Restaurant review: Go with the flow at Station House

St. Pete's Station House pairs its lively, shared-plates vibe with stellar craft cocktails.

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click to enlarge ALL ABOARD: In the space formerly occupied by Cafe Alma, Station House balances modern and timeless. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
ALL ABOARD: In the space formerly occupied by Cafe Alma, Station House balances modern and timeless.

Station House marches to the beat of its own drum, led by an enigmatic cocktail menu. The cocktails are top flight, conceived and made with extreme care. If you’re not an aficionado, though, the descriptions are more evocative than practical, e.g., “Rhino — Ingredients almost lost to distinction,” or “Corpse Reviver #2­ — Libation to raise the dead.”

The drink menu simply divides the list into four categories — lo-cal, refreshing, New American oak and exotic — and aims to characterize the cocktail experience with a phrase or two: “London town finds its match,” “breakfast for dinner,” “Grandma Betty would approve” or “it begins with a veritable punch in the face from a tiki god,” which is my favorite. The servers, however, are well-versed on the artisanal concoctions, and can quote chapter and verse about ingredients and preparation magic.

The restaurant serves self-described “American cocktail cuisine.” It’s a bit like Pinellas’ answer to Ciro’s Speakeasy and Anise Global Gastrobar, without the speakeasy or Asian elements. No surprise since Ro Patel, who helped launch those Tampa stalwarts, is the mastermind behind the project alongside Alex Gilmour. Station House largely succeeds if you just go with it. The key is to grab a drink or two as the anchor for your visit, embracing the ebb and flow of the food that exits the kitchen as each dish is ready. Don’t expect even the larger entree portions to be served to your table simultaneously. Your regimented relative who typically waits for everyone to be served before chowing down will starve. Instead, there’s a lively, shared tapas vibe. If you bring a group of friends or family, a victorious visit will unfold something like this: sip, chat, slice, swig, yak, bite, gulp, gab, guzzle, quaff, babble, chomp, swill, jabber... exhale.

click to enlarge The restaurant's "Grits + Grunts" with country ham, Florida grits and more. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
The restaurant's "Grits + Grunts" with country ham, Florida grits and more.

With the region’s growing infatuation for charcuterie and artisan cheese, Station House’s version is enjoyable rather than jaw-dropping. We choose the “Two & Two” board, tapping serrano ham over chorizo as well as pâté de campagne over chicken liver mousse. Leaving behind two tangy blue cheeses, we opt for Tête de Moine, a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese from Switzerland, and the creamy, luscious OMG-is-this-good Delice de Bourgogne. The portions are modest, but there’s an ample stack of perfectly toasted bread, plus cute little white porcelain cups with pearl onions, cornichons, sliced apple and soft brandy-soaked prunes. With some coarse mustard and a sprinkling of in-vogue Marcona almonds, you’re good to go.

Even better is the tuna poppa (a play on Indian papadum), which tops the crisp cumin wafer with bracingly fresh scallion salad and plenty of sushi-grade tuna dice with tamarind. It’s dotted with a yogurt-based roasted garlic raita and is simply de-licious. The dish isn’t so easy to divvy up because of its fragile base, but that doesn’t matter much. This is why we have opposable thumbs.

The bacon-wrapped Medjool date “Bell-Ringers” are stuffed with a spicy mix of chorizo, apricot and pink peppercorn. The texture inside is surprisingly loose, more reminiscent of ground beef than dense sausage. They get unanimous raves and make me wish I could handle another Old Fashioned with my wine and still safely find my way home. The combo is (too) intoxicating.

The first entree to arrive is the “Grits + Grunts” featuring lightly breaded white fish fillets atop a comforting mix of creamy Florida grits, dotted with country ham, blistered tomatoes, scallions and cremini mushrooms. The flavors pop, but are kept in balance.

click to enlarge The "Tuna Poppa," one of Station House's raw offerings. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
The "Tuna Poppa," one of Station House's raw offerings.

We keep drinking our meaty Cote du Rhone wine blend when the flat iron steak à la plancha arrives all smoky, pink and juicy. It’s a cut noted for great flavor at the expense of texture, but the kitchen does it proud, slicing it perfectly against the grain. Smashed Yukon Golds and broccolini with black garlic nicely complement the zing of red chimichurri.

Last to arrive is the roasted organic and free-range chicken breast from Bell & Evans farm. It’s given a North African charmoula treatment with spicy tomato-chickpea stew intertwined with braised market greens. And thus ends our shared, linear degustation. Time for something sweet.

Although Station House opened its doors on Christmas Eve, Emeril alum chef Justin Sells is still tweaking his fare. So on my visit there’s just a lone surviving dessert, a mason jar filled with subtle, but satisfying, spicy rum-ginger budino (Italian pudding) topped with a thin layer of lush caramel, gingersnap crumble and a dollop of whipped cream. We don’t so much share as we pounce; it’s gone in a flash, and there’s lots of spoon-licking. Luckily, the soundscape’s pulsating bass covers any embarrassing slurp.

The 104-year-old building, which used to be the last rail stop going south, has a hip facelift, retaining its historic vaulted brick arches. It’s a handsome reno with a semi-private room as you pass through to the restrooms. If the empowering song lyrics stenciled on the bathroom stalls are any indication, Station House’s message is that we’re gonna hear it “ROAR.”

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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