Restaurant Reviews

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Restaurant review: Olde Bay Café is quite a catch

Dunedin's Olde Bay Café pairs its toothsome seafood with a slammin' view.

Posted By on Wed, Apr 29, 2015 at 3:04 PM

LUNCH IS SURFED: Olde Bay's Blue Crab Salad Roll with creamy 'cado slices. - KEVIN TIGHE
  • Kevin Tighe
  • LUNCH IS SURFED: Olde Bay's Blue Crab Salad Roll with creamy 'cado slices.

It’s really nice when friends are visiting from Stratford-upon-Avon to have them gush over the Dunedin Marina — gobsmacked by the beauty of the Gulf breezes and the thrilling sunsets that set the clouds aglow. I stifle my surprise, since I have the same thrill in a swan-dodging boat down the Avon; just passing the Royal Shakespeare Company quickens my pulse. The grass, it seems, is always greener.

Nonetheless, it’s a pleasure to wander down to Olde Bay Café, peek inside the fish market for fresh catches on ice and then sit on the patio deck under an umbrella to partake of chef Walt Wickman’s casual seafood, so fresh that it might as well have jumped onto your plate.

Freshness is the main allure of Olde Bay. The oysters are full of delicious nectar from the sea. We suck them down from their icy cold bed while watching gulls and pelicans zoom from pillar to post.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Restaurant review: Pollo Garden's seductive spice

Authentic Peruvian flavors are found at Ybor City's Pollo Garden.

Posted By on Wed, Apr 22, 2015 at 1:04 PM

Pollo Garden's chicken and rib platter served with a snappy dipping sauce. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • Pollo Garden's chicken and rib platter served with a snappy dipping sauce.

Food links us to cultures around the globe. We glimpse national character from the myriad tastes of world cuisine. The rich bounty of ethnic heritage passes from generation to generation, and as immigrants move from their home countries for new opportunities, we are able to experience a world of flavors, limited only by available ingredients and the ability of chefs to capture the essence of their homelands on a plate.

In Ybor City, we're accustomed to sampling the flavors of Cuba, Italy and the Middle East. But take just a few steps off the main drag and you'll get a taste of Peru, too.

Less than two blocks south of Seventh, a historical plaque marks the spot where Tampa cigar pioneer Emilio Pons launched the first cigar factory of local origin in 1887. Directly across 17th Street, a small, unassuming building with a walk-up window catches the eye. Pollo Garden, it seems, is aptly named, since the entire restaurant is essentially outdoors.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Restaurant review: Classics reimagined at Marker 39

Downtown Safety Harbor's Marker 39 serves shining Floribbean fusion cuisine.

Posted By on Wed, Apr 15, 2015 at 1:59 PM

Chef-owner Justin Murphy prepares M39's Nemo Rolls. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • Chef-owner Justin Murphy prepares M39's Nemo Rolls.

There must be something in the water. Just north of Safety Harbor’s Main Street on the block between Fourth and Fifth avenues, there’s a proliferation of bungalows churning out good food. The five-star Pizzeria Gregario is just around the corner from Green Springs Bistro and Parts of Paris. And on the western edge of the block, a hypnotizing path of tiki torches invites you in.

Marker 39 is named for an old diminutive concrete pillar just outside the door next to a pink flamingo. There, amidst the ferns, concrete rises from the earth and “1939” is clearly embedded in the rough facade. Tiny rocks of white, gray and amber peek through the textured surface near the tip like fossils in an archeological dig.

It’s here that chef-owner Justin Murphy, a disciple of Florida cuisine titan and visionary Norman Van Aken, brings his Floribbean fusion. Among the tropical foliage and canopy-covered deck, he reinterprets classics through a Caribbean-Latino-Asian lens, creating “ingredient-driven, seasonal menus that contain bold textures and dramatic flavors,” according to the restaurant’s website, with a commitment to local, organic products.

The starters shine. Crisp cornmeal-crusted gulf oysters sit atop a pasilla pepper-sweet corn relish that provides a nice contrast of flavors. Add the brightness of citrus-dressed greens and creamy heat of roasted poblano remoulade, and an exciting symphony of tastes plays on your tongue.

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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Restaurant review: Eat, be merry at Sweet Sage Cafe

Sweet Sage Cafe offers pleasant breakfast and lunch eats in North Redington Beach.

Posted By on Wed, Apr 8, 2015 at 1:29 PM

FOLLOW THE SIGNS: Pithy aphorisms and Floridiana line Sweet Sage's walls. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • FOLLOW THE SIGNS: Pithy aphorisms and Floridiana line Sweet Sage's walls.

