Boca Kitchen Bar takes "eat local" to new heights. 

Where there was Smoke…

You can call Gordon Davis a serial restaurateur, sometimes opening multiple restaurants in succession in the same location. He created Smoke – a barbecue joint on Platt – a couple of years ago, then Ciro’s Speakeasy in the lobby of a condo in South Tampa. Ciro’s was a hit, while Smoke’s success was tepid at best. No worries; he always has another concept up his sleeve. Remodel, retool, rethink.

That concept — good food made with as many local ingredients as possible — isn’t new or cutting edge, even in Tampa, but Davis was lucky enough to snag a chef who has the talent to take that simple concept and create food that is truly exceptional at the new Boca Kitchen Bar.

Executive Chef Ted Dorsey knows what to do — and not do — to the local produce, fish and (occasionally) meat that he spends time sourcing from local farms or purveyors like Suncoast Food Alliance. He has an appropriately light touch with fresh vegetables and Gulf-caught fish, while never shying away from complex flavors that could threaten the delicate ingredients if allowed to run free. He reins it all in, resulting in deceptively simple dishes that can be exquisite.

That’s clear even in the simple stuff, like a summery gazpacho made with tomatoes from Manatee County’s King Farms. Those ripe red tomatoes are the star, but their flavor is carried by bright vinegar and a touch of sugar, with an undertone of heat that serves to keep your palate fresh for the next bite.

Grilled shishito peppers combine tender flesh with blistered, charred skin to make ideal salty finger food, amped by a dollop of red pepper rouille that’s sweet enough to temper the burst of spice that shocks your tongue occasionally from an especially perky pepper.

House-fried potato chips are crisp and chewy at the same time, with another touch of sweetness from deeply caramelized onions.

Catching a trend in Dorsey’s culinary style? The man doesn’t fear — or ignore — sweet flavors in his savory foods. It can be difficult to keep a dish balanced when sugar comes into play. Not at Boca.

Dorsey’s short ribs are a prime example. The meat itself is fairly simple, braised until fork-tender and doused in a rich and straightforward gravy. But alongside is a potato hash dotted by tiny bits of spicy pepper that add a punch of heat on alternating bites, and house-cured bacon that carries both smoke and sweet throughout the dish. There’s a lot going on here, but proportioned so that you might not notice the individual elements unless you pay close attention. The casual eater will just think it’s a spectacular dish.

Boca’s tuna follows the same basic plan as the short ribs: simple main ingredient, complicated sides. The seared tuna is accented by salt, pepper and citrus, cooked rare and sliced atop a bed of couscous laced with a mess of vegetables. Heady garlic, bits of preserved lemon and savory stock play off each other in the couscous, while a charmoula aioli adds notes of cumin and heat to the package. Great on their own (I could eat that aioli by itself), the disparate parts of this dish are even better in combination.

Dorsey also cooks a mean burger enlivened by pickled onions and a fabulous roast chicken complete with juicy meat, crisp skin and a jus that has just a touch of sweet to make it deeper and rounder than most. And don’t fear the salads here, even if you’re a carnivore. One is topped by salty sliced flank steak striped black by the grill, a sunny-side-up egg, a touch of sherry and a beautiful blue cheese dressing that’s surprisingly light and refreshing.

Considering the quality of the cooked food, I’m not sure why anyone would bother with Boca’s cheese and charcuterie selection, but it’s there if you feel the need. There are a half-dozen well-chosen cheeses, one sopressata and a couple of cured hams, along with a selection of honey, olives and three different homemade jams. Hmm, maybe the jams make it worthwhile after all.

Gordon Davis and crew nailed the setting, creating an ideal framework for the food. The old open-air area of Smoke is enclosed, high-tops throughout the bright dining room, and plenty of wood, especially in the cozy bar area. In there is a communal table with clever wooden place dividers that can be used to set your dining space apart from your neighbors without losing the potential for convivial conversation, if you’re amenable. Boca also has an excellent beer selection with a focus on craft brew cans, and a wine list priced to sell, to help that conversation along.

Despite his successes, Davis doesn’t always come up with a winner. This time, however, we can all be thankful — Davis included — that Smoke didn’t work out, since it brought us this exquisite little Boca.


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