A successful restaurant is hundreds of tiny details, layers and strata of decisions that hover just below diners' radar. They add up, working synergistically to tell a cohesive, coherent story. Like a beautifully tailored suit, seams and stitches are invisible, tucked away close to the skin, the drape falling effortlessly.
The new Ox & Fields in Seminole Heights has hundreds of tiny details alright, but many are jarring and incongruous.
You valet park in plain sight of the derelict burned-out house next door. Tables are clothed in black linens topped with brown butcher paper, the ripped edges hanging beyond the edges of the tables — like a prom dress with cleats, it's two perfectly fine things that don't go together.
The front door, hard to find and on the back of the building, is a utilitarian blank white with industrial hardware that makes it look like the entrance to a walk-in refrigerator. First timers invariably say, "Wait, is this the entrance?" The air-conditioning in the 1924 bungalow isn't up to the task given the open kitchen, so eye-sore units are set up in the dining room, one so close to a two-top that it would be like having a third guest at the table. Some touches are just hokey: Menus come affixed to clunky blocks of wood; dessert menus inserted in wine corks won't stand up as designed; bills arrive on a swath of burlap, impossible to write on.
Cocktails are all $14, very steep for Seminole Heights, and the wine list is almost exclusively Old World and expensive — it's an interesting take, but there's nothing about the heavily Asian-inflected menu that calls out for Bordeaux or Tuscan bottlings.
I don't understand what they're trying to do. The Ox & Fields website says, "Florida's finest culinary selections from over 30 local farms and fishermen," but when I talked to chef de cuisine Nana Darkwah about sourcing, he said his produce comes from FreshPoint (a division of Sysco) and land proteins like Joyce chicken through Halperns', a large food distributor in the Southeast. Where's that 30 number from?
I've followed co-managing partner, executive chef and St. Petersburg native Viet Vo through many of his gigs in the area — at the Sandpearl Resort in Clearwater, Boca in Tampa, Souzou in St. Petersburg — and I've always been impressed with his food. He's teamed up with Michael Royce Lynch and taken over the space that was, fairly briefly, the Bourgeois Pig.
BP suffered from problems. The owners didn't endear themselves to the neighborhood (including a tone-deaf decision to bring a live elephant on-site as a promotion) and their starting chef walked out. The biggest problem, though, was that it was too fancy, and too pricey, for precisely where it was in Seminole Heights. Location informs choices among those hundreds of tiny details, and Bourgeois Pig seemed out of synch with its setting.
I fear Ox & Fields may be doing something similar. I've spoken to about a dozen people who have eaten there and they all say the same thing: It's too expensive for what you get. I applaud that they have a separate vegetarian menu, but dishes like a trio of lettuce leaves cradling a mushroom ragout with a scallion ginger pesto represents probably 150 calories, and at $9 that's a steep per-calorie cost. Same goes for the potato medley ($12) or the cilantro fried rice ($12): It's just not enough food for those prices.
On a couple of visits I sampled widely from the one-page menu and separate veg menu, the best dishes a pho-men (a pho/ramen hybrid with a densely rich broth crowded with pork belly, egg, noodles for $14); a beef and broccoli dish that paired plushly braised short rib with rapini and wide, flat chow fun noodles ($22); and the hoisin-glazed bison meatballs ($12), which reminded me of a similar dish at Souzou.
Other things missed the mark: Oxtail poutine ($13) brought a jumble of tater tots swamped with gravied oxtail, truffled cheese and fried egg (and how does this fit with the rest of the menu?); the gorgeous housemade mozzarella wasn't shown off to best effect against battered zucchini and a heavy ponzu reduction — too salty, too fatty ($14).
There is good work being done here (all hail pastry chef Andrea Hutchinson's cobblers), but as a fully realized concept it hasn't yet gelled. There are noise problems, the unfortunate grey-purple walls desperately need art and service is frequently tentative — all fixable. The biggest problem is that the story Vo and Lynch are telling isn't coherent yet.
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.