3 out of 5 stars.
6428 N. Florida Ave, Tampa
Appetizers: $4-$13; entrees: $14-$17; desserts: $10; booze: $5-$14.
As an omnivore facing a vegan menu, I always bring in a ringer. Unlike sports when that’s cheating, in the world of food criticism it’s more like having a translator in a foreign country. I’ve studied the “phrasebook,” I know the universal design symbols so I can find the toilet, but help is needed to get the jokes.
Chef/owner Greg Koodish and his wife Krissi grew up in New Jersey, ground zero for all the stalwart Italian-American dishes we have grown to know and love. They realized, though, that sometimes those dishes led them to feel less than their best. After relocating to Florida, and with Greg working a decade as a chef, they made the leap to open their dream, Ground Foods Cafe. Everything at their new Seminole Heights location is vegan, prepared with olive oil and house-made almond and cashew “cheese.”
It’s a fast-casual vibe; you order at the counter, they run a tab and then the food is delivered as it comes out of the kitchen. Beer and bottles of wine are displayed in a glass front cooler and a carafe of cold water is brought to your table so that you can top off your glasses as the meal progresses.
We start with the Caesar salad, which is surprisingly good. The house dressing and Parmesan are both cashew based-products that deliver lots of flavor. It’s missing the anchovy grace notes of the true original, but you rarely get those anywhere nowadays. It’s certainly as satisfying as 75% of Caesars that have access to a full range of animal products. We opt to split this as a starter. Even so, we’re hard-pressed to finish the ample portion.
The Margherita mascarpone square pie is actually rectangular and lacks the char provided by a wood-burning pizza oven. That said, this is another welcome surprise. The crust is a dense, wheat affair akin to thin focaccia. When topped with marinara, roasted garlic, and a chiffonade of fresh basil, it brings familiar flavors. It’s the “cheese” that provides the biggest deviation from expectations. The house-made-from-scratch cashew "mascarpone" is soft and pudding-like. It upends any notion of traditional pizza, but somehow it works. The topping flavors act in synergy and it’s a delightful mouthful if you let go of your preconceptions.
The same is true of the carbonara pasta built upon farfalle bow-ties tossed with bright green peas and sliced mushrooms in a creamy cashew sauce with vegan parm. We also indulge in the full dairy imported Italian 36-month Parmigiano-Reggiano. You can always declare a momentary “vegan cleanse.”
The desserts take a bit of adjustment. The chocolate olive oil cake displays a fine crumb and is topped with an unexpected whipped cream made from coconut sweetened with maple syrup. It’s light and far better than Cool Whip or other non-dairy toppings.
The raw New York-style cheesecake is flavored with lemon and vanilla and has a date and walnut crust. The major deviation is a cashew base and the lack of eggs. There’s really no resemblance texturally to the cheesecake that NY made famous. It’s soft, creamy and more like custard.
They serve small production estate-bottled wine with minimal intervention, so availability may fluctuate, but on Wine Wednesday there’s 30% off any bottle. We try a Tuscan Chianti (the grape is always Sangiovese) from a certified organic farm and also a barbera from Langhe in the northern Piedmont region—a table red from an organic vineyard using spontaneous fermentation. Barbera is low tannin (the pucker factor) with high acidity which gives it a tart backbone. They’re served in tumblers reflecting the casual nature of the service. Like most organic wines I’ve tried, they’re serviceable rather than thrilling.
However, we leave impressed. The Koodish’s “strive to create satisfying dishes without sacrificing taste” and they succeed if you go with an open mind.
CL Food Critic Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.
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