Eric Fralick is the kind of autodidact who pushes forward, curiosity about this thing leading to wondering about that thing. Since he opened Noble Rice a couple of years ago, he has taken the small South Tampa restaurant in a remarkable and ambitious direction, moving away from an a la carte menu and toward a seven- or 15-course omakase menu ($125 or $200 per person) with optional sake and wine pairings, reservations only.
There will be grousers: How can he charge those kinds of prices for raw fish? It’s because he is a zealot about sourcing and care. He buys bluefin tuna from the Uwa Sea in Japan that is fed a diet largely of squid whose internal organs have been removed (there’s high mercury in squid organs), the tuna wrapped in a special moisture-absorbing material and shipped to Miami within 24 hours. When he gets it, it goes through a careful aging process but also a subzero freezing process in a medical freezer for safety. Watch him in the tiny kitchen: He’s reverent with ingredients, each striking plate a study in paring away the inessential.
I had the $125 omakase recently, sat at the bar and nibbled a grassy-herbal shiso leaf filled with wagyu marmalade and another of tuna with ginger, then a 10-day-aged otoro nigiri, scored and glossed simply with house-aged soy. There was a pickled kumamoto oyster with smoked butter on toast with shallot and champagne vinegar top notes; an absolutely sumptuous nigiri of highest-grade wagyu marbled into pale pinkness; more tuna; a dessert of an open-faced macaron topped with a bit of tangy-sweet ice cream; a swath of uni and pearly beads of osetra, then another of soy milk panna cotta topped with black sesame, burnt honey and miso caramel, a bit of matcha crumble adding texture. In a fairly casual space, Fralick and his wife, Adriana, are doing some of the most high-flying food around. They are debuting a sake shop and Japanese market on MacDill Avenue soon. noblericeco.com
Address: 807 W Platt St., Tampa
Phone: (813) 284-7423
Big Ray’s Fish Camp
Nick Cruz acquired the abandoned Chubasco seafood building in Ballast Point without the kind of deep pockets usually necessary to launch a wildly popular restaurant, especially one in an off-the-beaten-path location. It flourished by word of mouth - my mouth in particular had a lot to say about the grouper sandwiches and the lobster corn dogs. Big Ray’s Fish Camp feels like an authentic cinder block, slightly unlovely fish shack that sends out exceptionally fresh but straightforward fried shrimp, grouper and smoked fish spread at fair prices, which you eat on splintery picnic tables under an overhang.
Since its launch in 2015 it has made national lists of great seafood restaurants. Cruz has a second Big Ray’s location in the works at the Sail adjacent to the Tampa Convention Center at the Riverwalk, poised to debut in April. Around the same time he will finally open a sideline project that has puttered along for the past couple of years next door to the Ballast Point Big Ray’s, called Teepee Tacos, which has a huge and authentic-looking teepee set up out back. bigraysfishcamp.com
Address: 6116 Interbay Blvd., Tampa
Phone: (813) 605-3615
Sushi Sho Rexley
The Tampa Bay area has plenty of sushi restaurants, many long-standing solid producers: SoHo Sushi, Pisces, Matoi, Samurai Blue, etc. But with the debut of Noble Rice and this smaller counterpart in Pinellas County that opened early in 2018, we’ve been introduced to a purer, more exacting style of sushi and sashimi, offered primarily as a multicourse prix-fixe omakase. (The word means "I’ll leave it up to you,” essentially, “Chef, I’m putty in your hands.”) Rexley Kwok is your sushi master here, having learned under master sushi chef Hiro Ida San and previously employed at Lazy Maguro in Palm Harbor.
Kwok buys fish from the Tokyo Toyosu Fish Market (their website still says the Tsukiji Market, which closed last year), his aesthetic very classic and unfussy. The base level omakase is $90 and starts with a daily-changing appetizer, then five sets of nigiri: a finger of rice with the fish draped over, arranged in categories like white fish, red fish, flavorful fish, creamy/exotic fish and a final round of shellfish and freshwater eel. Sake expert Arte Kwok will pair each course with a different sake for $50. If this is sounding too rich for your blood, the somewhat bare-bones restaurant offers a range of a la carte nigiri, carpaccio and some cooked fish dishes. rexleysushi.com
Address: 214 Second St. N, St. Petersburg
Phone: (727) 835-8478