TAMPA — If there’s one dish Anne Kearney just can’t seem to shake, it’s the fish amandine.
The constant is the recipe, a classic New Orleans preparation inspired by the French meuniere. The variable is the fish: At her celebrated New Orleans restaurant Peristyle, it was prepared with drum; at Rue Dumaine, in Dayton, Ohio, she made it with trout.
Now, at Oak & Ola, Kearney looks no further than the Gulf of Mexico, and the bounty of yellowtail snapper that make their way from the dock to the Tampa restaurant’s door.
The crispy-skinned fish ($28) sits next to snappy haricot verts in a shallow pool of almond beurre noisette, a brown butter sauce that carries rich and nutty aromas. It is sliced through with a burst of lemon juice and the crunch of bronzed almonds, tiled atop the fish like scales and flecked with parsley. It’s a plate composed of just seven ingredients, and the culinary prowess of a person who knows the dish by heart.
Oak & Ola is a modern restaurant; snapper amandine is arguably not a modern dish. And yet it feels right at home on this menu of creative New American and European-influenced fare created by Kearney and her team. The James Beard Award-winning chef partnered with John and Trudy Cooper, Chris Arreola and Andy Granger on the restaurant, which opened in February inside Armature Works.
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Kearney is an Ohio-born chef who trained and worked in New Orleans with Emeril Lagasse and with chef John Neal, the original owner of Peristyle. When Neal died in 1992, Kearney, then 27, bought the restaurant with help from Lagasse and went on to garner accolades for her cooking, which combined classic French technique with regional flavors. In 2004, Kearney returned to Ohio and opened Rue Dumaine, which closed in 2017 after a decade-long run.
Her new restaurant is a big, ambitious operation with seating for roughly 150 people, one of the few larger concepts to anchor the burgeoning Tampa Heights development. The expansive space features a yawning dining room with retractable floor-to-ceiling glass doors that overlook the Tampa Riverwalk.
The menu is similarly wide-reaching, playing within the boundaries of a New American framework while pulling freely from a number of European influences. The thread that connects all the dots is a fine-tuned attention to detail and an emphasis on simplicity rather than overcomplicated showmanship.
Consider the care vegetables get, like the roasted artichoke hearts ($10), which arrive glistening in a lemon- and garlic-tinged olive oil, the crispy-edged leaves fanned out like flower petals under a crunchy coating of toasted panko crumbs, a whisper of smoked paprika and light shavings of goat cheese. Below the hearts, a creamy lemon aioli is flecked with tarragon, lending just the slightest touch of anise to the sauce.
Sweet and earthy roasted carrots ($7) are nestled on a bed of their own feathery greens, which gives the simple dish a grassy touch that feels in sync with the plate’s overall bucolic appeal. Crumbles of sheep’s milk feta and crunchy candied pistachios pump up the rich and sweet elements, while a citrus-forward vinaigrette adds the final pucker and punch.
The restaurant’s overarching Euro-American concept is sprinkled with hints that point to specific countries and culinary traditions, from a Spanish fire-roasted octopus ($20) to a German-leaning Bregenwurst ($18) and an Italian-inspired ricotta gnocchi ($14). The restaurant manages to avoid the pitfalls of broad “globally inspired” menus by remaining within the geographical boundaries of the European continent, with a few New American standbys thrown in. (I’m looking at you, wilted Brussels sprouts with bacon.)
Dishes arrive whenever they are ready, which evokes a more social approach to dining, less constrained by the dominant coursed-out model. But this can also mean timing on dishes and the order in which they are delivered is out of diners’ control, in particular when the restaurant is going through a rush. On one visit, my first three dishes came out in quick succession while the fourth lagged a good bit behind.
Most plates are portioned so that they can be easily shared by a group, or by a solo diner when paired with another dish. The endive salad ($13), another recurring hit plucked from Kearney’s repertoire, could work as a refreshing precursor to a larger meal or as a light lunch. The dish is crisp with Fuji apple matchsticks, studded with nibs of blue cheese and crunchy walnuts and dressed in a tangy Banyuls vinaigrette.
Another standout is the sweet and spongy Belgian waffle ($13), which arrives blanketed by a woodsy mix of sauteed mushrooms and a generous spread of goat cheese. Soft-roasted shallots and madeira lend a subtle sweetness and light tang, a necessary touch that helps cuts through the richer elements on the plate.
Equally filling, but on the lighter side, is the blue crab spaghetti ($17), punchy with garlic and dotted with petite morsels of crab and bits of asparagus. It’s a dish that feels reminiscent of a lazy seaside meal along the Mediterranean. A drizzle of olive oil and plenty of Grana Padano cheese add nutty and buttery notes, although a bit more citrus or a hint of acid could have helped brighten the dish. (A slightly modified version of this dish is now offered on their summer menu; it features roasted tomatoes and corn in place of the asparagus.)
For dessert, simplicity wins again: The lemon cake ($7), served on a small flowery plate that looks like it was taken from somebody’s grandmother’s cupboard, is perfect. The buttery cake needs nothing besides the dollop of lemon curd and spoonful of cherry compote it arrives with, and feels as appropriate here as it would at an afternoon tea in the English countryside.
Though a meal of shared plates is the best way to dine here, one could also just as easily while away an evening over a charcuterie board and a couple of cocktails. The Helene D’ 15 — a potent libation made with Bombay Sapphire gin, Alessio Chinato and green Chartreuse — is particularly beguiling, as was my seat offering a glimpse of the downtown Tampa skyline.
It wasn’t until my second visit, when the lights began to dim, that I noticed the lanterns filling the dining room, and then, the exposed brick walls, another subtle nod to the city where Kearney cut her teeth. But despite the nostalgic touches and Kearney’s obvious affection for the place, this is not a New Orleans-themed restaurant. Instead, it feels like a celebration of modern American dining peppered with influences from European traditions. Contemporary, but still reliant on classic technique.
If you go
1910 N Ola Ave., Tampa; (813) 773-1901; oakandola.com
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. Dinner: 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Appetizers and small plates, $6 to $22; larger shared plates and entrees, $12 to $35.
Recommended dishes: Belgian waffle; Gulf fish amandine; lemon cake.