Monday, January 26, 2015

A Weekend of Dining (and other things) in Tampa / St. Petersburg - Edison Food + Drink Lab, Ted Peters Smoked Fish, Fodder & Shine

I was shocked when I learned that Mrs. F had never been to Bern's Steak House, a Tampa institution that goes back to the 1950's, looks like a bordello, serves excellent in-house dry-aged steaks, and has one of the most remarkable wine lists of any restaurant in the world.[1] I resolved the next time we had a free weekend that we'd remedy that oversight. So over the MLK Day long weekend, we reserved a room at the Vinoy in St. Petersburg, a Mediterranean Revival style grand old dame built in the 1920's (of the same era and in much the same style as the Biltmore in Coral Gables) and made plans to hit the road.

As it turns out, Bern's was fully booked the entire weekend. But even though the motivating purpose of the endeavor was defeated, I still had a list of places along Florida's west coast to visit. It's only a few hours away, but I've not spent a lot of time on Florida's Gulf Coast, and in my admittedly limited experience the dining options seemed dominated by chains and tourist traps. But with a little more digging, I found plenty – both old and new – that intrigued.

edison food + drink lab

On the new side, we visited edison food + drink lab, a two-year old restaurant that sprang out of a pop-up called KitchenBar. But it seems that new and old are not so easily separated: the chef/owner behind Edison, Jeannie Pierola, had been the chef at Bern's and then its more casual sibling SideBern's for several years before going out on her own. The restaurants couldn't be more different: where Bern's is all red velvet and filigree, Edison's design motifs run to corrugated metal and unfinished concrete. Bern's is for the most part resolutely, delightfully stodgy; Edison is much more contemporary in spirit.

(You can see all my pictures in this edison food + drink lab flickr set).

Edison's menu consists mostly of small plates, happily not so precious and dainty that they can't be shared. Escargot and cipollini onion crostini were doused with a black garlic bagna cauda. A salad paired fried green tomatoes with preserved lemon goat cheese, together with arugula and shaved fennel.

Oysters were dappled with ink-black charcoal butter and a sweet corn mignonette. I loved these flavors – I only wished the oysters themselves were either warmer or cooler, not in-between. A New England-meets-the-Caribbean chowder, swimming with slices of fat sea scallop, plump clams, shrimp, corn, hearts of palm and serrano chiles, smartly used a coconut bacon dashi as its base, loaded with flavor but avoiding the heaviness of the typical cream-laden version.

Squash blossom "rangoons" were stuffed with lump crab meat and fried, served over a blood orange ginger jam. Avocado leaf seared tuna came with a crash scene of ingredients that actually mostly worked: green mango salad, aji amarillo sorbet, fish sauce caramel, tamarind peanut crunch. For dessert, the components of rocky road ice cream, and then some – dark chocolate cremeux, marcona almond nougat crumbles, frozen marshmallows, torched meringue, vanilla ice cream and lashings of chocolate sauce – were taken apart only to happily be put back together again.

(continued ...)

Cocktails were a highlight too, like their take on a Boulevardier, combining Medley Brothers 101-proof bourbon, Capelletti Vino Apertivo Americano Rosso, and Violet Frères Byrrh Grand Quinquina playing the role of Campari; the "Alice's Rabbit," which improbably combined High West Son of Bourye Whiskey, Ancho Reyes Ancho Chile Licor, Amaro Averna, Guatemlan Hunapu coffee, and Angostura bitters, was even better. Prices mostly between $9 and $12, with a few outliers, were a welcome change from hometown Miami's typical $14 and up rates.

A couple dishes may have had perhaps one too many ingredients, and there were entirely too many micro onion sprouts (they garnished literally half the dishes we ordered), but for the most part this was really clever, fun food, with some unexpected combinations and sound execution.

edison food + drink lab
912 W. Kennedy Boulevard, Tampa, Florida

Edison: Food+Drink Lab on Urbanspoon

Ted Peters Smoked Fish

For lunch the following day, we went old school all the way. Ted Peters Smoked Fish opened in 1951 and doesn't seem to have changed an awful lot since. Back then, they smoked mullet over red oak and served it with German potato salad. These days – they do the same exact thing.

(You can see all my pictures in this Ted Peters Smoked Fish flickr set).

