ST. PETERSBURG — A lot has changed at 22 South, the new food hall inside St. Petersburg’s Historic Manhattan Casino.
For one, two of the seven opening restaurants — Three Generations and Ray’s Vegan Soul — have since departed. Another one — St. Pete Bowls — is only serving food on Sundays. And as far as I can tell, the sangria bar that was advertised when the hall opened in April is still a work in progress.
All of this came as a bit of surprise on a recent visit to the food hall, when I brought along Tampa Bay Times reporter Jake Piazza to help me check out the scene. With seven restaurants to try, I figured I could use the help. As it turned out, even with a smaller group of restaurants, we still had more food than we could handle.
The hall, which opened at the end of April, is both a restaurant and an incubator for culinary startups and entrepreneurs. It’s a unique concept that has diners ordering from a server the way they would in a traditional sit-down restaurant while multiple chefs from different restaurants share a large communal kitchen in the back.
At the moment, there are four restaurants for diners to choose from, though a new Creole restaurant is opening this month and the search is underway for another vendor to fill the remaining spot. On our most recent visit, Jake and I were able to sample dishes from Betterway BBQ, Irie Mon Jamaican Grill and VJ’s, a New American restaurant named in honor of the food hall’s late partner and primary investor, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Vincent Jackson. Unfortunately, Shokkan Sushi, a sushi and poke bowl restaurant, wasn’t available on the night we dined here.
Here’s hoping we’ll get to revisit again soon — I’m guessing a few more changes will have taken place by then. Though no longer a regular vendor, Ray’s Vegan Soul will soon start a monthly popup at the hall, and a weekly dancehall reggae night is also underway.
In any case, there seems to be plenty afoot at 22 South, and no shortage of culinary talent passing through. Here’s our take on what to try right now.
Irie Mon Jamaican Grill
Jamaican beef patty ($5)
Helen: I was impressed by the size of these, which come two per order and are encased in a traditional turmeric-tinged flaky crust. We ordered the mild version, which carried little to no heat, but the ground beef mix inside was packed with allspice flavor. They felt a little heavy as an appetizer, but I couldn’t help thinking what a great lunch they’d make, especially if taken on the road to-go.
Jake: I thought about how well the light and flakey crust complemented the tender ground beef for hours after the meal. The crust dissolved into my tongue as the beef flavors slowly took control of my palate and made for a wonderful blend of flavors. The dish was served with two patties, so I’d recommend splitting with a friend to make room for the rest of the extensive menu.
Oxtail with yellow rice ($18)
Helen: I absolutely loved this dish. What appeared at first to be a one-note plate was actually a powerhouse of complex flavors, complemented by sweet plantains and fluffy yellow rice. Figuring out how to pick apart an oxtail isn’t always the most intuitive dining exercise, but there was plenty of soft, sweet and sticky meat and tons of that fatty, gelatinous goodness oxtail is known for.
Jake: Did I need to ask Helen how to cut an oxtail? Yes, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the dish. The oxtail was dense and juicy, with a flavor profile that charged on with each additional bite. Its taste and consistency resembled braised short rib, but it had a distinctly squishier texture. The oxtail was the center of the dish, but the yellow rice was a crucial sidekick. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the pointed and pleasant flavor of the plantains served on the side.
Pork meatballs ($10)
Helen: It’s hard to go wrong with meatballs, but throw in a dollop of whipped, herbed ricotta cheese and now we’re really talking. It’s my opinion that meatballs made with pork — or at least ones that feature some ratio of pork and beef together — usually yield the most flavorful results, and that’s certainly the case here. The braised meatballs, which come three per order, stayed perfectly moist under a blanket of juicy tomato sauce while thick shavings of Parmesan added an extra nudge of salt and texture. Along with the oxtail, this was probably my favorite dish of the evening — and one I’m already looking forward to ordering on my next visit.
Jake: The meatballs immediately caught my attention when they arrived at our table. The plating was not the most elegant, but fresh Parmesan shavings sprinkled atop a healthy coating of tomato sauce and meatballs is a welcoming sight. The dish packed a powerful punch of flavor, and the sauce had the right amount of tang. The meatball and sauce overshadowed the herbed whipped ricotta cheese, but there was so much flavor in the dish that I didn’t mind.
