When Greg and Michelle Baker opened The Refinery a couple of months ago — in the Seminole Heights spot formerly occupied by Bungalow Bistro — it's like they designed the place to appeal to restaurant critics. A dedication to sourcing local ingredients? Check. A small menu that changes often? Check. Beer and wine options that are as flexible as the menu? Check. Reasonable prices? Check.
That's not because they were trying to curry favor with the local rags, it's because they care about food. And, after more than a decade out of the restaurant business — spent doing catering and personal chef services, along with writing for the Trib and their Culinary Sherpas blog — the Bakers' perspective is fresh and bright, free from bad habits generated by the daily grind. I celebrate that, and I'm sure Tampa food lovers will be eager to support their efforts. And because The Refinery is trying to do things that could eventually improve the entire Bay area restaurant scene, it's easy to overlook the lapses in fiddling details that might be a bigger issue in a standard restaurant.
Like the menu, which changes every week on Thursday night. "Our menu is largely written with late night texts between me and my sous chef, and Michelle," explains Greg. "Not dishes, more a list of ingredients that go well together." They sit down on Tuesdays and hammer out the menu for the next week, making decisions based on those texts and what their suppliers have available.
The result is creative, spontaneous and interesting food that can stutter coming out of the gates. On a Thursday night, the food can be tentative or fidgety, as if the kitchen hasn't quite had time to get a feel for the dish. Like flank steak that's cooked perfectly and tender as warm butter, but covered in a bland and innocuous peppercorn sauce. Off to the side are clever cubes of fried potato balanced nicely between crunch and cream, tasty enough except for a profusion of crunchy salt that blows through your mouth with every other bite.
Roast chicken — a benchmark dish when determining the skill of a chef — is another story entirely, the crisp skin and moist meat infused with the heady scent of star anise. With the schmear of spiced fruit paste on the side, it's a complex and delicious dish, until you fork through the slightly grainy and uninteresting parsnip puree mounded in the middle of the plate. In another dish, great slabs of sliced pork are juicy and tender but largely unexciting, with an "oatmeal risotto" — essentially just rolled oats cooked risotto-style — underneath that comes across as a tasty but simple porridge. No zing to the meat or the side.
Toast points are burned on the bottom, duck is unevenly cooked. But come back a night or two later, and most of those problems are fixed. It's like visiting a restaurant on opening week, once a week for the entire year.
Still, the potential of The Refinery's food makes even a Thursday night visit worth the trouble. And the rest of the week? There's no question that it can be an exciting restaurant. Melon soup is creamy and cool, with the sharp tang of cardamom to enliven the sweet and round flavor of the ripe fruit. The mere fact that The Refinery's menu — this week, at least — features roast beef marrow bones is worth a lot of praise. And you never know what you're going to discover from week to week.
That glorious uncertainty also applies to the beer and wine selections, which reflect the size, quality and affordable pricing of the menu. "We're trying to bring the best that we can at a reasonable price," says Greg. "The wines we have going now, every one of them brings a serious bang for the buck. If we were to get a more extensive wine list there's more money tied up in inventory that may not be as good as what we tasted this week." That means that you can down a Lagunitas Undercover seasonal brew days after it hits the shelves, along with a dozen other tasty beers that are more likely to fit the food that week, or drink a glass of rich Excel Cabernet for just $5.
You may have to walk over to the chalkboard to see what's available for your glass this week — since the beer changes so frequently, the Bakers want to avoid wasting paper — or you can depend on the staff to guide you. It's all part of the Baker's philosophy, which combines sustainability with constant change. "We depend on keeping things small so we can have the agility to adapt quickly and feature new products that come along," says Greg.
That's especially important for a restaurant that's trying to source as much product as it can from local sources. The Bakers are working with Carrolwood farm Urban Oasis to grow some of their produce, and starting a relationship with Sarasota's Suncoast Food Alliance, which is bringing their local farm contacts and produce delivery into the Tampa market. Greg also has a clever relationship with the neighborhood's Seminole Heights Community Garden. "We get the extra produce that people don't want from the garden," says Greg, "and they get our compost."
It's not easy to find local ingredients, and the suppliers aren't able to guarantee the quantities that many restaurants require, which is probably why so few chefs in the Bay area take the time to work at it. Luckily, The Refinery's constantly changing menu eliminates some of the problems. "I just got Myakka River sturgeon from Mote Marine in Sarasota, and some Cedar Key littleneck clams," says Greg, who still isn't able to find as many local options as he would like. "The sources are out there, but it takes a lot of time talking to people. It's like putting a puzzle together."
Why go to the effort? Both Greg and Michelle want the best quality ingredients and the most sustainable supply chain they can find, but they also want to influence Bay area chefs who might see what they are doing and emulate it."We're hoping to start a trend," says Michelle. "We know a lot of chefs will come in and we want them going back to their owners saying 'we can do this, too.'"