The picture does not quite convey the size of this gorgeous whole split fish,[2] the skin and exposed flesh burnished golden-brown from the smoke, which perfumes but doesn't overwhelm. This, for me, is a happy meal: sitting on a picnic bench, picking sweet, smoky meat away from a fish carcass until all that's left is a pile of bones and a shell of shiny skin. If  a whole fish is too fiddly for you, the smoked fish spread is a generous serving for only $7.99 and is served with about a sleeve's worth of Saltines – but you may still want to get a side of that potato salad, liberally punctuated with bits of bacon. And if mullet's not your thing, you can also get smoked mackerel, mahi mahi or salmon.

But if you want to do it right, you really ought to go with the mullet – and if you can, arrive in style like the guy who pulled up in this vintage GTO as we were heading out.

Ted Peters Smoked Fish
1350 Pasadena Avenue South, St. Petersburg, Florida

Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish on Urbanspoon

Fodder & Shine

Our final dinner of this brief trip bridged old and new. Fodder & Shine opened just last month, but the menu looks back more than a century. The chef, Greg Baker (who also runs The Refinery, a celebrated Tampa restaurant opened in 2011), drew inspiration for his new venue from the "cracker cuisine" of Florida's early pioneers.

(You can see all my pictures in this Fodder & Shine flickr set).

So the menu features some Southern staples, like crackling cornbread cooked in a cast iron skillet, topped with a generous dollop of butter and a drizzle of local honey. It was not quite as good as the legendary cornbread Sean Brock serves at Husk, but it wasn't all that far off either. The menu also plays on local products and traditions, including grilled frog legs and smoked mullet roe or spread, served with hardtack and pickled vegetables (though we'd had our share of mullet earlier).

Baker also offers up a history lesson in a bowl: Minorcan clam chowder, a dish that traces its lineage to former indentured servants brought to Florida from the Isle of Minorca (off the coast of Spain) in the late 18th century to work indigo plantations.[3] It came so loaded with plump clams, potatoes, tomatoes and nuggets of salt pork that you could barely see any liquid, but that broth carried a riveting dose of heat – presumably from the traditional datil peppers planted here by the Minorcans hundreds of years ago.

A place with a specials menu that lists the day's selection of gizzards and livers is a place after my heart. Fried in a crackly coating and served with pepper jelly and a tomato-buttermilk boiled dressing for dipping, the bouncy gizzards (chicken and duck) won't make converts of anyone who's not already a fan, but the creamy livers (chicken and rabbit) very well might.

Though Baker clearly brings a contemporary chef's training and sensibilities to his cooking, these are not modern "takes" on old dishes. Rather, they hew pretty faithfully to the original versions, and are refreshingly unfussy. His pilau combines native rice,[4] Minorcan sausage and chicken livers to produce something akin to a Creole dirty rice, topped with plump shrimp and sliced hard boiled egg. This would have been even better with some head-on shrimp that had spent a little less time on the heat, but the rice still made it the kind of dish you keep compulsively dipping your fork into.

An assortment of other hearty dishes – grilled smothered quail, rabbit and cornmeal dumplings, shrimp gravy over rice, cornmeal crusted, chicken fat fried chicken – is coupled with an intriguing daily selection of beef cuts sourced from ranchers who belong to the Florida Cracker Cattle Association, dedicated to preserving a breed first brought to Florida by Spaniards in the 1500's.[5] There are few places I can think of, other than the aforementioned Husk, that offer this kind of edible history lesson.

But maybe the best of the things we ate at Fodder & Shine were the vegetables, available either as side dishes, or a choice of four to make a meal. Lima beans, cooked down into a thick stew with onions and old sour,[6] had a depth of flavor that belied their homely appearance. Beets roasted with cane syrup highlighted the root's natural sugars without being cloying. Greens braised with bacon were tender, smoky, salty and sweet. And possibly my favorite were the turnips and cabbage braised in butter, giving the humble vegetables a texture like rich velvet. From early reviews, the restaurant is getting a bit of grief for its prices, but the $15 we spent on this vegetable plate may be one of the best dining investments I will make all year.[7]

Drinks were another strong suit (as they ought to be at a place with 'shine in its name), and likewise stuck mostly with classics. The Martinez is something of a predecessor to the Martini, and this one – with Tanqueray Old Tom Gin, sweet vermouth, Luxardo Maraschino and Angostura bitters – found exactly the right balance. The Countess Negroni was a variation on one of Mrs. F's favorite themes, with St. Germaine subbing for the Campari and a lighter Carpano Bianco instead of the traditional sweet red vermouth.