“The place to be happy is here, the time to be happy is now.”

That's just one of the many signs that seem to fill every empty space of John and Barbara Messmore's Sweet Sage Cafe, but it's clearly the restaurant's driving philosophy.

Behind the giant flora and fauna murals that dominate the exterior, past the white-picket fence and the ivy-covered arbor, past the “Men to the left, because women are always right” sign, you enter under a round striped awning into multiple dining spaces that are also part tea room, part gift shop. Serving breakfast and lunch only, Sweet Sage is a refuge from the clamor of Gulf Boulevard, a hidden oasis in North Redington Beach.

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Monday, March 30, 2015

Restaurant review: Haven rises like a phoenix

South Tampa's sophisticated Haven thrills with food, libations and service.

Posted By on Mon, Mar 30, 2015 at 12:33 PM

NO WASTE: Haven wine director Gregory Mayer demonstrates the Coravin. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • NO WASTE: Haven wine director Gregory Mayer demonstrates the Coravin.

What’s a restaurant critic to do when bound and gagged by stars? And I don’t mean a troublesome encounter with Brad and Angelina.

The question at hand is how to differentiate between casual excellence and fine-dining attention to detail. When an eatery is at the highest level of food, drink and service in the region, yet eschews Michelin-star fussiness to follow the small plate trend, where do you land? If the eats deliver constant surprise like, say, Rooster & the Till (my CL four-and-a-half-star BOTB favorite) but the wine and spirits up the game to world-class levels, does that inevitably mean a five-star rating?

This is what runs through my mind as I nosh and sip my way through the gauntlet at South Tampa’s Haven, bouncing like a pinball from the bar that dispenses gin and tonic on tap to the inventive combos that arrive rat-a-tat-tat at our table, to the tempura-gelee-dehydration that turns bananas Foster on its head. It’s a whirlwind of excellence, but not the same three-star Michelin experience as Alinea in Chicago or New York City’s Eleven Madison Park.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Wolfing it Down: Carnal bliss at Mr. I Got 'Em

Good Wolf's go-to barbecue spot, St. Pete's Mr. I Got 'Em, gets a visit from the whole pack.

Posted By on Wed, Mar 25, 2015 at 2:52 PM


Fang ratings

5 fangs: Howl at the Moon
4 fangs: Slam Dunk
3 fangs: Roof-Riding Good
2 fangs: Teen Wolf Too
1 fang: Worse than Tony’s Liquor

TWO BY TWO: Marketgoers line up for Mr. I Got 'Em's 'cued specialties. - TODD BATES
  • Todd Bates
  • TWO BY TWO: Marketgoers line up for Mr. I Got 'Em's 'cued specialties.

Some days are perfect, and some barbecue divine — the sort of stuff we dream about every night before crawling out of the wolves’ den. As we learn, Mr. I Got ’Em is the man of our dreams.

Good Wolf has been sneaking off between fat bass licks to maintain a long-running affair with the dapper gentleman who serves up ’cue behind a St. Pete Saturday Morning Market vendor booth. Now he's finally ready to share his juicy secret with the rest of the pack, as we join in on his carnal bliss.

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Restaurant review: Transported through Sea Salt

Fabrizio Aielli's cuisine has wowed D.C. and Naples, and now, with Sea Salt, he's seducing St. Pete.

Posted By on Wed, Mar 25, 2015 at 2:29 PM

CLASSIC UPDATED: Sea Salt's oysters Rockefeller with crab and more. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • CLASSIC UPDATED: Sea Salt's oysters Rockefeller with crab and more.

As you climb the stairs to the second floor on the west side of the Sundial, you’re not prepared to see a school of fish on ice. But there they are. Just inside Ingrid and chef Fabrizio Aielli’s splendid Sea Salt (a cousin to their noted Naples flagship that bears the same name), you come face-to-gill with the day’s catch. 

A score of fish, with clear eyes attesting to their freshness, immediately sets the tone. The red snapper and branzini shine, but you’ve seen them before. It’s the 5-foot-long wahoo that first arrests the eye. Then there’s the enormous round Hawaiian moonfish the size of a garbage can lid. It’s hard to look away. Unless you’re a scuba aficionado, you probably haven’t been able to get up close and personal with a fish this big.

When you avert your glance, there’s an 80-foot-long raw bar piled high with every oyster imaginable, a 20-foot-tall glass wine tower and an inventory of 130 different salts from around the world.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Restaurant review: Go for the tequila at Hablo Taco

Hablo Taco in Tampa's Channel District pours enticing spirits, but the food's zing is missing.

