Chef James Maita is in the house, and there’s a major new addition to the Bay area’s restaurant scene. He’s not breaking new boundaries, but his kitchen delivers an exquisite Mediterranean twist on refined American cuisine amidst Enrique Crespo’s striking decor.
While it may be 10 miles north of Kennedy Boulevard, closer to Lutz than SoHo, you’d never know by the packed crowds that Sacred Pepper wasn’t at the heart of the action. Certainly the grand interior could be as much at home in L.A. as in the ‘burbs north of the bay. There’s so much to love: a bubbling blue wall of water, two custom-made chandeliers from Portugal, Old Florida touches of pecky cypress and terrazzo, and the disorienting barrel vault restroom hallway that’s like being inside a bottle of Champagne underwater. It’s thrilling. North Tampa can now celebrate a superb upscale restaurant in Carrollwood.
Besides the marvelous decor, there’s sharp attention to detail and some luxurious choices. A sleek Olde Thompson brushed stainless grind-your-own pepper and salt dispenser is on each table — clockwise for pepper, counter for sea salt. Leftovers, which are likely due to the generous portions, are presented in shiny black takeout containers with the contents and date annotated in silver Sharpie. And best of all, diners may choose from tall tufted booths or tables with stylish padded armchairs. I can’t remember the last time I ate at a restaurant with such heavy, comfortable chairs.
The only design oddity is the presence of a huge flat screen in an elegant side dining room; it just seems out of place flanked by large windows displaying the wine stash. But I accept that they must be a part of any newly designed bar. That said, watching NBA MVP Steph Curry being upstaged by his toddler at a press event helps pass the time because, though our cheery server touches base, it takes a while for drinks and bread to arrive. However, SP’s been open for less than a month, so I’ll forgive a disjointed start.
Certainly, the trio of complimentary mini focaccia rolls — tomato, olive and plain — with a delectable sun-dried tomato-infused olive oil are worth the wait. Then, we move on to three starters we have no idea are absolutely huge. These are all big enough to share (or for leftovers to take home in the aforementioned black boxes). As a big fan of New Orleans cuisine, I can’t wait to see what arrives as deconstructed oysters Rockefeller. A galvanized tub is filled with a whopping pile of fried tempura oysters, which sit on a scrumptious gratin of fresh spinach, Parmesan and artisanal Nueske’s bacon. Even my shellfish-averse guest is raving and upended by the flavors and the lingering heat that surprises on the finish.
Likewise, the urban pizzettes can easily serve four. They're not flatbreads, but rather thick, chewy focaccia with a marvelous crisp crust. We land on the combo of prosciutto, mushroom, goat cheese, black olive aioli and wafer-thin slices of roasted potato. It’s just transporting. The crust has great texture and is such fun to chew, plus there’s a touch of acidity from what seems like unnamed balsamic that works in notable synchronicity with the creamy goat cheese’s tang.
There are so many decadent-sounding sharing plates that we have a hard time choosing. We finally opt for Sacred meatballs, huge orbs of handmade veal and pork with fresh ricotta, as well as marinara sauce from owner Candy DeBartolo’s family recipe displayed for all to see in her own handwriting on a giant floor-to-ceiling mirror — another one-of-a-kind design feature. The meatballs are flavorful, yet so light and finely textured that they take you by surprise.
The entrees also rock. The tender, petite filet is grilled to smoky perfection; it’s swathed in rich demi-glacé accompanied by twin tender, baked “scratch pasta” rotolo, stuffed with Maine lobster and lump crab chunks bound by a creamy sauce of ricotta with fresh Parmesan.
The spin on fried chicken is a pounded, buttermilk-marinated breast that’s pan-fried alongside an unexpected, sweet honey-truffle glaze, then complemented with fresh creamed corn, smoky bacon and sharp Tillamook Cheddar.
And the seared Chilean sea bass, featuring a light ginger glaze, is as seductive on the palate as the perfect vegetable medley is on the eyes: bright orange baby carrots split lengthwise, a scarlet diamond of red pepper, dark green broccolini, glistening snow peas and earthy mushrooms. Nutty quinoa bursting with cranberry, pecans and bits of spring onion completes this melange of balanced flavors.
The desserts also demand attention. “Killer” chocolate cake is, indeed, first rate, showcasing four layers of moist, dense devil’s food and an intense dark chocolate ganache icing served with a pool of fruity raspberry coulis. The crème brûlée bread pudding is a round of custard-bound bread dotted with raisins, infused with the perfect balance of cinnamon, and served on a buttery caramel sauce with lovely vanilla bean ice cream. The top is crunchy with burnt sugar and makes me go weak in the knees.
Luckily, I’m firmly ensconced in SP’s embracing armchair and able to just sigh with joy.
Editor’s note: CL would’ve liked to include images of Sacred Pepper’s lovely food and interior to go along with this week’s restaurant review, but management declined our request to take photographs.
Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.