Restaurant Reviews

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Restaurant review: TamPiz is hard to resist

With pizza and French pastries, Tampa's TamPiz is uneven but still charming.

Posted By on Wed, Feb 3, 2016 at 12:44 PM

**1/2
ON THE RISE: The Gautheron brothers, Tommy and Kevin. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • ON THE RISE: The Gautheron brothers, Tommy and Kevin.

“Immigrants, we get the job done!”

So say the Marquis de Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton as they exchange a high five in the new Broadway phenomenon tracing the rise of our “ten-dollar founding father.” Given Donald Trump’s recent immigration diatribes, the audience responds with a hearty laugh. But Lady Liberty’s siren song still attracts dreamers.

Count among that group two young, 20-something French brothers, Tommy and Kevin Gautheron, from Lyon (France’s foodie capital), who follow in their countryman Lafayette’s footsteps, in this instance to embrace Florida sunshine and try their hand at the American Dream.

When Cafe European, opposite the University of Tampa, closed last August, the Gautherons snatched up the space with visions of pizza and French pastry. They renovated, adding Bakers Pride pizza deck ovens and a pool table to lure students across Kennedy Boulevard.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Restaurant review: Take The Lure's bait

Eclectic tastes with varying influences reel in diners at The Lure in downtown St. Pete.

Posted By on Wed, Jan 27, 2016 at 12:57 PM

***1/2
Two pool tables, wall-length murals and more get your attention at The Lure. - NICOLE ABBETT
  • Nicole Abbett
  • Two pool tables, wall-length murals and more get your attention at The Lure.

Imagine you’re a rainbow trout swimming west along the stream that is downtown St. Pete’s Central Avenue. 

As your lean body flexes, your tail flips back and forth to gain momentum, but there’s movement to your right. You rush toward the vibration, flash and color, yet realize too late that it’s a lure, and you’ve been hooked.

While they reel you in, it’s clear that what caught your eye are two pool tables with ornately carved cabriole legs, sitting on Oriental rugs under antique-styled lamps of amber glass. The blood red felt that tops the billiard tables is beguiling, and “ya got trouble, my friend… with a capital ‘T’ and that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for pool.”

This is The Lure, home to “tikis, tapas, billiards and cold dead fish.” Chef Tom Golden and his savvy partners Richard Alday, of the now-shuttered Rack in South Tampa, and Michael Stewart, owner of South Tampa’s Ava and 717 South, have their finger on the pulse of what’s now in vogue. 

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Restaurant review: Flavor galore at Udipi Cafe

Tampa's Udipi Cafe wows with its vegetarian, and largely vegan, tastes.

Posted By on Wed, Jan 20, 2016 at 10:55 AM

***1/2
At Udipi, hop from bowl to bowl with the south Indian thali dish's mini buffet. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • At Udipi, hop from bowl to bowl with the south Indian thali dish's mini buffet.

For those of us who grew up eating a diet heavily based on meat and dairy, veganism is a little scary. Heck, even vegetarianism can instill fear in the carnivore majority. But we are not our cave-dwelling ancestors. Survival of the fittest in the 21st century means making smart choices at Publix.

There’s no longer an imperative for us to consume animal products since healthy options abound. And, from a restaurant perspective, the south Indian cuisine from Tampa’s superb Udipi Cafe is living proof of how much flavor a veggie-based menu can deliver.

Most Indian restaurants in the West feature northern Punjabi-style food — the wonderful creamy curries, naan and tandoori meat dishes so prevalent in England and the U.S. These highlight garam masala spices, amchoor (dried mango powder) for a sour note and dried fenugreek as an herbal accent.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Restaurant review: Tom+Chee-sy temple

In St. Petersburg, sit back, relax and tai chi… err, Tom+Chee.

Posted By on Wed, Jan 13, 2016 at 1:06 PM

***1/2
The Hippy+Chee comes with hummus, cukes, tomatoes, greens and Cheddar. - NICOLE ABBETT
  • Nicole Abbett
  • The Hippy+Chee comes with hummus, cukes, tomatoes, greens and Cheddar.

Maybe it’s because I frequently pass Dunedin’s historic Fenway Hotel (which is now being renovated as the International Center for the Taoist Tai Chi Society), but when I first heard “tom chee,” I was reminded of the traditional, low-impact Chinese dance-like conditioning exercise regimen.

