TAMPA — It was love at first crouton.
I was dining at 7th + Grove, a new restaurant and nightclub hybrid in Ybor City. The dish was a charred Caesar salad ($12), a plate of grilled romaine spears tucked under ribbons of buttermilk dressing and a shower of grated smoked Gouda. The salad was good. But the crunchy, golden croutons framing the plate were what really got me.
For one, the corn bread in question was jalapeno cheddar, fried until crunchy and the color of deep caramel. The croutons packed a hint of sweetness and then — at the end — a surprising jolt of heat. They were addictive and delicious and, at just four per plate, had me wanting more.
The croutons also serve as a good precursor for what’s in store at this creative and lively restaurant, where chef James Roberts’ menu of “Neo soul” fare features contemporary takes on Southern classics.
Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., Roberts grew up in the Tampa Bay area and in Tallahassee. He was most recently the sous chef at Sociale on Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard before joining the team at 7th + Grove, which opened in July.
Though Roberts isn’t from the South, his cooking makes a convincing argument otherwise, emulating the cuisine with finesse and soul. The chef takes a deep dive into the African-American culinary archives while offering contemporary and creative spins plucked from his own repertoire along the way.
“African-American cuisine is so often seen like a stereotypical novelty,” Roberts said. “I wanted this to be something different.”
7th + Grove is different. For one, the spot is really two separate concepts. If you’re approaching the front door and see the line snaking out into the street — that’s likely for the lounge, a lively bar and nightclub connected to the restaurant.
The restaurant and the lounge are mostly separated by a wall that runs the length of both rooms, with just one door and a trim walkway on opposite ends connecting the two. The bar and lounge is where the party is at; the restaurant is where you’ll want to have your meal. Though some of the sounds — and vibrations — do carry over to the dining space, for the most part you can enjoy a meal here without feeling like you’re in the middle of the dance floor. For larger groups, there is some overflow seating in the lounge, but unless you’re in the mood for shouting conversations over bottomless wine and wings (yes, a thing that’s offered here), the restaurant is the way to go.
Dishes have whimsical titles like the Love Galore ($9), smoked Gouda mac and cheese fritters nestled in a sweet and peppery jelly. Among other smaller plates, the Don’t Kill My Vibe ($10) offers shrimp tossed in a buttery New Orleans-style barbecue sauce served on crispy corn bread planks with a tart slaw for a bit of brightness.
Chicken drumettes in Awaken My Love ($10) are served Frenched on the bone and reimagined as lollipops, each upside down in a trio of different sauces including a sweet barbecue and a citrusy lemon pepper. Roberts’ soul reaper sauce — a spin on the fiery Carolina reaper pepper version — features a fermented mash of garlic, habaneros and vinegar. It’s an elixir that packs a searing heat and gets tucked into several dishes, adding additional layers of flavor throughout.
The kitchen looks to the Gulf of Mexico, from which fillets of tripletail (Rock the Boat, $19) are first smoked then blackened in a spice blend that leaves a flavorful charlike crust. The flaky white fish is cooked perfectly and plated atop a mound of smoked Gouda grits, braised collard greens and topped with crunchy fried chicken cracklings, a curious accompaniment that feels unnecessary. Potlikker, the broth left behind after braising collard greens for hours, forms the base of a beurre blanc, a tangy sauce made with moscato wine.
A creative — and delicious — take on shrimp and grits (Everyday People, $21) features the crustaceans sidling coins of sweet and spicy chicken andouille sausage on a bed of those same cheesy grits. Diced tomatoes add an acidic kick while fried pickled okra provides crunch. The dish is finished in a creamy Creole sauce flavored with bourbon and a dab of the soul reaper sauce so that the final plate is a bright and colorful medley of creamy, acidic, salty and sweet flavors.
No dish encapsulates this restaurant’s mission better than the Let’s Stay Together ($20), a towering plate of crispy-battered fried chicken thighs, which arrive stacked on top of a bed of spicy collard greens and pimento mac and cheese — a triumphant take on the Southern mainstay. The dish is glazed with a watermelon gastrique that adds a touch of sweetness and citrus. It’s a powerhouse of a plate I’d be happy to order again and again, maybe with a trip or two to the gym in between.
To cap the evening with something sweet, there is a short selection of Mike’s Pies, including a decadent pina colada cheesecake that tastes just like its namesake cocktail. In the coming weeks and months, a dessert program will be rolled out, but in the meantime, Mike’s time-tested treats do the trick.
While service could use a little work and the dining room’s pace can sometimes feel off-kilter, it’s the small touches and creative tweaks from the kitchen that make a difference at 7th + Grove. That hint of sweetness in those corn bread croutons? Brown sugar. The depth to those collard greens? Smoked turkey leg. The secret to that oh-so-creamy macaroni? Pimento cheese.
Roberts might not be from the South, but with this kind of cooking, he not only claims it — he owns it.
What the ratings mean
1-2: Don’t waste your time
3-5: Fair, but could be better
6-8: Pretty darn good
9-10: What are you waiting for?
If you go
1930 E Seventh Ave., Tampa; (813) 602-0960
Hours: Dinner 4 to 10 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday. Brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: Smaller plates $7 to $13; large plates $15 to $23.
Recommended dishes: Pimento mac and cheese fritters; fried chicken; shrimp and grits