Let’s face it—everybody loves good food. But we each have a sweet spot. For many, it’s casual like pizza and beer. For others, the thrill is in the wow factor that fine dining often brings. And while I must admit that I get a rush from foie gras or truffles, what really grabs me is excellence. Keen attention to detail elevates an experience regardless of the cuisine. I’m transported by a perfectly grilled hot dog on a carefully toasted bun topped with piquant Dijon mustard and the added pleasure of tangy, crunchy sauerkraut. The secret is in consistent execution.
1412 E 7th Ave., Ybor City. Appetizers $7-$17; entrées $10-$130; desserts $8-$9; beer/wine/cocktails $5-$18
One look inside Flor Fina, Hotel Haya’s upscale Latin restaurant and cocktail bar fills me with joyful anticipation. The room announces itself with a soaring ceiling anchored by two enormous circles filled with hundreds of milk-glass creations defying gravity. There’s a yin yang feeling with one cool side and the other oozing warmth. The dining room spills over into a cocktail-solarium with expansive floor-to-ceiling glass panels divided by thin dark beams which hover at right angles above the plush, burnt orange velvet booths and modern overstuffed chairs. It raises your expectations.
As we explore the space, we can’t help but notice the fabulous peacock mug that outshines any of its competition. It’s the vehicle for “the painkiller,” a double rum tropical concoction that clearly wins the day in the cocktail race.
Executive Chef Douglas Rodriguez’s Latin-inflected menu is focused, but aspirational. The anchors are four kinds of ceviche and a wood grill burning local sugar maple. There’s octopus and a goat ragú plus the decadent option of a suckling pig feast (for at least four guests) with 48 hours notice and a hefty price.
I’m a sucker for oxtails; the collagen imparts an unmatched richness. So there’s no doubt which tapas we’ll choose to start our dinner. The plate arriving looks sensational. Four ample golden oxtail croquettes are proudly displayed on a roasted marrow bone carefully balanced in place by two scoops of mashed potatoes surrounded by a daisy chain of green cress. The orbs are topped by thin slices of hot red peppers and a delicate snow of grated cheese. The oxtail croquettes do not disappoint, but one orb fails to eliminate the gristle and is largely inedible. Our server sold the mash as a counterpoint to the richness of the marrow. Unfortunately, one scoop is stone cold from the refrigerator and is also the victim of what I assume is an overly generous pinch of finishing salt rendering it inedible. Strike one.
The entrées arrive with flair, looking quite intoxicating. The borracho chicken injected with local beer is mostly breast halves on end sitting upright under a handsome garnish of sleek, thin enoki mushrooms and a wilted, charred scallion. The hand-painted oval plate can barely contain the Marsala-mushroom demi glacé, which is more broth than sauce reduction. My companion takes one bite and announces that, “the chicken is cold.” It tastes of the grill, but it must not be cooked “à la minute.” Since I dine anonymously, I never want to call attention to myself. However, this demands an exception. Unfortunately, our previously attentive server is not to be found. We just decide to forge on. Strike two.
Luckily, the herbed steak fries are thick cut and piping hot. And the garlic aïoli and tomato marmalade that accompany them are quite tasty.
My dish of Sorrentino ravioli also looks lovely. Unfortunately, the filling of smoked ham, ricotta cheese, and walnuts, which sounds like a luscious combo, doesn’t even register. The ravioli are so small that you wouldn’t even know that they were filled. All I can taste is pasta and crushed tomatoes pomodoro, albeit with a welcome dusting of finely grated cheese and minced fresh basil. It’s a very pleasant dish; just not what the menu promises. And, it too, is just barely warm. I expect that it sat at the pass in the kitchen for longer than was optimal.
Clearly, someone is not watching the store early on a weeknight when the dining room is less than full. I know that COVID-19 has put tremendous stresses on the industry, but these dishes deserve precision that they don’t get. Strike three.
One saving grace is the scrumptious quatro leches cake. A long rectangle of buttery sponge cake is moist, but not soaked. It’s topped with piped, baked meringue which is oddly listed as “toffee brittle.” There are a few lovely bits throughout that add flavor to the welcome texture, but the caramel element is delivered by a loop-de-loop of sweet dulce de leche. Finally, a conception and implementation to match the aspirational goals of the menu. I must add, though, as I poke around photos on the web, that no two look alike and none resemble mine. Plating is not a time for improvisation; once the chef declares how each plate should look, consistency is the watchword. Each dish on the menu should be perfect every time. That’s the mark of a restaurant that deserves return business.
Sadly, dessert is not enough to rescue a meal which poorly executes carefully conceived dishes. There are too many reliable fine dining destinations across the Bay which consistently deliver. Flor Fina has tremendous potential. I hope someone in the kitchen is listening.
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