A new Seminole Heights restaurant with a fresh take on Florida cuisine quietly opened May 5.
In the two-story bungalow most recently home to The Bourgeois Pig, the gang behind Ox & Fields are using global technique and local ingredients whenever possible — and every dish has a story. Co-managing partner and executive chef Viet Vo leads the concept alongside Dr. Michael Royce Lynch; Vo says the restaurant, with its rustic vibe and wrap-around porch, is what he's envisioned since he was 18.
Vo has cooked in kitchens throughout the region, including Clearwater Beach's Sandpearl Resort, and he's helped open several others — Sushi Alive! in Tampa and St. Petersburg's Souzou among them. But Ox & Fields takes the cake.
"This has been my dream come true," the 33-year-old St. Pete native says. "Born and raised in Florida. Went to school in Florida. My family's in Florida. I had to have my first restaurant in Florida."
Here's the thing, though: No one defines what Floridian food is.
"People think it's this or that, and I'm reinterpreting my own interpretation of where we are in Seminole Heights. For being a Florida restaurant, we still have a lot of Asian influence, Latin influence," Vo says.
The Ox & Fields name is an ode to Asian culture and the people of Seminole Heights (with Ox representing the zodiac but also the working-class), as well as the farms (or Fields) from which the restaurant buys. Many of its ingredients, especially the seafood, are sourced in-state, according to Vo, who uses such distributors as the Sustainable Living Project, Suncoast Food Alliance and FreshPoint, to name a few.
Weighing in at 4,200 square feet with indoor-outdoor dining and a 36-seat lounge, the restaurant is working on bringing in Florida meats and chicken, but plans to be transparent about where its food comes from.
"As much as I want to be a Floridian-style restaurant, I didn't want to limit myself to what's available here," the executive chef says. "Local ingredients as we can get them. When we can't, we'll say that we can't, but we'll still provide that same menu item."
Dishes were developed through avenues like experimentation, time-tested recipes and cravings, too, as is the case with the oxtail poutine and its demi-glace gravy, which Vo calls "a fat kid moment, exclamation point forever," or the chicken and dumplings (because some of us need chicken wings and potstickers on one plate).
Bison meatballs are a play on a Japanese chicken meatball. With rice noodles, pork belly and additional accoutrements, Pho-men Soup is what happens when pho and ramen have a baby. Cast-iron curry shrimp, highlighting house-made shrimp stock and red curry paste, is a nod to paella without calling it paella. The pan-seared Florida snapper's scallion-ginger emulsion (essentially that scallion sauce from your favorite Chinese place, Vo says, but sexier) calls for French skill, as does the green tea, or matcha, crème brûlée's anglaise.
The food lineup features many nifty riffs like these, including gluten-free and veg-friendly options, influenced by flavors and cooking methods around the world.
On the drinks side, cocktails also pay homage to Ox & Fields's surroundings. The Nebraska (Michter's whiskey, cherry brandy, Angostura bitters, egg white froth) and The Avenue (Bulleit Bourbon, Peychaud's bitters, lemongrass essence) are dedicated to Florida, Hillsborough and all the other nearby aves. There's The Lil' Mermaid for the Mermaid Tavern; Maria Sangrienta, whose scratch-made Bloody mix and house-infused bacon vodka speak to Rooster & the Till's can-do attitude; Fully Baked for The Refinery and Fodder & Shine's Greg and Michelle Baker; and Miss Independent as a tribute to the Independent Bar and Cafe, plus more classic sippers with a Sunshine State spin.
The Watering Trough, as the beverage list is titled, only carries Florida craft beer (though diners have access to a standard selection of imports and domestics), and the organic wines come at a fair price, starting at $10.
"These drink menus were to say thank you for being here, for being the pioneers of Seminole Heights and making this what it is. We just want to join you," Vo says. "Everybody in the community has been completely welcoming. You have to give respect to those who came before you."
Ox & Fields's new home at 7701 N. Nebraska Ave. was the right location, the right building, the right time. The staff has a let's-make-this-our-home mindset, and an acronym for TRUST has been worked into their house rules; Vo says the team knows the restaurant is as much theirs as it is his.
While the partners told one person — their landlord — about the soft launch and kept the rest under wraps, it wasn't long before business started rolling in. A grand opening will likely happen in 90 days or so.
"Passion for perfection" is part of the Ox & Fields tagline, so it needs to be right, every single time.