The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay

CL's restaurant critic reflects on the most memorable meals (and one wine) from a year of reviews.


Reflecting upon 52 weeks and hundreds of dishes, my memory travels back to the unshakable tastes that linger and linger, from restaurants big and small, from fancy special-occasion places to dives by the beach — and even one special wine. While any list of this sort is by definition personal, each taste reflects flavors in balance, with an element of surprise.

ANNATA
“Pick Seven” Charcuterie and Cheese Platter

click to enlarge The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay - James Ostrand
James Ostrand
The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay
This top-of-the-line charcuterie and cheese combo is gastronomic nirvana. The stunning garnishes are everything you could wish — green and ripe olives, small briny cornichon, fig jam, thin pointy quince paste triangles, vibrant dried apricots, Marcona almonds, whole-grain mustard, honeycomb oozing sweetness, and a sprinkling of micro greens. Just do it. 300 Beach Drive NE #128, St. Petersburg, annatawine.com

AVA
Grilled Bread with Olive Oil

click to enlarge The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay
The house-made bread has an amazing open, airy crumb with a crisp, chewy crust that I haven’t seen since I last spent time on Italian soil. Lightly brushed with olive oil and perfectly grilled with just a touch of char, it soars, and alone is worth the visit. 718 S. Howard Ave., Tampa, avatampa.com

BERN'S STEAK HOUSE
1964 Thomas Frères Beaune-Grèves (#7178)
If you love wine, you should give thanks daily that you live near Bern’s. With more than half a million bottles and 6,800 selections, it’s arguably the world’s greatest wine cellar. And the chance to drink 50-year-old Burgundy at $55 is phenomenal. This half-bottle of pinot noir is remarkably fresh, but has layers of complexity that only aged wine delivers. 1208 S. Howard Ave., Tampa, bernssteakhouse.com

BRICK & MORTAR
Carpaccio of Beef Tenderloin with Ravioli

click to enlarge The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay - Lisa Mauriello
Lisa Mauriello
The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay
Ultra-thin beef meets perfect house-crafted ravioli, and with the slightest twist of a fork, yolk from a soft poached egg filling bursts forth, leaking yellow gold with leek and goat cheese mousse. A touch of truffle oil and crisp greens combine to make your palate soar. 539 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, facebook.com/brickandmortarkitchen

CASTILE
Maine LobsterAjillo

click to enlarge The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay
The coral-hued crustacean swims in a garlicky, bright red-orange sauce. Pimentón (smoked paprika) plays a major role with caramelized sweet onion, serrano peppers and a welcome splash of Chablis, with its minerality and crisp acidity. Huge grilled focaccia slices meant for dipping are the essential garnish. 3701 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach, castilerestaurant.com

EL GALLO GRANDE
Flan

click to enlarge The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay
This flan from the Inca gods is decorated to the nines, with scrolling red fruit tracery and luscious rosettes of whipped cream layered with small slices of sweet ripe pineapple. The flan itself is light but loaded with creamy goodness, and the pool of caramel is as good as it gets. 1625 Fourth St. S., St. Petersburg, facebook.com/thebigrooster

FARMTABLE KITCHEN
“From the Fishmonger” Course

click to enlarge The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay
You can’t top the theatrics of breaking down a whole glistening Gulf treasure from the day’s catch into melt-in-your-mouth sashimi. Add bright green basil-kale-watercress foam, fresh tangerine zest, savory bottarga (sun-cured mullet roe), plus togarashi (a Japanese chili pepper condiment), and you’ve got a dramatic and delicious opening salvo. Locale Market, 2nd floor, 179 Second Ave. N., St. Petersburg, localegourmetmarket.com

FRESH KITCHEN
Coconut Cauliflower

click to enlarge The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay
FK teases diners with myriad choices of healthy options as you assemble your meal to taste. For my money, this cruciferous veggie with coconut and tinged brown edges is a treat not to be missed. The good news is that they’re expanding beyond their South Tampa location — a Fourth Street North opening in St. Petersburg is expected before the end of summer. 1350 S. Howard Ave., Tampa, eatfreshkitchen.com

