“Fermentation may have been a greater discovery than fire,” David Raines Wallace proclaims on one of several large murals lining the walls in Carrollwood’s Cigar City Brewpub. Opened earlier this year inside an old T.G.I. Fridays, the gastro brewpub is new territory for the brewery, which has been producing top-flight craft beers at its Spruce Street base since 2009.
Cigar City has done a great job with the restaurant's thematic transformation. The decor features everything from beer-can chandeliers to a funky wall lined with staves from dismantled wooden barrels. And, with a nod to the Cuban heritage of Tampa’s cigars, the menu highlights the gastronomic roots of our closest island neighbor.
It’s no secret that I’m a man of the grapevine, but I did think it was my duty to expose my oenophile palate to CCB’s acclaimed ale and lager. Especially since May 13-19 was American craft beer week, and the foodie website eater.com had picked CCB as one of the USA’s finest. I must say I was impressed. I tried an assortment from Hotter than Helles (Munich style lager) to the popular Jai Lai IPA (Indian pale ale) to delicious Grass Fed Red (amber ale), which is one of two beers brewed at the restaurant. These beers do indeed display discerning craft, and a wide array of complex flavors that are sure to please a range of tastes.
The appetizers that accompany the alluring brew are an interesting mix of snacks or small plates, with everything from Cuban egg rolls to rum-cured white oak-smoked swordfish tacos. Our choices end up a mixed bag. Despite being twice fried, the green plantain tostones aren’t crisp. Even the house-made mojo, usually popping with sour orange and garlic, is just bland. And what should be a light, crunchy sea salt garnish doesn’t register. Conversely, the wood-grilled asparagus scream with flavor. They’re perfectly cooked, with a tasty hazelnut (instead of almond) romesco that just gilds the lily.
I’m always a sucker for cheese and charcuterie, and Cigar City’s does not disappoint. You can mix and match to your heart’s delight from 11 different choices, but it would be a shame to miss the creamy housemade pork rillettes (think gourmet deviled ham). I also never pass up a chance to eat thinly sliced, cured Serrano ham. Pure pork Valhalla.
The Cuban meat entrees include traditional, comforting sweet plantains, black beans with rice, and tangy salsa criolla (Creole). Ropa vieja is all natural flank steak slowly stewed with pepper, onions and tomato to great effect, then finely shredded and piled high. Another Cuban beef dish, boliche, is an eye of round stuffed down the middle with a spicy chorizo sausage. Because this version spends 48 hours in a “sous vide” low-temperature water bath, it can be served medium rare. That’s the beauty of the technique; long-cooked meats don’t have to be well-done. They can tenderize over days at a precise, low temperature and still emerge pretty and pink. Sadly, this boliche is gray and boring. The ropa vieja, however, dances to a jaunty Afro-Cuban beat.
Lane snapper is locally sourced, and the nicely sautéed filet sits on a mix of tender cubed root vegetables and wilted kale tossed in a tangy piquillo pepper vinaigrette. What’s totally inexplicable is that the whole pearl onions added to the mix are as hard as rocks. What could be a lovely addition in a soft caramelized form show up as marbles that your little brother sneaked in as a practical joke when you weren’t looking. Luckily, they’re easy to avoid, but a missed opportunity.
CCB’s Cuban is a flavorful version of Tampa Bay’s favorite sandwich. House-made glazed ham and roasted pork loin pair with salami, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles pressed on crisp Cuban bread. It all melds together in a wonderful mix of textures and harmonizing tastes.
The Florida shrimp and grits have a Low Country rather than a Cuban culinary origin, but their flavor and presentation are memorable indeed. First, the shrimp are served head on; you owe it to yourself to suck out the juices and not toss them on the discard pile until you’ve extracted every drop of the nectar. Second, the cheddar cheese grits take a backup role to spicy shrimp bisque that floats on top, covering the grits, which end up as a hidden sunken treasure.
We first opt for tradition when the sweet tooth calls, but despite adding extra dairy to the usual “tres leche,” the four leches cake doesn’t deliver. Skip the cake and try the housemade ice cream and sorbet. Flavors vary daily, and we go for a jalapeño-honeydew, coriander-mango, and blackberry-sage sorbet trio. The troika of ice cream is vanilla-crème fraîche, maple-bacon, and fresh banana with explosive flavor; I want to take home a gallon. And I bet you will, too.
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