Tackling Tampa’s Taste Temptations

A Culinary Tour Yields Old Treasures and New Discoveries

When people head for New York or San Francisco, they know they’re heading for a great restaurant town and they plan accordingly. They may even make some reservations in advance, just in case that trendy new restaurant on everyone’s lips is fully committed. They return home with full tummies and tales to tell of memorable meals. Yet when these same people head for many other major American cities, the thought of fine dining never crosses their minds; they make do with room service and the same “safe” chain choices they make at home.

Too bad, because great cooking is no longer restricted to a few high-priced ghettos in our largest cities. Maybe so many cooks have been drawn to the glamour of haute cuisine that rising competition has encouraged some to find less familiar places in which to build their reputations. Perhaps this new breed of chefs is just plain cocky, believing that they’re so good that food enthusiasts will seek them out no matter where they locate. Or maybe it’s just that wealth and sophistication are spreading across the land in a more democratic fashion, creating a demand for fine food in unexpected places.

I can’t pretend to know the reason for the trend but I know it exists, and a recent trip I took to Tampa, Florida, proves the point. There, in the capable hands of some knowledgeable Tampa foodies, I was led on a culinary tour that quickly relegated some of my favorite Manhattan dining rooms to also-ran status. And since I alternate between a low-fat diet and a Yo! Fat!! diet, I was ready to tackle the tasty temptations Tampa lay before me.

Bern’s Steak House

If you ask a Tampan for the best restaurant in town, you’re likely to be directed to Bern’s Steak House. When you arrive you may think someone’s played a joke on you.

Bern's Steak House Cameo RoomThe all-white building looks a bit like a warehouse at first glance. Inside, the décor of the crepuscular two-story, red-lit entrance hall is part baronial, part bordello. Beyond is a rabbit’s warren of dining rooms, each with its own distinct and occasionally overwrought theme. There are rooms dedicated to the great wine regions of Europe and there are rooms named for the bronze statues or marble cameo busts that line their walls. Here and there hang large paintings of artfully draped female figures of the sort that might have hung over the bar of a gay nineties men’s club.


But don’t be too quick to dismiss Bern’s as one of those places where a thick layer of kitsch attempts to justify high prices while obscuring the failings of the kitchen. Behind the rococo décor (which is actually quite fun once you “get” it), is a first-class traditional steak house with a wine cellar that is, itself, worth a journey to Tampa.

Bern’s had humble beginnings as a sandwich shop in 1956, but its steady rise to the level of culinary icon was always informed by a deep commitment to quality on the part of its owner, Bern Laxer, a transplanted New York ad man. To cite just one example, waiters undergo a lengthy period of training and apprenticeship before being unleashed on the paying public. The result is a level of professionalism seldom encountered in a position that is usually looked on as a waystation for those hoping for that “big break” elsewhere. Some of Bern’s waiters have been there for decades.

The same attention to detail can be found in the kitchen. Bern’s maintains its own organic farm, where it grows its own herbs and many of its vegetables. Its meat is aged on the premises. There are large salt water tanks to ensure the seafood is the freshest available. And then there is the wine cellar.

Bern’s claims to have the largest wine list of any restaurant in the world, a claim backed up by a cellar containing some 90,000 bottles at a steady 50 degrees and 75 percent humidity. And that’s only about 20 percent of Bern’s collection; the remainder is stored in nearby warehouses. Bern’s is especially proud of its collection of Madeira, with one bottle dating to 1792. There’s even a $10,000 bottle of 1851 Gruaud Larose on hand. Internet billionaires take note.

Although there are other things on the menu (including those fish in the salt water tanks), I wouldn’t venture past the steaks until at least my fourth visit. The several pages of the menu devoted to the meats is a sort of mini-course in the care and preparation of prime cuts and can be confusing to those who have followed the trend away from red meat. But fear not. A knowledgeable waiter will help guide you to the correct cut, thickness, and preparation. And what better way to wash down a great chateaubriand than with one of the great reds beckoning to you from the wine list. If you’ve been itching for an excuse to drop $100 on a bottle of wine, you won’t do much better than a visit to Bern’s. Of course, more modest selections are available and a sommelier is on call to assist folks like me who have difficulty differentiating between a “saucy lilt of oak” and “subtle tannic overtones.”