GREEN SPRINGS BISTRO
Pesto-Seared Shrimp and Scallop Risotto

Creamy pesto risotto is topped with seared Key West pink shrimp and sea scallops. The shellfish are succulent, and the rice is perfectly creamy with just the right bite. The chiffonade of basil adds a proportional herbal note. Risotto is often a crap shoot; well, here you roll boxcars! 156 Fourth Ave. N., Safety Harbor, greenspringsbistro.com

HAVEN 
Foie Gras and Beef Tongue Terrine

click to enlarge The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay
This magnificent terrine alternates luscious foie gras and delicate beef tongue paired with membrillo (sweet Spanish quince paste) and soft slices of poached pear. Ignore your fear when you read “tongue” and integrate a bit of sweetness from the quince and pear in each intoxicating bite. 2208 W. Morrison Ave., Tampa, haventampa.com

LITTLE TOMMIE'S TIKI
Pulled Pork Sandwich with Apple-Fennel Slaw

click to enlarge The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay
The shredded pork is juicy, while the delicious sauce is just slightly sweet. As the sauce mingles with the crunchy slaw’s dressing, it drips down my chin and through my fingers before I snap out of a pulled-pork stupor most barbecue joints would envy. 5519 Shore Blvd. S., Gulfport, littletommiestiki.com

LOCAL PUBLIC HOUSE AND PROVISIONS
Root Beer Float


Chef and proprietor Curtis Beebe creates a float for connoisseurs with absolutely wonderful craft root beer from Abita, a microbrewer of note. Just as there’s a magical alchemy with leeks and potatoes to create the wonder of vichyssoise, creamy vanilla ice cream with the carbonated sweetness of sassafras can be transporting. 32750 Pennsylvania Ave., San Antonio, localpublichouse.com

LOCALE MARKET
Fettuccine with Sausage Ragù and Truffle Butter

click to enlarge The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay
Locale’s enormous pasta machine looks like it might perform cold fusion, but it instead produces silky, ethereal fresh noodles. The pasta station offers fettuccine with a rotating choice of sauces. If you’re lucky and ask nicely, the friendly staff may be able to make the killer helping that left me weak-kneed. Locale Market, 1st floor, 179 Second Ave. N., St. Petersburg, localegourmetmarket.com

MARKER 39
Nemo Rolls

click to enlarge The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay
This yummy appetizer wraps soft ginger-cured salmon around crisp pickled cucumber sticks. Dots of ginger-wasabi mayo peak with a flash of bright orange tobiko caviar, the flying fish roe so often seen in sushi preparations. It’s a delicious expression of chef-owner Justin Murphy’s artistry. 155 Fifth Ave. N., Safety Harbor, marker39.com

NEW ENGLAND'S ALE HOUSE GRILLE
Apple Brown Betty
In an inspired coup d’kitchen, apple brown betty is served piping hot tableside in a 6-inch cast-iron skillet. The Early American-style warm, sweet cinnamon-spiced apples on a flaky crust are topped with crumbled strudel, caramel sauce, crème Anglaise and a generous scoop of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream with whipped cream. 3419 U.S. 19 Alt, Palm Harbor, ne-alehouse.com

NOBLE CRUST
Sweet Potato Ravioli

This sweet potato ravioli bursts with flavor. The “Southern soul” that marches hand in hand with Noble Crust’s “seasonal Italian” really shines here. The ravioli are perfectly firm and bathed in plenty of nutty brown butter hinting of sage and reinforced with a handful of whole crunchy pecans. It is a wonderful dish. 8300 Fourth St. N., St. Petersburg, noble-crust.com

PELAGIA TRATTORIA
White Chocolate Cheesecake

The textural juxtaposition of light, white chocolate cheesecake laced with with pears lightly poached in Frangelico hazelnut liqueur and accompanied by dark, seductive, syrupy amarena cherries is lip-smackingly good. This subtle flavor combo makes for a stellar conclusion to a meal at this Italian stalwart. 4200 Jim Walter Blvd., Tampa, pelagiatrattoria.com

