The headline for one of the first stories I wrote about Locale Market was: "Scope, Scale of Locale Market Alters Terrain." It was November of last year and St. Petersburg was eagerly awaiting the debut of the Michael Mina-Don Pintabona market-dining hall collaboration that was to anchor Bill Edwards' much-heralded Sundial shopping center. • Since that piece I've written eight or nine additional stories about Locale and its restaurant component, FarmTable Kitchen, and I've learned something: Smart people don't just alter the terrain, they pay attention to the indigenous terrain and alter their mission to suit.
Mina and company seem utterly comfortable with the idea of flux. They tinker, they tweak, they reshuffle employees and re-envision the scope of what they sell. Arguably the biggest change came in November when the whole second floor became FarmTable Kitchen, a 145-seat, full-service, sit-down restaurant. The original agenda echoed that at some of the country's destination gourmet markets such as Mario Batali's Eataly: an integrated approach that flowed seamlessly from stand-and-dine, to meat and seafood counters, prepared foods, grab-and-go goodies, charcuterie and sit-down high-end dining.
Tampa Bay shoppers found it confusing, evidently. They wanted their shopping all on one floor. And they didn't want to troll around, drippy St. Petersburger in hand, waiting for a place to sit down.
Done and done.
The overall effect is more traditional. That could be viewed as a loss: an edgy, big-city concept that has been toned down for the local audience. Combine that with Pintabona's new, more hands-off role, as well as less frequent visits from West Coast-based Mina, and one might lament what 1-year-old Locale has become.
But that doesn't take executive chef Jeffrey Hileman into account. At the market since its inception, and with the Mina Group since 2009, he was promoted a few months ago and set about getting to know the market: his customers, local vendors and even fellow Tampa Bay chefs. The upshot is a restaurant that, while casual, is among the most polished and ambitious to open in the area this year.
Hileman has some secret weapons. Unlike most restaurants that debut with maybe a couple of "big gun" chefs and a whole bunch of minions with lesser resumes, Locale launched with 15 professionally trained chefs manning different stations around the 20,000-square-foot property. Several of the original 15 have departed, but the talented Matt Dahlkemper has stayed on and now oversees the prix fixe dining in the small private dining room, pastry chef Alicia Sherrill wows with smart and contemporary desserts, and general manager Justin Yu has that unicorn-rare mix of polished professionalism and warmth.
So Hileman has the resources of good people. But that's not all that elevates the new FarmTable Kitchen. I feel fairly confident in saying that the steaks — from a 13-ounce Creekstone Ranch prime bone-in filet ($44) to a 16-ounce Niman Ranch 45-day dry-aged-on-site Kansas City strip ($55) — are the best served in the Tampa Bay area, period. I've frequently fogged the window into the meat-aging room lined with pink Himalayan salt blocks and purchased worth-every-penny steaks to cook at home. But they don't compare to the ones I recently ate at FarmTable, the finished steaks lushly smoky from the fly-wheel wood grills, intensely savory from all that dry-aging, yet juicy and plush from deep marbling.
Other ingredients follow suit, many sourced locally. There are Two Docks clams grown right under the Sunshine Skyway that appear as an appetizer in a buttery, winey sauce with Locale's own spicy sausage and rusks of sourdough ($12); Uriah's Urban Farms lettuces and greens, which show up in the build-your-own salad (use the golf pencil and check off ingredients and dressings to suit); and dayboat fish like yellow snapper that come out of local water to grace the table as nightly fillets or whole fish.
Ingredients that make longer treks do so for a reason: because they are superlative. A crispy-skinned half Joyce Farms chicken ($28) hails from North Carolina (free range, no hormones, totally delicious) and gets paired up with a savory chickpea ragout and spinach. German speck, Italian bresaola, Spanish goat cheese — all these can be had on the cheese and charcuterie plates, but I think the plate of housemade sausage ($16 for two) is every bit as gorgeous, whether the slightly spicy Korean-inflected one or the sturdy-gamey bison version.
A month into this new concept, FarmTable is firing on all cylinders: Servers and bartenders are attentive and know their stuff; there's a strong lineup of cocktails (with kooky names that can be embarrassing to ask for: "I'd like a Hand With Reflecting Sphere, please, easy on the Hellfire") and an equally savvy array of bottled and canned Florida-centric craft beers and rigorously curated wines by the glass. (Rajat Parr, who oversees Mina's wine programs, did just win a James Beard award, after all.)
But it's consistently what's on the plate that has me excited about this newcomer. Sherrill turns out playfully deconstructed sweets, like her own spin on a Snickers, called Schneekers, $7, with a chocolate-enrobed confection showcased against insanely good caramel corn, and there's a shallow bowl of lush butterscotch pot de creme ($6) that is accented by slightly salty pepitas, little poofs of glossy toasted meringue and a sweet potato cake. Notice the prices on those. You've become inured to $14 cocktails and $11 desserts, right? FarmTable Kitchen, despite all its firepower, keeps the prices in check.
Which is why on a Tuesday night, for no special reason, you're likely to find me huddled over a shared cremini mushroom and taleggio pizza ($15) and then a wide bowl of seasonally appropriate butternut squash housemade cappelletti with toasted walnuts and a sage brown butter ($17). And once I've paid all my holiday bills and am feeling a little less financially wobbly, I'll be heading back for another prime steak, whether that's downstairs at Locale Market or upstairs at the newly conceived restaurant.
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.