I know that it’s fun and fashionable to walk along Beach Drive to see and be seen—especially now that the new Pier is open and thriving. But scarcely 2.5 miles west, just past the Trop where I-275 and I-175 tangle is the Warehouse Arts District, where Urban Stillhouse is making a big splash. No, make that a cannonball.
I wonder why it’s so hard to get a reservation and why it’s located so far from the downtown action. The answer is one of scale—a 16,000-square-foot space which sports three private dining rooms, an outdoor patio, three bars, a large upstairs “library,” as well as the main dining floor would be prohibitively expensive elsewhere. The splendid design is built around traditional rugged signifiers. It’s all dark tile, copper and brick with an oversize tufted leather sofa facing two huge wing chairs sporting enormous rolled arms like champion bodybuilders. There are wooden and decorative metal benches and enormous rectangular lanterns lining the walls. Only a massive stone fireplace with a broad wooden beam mantle separates the vestibule from the main dining area. It’s a bit like entering into the narthex of a grand cathedral which finally gives way to the nave where your eyes can’t help but be swept up by the grandeur as the windows soar upwards impossibly high. There’s no stained glass here, but the sheer volume of the room is impressive. This is indeed a house of worship, but one dedicated to the art of artisanal bourbon celebrating the Horse Soldiers—an elite special forces team that curbed the Taliban by riding wild Afghan horses to conquer the inhospitable, mountainous terrain.
The Urban Stillhouse
2232 5th Ave. S, St Petersburg
Appetizers $6-$21; entrées $29-$60; desserts $9-$12; beer/wine/cocktails $7-$15
4 out of 5 stars
The far wall is three stories of windows which look through to the distillery modeled on those in Scotland and Kentucky where you glimpse a spiral staircase. Unfortunately, the Florida climate is not compatible with aging bourbon, so St. Petersburg will (of necessity) be forced to focus on clear spirits. Never fear, the American Freedom Distillery produces a line of ever more expensive bottles of bourbon from the heartland, which inspires full adoration in a slick gift shop.
The menu breaks free of the chains that might normally bind a restaurant worshiping bourbon; it’s not built around every imaginable beef variation plus Caesar salad and onion soup vs. lobster bisque. Instead, Chef Kenny Tufo offers selective, imaginative fare and lets the kitchen strut its stuff.
The creamy chicken liver crostini is not really ample enough to encourage sharing, but it is delicious with accents of the house bourbon plus tart cranberries to counter the fat and a hint of fresh rosemary.
Next, a dark slate plate is absolutely loaded with perfectly roasted golden and red beet slices resting on an ample bed of peppercress, which lends a more assertive flavor than its watercress cousin. They’re topped with three creamy spheres of seductive fresh burrata drizzled with passion fruit purée and dotted with crunchy, candied pecans plus a sprinkle of smoked sea salt. It’s a masterclass in layering flavors and textures.
The kitchen hits a home run with a fabulous chilled summer pea soup. It’s a heady, sophisticated mix of stunning flavors. A trio of tender, smoked diver sea scallops swim in the creamy emulsion. Chef Tufo adds accents of bits of coconut, an aromatic spiral of turmeric oil, a dusting of smoky char (source unknown) and a scattering of wispy marigold petals which charm the eye in bright shades of intense yellow and electric orange. It’s a triumph on every level.
The starters set a pretty high bar for the entrees to come, but the kitchen soars over the top like an endorphin-pumped high jumper in the Tokyo Olympics.
A glistening day boat Chatham cod filet floats in lemon honey nage (a cheffy term for poaching liquid). The broth is light and lovely on the palate with an enchanting balance of citrus acidity slightly sweetened by the honey. The bowl is chocked full of crunchy snap peas, softened leeks, with bright, ripe cherry tomatoes rounding out the delicious dish.
Wide, thick pappardelle noodles are perfectly al dente and swathed in a bowl of scrumptious lemon mascarpone cream dotted with bright green English peas and huge chunks of fresh Maine lobster—as if the contents of a lobster roll decided to escape the confines of a toasted bun. Add some fresh herbs and grated hard cheese and you’ve got another delightful surprise.
I’ve driven all over Tuscany in search of porchetta, which is a kind of holy grail for me. Chef Tufo outdoes himself with this divine slice of pork stuffed with garlic, fennel pollen and rosemary. The heavenly golden brown skin is blistered and impossibly crisp; I moan aloud with each crackling bite. It’s topped with a bunch of fresh asparagus and surrounded by a decadent puddle of flavor-packed natural jus garnished with a few stems of peppercress.
The dessert decision is hard and my tasters are happily satiated. We skip the ubiquitous chocolate lava and although we’re sorely tempted by mascarpone cheese cake with rum soaked apricots, it comes down to the tiny bomboloni (donuts) with tequila lemon curd vs. the brûléed banana tart—the latter wins the day. A small tartlet with chocolate crust sits on a schmear of thick sauce with piped stars of crème Chantilly. Long banana slivers boasting of crunchy sugar torched to a golden brown practically beg you to drool. Even my companion who eschews chocolate is impressed.
Urban Stillhouse’s hours are limited, so reservations are required and they do offer Sunday brunch. Plus, their special tasting rooms allow you to become a bourbon connoisseur guided by a whiskey steward, which sounds like a fun way to emerge from pandemic malaise. Cheers.
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