PIZZERIA GREGARIO
Margherita Pizza with Whole Hog Sausage

click to enlarge Throw some sausage on here and you've got the dreamiest pie. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
Throw some sausage on here and you've got the dreamiest pie.
Each element of chef-owner Greg Seymour’s pizza takes its turn in a contrapuntal polyphony of exciting flavors. Fresh mozzarella fashioned in-house daily and bright notes of acidity from Bianco DiNapoli’s sweet, perfect organic tomatoes leap across your palate. Pungent garden-fresh basil meets the tang of the artisanal 72-hour sourdough leavened, multigrain crust, boldly pushed to the edge of flavorful char. The house-made sausage launches this into the culinary stratosphere. 400 Second St. N., Safety Harbor, pizzeriagregario.com

POLLO GARDEN
Beef Taco

click to enlarge The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay
This incredibly delicious beef taco is a real bargain for just $2. The fresh, soft corn tortilla wraps around a spicy mound of impeccably seasoned ground beef with diced onion and cilantro. It delivers so much more flavor than any fast-food chain. This is the real McCoy, Peru style. 1604 N. 17th St., Tampa, pollogarden.com

RED MESA MERCADO
Red Sangria

click to enlarge The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay
Mercado’s version is simply scrumptious, delivering the sweet and fruity pleasure that I look for in sangria. I could drink a pitcher all by myself, but then I’d be face down on the table and miss all the great food. The friendly staff has sangria in your happy hand almost immediately to sip as you wait for your order. 1100 First Ave. N., St. Petersburg, redmesamercado.com

ROUX
Mumbo Jumbo Seafood Gumbo

click to enlarge The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay
A great gumbo requires patience with the roux. Roux’s roux is perfect. Throw in Gulf Coast brown shrimp, blue crab fingers, redfish, trout, heritage konriko wild pecan rice and Louisiana crawfish, and it’s absolutely as satisfying as a trip to N’awlins. 4205 S. MacDill Ave., Tampa, rouxtampa.com

STATION HOUSE
Tuna Poppa

click to enlarge The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
The Food Issue: 25 unforgettable tastes in Tampa Bay
This dish, a play on Indian papadum, tops a crisp cumin wafer with bracingly fresh scallion salad and plenty of sushi-grade tuna dice with tamarind. It’s dotted with a yogurt-based roasted garlic raita and is simply delicious. It isn’t so easy to divvy up because of the fragile base, but that doesn’t matter much. This is why we have opposable thumbs. 260 First Ave. S., St. Petersburg, stationhousestpete.com

SEA SALT
Kona Kampachi Tartare

Sea Salt’s old-school ring mold tower is a study in balance. Diced avocado, red onion, capers and sweet chili truffle sauce add texture and zing without overwhelming the delectable fish. Each item we taste is a complex mix of textures and flavors, but balance rules the day with every element playing its part to heighten the dish without overwhelming the seafood. 183 Second Ave. N., St. Petersburg, seasaltstpete.com

WILDFLOWER CAFE
Oatmeal-Cranberry-Pecan Cookie

The menu proudly announces an affinity for fresh-baked goods, all made in-house. They’re really good, yet I can’t get the big dried cranberry, oatmeal and pecan cookie sprinkled with sea salt out of my mind. It’s soft, crunchy, sweet and fruity all at once. 1465 S. Fort Harrison Ave. #105, Clearwater, wildflowercafe.net

WOODY'S WATERFRONT
Big Fish Special


This huge piece of beer-battered haddock fillet barely fits on the plate, and is served on Sundays and Mondays all day. The coating is perfectly crisp and crackling, so much so that I can’t bear to eat it with a knife and fork, lest I miss even a tiny shard juxtaposed against the juicy fish. 7308 Sunset Way, St. Pete Beach, woodyswaterfront.com

About The Author

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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