Downtown Tampa diners have a new gem to consider.
Mole y Abuela has opened its doors in the former location of Fly Bar in the North Franklin Historic District. The bustling new restaurant is owned by Nocturnal Hospitality Group, the same outfit that runs Osteria and the Franklin Manor a few blocks down the street.
Mole y Abuela also shares a chef with Osteria: Fabio Viviani, the Top Chef Season 5 fan favorite, who has more than a dozen restaurants around the country attached to his celebrity apron strings.
The restaurant's name might suggest Mexican food ("mole" is the Nahuatl word for sauce), but the fare is Spanish, with a few Mediterranean and Mexican touches. The accent is on tapas, brightly flavored small plates intended for sharing around the table. Mole y Abuela is designed to foster the conviviality of that kind of dining — a perfect opportunity to break out of the appetizer-entree-dessert rut and sample half-a-dozen (or more) delights.
The handsome red brick building has had an interior makeover. Earth tones, long banquettes, stenciled concrete floors and industrial touches add up to a contemporary look inside, with some tables on the sidewalk and an inviting rooftop bar. The full menu is served up on the roof; on Friday and Saturday food service stops at 11 p.m. but the bar rocks on until 3 a.m.
If you want to start the party with a cocktail, Mole y Abuela has you covered. For those who favor fruit, the Pomegranate Caipirinha ($15) with Leblon cachaca, Pama liqueur, lime, pomegranate seeds and sugar cubes is an option, as is the Very Berry Mojito ($13) with Bacardi Limón, Bacardi Dragonberry, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, mint and lime. When the weather heats up, try a crisp Tampa Replenish ($12) of Absolut Vodka, house-made rosemary syrup, triple sec, cucumbers and lime. The cocktail menu nods to Mexico with more than a handful of tequila and mezcal drinks.
The well-priced wine list has a strong Spanish accent — you'll find cavas, albarinos, tempranillos and malbecs, among others — plus a handful of U.S., French and New Zealand bottles. The shortish beer list includes some local brews as well as a few Spanish and Mexican beers.
The tapas menu offers an addictive take on papas brava ($8): tender fingerling potatoes in their skins, halved and crisped, seasoned with salt and rosemary and dotted with pearls of aioli. Also irresistible are the bacon-wrapped dates ($6). The rich fruit is stuffed with Valdeón blue cheese and served over a slick of spicy mole negra and salsa verde. Jamon and cheese croquettes ($8) are crunchy brown ovals filled with a creamy mix of diced ham and Manchego cheese, plated with a creamy chipotle sauce.
A well-balanced sherry vinaigrette enlivens a bowl of arugula, pistachios, oranges and more of that lovely Valdeón cheese in the ensalada de remolacha asada ($14). Stuffed peppers ($8) are small, crisp-tender red peppers filled with cotija cheese and Serrano ham. Eggs diablo ($6), the restaurant's take on deviled eggs, are topped with a rich little butter-poached shrimp flavored with smoked paprika.
A section of the tapas menu is devoted to meats from Spanish heritage-breed Iberian pigs fed on acorns. Priciest among them is Iberico de Bellota ($26), a type of ham cured for 48 months. The paper-thin slices, ruby red with a golden margin of fat, have a distinctive nutty flavor. They're delectable, but be forewarned that ordering this is a little like ordering caviar — among a menu of small plates, this one is little more than a bite or two.
The menu has a selection of larger plates as well, and seafood shines. Gambas al ajillo ($15) sends plump, tender shrimp swimming in a garlicky broth with bites of spicy chorizo, briny preserved lemon and tiny, zingy shishito peppers. Another standout was pulpo a la Gallega ($22), octopus tentacles braised and then charred to surround the velvety interior with crisp edges. It's served with red mole over a fingerling potato salad.
Duck carnitas ($34), a pair of roasted duck legs, came with a pretty radish-studded salad, delicious roasted salsa and a nutty mole blanca. The duck had lovely crisp skin, but the meat was a bit dry.
All those plates might fill you up, but save a corner for dessert. Pasilla chili chocolate cake ($10) is a knockout. Pasillas have a bit of heat and notes of fruit flavor that combine beautifully with dark chocolate in this dense, rich cake. Topped with pistachio gelato and compressed mango, it's a beauty. Almost as good was a classic torta de tres leches ($10), slices of sponge cake soaked in sweetened milk, sauced with dreamy dulce de leche and chopped strawberries.
Service at Mole y Abuela was attentive and well-informed, with servers going out of their way to explain the small-plates concept and answer questions about the menu. When a serving of octopus arrived at the table almost cold, it was whisked away and replaced with a hot one, garnished with apologies. That kind of attention — and all the big flavors on those small plates — will get Mole y Abuela off to a promising start.
Contact Colette Bancroft at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.
IF YOU GO
Mole y Abuela
1202 N Franklin St., Tampa; (813) 370-1000; moleyabuelatampa.com
Hours: 5 p.m.-midnight Sunday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-3 a.m. Friday-Saturday
Details: AmEx, V, MC, Disc.; full bar; reservations; takeout only if ordered there, no delivery
Prices: Tapas $6-$26, mains $15-$35