The big three (and a half) 

A trio of 3.5-star restaurants serving great eats in the Heights.

The big white letters emblazoned on the stainless steel panel above the open kitchen at The Refinery say it all. “Where’s the place at the table for folks like us?”

Apparently the answer is a trio of restaurants in Seminole Heights that hug each side of the interstate just south of Hillsborough Avenue. The crowds are mostly young, often pierced, and proudly sport ink. A counterculture vibe prevails. If SoHo is Tampa's culinary San Francisco, Seminole Heights is its Berkeley, or as they say at Ella’s Americana Folk Art Cafe, “where the blue hairs hang out with the blue hair!” The square mile that includes Ella’s, the Refinery and The Independent may have more craft beer per capita than anywhere else within spitting distance of Tampa Bay. Add terrific food and lots of live music and your only problem is having to choose.

Ella’s offers an eclectic cuisine, intriguing art and live music Fridays and during soul food Sundays (“Praise the Lard”). Chef Ernie Locke clearly has fun in the kitchen creating a unique menu that reflects his creative personality and love for food that sticks to your ribs. A crab-stuffed butternut squash appetizer piles spicy crab on top of a sweet, soft oven-roasted squash drizzled with tangy citrus hollandaise that is simply delicious. The red snapper special takes a distinctly Asian twist with a ginger-hoisin beurre blanc on top of a perfect fillet with wilted greens and creamy parsnip purée. The Wino burger is spectacular. A half pound of organic beef grilled to a mouth-watering medium rare is topped with melted Gorgonzola, scrumptious sweet and salty bacon-apple jam, arugula and red onion served on a yellow sesame seed bun. Rasta-Far-Fries are huge potato wedges tossed in a house mustard with sea salt, cilantro, and sriracha for some heat. They make a wonderful accompaniment to the juicy burger.

Vegans and carnivores alike will be seduced by “The Roots,” a large grilled sweet potato and a block of grilled feta over parsnip purée and a crunchy vegetable chip and pecan salad with herb vinaigrette — all drizzled with tangy balsamic reduction. Unexpected vegetarian comfort food. Oooooh!

Ella’s chocolate bacon dessert dips crisp slices in dark chocolate and then sprinkles them with peanuts; a white chocolate version uses pancetta and slivered almonds. This is my first encounter with chocolate bacon, and I enjoy it immensely. The drunken cake of the day is a mini chocolate rum bundt à la mode that is moist and full of flavor.

The Refinery is led by Chef Greg Baker, who was recently named for the second consecutive year a semi-finalist for the James Beard Award as “Best Chef: South.” Baker offers a weekly changing menu supported by local and sustainable farmers; the farms for the week are listed in colored chalk on a blackboard adjacent to the kitchen. There's also an extensive craft beer selection and a well-priced small-vineyard wine bar, all in a laid-back setting.

The menu proudly proclaims, “We use mason jars, chipped plates, mix-match small plates, jailhouse silverware and we have a Jackalope in our dining room. Eat, Drink and Confabulate.”

The “Carboramen” appetizer floats a slab of crisp pork belly (which is as luxurious on the palate as foie gras) on a bed of tiny, soft green soba noodles swimming in a flavorful parmesan-chive broth with bok choy kimchi. A luscious quail egg gilds the lily as the bright yolk coats the noodles.

The grilled Gulf margate is delicate and served with tender lentils and house-smoked mushrooms in a tomato-orange sauce with sambal, an Indonesian chili paste that’s flavorful but overwhelms the fish.

Fortunately, the fork-tender braised pork shoulder with a cornbread crust is sheer perfection. The kraut-tangerine mostarda, red peas, and sweet cane syrup beurre blanc combo is as surprising as it is well-balanced. Thin slices of roasted, variegated Chioggia beets complete the beautiful plate. I’ve got mixed feelings about the devil’s food cake. The combo of pistachio and chorizo gives it a savory twist, but the texture is leaden. The bourbon gastrique and chile Chantilly cream accents can’t make up for the odd density. It ends up a noble, but failed experiment. But I welcome the willingness of the kitchen to take risks, their confidence in new creations reflected in the menu admonishment, “Substitutions will be politely declined; however, subtractions will always be obliged when possible.”

The Independent Bar and Café offers a world-class selection of beer in a modern comfortable “beer hall” fashioned from an old garage, with two huge rolling doors that open to a large concrete courtyard with tables and benches. The adaptive reuse setting gives a gastronomic spin to this funky “filling station.” They’re happy to oblige if you find yourself a pint low.

The “indie” grilled cheese combines ripe pears sautéed in honey and spices with creamy Gouda that oozes out of the pressed rye bread. It is an inspired combination (my predecessor at CL, Brian Ries, included it on his list of "10 meals I can't forget" in 2011), with an equally tasty side salad that dresses field greens in poppy seed vinaigrette and tops it with Maytag blue cheese, crunchy walnuts, and sweet grapes. Less exciting, but fine, is the classic B.L.T. with crisp bacon (or veggie bacon), lettuce, tomato, and garlic aioli served pressed on Cuban bread for extra crispness.

A flyer in The Refinery window summarizes the Seminole Heights experience:


Local is the new BLACK.

Shop local.

Buy local.

Love Tampa.

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