4.5 out of 5 stars
2909 W. Bay to Bay no. 100, Tampa
Appetizers $5-$21; entrees: $15-$48; dessert: $10-$13; beer/wine/cocktails: $6-$19
I missed Chef Jeannie Pierola’s halcyon days at SideBerns, but her edison: food + drink lab is well up in my Top 50. However, she’s outdone herself with Counter Culture celebrating “interactive foodie culture” in a “bold and beautiful modern” setting.
The tables at each end of the room must bow in obeisance to Chef Pierola’s “modern homage to classic counter dining and its barstool kinship.” There are over two dozen lux black leather stools to contrast with the sleek bright white counters. One side surrounds the kitchen, the other an open air mixologist bar with views of Hillsborough Bay. There’s also, weather permitting, Florida patio seating for casual fine dining.
The tuna tartare appetizer is simply perfection. A thin yellowfin tuna sliver is wrapped around minced toro tartare to create a disc. Toro (“to melt”) is the fatty part of the fish from the tuna’s belly and melt it does—filling your palate with unalloyed joy. The dark rimmed plate has a few drizzles of subtle truffle soy and the quartet of inch high discs in a tight line. It’s as though Eric Carle’s “Very Hungry Caterpillar” is eating its way out from under garnishes of watercress leaves, pickled radish, a few wasabi dots, and a forest of tiny crisp julienned potato sticks. We split the dish of four; I could just order double, eat all eight and call it a night.
But then I would miss the scrumptious wood-roasted porchetta, all rolled up full of garlic and herbs, sitting on a fennel purée laced with pastis. The sweet tart yuzu marmalade cuts through the fat to elevate the dish while the charred ciabatta adds texture and an extra kick from the wood fire that flickers behind the counter.
Just when I think I’m happy as can be, a dazzling plate of fat al dente pappardelle noodles swathed in foie gras butter with luscious slivers of earthy rabbit is placed before me. It’s dotted with herbs and grated cheese and thin circles of crisp, pale orange sunchoke. And, the coup de grâce, fragrant rounds of shaved black truffle; for me, it might as well be crack. I am a truffle addict.
Not to be outdone, wood-roasted Colorado rack of lamb serves two thick rosy, double-rib chops glistening under a light dusting of fennel pollen. They sit on some of the aforementioned yuzu marmalade with a delectable charred togarashi crust next to a pile of sliced crispy fennel and delicate fronds. The rest of the plate overflows with a pile of enough tiny crisp onion rings to feed the entire basement family in “Parasite.”
The wood grill itself is a wonder. It resembles a steampunk device with multiple one-handed crank wheels to operate the chain and gear system to raise or lower the fire grate above the dancing flames. The wood-grilled menu has something for everyone, from tofu to trout; chateaubriand to jerked pork collar. It imparts arresting flavors, which is why live fire has long been a staple in Spain and Argentina.
When it’s time for sweets, the wow factors continue. A jar of black bottom butterscotch budino is impossibly lush and well-matched to house-made caramel corn which surrounds a smooth popcorn ice cream topped with a salty caramel crisp.
Even better is the individual pear brown butter cake surrounded by dots of pear butter. It snuggles up to adjacent scoops of roasted almond sherbet and pear sorbet which both burst with flavor. And the final touch is a slice of dried pear which sits atop the cold confections like a conquering hero.
The last two months since I published my Top 50 list have seen four new Tampa restaurants elbowing their way toward the top ten, with Chef Pierola reminding diners why—following last weeks’ baseball theme—that she’s in the hunt for M.V.P.
CL Food Critic Jon Palmer Claridge is the Bay area’s longest-running food critic and dines anonymously when reviewing. See his list of Tampa Bay’s 50 best restaurants of 2019, check out the explanation of his rating system and read his new book, 'Drink.More.Wine!'
Want to know everything going on with Tampa Bay's food and drink scene? Sign up for our Bites newsletter.