When I mentioned to a friend that I was headed to a restaurant to research a column, he was confused. Don't I write about bars? Well, friend, restaurants aren't just for eating in.
This is the case at O Cocina & Flights, a recent South Tampa addition that combines fresh, high-end Mexican fare with an outstanding bar. This isn't just a bar that you sit at while you wait for your table — it warrants a trip on its own.
O is a beautiful place. It's not the largest space, but it's laid out smartly, with semi-circular booths clustered around the center of the room, a partially open kitchen in back and the bar to the side. The decor is fairly typical of the current bar and restaurant scene — distressed wood and brick, exposed ceiling, oversized lightbulbs hanging in large glass globes, cement floors with etched-in succulent outlines. But the bar area steals the show, with copper stools facing a succulent-filled canopy that stretches from the back wall to the ceiling.
Behind the bar are a few familiar faces, along with an impressive stock of amaros, cordials and, especially, tequila and mezcal.
Tequila has come a long way in the past several years, but it still doesn't get the respect it deserves. Flights are a great way to showcase the range and nuance of tequila and mezcal, demonstrating that these spirits can easily go toe-to-toe with the world-class whiskies that sit beside them.
The flights at O are pre-selected and generally involve three representative spirits from a single distillery. For example, Santana's Melody flight features a blanco, reposado and añejo from Milagro's premium Select Barrel line. The Ambassador's Yardbird features three single-village mezcals from Del Maguey. Another flight — the Three Amigos — features a single tequila each from Milagro, Herradura and Casa Noble. Simply select blanco, reposado or añejo and compare the variances among these major distilleries within the same style.
If you've got the cash to spare (they can be pricey), I highly recommend going with a flight. However, if you'd prefer the cocktail route, you will not be disappointed. O's cocktail list is tip-top stuff, featuring a variety of fresh, colorful ingredients to match the restaurant's theme and decor.
I started with the O Paloma, which is a spin on the classic tequila and grapefruit soda cocktail. This one features blanco tequila, mixed with Campari, a housemade salted grapefruit cordial and prosecco. The prosecco factored in a little heavily, but I applaud the creative spin on a drink that would be so easy to phone in. Extra credit for the housemade grapefruit cordial, which is made with macerated grapefruit rind, giving the cocktail a pungent bitterness to balance the citrus.
Next was the Professor Plum, which I only partially picked because of the Clue reference. It was more due to the intriguing components: Hayman's Old Tom gin (a less-dry style of London gin), Averell Damson plum gin liqueur, lime, mint and pear purée. This is pretty original stuff. The drink was quite potent and had a subtle, unusual spiciness that I think would pair nicely with some of the bolder flavors on the food menu.
The cocktail list is anything but slapped-together. The focus on unusual and contrasting ingredients — pisco, yuzu and cardamom; curacao, guava and tomatillo; tequila, vermouth and strawberry; mezcal, tamarind and cucumber — gives the adventurous drinker plenty to work with.
This isn't just typical fancy restaurant stuff, this is a cocktail list that a dedicated cocktail bar would be proud of.
I'd be surprised if the food at O Cocina & Flights were anything less than fantastic. But I'm no food critic, and this was no dinner trip. I came for the cocktails, and I wasn't disappointed. O Cocina & Flights, while ostensibly a restaurant, is as good a bar as any.