Restaurant review: Ulele's native tongue

History meets contemporary culinary delights at Ulele along Tampa's Riverwalk.

click to enlarge RAISING THE STEAKS: Ulele's flank steak with "Jimmychurri" and popcorn-laced potatoes. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
RAISING THE STEAKS: Ulele's flank steak with "Jimmychurri" and popcorn-laced potatoes.

As I descend the stairs from the valet perch at Seventh Avenue and North Highland and look west toward the sun setting over the Hillsborough River, I wonder about the legend of the Tocobaga Indian princess, Ulele (you-LAY-lee). Tampa’s own Pocahontas allegedly saved the life of the young Spanish conquistador, Juan Ortiz.

The legend (myth?) endures and, for her efforts, the natural spring which flows to the river now bears her name. And, with millions of wisely spent dollars, a splendid new park and the adjacent Ulele restaurant have reclaimed the historic Water Works on the Riverwalk — just a short saunter north from the Straz Center.

Apparently, this is now THE place to be. Wannabe princesses are everywhere. Some sport platform shoes, hot pants and diaphanous blouses. Others, black leather, lace boots and faux fur vests. Clearly, gal pals are carefully planning their ensembles in hopes of catching the eye of carefully coiffed modern-day chiefs or soldiers.

These contemporary tribes gather around the open 10-foot barbacoa kitchen, lured by dancing flames that rise from the briny charbroiled oysters. At the communal bar table, libations and laughter flow like there’s no tomorrow.

As I pass this bacchanal and the glass wine cellar at the center of the beautifully reclaimed historic building, I marvel at the mash-up of old with new. And then my party alights at a table in the shadow of a giant horse statue seemingly ripped out of Picasso’s Guernica.

click to enlarge The Deconstructed Seafood Pot Pie dish, with shrimp, pulpo, grouper and more. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
The Deconstructed Seafood Pot Pie dish, with shrimp, pulpo, grouper and more.

The food is less esoteric than I expect, but ingredients are local and fresh daily. I’m tempted by the lobster claw cocktail, but the server points me toward the lobster cake. The fresh, live butter-poached lobster tail meat is seared in a cast iron into spicy patties and accompanied by a delicious cucumber-ginger salad.

These go well with crisp, golden hush puppies, which combine alligator, country ham, duck bacon, fresh corn, jalapeno, honey and a complex datil pepper sauce with fresh-ground horseradish aioli. Despite the sauce’s nuclear potential, it’s kept in balance and doesn’t overpower the smoky goodness of the fritters.

One of my dining companions can’t resist the salad of thick-sliced roasted beets with saffron-poached pears. They’re sprinkled with balsamic-charred red onions, bits of whipped goat cheese, toasted almonds and drizzled with a blackberry-honey gastrique, which lightly dresses a huge pile of fresh watercress. It’s a combo full of flavor.

While I am sorely tempted by the 2.2-pound, 24-day dry-aged “Kilo Porterhouse” that arrives at an adjacent table looking like a cartoon serving from The Flintstones, we opt for the flank steak. It’s 8 juicy ounces of garlic salt and olive oil-marinated beef, thinly sliced, revealing perfect medium-rare goodness. The Florida avocado “Jimmychurri” sauce is Ulele’s spin on the flavorful Argentine herbal grilling condiment. The steak is served with white cheddar popcorn mashed potatoes. The smashed chunky russets are loaded with white cheddar, garlic and leeks, topped with a whimsical popcorn garnish that’s an apt reminder of the importance of maize to the 16th-century native diet.

click to enlarge A sweet offering of candied duck bacon-maple fried ice cream. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
A sweet offering of candied duck bacon-maple fried ice cream.

I’m not sure how chief Red Eagle factors into the Ulele legend, but the rosy slices of charbroiled Maple Leaf Farms duck breast that fall under his name on the menu are yummy. The skin is crisp, and the sweet port wine-orange marmalade glaze that envelops the fatty bird is reminiscent of the French haute cuisine classic, canard à l’orange. Plus, the brown and wild rice combo is toothsome.

The same rice also serves as a bed for pan-seared pompano fillets surrounded by savory sun-dried tomato shallot cream. The local white fish is absolutely buried in paper-thin carrot ribbons that are lightly battered and crispy fried. It’s an inspired garnish that elevates the simple, ubiquitous root veggie to an unexpected height. It may not be carrots’ healthiest moment, but you won’t find any of these babies sitting in a lonely heap on the crudite tray.

The sweet offerings beyond guava pie and chocolate torte focus on ice cream. We skip the simple house-made, single-scoop flavors and jump on the Key West key lime ice cream stack with brûléed meringue. It’s tall and tart, but far too firm to be fully enjoyed when served. Have some coffee while it softens and you’ll enjoy it more.

The candied duck bacon-maple fried ice cream has delicious flavors, but the cinnamon cornflake crust softens quickly in the Knob Creek bourbon crème anglaise and caramel. The spear of duck bacon is appropriately chewy, but the sweet potato waffle pizzelle is too soft. More attention to texture to match the flavors would kick this one up a notch.

As the weather cools, the western porch tables at Ulele will be highly sought after for sunset dining. The views down the river as it bends west and passes under the North Boulevard bridge are lovely.

We’re lucky that Richard Gonzmart (fourth generation of the iconic Columbia Restaurant family) heard his ancestors’ voices, and had the vision and commitment to see this through. Ulele is a unique addition to the Bay’s restaurant scene. It’s an enchanting indoor-outdoor space with food and drink worthy of its namesake princess.


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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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