The only problem with Bern’s being a traditional steak house is that the accompaniments are also traditional and therefore rather boring. Aside from the veggies, which were perfect, I found the French onion soup, salad, and baked potato nothing to write home about.

Dessert, on the other hand, is worth a lengthy missive to the ancestral manse. It is served upstairs in a private booth made from aged redwood wine casks and decorated with blow ups from old English cookery books. There are several score of these booths, more like tiny rooms actually, ranging in size from intimate two-seaters to roomy affairs capable of holding a good sized dinner party. Music is piped in and an intercom system even allows you to place a request with the pianist, who holds forth from the nearby piano lounge.

The dessert menu is accompanied by a list of after-dinner liqueurs and wines almost as long as the wine list presented at dinner. But the desserts hold pride of place here. I was served a sort of symphony of pear. From a pool of pear syrup garnished with poached pear slices rose a lavender pyramid of pear ice cream topped with a flower formed from dried pear petals. Fabulous. And I don’t much like pears.
The Bern’s Steak House legacy has been passed to Bern’s son, David, a personable young man who promises to uphold the tradition of excellence and expansion into the next century.

Columbia Restaurant

Columbia CourtyardAnother Tampa tradition is Columbia, a Spanish restaurant in the Ybor City district, Tampa’s “Latin Quarter.” Although it is a good bit older than Bern’s (it opened in 1905), it is similar in that it is the very personal creation of a family restaurant dynasty. Founded by Casimiro Hernandez as a corner Cuban café catering to the cigar makers and moguls who built Ybor City, the place quickly expanded. Under the guidance of Casimiro’s son-in-law, Cesar Gonzmart, a flamboyant violinist, the restaurant added nightly entertainment. Today it occupies a whole city block and, like Bern’s, boasts a number of separate dining areas, many of them laden with art and each with its own peculiar charm. My favorites are the original corner establishment (with the original bar and even a few of the original chairs) and, for lunch, the airy two-story skylit courtyard with the Spanish tile walls.

The menu blends Spanish and Cuban specialties with the taste scales tilted toward the Spanish. Many of the dishes I tasted here were the best of their kind I have had since my expatriate youth in Madrid. The Shrimp al Ajillo are prepared in the traditional Spanish manner — plump shrimp and plenty of chopped garlic sauteed briskly in extra virgin olive oil spiked with dried red pepper. The Calamares Fritos (fried squid) are airy and tender, served with a delightful mayonnaise sauce. Also worth a taste is the Cuban Caviar, with a spicy puree of black beans standing in quite nicely for the beluga.

PaellaI was fortunate enough to visit with a group because the large paella platter is a masterpiece of the chef’s art. Packed with shrimp, chicken, mussels, and clams, highlighted with bright red pimentos and plump green peas, and with stone crab claws pointed skyward adding a unique Florida touch, it is a dish worth photographing as well as eating.

The desserts are also worth sampling. The flan is an especially creamy example of the Spanish classic and the key lime pie does a nice job of blending the tart and the sweet. Six nights a week, the Oscar Trevino Dance Company performs traditional flamenco dances with a troupe of local dancers. There is a $6 cover charge.

I was so taken by the Columbia that I came back by myself just to see if their Caldo Gallego – a rich northern Spanish soup of beans and pork sausage – was as good as they claimed. It was.

Sidebern’s

Siderbern's InteriorLest I give the impression that fine dining in Tampa is restricted to traditional standbys, allow me to introduce Sidebern’s, one of a number of restaurants introducing “new American” cuisine of an exceptionally high order to the Tampa Bay region.

