When Station House restaurant opened on Christmas Eve 2014 it was a totally reinvented space, Steve Gianfilippo's vision for the basement level of a 104-year-old, five-story, 30,000-square-foot building he'd bought for $3 million. For years, that space had been Cafe Alma — some good years, some less so, with a couple of sets of owners and a legendary Bloody Mary bar. But this new iteration was swish, glamorous and forward-thinking, the perfect anchor to Gianfilippo's plan for co-work spaces, some retail, a private club and a bunch of other 21st century synergy throughout the rest of the building.
It didn't quite gel as a restaurant, despite deep talent from partners Alex Gilmore and Ro Patel (who is now one of the tenants at the Hall on Franklin in Tampa) and chef Justin Sells. And when I heard Noel Cruz and his partners were aiming to take over the space for their Ichicoro Ane, sister to the ramen revolutionary Ichicoro in Seminole Heights, I was apprehensive. Basements are hard. Heck, restaurants with steps up or down are statistically less likely to succeed. And First Avenue S isn't exactly Beach Drive or even Central Avenue.
Well, I thought, at least Cruz and team had that gorgeous interior as a foundation. I met with Gianfilippo, Cruz and Cruz's partner Kerem Koca.
"The interior was my baby," Gianfilippo said. "But Noel has convinced me the right thing is to gut the place."
I shouldn't have fretted. They busted through the front of the building and added cool New York City-style gray metal doors down a short flight of stairs to the entrance, the space divided up with blondewood slats that somehow hint at fusuma panels and shoji rice paper doors. But it's not all Japanese-inspired decor: There's a DJ booth and a graffitied nook perfect for selfies, with a private lounge lined with outrageously cool wallpaper by Half Sumo Collective.
Overall, the feel is New York hip, which seems about right given that's where Cruz, a University of Florida and Culinary Institute of America grad, cut his chops. In fact, it's where he and partners invented "Tampa-style ramen," debuting it at a popup at Sun Noodle's Ramen Lab. When Ichicoro opened in Seminole Heights, however, the novelty of Tampa-style ramen (gulf shrimp, citrus, corn and tomato as guest stars; brothless versions to accommodate Florida's climate, with a little extra spiciness) was really overshadowed by the novelty of ramen in general. It wasn't a food we had any of in the Tampa Bay area.
And now Cruz is bringing us something new again. For years sushi has been the sum total of what we knew about Japanese food. Then came ramen, and now izakaya, kind of Japanese gastropub small-plate snackies. Some of his original team has returned to New York, but a fair number of staffers, including co-chef Branden Lenz, have come over from Ichicoro in Tampa to get things started at Ichicoro Ane. Already service feels assured, with solid pacing and good menu knowledge — no small feat in a restaurant environment where employees have their pick of promising new concepts.
I'll start on the ramen side. The lineup of five noodle soups is different from the flagship in Seminole Heights, a smart move to get Tampa fans to brave the bridge. I tried three, including the chicken paitan ($13), an intense chicken broth that verged on too salty with planks of grilled chicken, fermented bamboo shoots, wood ear mushroom, pickled ginger, fried garlic and garlic oil all crowded in atop that toothsome Sun Noodle ramen. My favorite by a mile was the Niku udon ($15), its mushroom broth pleasantly tart with strands of braised wagyu beef shoulder giving a plush counterpart. Big hanks of greens had me stumped. Parsley? Carrot tops? No. Chrysanthemum greens, earthy and tangy with just the faintest tinge of bitter. The most expensive bowl, the brothless shellfish version ($18), was the least interesting, its spicy crab and calamari striking one note in need of just a little juxtaposition either texturally or with a zing of bright acidity.
Plenty of people will come just for soup. But they'd be missing the exciting cocktail list and all the fun on the multipage flipup small-plate menu. We took a scattershot approach, starting with excellent pork belly buns ($7), akin to the ones in Tampa, then skewers of king oyster mushroom ($3), a marvel of umami and velvety-chewy texture. The fried chicken karaage with spicy mayo is every bit as good as in Tampa ($7), but if you're in the mood for crunchy breaded and fried meat, the pounded, breaded pork loin tonkatsu is a crazy generous portion for $10, bedded down on dressed cabbage with pickled mustard seed for a bit of tang.
The most dramatic dish was one we didn't eat, but I was charmed by it on two visits. A changing array of sashimi (market price) lounges louchely atop a strobing illuminated platter a lot like a miniature version of the dance floor in Saturday Night Fever. Cool.
A spin on beef tartare called yukke ($10) brought a heap of gochujang-dressed chopped wagyu with a raw egg yolk at its center, tiny batons of Fuji apple providing crispness and a handful of thin chicharrones used as scoopers. This food is, almost without exception, fun, a little zany and eminently sharable. A grilled Florida avocado with soy and chili oil ($8) reads like custard (heresy to say, but the nutty flavor of a Hass avocado would have been better); battered and fried cauliflower ($7) gets a buffalo sauce, something we've seen, but this one is amped up with gochujang. And just about nothing is as fun as the single dessert, a kitchen-sink stunt called halo halo ($10), a Filipino layered confection (Cruz is Filipino) with black sesame fudge at the bottom, plus gummies and guava paste and purple yam ice cream, then a little rum over the top.
This spring will bring a raft of new high-profile restaurants to downtown St. Pete. If Ichicoro Ane is any indication of the gastronomic direction and ambition of the city, the visitors bureau won't have to work too hard to sell St. Petersburg as the country's next culinary destination.
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.