Restaurant review: At Casey's Craft Bar Kitchen, you're not in Kansas anymore

North Dale Mabry feels more like the Yellow Brick Road after a trip to Lutz's Craft Bar Kitchen.

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click to enlarge In Lutz, Casey's Craft Bar Kitchen prepares its take on an Old Fashioned, the Cinn Fashion, tableside. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
In Lutz, Casey's Craft Bar Kitchen prepares its take on an Old Fashioned, the Cinn Fashion, tableside.

Casey's Craft Bar Kitchen

4 out of 5 stars

17667 N. Dale Mabry Highway, Lutz. Appetizers: $9-$18; entrees: $14-$70; desserts: $6-$8; wine and cocktails: $7-$15. 813-302-9189; craftbarkitchen.com.


Reviewing restaurants for CL takes me to every corner of Tampa Bay, from Dade City to Sarasota. Most meals, though, usually end up in the busier corridors of Pinellas or Hillsborough where there's a real sense of place. Even if I were from out of town, there are indicators that say this is Floridapalm trees, seagulls, water views, etc.

Most neighborhoods have recognizable character from Seminole Heights to Gulfport. But when I go north from downtown Tampa on Dale Mabry, I could be Anywhere USA. There are long stretches of highway filled with car dealers, Starbucks, Outback Steakhouse, Home Depot and strip malls that remind me of Rockville Pike outside D.C where I used to live. Or similar arteries that characterize many cities as you make the drive from town center to undifferentiated suburban America.

That's why when I discover gems like Sacred Pepper in Carrollwood or Casey's Craft Bar Kitchen two miles farther down the road in Lutz, I'm brought up short. In such a generic-looking environment, it's a joy to discover cocktails and dishes that quicken your pulse.

When you first enter, the the backlit bar glowing a bright emerald green is striking; the ceiling is dotted with starburst chandeliers. I feel like I'm in Oz. That sense is confirmed after we decide to test a few cocktails from the craft bar (whose flagship is in Jupiter). Our server comes tableside, shoving a huge silver funnel into the neck of a clear wine decanter, which holds a mixture of Basil Hayden's bourbon, cinnamon agave infused in-house, muddled orange and aromatic bitters.

click to enlarge Apps include Brussels sprouts with bacon lardon, sweet chili garlic, creamy polenta and cotija cheese. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
Apps include Brussels sprouts with bacon lardon, sweet chili garlic, creamy polenta and cotija cheese.

Then, after lighting some applewood in a small cylindrical smoking gun contraption, a long black tube is jammed down the opening to release an aromatic cloud that fills the glass vessel. After a few vigorous swirls, the contents are inverted over a single large cube of ice that barely fits in a lowball tumbler sporting a cinnamon "swizzle" stick. We watch as the smoke settles, the server removes the decanter and our positively sinful Cinn Fashion is complete.

I announce to my table, "We're not in Kansas anymore."

We sample equally delicious variations on a Moscow Mule with refreshing cucumber and blueberry instead of lime, as well as the Filthy Mimosa of Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne and elderflower liquor with filthy cherry syrup and a blackberry garnish. Simply delightful. These exciting cocktails bring to mind the care and invention of my Best of the Bay pick, Ciro's Speakeasy & Supper Club. They're that good. Plus, the place offers 30 craft beers.

The food and service prove to be worth the journey as well. Of course, they come at a price. But in this case, you do get what you pay for. The menu features small plates for sharing and an eclectic mix of New American entrees with Asian-inflected hot pots and dumplings.

click to enlarge The bar's grilled shrimp and grits highlights chorizo butter-basted shrimp, creamy grits and charred jalapeño. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
The bar's grilled shrimp and grits highlights chorizo butter-basted shrimp, creamy grits and charred jalapeño.

A spectacularly delicious starter features creamy polenta with a swirl of sweet chili-garlic sauce topped with roasted pieces of bite-size Brussels sprouts and luscious, crisp bacon lardons — a cubed rectangular strip of pork that's a staple in French cuisine for salads or classic braised meat dishes like coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon. The whole plate is sprinkled with crumbled cotija cheese. We scarf it down like the the Wicked Witch of the West's flying monkeys.

The lobster roll app spotlights two small grilled buns overflowing with tiny pieces of herb-flecked crustacean with a distinct citrus note from lemon confit. Though the dish's truffle component doesn't register, it's still an enjoyable plate to share.

The same is true of chicken dumplings, which are a quartet of crisp golden brown purses filled with chicken mousse and Asian slaw. The sweet chili-garlic dipping sauce adds a nice touch, but these are flavorful even by themselves.

Shrimp and grits is shocking. They're so huge that the two chorizo butter-basted head-on prawns look like genetic mutations from some Godzilla film. It's a scrumptious version of this stalwart, so don't miss the opportunity to enjoy all the juicy goodness from the heads. There's also some charred jalapeño for a bit of heat.

click to enlarge Another soul-warming entree is horseradish-crusted salmon with beurre blanc foam served atop braised lentils and buttered leeks. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
Another soul-warming entree is horseradish-crusted salmon with beurre blanc foam served atop braised lentils and buttered leeks.

Tender pieces of house-brined pork tenderloin tossed with dates and bacon in a Champagne Dijon sauce sit on a bed of polenta. It's a comforting gastropub entree, as is the horseradish-crusted salmon resting on a pile of braised lentils with buttered leeks. The lentils are perfectly al dente instead of mushy, and the horseradish crust provides a great contrasting texture alongside some heat without overwhelming the fish. While I'm not sure what happened to the advertised beurre blanc foam, there's flavor to spare.

After last week's gelatinous bread pudding disaster, Craft Bar Kitchen's apple cinnamon bread pudding is sublime — especially with a heady candied pecan praline sauce and a generous scoop of French vanilla ice cream from Tanya & Matt's parlor just down the road.

We ask for T&M's coconut ice cream instead of the vanilla on the menu for the intense Drunk’n Pineapple. This dessert looks benign, yet it packs a big wallop. When grilled pineapple is infused with Myers's dark rum, it's almost like downing shots. Just be sure to get some ice cream on your spoon each time.

As we exit past the Emerald City bar with full hearts and active brains after the night's great cocktails and food, I can't help but think that our courageous trip out to North Dale Mabry was really on the Yellow Brick Road.

Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.

click to enlarge In Lutz, Casey's Craft Bar Kitchen prepares its take on an Old Fashioned, the Cinn Fashion, tableside. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
In Lutz, Casey's Craft Bar Kitchen prepares its take on an Old Fashioned, the Cinn Fashion, tableside.


click to enlarge A chef's choice cheese board is among the bar's selection of small plates and shareables. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
A chef's choice cheese board is among the bar's selection of small plates and shareables.


click to enlarge On a polenta bed, house-brined pork tenderloin features dates and bacon in a Champagne Dijon sauce. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
On a polenta bed, house-brined pork tenderloin features dates and bacon in a Champagne Dijon sauce.

click to enlarge The herb-flecked lobster roll starter, with truffle and lemon confit, overflows on two small grilled buns. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
The herb-flecked lobster roll starter, with truffle and lemon confit, overflows on two small grilled buns.


About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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