The subterranean parking garage exits up a wide spiral staircase onto Harbour Island like you’re being spit out of a vortex. Across the water where Tampa Bay becomes Garrison Channel, the Marriott Waterside rises like a huge Lego Xanadu. And there in its shadow is the Tampa Bay Times Forum, site of the Republican National Convention.
On the south side, the waterfront patio of Jackson’s Bistro is impressive, imposing even, with lovely views, so it’s easy to see why it’s party central for celebutantes and Playboy playmates when they descend on Tampa Bay. Even Rays All-Star pitcher David Price has been known to knock back a few cold ones here in his off hours.
Jackson’s is closed for the RNC — snapped up by an anonymous elephant with very deep pockets for the duration. So, unless you’ve got friends in high, conservative places, you’re pretty much out of luck until the convention leaves town. But here’s what to expect as summer wanes, and the days get shorter, if you want to park yourself at Jackson’s and get a bite to eat.
To begin with, I applaud Jackson’s for offering two wine flights consisting of four small 2-oz. pours. Instead of being limited to a single wine by the glass of 5-6 oz., diners are able to sample two distinct progressions of four wines to accompany a meal. This helps educate palates and encourages diners to explore new varietals and experience food-wine alchemy firsthand, which can only elevate the dining experience. If your table is willing to share, this puts eight different wines to the test with each dish and provides endless combinations.
On to the food. The bookends of the meal, a portobello flatbread starter and the perfect tiramisu finish, are outstanding. Unfortunately, much in between is underwhelming.
The flatbread is so good that our table is buzzing. The scent of grilled rosemary mingles with wild mushroom puree, herb-roasted portobello, red onions, fontina cheese and a drizzle of truffle oil that makes your mouth come alive. And the creamy lobster bisque with a crisp sweet corn and crab fritter is also tasty.
King Farm’s heirloom tomatoes are marinated in a salad with extra virgin olive oil, topped with shaved red onion, roasted garlic, “Homboldt” Fog (sic) goat cheese, baby arugula and balsamic reduction. I’m always nervous about provenance when ingredients are misspelled. Is “Homboldt” Fog a goat cheese knockoff imported from a Chinese sweatshop? My taste buds tell me that the delicious northern California chèvre is indeed Humboldt Fog, the real deal… so (note to management) please give this luxe ingredient its due. And while you’re at it, toss the roasted garlic when it dries out. Creamy, soft roasted garlic is miraculous; this delicious salad was marred by the presence of hard, dried cloves that had no business on any plate. Why take such care with plating beautiful, fresh ingredients, only to add sub-par garlic turds?
The miso soup and ginger salad that accompany the sashimi are okay, if ordinary, but the sashimi itself is a huge disappointment. I’m not an expert on sushi, but I do know how fresh fish tastes. Even accepting that most sushi is flash frozen, when served it should taste of the sea. We deliberately chose sashimi so that the magic of the sushi chef would not get in the way. The plating is beautiful, with spirals of fish in a stunning palette from bright white hamachi to deep ahi red. Unfortunately, the fish is mushy instead of firm, with a metallic aftertaste in place of ocean brine. The beautiful orange salmon is inedible.
As the rest of the entrées slooowwwly… arrive, the mood of the table continues to dip. The grouper stack with crabmeat, Chablis cream, sautéed spinach and potato pancake sounds tempting and is beautifully presented. Unfortunately, it is overcooked and the accompanying flavors are not bold enough to rescue the dish.
A soy marinated chicken breast grilled under a brick, served with garlic green beans, truffle shoestring fries, and tomato demi sauce, is dry, and the skin is just short of burned instead of crisp. The fries are cold and salty; my search for a full-service restaurant that can clear the minor-league ballpark fry threshold continues.
The veggie risotto of the day avoids the usual pitfalls; without proper technique the rice can be chalky or gummy. Perfect risotto is luscious with just enough al dente bite. Jackson’s scores fairly well on technique, but the rice is somehow absolutely tasteless. No richness from stock, no crunch or earthiness from the vegetables, no zing from salt or herbs… just a big creamy bowl of BLAH. I am so disappointed.
Key lime pie seems to be another elusive culinary hurdle; the macadamia crust is a twist that doesn’t add much. And the custard, while creamy and not overly sweet, lacks the citrus punch that marks this classic at its best. Luckily the tiramisu is perfection; I can’t remember a version of this ubiquitous dessert that I have liked better. Every element of flavor and texture is in balance. And that is the key that allows our taste buds to perceive the layers of flavor that exist in a memorable dish. As food moves across our tongues, great dishes fire the sweet, salty, sour and bitter receptors that flood our brains with pleasure.