Progress, like falling in love, can be explosive, taking one off guard.
Seminole Heights has been the locus of a lot of culinary innovation in the past few years with the debut of places like the Refinery, the Independent and Ella's. But the launch of Rooster & the Till in December has propelled the neighborhood into a whole new culinary echelon.
It's a tiny restaurant, only 37 seats, which in no way reflects the magnitude of its ambition. Owners Ferrell Alvarez and Ty Rodriguez come with impressive pedigrees, having worked together for years at Mise en Place before heading to Café Dufrain on Harbour Island. They were also the masterminds behind a briefly published magazine called Local Dirt, its name a clue to their dearest passion.
Without calling it this, they have launched the most diligently local-farm-to-table restaurant in the area, its name (in the Blank & Blank style so popular with the nation's hip restaurants now) a veiled reference to farm animals and fertile earth. They use Buddy Brew coffee; Hooker Tea Company; local craft beers; pork from Pasture Prime in Summerfield; goat, lamb and duck from Lake Meadows near Orlando; and produce from Tampa's Urban Oasis and other farms in Manatee and surrounding counties. There are no processed foods or national brands like Budweiser or Coke. And they do all this without trumpeting it. There are no notations on the menu about the food's local provenance.
Why not? Alvarez and Rodriguez see "we use local products whenever possible" as the menu cliche of the moment, too often a meaningless phrase about good intentions and not deeds. This is not the only way in which the duo is forging its own path: Rooster & the Till serves small and smallish plates meant to share. These are not tapas, they insist, but a call to communal dining whereby a table of four can eat its way through most of the seasonal, one-page menu.
To me, the most important customer education will come in explaining portion size at Rooster. Thomas Keller, the celebrated chef-owner of the French Laundry in the Napa Valley, once said, "One of our overriding philosophies is the law of diminishing returns, which is: The more you have of something the less you like it. We establish our compositions based on the view that when you are finished with a dish, you wished you had one more bite. That way, you have reached the highest flavor for that dish and it becomes memorable."
At Rooster, a dish of plush, crispy-edged Mangalitsa pork belly with squares of corn bread and high notes of pickled apple and peppercorn honey is about six good-sized bites. It's not meant to be a meal. In fact, it's best if divided among three people, two bites each with a little fork waggling to get the sauce off the plate. Then you move on to something else. The pork is $10, in my mind precisely the right price for high-quality ingredients in a thoughtful presentation that leaves you wistful for more.
My favorite dish at Rooster won't sound like much. A white bowl comes with its bottom crowded by perfectly luscious white beans, atop of which sit quarters of pale pink sweet braised turnip dotted with a few mustard seeds, atop of which is a tangle of chartreuse pickled celery, over which is dribbled a smoky/meaty pork fat vinaigrette ($8). The flavors are clean and bright, textures complementary, with the pickle contrasting the savoriness (nearly every dish at Rooster has a bright acidic note somewhere to counter saltiness or fattiness).
My next favorite dish was a dessert, perhaps chef Alvarez's strongest suit. In a seriously tiny kitchen where space is at a premium, they're only offering a couple at a time. One night a jelly jar of custard made of Hooker Tea's orange spice black tea, topped with salted caramel with granola crumbles and a rosemary vanilla bean creme fraîche ($7) was a revelation of exotic flavors expertly calibrated. The other option, a sphere of spiced cardamom cake (made from Alvarez's 9-year-old daughter's cake-pop pan) with white chocolate, streusel crumbs and strawberry fluid gel (a kooky molecular gastronomy technique) and a quenelle of hazelnut butter ice cream ($7) was nearly as good, its architectural presentation sophisticated and dramatic.
Back on the savory side, I fell in love with a tangle of smoked shimeji, oyster and king trumpet mushrooms hiding lengths of deeply caramelized onion, with jewel-green cubes of tart raw green tomato and a few clods of Point Reyes blue cheese strewn about ($9). Again, a skilled union of soft/crunchy and smoky/sweet/salty, with just enough bites to make the last one poignantly bittersweet. Same goes for a dish anchored by spoonfuls of housemade whole milk ricotta with paper-thin rounds of raw chiogga beet sticking up and clusters of grape tomato halves in a great vinaigrette ($9). The best part of this last dish I nearly missed. A brown smear across the plate escaped my notice until I swiped a tomato through it: creamy-nutty butter made of roasted pine nuts. Whoa. Amazing.
I've got lots left to cover, so I'll list the other best bites of my meals: a chicken liver pate heightened by caramelized apple, onion and thyme on the housemade charcuterie tray served on a piece of gorgeous slate; tender sous vide pork shoulder (they sous vide most of their meats) on a bed of creamy farro pilaf, the plate dotted with caramel steeped with Kalamata olives; East and West coast raw oysters (not huge fans of Apalach oysters, it's one of the only foods they source from far away) topped with shallot, kumquat rounds, mint and vinegar; and the spiced charred whole carrot that accompanied a sous vide duck breast.
Rodriguez is responsible for some of Rooster & the Till's other notable innovations. He took his service staff through a three-part training, teaching them the history of service and the three main styles (French, Russian and American), then working through the do's and don'ts of service and culminating in the mise en place, or preparation and setup, of table service. The upshot: Service is tremendous. Waiters like Katie Christosilis are solicitous without being intrusive, they know the menu and are able to guide, and they explicate the kitchen's mission without being preachy.
And finally, the wine list covers new ground, with a three-tiered price system (and a cool wall-mounted wine rack made of reclaimed rebar). Wines are $25 (or $5 a glass), $45 ($9) and $65 ($13), with bargains at each level: A Sean Minor red blend retails for around $13.50, offered here for $25, and an inky black T-Vine California petite sirah is offered at $65 but retails for around $45. Those are some very reasonable markups. I like the simplicity and straightforwardness of the tier system, customers able to swiftly orient themselves and in many cases try something unusual.
Seminole Heights has more excitement on the horizon with the promise of Michelle and Greg Baker's second venture, Fodder & Shine. But Rooster & the Till goes a long way to cement this quirky neighborhood as the Tampa Bay area's culinary polestar.