WHERE THERE'S SMOKE: COCKTAILS
Ready your extinguisher. They're everywhere. Bartenders all over the Tampa Bay area are turning to new tools to up their game. One of those is smoke, which comes in many forms.
At Craft Street Kitchen (3216 Little Road, Trinity; (727) 372-9491), brothers Jason, Jimmy and Johnny Rehm head up a booming indoor-outdoor gastropub that is equal parts big-time fun and serious gastronomic ambition. There's a stupendous chalkboard of craft beers (oh, the flirty lusciousness of Cigar City Maduro vanilla on a nitro tap, nitrogen beers creamier than their prickly CO2 counterparts), but really, your attentions should be turned elsewhere. Such as to the smoked Old Fashioned: A cedar plank is lit on fire, its smoke captured in an overturned glass into which Buffalo Trace bourbon, walnut bitters and demerara sugar are assembled and capped off with one of those big, fancy ice cubes.
At the bar most likely to have been beamed futureward from the late 1920s (Gatsby caps! Cute vests!), Mandarin Hide (231 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, (727) 231-4007) is doing a classic Blood and Smoke, which brings you that subtle flavor two ways: Ilegal Mezcal Reposado has a distinctive smokiness to it, then add the bittersweet flavor of Solerno blood orange liqueur, grapefruit, agave nectar and a flamed orange peel for a bit of extra bonfire sass.
At my newest favorite haunt, the Mill (200 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 317-3930), mixologists like Ryan Pines are concocting a deep fuchsia-colored showstopper that is the Tahona cocktail, its fancy-reverse-osmosis-yada-yada fat ice cube melting slowly into the Milagro reposado, St-Germain, cactus pear juice, lime and agave syrup infused with smoked jalapeno, this last lending a notable chipotle flavor without a ton of heat, its function largely to counteract the sweet tang of the juice. This ain't no girly drink, despite its pretty rim flower.
Brian Mulay, bartender at Station House (260 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 895-8260), has got smoke coming out of his ears. He says he's "putting a barrel-aged cocktail in the express lane" by using lightly toasted French oak and heavily toasted American oak chips to quickly add a little smoky richness to aged cocktails. Then, he recently took Tampa-based TeBella's Lapsang souchong, a very smoky tea, and infused St. Petersburg Distillery Gin for a variation on a Bee's Knees with muddled blackberry, bittersweet amaro and the smoked gin. But the one that really shows moxie is a cocktail he's calling Franky Four Fingers (named for the Benicio del Toro character in Snatch) that marries Fontana pisco, Campari and vermouth, which he then puts with toasted wood chips in cryovac and sous vides the whole thing for a wackadoodle smoky negroni.
CONFIDENTIAL: IL RITORNO
I'm not surprised chef David Benstock is up to something new. Yes, he's still at the helm of St. Petersburg's charming Il Ritorno, but he has just debuted something fresh — both for his own amusement and that of regular customers. Priced at $65, it's a secret five-course spread that cannot be found on the Il Ritorno menu, a menu so secret that even the guest has no idea what's coming. Guests also can opt for an additional $35 wine pairing to complement the "Confidential."
"Throughout my career, I've been taught to execute dishes a certain way, following a specific recipe," Benstock said. "This is a way for me to express my creative freedom through the creation of entirely new and unique dishes for our guests."
Remember, what's more fun for the chef is usually more delicious.
RISING TIDE: NEW BREAD
I could get whiplash from all the rubbernecking of new food businesses on Fourth Street N. One that smells particularly come-hither debuted in January. The Bread Artisans Bakery (6925 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 914-8959) is the handiwork of Massimo Maviglia, who moved from a smaller space on Park Boulevard in Pinellas Park where he baked for seven years. While he's working on offering more sit-awhile options like Italian cocktails, for now it's mostly a place to scoot by and grab a naturally leavened (24 to 36 hours) sourdough or a rosemary ciabatta. The Italian rum cakes get lots of avid suitors, and the lunch crowd seems to be smitten by ham and cheese croissants as well as flaky puff pastry swirls containing spinach. Maviglia chose Fourth because "the bigger space allows me do to more production and because there are so many eateries opening up here it gives me better visibility."