The Little Lamb Gastropub
3.5 out of 5 stars
2475 N. McMullen Booth Road, Clearwater. Appetizers: $5-$16; entrees: $12-$19; desserts: $6-$7; wine by the glass: $5-$10; craft beer: $5-$6. 727-401-3339; thelittlelambgastropub.com.
I generally don't expect a lot when I arrive to eat at a storefront in a suburban shopping center. Although I've been surprised in recent weeks out North Tampa way, I still identify Oakbrook Plaza near Countryside with Beef 'O' Brady's.
I can hear Aretha's voice echoing in my brain, "Chain, chain, chain... chain of —" well, you know. Franchise food has its place, but rarely excites. Even a new local mom-and-pop has to overcome the lack of charm that being sandwiched in a strip mall usually portends. So as I step inside The Little Lamb Gastropub and see torched wood planks and a poured concrete countertop instead of Bo Peep, I'm impressed. It's a hip, welcoming space. And when our server says that one of the appetizer specials is ostrich carpaccio, I know it's going to be an interesting evening.
Ostrich is one of those fun proteins, like bison or emu, that sounds more exotic than it is. It's very much akin to lean beef. It's low in fat and cholesterol and rich in iron and protein — and it tastes great. Little Lamb's version tiles paper-thin slices that cover the plate. The color is a deep, deep red. It's topped with a light frisée salad that seems like the right touch, but the vinegar is a bit too strong for the meat, which should be the star. While it's good, my table is absolutely in awe of our other starter.
The char siu pork rib is wonderful. There are herbs, pickles, peanut caramel and a more subtle lime vinaigrette that creates a party for your palate. The tender shreds of pork fall off the bone and melt in your mouth. I sense that my guests are trying to remain decorous as they jostle for the final morsels. We await our entrées with great participation.
The little lamb on the menu is the Juicy Lucie, a burger on a brioche bun with tzatziki, feta and the standard LTOP. It's flat-out delicious. In fact, that's true of all the entrees at the table. One companion notes how nice it is to see the chefs behind the counter and how everything arrives at the table piping hot with steam visibly rising. So often food sits at the pass, and when it hits the table, it's still warm yet past its optimal temp. Little Lamb's ability to serve plates quickly means you may have to blow on your food first — a rare occurrence.
A great example is the steaming farro risotto. Farro is a hulled wheat that's treated as you would arborio or carnaroli rice. The wheat is al dente and full of flavor with wilted greens, black garlic, chives, Parmesan and a delightful mix of forest mushrooms, with enoki and shiitake being most prominent. It's a stellar veggie dish that will satisfy the most dedicated carnivores.
Grilled market fish is a fresh salmon fillet with pretty grill marks, some spice from red chimichurri, and a flavorful herb and fennel salad with lemon. Nothing startling, but hot, fresh complementary flavors.
The ample hunk of short rib is tender, beefy and bursting with flavor. It's got a creamy celeriac and potato purée, as well as some more wilted greens laced with black garlic. The plate's perfect gastropub fare.
When it's time for sweets, we skip the s'mores tart, though its ginger chocolate and burnt espresso marshmallow sound intriguing. However, after covering Ferran Adrià's visit to town in our Oct. 6 issue, I insist on the aerated cheesecake. There's orange-almond crumble and an airy mound of fluffy cheesecake filling topped with fresh blueberries, mint and toasted pepitas for extra crunch. If you're looking for a finish to your meal that's light and refreshing, this one's for you. While one of my guests is swooning, I'm looking past texture for flavor and find this one wanting. The depth that a New York cheesecake delivers is missing.
This is more than made up for by the sorghum pecan pie with brown-butter toffee. It's everything a decadent Southern dessert should be — even before you add the scrumptious burnt orange-maple ice cream. This is in firm Best of the Bay territory and will clearly be on my radar come next September. Plus, it goes really well with the Australian tawny port on the selective, but well-chosen, wine list. Of course, the restaurant also has craft beer on draft and in bottles; it's a curated selection that's small and satisfying.
The Little Lamb would be overrun, and deservedly so, if it were in Hyde Park, on Central Avenue, or in downtown Dunedin. My hope is that although it's off the beaten path, you'll pay a visit. Believe me when I say it's worth the trip to Oakbrook Plaza. And, strangely enough, there is an amazing and authentic taste of Venice just across the street in Northwood Commons. But, alas, that must wait till next week. Believe me, you don't want to miss that one either. Stay tuned. It turns out the corner of McMullen Booth and Enterprise roads is the place to be.
Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.