Best Dishes: Americans seem weirded out by whole fish. (Eyeballs? Bones? The naked truth that it’s actually a fish that swims in the water?) Get over this, because one of chef de cuisine Adam Schaffer’s best dishes is a whole pan-roasted snapper draped across corn succotash and topped with a confetti of microgreens, the flavor of the fish shining with just a bit of lemony vinaigrette involved. That’s from the section of the menu called “composed specialties,” a backhanded way of saying each of these comes with unique accompaniments, whereas the pecan wood-grilled black grouper, gulf shrimp, Loch Duart salmon, etc., arrive with the same veg and starch of the day. There’s also a nice small list of oysters and schmancy seafood towers, if you’re trying to impress someone.
Orange lavender-seared wild striped bass [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
Everyone has a dominant hand, a dominant eye. But how about a dominant meal? I know people who get a little panty about brunch and I’m like, it’s eggs, get some air. Breakfast: “Most important meal of the day.” Lunch: It’s where the business deals get done. Dinner: That’s romance, family time, unpacking ideas in a convivial setting. (You can see I’m dinner dominant.) Pane Rustica is a conundrum, because it does it all well. Kevin and Karyn Kruszewski have been the torchbearers of good food in South Tampa since the late 1990s, around when the Goo Goo Dolls were hitting their stride. They do wholesale baking for loads of folks, chicken salad-stuffed acorn squash halves and outrageously large-fancy pizza wedges at lunch for the yoga mom set. At dinner, it’s pastas, flatbreads and red wine-braised boneless short ribs with roasted new potatoes. My mother lives across the street, so this is one restaurant the Times is not paying me to stay abreast of. It’s loud, it can be chaotic, and service is mixed these days, but I still think it has one of the best burgers in town.
Best Dishes: Dinner is only Wednesday to Saturday, and I think the best seats are in the bar off to the left of the entrance, a space they annexed in 2010 from Village Health Market. You’re likely to get served by a bartender, and if you are female, he is likely to trill “ladddiiiees” at you, but in this year of difficult gender relations, I’m cool with that. The roasted half chicken in all its permutations is worthy of attention; pastas with seafood usually charm. Burgers (Niman Ranch) are inventive, and steaks (usually Creekstone) are cosseted. Dessert: espresso cookies, stat.
The seafood mixed grill [LARA CERRI | Times]
Tyson Grant was the opening chef at Steve Westphal’s flagship Beach Drive restaurant back in 2006 when the tourist hubbub of St. Petersburg was mostly aspirational. He has, one foot in front of the other, turned Parkshore into one of the highest-volume restaurants in St. Pete (peak season, we’re talking 1,000 guests a day). The mission is forthright upscale American food, heavy reliance on steaks and sturdy fillets of grouper. Its focus is on the center of the plate, no tweezer placement of microgreens. But that doesn’t mean that Grant is treading water. He’s making changes. Always a proponent of the “never-ever” beef program from Niman Ranch (this means beef that has never been exposed to steroids, antibiotics, growth hormones, chemicals or additives), he has recently made a shift to a more boutique program from Creekstone Farms — none of the bad stuff and all prime meat, a rare combination. Grant gives the people what they want, but has also introduced sustainably raised cobia from Open Blue, swordfish from Pompano Beach and some other less well-known species that don’t put as big a strain on gulf fisheries. And in response to customer interest, Parkshore has expanded its vegetable and vegetarian offerings.
Best Dishes: With so many new restaurants popping up in 2017, surely elder statesmen like Parkshore are feeling the squeeze? Grant says yes, it’s harder than ever to find good people in the kitchen, but the restaurant had record sales in 2017, so they’re doing something right. At lunch, they offer a quick business-friendly option they call Parkshore Picnics, a salad, entree and mini dessert for $18. At dinner, I’ve enjoyed a straightforward heirloom tomato and burrata salad with emerald droplets of basil oil and an equally unfussy N.Y. strip (the kitchen tends to be spot-on with cooking temps), and on the weekends the crab cake Benedict is nothing to sniff at.