As the name suggests, this is an offshoot of Bern’s Steak House. Located just a block or so away from its parent, Sidebern’s started as an expansion of Bern’s dessert room. Today it is an elegant and trendy restaurant that is in many ways the polar opposite of Bern’s.

The hip-cheeky motto of the place is “One world under food,” a reference to its “one world” cuisine, and even the prices on the menu end in one. If this all sounds too cute for words, the food will make you take Sidebern’s seriously. It is first rate.

One world cuisine, it turns out, means choosing often offbeat ingredients from a variety of culinary traditions, juxtaposing them in intriguing ways, and applying cooking techniques that may or may not match the culinary traditions with which the ingredients are associated. So “hoisin pork lumpia with cilantro peanut dipping” might share the bill with “turkey nam sahd in cabbage leaves” in a platter called “Global Dim Sum.” And the bread basket might contain Caribbean-spiced platanos bread, redolent of coriander cumin and cayenne, alongside a sesame-studded flatbread.

Much of the food here has an air of inspired improvisation. (In fact, the Global Dim Sum idea was born when the chef discovered a roomful of dim sum steamers that owner Bern Laxer had bought on impulse during an Asian trip.) So a Down East staple like lobster finds a comfy home in a Chinese-style beggar’s purse dumpling offset with a red coconut curry sauce. Or a seafood cliché like swordfish comes gussied up in a red chile orange sauce, set off with roasted poblano grits and calabacita succotash. The parade of little known ingredients like honsemegi mushrooms, jade potato puree, and “heirloom” tomatoes can get a bit dizzying and most dishes will have an ingredient or a garnish you’ve never heard of.

As in any self-respecting “fusion” or “new cuisine” restaurant, the presentations are breathtaking. Often your first impulse is to reach, not for the fork, but for your camera. Fortunately, at Sidebern’s the food tastes as good as it looks, maybe better. Alas, that’s something that can’t be said of many trendy restaurants that whip up odd combinations of mismatched raw materials into towering temples of tortured tastes.

The creative genius behind all this (and I don’t think genius is too strong a word) is Jeannie Pierola, a compact bundle of energy of Cuban-Spanish heritage. She attributes her interest in blending disparate cuisines to her grandmother who cooked rice in a Chinese rice steamer (“because they make the best rice”) and then topped it with her “kickin’” black beans.

Dessert at Sidebern'sShe is ably assisted in the dessert department by pastry chef Kimberly Yelvington, who created the pear dessert I had at Bern’s Steak House. Ms. Yelvington knows her stuff, having studied the fine art of chocolate alchemy in the corporate kitchens of Valrhona, the premier French purveyor of fine chocolate. Her lavender infused crème brulee tarts and Framboise Decadence (a heady cake-like blend of raspberries and chocolate) had me moaning in the most unseemly fashion.

Sidebern’s, like its parent establishment, is not cheap. Prices for soups, salads, and appetizers are only slightly less than some Tampa eateries charge for main courses, and most main courses are in the mid-$20 range. Desserts run from $5 to $6. Add wine and you have run up a hefty tab but one that you will probably consider well worth the meal you’ve just had.

In addition to her duties at Sidebern’s, Ms. Pierola has tackled the job of updating the Bern’s Steak House menu, with an emphasis on bringing the “traditional” accompaniments up to date. I can hardly wait.

Mise en Place

Surprisingly enough, Sidebern’s has competition in Tampa’s new cuisine sweepstakes.

Mise en Place is the labor of love of Marty and Maryanne Blitz. Chef Marty specializes in “New American” cuisine and has a string of awards and Zagat top-rankings to his credit.

There are actually two versions of Mise en Place, the Restaurant (which I didn’t get a chance to visit) in a converted iron commercial building opposite the former Tampa Bay Hotel (an eye-popping attraction in its own right) and the Bistro and Wine Bar (where I did eat) a five-minute drive away.

At the Bistro I got to sample Blitz’s handiwork in the form of a scallop appetizer seared in curry oil and accompanied by serrano ham, calaloo and wild mushroom ravioli, all this set off with a white truffle oil drizzle. It left me eager to visit the Restaurant to try his $35 Tasting Menu (plus $17 for wines), amusingly headed “Get Blitzed.”

