TAMPA — People say a lot of things about Joey Redner. Talk to craft beer fans across the country and you'll hear words like "visionary" and "standard-bearer." What they seldom say is "contrarian." But it's true.
In 2009, he started Cigar City Brewing in a city not known for craft beer in a state woefully behind the rest of the country, a place where even the laws seemed designed to thwart brewers. Why not take all that beer know-how and enthusiasm to a place where it would be appreciated? And then he started Cigar City, not in "cigar city," a.k.a. Ybor City, but on an unlovely industrial stretch of Spruce Street near Tampa International.
Now he's undertaken his first brewpub, not in one of the area's hip enclaves like Seminole Heights or downtown Tampa or St. Petersburg. No, it's in Northdale, where Carrollwood meets Lutz, a neighborhood where every other car is a minivan with a "My Child Is An Honor Student" bumper sticker. No offense, but Northdale has a fraction of the interesting facial hair of Seminole Heights.
Opened on April 1 but hardly an April Fools' prank, Cigar City Brewpub is the work of a brilliant team in fine fettle. Superbly designed, it's whimsical and lively with a short, affordable menu that feels like a breath of fresh air.
Just getting geared up to brew on site (it will feature five beers unique to this location as well as other Cigar City and Florida craft beers), the brewer for the brewpub is Tim Ogden. He worked with C.C.'s head brewer Wayne Wambles and his personal triumphs there included Moat Water (which gets a perfect 100 on RateBeer.com) and Tocobaga Red Ale (it scores a 98).
And after having made serious waves with his savvy craft cocktails at Ciro's Speakeasy and Boca Kitchen Bar Market, both in Tampa, Bob Wagner has been tapped as manager. (Why the move for him? "Cigar City Brewing is one of those companies that celebrates everything that is great about Tampa.") As assistant manager, the dynamic Baye Perry was employed, having spent time at Datz and at a gastropub in the Detroit suburbs.
Indeed, the brewpub fits neatly in the gastropub box. It's still a fairly nebulous term despite having recently landed in Merriam-Webster, but I think of a gastropub as having more ambitious fare than "pub grub," with an affection for hearty things like housemade charcuterie that pair well with great beer or smart drinks.
As with most contrarians, if Redner is doing "gastropub," he's doing it his own dang way. He's hired Nicolay Adinaguev (he's Peruvian-Russian), most recently of Steak 954 at the W in Fort Lauderdale and previously at Michael's Genuine in Miami. Adinaguev grew up in South Florida and he's clearly been given the green light to bring some Cuban razzle-dazzle to the menu.
So, a crock of pork rillette (shreds of almost pate-like silken pork you spread on crostini; $7) gets a little mojo seasoning. A pair of eggrolls ($5) comes with Cuban sandwich filling, all that roast pork and salami and Swiss paired with a mustard dipping sauce. There's a slow-cooked boliche shot through with housemade chorizo ($15), ropa vieja ($15) and Tampa's own historic oddity, crunchy-crusted devil crab ($8).
But really, things get interesting when Adinaguev spreads out a little and doesn't hew too close to Cuban inspiration. A plate of fat grilled asparagus stalks get a vivacious romesco sauce (a tangy roasted red pepper puree) lent distinction by hazelnuts in lieu of almonds. A panzanella of La Segunda bread and heirloom tomatoes ($9) brought gorgeous flavors (although the bowl was too small and the hunks too big and hard to eat). A kimchi jar ($5) of cabbage and daikon was an appetizer in the truest meaning, getting the saliva flowing and enlivening the senses. Pair this with a bowl of geez-I-need-to-stop-eating-these fried chicarrones ($6) with a bit of salt and lime and it's perfect beer food.
You wouldn't think beer-friendly fare would include salads like one of greens, roasted beets and goat cheese mousse ($9) or another of local kale and fried hominy ($10) and shaves of pecorino, but it does. The same goes for the very best dessert, the Hunahpu's Imperial flourless chocolate cake ($8), a homey, dense confection in which the beer's pasilla chilis and cinnamon can be detected. Launched at $5 and quickly bumped to $8, it's still loss leader when you consider beer nuts buy bottles of Cigar City's prized Hunahpu online for more than $100 — a bottle.
Whole Foods recently took a gamble that the Northdale area would support its organic/sustainable mission, and Cigar City Brewpub is doing the same — wherever possible, it draws from local farms for veggies and meats. Yeah, a lot of restaurants are saying that these days, so it's prudent to be skeptical. Redner is such an exuberant Florida booster that it's not surprising to see grits, strawberries, shrimp and other items sourced from our state (but Joey, take a look at the cheese and charcuterie plates — surely something could come from Florida?).
So, great beer, a singular and Florida-centric menu, dynamic staff and cool atmosphere, Northdale gets it all. And to me the most satisfying thing is it all takes place in what was once a T.G.I. Friday's.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.