Thursday, January 17, 2013

Our Intro to Tampa

Between negotiating the purchase of a residence in our new hometown and preparing our existing home to be sale-ready, I haven't had a whole heck of a lot of time to attend to the blog. Pangs of guilt finally drove me over to the computer this evening to remedy this shortcoming (it helps that the kids are in bed and Mrs. Hackknife is away on one of her last business trips). Anyway, while house-hunting in Tampa a few weeks ago, the missus and I made time (of course) to sample what will soon be our local dining scene. As far as a home, the neighborhoods we liked best are all situated about a 20-minute drive northwest of downtown Tampa in an area known as Westchase, which largely consists of gated subdivisions, a little bit of retail, and a smattering of ol' Florida jungle still here and there that has managed thus far to avoid the bulldozers. At first gander, the food options in Westchase appear to be mainly limited to a few chain and fast food offerings, but we discovered that there is some variety to be had if you dig a little. In the midst of a whirlwind day that saw us speed-dating through several properties, our realtor, Lynn, suggested that we all pop into a nearby delicatessen for lunch. The Village Market & Cafe is located at the corner of Linebaugh Avenue and Montague Road in an upscale development that combines stores, restaurants, and townhomes. According to the co-owner Gil (who, in addition to being an ex-professional wrestler, happens to know Lynn), the deli and market used to be separate entities that have now combined into one business, selling snacks, bagels, and sandwiches on one side, with an impressive selection of beer (including local favorite microbrew Cigar City - more on that in a minute) and wine on the other. I can't speak for Gil's abilities inside the ring, but he can sure make a mean Cuban sandwich, a tasty concoction of ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles served on grilled Cuban bread panini-style (this sandwich, by the way, is apparently to Tampa as the hot dog is to Chicago - consider yourself warned). I'm looking forward to the day when our move is complete and I can settle onto our lanai with another Cuban and a cold microbrew to celebrate.

Speaking of microbrew, when the time came for us to put down our first offer on a house later that afternoon, Mrs. Hackknife and I decided that the perfect venue to strategize the deal would be Cigar City Brewing Company, a short ride from our hotel in a more-industrial section of town (Carver City-Lincoln Gardens) near the airport. Tampa is known as the "Cigar City" by virtue of its many historic cigar factories and CCB has made it their mission to honor the city's unique heritage by making some great beers, several of which incorporate ingredients that are representative of Florida (such as guava) and are designed to be easy-drinking in the ubiquitous heat. When we arrived (in the rain, I might add - no heat on this day), I noticed that the brewing operation had much in common with Three Floyd's, including the look (i.e., a small brewpub attached to a bustling brewery), the beers (i.e., many diverse and seemingly creative varieties), and the attitude (i.e., we know that what we're doing here is kick-ass and we're probably cooler than you). Vibe issues aside, as with Three Floyd's, the beer overshadows all and I was greatly impressed with my Hefeweizen-like Florida Cracker White Ale (see photo above), while Mrs. Hackknife enjoyed a Tocobaga Red Ale. Luckily for us, it appears that CCB sells bottles and cans of their fine products at many local retailers (including our new friends at Village Market), so we'll have plenty of opportunities to sample their full lineup of brews back at the Canteen.

Offer submitted, the weather cleared up for us a bit in time for dinner. Before Xmas, Mrs. Hackknife had outsleuthed me and identified one of Tampa's newer culinary destinations so that I would have a gift card to use from my stocking. The restaurant, called SideBern's, is located in the tony Hyde Park neighborhood of Tampa and is an offshoot of Bern's, the famous steakhouse in town. SideBern's started as a place for Bern's patrons to get dessert and cocktails after dinner and subsequently morphed into a fine dining spot featuring upscale cuisine with a touch of Mediterranean/Middle Eastern thrown in. Given that it was a Thursday night in early January, the dining room was fairly empty and pretty sedate, with several tables perched around a large circular bar in an airy, open room. Head Chef Chad Johnson (who I want to call "Ocho Cinco" every time I hear his name - inside NFL joke) occasionally poked his head out of the kitchen to check on patrons and presumably gauge reactions to his latest creations. We both ordered the tasting menu and were pleasantly surprised by each and every savory course: tiny puffed brioches topped with rich golden char roe, radish matchsticks, and a zingy ponzu sauce, a petit branzino filet delicately crisped and served atop carrot, fennel, and a saffron jus, grilled scallop with a butterbean tortellini, matsutake mushroom, and something called iberico ham cream (which gets my vote to replace all other forms of cream known to mankind, including the shaving variety), a roasted squab with glazed turnips, guanciale (cured pork jowl), and a rosemary black pepper sabayon, and, lastly, an artfully-presented set of elk loin slices with spaghetti squash, sunflower, pomegranate, and a touch of Syrian hot pepper dip called muhammara. Dessert was just as amazing - I opted for the chocolate marquis, a plate of three chocolate cubes garnished with candied fennel, blackberry, fleur de sel, and olive oil anglaise, while Mrs. Hackknife went with the equally-impressive parsnip and date cake with PX sherry, hazelnuts, and goat cheese ice cream. Accompanying the meal were crunchy, pencil-thin breadsticks and rectangular flatbread sheets that were dusted with curry and harissa, plus a housemade grain bread that was perfect for sopping up bits of stray sauce from each course. All told, once we identify some babysitters in the subdivision, I suspect that we'll be making more frequent trips here for Chef J's grub.

Our final meal in town before heading north was lunch on Friday back towards Waterchase, on a stretch of Linebaugh not far from Village Market. I'd noticed on our first trip a red store with the name "Burger 21" on it and made a mental note to stop in at some future date, which had now arrived. This joint has garnered rave reviews in town as one of the best gourmet burger stops around and its locations are slowly starting to spread their way across central Florida towards Orlando and points beyond (possibly even to a neighborhood near you someday). The menu features a number of unusual burger offerings, including ahi tuna, shrimp po' boy, veggie, chicken, and turkey, along with the more traditional USDA choice beef. I went for the Tex-Mex Haystack, a riotous combo of lettuce, tomato, applewood-smoked bacon, gouda cheese, guacamole, onion strings, chipotle-jalapeno sauce, and beef patty, all on a toasted brioche (see photo above). When paired with sweet potato fries (which came with a toasted marshmallow dipping sauce - right on), this was about the best consumption of 1,100 calories I could recall (I deliberately avoided the milkshakes, including Key lime pie, which may very well be the first thing I stop for on the next return trip - no need to blow all of the day's calories in one fell swoop). So, as you can see, foodies of Chicago - you can pity us, but probably shouldn't too much, as we'll do our best to simply survive down here...

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