London calling 

The Oxford Exchange's breathtaking new space has food that doesn't yet reach the same heights.

click to enlarge LET THERE BE LIGHT: The two-story atrium is aglow with skylights. - SHANNA GILLETTE
  • Shanna Gillette
  • LET THERE BE LIGHT: The two-story atrium is aglow with skylights.

Oxford Exchange is, in a word, posh. Whether you enter from Kennedy Blvd. to discover the exquisite gift shop or from Grand Central into the swank bookstore, you could easily be in an upmarket store in Knightsbridge, London.

The elegant wood-lined corridor that connects the two retail spaces opens into a two-story atrium that’s aglow with skylights. It’s filled with huge tufted leather sofas, an ample timber table with a sleek glass top surrounded by stools, and a line of medieval English porter chairs with domed canopy backs. This is the heart of the building, a central meeting area embraced by the tea and coffee bars adjacent to the dining room and conservatory.

No expense has been spared and the attention to detail is wonderful. I especially love the M.C. Escher optical illusion block tiles on the floor of the restrooms. The place has buzz; it has become Tampa’s “go-to” location in just a few weeks. The main dining room is packed to the gills, but that has the disadvantage of making lunchtime conversation nearly impossible.

We can barely make our order heard to our server, but the energy is palpable. I’m excited. It appears that the Bay area finally has a restaurant with world-class aspirations. That’s why the slip-ups from this kitchen are so disappointing.

The kale chip appetizer is delicious, but delicate. This is not a problem for the sweet-spicy vinegar dip, but the smoked paprika aioli is dense, and dipping is not advised. Use your knife and enjoy the surprising mix of tastes.

The cheese platter is good, but the server doesn’t know what’s included. The emphasis is on semi-hard cheeses. There are no soft-ripened cheese like Brie or Camembert; the center of the platter is crumbled Wensleydale with cranberries. OE also includes cashews and nicely browned crostini with a small dish of local honey. Unfortunately, I have visions of the spectacular cheese from my recent European trip, but OE makes a nice try.

Sadly, the tuna tartare is beautiful, but out of whack. The fish is totally overwhelmed by a soy-based sauce and topped with creme and soggy chips (which should never be refrigerated).

The burger has good beef flavor and is cooked perfectly to order, although our request for extra-crispy fries goes unheeded.The grilled cheese could use more butter and caramelization, which are the keys to making this comfort sandwich really luscious.

The salad Nicoise is given a twist by swapping wild salmon for the traditional tuna; green beans and potatoes are nicely al dente and the Nicoise olives balance the Dijon vinaigrette. Conversely, the spinach salad is drowning in dressing, and the grilled chicken added for $6 is not served “à la minute” but comes in chunks out of the walk-in. While the club sandwich doesn’t include the standard center slice of bread, the turkey-bacon-Swiss-avocado combo with lettuce and tomato is just what you’d expect.

OE doesn’t serve dessert per se. Instead, lunchtime diners are able to order a three-sweet sampler from the tea menu. No choices are offered; I’m assuming this is a good way for the kitchen to avoid waste and smart restaurant business. The problem is that everything is COLD. This is not so objectionable for a chewy brownie with chocolate glaze, but the buttery vanilla bean shortbread has no reason to be refrigerated. And it’s absolutely disastrous for a mini fruit cobbler that should be delicious but is instead gooey and unappetizing.

Too much coming out of this kitchen is hurt by being prepared ahead and stuffed in the fridge.

click to enlarge POT LUCK: A table set for afternoon tea. - The attention to design details is wonderful. That’s why the slip-ups from the kitchen are so disappointing. - SHANNA GILLETTE
  • Shanna Gillette
  • POT LUCK: A table set for afternoon tea.The attention to design details is wonderful. That’s why the slip-ups from the kitchen are so disappointing.

On to afternoon tea in the beautiful white brick British conservatory with a central ancient Roman water feature and brass lantern sconces with gas flames. The large planters feature huge palms and stunningly varied ground covers. It’s a lovely atmosphere matched by the deliciously obsessive, first-class coffee and tea service from Buddy Brew and TeBella, respectively.

The premium loose-leaf tea arrives in handsome silver pots and is surprisingly layered and complex, like fine wine. We can’t wait for our food to arrive so we can dig into the delicious sweets and savories. Ten minutes pass and we refill our tea cups. Surely our scones are coming soon. We finish a second cup of tea and our food is nowhere to be found. Finally, after 25 minutes our food arrives but our tea is cold. Something is wrong with this picture.

The egg salad is tasty but a little skimpy; chicken curry salad is more ample and also has more flavor. A flatbread is included in the mix, but the piece that I have is so plain that I have to ask one of my dining companions to consult the menu to see what it’s supposed to be. Pear and blue cheese flatbread, I’m told; a nice thought for variety, but it would be better warm and with more topping.

Lemon-blueberry and brown sugar scones are light and flavorful but, again, served COLD. OE’s mantra is organic/local/fresh. Fresh scones never need to see the inside of a fridge. The homemade clotted cream is rich, but the strawberry preserves is pale pink and gelatinous.

Apricot macaroons are exquisite; why can’t everything be of this quality? Our server does an enthusiastic job explaining all the lovely-looking tea items, including (yet again) a mini-cobbler described as “warm.” Unfortunately, the kitchen again destroys what should be a perfectly delicious pastry by serving it COLD.

Maybe my disappointment with the cobbler causes me to be too critical of the Valrhona chocolate mousse sandwich and a white chocolate pop filled with pumpkin cheesecake that doesn’t pop. Neither triggers a surprise “ah” on the palate like the beautiful room-temperature macaroon — one item, at least, that lives up to the breathtaking space.

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