TAMPA — When Robert Sickler first walked into the narrow building on Davis Islands, it immediately reminded him of New Orleans.
The slender space recalled the shotgun homes of the Marigny and Baywater neighborhoods; the exposed brick facade, artwork covering the walls and small counter at the front brought to mind a French Quarter cafe.
It felt perfect for the concept he and his wife, Yarinel Ramos, had been mulling over for some time: a bar where they could share their love of natural wines. But also, a restaurant — a gathering place for the neighborhood, where conversation between tables would flow freely. Creole and Caribbean flavors would highlight the menu and there would be plenty of works from artists around the world. Maybe, one day, they could have live music.
In April, the couple opened Bayou Bodega, a colorful, intimate wine bar and restaurant on E Davis Boulevard where natural wine is the star. Mardi Gras beads hang from ornate chandeliers while dangling potted plants imbue a tropical vibe. The cozy dining room is flanked by exposed brick on one side and a bright blue wall adorned with art and photographs on the other. There’s a shrine to Erzulie, the Haitian goddess of love and beauty, and the cleansing scent of palo santo hangs softly in the air.
Inspired by New Orleans and Oaxaca, Mexico, the eclectic decor (photographs of Mardi Gras Indians, paintings of Frida Kahlo, art from New Orleans folk artist Dr. Bob) evokes the bohemian spirits of both cities.
A love of art and travel were connecting themes for the couple. Originally from Fort Myers, Sickler spent time in New Orleans working in bars and restaurants. He worked as an English teacher in Tampa, Minneapolis and the Czech Republic before entering the hospitality world in South Tampa, first as a server and bartender and later as a wine representative and whiskey brand ambassador. He met Ramos in Tampa while she was working in tourism. The couple eventually moved to Colorado, where they opened a New Orleans- and Florida-inspired cocktail bar, before relocating back to the Tampa Bay area.
Opening a natural wine bar in 2021 is still a somewhat novel concept for the Tampa area. The genre has become increasingly popular, but there aren’t any spots that focus exclusively on the so-called minimal intervention wines.
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Most of the restaurant’s clientele is still fairly unfamiliar with the wines he sells, Sickler said. But ask him what makes the characteristics of a certain Slovenian or Georgian grape unique and he’ll tell you all about the bright, fruity notes and minerality in some of his favorites; about how spontaneous fermentation can make all the difference in flavor; about how a particular wine’s terroir will be so much more distinct and pronounced. He might carry on about small-scale wine producers in lesser-known wine regions, or how a new, younger generation of winemakers is honoring the traditions and methods of their ancestors.
In short: He will sell you on a great bottle of wine.
But wine is just half the equation. The idea for a Creole- and Caribbean-inspired menu was born of Sickler’s love for New Orleans cuisine, and Ramos’ Puerto Rican background. The list of dishes features a mashup of Creole, Cajun and Latin fare, mostly small plates and po’boys.
Part of the appeal of Bayou Bodega is that dining here feels a lot like eating at somebody’s home, and the kitchen strays from the traditional appetizer/entree format. Instead, the menu lists a short selection of dishes, which vary in size and shareability. It can sometimes be hard to figure out how, exactly, to cobble together a meal.
If the menu feels a little bit like a work in progress, that’s because it is: The couple recently tapped new executive chef Julien Portier, who Sickler said will build upon the existing dishes and add more with a French influence (ratatouille and coq au vin will be added soon).
For now, a good start is the bread service, which features a basket full of sourdough, multigrain and sesame-crusted slices from Sullivan Street Bakery in Miami ($5). The basket is served with butter, but the real reason you’re ordering this is because once the piping-hot cast-iron skillet of Spanish garlic shrimp ($15) arrives, you’ll need every last piece of bread to mop up the tasty garlic- and paprika-laced Manzanilla sherry sauce pooling at the bottom.
Also good are the Louisiana-inspired brabant potatoes ($10), which are like garlicky, parsley-coated home fries — crispy and bronzed on the outside and soft and buttery on the inside. (There’s more sauce to soak up on this one, too.)
Red beans and rice ($11) get a Puerto Rican spin, and borrow from Ramos’ mother’s recipe for habichuelas guisadas with a homemade sofrito. The dish is often served with a lechon asado ($14), slow-roasted pork shoulder that’s crispy in parts and soft and unctuous in others (and a little too salty on one occasion).
The kitchen pumps out specials on a nightly basis, which might range from the aforementioned lechon asado on one night to a plate of warmed, homemade dolmas ($8) on another.
An excellent jambalaya ($12) is made in the Cajun style (no tomatoes) and features thick, spicy coins of pork sausage, tasso and crawfish with large, soft chunks of chicken interspersed throughout the flavorful rice dish.
Po’boys are served on the characteristic French bread loaves, dressed with mayonnaise, shredded lettuce, tomatoes and pickles. Along with the red beans and rice and brabant potatoes, the menu features a small selection of vegan dishes, including a jackfruit po’boy ($10) and sweet potato and jackfruit hash ($12), which comes flavored with cumin, paprika and turmeric.
For dessert, the restaurant sources vegan ice cream from Tampa’s Revolution Ice Cream, and the scoops find their way to several dishes, including the not-to-be-missed bread pudding ($10), a sticky, sweet version studded with raisins, coconut flakes and lychees, soaked in a boozy rum sauce.
On most evenings, Sickler and Ramos hold court at a table near the front, chatting with diners and neighbors popping in to buy a bottle of wine or a po’boy to-go. Conversations gravitate toward the art, the eclectic music collection, the food and, of course, the wine.
Bayou Bodega is still evolving. Under Portier’s helm, the menu will change, and at some point, Sickler and Ramos hope to add live music to the mix. But in so many ways, it feels like the couple created exactly the kind of place they’d dreamed of.
If you go
Where: 241 E Davis Blvd., Tampa. 813-513-5478. bayoubodega.com.
Hours: Dinner, 5-10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
Prices: Small plates, $10 to $15; po’boys, $12 to $15.
Don’t skip: Chicken po’boy, jambalaya, bread pudding.
Details: Credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Several vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options available.