The main course for lunch, served al fresco, was a pan roasted halibut with Provencal vegetables whipped up by chef Catherine Michaud. Although I knew it was napped in a sinfully rich reduced butter sauce it seemed as light as any spa cuisine.

The Bistro also prepares meals to go, a good thing to know if you’re staying in one of those all-suites with a microwave in the kitchen. A take out meal here will definitely be better than room service and probably cheaper, too!

Oystercatchers and Armani’s

By this time I was hollering “Uncle!” and vowing to go on a juice fast, but my foodie friends insisted I check out two restaurants affiliated with the posh Hyatt Regency Westshore hotel. It was worth the trip just for the bayside setting, which reminded my once again why people move to Florida.

Of the restaurants, I far preferred Oystercatchers, which is set at some distance from the hotel proper in the midst of what looks like (and may be for all I know) a wildlife preserve. As the name suggests, the emphasis is on seafood and the sampler platter they served up made me swear off swearing off food for a while. One innovative appetizer caught my eye while tantalizing my taste buds. The “calamari fries” look for all the world like french fries, not the lightly breaded circles that we usually get. The warm blackened shrimp with remoulade sauce were also noteworthy.

But the main attraction here is impeccably fresh fish and the best way to have it is… well, up to you. The menu offers ten varieties from Florida mahi-mahi to Norwegian salmon to Chilean sea bass prepared in one of five styles, sauteed, mesquite grilled, poached, blackened, or broiled. The choice is yours but take it from me, the mesquite grilling is the clear winner here.

I was less taken with Armani’s, the hotel’s ultra-posh, top floor destination restaurant with a smashing panoramic view of Tampa and the bay. The cuisine is traditional Italian, well-prepared but on the heavy side, so it fared poorly in comparison to the lighter more innovative fare I had been sampling. The service was also a trifle overfriendly for my taste. Maybe I’m old fashioned but when entrée prices flirt with the $30 mark, I like to be treated like the godfather and not the godson.

Still the room is ravishing, especially as the sun sets in the distance and Tampa twinkles to life below you. The desserts are terrific and the prices keep out the riff raff. If you’re staying at the hotel, especially, this could be the perfect place to celebrate closing that big deal.

Back in New York, I was eager to share my Tampa discoveries with friends. But as soon as I said “I just spent four days in Tampa, and…” their eyes rolled heavenward and they said, “Oh, you poor thing!” It reminded me of the annoying habit we New Yorkers have of acting so-o-o sophisticated while remaining more provincial than the provincials we disdain.

“Let ‘em crawl on their knees to Bouley,” I thought. “For what they’ll drop on a meal there, I can buy another ticket to Tampa!” But do me a favor: Let’s keep Tampa’s great restaurants our little secret.

Restaurant Contacts

Bern’s Steak House
1208 South Howard Ave.
(800) 282-1547 (Florida only)
(813) 251-2421
(813) 251-5001 fax
www.bernssteakhouse.com/

Columbia Restaurant
2025 East 7th Avenue
(813) 248-3000
(813) 247-5881 fax
www.columbiarestaurant.com
Sidebern’s
2208 West Morrison Avenue
Tampa, FL 33606
(813) 258-2233
www.bernssteakhouse.com/

Mise en Place Restaurant
442 West Kennedy Boulevard
Tampa, FL 33606
(813) 254-5373

Mise en Place Bistro and Wine Bar
2616 South MacDill Avenue
Tampa, FL 33629
(813) 839-3939

Oystercatchers
6200 Courtney Campbell Causeway
Tampa, FL 33607
(813) 281-9116
www.hyatt.com/usa/tampa/hotels/restaurants_tparw.html

Armani’s
Same address and web site as Oystercatchers
(813) 281-9165

For more information about Tampa visit the official site at http://www.gotampa.com.

Photos: Kelly Monaghan