Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Dining

Restaurant review: Ichicoro Ane brings ramen, Japanese small plates and a whole lot of fun to St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG

When Station House restaurant opened on Christmas Eve 2014 it was a totally reinvented space, Steve Gianfilippo’s vision for the basement level of a 104-year-old, five-story, 30,000-square-foot building he’d bought for $3 million. For years, that space had been Cafe Alma — some good years, some less so, with a couple of sets of owners and a legendary Bloody Mary bar. But this new iteration was swish, glamorous and forward-thinking, the perfect anchor to Gianfilippo’s plan for co-work spaces, some retail, a private club and a bunch of other 21st century synergy throughout the rest of the building.

It didn’t quite gel as a restaurant, despite deep talent from partners Alex Gilmore and Ro Patel (who is now one of the tenants at the Hall on Franklin in Tampa) and chef Justin Sells. And when I heard Noel Cruz and his partners were aiming to take over the space for their Ichicoro Ane, sister to the ramen revolutionary Ichicoro in Seminole Heights, I was apprehensive. Basements are hard. Heck, restaurants with steps up or down are statistically less likely to succeed. And First Avenue S isn’t exactly Beach Drive or even Central Avenue.

Well, I thought, at least Cruz and team had that gorgeous interior as a foundation. I met with Gianfilippo, Cruz and Cruz’s partner Kerem Koca.

"The interior was my baby," Gianfilippo said. "But Noel has convinced me the right thing is to gut the place."

Um. Okay.

I shouldn’t have fretted. They busted through the front of the building and added cool New York City-style gray metal doors down a short flight of stairs to the entrance, the space divided up with blondewood slats that somehow hint at fusuma panels and shoji rice paper doors. But it’s not all Japanese-inspired decor: There’s a DJ booth and a graffitied nook perfect for selfies, with a private lounge lined with outrageously cool wallpaper by Half Sumo Collective.

Overall, the feel is New York hip, which seems about right given that’s where Cruz, a University of Florida and Culinary Institute of America grad, cut his chops. In fact, it’s where he and partners invented "Tampa-style ramen," debuting it at a popup at Sun Noodle’s Ramen Lab. When Ichicoro opened in Seminole Heights, however, the novelty of Tampa-style ramen (gulf shrimp, citrus, corn and tomato as guest stars; brothless versions to accommodate Florida’s climate, with a little extra spiciness) was really overshadowed by the novelty of ramen in general. It wasn’t a food we had any of in the Tampa Bay area.

And now Cruz is bringing us something new again. For years sushi has been the sum total of what we knew about Japanese food. Then came ramen, and now izakaya, kind of Japanese gastropub small-plate snackies. Some of his original team has returned to New York, but a fair number of staffers, including co-chef Branden Lenz, have come over from Ichicoro in Tampa to get things started at Ichicoro Ane. Already service feels assured, with solid pacing and good menu knowledge — no small feat in a restaurant environment where employees have their pick of promising new concepts.

I’ll start on the ramen side. The lineup of five noodle soups is different from the flagship in Seminole Heights, a smart move to get Tampa fans to brave the bridge. I tried three, including the chicken paitan ($13), an intense chicken broth that verged on too salty with planks of grilled chicken, fermented bamboo shoots, wood ear mushroom, pickled ginger, fried garlic and garlic oil all crowded in atop that toothsome Sun Noodle ramen. My favorite by a mile was the Niku udon ($15), its mushroom broth pleasantly tart with strands of braised wagyu beef shoulder giving a plush counterpart. Big hanks of greens had me stumped. Parsley? Carrot tops? No. Chrysanthemum greens, earthy and tangy with just the faintest tinge of bitter. The most expensive bowl, the brothless shellfish version ($18), was the least interesting, its spicy crab and calamari striking one note in need of just a little juxtaposition either texturally or with a zing of bright acidity.

Plenty of people will come just for soup. But they’d be missing the exciting cocktail list and all the fun on the multipage flipup small-plate menu. We took a scattershot approach, starting with excellent pork belly buns ($7), akin to the ones in Tampa, then skewers of king oyster mushroom ($3), a marvel of umami and velvety-chewy texture. The fried chicken karaage with spicy mayo is every bit as good as in Tampa ($7), but if you’re in the mood for crunchy breaded and fried meat, the pounded, breaded pork loin tonkatsu is a crazy generous portion for $10, bedded down on dressed cabbage with pickled mustard seed for a bit of tang.

The most dramatic dish was one we didn’t eat, but I was charmed by it on two visits. A changing array of sashimi (market price) lounges louchely atop a strobing illuminated platter a lot like a miniature version of the dance floor in Saturday Night Fever. Cool.

