I was always trying to figure out Mangroves. It was a nightclub that, for a while, had really good food. But it sometimes was populated by grim-looking sturdy older Russian guys with pinky rings and their preternaturally bored 6-foot-tall model/whatever girlfriends. Who were these people? Did they live in Tampa? Sometimes Mangroves was Cougar Town, sometimes fake IDs abounded. When it became Sunova Beach last year it was less enigmatic, but the food was nothing of note. (Alright, the fries with multiple dipping sauces were solid.)
Partners TJ Miller, Adam Izkowitz and Vincent Jackson, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver, reinvented the space June 15 as Cask Social Kitchen. (Really, CASK is an acronym for Craft A'fare Social Kitchen, but since that "A'fare" nonsense was just used by a short-lived restaurant on Kennedy, I'm ignoring that part.) It was an epic renovation undertaken at breakneck speed, each day's progress like antic time-lapse photography. They got the doors open with time to spare, hosting the Buccaneers' staff and players one night, and a VIP opening event the next, before debuting their take on contemporary Southern food to the public on the 15th.
At the northern end of the Soho party strip, this newcomer has plenty to lure South Tampa northward. The 5,200-square-foot restaurant-bar has exposed brick, loads of fragrant just-planed wood and an industrial-hip indoor-outdoor design that is reminiscent of a number of recently opened Tampa and St. Petersburg restaurants, with touches like Edison bulbs and Big Ass Fans. (That's a brand name, not commentary.) It's got bustle and vitality (it will be interesting to see if the more subdued second-floor space inherited from Mangroves is the most desirable or least desirable seating), all with a gracious Southern drawl.
The restaurant landscape in South Tampa has gotten dense, making it essential for newcomers to carve out novel niches if they hope to survive. Cask seems to have done this, targeting whiskey-centric cocktails and the kind of new Southern dishes that restaurants like Charleston's Husk have made relevant. Wimauma briefly filled this space, and Roux, which took its place, covers some Southern classics, but NoLa style.
Thus far, craft cocktails are the biggest draws at Cask: brunch's Bloody Mary with the bacon swizzle ($10); Black Bubbles ($10) with Ketel One, St. George raspberry, lemon juice, blackberries and a float of champagne; and the house Old Fashioned ($12) with cinnamon bitters, fresh orange, vanilla syrup and a "filthy cherry." Craft beers go heavy on locals like Cigar City and Coppertail, and wine selections include fun options like the Vin Eighty Three chard and cab, and tributes to Vincent Jackson whereby a portion of proceeds goes to the Jackson in Action 83 Foundation.
Chef Jessica Wafford has some great ideas in the kitchen, but stuttery pacing and server befuddlement can mar things, and the menu pricing seems like it needs adjustments. Case in point: The cheese and charcuterie tray does not merit its $26 price tag, while the Sweet Belgian Bird entree, a generous buttermilk-battered fried chicken breast on sweet potato waffles with a ramekin of slyly spicy bourbon maple syrup and another one of spiced watermelon, may be Tampa's best bargain at $11.
At supper, sharables and "fixins" lean heavily on the deep fryer. In the case of the fried green tomato caprese ($9), this is a good thing, the plush mozzarella and balsamic drizzle welcome foils for the crunchy tomato rounds. The "Buffalo" cauliflower ($8) could take a lesson from Edison Food & Drink Lab, however, the breading much too thick and Buffalo sauce largely MIA. I would have foregone all the deep-fryer dishes in favor of the pan-fried cornmeal-crusted red snapper ($27), a lovely piece of fresh fish plopped down on a succotash that made great use of quinoa and fried, but not breaded, okra rounds — a very sophisticated dish that exemplified what new Southern is all about.
Desserts don't yet rise to the heights of dishes like the sinful crab and mac cakes ($13) or the array of corn breads with different butters. The s'mores ($6) brought an ugly blob of choco-goo, and the Southern sundae tasted like the ice cream had been prescooped and had picked up some off flavors ($6). In order to match the sophistication of the space — white oak whiskey barrels arrayed decoratively and a welcoming vaulted-ceilinged patio — Wafford and kitchen crew will have to tinker a bit. Still, as far as new "a'fares" go in Soho, Cask has its share of razzle-dazzle.
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.