Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Restaurant News

Review: Élevage at Tampa's Epicurean Hotel needs more polish

RECOMMENDED READING


TAMPA

Élevage is an obscure wine term for what happens to grape juice between fermentation and bottling. As the name for the new Epicurean Hotel's signature restaurant, it's an interesting, and appropriately metaphorical, name.

The genius of winemaking is anticipating how a particular quantity of juice should be manipulated and coddled to yield something infinitely more complicated and rarefied. The terroir, or character, of the grapes, the ambitions and budget of the winery and dozens of other factors play into the decisionmaking.

The Epicurean Hotel, a partnership of Bern's Steak House and Tampa-based Mainsail Lodging and Development Group, has serious ambition. With 137 rooms, it also features a 2,000-square-foot ballroom/meeting space, a restaurant, rooftop bar, culinary classroom, the just-opened Chocolate Pi bakery, a spa and the just-relocated Bern's Fine Wines & Spirits. The goal is to be a national culinary destination on the strength of its exhibitions, festivals and visiting celebrity chefs.

It's logical, then, to assume that the ownership team would want Élevage to be a pull-out-all-the-stops culinary tour de force. But that doesn't take the whole picture into consideration: Right across the street is Bern's Steak House, a 58-year-old institution that has built a national reputation on aged steaks and one of the world's largest wine lists. A block away is its younger sibling, SideBern's, where chef Chad Johnson has been recognized by the James Beard Foundation and others for his dynamic, upscale New American cuisine.

So whatever Élevage was going to be, it couldn't plagiarize or compete with the two existing restaurants. And this is where that wine term becomes relevant. The team that put together Élevage has thrown a bunch of good ideas into the mix: a moderately priced menu heavy on reinterpreted down-home comfort foods, lots of rustic Restoration Hardware-style lighting, and edgy black-and-white tile floors, waiters in plaid flannel shirts and jeans, architectural desserts and beach cruiser bikes as decor.

But it doesn't all hang together.

Much has been made online of the restaurant's poor service since its December launch. I've eaten there three times and witnessed service evolve from truly terrible to decent, so my bet is that four months from now, servers will exhibit good food knowledge and instincts, and reservationists and hosts will be less snooty/clueless.

The harder problems to fix are on the plates. A number of dishes should be rethought, many others require more rigorous execution to be enjoyable, and all together the menu feels like a jumble of ideas that don't mesh with the vibe of the place (although I hear the waiters' flannel shirts are to be nixed). Johnson is overseeing the food at both Élevage and SideBern's — a role that seems herculean even at two seasoned restaurants. My guess is that it's when his eagle eyes are elsewhere that the Élevage kitchen falters.

First, the dishes that should be rethought. There are good deviled eggs in Tampa and St. Pete; these are not them. A quartet of egg halves ($9) is stuffed with a blue crab-yolk mix that is so mustardy-vinegary that the fishiness of the crab is unpleasantly accentuated. A poorly described Turkish lamb flatbread ($10) brings a cracker-thin crust smeared with an intensely salty and spicy lamb-and-tomato paste, its intensity mitigated only by a few salty fluffs of feta and strands of arugula. Why puree the lamb on this so smoothly?

And the lone vegetarian entree, a gardener's pie ($24), was deemed "a vegetarian dish thought up by non-vegetarians" by my two veggie companions one night: potatoes and carrots in a bland brown gravy topped by a crust of mashed potatoes in turn topped by a pile of dressed frisee that is promptly frizzled by the hot potato. Potato on potato is carbo-loading indeed.

Élevage escargots ($14) are for people who fear snails: What's under that heavy mantle of molten mozzarella and thick tomato sauce? Who can say? And once the cheese cools, it's a congealed mess.

Dishes that need improved execution include both a pork belly ($13) and a cedar-planked salmon ($29) that were undercooked. I ordered the salmon on two occasions and both times its texture was mushy and its center too rare/translucent. The pork belly read like a big square of fat, with no crisp-edged meaty part to contrast the plushness, although its bed of sauerkraut and whiskey-pickled apples were nice. A lovely length of bone marrow ($9) with just the right amount of coarse salt, caper and shallot, was dominated by aggressively flavored rye toasts. The delicate flavor of bone marrow couldn't stand up to it. And vinegar-glazed country pork ribs ($25) with white beans and cornbread Madeleines is conceptually excellent, marred by a viciously tart sauce.

Some of the cute-ironic reinterpretations of comfort dishes are effective (a "tuna casserole" of rare tuna and handmade pasta twists with just the right amount of cheddarlike cantalet cheese; $26), and others aren't ("fish and chips" with more seared tuna and fried pickle chips and a ranch-ish sauce; $14), largely because they stray so far from expectations. But expectations can be adjusted by good server explanations, so I'm not saying it can't work.

