Our favorite country & Southern restaurants
With a stellar lineup of country all-stars in town this week, it got us digging for the best country cooking.
Loretta Lynn, the most awarded woman in country music history, starts things off Sunday (Mahaffey Theater $35.50-$65.50), and then Feb. 24 is a twangy day bringing us Travis Tritt (Mahaffey $35.50-$55.50) as well as Vince Gill and Lyle Lovett (together at Ruth Eckerd Hall $48.75-$125) before Rosanne Cash brings Grammy-winning country royalty to the Capitol Theatre on Feb. 25 ($35-$75).
All this country goodness reminds us that there's been a wave of upscale, down-home cooking in the Tampa Bay restaurant scene and here are some of our recent favorites:
The Mill Restaurant
200 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 317-3930
The place is steampunk-cool, festooned with gears and tooled leather and vintage waterwheels, and the food is vibrant, with a globe-trotting knack for bringing in Spanish or Southeast Asian or Middle Eastern flavors without seeming incoherent. Its menu concerns itself with gamier meats and humbler cuts (boar ribs, braised lamb belly, venison saddle). A meal alone could be made on the Brussels leaves salad with grilled radicchio and pork belly croutons (what kind of black magic is that?), and a pork tomahawk is the kind of Flintstone-sized dish you'll be dipping into fridge-side at home for a couple of days.
Fodder and Shine
5910 N Florida Ave., Tampa; (813) 234-3710
What started last year as an academically rigorous re-creation of Florida Cracker food from about 1820 to the Depression has morphed into a more broadly appealing Southern restaurant in the hands of four-time James Beard Award semifinalist Greg Baker and his wife, Michelle. The Florida-raised and classically trained chef puts out a no-flour skillet corn bread with a satisfying crispy edge and just the right amount of sweetness; vinegar-zingy braised greens with a deep smoky bacon flavor; simple, earthy roast beets sweetened with cane syrup; and soft butter-braised cabbage and turnips. All of these are served in little individual bowls that are easily passed as shared sides (or put together as a vegetarian dinner).
Urban Comfort Restaurant and Brewery
2601 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 623-9823
The sister restaurant to Urban Brew and BBQ, with made-from-scratch menu items, craft beers on tap and an open kitchen that puts out a very solid fried chicken (juicy interior, fairly thick crunchy batter, very greaseless). It tips into memorable territory with a little ramekin of honey hot sauce, but you've got to pay an extra buck for that. There's a homey chicken pot pie (they also offer a vegetarian version), the bechamel-style sauce cradling familiar veggies and big shreds of white-meat chicken (and a few unfortunate bone pieces). The overall effect, served in a super-hot cast iron skillet, is inviting and old-timey. Same goes for the house hush puppies and biscuits, both fairly airy and light, offered as a side to the solid fried fish of the day. The single best menu item is the fried green tomatoes, offered at lunch as the centerpiece of a BLT.
Hog Island Fish Camp
900 Broadway Ave., Dunedin; (727) 736-1179
The name is a nod to the area's history and the hog farm that was once on Honeymoon and neighboring Caladesi, renamed and rebranded as a honeymoon spot in 1939. Owner Walt Wickman is paying tribute to the area's past, but hog is also germane to the menu. There is an excellent blackened or fried hogfish sandwich and plenty of pork, from a sandwich with sweet-zingy house-made bread and butter pickles to a rustic pork "steak." The Southern-style buttermilk fried chicken is a big pile of crunchy-exteriored, juicy-interiored poultry pieces that serves two or three people with a choice of three sides. Salt-and-pepper fried seafood options from shrimp to oysters. As at Wickman's other restaurants, seafood is unmistakably fresh and very Florida-centric.