Peking duck burrito [Times file]
Copy, paste, done. I’ve written about B.T. Nguyen and her restaurants multiple times a year as long as I’ve lived in Florida. When I need someone to say something incisive but cerebral, she’s the go-to. Plus, she’s always got some new quest, some new mission for how Tampa diners, and families, should be rethinking what they are forking up. Her aesthetic is hard to summarize: straight-up Vietnamese flavors, emphasis on BOOM, bright herbs and acid and fish sauce and chiles; also nouvelle French plate presentations with good use of white space and regimented architectural constructions. Plus, she believes in local and organic produce and well-raised proteins. Oh, and also good wines and sensual pleasures like escargots in buttery puff pastry or bouillabaisse bobbing with lobster claws. The dining room at her flagship restaurant is edgy but intimate, and she also has Bistro BT and BT To Go down the road.
Best Dishes: Ladies and germs, I beg of you, stop photographing the Peking duck burrito with its chive corset and plate-edge hoisin hieroglyphs. Turn your talents to less trammeled ground. Bo tai chanh remains one of my favorites, a chile-dazzled, herbal spin on grass-fed beef tartare. At the bistro I’ve tended to eat more classic French brasserie fare (duck rillettes), and at To Go, when the parking situation isn’t abysmal, I’ve picked up fresh rolls and papaya salad and her chicken curry stew with parsnips.
Fried chicken [ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times]
Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa, 5223 Orient Road813-627-7625 | seminolehardrocktampa.com/tampa-fine-dining.htm
Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa, 5223 Orient Road813-627-7625 | seminolehardrocktampa.com/tampa-fine-dining.htm
The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa is, like the universe itself, forever expanding. Last year, new president Joe Lupo unveiled the 700-space Orient Road parking garage and 26,000-square-foot Mezzanine Level Casino, bringing on new vice president of food and beverage Dawn Lazo, who made it clear a big part of their vision was making the hotel a dining destination. That was reinforced some time later when Frank Anderson was appointed creative culinary director. Anderson, whose pedigree includes running the kitchens at James Beard-awarded, Los Angeles-based restaurants Animal and Son of a Gun, fairly immediately opened the Rez Grill, a 120-seat American grill concept in the space that used to be Rise Bakery. I had a December dinner at Council Oak, the hotel’s high-end steakhouse, and was, for the first time, underwhelmed. But a couple of visits to the Rez convinced me that Anderson is breathing new vitality into the property. (There’s an Italian restaurant opening soon and a seafooder on the horizon.) With an open, breezy setting, the Rez is casual but hip, with a culinary focus on comfort foods with a playful Southern spin.
Best Dishes: Before the management focuses too carefully on the food cost of this dish (no way is the Rez making a profit), hustle in for a trio of house biscuits with an absurdly generous portion of shaved Benton’s country ham for $15. This is a cult product from Madisonville, Tenn., that routinely ranks as one of the top hams in the country, here served with an excellent cherry pepper jam and dusky aioli. Maybe marry that with artichoke halves off the Jade wood-burning grill, and so far dinner can be eaten entirely with your hands, continuing in this vein if you opt for the family-style fried chicken and waffles. Major kudos also on the fresh hearts of palm salad with other shaved veggies, soba noodles and addictive sriracha cashews.
An assortment of oysters [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
Fabrizio and Ingrid Aielli opened their first restaurants in Washington, D.C., years ago. They moved to Naples in 2007 and launched Sea Salt Naples the next year, then Barbatella in 2012 and Sea Salt St. Petersburg in 2015 on the second floor of Bill Edwards’ then-new Sundial. The Naples location is a more intimate space than St. Petersburg, which features a glass-fronted 22-foot wine wall with a lift inside so sommeliers can get to the good stuff, plus an opulent display of whole gulf fish on ice at the entrance. That telegraphs the agenda, but the biggest draw for me is oysters. I took a quick Oysters 101 class from chef Kenny Tufo last year, got about a D- on shucking but was otherwise a quick study. The United States is in the midst of an oyster aquaculture revolution, oyster bars popping up even far from shore. (Note to self: Invest in Saltines stock.) Florida used to get 90 percent of its oysters from Apalachicola Bay, but since that’s dried up we’ve been slow to welcome the good work being done elsewhere in the country. Sea Salt regularly offers more than a dozen varieties of oysters from most of the major growing regions: European flat oysters, Pacifics, Kumamotos, Easterns and Olympias, their flavors affected dramatically by the bodies of water in which they live.
