Restaurant review: The Independent — Seminole Height’s new beer bar is one of the best new restaurants of 2010

Don’t be fooled by the apparent simplicity of the menu. Beer brat, cheese plate, veggie burger, grilled cheese — all of these seem innocuous enough, until they hit the table. But then, with your first bite, you realize that Tolan has pushed his bar food well past the usual, into the the kind of culinary innovation that is beyond the talents of most fine restaurants, let alone a pub.

The Independent’s soft pretzel is a perfect example. The pretzel iteself is sourced locally, but the kitchen here gives it an egg wash glaze and a scattering of kosher salt that makes the surface glisten and crackle. Alongside is a tub of bright German mustard doctored with just enough honey to add depth. It’s still just a pretzel, but it may be the best version of a pretzel you’ve ever had.

More care is shown on the cheese plate, a dish often executed haphazardly at even the best restaurants. Here the four cheeses — a blue, a brie, a cheddar and a swiss — are artfully displayed around a pile of beautiful grapes, almonds and crackers. Pretty, sure, but the real beauty comes in the thoughtful touches, like thin slices of spiced poached pear on each slab of creamy brie, or the drizzle of sweet syrup across the pungent slices of blue. Similarly, hummus — a traditionally boring side dish — is grainy, infused with serious curry flavor and accented by a toasted coating of bright Indian spices.

Tolan makes his own veggie burger, resulting in a non-meat patty that’s easily worth ordering even if you’re not a meat-avoider, with a crisp, crusty surface surrounding a creamy interior, and all the fresh fixings and chewy bread that makes for a good sandwich. Of course, vegetarians might have a problem choosing between that and the VLT (a veggie bacon BLT), or the Independent’s simple tomato mozzarella panini, which is given a kick in the pants by the sharp bite of romano and herbs de Provence.

Eh, who am I kidding? Get the grilled cheese. Built on toasted rye with a base of gooey gouda, the sandwich has the same slices of sauteed pears as the cheese plate, giving each bite a bit of texture and a hint of sweet spices.

Nowhere is the Independent’s culinary philosphy better exemplified, however, than in the deceptively simple grilled beer brat. The sausage itself is simmered in beer, then griddled long enough for a wide strip of caramelized skin down two sides, the interior cooked just long enough to keep it creamy and rich. There’s another vat of that sharp and sweet mustard on the side, along with a bowl of sweet sauteed onions in a decadent brown beer gravy that may be the best side dish I’ve had in months. Throw in a few slices of crusty bread — for those who need the aura of a sandwich — and an impeccable salad accented with creamy crumbled blue cheese and toasted walnuts, and you have a dish that’s destined for our Best of the Bay awards, all for a mere $6. Yep, $6.

If the Seminole Heights Independent only served this menu of 10 items and glasses of tap water, I feel certain it would still become a destination. But no need to even consider that, since there’s a dozen taps serving exceptional imported and American craft brews, along withn a fairly extensive array of bottled beer. There’s also a coffee shop attached to the side — open at 7 a.m. — serving the same menu as the bar along with the usual caffeinated beverages and baked goods. Free wi-fi, too.

Maybe I was too hasty when I mentioned Tolan's culinary innovation. There’s nothing new to the food at the Independent, except, perhaps, the fact that he has taken the time to push every single dish past the average diner’s expectations, to think about what makes the dishes tick, to execute the simple elements of each dish just about perfectly, whether it’s a not-so-basic grilled cheese or a grilled brat.

The result is a beer bar that happens to be one of the best restaurants to open this year.

The Independent

4 stars

5016 N Florida Ave., Tampa, 813-341-4884.

When the folks behind St. Pete’s iconic beer bar — The Independent — announced they’d be opening up an outpost in Seminole Heights, a lot of locals felt that it was about time. Not for the place to expand, per se, but just that Tampa’s pepretually up and coming bohemian neighborhood would finally have the kind of neighborhood beer bar that would suit Heights denizens. Add in the outdoor space under the roof of the converted old gas station, some clever seating built from stained two-by-fours in the interior, and the Independent’s wonderful selection of ever-changing taps and bottles, and you had a place that seemed destined for the Heights.

The only thing missing was food, something that the Independent’s mothership in downtown St. Pete never fussed with. Then, about a month ago, that changed. This Independent would have a menu, and it sounded promising — just a small selection of casual dishes designed more as beer accompaniment than dinner destination, a convenience for folks out for a beer who didn’t want to drive dow the stret to Ella’s or the Refinery for a nosh.

Who knew that this simple idea would result in one of the best examples of pub grub in the entire Bay area?

Well, Chris Tolan had an inkling. He’s the driving force behind the Independent’s menu, and he waxed poetic to me about his culinary dreams almost six months ago when he ran a miracle berry booth at CL’s Sensory Overload arts fest. At the time, I was intrigued. Then, when I saw the final menu recently, I was pleased but unexcited. It took a meal at the Independent, complete with the beer that’s the bar’s raison d’etre, to truly appreciate Tolan's vision.

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