Posted By on Wed, Mar 18, 2015 at 2:23 PM

TACO TALK: Hablo’s Pork al Pastor with dry-rubbed, slow-cooked pulled pork. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • TACO TALK: Hablo’s Pork al Pastor with dry-rubbed, slow-cooked pulled pork.

“Relax, gringo, it’s all good.”

So says Hablo Taco’s jazzy website. I love the images that mirror the menu and interior design. They feature a striking silhouette of a mariachi trio playing amidst tall, tree-like saguaro desert cacti with their branches raised like arms about to break into a dance. It evokes all that is authentic and wonderful about our southern neighbors.

Inside, the decor has a tray ceiling with a huge wagon wheel with eight spokes from which hangs an enormous wrought-iron chandelier. The distressed wooden tables set a tone that’s broken by a decidedly un-Mexican soundtrack with everything from Jackson Browne to Icona Pop. Unfortunately, the food is no more authentic than the music. And when the region has at least three terrific examples of casual Mexican fare bursting with flavor (Casa Tina, Red Mesa Mercado and El Gallo Grande), the lackluster offerings, delivered by friendly servers, really stand out for their mediocrity.

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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Restaurant review: FarmTable's fresh local wisdom

FarmTable Kitchen delights with eight-course, chef-driven feasts in downtown St. Pete.

Posted By on Wed, Mar 4, 2015 at 4:14 PM

SEE WHAT'S ON THE SLAB: Prosciutto di Parma and taleggio cheese. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • SEE WHAT'S ON THE SLAB: Prosciutto di Parma and taleggio cheese.

There's plenty of wonderful food in the Tampa Bay region, and it’s a joy to bounce around the bay sampling the culinary bounty. But few restaurants aspire to true greatness — pushing boundaries, incorporating new techniques or ingredients that pull diners up short. In CL’s star system, ranging from one (poor) to five (world-class), only William Dean Chocolates blindsides you with five-star flavors that say, “Forget Paris,” as tears of joy run down your gobsmacked cheek. I also found five-star treatment (and concomitant prices) at Victoria & Albert’s, but that’s two hours east at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa.

So, can the new kid in town vault over the highest of bars?

Downtown St. Pete’s FarmTable Kitchen at the Sundial is the region’s first spot to adopt the “ticket” system pioneered by Chicago’s Next, where you prepay as you would for a play or concert; seating is in pairs. The ticket price is $105 each, plus tax and tip. If you add the truly exceptional wine pairings that are as exciting as the food (and, therefore, non-negotiable), you’re at a cool all-inclusive $205 per person. It’s a stretch from the norm in our region, but consider that these kinds of meals are up-close performances priced much lower than seats at, say, Beyoncé, Andrea Bocelli or the Fleetwood Mac reunion.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Restaurant review: Sate Southeast Asian Grill offers alternative fusion

Tampa's Sate serves ample, wallet-friendly dishes, but needs work to separate it from the rest.

Posted By on Wed, Feb 18, 2015 at 6:59 AM

THAI-VIET MIX: Alongside jasmine rice, Sate’s colorful panang curry with chicken, bell pepper and more. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • THAI-VIET MIX: Alongside jasmine rice, Sate’s colorful panang curry with chicken, bell pepper and more.

My infatuation with intricate Broadway lyrics even predates my food obsessions. So it’s not surprising (with an ear trained on the rhyming wonders of Sondheim) that I’m attuned to lyrics of popular songs that often provide the dinner soundtrack at local restaurants. Music, after all, sets a tone, particularly for the wonderful mix of ethnic cuisines that are available around the bay. Ragas say Indian, jigs evoke Ireland, finger cymbals kindle thoughts of belly-dancing just as sure as hummus.

So when I enter Sate Southeast Asian Grill with its sleek, spare decor dotted with Asian wall accents, the pulsing sounds of alternative rock seem out of sync. Perhaps it’s a concession to market forces (given its proximity to USF Tampa and a price point that’s student-friendly). There are certainly ample portions and, in the case of the pad Thai, nearly enough noodles to feed an entire sorority.

But the running score that fills the room is an alt-rock playlist: Bowling for Soup, 3OH!3, All-American Rejects and Sugarcult. Seems like alternative via Pandora is the new sound of the Viet-Thai kitchen. Unlike many Asian menus that sometimes overwhelm diners with pages and pages of choices, Sate’s is selective and easy to follow. The descriptions of each dish are clear, and there’s an alpha-numeric tag (A1, A2, etc.) plus a national flag by each one, lest you confuse a dish’s country of origin.

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