Big City Tavern is a gorgeous place, one giant room the size of a cathedral nave surrounded by sweeping walls of ancient brick. Ancient for Tampa standards, that is. It serves as a reminder of why I keep coming back to Ybor. In two decades, this little neighborhood went from shabby to chic to frat party to, well, the jury's still out.
Through it all, Ybor City still manages to convey a derelict sense of history that lives on even in a glorified mall like Centro Ybor.
So we're sitting in a cozy clamshell booth, overlooking Big City's giant elegant bar, grand fixtures reflecting golden light off of a magnificent pressed metal ceiling, the final hues of the summer day seeping through the majestic floor-to-ceiling windows lining the two exterior walls. And we're watching drag racing.
It says something about a fancy place like Big City that it feels the need to accent its serene, posh atmosphere with a TV. You think that's why people are stopping by? "I was going to go down to my neighborhood bar, but they don't have a TV, so I thought I'd come to Ybor, drink a $12 single malt, and catch up on my favorite tricked-out nitro funny cars. Oh, and give me a bucket of bouillabaisse while you're at it."
Now that's a disappointing contrast — chic supper club atmosphere worthy of neo-Rat Pack Swingers and the warm glow of ESPN2. Turns out that's par for the course here. Big City Tavern's food runs the same rollercoaster of tasty highs and serious lows.
Our server commends us for almost everything we order, leading us gently away from dishes she doesn't think measure up. She's a high point at Big City, the kind of hip server who gauges her customers to determine exactly how familiar she should be, matched with high-end service skills and extensive menu knowledge.
Appetizers stick largely to the rarefied levels I hope for. Instead of the typically heavy sauce of butter and garlic, Big City's snails ($8.95) recline in a brothy bath that's blasted with enough lemon to counter the subtle buttery undertones. Garlic does appear, but only in soft and nutty whole cloves cooked in the sauce, shedding just enough flavor to add a mild extra layer to the tender gastropods.
In Big City's veggie napoleon ($7.95), slices of portobello, zucchini and red pepper are given just enough time on a hot grill for the marks, the flavor and a little tenderness. Generous hunks of tart goat cheese are layered between the vegetables, along with a hearty splash of sweet balsamic vinegar.
Crab cakes ($9.95) are laced with rich mustard, and Portuguese fish stew ($5.95) — a special — assaults our senses with spicy red pepper, sweet tomato and heady cumin. The best thing I've eaten all week.
With these four plates on the table, it's easy to take a pass on the watery spinach salad dotted with bland duck confit ($8.95), or beef spring rolls that are less interesting than mediocre take-out from my local Vietnamese place. In all, though, it's a damn solid first course.
Then I take a bite of my newly arrived seafood risotto ($22.95) entree. Um, something's missing. I'm not speaking metaphorically, there's actually got to be something missing from this risotto. Besides the bitter taste of raw garlic, there's nothing here. Just a pile of creamy, undercooked rice that the chef forgot to season with salt, or cheese, or herbs or something. The wonderful mussels, overcooked shrimp and tiny scallops stacked on top can't save it.
The rest of the entrees aren't nearly as bad, but there are problems: overcooked pork chops ($18.95) paired with a demi-glace that manages to taste like burnt mushrooms and raw red wine; ideally cooked sea bass ($26) that's just a bit past its prime, with a giant cylinder of plain jasmine rice dominating the center of an otherwise high-class entree.
Still, that fish comes with a silky sweet sauce of carrot, ginger and tender baby bok choy, and the pork chops are leaning against an exceptional potato cake the size of a hockey puck. The cake is crisp and creamy and chunky all at the same time, with bits of soft apple and fragrant sage throughout. It's almost worth the tough pork just to get it.
Big City's filet ($29) is the best entree on the table, with the cool red center just the way it was ordered, and a dollop of intensely creamy sweet potatoes on the side. While I chew, my attention keeps wandering back to the drag racing. Who knew that this stuff was even televised, let alone for three hours straight?
We get a platter of desserts ($16) to finish up and experience the same ups and downs we've found all evening. A slice of ethereal peanut butter pie that melts in our mouths is next to a piece of re-designed "tiramisu" overwhelmed by raw liquor. Adequate crème brulee is next to grainy ice cream the consistency of ice milk. We get tired trying to remember which three of the six desserts are actually worth eating, so we give up.
The beef, the potato cake and the appetizers show that there are some skills in Big City's kitchen, but they aren't coming together to create the unified experience that you should expect out of a meal that can range from $200 to $300 for four people. Most of these problems are simple to correct — a little less time on the grill here, dry the lettuce there, a handful of seasoning for the risotto — and our meal would have been worth every penny.
A lot of simple little problems, however, add up to one big problem.
Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.