Best Dishes: The chefs here use 130 different salts from around the world, many of them in vibrant hues, all of them, well, salty. Seafood with an Italian accent is the thrust, with lots of splurges like blini heaped with caviar and huge iced seafood platters. Many fish species are served as fillets, grilled a la plancha, while others are roasted whole and filleted tableside (come on, that’s dinner and a show), served simply with farro corn succotash and a lemony beurre blanc. (Other shareable sides and sauces can be added.) If all of this is sounding like too much, happy hour is from 4 to 7 p.m. daily and features discounted drinks and foods like $1 oysters.
Fifty restaurants. That’s a lot. And yet, so many worthy places didn’t get love this year, so many categories of dining weren’t addressed. Herewith, five more that get our top billing for specific things.
Black-bottom toasted coconut macaroon [ John Pendygraft | TIMES ]
The dessert room at Bern’s is the 900-pound gorilla for a reason. It offers more than 50 desserts (some of them with gossamer spun-sugar filigrees and cages) and more than 1,000 dessert wines and spirits. But that’s just the tip of the ice, um, cream (macadamia, for sure), the 48 individual enclosed booths upstairs made of California redwood wine-holding tanks, with a punch-button radio and intercom so you can choose your mood music or rustle up a request from the piano player downstairs.
The dining room in the Black Pearl. [ WILL VRAGOVIC | Times ]
Gone are the days when you could whisper sweet nothings to your love at a restaurant. Volume ceilings, hard surfaces, booming soundtracks — often you’re better off writing each other a note on the back of the bill. The Black Pearl is the exception: white tablecloths, red roses, Christopher Artrip’s architectural and luxurious French plates (lobster bisque, rack of lamb) and maybe best of all, sweet nothings that can be heard loud and clear.
The Mandarin Hide in St. Petersburg. [ EVE EDELHEIT | Times ]
With the tagline “pouring our spirits to raise yours,” the Mandarin Hide opened in October 2010, before many of us had ever heard of craft cocktails. Ciro’s in Tampa opened several months earlier, but the Mandarin Hide seems to have launched the careers of loads of ambitious Tampa Bay bartenders and helped many of us tell an old-fashioned from a manhattan. (They offer classes, too, if you’re still hazy.) Tuesday nights are “test kitchen,” where for $6 you can try out a work-in-progress from one of the mixologists.
6102 S MacDill Ave, Tampa| facebook.com/hottmess
When everyone else was going nuts for food trucks, I was a little more circumspect. The cost of entry to this form of food service is much more affordable than brick and mortar, so we had a raft of amateurs enter the fray early on. Only some have had staying power and dedicated followings. There are good ones with a very focused mission (Disco Donuts, Empamamas), those that are fun mashups (Ramen and Waffles, Twisted Indian) and those that zero in on our deep longings. This is why Hott Mess, with its girly pink cheetah-print truck and loaded tots (think Mexi-Tots and Tot-Ziki) gets the nod.
Patrons browse through the cheese cooler at Mazzaro's. [ James Borchuck | Times ]
It’s not a restaurant, and in high season it’s an absolute zoo. But I still love it, recommend it, sneak in to stock up for Friday picnic night. Other places have wised up to good cheese (Cheese Please in Tampa, even Whole Foods is fromage-forward these days), but Mazzaro’s is king, a vibe of barely controlled chaos keeping things zesty as you dump robiola due latte, tartufotto, caciocavallo and a mortgage payment worth of salty meats, olives and those adorable little cornichons into your basket.
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