Waiting outside the new Wimauma in South Tampa, we're chatting with manager and co-owner Amy Moran about the wait time (we suspect her estimate of 15 minutes is optimistic at best). During our conversation, she pretty much sums up why Wimauma exists. “If you’ve read any of the coverage about me,” Moran explains, “you’d know that I speak my mind. I don’t have a filter up there.”
She’s referring to her brief stint, along with chef/partner/husband Gary Moran, at Knife & Company, a restaurant that opened in November and is now (according to its Facebook page) on hiatus. Knife & Company owner Ron Stewart reportedly had issues with the way Amy ran the front of the house, and the conflict resulted in both Morans walking out just four days after the restaurant opened.
Knife & Company generated a lot of buzz, thanks to its focus on local ingredients and Southern standards, both of which were a result of Gary Moran’s influence. So it makes sense that Wimauma’s food is strikingly similar. That means hoecakes and collard greens, smoked meats and fried chicken alongside an array of dishes that range from down-home to fine dining. Although some things stick around, Moran changes the menu from week to week, or even nightly when necessary, to accommodate his supply of ingredients.
More important for many foodies, Wimauma’s menu is a fun read because there are flashes of originality that differentiate it from the usual. Even when the restaurant’s not breaking new ground, the style of refined and re-examined comfort food is a winning combination.
In execution, however, Wimauma’s food is more of a mixed bag. Small plates are Moran’s strong suit, like the simply smoked chicken wings tossed in a sticky-spicy-sweet chipotle barbecue sauce that amps the wood smoke of the crisp and rendered chicken. A carefully constructed carrot soup is laced with ginger and fortified by rich coconut milk, with bright bursts of acid and sugar in the form of pickled raisins lingering at the bottom of the bowl and herbaceous shreds of cilantro floating on top. It’s gorgeous.
As is Moran’s hoecake — essentially a cornmeal pancake. Fluffy inside and crisp outside, with just enough caramel butter to add a subtle sweetness, the hot hoecake plays well off the cold smoked trout and arugula on top.
When it comes to entrees, sticking with the basics at Wimauma is the way to go. Moran’s fried chicken is crisp and salty, his smoked brisket moist and served with ultra-creamy grits and fine collard greens. But sticking to the basics isn’t really what the menu promises, is it?
Pecan and rosemary crusted grouper is glossy and perfect in the middle, but the crust is merely a clump on top that tastes more like typical seasoned breadcrumbs than the nut and green herb you’d expect. The sweet corn and onion ragout underneath is better, fresh and bright and seasoned with bits of chorizo and a dusting of smoked paprika.
Moran’s beef two-ways isn’t bad; it’s just disappointing. The grilled NY strip comes out sliced, temperature varying across the plate. There’s almost no crust, it’s barely seasoned and the meat is tough for a knife to get through, let alone teeth. The accompanying red wine-and-chocolate-braised beef shoulder is considerably better, the meat pulling apart with little pressure and kept moist by a generous amount of gravy. Sadly, the gravy tastes like a typical red wine reduction, with none of the sweet and bitter chocolate flavor to be found.
While Wimauma’s entrees sometimes promise more than they can deliver, the desserts are too giving. A peach upside down cake looks lovely, the towering slice of cornmeal-based cake covered by golden slices of gooey fruit, the whole plate puddled with a chile-laced caramel. But the cake is dry and the caramel adds too much spice, even with a dollop of ice cream to cut through both of those problems.
On first taste, Moran’s bacon-chocolate brownie is a success, tender and rich with just a touch of the salt, smoke and fat of the meat. But take a bite from the edge — usually a brownie’s crowning glory — and it’s like chewing a bacon salt lick. Sound harsh? Maybe, but you might understand after you experience the understaffed and inexperienced service. Some servers seem to have a better grasp of their workflow, but all scurry like crazy through the open rectangular dining room, occasionally colliding as they push through the single door to the kitchen. Expect to wait more than the 15 minutes you spent loitering outside.
But, for some people, that may be part of the charm, along with Amy Moran’s personal interaction with the customers. The casual nature of the service and the Morans’ obvious desire to glad-hand with the diners are tailor-made to annoy some customers and create lifelong regulars out of others.
For me, though, it’s all about the food. And for that, Wimauma needs a little more practice before it can make good on its implied promise.
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