Sunday, July 22, 2018
Dining

Restaurant review: Let the food and outstanding cocktails at CW’s Gin Joint transport you back to the 1920s

TAMPA

Maybe itís 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 CWís Gin Joint whisks you to about 1929, maybe not the day of Chicagoís Valentineís Day Massacre, but not far off.

Weíve had Prohibition-era speakeasies before (see: Ciroís), places where spats, fringe, suspenders and exuberant facial hair proliferate. But Carolyn Wilsonís 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 Hurstís "gin matrix." Thereís 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 ó 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 Bernís and Haven in Tampa and SideBernís before that, and avocationally a tiki-drink nut. The guyís 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 í20s-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. Heís 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 Iím 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 ó especially if you expect the showmanship and patter of tableside dessert service.

But letís 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, thereís 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 donít 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) doesnít yet have the plush velvetiness of a dreamy French brasserieís 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: Óle flottante (floating island), crepes filled with molten chocolate and bananas, flourless chocolate cake and something theyíre calling a tropical bananas Foster. Fire marshals donít 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). Iím willing to overlook that and focus on the sheer loveliness of the dessert-cart service. Itís 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.

     
Comments
Deep-fried wonders at Plant City Strawberry Festival to be featured on Cooking Channel

Deep-fried wonders at Plant City Strawberry Festival to be featured on Cooking Channel

The strawberry-laden and deep-fried wonders of Plant Cityís Florida Strawberry Festival will be featured on two episodes of the TV series Carnival Eats, the first on July 29.The Cooking Channel series features host Noah Cappe as he marvels at the "ga...
Published: 07/19/18
Nitallyís set to reopen at a new, more intimate, South Pasadena location

Nitallyís set to reopen at a new, more intimate, South Pasadena location

Folks who have missed testing their taste buds with a St. Petersburg eateryís famous inferno soup will get a chance to do so once again.Nitallyís ThaiMex Cuisine, which closed its downtown St. Petersburg location in May, will open soon in a smaller l...
Published: 07/18/18
Where to eat and drink around Safety Harbor: Gigglewaters bar, Parts of Paris, Sno Beach and more

Where to eat and drink around Safety Harbor: Gigglewaters bar, Parts of Paris, Sno Beach and more

Not that many years ago, downtown Safety Harbor was a little lean on places to eat. Green Springs Bistro had been an anchor, Whistle Stop and Celloís Char House, too. But no one would have called it a dining destination. It was too bad: The city of 1...
Published: 07/18/18
Eat and drink your way through Tampa Heights with stops at Hall on Franklin, Armature Works and more

Eat and drink your way through Tampa Heights with stops at Hall on Franklin, Armature Works and more

Five or six years ago, if you were to stand on the steps of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts and look north along the Hillsborough River, there wouldnít be much to see. Just a couple of old warehouses and some rubble in the area ...
Published: 07/18/18
In South Tampa, create a dinearound with stops at Bernís, Haven and the Epicurean Hotel

In South Tampa, create a dinearound with stops at Bernís, Haven and the Epicurean Hotel

I had a specific vision for my 35th birthday.Relaxation mostly. Bathrobe. Wine. Maybe a massage or a pool. Food, food, food. A handful of close friends. I did some research at beach hotels in Clearwater and St. Pete Beach and found the price range ou...
Published: 07/18/18
Bowled over: From acai to poke, the top 10 bowls in Tampa Bay

Bowled over: From acai to poke, the top 10 bowls in Tampa Bay

Why, exactly, are bowls the new plates?The Wall Street Journal declared it so. Tableware companies like Fiesta have reported serious double-digit growth in the sale of bowls ó salad bowls, cereal bowls, you name it. Fast-food restaurants have jumped ...
Published: 07/17/18
Updated: 07/19/18
Ybor City mainstay La Segunda opens second location, introduces seating

Ybor City mainstay La Segunda opens second location, introduces seating

TAMPA ó Itís like stepping off Kennedy Boulevard right into Ybor City.From the exposed brick and wrought iron accents to the street lamp-styled globe lights hanging from the ceiling and the signage ó blue and red divided by a ribbon of gold ó the new...
Published: 07/17/18
Updated: 07/18/18
This Florida burger joint is one of the 10 best in America, travel website says

This Florida burger joint is one of the 10 best in America, travel website says

A 2Ĺ-hour drive south could land Tampa residents at one of Americaís best burger joints, according the review and travel website TripAdvisor.com.The website released a list of the "10 Most Delectable Burger Joints" in America on Wednesday, placing Na...
Published: 07/14/18
Friday is National French Fry Day. Find (free!) fries in Tampa Bay.

Friday is National French Fry Day. Find (free!) fries in Tampa Bay.

Guess what Friday is? Itís National Fry Day (#FRYdayThe13th, see what they did there?). Fun fact: Their origin story may not lie in France but in Belgium. So why do we credit France? Thomas Jefferson is said to have introduced deep-fried potatoes at ...
Published: 07/11/18
We got a preview of the food at Osteria, the new Tampa restaurant from Top Chefís Fabio Viviani

We got a preview of the food at Osteria, the new Tampa restaurant from Top Chefís Fabio Viviani

TAMPA ó The evening began with chef Fabio Viviani telling the group to fork the fluffy coccoli in front of us, break it open then stuff it with the cold smoked prosciutto de Parma and stracchino cheese delicately laid out on wooden boards. "Stracchin...
Published: 07/10/18