Editor’s Note: As we announced last week, CL has a new food team in place: Restaurant Critic Jon Palmer Claridge and Assistant Editor Arielle Stevenson. They’re from two different worlds, culinarily speaking: Jon has a taste for haute cuisine, while Arielle goes for hole-in-the-wall, preferably cheapo-ethno-delicious. But they’re both adventurous souls. So, in tune with our World’s Fare theme, we decided it would be fun if they traveled outside their respective comfort zones, with each other as guide, and wrote about their experiences. Jon introduced Arielle to the tasting (aka degustation) menu at SideBern’s, arguably Tampa’s best restaurant; Arielle took Jon to Tindahang Pinoy, a Filipino grocery and restaurant in Pinellas Park.
Here's Arielle's take on SideBern's.
I admit it: SideBern’s and the tasting menu ahead seemed like foreign territory — just me, Jon, six courses, 12 plates, one night. Jon, whose palate is far more sophisticated than mine, must have thought he’d be dining with a picky toddler. “Just try one bite, and if you don’t like it you don’t have to eat anymore,” I imagined him thinking.
But then I had my first-ever amuse-bouche: a spoonful of tuna tartare with Hassini oil. The texture was somewhere between thick whipped cream and raw hamburger meat, in a good way.
“Can you supersize it?” I asked our server wistfully.
Every dish came with a wine pairing — a total of 12 glasses of champagne, wine, and port. Swirl. Smell. Swirl. Smell, then taste. Jon makes tasting wine look so graceful, like a conductor directing an orchestra.
“This definitely beats a bottle of Barefoot,” I exclaimed.
Each dish brought a surprise.
The yuzu basil seed sauce in the Hamichi Crudo with spring vegetables, for instance, was light and delicious. (I’d had basil seeds before, but only in a popular Asian drink, mixed with banana and coconut.)
In the rye fettuccini with Merguez sausage and ramps, I searched for the other flavor. Basil? No, mint. The contrast between the warm pasta, spicy sausage and bright mint leaves shook up my taste buds.
Sometimes I have a hard time understanding the obsession with truffle-infused everything. But SideBern’s black truffle barbecue sauce was magic. Served alongside heirloom tomatoes and Canalet cheese, it tasted warm and full. I nearly licked the plate. I may have licked the plate. Actually, I’m pretty sure I licked the plate.
The oxtail did me in. Shredded tendrils of meat butter swirled in Garganelli pasta, arugula, roasted tomato, and Caciovallo Silano cheese. The texture reminded me a little of pulled pork; if all pulled pork sandwiches tasted like the oxtail at Sidebern’s, the world would be a better place.
The service was impeccable, of course — never an empty cup, missing fork, or dirty plate on the table. But except for our friendly primary server, the rest of the staffers attending our table avoided eye contact, preferring to be seen but not heard. This arrangement seems to be a silent pact between server and patron, but I prefer to interact a little more.
But no surprise here: Pork fat and dessert were my favorite parts of both meals.
SideBern’s pork belly with sea salt made me moan. Perched on a river of salsa verde, corn and confit tomato, it was a landscape of texture and taste. Jon got one bite, before I devoured the rest. And for the grand finale, we noshed on coconut Tres Leches with Kaffir lime and saffron next to delicate scoops of roasted pineapple ice cream.
At roughly $300 for two, the SideBern’s tasting menu isn’t your everyday dinner choice. This is a special occasion dinner, a menu that allows diners to relax and focus on taste. The flavors are so simple, yet so complex, like a “Where’s Waldo?” in your mouth.
There was something romantic about getting lost in each course. Three hours slipped by, day turned to night, all while we gorged on 12 different plates. Lust is butter, lust is deep-fried, and lust is covered in cheese and salt. Bad food is like the bimbos of the world, cheap and lacking substance. SideBerns’ degustation menu can hold a conversation, has opinions, a point of view. Every bite is another reveal, luring you deeper into the truest of loves.
But a tasting menu is also a little like lost love. After one bite you crave more, but a memory is all that remains.
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