Tuesday night, November 9, just shy of 6:30 p.m., Kitchenbar looks like it's in the weeds. The place opens for business in minutes, but servers are still scurrying about to drop flatware on tables, tie aprons and huddle up for a final confab before service. Soon enough, the groups of people waiting in the cool air outside are guided to tables, and the 10-day-only run of Tampa's newest — and briefest — restaurant begins its opening night.
Kitchenbar is the brainchild of Jeannie Pierola, the superstar Tampa chef who made her biggest splash at Bern's and SideBern's. Hell, she basically made SideBern's what it is today. Or, at least, what it was up to about two years ago. That's when creative differences saw her split from the Bern's empire and head off on her own. Bay area foodies waited with bated breath. And waited.
Pierola did some consulting gigs — at De Santo (now defunct), at Gaspar's Grotto, and a few others — but most folks assumed she was biding her time until the right spot opened up. On the other hand, she may have simply been enjoying life away from the hardcore rigors of the kitchen. But she's a chef; she needs to cook her own food. That's where Kitchenbar comes in.
She calls it an impromptu restaurant, but it took a fair amount of planning to set up this 10-day gig, from arranging to use Pinky's Diner as the setting, finding staff, planning a menu and figuring out who will sell her product. Think of it more as a temporary restaurant.
Clever, but of course there are problems. Restaurants can easily take months to work out opening kinks, but Pierola can't really afford to do that. Ten days, remember? She needs to be on from the first order. And — in spite of eventual delays in getting unfamiliar dishes out of the unfamiliar kitchen — she is on. From the start. Where it counts. Kitchenbar's food is fantastic.
The menu reads like the dream of an inveterate fine-diner, where the main ingredients seem less like the star of the show and more like a foil for the flavor text. Fingerling potatoes Bourguignon? Great, but add in duck fat shallots, and spuds get exciting. Cauliflower with harissa brown butter and lemon confit; duck leg with mole and sopes; steak with bone marrow hash browns — it's easily the most exciting collection of dishes I've seen in a long time.
Those potatoes are simple enough, but just about perfect, soaked in a red wine reduction with a dollop of rich crème fraiche (and the shallots, of course). Lobster scrambled eggs are a bit too stiff, but the flavor is intense enough to overcome a slab of decadent toasted brioche underneath.
Pierola's veal cheek parfait is a tasty bit of chaos, with competing flavors from red wine onions and horseradish fighting for supremacy with the tender beef. Who wins? Who cares? The mole duck leg is more subtle than I expect, which just allows the toasty corn of the sopes to shine through.
Kitchenbar entrees sound more exciting than they turn out to be; they're largely competent and exacting renditions of classic fine dining tropes. The Kobe short rib "soup" is a simple slab of perfectly braised meat topped by a crouton covered in a hunk of melted triple-crème Pierre Robert. Best to just remove the bread and cheese and eat separately — they only distract from the fantastic meat.
Hogfish may suffer from the influx of orders from a few big tables — it's a bit overcooked — and the accompanying split peas are a bit grainy and dry. But an artful schmear of truffle butter on the plate rescues any bit that comes near its earthy power.
Desserts are simple and, like so many fine-dining spots, seemingly an afterthought: Cuban French toast with overcooked bananas and dates, and a tart cobbler of pear, apple and cranberry. Tasty, but without the joyous approach of the rest of the menu.
Kitchenbar has no liquor license, so it is strictly BYOB — a boon for anyone who wants to save some bucks and pick their own wine. Massive retailer B-21 will even deliver wine purchased from its website to the restaurant to make it more convenient.
Before I arrived at Kitchenbar, I was a bit giddy with excitement. These pop-up restaurants are good at a few things, like generating foodie buzz, keeping things fresh and allowing chefs to express themselves without the hardcore grind of paying the monthly electric bill. But can you make a living off of them, or is it just for the joy of the art?
On opening night, despite a line across the sidewalk at 6:30 p.m., despite having no reservations available if you called the day of the show, Kitchenbar never fills up. There's a half-dozen tables sitting empty throughout the evening. Buzz, it turns out, doesn't necessarily fill seats.
Or, maybe, people are waiting on reports from folks who have actually eaten at the place, waiting to find out about the duck mole and caramelized cauliflower, the bone marrow hash and chorizo marmalade.
If so, start the buzz machine, folks, and start filling the seats. Jeannie Pierola's Kitchenbar is worthy of social media frenzy.