On Aug. 26 one of the year's most anticipated restaurants opens its doors as Keith Sedita and the Columbia's Richard Gonzmart launch Ulele Native-Inspired Food and Spirits at the site of Tampa Heights' historic steam-powered pump house.
Much has been made of what its $5 million budget has managed to pack in: a sprawling restaurant, rooftop bar, a beer garden and microbrewery with a beer room all adjacent to the city's new Water Works Park and recently restored Ulele Spring, one of Tampa's first sources of drinking water.
There will be sculptures in honor of the namesake 16th century Timucuan teenager who helped save early European settlers, tabletops made from a 100-year-old Florida barn and design elements showcasing artifacts unearthed from the painstaking construction process.
All of this, plus Gonzmart's outsized personality and a savvy social media campaign, explains why reservations for the restaurant's opening week already are hard to come by. Yes, arrowhead collections and host stands made of old fishing boats are draws, but the key to bringing customers back a second time is this: what's on the plate and in the glass. Executive chef Eric Lackey has described Ulele's culinary mission as dishes that pay tribute to early-Florida Indian fare as well as that of later pioneers and emigres, with an emphasis on fresh-from-Florida produce and proteins.
But what does he plan beyond the 10-foot round barbacoa using citrus wood to grill oysters, meats, sauteed items and seafood? We caught up with Lackey and brewmaster Tim Shackton recently to get a fuller taste of what's to come at Ulele.
What have been the biggest challenges in terms of sourcing and menu planning?
Chef Lackey: The biggest challenges have been working with Jim Strickland, a fourth-generation Florida cattle rancher, to do something new by bringing in Florida born-and-raised beef. This cattle is grain-fed on his ranch in Myakka City, and we will be feeding them our spent grain from the brewery, which we've had tested. It's creating that whole circle of life.
We've also been working with the Gude family, the family that really brought kumquats to Dade City. We're using Dakin Dairy Farms in Myakka City for our ice cream and we're talking with a local company to get fresh Florida frogs' legs. We're trying to stay in our neighborhood and to stay seasonal — if it's strawberry season we're using Plant City — and our fish is all coming out of the gulf.
Still, some of our ideas aren't on the first menu. We'll keep growing into our menu.
What are dishes that have garnered enthusiasm in previews?
Lackey: We are using alligator filet, duck bacon, country ham, fresh corn and jalapenos to make hush puppies, more like fritters, served with a datil pepper and local honey aioli and with another sauce that's a white barbecue sauce. That's gotten a tremendous response. And we're doing a chilled green-skinned Florida avocado soup with green pepper, cucumber, onion, garlic and olive oil, kind of like a gazpacho, with a charred corn and datil pepper relish on top.
What beers will debut with the restaurant's launch?
Brewmaster Shackton: On opening day we'll have three, possibly four beers. I'm planning an Oktoberfest beer right out of the gate as our seasonal beer. Also known as a Maerzen, it's cold-fermented and one of the most popular types of seasonal beer around. We're also going to carry a light, beer garden-style lager called Ulele Lager, very easy to drink and finishing slightly dry and crisp. And we'll pour Rusty's Red, in honor of Richard's German shepherd, with a good hop bite on the front of the tongue and a caramel kiss on the back.
Will the beer mission mirror that of the food?
Shackton: We're strongly focused on sourcing local ingredients. One of my beers will be called Magbee's Honey Lager (Magbee was the original name of the spring outside) and we will be sourcing local honey. There are other ideas I have in my arsenal regarding that whole theme — it's a driving factor for our team. There's so much history rolling through this place, and that's absolutely a mission with our beer as well.
If each batch of beer creates 30 kegs and you're starting with three beers, that's 90 kegs on Day One. That's a lot of beer.
Shackton: That's a mistake that a lot of new breweries make: not brewing enough. With this venue being next to Water Works Park and next to the band shell, we need to be prepared to meet the demand.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.