It’s always interesting to see the transformation of a neighborhood. Hyde Park has been a desirable residential Tampa address since the late 19th century. The 1980s saw the rise of Hyde Park Village around the iconic circle fountain. And now, in the 21st century, development has come to North Hyde Park or “NoHo.” Where there once was a lumberyard at W Fig Street and N Rome Avenue, is now Havana Square’s inspiring industrial style apartments leaving “the bland behind.” Just to the east is the urban chic of NoHo Flats with a salt water pool, private cabanas and a dog park.
1700 W. Fig St., Tampa
Snacks, appetizers $5 - $18; entrées $19 - $27; desserts $4 - $12; beer, wine/cocktails $3 - $14
It’s here, on the southwest corner with free ginormous designated parking, that Nate Siegel and Merrin Jenkins built Willa’s, a welcoming, family-friendly gathering place for the neighborhood named for Jenkins great-great-grandmother. Chef Gabriel Lopez’s menu is an eclectic mix built around comforting free-range rotisserie chicken with salsa verde, steak frites, and a unique potato chip omelette with herby mascarpone. It’s also got plenty of veggie/vegan options.
Head bartenders Mercedes Mestizo and Amber Carregal have curated a menu of craft cocktails and selective wine choices for every palate. Plus they serve their own 3-day cold brew tonic and ginger beer on tap. I can’t resist trying the triple-filtered ginger beer, which turns out to be terrific. It’s the anchor of Willa’s version of a Moscow mule called “Gingers Rule.” I skip the spirits to focus on the mixer. The glass is milky, instead of clear like a commercial product. The fresh ginger dominates with lemon oil and lime acid as part of the mix. It’s assertive and ambrosial.
The food menu offers a series of mix-and-match snacks (olives, pickles, almonds, chips, etc.); try them all if you’ve got a crowd. We begin with two well-conceived and executed starters. The whipped ricotta on sourdough toast is elevated by a magical alchemy of Florida honey plus roasted hazelnuts; the result is a taste treat where the whole transcends the sum of its parts.
Another lovely French-inflected starter is hand-chopped beef sirloin tartare tossed with minced shallots in Dijonaise and pressed neatly into an oval mold. It’s garnished with micro green leaves and a fan of diminutive cornichons sliced lengthwise. A conga line of homemade deep, crisp golden potato chips coated with delicious “noochy” (vegan yeast) circles the beef just begging to be combined.
The filet of seared New Zealand Ōra King salmon lives up to its comparison to Japanese wagyu beef. The high fat content gives it a silky smooth mouthfeel under a miso glaze. It’s plated with roasted purple and orange carrots, snap peas, and edamame that retain al dente crunch. The veggies are dotted with black and white sesame seeds and distinctive heat, which might challenge tender palates. On our visit, they also displayed a heavy hand on the salt.
The porchetta-spiced, panko-crusted pork schnitzel is pounded thin and fried to a beautiful golden brown. With a spritz of fresh lemon and a dip in the cup of tangy, whole grain mustard sauce, it transports you to Vienna. And the lightly dressed pile of large mixed greens is the perfect tart accompaniment.
Pastry chef Lyndsey Sanford’s carrot cake is delightful. The cake is moist with balanced spices. The traditional cream cheese frosting has been displaced by white chocolate buttercream which is too cold to deliver the creamy texture that lurks within. This is a conundrum for a restaurant kitchen which can’t hold a cake at room temperature. My suggestion is to order this cake with your appetizer to allow the buttercream time to warm to decadent lushness. An extra touch is a thin topping of caramel with an outer ring of matching mini malt balls for added crunch. Other temptations are a cobbler, brownie, cookie, pot de créme or a root beer float with orange cream (yum!).
The staff is friendly and attentive and the attractive open space sports curved blond rattan cane chairs. They surround painted coral-colored molded wrought iron bases that harken back to an earlier time. But the overall impression is crisp, clean-lines, modern and welcoming—with huge contemporary abstract paintings flanking an equally oversized mirror. There's also a section with upholstered booths and a handsome, multi-tiered backlit bar showcasing an impressive array of spirits. The century-old 4,700 square foot space also includes the separate Willa’s Provisions, a 12-seat cafe with baked goods, King State coffee plus grab-and-go items to nosh. It’s a great shortcut to your car after the happiest of meals.
UPDATED 10/07/21 2:45 p.m. Updated Willa's staff.
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