TAMPA — Elevage opened five years ago, the first Bern’s sibling to offer breakfast and lunch as well as dinner. Named for something fancy that happens to grape juice between fermentation and bottling, Elevage was the signature restaurant at the Epicurean Hotel, a partnership of Bern’s Steak House and Tampa-based Mainsail Lodging and Development Group. It was carefully positioned to complement the now 62-year-old world-famous Bern’s Steak House, an institution that built its reputation on aged steaks and one of the world’s largest wine lists, as well as Bern’s hip, upscale, more contemporary sibling, SideBern’s, which then became small-plates-and-heavenly-cheese Haven.
Elevage had to do something different, provide a different price point and vibe, so that locals and hotel guests could bop back and forth across S Howard Avenue and feel that there was a family resemblance but no redundancy. It did that. The culinary team, headed by Chad Johnson, put together a moderately priced menu heavy on reinterpreted down-home comfort foods.
Time passed. What no one anticipated was that the unnamed lobby bar, really an antechamber between the hotel lobby and the entrance to Elevage, would crush it. A strong and innovative cocktail list and enticing happy hour specials kept it popping, even sometimes when Elevage looked a little sparse. Frequently thronged by spectators peeking in at what’s going on in the Epicurean Theatre, an exhibition kitchen that hosts classes and Chopped-style competitions, more often it’s busy just because it has a nice, intimate vibe to it, the syncopation of cocktail shakers adding a beat.
As smart restaurateurs and hoteliers do, they took stock and retooled a little bit. If you go to Elevage and the Lobby Bar now, the floor tells the story: The absolutely stunning black-and-white tile that was a signature at Elevage now ends in the middle of the Lobby Bar, meaning the now-full-service Lobby Bar (that’s the official name) has expanded by about 300 square feet and Elevage has shrunk. Elevage now has 66 seats, the Lobby Bar 62.
Both have gotten new menus. And both are quite good. Even service, which initially was all over the map, has evolved into suave assuredness. Let’s start in the Lobby Bar. From 4 to 7 p.m. they offer five wine options for $5, four beers for $5 and five small-bite happy hour dishes for $6, dishes that may include a trio of lovely deviled eggs, the yolk mixed smooth with smoked salmon, caper and chive (one of the only holdovers from the last menu, along with the pressed steak sandwich, an homage to Bern’s), or a trio of arancini, crisp mushroom risotto balls anchored to the plate with a thick cheddar fondue.
The regular Lobby Bar menu focuses on things that could be eaten with your hands, easy nibbles and more substantial dishes that are easy to share with friends: a generous bowl of Prince Edward Island steamed mussels ($10) sitting in a pool of creamy, just slightly mustardy broth with a couple of buttery toasts on the lip of the bowl (hey, send out an empty bowl for shells, okay?), or a country ham plate ($11), its excellent shaved meat accented with a coffee aioli, thinly sliced wedges of granny smith and a passel of crostini. And I know fried Brussels sprouts are ubiquitous these days, but the Lobby Bar’s version ($8) has a kimchi tang and spice, with a whiff of fish sauce and a scattering of crispy shallots showcasing the sprouts’ nutty earthiness.
What I didn’t love about Elevage’s starting menu was the tongue-in-cheek reinterpretations of comfort food (arch spins on tuna casserole and such). Those have all been done away with, a menu of appealing, just-slightly-Southern dishes with rigorous French techniques offered in its stead. Goat cheese and sweet potato puree-stuffed agnolotti ($18) come under a generous flurry of shaved black truffle, bits of crispy tasso adding a salty-umami note, and a handful of sliced snap peas providing contrast and crunch. Great dish, as was a simple salad ($11, also offered in the Lobby Bar as a half size for $6) of baby romaine with blanched haricots verts, radish rounds, shaved fennel and pecan, its vinaigrette balanced and lemony, enhancing and not masking the freshness of the veggies.
One of the prettiest plates was a halibut ($36) crusted with a golden brown and delicate layer of brioche, the fish paired with lengths of tender-crisp asparagus, all of it bedded down on a sauce Veronique, a classic creamy French accompaniment to sole that features peeled grapes. Another winner brought a rosy but crisp-skinned blackened duck breast juxtaposed with rich cheddar grits, pea tendrils and a blackberry brown butter ($33). You can see a little Southern accent in that one, but its execution still pays respect to classical French cuisine.
Tampa has been in a tremendous growth period for restaurants, with the rise of food halls like the Hall on Franklin and Armature Works, and more on the horizon like Sparkman Wharf or the much-anticipated Osteria from celeb chef Fabio Viviani. With some smart changes that didn’t require too much heavy lifting, the Epicurean Hotel has assured it will stay competitive.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines unannounced and the Times pays all expenses.