Eat like you mean it

A culinary wish list for the new year

click to enlarge OPEN MARKET: The success of St. Pete's downtown morning market notwithstanding, the Bay area could use more venues for local food. - Brian Ries
Brian Ries
OPEN MARKET: The success of St. Pete's downtown morning market notwithstanding, the Bay area could use more venues for local food.

Instead of looking back, let's start thinking of the best ways to take a bite out of 2007. Mmm, tasty.

1. More Local Food

I'm not saying that you need to go out and pick your own, although that's a fun way to do it. Just try to patronize places that specialize in locally grown produce, or buy from roadside stands, or go straight to the source. Local produce tastes better, is better for everyone involved in the supply chain and is better for your community.

When truly local isn't possible, and you have to buy the stuff at the grocery store, be cognizant of where the food is coming from. Do you really need asparagus that was grown 3,000 miles away? Probably not. At the very least, try to stick to your own continent.

2. More Farmers' Markets

This is one way to make local food more accessible. Almost every part of the Bay area now has its own weekly market — with downtown St. Pete and Ybor stealing the show. We could still use more. The combination of great produce, lots of homemade goodies and street food that can compete with sit-down restaurants makes these markets a weekly necessity, especially during the next few months of temperate weather.

3. No More Bans

This year saw the passage of a foie gras ban in Chicago — due to supposed animal cruelty — and a ban on trans fat in New York City, because obesity is expensive for the government. Let's make 2007 the year to keep government out of our dining rooms and restaurants. If you think foie gras production is cruel, just check out the daily life of a commercially produced chicken or the conditions on beef feedlots in the Midwest. You'll find that both are as bad or worse than sticking a tube down the throat of a duck and shoveling in the corn slurry.

As for trans fat, I don't have much use for the stuff. But if it's obesity and heart disease the Gotham Public Health Department wants to eradicate, they may soon be setting a caloric limit on restaurant dishes, or ban butter and cheese and bacon and hot dogs. Fucking fascists.

In this regard, I'm a culinary libertarian. Let's nip this gastronomic oppression in the bud before it spreads to our towns.

4. More Ethnic Fast Food

A stack of hot tortillas, fresh from the press — for a buck? Now that's good food. It's also what the Bay area does best. Sure, there's a bevy of places where you can grab hot empanadas stuffed with picadillo from glass cases, or buy a crusty Cuban from a crusty Cuban, or snag a pita stuffed with lamb and cucumbers, but I want more. I want cardboard bowls of curried noodles, grilled meats on wooden skewers and cold veggie soups in Styrofoam cups. Good, cheap food on every corner? We're almost there.

5. More R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

A few months ago, CL got a letter complaining that I didn't "get" Tampa, that we're at a crossroads, and I should be nurturing instead of criticizing our budding dining scene. Bullshit.

The Bay area needs to have more self-esteem when it comes to cuisine. For too long we've been comfortable with tourist-driven resort food, chain dining and decades-old fancy food trends regurgitated from more vibrant restaurant towns. Eating out at nice restaurants isn't cheap, and right now we often aren't getting our money's worth. In 2007, we deserve more skill in the kitchen and more skill at the table. We need to tell restaurateurs that we can handle innovation, that we want the next new thing to come out of Clearwater or SoHo or Treasure Island instead of L.A. or New York — and better yet, we'll reward you handsomely for it. With this area's rich ethnic heritage, we have the potential to be a great dining town. And we deserve it.

6. Wine Lists and Sommeliers

There are what, maybe three restaurants with sommeliers in Tampa? While the rest of the country is desperate for wine professionals to upgrade their lists and give them a competitive edge on the dining room floor, we're still forced to endure lists created largely by wine distributors or get food/wine pairing recommendations by vaguely trained waiters and managers. Hey, I'm not knocking those folks — they're doing what they're supposed to. But if Tampa wants to be a food and wine contender, 2007 needs to be the year of the sommelier.

7. Save the World ...

From chain dining. Let's face it, the world takes its cues from Tampa Bay when it comes to the next great chain to inundate American suburbs. I can count more than a dozen cookie-cutter prototypes that have opened their doors here this past year, all testing the market in the most fertile suburban dining nurseries in the U.S. Maybe one out of every 20 is worth trying, if I'm being generous.

Time to save the world from this glut of industrially designed food kitsch, and avoid chains like the mediocre factory restaurants they (mostly) are. It's a moral imperative.

8. More Ethiopian, Persian, Indonesian and East African Cuisine

I just salivate thinking of chicken smeared in spicy berbere wrapped in fermented injera bread, or piripiri fish, or spicy prawns with coconut milk, or a kebab wrapped in hot lavash. All I can do is salivate, because these incredible cuisines are woefully underrepresented in the Bay area.

9. Word Of Mouth

Find a great place to eat? Tell your neighbors, your butcher and that creepy guy at the sex shop. Better yet, tell me. And I'll tell 10 people, and they'll tell 10 people, and they'll tell...

10. Enjoy Your Food

Don't be a mere consumer. Savor your meal, whether it's a salty fry from a stained paper bag or butternut squash bisque with truffled foam. Food is good, people, so let's make 2007 the year we start paying attention to everything we eat and drink.

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Creative Loafing food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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