Trust me, this will be a restaurant review. In a couple of minutes. First, we need to dive into something the new Steelbach at Armature Works is doing that is ground-breaking, disruptive, way-outside-the-box. It's so forward-thinking that Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam's office called the masterminds because the state wants to use this program as an example of how agriculture can work in Florida, an example of what true farm-to-table is.
It went like this. About a year ago, the principals of Tampa-based restaurant company BE-1 Concepts got in touch with Joe Planz, owner of local Providence Cattle Company, a hormone- and antibiotic-free, all-grass-fed boutique Florida beef company. They wanted Providence to do beef for a new concept.
Planz and his buddy Clifton Chapman of Double C Bar Ranch in Kenansville had been toying with a new concept: Raise beef naturally on grass, then, because chefs and consumers like the plusher feel of grain-finished beef, feed them the last 90 days on all-natural grain. They trademarked the term "pasture-plus." Executive chef Matt Mangone of Boca Kitchen Bar Market, sister restaurant to Steelbach, jumped on it: Could Chapman and Planz manage a herd specifically for Steelbach?
They call it the Steelbach herd, about 250 head of wagyu cattle naturally raised in Kenansville, south of Kissimmee. But as Planz says, there's a lot more on a steer than steakhouse staples like rib steaks and filets. Mangone and crew came up with ways to use the entire animal among the company's restaurants (a group that includes four Boca locations, Ciro's in Tampa, Park Social in Winter Park and Atlantic Beer & Oyster in Winter Park, Sarasota and soon Armature Works), focusing on interesting cuts and cooking techniques.
But the story doesn't end there. About six steer are slaughtered a week at South Marion Meats (if you're a vegetarian, gloss over this bit), the carcasses cut into eight pieces and transported to Master Purveyors in Temple Terrace, a high-end food service supplier that, as it happens, hasn't broken down carcasses in 25 years. Michael and Shawn McCranie were up for the challenge, working with Planz's butcher and hiring new people to bring back a skill that has languished many places in recent decades.
In short, this new Southern-inflected chophouse, the only sit-down restaurant at Armature Works thus far, has its own herd of naturally raised beef, which lives its whole life cycle in the state of Florida. Steaks and chops are used at Steelbach, but the entirety of the animal is utilized there or at the Boca group of restaurants. Low carbon footprint, easy traceability, local and natural, no waste.
Okay, so now to the restaurant review. How are the steaks? Excellent. Imagine a 16-ounce boneless ribeye ($43) or a leaner 10-ounce flatiron ($32), marbled and juicy interior, charry at the edges from the 1,000-degree oak and mesquite open-fire grill. It is plated on a glossy wooden board inset with three round wells for different kinds of salt, a deeply sweet and caramelized shallot and a swipe of rich butter the meat's spare yet elegant accompaniments. The beef's flavor is intense, minerally, smoky, with the slightly more unctuous chew that grain feed imparts.
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Steelbach offers five steaks that are specifically from their cattle, limited availability, as well as a handful of other meats — a Niman Ranch pork chop ($36) and duck, lamb chops and other beef cuts that don't get a brand name. But here's the thing about Steelbach: It is a perfectly lovely place to come if you eat no meat at all.
It's a loud, slightly frenetic space — some of this is the buzzy newness of it, but some is design. It's very open with lots of hard surfaces, and they've kept some atmospheric elements from when the space was the main office for Tampa Electric Company (exposed brick, big wood beams, three original fireplaces), repurposing a 100-year-old vault as a dramatic 1,000-bottle wine cellar. A big central bar and open kitchen mean there's lots to ogle, but if you've got any low-talkers in your posse, forget about it.
Servers are generally charming and remarkably well versed in a menu so new — there was clearly rigorous training in the runup to the debut. Strangely, though, hosts are the antithesis of graciousness, sometimes verging on surly. No idea what that's about.
I visited once with an unapologetic carnivore and a second time with three women who eat very little meat, and both times we found much to love and almost nothing we didn't pick clean: Hearth-roasted broccoli is ready for its closeup with shaves of truffled pecorino, toasted pine nuts, a few drips of balsamic and perfect dots of softly oozing yolk ($10); smoky, buttery bone marrow gets toasts and the juxtaposition of bitter greens and sweet onion jam ($17); sugar-sweet charred heirloom carrots bed down on thick labneh with a flurry of cilantro and toasted hazelnuts ($9); a quartet of salads hits just the right notes of texture, color and flavors (for instance, lush avocado paired with crunchy fennel, with mint, quinoa, chili oil and key lime providing the high notes; $10).
Oh, and I was squint-eyeing a couple at the bar's shrimp appetizer ($13), which look liked crustacean bottle rockets, and they offered me the last one. (Seriously, they said they weren't hungry; is it weird that I ate it?) Delicious gulf shrimp straightened out and wrapped in crispy wonton wrapper, with a kimchee puree for funk and a little bowl of orange-zapped Thai chili sauce as a dunker.
Tampa native Nathan Hardin is the mastermind behind a menu that seems at once fresh but not contrived. Most recently chef de cuisine at Highball and Harvest at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes and previously executive sous chef of Yardbird in Miami Beach, he has a keen feel for how to offer something for everyone while still maintaining a coherent vision. (The hummingbird cake for dessert may say it best: It's homey, and nostalgic with a Southern drawl, but Grandma never made so many fancy layers or plated a square with such precision.)
At least to start, I was less wowed by the specialty cocktail program. With sister property Ciro's really kick-starting craft cocktails in the Tampa area, Steelbach has good instincts: They are offering large-format cocktails (for three or four people, but a commitment at around $50) made tableside, but the combinations of flavors were so specific and odd, we could never agree on one that sounded appealing. That said, the whiskey selection is superb, offered glammy with oversized ice cubes that make you feel like a Wall Street tycoon.
I've already gushed about Armature Works quite a bit, but Steelbach is a tremendous anchor to the food hall as well as a big draw in Tampa Heights. Their beef program alone should draw curious steak fans from the entire region, and luckily that's not its only magnetic element.
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines unannounced and the Times pays all expenses.