The restaurant isn't all that much to look at right now: it's in a former auto body shop, and aside from gutting it and cleaning up the oil stains, it doesn't seem like they've done much other than put in a big kitchen, a bunch of tables, a workmanlike bar, some video games[8] and pool tables, and paste some 80's era punk rock band flyers on the walls. But it's got its own homey feel, in the same way as the rough and tumble venues where I used to go see those shows. Seeing a bartender wearing a Spacemen 3 t-shirt and hearing some Meat Puppets on the stereo brings me back to those days. But none of those dives had food like this.

Fodder & Shine
5910 N. Florida Avenue, Tampa, Florida

Fodder & Shine on Urbanspoon

Some non-food related side notes:

On the way across the state from Miami, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary just outside of Naples is a worthwhile detour: a 13,000 acre Audubon nature preserve with a 2-mile boardwalk winding through the mangrove swamp. In just an hour-long walk we saw huge cypress trees, wild lilies, orchids, a flock of ibis, herons, turtles, and a big, smiling alligator (more pictures here). There's also some decent BBQ to be had as you emerge from the park from Herb's Bar-B-Q, which sets up shop at nearby Fogg's Nursery on Saturdays (OK, still food-related).

The Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg pales in comparison to the one the artist created for himself in his hometown of Figueres, Spain, but if you're a fan of the artist it is definitely worth a visit. I found a collection of early works by Dalí from the 1920's to be particularly interesting. Not so much that the paintings themselves were exceptional; to the contrary, they seemed incredibly derivative, aping the styles of the Impressionists, then Picasso, then Miro. But then – seemingly out of nowhere, at least to my untrained eyes – Dalí found his own artistic voice. Maybe his most famous work – The Persistence of Memory – was created in 1931, in a unique and distinctive style that he explored and expanded for the rest of his career.

There are likely only a very few artists who start their careers with a fully formed and realized vision of their style, and the skills to execute it. I suspect the pattern I saw in Dali's work is a common one in creative endeavors. It's something I've been thinking about in the cooking context recently (for reasons I may expand on later) in connection with the perennial debate over the line between being inspired by someone else's dish and copying it.

On the way back, we made a detour to Anna Maria Island, a dot in the water just outside Bradenton. My primary mission was to visit Anna Maria Fish Company, the producers of Cortez bottarga, but the address on their website was a residence and I didn't feel it appropriate to knock. A visit to Ginny and Jane E's offered a bit of consolation: the cinnamon rolls are as big as your head and the key lime pie is pleasantly tart and not cloyingly sweet.

As usual, there were a lot more places I was interested in than those we actually visited. To see all the places in Tampa / St. Pete and along the way that I bookmarked, visit this FL West Coast Google Map:

[1] I wrote about Bern's a long time ago.

[2] Look at the silverware for a point of comparison.

[3] Like many stories that take place in this state, the tale of the Minorcans in Florida involves deception, suffering, and mosquitos.

[4] Wild rice does indeed grow in Florida. Rice also has been cultivated in Florida since the 18th century. Judging by the grains, I'm assuming this was some cultivated variety. Fodder & Shine's menu also includes sofkee, which it describes as a native porridge of fermented rice, butter and cream, though a little googling reveals a Seminole recipe which may not be quite as rich.

[5] For further reading: "What are Cracker Cattle?" on the Florida Cracker Cattle Association website.

[6] An old-time Conch concoction of key lime juice fermented with salt and, often, chile peppers.

[7] Appetizers generally run $8-12 and mains hover around $20. There are some odd exceptions – the rabbit and dumplings at $24 is the priciest thing on the menu other than the steaks – but anyone complaining about these prices should come to South Beach for some perspective.

[8] More restaurants should have Galaga and Ms. PacMan consoles.

1 comment:

  1. I have benefited so much from your blog and your Miami posts on CH that I am sorry that I couldn't have returned the favor. I think you would have really liked Rooster and the Till. I like Edison and Fodder and Shine, but Rooster and the Till is consistently better. There are many other things that you missed, so come back!