Gastropub is one of those words we're still a little iffy on. Does it mean fancy food in an easygoing setting, and with a whole lot of craft beer? Or does it somehow signal a drinking joint with suspiciously delicious meats?
James Renew isn't too hung up on a narrow definition: "It means elevated food served in a casual, public house-type atmosphere."
In December, he opened the Little Lamb Gastropub in the space that used to be Laziz Indian. It's an unlikely strip mall spot for an edgy, ambitious restaurant with a spare, big-city aesthetic. Most recently at high-end properties in Las Vegas and Sydney, Australia, chef Renew thought it was time his two little girls, Lily and Lila (they are the inspiration for the alliterative Ls in the name), experienced the comforts of suburban American life.
Nothing suburban-seeming about Little Lamb. Rough plank walls inset with sconces made of industrial piping, concrete floors and an open kitchen: It's got a no-frills charm with just 38 seats if you count the long concrete bar. The bar may be the best place to perch, because you can watch the proceedings in the kitchen, the tiny staff kibbitzing and clearly enjoying the pace and back-and-forth of restaurant work.
There's a one-page lunch menu and equally brief dinner menu, the latter divided into "small plates," "pub grub," "salads" and "mains," only one item crossing the $20 threshold, and then a short beer and wine list that seems to be a work in progress. (On my visits a number of our choices were unavailable and something else was being substituted.)
One of the most unexpected parts of such a wee restaurant is the presence of a designated pastry chef.
Kyrie Rotolo trained at Orlando's Le Cordon Bleu and has spent time in local kitchens like Mermaid Tavern and Edison: Food+Drink Lab. Her desserts are unexpected and whimsical, with enough savory, salty and bitter elements to keep from ever being cloying. A s'mores tart with ginger chocolate on a graham cracker crust was memorable for its burnt espresso marshmallows (they may have been too burnt, but the charriness added a lot of fragrance to the dish; $7), and an aerated cheesecake was topped with a sprinkling of pepitas, blueberries and a sweet-salty orange almond crumble ($6). I'm not sure if this was made with some mad scientist nitrous oxide canister, but the cheesecake itself read like the unbaked French style, very airy.
My first review in January, and I'm starting with dessert. There go my resolutions. And in fact, Little Lamb isn't going to help you tackle December's belt-loosening. You may start with a paper cone of chicharones ($5), salty, super crispy and airy, served with a ramekin of spicy mayo, or you may really throw caution to the wind with a very solid spin on poutine ($9), the sturdy fries standing up to the avalanche of bouncy cheese curds, gravy and flurry of chives. If you like your spuds more unadulterated, there's a charming starter called Sack of Potatoes ($6) that is literally that: a bag of tiny roasted globes paired with malt vinegar salt and a deeply umami pork jus butter.
A composed crudo plate (I believe it was snapper, but the fish species wasn't mentioned; $13) was lovely, dotted with sliced grapes, apple, avocado, a squeeze of lime, a sprinkling of espelette (a variety of French chile) and a few tufts of herbs, although the fish slices were a little thick and irregular for maximum enjoyment. Equally attractive was a rectangular plate of char siu pork ribs ($13), super fall-off-the-bone tender and topped with pickled onion, mint, peanuts and a kicky lime vinaigrette.
Burgers, de rigueur at a gastropub, come two ways: beef ($12) and lamb ($13), both quite good and served on an appealing brioche bun with careful accoutrements (lettuce, tomato, onion, house pickle). The beef burger, juicy and not overworked, is paired with sharp white cheddar; the lamb version gets a cap of feta and lush tzatziki. Fries with both are crisp and greaseless (but if you just ate poutine, you need to ask yourself just what your objectives are in 2017).
The location is appealing for those who don't feeling like hauling it to downtown St. Petersburg or Seminole Heights, but it's a little tucked out of the way. Renew and crew need to step up their social media game so that their people can find them. (For now, the website seems to be a shell and there isn't much action on Facebook, Twitter, etc.) Because like the nursery rhyme sort of says, wherever the Little Lamb is, the hipsters are sure to go.
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.