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@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.