Advertisement
  1. Food

Review: Ulele brings Old Florida style, substance to Tampa waterfront

Deconstructed Seafood Pot Pie is a chowder of shrimp, octopus, grouper, smoked oysters and vegetables in a white wine cream. It’s flanked by pillows of puff pastry and asparagus on wild rice.
Published Sep. 8, 2014

TAMPA

It's the most expensive $1 Richard Gonzmart ever spent.

In 2011, part of the agenda of newly elected Mayor Bob Buckhorn was to expand on the success of Curtis Hixon Park, to extend the Tampa Riverwalk, to revive the derelict historic Water Works Building. Gonzmart got the bid, leasing the 1906 serious fixer-upper from the city for $1 a year. To open a restaurant there? Maybe another $2 million.

Which became $3 million. Then $4 million. Final price tag for Ulele Native-Inspired Foods & Spirits: $6 million. It was supposed to open in time for the Republican National Convention, then sometime after that, then in May. It opened Aug. 26.

But it is not those delays or the blinding price tag that have caused local and regional media to write and broadcast about it so breathlessly and copiously. It is a project of prodigious moving pieces, a thousand stories — an intricate cogs-and-wheels front door made by Dominique Martinez of Rustic Steel Creations; furniture and decor elements of reclaimed Florida wood by Andrew Watson of Built in Seminole Heights; countertops made by Jeff Downing of Downing Designs and inset with arrowheads from Gonzmart's own collection.

I could go on for the rest of this page. Seriously. But my job is this: How's the food? Should you spend your money there?

You should. Because it's good.

I've eaten more stunning oysters. I wish each entree came with custom sides. And desserts have too many soft, ice cream-like options. But that's all the bellyaching I'm going to do.

I chose my dining companions wisely. I went with Tampa Bay Times Real Florida columnist Jeff Klinkenberg; I took a Florida food historian and her husband, who studies the Spanish colonial experience in Florida. Florida boosters all, they were excited to see gator hush puppies ($9), glad that pompano ($25) and quail ($10) had places on the menu, and eager to tuck into a homey bowl of oh-so-Florida stewed White Limas and Collards ($5). They beefed a little that mashed potatoes edged out maize as a central starch, but seemed genuinely tickled to see executive chef Eric Lackey's updated interpretations of early Florida foods.

Gonzmart and managing partner Keith Sedita have assembled an extremely capable and personable team of servers, bartenders, hosts and such, which is essential because this place has been a zoo since Day 1. It is sprawling, with great upstairs and downstairs spaces separated by a floating staircase resting on a display wine cellar. There's a broad barbacoa pit that functions as center stage with seating along one side and a generous bar at the room's other edge. Outdoors, there's a beer garden, and next door is a gleaming stainless brewery where brewmaster Tim Shackton presides. Wait, looks like I'm blathering again.

I'm reviewing Ulele (pronounced you-lay-lee) earlier than I generally do for a new restaurant because the public is curious and the team has its act together. There's a thoughtful and well-priced wine list, a short array of slickly contemporary cocktails (hey, how about getting one of those orange juicers and showcasing the state's original liquid gold?), and valets who efficiently check you off a list and call you by surname.

In a couple of visits, what I enjoyed most: a margarita ($8.25), not too sweet, made with Patrón Reposado from a whole keg Gonzmart snagged; Rusty's Red ($5.75), a nutty-caramely classic amber lager named for Gonzmart's dog; half a dozen buttery, garlicky, Parmesany broiled oysters right off the barbacoa pit ($12); crisp-skinned, semiboneless quail with a swirl of tropical-spicy mustard and an accompaniment of peppery cress and sweet pecans ($10); and a generous scoop of housemade toasted coconut ice cream ($5).