Tai chi is a way of centering and relieving stress; Tom+Chee gives diners that same warm, comforting embrace. There’s a sense of calm that pervades the air. Instead of standing on one leg like the “golden cock” or moving to “wave hands like clouds,” you relax through a series of grilled cheese options that seem almost unlimited, but are indeed well-organized.

There are proven combos under “fancy” and chip-laden “crunchy” ones, plus a build-your-own section with five breads, 10 cheeses, seven meats, eight veggies, six extras, and the “I’m a glutton so I’ll add mac ‘n’ cheese and/or have a double-decker" option. That puts your choices (including gluten-free and vegan) well into five figures. You could try a different one every day for the rest of your laid-back tai chi life.

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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Restaurant review: Boca Bay is gaining its sea legs

In Gulfport, Boca Bay Grille's casual offerings are pleasing, but service needs more attention.

Posted By on Wed, Jan 6, 2016 at 11:43 AM

***
Boca Bay's steak au poivre arrives with a creamy sauce and grilled asparagus. - NICOLE ABBETT
  • Nicole Abbett
  • Boca Bay's steak au poivre arrives with a creamy sauce and grilled asparagus.

As you head toward the historic Gulfport Casino, it’s nice to see that a popular watering hole on Beach Boulevard South has found some new love. Restaurateurs Al and Dawn Espinoza vow to be “embracing the vibe of our local beach community with good food & FUN!” And they’re mostly succeeding.

Boca Bay Grille is the new occupant of the space formerly occupied by Bellini/La Fogata, and it's just getting its sea legs. As the clientele builds, the spacious front dining room will command regular use. In the meanwhile, we’re escorted back to a casual lounge featuring tables mixed with sofas and ottomans. To the right is a large round bar, part of which opens to the outside, where there are high-top stools and an adjacent waterfall with a circle of comfy cushioned wicker perfect for a small group desiring a bit of privacy.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Restaurant review: French fried at L'Eden

L'Eden Café & Bar in downtown Tampa needs to reconnect with its French inspiration.

Posted By on Wed, Dec 16, 2015 at 12:11 PM

**1/2
Inside the comfy yet sophisticatedly styled L'Eden in downtown Tampa. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • Inside the comfy yet sophisticatedly styled L'Eden in downtown Tampa.

I’ve immersed myself in French cuisine since I first learned to cook decades ago and, just this summer, spent time indulging in its wonders from Lyon to Bordeaux to Paris, as my “Postcards from France” for CL attest. Almost without exception, there’s a strong emphasis on technique and presentation, even at the most casual of establishments. It’s in the DNA.

When you’re a small restaurant with a limited menu and a particular culinary focus, it’s incumbent upon the proprietor to think ahead. You might only have one chance to hook a customer. I enter psyched to see what new owner Priscilla Vincent has brought to L’Eden Café & Bar’s approach to escargot, that most iconic French appetizer. Oops, not available tonight. Pardon. One of my dining group fancies the duck and Brie crêpe. Also missing in action. Well, how about a glass of the Bordeaux blanc? Sorry, we’re out of that. Well, at least there’s foie gras.

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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Restaurant review: Grey Salt rocks

In Tampa, Grey Salt's menu combines a host of flavors, always seeking balance on the palate.

Posted By on Wed, Dec 9, 2015 at 11:29 AM

****
The tender and juicy roasted Gulf Coast snapper with seasonal veggies. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • The tender and juicy roasted Gulf Coast snapper with seasonal veggies.

It's hard to ignore 2,592 lemons.

As you enter Grey Salt, the terrific new restaurant just off the lobby of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, the far wall is lined with rows and rows and rows of jars filled with preserved lemons. They announce that in this celebration of Mediterranean cuisine, North Africa will cede nothing to its southern European neighbors across the sea.

Each of the 216 clear glass jars — spread 36 wide and stacked six high — is filled with 12 plump, yellow lemons. The installation sets the tone for the modern, high ceiling space. There're smaller booths to the left, a series of huge, curved embracing cubicles down the center, and a group of adaptable tables adjacent to the open kitchen, which runs along the right wall until it hits a jog. Beyond that corner, you see the stacks of split log fuel tucked into the wall that eventually meets the plane of jarred citrus. It's a light, bright welcoming setting with a loud soundtrack that's in sync with the Hard Rock brand. Whether you consider this an appropriate dining soundscape depends on your perspective.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Restaurant review: Pericos à la Cancún

Pericos Mexican restaurant in St. Petersburg serves up some hits, and misses.

