Friday, June 22, 2018
Dining

Restaurant reviews: Two solid chains, Tom + Chee and Freshii, debut in Tampa Bay

ST. PETERSBURG

Out with the old and in with the new. That's the wobbly mantra that kicks in right around Jan. 2 after the fog of New Year's Eve has dissipated entirely (it takes less time if you're younger; we're talking a full two days for me). So herewith I bring you two new chain concepts that have debuted in the area in the past month: Tom+Chee, a grilled cheese and tomato soup dynamic duo, and Freshii, a counter-service healthy-stuff proposition, both speaking to current preoccupations.

Freshii has about 200 locations in more than 80 cities and 15 countries, with the first Florida outpost sprouting up last year in Orlando. It was immediately beset by health- and time-conscious diners who grooved on its Chipotle-ish setup with a decidedly green-juice-and-quinoa aesthetic. Matthew Corrin opened the first one in Toronto in 2005, the initial 100 stores opening faster than Subway, Jimmy John's, McDonald's or Starbucks.

We got our first one in November in Ibis Walk and it's an appealing package. With a lively white and green color scheme and a lot of wide open space, it feels like the kind of place you'll see a lot of girls in yoga pants taking smiling-with-kale-smoothie selfies. As is the buzz word at so many places, this is all about customizability. Pick a burrito style (Baja, Spicy Thai, etc.) or a bowl (Mediterranean, Teriyaki Twist and so forth), then pick your protein (chicken, falafel, tofu, steak, carnitas; all the meats hormone- and antibiotic-free). The big, attractive menu boards get rounded out with a sophisticated list of soups (spicy lemongrass, Asian vegetable), salads, froyo and juices.

The default for the burritos is a chewy, flavorful whole wheat wrap, but you can make it a "green wrap" (that means lettuce) for an extra 75 cents, or make kale or quinoa the base for 99 cents. Once you pack a protein into the mix, the finished burrito is about $10, expensive compared to other counter-service chains, but not if you consider the quality of the ingredients.

From a Buddha's Satay bowl (rice noodles, crispy wontons, broccoli and other veggies with a sweet and just-slightly-spicy peanut sauce; $7.24, more if you add a protein) to the Southwestern soup with brown rice, corn, broccoli and tomato in a rich chicken broth ($6.99), this food seems wholesome and carefully orchestrated. All the smoothies and juices I saw had a big squirt of yogurt in them, which I could do without, and Pinkberry fans won't be gaga over the tangy froyo with two toppings for $4.99 (feels pricey), but Freshii is as welcome a fast-casual concept as I've seen with my own two "ii's."

When Freshii started it was all "brown rice and spinach!" and now it's "superfoods! I heart kale!" So it does savvy shifting with the zeitgeist. At the Cincinnati-based fast-casual grilled cheese empire Tom+Chee, made famous on Shark Tank, it focuses on riding the wave of nostalgia for a gooey-crunchy sammy paired with a cup of tomato soup just like Mom used to make.

They are not alone — in November, Kings Street Food Counter opened in St. Petersburg, heavy on the grilled cheese, and Central Melt is poised to open any day featuring "artisanal grilled cheese."

This 80-seat, 2,600-square footer, opened by franchisees Matthew Wagner and Holly Mace, feels more family-friendly and Mayberry-appropriate than "artisanal," but the grilled cheeses are quite good and well priced. Most concoctions start off with a hearty square white bread, but there are other options like pumpernickel rye, wheat berry, gluten-free or, if you're up to it, a glazed doughnut.

The original one opened in 2009 to thaw out ice skaters at Cincinnati's Fountain Square, but it still feels like a treat even in this unseasonably warm Florida winter. There are around 20 sandwich options, a number of them "crunchy," which essentially means potato chips have been implicated in the sandwich innards. Sound odd? The barbecue bacon grilled cheese ($6.45) was surprisingly addictive, oozing American cheese but with textural interest from barbecue chips and little clods of sturdy bacon.

With a red-and-gold color scheme that mirrors the goods, Tom+Chee seems to attract half dine-in and half take-it-to-go business thus far. Even to go, sandwiches stay crunchy on the outside and molten-centered, and the soups stayed warm. (There are three styles of tangy tomato and a soup of the day, $3.50-$5; but then there's a really cute tiny-cup "dipper" option for $1.)

If you start with a Flying Pig (roasted turkey, bacon, tangy pickle and smoked gouda; $6.95) and then segue into a grilled cheese donut sanwiched with Andes mints and topped with white chocolate goo and peppermint crunchies, $4.95, you are not going to make decisive headway toward those 2016 resolutions. But you can always start next week.

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

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