A look at new South Tampa restaurant, The Lodge 

The Lodge adds to South Tampa's exciting new dining scene.

Walk into The Lodge and it's immediately apparent that the place is easily going to break the curse of this location. It was the sputtering 42nd Street Bistro for a couple of years, then an ill-fated outpost of St. Pete's Chateau France, then Manny's Bistro. None of them were able to gain any traction, but then again none of them were imagined by the Ciccio and Tony's guys.

Jeff Gigante and his crew looked at the space and proceeded to discard all but the barest bones. They didn't even need to put too much effort into the remodel, just a few decorations and well-chosen pieces of furniture to immediately convey the theme of the restaurant, which is an odd melding of ski lodge and diner. There are gleaming white vinyl booths, tables rimmed by fluted chrome, and servers wearing fuzzy boots to go with their white T-shirts and jeans.

It's not minimalist, but it is restrained, which ends up leaving a hell of a lot of room for the kinds of people who make SoHo what it is. Beautiful and young, or plasticized and middle-aged, the place is packed with the kind of energy that might make a restaurateur forget about the recession.

Of course, the menu makes it easy on the participants. Prices stick strictly to the low side of moderate, with very few dishes even reaching the $15 mark. Better yet, this inexpensive grub is fun.

Appetizers range from familiar favorites like calamari and chicken wings, to déclassé treats like mini-corn dogs, to re-imagined finagling like cheeseburger spring rolls. From the simple to the contrived, it's all fine and tasty, with tater tots available on the side.

Entrées up the whimsical ante big time. There are essentially three sections to the main course menu: burgers, sushi and TV dinners. Burgers branch out from the basic beef patty into turkey, tuna and pork sliders -- along with a list of 15 or so toppings. Here again, the food manages to fulfill expectations without wowing the tastebuds. The sushi, though, is another story.

Drop a slice of rice, nori and stuffings into your mouth and your mind is prepared for a certain experience. The Lodge can do that, with capable tuna, crab and shrimp rolls. But more than half the sushi on the list will have your mouth wondering what the hell you're feeding it.

Fried chicken and lettuce maki with a spiced blue cheese fondue for dipping. Pulled pork and cole slaw tucked into rice and seaweed. Steak and fried onions, hot dog and sauerkraut, burger and bacon -- and somehow, The Lodge's kitchen manages to make them work. There's even the occasional flash of brilliance to accompany the off-kilter fun of the experience.

The last type of entrée might be slightly less fun, but it's also something I want every restaurant in the Bay area to think about. The Lodge's TV dinners offer a list of main courses ranging from fried chicken to mac and cheese, along with a choice of three sides from an extensive list. You wanna go with a classic? Get Shake-N-Bake pork chops with tater tots, baked beans and fudge brownie. Yep, there are desserts on the list, so you can go all sweet with some mac and cheese laced with chopped hamburger accompanied by chocolate flan, fresh fruit and twinkimisu.

The only big flaw in The Lodge's TV dinner plan -- besides terrible fried chicken -- is the way it's served. No divided trays? What? The main course comes on a plate, with a separate plate for the sides. A glaring error.

The desserts are tasty -- although the twinkimisu is not nearly as interesting as it sounds; the servers are attractive and occasionally pay attention to your order, and the scene will make you feel like things out in the world are still alright, especially if you're on the patio drinking it up with the rest of the SoHo regulars.

Wow. Add The Lodge to recently opened Datz Deli a couple of miles away, and South Tampa is turning into the most interesting spot for new restaurants this year. Say goodbye to top honors, downtown St. Pete.

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