Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Restaurants

Review: Oxford Exchange weds booze, select suppertimes

TAMPA

When Oxford Exchange opened near the end of 2012 it was the hottest thing going. That is, at breakfast, lunchtime and for afternoon tea because owner Blake Casper and his sister Allison Adams weren't open for dinner. There were enough moving pieces to keep track of: the restaurant with its greenhouse atrium, the tiny bookstore and gift shop, a Buddy Brew coffee stand and a TeBella bar, the "Commerce Club" rentable office spaces upstairs, special events and, as it turns out, lots and lots of weddings.

Adams says there are more than 30 weddings on the books right now. And no wonder: Next time I get hitched I am definitely making my dramatic entrance (all right, not a white dress, maybe taupe) down the grand staircase at Oxford Exchange's central hallway.

But here's a curious thing. If you cater weddings on your own premises and you don't have a liquor license, you have to buy all the hooch retail, not wholesale. Pony up for a liquor license and the savings ramp up pretty quickly. So a few weeks ago they were granted a liquor license, and as a byproduct added a beer and wine menu and the first fledgling cocktail array powered by cold-pressed juices from the OE Market down the block.

That's all fine and good, but the era of the three-martini lunch is (she says wistfully) long past. Wine, beer and liquor are most aptly trotted out at dinner.

"We were looking for ways to sustain the business," Adams said. "And people kept asking about dinner."

Welcome to the Oxford Exchange for supper, Thursday and Sunday evenings. More evening hours may follow and Adams anticipates launching a summer supper series.

It's a gorgeous space at night and, so far, less mobbed than at lunchtime. Chef Erin Guggino, who has been lobbying for supper hours, has crafted a menu that features some of the lunch items but is mostly all new. Not all of it is a slam-dunk, but there's quite a bit worth ordering.

As at lunch, the burger is very good (but pricey at $17), at dinner gussied up with fried onions and fat slices of applewood bacon. The new steak frites ($32) is one of those dishes that should be rethought, its fries soggy with truffle oil (much too pungent) and the meat tough, gristly and not cooked as ordered. The other clunker we tried was the vegetable "lasagna" ($18), really just layered veggies with ricotta, not nearly as nice a dish as the lunchtime veggie curry.

Still, a very happy meal could be made of the fried Brussels sprouts with their Meyer lemon dipping sauce (a lunch item that for supper is $11), the roasted baby beets with crispy shiitakes and poufs of microgreens ($12), and the fruity blistered shishito peppers with their knockout yuzu sea salt powder ($11). Share those before settling in with a trio of spicy Asian chicken tacos ($18), really a spin on what at lunch is offered as a salad. Shrimp and grits ($24), a redux of a lunch item, is deeply satisfying and savory with smoky collards, and a new braised pork cheek pappardelle ($21) makes a hearty and sustaining evening meal.

For the past year in some South Tampa circles the refrain has been, "Have you been to the Oxford Exchange?" followed by a just-slightly-whiney, "Wish they served dinner. And booze." Well sometimes wishes are granted, and let's raise a toast to the Tampa brides who may have to compromise on their magical date.

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.

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