A spin on beef tartare called yukke ($10) brought a heap of gochujang-dressed chopped wagyu with a raw egg yolk at its center, tiny batons of Fuji apple providing crispness and a handful of thin chicharrones used as scoopers. This food is, almost without exception, fun, a little zany and eminently sharable. A grilled Florida avocado with soy and chili oil ($8) reads like custard (heresy to say, but the nutty flavor of a Hass avocado would have been better); battered and fried cauliflower ($7) gets a buffalo sauce, something we’ve seen, but this one is amped up with gochujang. And just about nothing is as fun as the single dessert, a kitchen-sink stunt called halo halo ($10), a Filipino layered confection (Cruz is Filipino) with black sesame fudge at the bottom, plus gummies and guava paste and purple yam ice cream, then a little rum over the top.

This spring will bring a raft of new high-profile restaurants to downtown St. Pete. If Ichicoro Ane is any indication of the gastronomic direction and ambition of the city, the visitors bureau won’t have to work too hard to sell St. Petersburg as the country’s next culinary destination.

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

     
       
Comments
Restaurant review: Chile Verde is serving up very solid tacos in an unlikely spot

Restaurant review: Chile Verde is serving up very solid tacos in an unlikely spot

ST. PETERSBURGThere are a lot of decommissioned gas stations across the country. Some have been reinvented, cleverly made over as upscale restaurants. There’s Big Star in Chicago, Elaia & Olio in St. Louis, Red Truck Bakery in Warrenton, Va., even Bi...
Published: 06/18/18
From soft serve to ice pops, 12 places to get frozen treats

From soft serve to ice pops, 12 places to get frozen treats

I know we have three more months or so of hot-as-dog-breath Tampa Bay summer, but let’s start things off on the right foot with some frozen treats. Ice cream is on my mind after a recent visit to Disney Springs, when I found love in a perfect scoop o...
Published: 06/13/18
Five restaurants worth checking out at Disney Springs in Orlando (w/video)

Five restaurants worth checking out at Disney Springs in Orlando (w/video)

LAKE BUENA VISTA Disney Springs has swiftly become a playground or trial balloon for the country?s celebrity chefs. Art Smith, Masaharu Morimoto, Rick Bayless, Guy Fieri, Tony Mantuano, Wolfgang Puck and others are already on board, with names like ...
Published: 06/13/18
A hook-to-table food experience in Tampa Bay

A hook-to-table food experience in Tampa Bay

Going fishing is like doing your taxes. If it’s something you dive into just once a year you end up relearning the whole thing every time. Jake Whitfield eyed me, no judgment, and decided to cast for me the first time, my little wriggling greenback z...
Published: 06/11/18
Ceviche closing in South Tampa

Ceviche closing in South Tampa

TAMPA – The Ceviche restaurant at 2500 W Azeele St. is closing.Caledon Concepts, which operates Ceviche restaurants in Orlando, Tampa and St. Petersburg, said the restaurant’s last day at that location will be June 16."The expiration of the lease for...
Published: 06/08/18
Deal alert: Hard Rock Cafe has 71 cent burgers for its birthday

Deal alert: Hard Rock Cafe has 71 cent burgers for its birthday

SAVE THE DATE: HARD ROCK B-DAYOn June 14, 1971, the founders opened their own American-style diner in an old Rolls-Royce dealership and called it Hard Rock Cafe. They had a vision to combine music, memorabilia and all-American fare. Here’s a tip: To ...
Published: 06/06/18
Restaurant review: El Chapo Taco fills a need with fun, friendly Mexican spot in Gulfport

Restaurant review: El Chapo Taco fills a need with fun, friendly Mexican spot in Gulfport

GULFPORTWhat do we know about El Chapo, a.k.a. Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán? He ran the Sinaloa Cartel, even from prison, and first appeared on Forbes’ billionaires list in 2009. He’s 5 feet 6. He’s the father of 12 or 13 children. He has a talen...
Published: 06/04/18
Updated: 06/07/18
National Doughnut Day is back. Where to get free doughnuts, doughnut beers and more

National Doughnut Day is back. Where to get free doughnuts, doughnut beers and more

Believe it or not, Friday is already June 1, which means National Doughnut Day is back with sweet deals.The day was created to celebrate the Salvation Army’s "Doughnut Lassies," who served the treats to American soldiers on the front lines during Wor...
Updated one month ago
A look at how Tampa steakhouse Ocean Prime keeps its menu fresh

A look at how Tampa steakhouse Ocean Prime keeps its menu fresh

TAMPAThe executive chefs all fly into Columbus, Ohio. Before they step into the kitchen, before they sharpen a knife, they sit down and have a meeting, an open dialogue. They examine the whole menu: What’s working? What needs fixing? And then they ge...
Updated one month ago
Restaurant review: Bar Asia will have to raise the bar if it wants to thrive in South Tampa

Restaurant review: Bar Asia will have to raise the bar if it wants to thrive in South Tampa

TAMPALet’s review our star system. One star is fair, two is good, three is great and four is mind-blowing. I’m going to start my review of Bar Asia by saying that one star for service is generous. Here’s why.On my first visit, the bartender was crabb...
Updated one month ago