Seared salmon ($20)
Helen: There are plenty of diners who order fish when trying to eat healthier. This is not that kind of dish. A quick glance at the accompanying players on the plate — beurre blanc, bacon-creamed leeks — made it pretty clear what we were getting ourselves into, but I was still a little shocked at how rich this turned out to be. The salmon arrived a perfect medium-rare and featured super-crispy skin that showcased some clear finesse in the kitchen. The fish came perched atop a generous mound of creamy bacon-laced leeks and mushrooms, all of which came swimming in a citrusy beurre blanc. The flavors were all there, but a touch of restraint and some fine-tuning would have helped.
Jake: The seared salmon was the piece de resistance of the night for me. Leaving the skin on is a risky move, but it gave a nice crunch to go along with the savory beurre blanc sauce. The salmon was the right balance of falling apart and firm. The buttery sauce filled every other available crevice in my mouth and the bed of bacon-creamed leeks and roasted mushrooms were a delicious change of flavor.
Half-rack of Uncle Bryan’s BBQ ribs ($18.50)
Helen: “That’s a half-rack?” I thought to myself while eyeing the massive plate toppling with smoked ribs as it was delivered to our table. Brothers William and Bryan Graveley have been fine-tuning their barbecue chops for more than two decades, so it should come as no surprise that they hit it out of the park with these ribs, which were near perfect — soft, tender and deeply smoky. Served dry, the ribs came with a tangy barbecue sauce on the side, which offered a welcome jolt of sweetness and acidity to the smokiness of the meat. And they really don’t mess around when it comes to portion size here — thank God Jake had a squad of hungry roommates at home, because we had plenty of leftovers.
Jake: I don’t have an Uncle Bryan but I wish I had his rib recipe after this plate. I picked up my first rib and could feel how tender the meat was. My suspicion was confirmed once I sunk my teeth in and was greeted by a light smokey flavor. I dabbled some of the barbecue sauce onto my second bite and was surprised at the acidity of a tomato-based sauce, but it worked with the comforting taste of the ribs.
Uncle Billy’s bread pudding ($6)
Helen: Of the two desserts we sampled, this one was my least favorite. It kind of got lost under the gigantic scoop of vanilla ice cream and whipped cream it was tucked beneath. I thought the flavors — vanilla, cinnamon, raisin — were spot on, but the exterior of the bread was a little hard, which made it slightly difficult to eat.
Jake: I wouldn’t recommend this one as a dessert for a first date because you’re going to look goofy like I did trying to use your spoon to scoop the ice cream and get a healthy portion of the bread pudding. Nonetheless, it was a buttery paradise once it hit my tongue and I hardly had to chew the bread because it was so warm and fresh.
Banana pudding ($6)
Helen: I’m not sure there’s anything that rings more Southern than a scoop of banana cream pudding, and this one hit all the right marks — a creamy, vanilla-laced pudding interspersed with fluffy bits of wafers, bananas and plenty of whipped cream. Sweet — buy not cloyingly so — and oh-so-decadent. I’d probably come here again just for this dessert.
Jake: The banana pudding capped off the night for me, and it was on my mind the whole drive home. The creamy banana flavoring set up camp and enveloped every millimeter of my tongue, and then disappeared with one swallow. Since the taste doesn’t linger, I found myself eager for each additional bite. The homemade whipped cream on top is a nice touch, too.
Helen: Despite the fact that we were only able to sample three of the restaurants on our visit, I really enjoyed our meal here, and was so thankful I had Jake along to help out. Pricing across the board consistently made for a good deal — in some cases, even a steal. Considering there were really only a few people working front-of-house, everything ran pretty smoothly. Some of the seating arrangements could use some tweaking. Maybe this was more pronounced because of the volume of dishes we ordered, but the two-top tables really are quite tiny, and things can get crowded fast. I think it’s best to think of this place as a traditional restaurant when you’re ordering — as in, a coursed-out appetizer, entree and dessert. If you’re trying to sample a bunch of dishes at a time from multiple restaurants, you’re going to run out of room — fast.
Jake: I don’t know that I would mix and match from every menu each time I went to 22 South, but I like the variety of options. Each restaurant can give you a wonderful dining experience on its own, and if you’re interested in ordering from several, you won’t be disappointed. The entire restaurant gets a major bump in my book for playing Sammy Davis Jr. and a number of other jazz artists. If you’re looking for a new, trendy dining experience while still retaining the classic restaurant feel, this is your place.
If you go
Where: 642 22nd St. S, St. Petersburg. 727-592-1267.
When: Lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Brunch, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
Price: Starters, $5 to $10; entrees, $12 to $25.
Don’t skip: Oxtail, Uncle Bryan’s ribs, banana pudding.