TAMPA — The building at 777 N Ashley Drive has been waiting for exactly this. • The 32-floor SkyPoint opened in 2007, 361 feet of high hopes. At the bottom were two glamorous restaurants, a sushi restaurant called Raw and a wine bar called Taps. The economy went south and the gastronomically ambitious Raw lost its way, only to be replaced eventually with an "eh" bistro and lounge called the Point. The space was gorgeous, its chief impediments a lack of light and, much worse, a lack of customers. Fast forward a couple years and downtown is booming, nearly every weekend in winter and spring Curtis Hixon and environs host festivals and events, downtown condos providing a built-in customer base even on non-festival evenings.
A small posse of seasoned restaurant pros jumped on the opportunity, unveiling Anise Global Gastrobar in the space at the beginning of March. Xuan Hurt, former co-owner of Bamboozle Cafe, anchors the team. Having left Bamboozle to work at Ciro's Speakeasy and Supper Club, she had an opportunity for up-close scrutiny of Ro Patel in action, a man credited by many with bringing craft cocktail culture to Tampa. She partnered with him on Anise, along with her husband Kevin Hurt, who boasts 20 years in the bar business, and Rafael Millan, the "wine guy."
Perhaps as crucial as the foursome's assembled talents was enlisting the design services of Jaime Rogers. She had tremendous bones to work with, including soaring ceilings and a long, glamorous bar. But it's been lightened and made more inviting, a wall of photos and Asian decorative prints providing dramatic statements, a central table of water, flowers and such providing a work station for the service staff as well as a real shot of homey warmth.
Anise is informed first and foremost by its bar program, its menu in support of the short-but-smart list of house cocktails (a rye drink with fresh raspberries and citrus, a hibiscus margarita, and a cocktail that's an homage to a drink served at Fred's in London in the 1980s, this one called the Kurrant Bramble, all $10). Libations of all kinds are taken seriously, from Fever Tree Tonic to Mexican Coke (sugar cane sweetened, not high-fructose corn syrup) and a feverishly globetrotting and inventive wine list.
And the food? It's Korean-ish, with a southeast Asian palette of flavors that's fairly hard to pin down. The Hurts have run the Stinky Bunz food truck for the past year or so, so pork belly buns with kimchee, or pillowy buns filled with beer-battered shrimp and green papaya slaw (all 2 for $8, 3 for $11) anchor the short menu. A brunch menu is being launched this week, with lunch to follow at the start of April. And the short dinner "sneak peek" menu will likely see some additions and shufflings as Anise gets in full swing.
What makes me hopeful about Anise's chances in the site of a couple false starts is the punchy dynamism of the short menu and a resolution to keep prices low. Many of the plates are under $10, from crispy red curry coconut wings with a cucumber mint yogurt dipping sauce ($8; and as Xuan explains, these are the "pterodactyl" wings that haven't had the drummette separated from the upper wing flat) to a classic green papaya salad with shrimp chips ($7), to which you can add a quartet of fat steamed shrimp for an extra $3.
There are a few items on the current menu that seem to muddy the message (a straightforward veggie panini and oysters Rockefeller), and I'd be interested to see if the deviled egg selection (four for $8) could be taken in a Korean/Asian-fusion direction. Korean cuisine is so underrepresented in the Tampa Bay area that it might have the power to dazzle diners a bit. Surely traditional Korean banchan (small side dishes, usually punchy and flavorful) could be parried by Ro Patel's sophisticated bar concoctions. Even if Anise takes a more middle-of-the-road Asian route, the newcomer seems poised to capture the attention of the increasingly busy downtown dining scene.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.