Posted By on Wed, Dec 2, 2015 at 1:19 PM

***
Pericos' inviting interior includes sombrero lamps and saddled-up bar stools. - NICOLE ABBETT
  • Nicole Abbett
  • Pericos' inviting interior includes sombrero lamps and saddled-up bar stools.

Pericos
has been a party spot in Cancún for nearly 40 years, but drug cartel activity has suppressed tourism and understandably put a dent in business. So what’s a restaurant entrepreneur to do? Enrique Rebolledo’s answer is to reach across the border with his first U.S. venture. However, St. Petersburg is not Cancún.

For Mexican native Rebolledo, Florida’s regulations and building hurdles have to be a colossal headache. After appearing on CL’s radar at the beginning of the year, Pericos was delayed until its soft opening in the fall.

The decor is built around brightly colored chairs, hanging sombrero lamps and adornments celebrating Mexican national heritage, including Día de los Muertos skeletons and images of revolutionary heroes Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, plus painter Frida Kahlo. Before I get ahead of myself, some context.

I dine anonymously so that my columns report the experience of an everyday patron. My prep each week includes looking at restaurant websites and getting a sense of the online buzz about signature dishes or potential pitfalls. Having a sense of the particular culinary world as I enter primes my brain for the meal. When CL’s editors added Pericos to my review list, I began my exploration.

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Friday, November 20, 2015

Restaurant review: Kings Street Food's royal jewels

The jazzed-up diner favorites at St. Pete's Kings Street Food Counter reign in striking retro digs.

Posted By on Fri, Nov 20, 2015 at 6:09 PM

***1/2
Server Cameron Davidson introduces the menu to first-time Kings diners. - NICOLE ABBETT
  • Nicole Abbett
  • Server Cameron Davidson introduces the menu to first-time Kings diners.

No matter where around the globe you travel, street food is, to quote Donald Trump, “HUGE!” In fact, wandering chef Anthony Bourdain told the World Street Food Congress that “street food, I believe, is the salvation of the human race.” No matter your longitude or latitude, there are mind-boggling variations on pizza, crepes, noodles and dumplings galore — from sandwiches to dim sum, from empañadas to every imaginable meat-on-a-stick.

When it comes to North America, however, two icons stand out: the all-American hot dog and poutine, Canada’s sloppy but delicious mashup. It is on these two comfort foods, that King, an English bulldog, has built his nascent empire with the assistance of human follower, Stephen Schrutt. The kingdom reigns as Kings Street Food Counter, Schrutt’s second downtown St. Pete restaurant concept (the other being the AVENUE eat/drink).

For a pooch, King has an unerring design sense, with a black, white and sea-foam green retro flair. He’s allowed the humans a handsome 1950s diner interior with a counter and booths, but provided a large, luxurious AstroTurf-clad garden for his canine pals. It’s outfitted with sleek wood and white gloss communal tables and chairs. Knowing humans’ predilection for beer and sports, he’s also furnished an outdoor bar with local brews on tap and a couple of HDTVs to make sure the bipeds extend their visit. Smart dog.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Restaurant review: Prepare to slurp at Ichicoro Ramen

Alongside superb cocktails, Ichicoro's ramen in Seminole Heights is disorientingly good.

Posted By on Wed, Nov 18, 2015 at 12:34 PM

***1/2
A crowded Friday for Ichicoro, whose dining room is full of hungry patrons. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • A crowded Friday for Ichicoro, whose dining room is full of hungry patrons.

Often when I venture into Seminole Heights, I don’t feel I have a high enough hipness quotient. I imagine reaching a Florida Avenue “hipster checkpoint” where I turn off my Sondheim and blast an indie playlist from Leilani Polk while trying to pass. Still, I receive a pink slip for lacking the appropriate garb. Buddy Holly/Malcom X glasses: NO. Skinny jeans: IMPOSSIBLE. Combat boots: SORRY. No ink, no cigs.

My case is hopeless.

Luckily, the badass #RamenArmy from Ichicoro Ramen has no such requirements. What it does have is buzz with a capital “B.” Though it just opened Oct. 28 (following a shakedown as an NYC pop-up in the Ramen Lab test kitchen of its supplier, Sun Noodle), Ichicoro has patrons waiting for hours — even early on a weeknight.

So, what’s an insatiable ramen zombie to do? The obvious answer is to hug the huge glass garage door opposite the bar, where the interior hardware makes a perfect cocktail shelf. There, patrons may drink, snack and chat as they wait to enter the second half of the space; that, is ramen central.

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