Maybe it’s the twinkling chandeliers. All skajillion of them. Or maybe it is the rhythmic syncopation of ice cubes in shiny shakers. It could be the old-timey metal dessert cart with its silver cloches and chafing dishes, or else the chummy-but-menacing tuxedoed guy at the door who gives you the once-over before admitting you into the dimly lit dining room. Whatever the cause, the new CW’s Gin Joint whisks you to about 1929, maybe not the day of Chicago’s Valentine’s Day Massacre, but not far off.
We’ve had Prohibition-era speakeasies before (see: Ciro’s), places where spats, fringe, suspenders and exuberant facial hair proliferate. But Carolyn Wilson’s newcomer feels like time travel to me, in a good way.
Turn to the cocktail list first, opening it up to reveal the mad genius of Dean Hurst’s "gin matrix." There’s floral in this quadrant, savory over there, juniper up top, and citrus below. Peer at it, furrow brow, mouth things like "angelica root," and then capitulate — order a gin drink knowing full well that this gin cocktail program is silly good. Hurst is a titan on the national mixology scene, the author of the exceptional whiskey and rye program at Bern’s and Haven in Tampa and SideBern’s before that, and avocationally a tiki-drink nut. The guy’s got range.
Just try the gin and tonic, served with one ice globe in cool stemware. When was the last time a gin and tonic left you mutely pointing glassward? If gin is not your jam, head for a Paloma, or for an anachronistic Harvey Wallbanger (seems very Prohibition-y, but the Galliano screwdriver was invented in the 1950s). Good glassware, great ice cubes hewn from a huge block, careful preparation, most cocktails between $10 and $12.
The food menu is fascinating. It is not a recreation of Roaring ’20s-style dishes, because that would mean sardines in aspic, salmon mousse and strange stuffed celery snacks. Gui Alinat is the mastermind behind the menu, a French-born chef and instructor who has largely catered and lectured in recent years. He’s the executive chef here, putting together a menu that has a nostalgic, nearly Continental feel, but also speaks to current enthusiasms and preoccupations (charcuterie boards and lobster mac, know what I’m saying?). Alinat set things in motion and has now started the catering program at the Vault, a glamorous special event space next door also owned by Wilson; Cody Tiner, formerly of Piquant, is the boots in the kitchen.
As with many new restaurants, service is a mixed bag. Servers can seem harried and even a little snappish as the evening lengthens and the throngs grow restive. (An example: On my second visit, I was told someone had reserved my table 90 minutes hence so I would have to hustle. Drinks and food arrived incredibly slowly and I could snarf only so fast, the server obviously perturbed with us.) With so many new restaurants debuting in the Tampa Bay area, finding good help is a tall order right now — especially if you expect the showmanship and patter of tableside dessert service.
But let’s start savory. Side dishes are the most interesting offerings, a whole passel of them vegetarian-friendly and eminently sharable, from the cast-iron skillet of charry Brussels sprouts (okay, there’s bacon, $8), to the very French greens au gratin (kale, cabbage and spinach in a bechamel with a gooey mantle of mozzarella and crisp panko crumbs; $7) and the plus French fat stalks of canned white asparagus ladled with a tarragon-inflected cream ($11). Just as lovely was a simple salad of lengths of crunchy endive in a bracing vinaigrette with little clods of blue cheese ($7).
Gulf ($2) and north Atlantic oysters ($4) are offered raw on the half shell with traditional accoutrements (but they should ditch the dark fig toasts in favor of something in the ballpark of a saltine), as well as in a traditional Rockefeller ($4 each). But for my money, the better deal was the generous terrine of braised mussels, which I opted to have in the tarragon cream sauce (other options included a whole-grain dijon or a tomato-chorizo broth), a huge number of plump bivalves for $16 with a couple of baguette rusks as submersibles.
Entrees, and there are just a handful, fit in less elegantly with the overall culinary conceit. The short ribs ($29) were hearty and contemporary, the shreds of boneless beef married with an elegant celery root puree (why don’t chefs use this veg more?), the plate finished with braised mushrooms, cipollini onions and bits of bacon. A Niman Ranch grass-fed ribeye with peppercorn sauce and fries ($43) felt more like a spin on classic French steak frites, but alas the house duck confit ($32) doesn’t yet have the plush velvetiness of a dreamy French brasserie’s version (but great red cabbage).
Wilson, Alinat and Tiner have gone all in with dessert, the cart wheeled around and a litany of historic show-stoppers listed off: île flottante (floating island), crepes filled with molten chocolate and bananas, flourless chocolate cake and something they’re calling a tropical bananas Foster. Fire marshals don’t give their benediction to a lot of flambeing these days, so desserts are essentially assembled tableside, with many good ideas (but a stale banana bread disc and stale peanuts and coconut flakes knocked the overall show down a bit). I’m willing to overlook that and focus on the sheer loveliness of the dessert-cart service. It’s one of the sleights of hand that allow us, if only for a couple hours, to step back nearly 100 years and savor a sip of something at the local gin joint.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.