One glance at Cafe Dufrain's new menu -- which is still evolving -- and you can see where new chef Ferrell Alvarez has come from. Alvarez spent the last seven years next to Marty Blitz in the kitchens of Mise En Place, Chef de Cuisine in Tampa's grande dame of modern American dining. He moved over the bridge to Harbour Island this summer to serve his own brand of cuisine in the casually elegant restaurant with expansive views across the water, at prices that are much more comfortable to the pocketbook than his former home.
I can recognize Blitz's influence, though, just by reading Alvarez's entree list, each entry topped by a bland protein -- veal flank steak, Korean short ribs -- followed by a procession of fabulous sounding concoctions that always seem more interesting than the headliner. Polenta sandwich, duo of kimchi, "loaded" frites. Ordering becomes a gut-wrenching choice between groups of side dishes you don't want to miss. Can I order several plates of accompaniments, hold the protein?
Those sides, which list ingredients and techniques that range from North African preserved lemon to the aforementioned kimchi, illustrate Alavarez's excitement and vision. It's modern food that flirts with trends without being trendy, unique enough to stand out in Tampa's stifled dining scene, with a flair for gorgeous presentation on the table. All of that sets the bar rather high, however, for when you finally put fork to mouth.
That's where Alavarez needs some more time before he manages to live up to his considerable promise.
Each dish comes with its own inconsistencies, minor enough that they never make you want to stop eating, but noticeable enough that you end up a little disappointed. Cold prawns -- shelled, but presented with one end nestled in the spectacular heads -- are a tad grainy, and come on a tomato concasse that varies between viscous olive oil and punches of overpowering garlic.
Confit mushrooms are cooked slowly in fat and served in a lake of olive oil, all of which makes it odd that the caps are frequently dry and crunchy. The bit of thyme and earthy shrooms struggle to overcome that oppressive blanket of fruity olive flavor, with middling success. And again -- this time in Alvarez's version of steak and eggs -- olive oil dominates the day. A tiny quail egg is perched atop a small mound of kobe tartar, the meat underseasoned except for another punch of EVOO, with not nearly enough golden yolk to trickle down and add flavor to the roughly ground beef.
These dishes aren't bad, by any means, but they could be, should be, better. They're almost there, so close it's agonizing.
Entrees are more a mixed bag, mainly because each plate contains several elements. Veal flank steak is tender, and well-seasoned, the meat so luscious you don't miss the crisp, caramelized crust that usually comes with more typical versions of this cut. There's a schmear of intense tapenade paste, which also makes an appearance in the "sandwich" on the side. It's two slabs of polenta surrounding more olive spread, battered and fried, covered in a crust that pulls off in chunks, sodden with oil. Sauteed lengths of broccollini need more salt and, again, a lot less of that slick oil.
Perfectly seared scallops served atop homemade papardelle pasta works much better, the dish studded with just enough tiny cubes of tomato and mushroom to provide bursts of flavor. It's also hearty and filling enough to -- for once -- make scallops a viable choice for a hungry diner.
Although the little problems stand out through a Dufrain meal, Alvarez's Korean shortribs are the only serious duds on the table. The dish does not work on any level. The boneless hunks of beef are fine, if a tad chewy, but they're doused in a gelatinous sauce that tastes like generic, cornstarch-enriched brown gravy from a Chinese takeout joint. Kimchi -- one made from cabbage, one from cucumber and radish -- is tart but bland, and the slab of fragrant rice in the middle of the plate is dry and crunchy. There are also a few leaves of lettuce on the plate, in case you want to roll your own wrap. If there was something on the plate worth rolling, maybe.
Still, the gap between the potential Alvarez exhibits and the reality of what comes from his kitchen isn't wide. A few small corrections, a little confidence and some comfort in his newfound position of authority should be all it takes to make this young chef -- and Cafe Dufrain -- rise to the heights of Tampa's serious dining scene.
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