TAMPA — If you’ve spent any time dining out in New York City over the past three decades, chances are you’ve come across a Keith McNally establishment.
Restaurants like The Odeon, Balthazar and Pastis forever cemented America’s love for the iconic French brasserie, attracting fanfare from locals, tourists and celebrities alike (and more than a few Hollywood cameos, including countless visits from the “Sex and the City” crew). In the years since, the French American brasserie has inspired countless imitations in cities across the world.
Now, Tampa is getting its own spin on the concept with Boulon Brasserie, which opened Tuesday at Tampa’s burgeoning Water Street development.
The restaurant, which bills itself as “French by way of America,” is the latest endeavor from Next Level Brands, the restaurant group spearheaded by longtime Tampa Bay restaurateur and co-founder of Ciccio Restaurant Group Jeff Gigante along with real estate entrepreneur Andrew Wright and attorney and investor Joseph Guggino.
The group’s first restaurant was Forbici, Hyde Park Village’s modern Italian restaurant, which opened in 2019. The team currently has several more restaurants in the works, including Union New American, which is opening this spring at Tampa’s Westshore City Center.
For their sophomore effort, the stakes are high: Boulon occupies a center plot of real estate at 1001 Water St., on the bottom of the Thousand and One tower. The prime location places it at the heart of Water Street Tampa, the $3.5 billion development led by Strategic Property Partners, a joint venture from Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment fund. Boulon is one of the first big restaurants to open so far in the area, with the exception of the restaurants located inside the Edition hotel across the street.
It’s exciting territory for a group still in the process of building their brand.
“We loved what (Jeff) Vinik and (Bill) Gates were doing down here,” Gigante said. “Our goal is to elevate the culinary landscape.”
Pitched as a French American brasserie with a modern twist, the team is envisioning the spot as an all-day affair, where one can grab a croissant and a coffee in the morning, hang out for a long lunch or while away a late-night dinner over oysters, steak frites and champagne.
“It’s not fine dining,” Gigante said. More “laid-back luxury.”
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The restaurant’s adjoining bakery occupies a separate storefront and will be open daily from 7 a.m. while the restaurant itself will open for lunch at 11:30 a.m. and stay open throughout the day, closing on weekends at 1 a.m. Those extended hours are something the owners hope will foster broad neighborhood appeal — Water Street is, after all, a massive residential undertaking, too.
Gigante credits some of those iconic McNally restaurants as the inspiration for his latest project. But the original inspiration is, of course, Paris, and the iconic brasserie culture the city is known for.
To re-create some of that City of Light splendor, the team tapped Canada-based firm Atelier Zebulon Perron to design the restaurant. The 7,000-square-foot space is outfitted with mosaic-tiled floors, a towering backlit selection of spirits overlooking an expansive bar that stretches across the restaurant, fluted glass accents and beveled mirrors, and large glass windows embossed with gold lettering. The restaurant has seating for roughly 275 people, including a private dining room for 40 and a private outdoor patio that can accompany another 40.
Boulon’s menu, too, takes cues directly from some of those iconic brasserie standbys, with some slight twists and turns along the way.
To start, there are hallmarks like raw oysters on the half-shell, toppling fresh seafood towers and a classic steak tartare. But there are also dishes that fall slightly outside the typical Francophile canon, like the blue crab beignets served with a spicy remoulade and a salmon carpaccio served with beets and a horseradish cream.
A selection of salads includes a frisee medley topped with a bacon vinaigrette and a poached egg and a butter-poached shrimp dish accompanied by mixed greens, avocado and a truffle beurre blanc. There’s also a classic French onion soup and a tomato soup, served with a “petite” grilled cheese sandwich.
Larger plates include an omelet with Gruyere; a snapper amandine with brown butter, haricots verts and an almond chile crunch; lobster pot pie with sherry cream; and a duck confit dish served with savory crepes and a cherry-hoisin sauce.
A list of steak frites preparations includes Creekstone Farms cuts (coulotte, New York strip or filet) or the option of a grilled cauliflower steak, each accompanied by a range of sauce options (Bearnaise, au poivre, sauce verte, Roquefort).
For dessert, there are iconic French bistro treats like creme brulee with berries; a classic tarte tatin (apple tart); profiteroles with chocolate glaze and a vanilla creme; and bread pudding with rum and vanilla ice cream.
Besides the broad appeal of its overall theme and menu, Boulon has an impressive team of industry big-hitters running the show. The group snagged longtime Bern’s Steak House chef Habteab “Hab” Hamde to lead the kitchen as executive chef. Summer Bailey is helming the restaurant’s pastry, bread and dessert program. Bailey was most recently the executive pastry chef at Bern’s Dessert Room and her resume also includes stints at New York City’s Momofuku Milk Bar and Andrew Carmellini’s The Dutch. Running the front of the house is general manager Heather Rivas, who most recently was the general manager at chef Sean Brock’s celebrated Husk restaurant in Savannah, Georgia.
Rivas, who holds a Court of Masters Sommeliers Level 1 certification, is also overseeing the wine program at the new restaurant, which features a long list heavy on French wines as well as several selections from California, Oregon and Washington state and more than 25 by-the-glass options.
The restaurant’s cocktail program features both modern interpretations of classic quaffs and original creations, including the Old World Fashioned (made with Eagle Rare Bourbon, Remy VSOP cognac, Bigallet China-China liqueur and Demerara), the Strangelove (Corazon Reposado tequila, Oloroso sherry and spiced pineapple) and the Boulon Rouge (Michter’s rye, Benedictine, Campari, Giffard Cacao and truffle honey).
There are modern touches throughout, and an awareness of current and evolving dining trends. In a nod to growing dietary restrictions, menu items are listed as gluten-free or vegan, where applicable. The cocktail list also includes two mocktails made with alcohol-free spirits, including the Perle Tropical, made with Lyre’s Agave Reserve Spirit, lime and pineapple, and the Spritz Pamplemousse, made with Lyre’s Aperitif Rosso, tarragon, grapefruit and soda.
Boulon’s bakery is open daily from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday and Wednesday from 11:30 a.m to 11 p.m., Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to midnight and Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. The restaurant is open for brunch and dinner on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Boulon Brasserie, 1001 Water St., Tampa. 813-768-9988. boulontampa.com.