When Grille One Sixteen opened in 2007, it was just about the swankiest place Carrollwood residents had ever seen. At the time I snarked, "How did they airlift this restaurant from Miami to Carrollwood?"
In its place, Sacred Pepper blossomed in April, its owner Candy DeBartolo taking an equally high-style design in an entirely new direction. While Grille One Sixteen was all white leather viewed through inky darkness, Sacred Pepper is festooned with elaborate chandeliers in organic shapes, crystal beading echoing a bubbling water wall and lapis blue accents that allude to both sea and sky. The domed hall to the bathroom, with its dew-on-a-spider-web wall treatment, will cause countless dates to wonder if foul play has waylaid their partners. They're fine, but that hallway is prime selfie territory.
Interior designer Enrique Crespo of Tampa's Crespo Design Group went all out on this place. He literally raised the roof and installed a showstopper bar inlaid with luminous agate cross-sections. Tufted upholstery is kept in a neutral, natural palette to throw focus on the rest of the design.
Unsurprisingly, Sacred Pepper is Carrollwood's new see-and-be-seen spot, much like its predecessor. And also like its predecessor, the food is more approachable and less high-design than the interior. There are a few reasons for that. First off, DeBartolo (whose husband, Eddie DeBartolo Jr. is a 2016 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee who won five Super Bowls as the owner of the San Francisco 49ers) has a fondness for familiar, nurturant Italian-inflected food. There's the family marinara recipe elegantly scrawled across one mirrored wall. A trio of veal and pork meatballs in that marinara is the signature Sacred appetizer.
Another reason: Sacred Pepper has the same chef as Grille One Sixteen, which closed in 2014. James Maita seems to hit the sweet spot by offering upscale but accessible spins on comfort foods. He spent a little time away from the kitchen in between the two restaurants, but has come back with a menu that features burgers, pork chops and a raft of familiar shareables and pizzettes. Is there anything incongruous about ladies in little black dresses tweezing up sweet potato tots and honey maple glaze with long manicured fingers? Only if you think about it too hard.
After the interior, the second most impressive part of Sacred Pepper is the bar program. There are smart wines on tap, an interesting and well-priced wine list that doesn't lean too heavily on chard and cab, and a cocktail lineup that ranges from refreshing, girlie quaffs (the Tall & Sexy, the Fountain of Youth) to sophisticated options like the blackberry-muddled margarita. The beer list is a little short by 2016 standards, but there are still some nice craft options.
Over a couple of visits I nibbled through all the sections of the menu. The single best dish is a funny one, but clearly something dear to DeBartolo's heart: Delicate leaves of buttered phyllo are stacked between piped lines of honeyed goat cheese and accented with a fig reduction and bits of pistachio for what amounts to a goat cheese baklava ($12.90). Tempura-fried shishito peppers ($5.50) are cropping up on lots of menus these days, but Sacred's version gets a nice soy-ginger dipper and is not too heavy on the breading. In general, overdressing marred a few dishes, from the tuna tartare ($17.50) to a Maine lobster and fresh corn salad ($16.50) and a power kale salad ($11.90 — anyone getting kale fatigue yet?). As my mom would admonish, you can always add but you can't take away. All three of these dishes were laudable in other ways, and ingredients seemed fundamentally of good quality.
The signature meatballs ($13.40) are very tender, almost gefilte-fish-tender, but that may be a style I just don't relate to. I like a little heft and texture on a meatball, but the marinara had a good balance of sweet and tang. And I applaud that they offer a genuine vegan entree: A cauliflower steak, pan-seared on either side, comes with a swirl of that same marinara, grilled asparagus and a scoop of nutty quinoa. Queue the quinoa again as a side on a pleasant Norwegian salmon fillet ($20) that arrives with a tumble of tomato salad and a sheen of unmemorable white wine butter sauce. (A squeeze of lemon would have jazzed things up more effectively.)
DeBartolo chose the restaurant's name as a statement about the sanctity of sharing a meal. Not all of the food I tried was precisely heaven-sent, but with such a stylish setting and a supremely well-trained staff headed up by general manager Chad Bash, this newcomer does seem to have the power to transport.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.