Your first reaction to Ciros Speakeasy the newest venture by veteran Tampa restaurateur Gordon Davis, with partner Ro Patel could be stunned admiration. It wont be, but not because the restaurant/lounge isnt amazing. You just wont be able to see enough to judge when you first walk in.
Ciros is the kind of place that, by design, seeps into your consciousness throughout your first visit, thanks to the thoughtful lighting scheme (almost oppressively dark throughout) and the calculated lack of publicity. The place has no website and buys no advertising, playing it so coy you might have trouble finding the front door hidden at the bottom of a condominium building at the south end of Howard Avenue.
But you need to find it, and give it a little time, because Ciros is stunning.
It makes sense that the first thing you take in will be the lounge area, illuminated largely by two discs of blacklit aquarium that are home to the languorous undulations of live jellyfish glowing in the ultraviolet light. Cleverly placed mirrors give your struggling eyes the impression that the lounge continues in rooms off to both sides. It took me 15 minutes just to realize that Id been tricked, and the low-ceilinged space was all there was.
Beautiful and smart, but the real show is at the small bar on one end, where the resident mixologists display creativity that shows that Ciros charms are much more than skin deep.
The cocktail list reads like a retro-modern bar fantasy: old drinks made with modern ingredients, new drinks made in the old ways. Go on a weeknight, when its slower, to appreciate the touches that set this bar apart from pretty much every bar in the Bay area. Garnishes cut and prepared as you order, precise measurements of each ingredient, tiny samples taken by disposable stirrers to ensure the proper balance of flavors care is taken with each drink made at Ciros.
Some of that care is reflected in the drinks' design details. Martini glasses are curved and dainty, reminiscent of old school Champagne flutes and frosted over with a skin of ice. Rocks glasses are packed over the brim with pellets of crushed ice that instantly chill to the freezing point anything poured into the crevasses inside, while highballs come with a solid block that reaches from top to bottom.
Thats only half of the Ciros experience, however. Head down a narrow hallway and youll find the dining area, if you can call it that. Its like a train car, with private suites lining the sides, each hidden by curtains that hint at whats inside without revealing secrets. Step into one and youll find a cushy banquette lined with luxe pillows and just enough open space for a set of nesting tables reminiscent of high-end TV trays. The upholstered walls are dark and rich, the curtains separating the booths stiff and patterned enough to hide any illicit behavior next door, and you control the lighting.
It doesnt matter, you dont need much light thanks to simple but almost shockingly entertaining menus that are cleverly backlit, casting more than enough glow to read the array of small plates Ciros offers, or illuminate the latest round of drinks to figure out which is which. The food itself is modern American, with appreciative glances toward steakhouse lounge cuisine and foodie buzz-ingredients, like duck fat fries or pork belly on a pizza.
In execution, the cuisine might suffer a bit from comparison to the overall experience: solid, but little of it is knocked out of the park. Like fig halves and a dollop of goat cheese wrapped in prosciutto and sauteed, a regular item that the restaurant keeps off the menu to add to the allure. The pork permeates, reducing fruit and cheese to mere supporting players. Butter-poached lobster suffers the same fate, the shellfish lost underneath a blanket of gooey breadcrumbs and a dim tomato compote.
When it comes to food at Ciros, simplicity rules. That pork belly pizza is a simple round of rich focaccia topped by bits of the excellent chopped meat cured in-house along with accents of cheese and fresh thyme. Massive scallops are simply, perfectly sauteed, the natural buttery sweetness paired with a pile of creamed leeks and mushrooms.
Ciros beef tartare is luscious, tender and simply seasoned, even though the wee quail egg on top is cooked past the point where the yolk can drip into the mass of chopped steak. Order the steak and it comes sliced and glowing an ideal medium rare, so tender you could cut it with a fork. Sadly, its coated in a salt-and-pepper crust that occasionally shoots a massive blast of sodium across your tongue.
Still, it might be worth it for the french fries that come alongside. You may want to order them separately, but dont bother there are plenty with the steak to satisfy a group. And a few go a long way, thanks to the rich duck fat that permeates each one and the heady sprinkling of hard cheese and salt on top. One oddity, though: Instead of long and lean, Ciros fries are basically shards of potato, few more than an inch or two long.
There are also charcuterie and cheese plates, but the servers didnt seem excited by them and none of the meat is done locally, so they are easy to overlook.
Desserts range from chocolate fondue to a bizarre stack of dainty Belgian waffles layered with beer-flavored ice cream and chocolate sauce, then topped by tiny bits of fried pork. Sounds great, but in execution it is a big mess of competing flavors that comes with a brutal lesson: Bacon does not actually make everything better.
The ambiance does come with a few problems you might find yourself balancing a plate on your lap, and the low ceilings and confining walls of the booths could trigger latent claustrophobia after a couple hours. Thing is, Ciros is so engaging that its easy to forgive an occasional misstep on a plate, or a companion who needs to see the sky every half hour.
Its all a meager price to pay for the unique, thoughtful and yes stunning experience of Ciro's.
Ciros Speakeasy- 2109 Bayshore Blvd., Tampa, 813-251-0022.
Photo by: James Ostrand, jamesostrand.com