Tuesday, April 9, 2013
Today I am pleased to present the first installment of Hackknife South, the alter ego for my original blog that will showcase the culinary high points of our new adopted home, Tampa. Although much of our first 6 weeks down here has been spent getting settled and open for business in the Canteen, we have also been hard at work seeking local sources of gastronomic inspiration (that is, when not relaxing in the spa). At first, I was a bit uneasy that the prevailing dining culture might pale in comparison to that back home in Chicago; however, I can assure you that we have already discovered that Hillsborough County and its surrounding environs are by no means a foodie wasteland. Just in the short time that I've possessed a Florida driver's license, I have personally consumed stellar Chinese dishes, giddily romped through a Filipino food fest, been awed by the breadth of the local food truck scene (which is light years ahead of Chicago's, I might add), and actually cooked fresh fish on a gas grill without completely obliterating it. We've also eaten a terrific meal at one of the city's standout farm-to-table restaurants, an experience that I am chronicling in this post.
Before we'd even set foot in Tampa, Mrs. Hackknife had done a little research of her own to find me an Xmas present, namely a gift card to one of the area's finer eateries. Whenever a chef is nominated for a James Beard award, that's usually a strong indicator of someone who knows their way around a kitchen; two local chefs were singled out for this recognition in 2012 - Chad Johnson of SideBern's and Greg Baker of The Refinery. Using the JB nomination as her guide, Mrs. H. opted to get me a gift certificate to SideBern's, which we thoroughly enjoyed back in November last year. At the same time, we made a mental note to get over to the Refinery ASAP and, with the in-laws in town for the Easter holiday (read: babysitters), we chose this destination for our first date night since the move.
The Refinery is located in an area of town referred to as Seminole Heights (5137 N. Florida Ave., to be exact). I'm no anthropologist, but the neighborhood shows all the hallmarks of gentrification - hipster bars, ethnic bakeries, older ranch homes being bought and fixed up by young professionals, etc. When I arrived at the restaurant, I was immediately stymied by the parking logistics: the paved spaces in the lot were taken, leaving only some vacant grass area of questionable use on the side of the property (which, my server later assured me, is both intended and perfectly suitable for parking). This whole leaving your vehicle on the lawn thing seems to be peculiar to Florida as I've noticed it a number of times now (in Chicago, we would have just laid concrete over the grass since we apparently hate nature in all of its forms). Rather than fight my instinct not to trample greenery with tires, I simply pulled onto the side street and parked there (on half grass, half cement - no curbs or sidewalks to be found).
The pig on the Refinery's sign is a hint as to what you'll see on the menu - frequently changing plates (every Thursday, in fact) often involving pork, but just as likely to include other goodies as well. The vibe is more casual than classy as you feel like you're eating in someone's farmhouse (the proprietors are proud of their mismatched tableware and cooking smoke wafting through the dining room). While the ventilation system might need a slight upgrade, the creations departing the kitchen do not. Staying with small plates instead of entrees, the missus and I started with a bowl of little neck clams (served with watercress, swiss chard, and house-made lardo) in a broth of miso, togarashi (a citrusy-spicy Japanese spice blend), nori, orange, and honey that was so delicious I would have happily bathed in it. Also impressive was the chef's take on ramen (he calls it "carboramen"), soba noodles with succulent pork belly and tangy bok choy kimchee, resting in a parmesan-chive broth (see photo below). Both of these dishes paired very well with our local hard cider made by Cigar City (apparently, there's nothing these Cigar City people can't do - I'm calling them next week to fertilize the lawn and clean our windows).
Our second round of small plates were not quite as stellar as the first. Our favorite of the next pair were the herbed beef kidney fritters (topped with shallots, swiss chard, something glorious called bone marrow parsley butter, and a citrus-Banyuls vinaigrette), my first ever conscious and gratuitous consumption of kidneys if I'm not mistaken (they tasted something like liver, except a bit more astringent - not sure if I'd go out of my way to order them again). I really enjoyed the beef heart redeye gravy (a Southern staple made with coffee grounds) that topped some griddle potato pancakes with Granny Smith apple matchsticks, watercress, and a tangerine-smoked paprika vinaigrette, but the cakes themselves were a little mushy and undercooked in places. Desserts ranged from the simply good (chocolate-coffee cheesecake with a peanut-graham crust and a charred orange-miso caramel) to the out-of-this-world (orange-rosemary creme brulee with candied grapefruit and vanilla sugar, my early candidate for sweet of the year). Although there was a misstep or two, the overall dining experience at the Refinery was certainly sufficient to bring us back for a return visit (as was the price - less than $75 for the whole shebang, including drinks, a significant savings over a comparable farm-to-table meal in Chicago that would've easily totalled more than $100). I'll even consider parking on the lawn next time...