The most elegant and sophisticated part of Élevage is, unsurprisingly, Kim Yelvington's desserts. She's a pro, having overseen Bern's Harry Waugh Dessert Room for years. These are a little more stylish and edgy than what she does across the street, but her expertise is evident from the lovely banana caramel tart ($9) to a tiered tray of macarons and tiny cakes ($22). Chocolate Pi will be a way to sample her artistry at home or just over a cup of coffee.

As of yet, the cocktail execution at Élevage doesn't measure up to that at SideBern's (both programs overseen by Dean Hurst), and the wine list, despite the presence of the wine shop, is surprisingly short, although it features an appealingly quirky list of Old and New World bottles, everything offered by the glass.

If Epicurean Hotel owners are depending on Bern's, SideBern's and Élevage to function as three ingredients in a culinary stew with national appeal, the Élevage portion is coming up short.

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

Comments
No Thanksgiving plan? Head to one of these Tampa Bay restaurants for traditional feasts and more

No Thanksgiving plan? Head to one of these Tampa Bay restaurants for traditional feasts and more

You realize Thanksgiving is just a week away, right? No pressure. If you don’t have a holiday game plan for Nov. 23, let’s do this thing. There are still a bunch of options, many traditional Thanksgiving repasts and some a little less conventional. C...
Published: 11/16/17
Oak & Stone with self-serve beer coming to St. Pete, South Tampa’s Byblos to reopen

Oak & Stone with self-serve beer coming to St. Pete, South Tampa’s Byblos to reopen

COMING SOON: OAK & STONEBeen to Oak & Stone in Sarasota? In early 2018 we’ll get one in St. Petersburg at 199 Central Ave., next to the newly constructed Hyatt Place. The concept is wood-fired pizzas mated with a self-serve beer wall highlighting cr...
Published: 11/15/17
Updated: 11/20/17
A St. Petersburg artist created the labels for this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau wine release

A St. Petersburg artist created the labels for this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau wine release

Every year, there are bad things we can count on: taxes and death. And good things: Thanksgiving Day on the fourth Thursday of November and on the Thursday before, the Beaujolais nouveau arrives. What is less predictable is just how this vin de l’ann...
Published: 11/15/17
Updated: 11/17/17
Restaurant review: NuMex needs to tell its story better to stand out among St. Petersburg’s taco scene

Restaurant review: NuMex needs to tell its story better to stand out among St. Petersburg’s taco scene

ST. PETERSBURGI seldom have been so perplexed about a new restaurant. The prospect of NuMex’s opening in the Grand Central District swirled more than a year ago and I watched the hip little building come together. The spelling of the name itself was ...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Proper in downtown St. Pete to close as Park & Rec takes over its space

Proper in downtown St. Pete to close as Park & Rec takes over its space

ST. PETERSBURG — Next week, something almost unprecedented is happening in St. Petersburg’s restaurant scene.Park & Rec, the game-oriented concept from Stephen Schrutt’s Hunger + Thirst Restaurant Group, will expand Nov. 17 into a second building. It...
Published: 11/10/17
Don’t want to cook on Thanksgiving? Where to pick up every part of the meal in Tampa Bay

Don’t want to cook on Thanksgiving? Where to pick up every part of the meal in Tampa Bay

Some years you’re feeling it. The peeling of the pearl onions, the procuring of the chestnuts, that one creepy moment when you’re nearly elbow-deep trying to locate the bag of giblets. Thanksgiving is the most important cooking holiday of the year, t...
Published: 11/08/17
Made Coffee’s cold brew creation is brewed and canned right here in Tampa Bay

Made Coffee’s cold brew creation is brewed and canned right here in Tampa Bay

ST. PETERSBURGLet’s start with the actual can itself, a turquoise-tan-orange vessel emblazoned with text and illustrations: "Ingredients: coffee, water, time"; an image of a simple coffee brewing process under "How we made it." The colors pop, the fo...
Published: 11/07/17
Updated: 11/10/17
New Indian restaurant Rasoi now open in Ybor City

New Indian restaurant Rasoi now open in Ybor City

Rasoi Indian Cuisine, launched its grand opening Saturday (Nov. 4) as the only Indian restaurant in Ybor City. Located at 1701 E Eighth Ave., the traditional restaurant cooks authentic Indian food with the finest spices and ingredients imported from...
Published: 11/07/17
Naples is a dining destination worth visiting, rich with newcomers and long-standing favorites

Naples is a dining destination worth visiting, rich with newcomers and long-standing favorites

NAPLES Naples Restaurant Week is a semiannual promotion celebrating the region’s best dining at an affordable price, with lunch and dinner prix fixe meals available for either $25 or $35, depending on the location. This year it’s slated ...
Updated one month ago
Calling food fans: This weekend has food festivals in Dunedin, Indian Rocks Beach and more

Calling food fans: This weekend has food festivals in Dunedin, Indian Rocks Beach and more

Let’s hope you’ve been in an abstemious mode, maybe even fasting this past week, because things are about to get real for Tampa Bay foodies. TAMPA GREEK FESTIVAL One of the biggest events this weekend is the Tampa Greek Festival at St....
Published: 11/03/17
Updated: 11/10/17