A new day has dawned on Tampa Bay's culinary landscape. The most exciting and innovative restaurant since Edison Food + Drink Lab has arrived in the form of the Florida-native-inspired (and I mean historical natives, not us contemporaries who were born here...there are still plenty of venues frying up grouper sandwiches in homage to us) Richard Gonzmart dream project, Ulele. My dining experience at said establishment this evening left me virtually reeling in sensory overload.
The building itself is visually stunning, both inside and out, and would be equally impressive in cities far larger than Tampa. As the newest addition to the Bay area's "see and be scene", our party found out too late that a weekend reservation at Ulele is the hottest ticket in town and one that can't even be bought with God's money right now. However, there's more than one way to skin a cat...each more fun than the last, according to my feline-averse spousal unit. Relax...he's only kidding (I pray). After strategizing with our favorite dining partners, JR of the SOG City Oracle and his lovely bride, the BOBP, we decided to show up at an hour that would embarrass even the most hardcore early bird diners and press our noses forlornly against the locked doors in the hope that pity would be bestowed upon us. As it turned out, the oyster bar was already open when we arrived at 4:30. Dinner doesn't begin until 5:00, but we put our names on the wait list and settled in at the gorgeous concrete mollusk counter inlaid with tiny arrowheads and seashells for some apps and cocktails.
I could've taken pics of the interior all day long, as something shiny caught my eye and pivoted my head at every turn, but I had some serious eating to do which demanded my full attention. I did manage to snap a couple between bites, however.
While at the bar, we sampled a sexy Lobster Claw Cocktail presented in a massive, gleaming martini glass. Two gargantuan, scarlet claws and a respectable mound of sweet crustacean morsels were nestled atop a bright pool of zesty cocktail sauce studded with fresh corn and avocado. Priced at a nominal $12, an investment in this starter could yield substantial date night dividends. As I always say, "Candy is dandy but lobster is quicker".
Alligator Hush Puppies were ridiculously good. Comprised of alligator, country ham, duck bacon and chopped jalapenos, these little wads of golden-fried dough heaven were milder than expected and cooked to perfection. They were quickly gobbled up by all...even the 'gator-ambivalent BOBP.
At that point, we were called to our table (at about 5:15)...so the wait was not bad at all. The boyz couldn't resist the lure of Pulpo Carpaccio (raw, shaved octopus with a spicy piri piri sauce, red and green chiles, and a bed of seaweed salad). The gurlz, both of whom generally draw the line at "raw", abstained. I'm not sure JR and UD didn't snort it through a straw, however. I was afraid of turning into a pillar of salt so I didn't look.
As one who spent her formative years up until she was around 30 in Tennessee, I like to think I'm an expert on corn muffins. I even won a 4-H blue ribbon for my own corn muffins in the 4th grade. I'm sorry to say that all of the corn muffins of my past were just golden idols. The One True Corn Muffin is Ulele's Jalapeno Corn Beer Quick Bread. Warm, crusty, moist, sweet and spicy, they are truly manna from heaven...especially when slathered with soft, creamy butter. Crazygod! I mean, Crazygood!
On to the entrees. Except for a small selection of aged steaks, most hover in the $25 price range. Sharing an appetizer, ordering two entrees and splitting a dessert would be more than enough food for most couples. All dinners include a veggie and choice of starch, and the portions are mammoth. Wines by the glass are generously poured and there are a plethora of nice choices for under ten bucks.
My Deconstructed Seafood Pot Pie was a luxurious crock of divine, creamy wine sauce chock-full of shrimp, scallops, grouper, smoked oysters and octopus with accents of finely diced veggies. The seafood was the star in this dish and it was largely unmitigated. Flaky, puff pastry pillows flanked the "pie" so the carb factor could be added to suit my individual taste (all of them, please!). This is not the Banquet Pot Pie you grew up with. The sides of nutty wild rice and haricots verts were quite pleasing, as well...not that I had a lot of room for them.
The guys, both clearly in the mood to strip a bone of its flesh, went into caveman mode and ordered the beast that was the 1-1/2 lb. Crackling Pork Shank with Firecracker Apple Raisin Chutney. In manly fashion, the rice was eschewed by the Y-chromes and decadent white cheddar mashed potatoes were selected instead. The only sound I heard outside of grunting for quite awhile was UD's comment that the meat had the both the taste and tender consistency of pork belly.
The self-proclaimed "seafood-hating" BOBP once again went rogue and chose the Florida Pompano (pan-seared pompano with sun-dried tomato shallot cream and fried carrot ribbons). The fish was sweet, moist and flaked nicely at the slightest pressure of the fork. Fried carrot ribbons could easily become a new food addiction....one which I might even be able to convince myself is "healthy" if I can work my way just a tiny bit further into my perpetual state of denial.
Do you know that saying about idle hands and the devil? I have now identified how Satan is leveraging those hands. They're churning this diabolical concoction - Candied Duck Bacon Maple Fried Ice Cream with cinnamon corn flake candied duck bacon crust, Knob Creek crème anglaise, caramel and sweet potato waffle crisp. Sweet, salty, creamy and crunchy, you must experience it personally to wrap your head around its unique melange of flavors and textures. C'mon, hop on into the handbasket with me...you know you want to.
We all adored the silky Guava Pie with Shortbread Cookie Crust...the crust was sublime and the fluffy filling subtle and light. It was the angelic foil to that "bad boy" ice cream.
We received superb service throughout the course of the evening from staff members at all levels. Jorge was our crux from which all others radiated and he was a consummate professional in all respects. The total bill for the dining room portion of our epicurean adventure was right at $100 per couple, including two glasses of wine or beer apiece. I'm still shaking my head in sheer wonderment.
Final word: I love every aspect of Ulele, right down to the pleasing way her name trips off my tongue. Cannot wait to return!
My blog entries contain the unmitigated, and sometimes unforgiving, dining truths and perceptions I experience as an ordinary restaurant patron. Every meal I post about has been fully paid for by one of the participating members of my personal dining party. I do not engage in the gratis blogger freebie dining events I'm constantly invited to attend and never will. If I ooze font-like love for a restaurant in my blog, it's because they totally earned it…not because they gave me free food or knew I was going to share the experience on the internet.