Now I have to blather for one moment: Tying in with a fierce devotion to showcasing local talent, Ulele is serving Florida-born, -raised and -slaughtered beef, a surprisingly revolutionary move. I had one New York strip from Strickland Ranch ($36) that was perfectly cooked and another bone-in version that was slightly overcooked, but in both cases, the flavor of the meat was beguiling — musky, with almost a cheesy funk (that sounds bad, but trust me it's not) that makes the meat itself the most memorable thing on the plate. The barbacoa lends a little of that smoky-charry flavor to dishes like a simple bowl of green beans ($3) with an aioli too demure on the advertised datil peppers (an incendiary chili made famous in St. Augustine), so even veggie dishes have an oomph.

If you really want to picture yourself as an early Floridian taking a break from hunting cattle and slapping skeeters, the Crackling Pork Shank ($24) is the way to go. It's caveman-big, with skin like the top of a delicate creme brulee and unctuously moist flesh beneath, juxtaposed with little cubes of tangy apple chutney dotted with sweet craisins. Not a stickler for early Florida verisimilitude? The buttery-creamy Deconstructed Seafood Pot Pie ($22) comes with a few pillows of flaky puff pastry off to the side of a low bowl studded with grouper, shrimp, bits of octopus and smoked oysters lending their savoriness.

The lucky thing is, you don't have to be a Florida historian to get this stuff. It's accessible. As the Riverwalk is completed, this will be where tourists end up after a spin around the Tampa Museum of Art or a show at the Straz. They may know nothing of Tocobaga princesses or the Spaniard Pánfilo de Narváez's adventures here. Frankly, they don't even need to know how to say "you-lay-lee." They'll just be here for a nice dinner.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. A Zombie Bride is one of the characters found in one of Busch Gardens' open-air scare zones at Howl-O-Scream, which opens for its 20th year on Friday.
    Free Museum Day is coming, Howl-O-Scream opens at Busch Gardens, Billy Ray Cyrus plays for the Bucs Beach Bash and Tho Who will be at Amalie Arena.
  2. Kozuba and B Square vodkas. B Square is a brand produced by Kozuba and Sons. xxxxx
    Kozuba and Sons, Florida Cane and St. Petersburg Distillery make the list.
  3. Yesterday• Bars & Breweries
    Devon Kreps, owner of 7venth Sun, pictured in August in Dunedin. ALLIE GOULDING  |  Tampa Bay Times
    These three women are part of a growing industry in Tampa Bay.
  4. The Mint + Lime Berliner Weisse Photo courtesy of Geneva Johnson
    Dunedin brewery brings back a citrus-forward favorite.
  5. Yvonne Freeman of Goody Goody restaurant holds a platter stacked with the unique burgers from the Tampa establishment. JIM REED  |  Tampa Bay Times (1998)
    Starting as a carhop in 1947, she later became a waitress, cook and then co-manager. When Goody Goody relaunched in Hyde Park, she shared long-guarded recipes and the restaurant’s famous secret sauce.
  6. "Dark Arts at Hogwarts Castle," the new light projection show at Universal Orlando, will open this weekend, running on select nights through Nov. 15. Universal Orlando
    Death Eaters, Voldemort and other creepy creatures from the world of Harry Potter star in the nighttime display.
  7. The I Like It Hot Festival will return to Largo's Minnreg Hall for its 19th year this weekend, sampling everything from sauces to salsas. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times (2008)
    Nab a bottle of Farmhouse As F#&k Deux at Saint Somewhere or eat for a cause during the Columbia’s Community Harvest, too.
  8. Actors emerge from a simulated farmhouse at the center of the Infected haunted house at Scream-A-Geddon in Dade City in 2015. LUIS SANTANA  |  Tampa Bay Times
    You can also catch a talk from Dick Vitale at St. Petersburg theater the Palladium.
  9. Art lovers and musicians take their time strumming and strolling on the sidewalk for St. Petersburg's Second Saturday ArtWalk in 2014. Tampa Bay Times
    What else? Cars & Cigars at 81Bay Brewing Co., a showcase of toy trains in Brooksville and ‘Saving Claire’ at the Pinellas Park Performing Arts Center.
  10. Guess eat and drink coffee at Bandit Coffee in St. Petersburg. DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The specialty coffee shop is expanding its reach with food, drinks and monthly events.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement