Bright yellow kernels tucked within a jalapeño corn beer roll greeted my taste buds at the media preview of Tampa’s Ulele restaurant on Sunday evening, as if the pieces were strategically sprinkled throughout to savor with each bite.
I washed down the offering’s kick with a big ol’ mug of Water Works Pale Ale, one of the eatery’s signature suds that’s crafted in its on-site microbrewery.
Columbia Restaurant owner Richard Gonzmart, who partnered with the city and Keith Sedita to develop Ulele along the Hillsborough River, said the brewery wasn’t slated to debut with the restaurant at first. However, Gonzmart said he got so excited for the brewing facility that its launch date eventually aligned with the restaurant’s.
According to Gonzmart, his biggest concern was outfitting his dream restaurant with a millennial staff who cares, but he's no longer worried.
“They’re all stars,” he said. “It gives me hope.”
The last time I was inside the 1903-pump-house-turned-restaurant was in May, when Ulele’s walls weren’t laden with art pieces the Gonzmarts collected from locales like Peru and Greece, and when executive chef Eric Lackey was still creating the “native-inspired” menu using Florida proteins and produce.
When I meandered over to the Gulf Coast oyster bar, where fresh crab claws, shrimp and Patron oyster shooters were served, the spicy Pulpo Carpaccio (shaved octopus with piri piri sauce) was gone.
No matter, though. Seafood pot pies, mini lobster cakes, lollipop chicken and okra fries — which I loved almost as much as the sweet, smoky Three Sisters Garden salad — were among the other eats that guests munched on.
Ulele will showcase a vegetarian entree every day in addition to its 10 side items, which are all veg-friendly.
“We don’t want our market to be dictated by steak and seafood,” Lackey said. “We tried to make it so that everyone feels comfortable.”
I finished off my beer around 7 p.m. With a “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” cover playing in the background, I left to meet up with a friend at Suzanne and Roger Perry’s Roux, hopping from one highly anticipated Hillsborough restaurant to another.
“This is only the second day the kitchen’s been open,” Suzanne said.
But those invited to sample Roux’s bill of fare that night wouldn’t know it based off how complete the restaurant looks, and feels.
Since the eatery’s dimly lit, the gas lamps mounted throughout grabbed my attention. My dinner date and I were seated in a cozier dining area separate from the main room, but like the rest of Roux, which has a copper-tiled ceiling that’s hard to miss, the space gave off a sultry, Victorian vibe.
Through dishes like smoked duck and andouille gumbo, yakamein (a noodly comfort food), braised rabbit and dumplings, barbecue shrimp and chargrilled oysters, the cuisine reflects traditional New Orleans chow yet carries contemporary flair.
I tried the Wild Mushroom Ravioli, with a tangy, spicy absinthe-laced cream sauce that I’d drizzle over everything if I could, while my companion went with the Crab Tomato Napoleon salad and was pleased.
A Sazerac and Pink Fairy, which I’m told was invented by Datz general manager and bartender Morgan Zuck, cocktail order followed mid-meal. They lasted us through the remainder of our stay.
My date mentioned more than once that Roux reminds her of cafés found in the French Quarter, so we couldn’t leave without tasting dessert.
We shared the restaurant’s baked Alaska and Turbodog Chocolate Cake that incorporates the Abita beer it’s named after. Our we-can’t-eat-another-bite groans were a testament to our stomachs’ satisfied stupors.
Thank you, foodie universe.