Thursday, January 30, 2014

Mise En Place

A few months after we arrived in Florida, my Uncle Bob (a fellow enthusiast of good food/wine and a frequent visitor to Tampa for business) raved about a restaurant he tried here once called Mise En Place (MEP), aptly named after the French phrase for ingredient prep/organization in a professional kitchen before the start of service. Immediately, images of musty, traditional Gallic dining popped into my head (not that there's anything wrong with that - I crave the occasional Duck a L'Orange) and I made a mental note to add MEP to our ever-growing list of local food venues to try. When my in-laws made plans to visit the Canteen for a week in January in order to escape the unusually-harsh Chicago winter, I seized the free babysitiing opportunity and made us a reservation, which eventually arrived on a Friday evening the night before we marched in our local pirate parade (long story - don't ask).

MEP is located on the western fringes of downtown (442 W. Grand Central Avenue) across from the University of Tampa in a compact-yet-charming neighborhood (home to a performing arts theater and an old hotel stable-turned-shopping arcade, among other things) I had yet to experience. Belying his establishment's moniker a bit, Executive Chef Marty Blitz specializes in inventive modern American cuisine (the restaurant's motto is "for the Adventurous in Palate and Spirit") that fuses classical French cooking techniques with the melting pot of flavors that is today's United States (in other words, you won't find Chateaubriand here). Mrs. Hackknife and I opted for the "Get Blitzed" tasting menu, which changes weekly according to whatever Chef Blitz feels are his best ingredients of the moment, and we were not disappointed.

First up was an amuse bouche, a rich bowl of sweet potato and corn soup studded with lardons, corn kernels, and what appeared to me to be ground pistachios.

After the soup came what was my least favorite course of the night, not because it wasn't good (it was delicious, actually), but because there was so little of it. A few fresh slices of raw hamachi were topped with matchsticks of golden beets and lime radish, then garnished with a hazelnut puree, horseradish Meyer lemon emulsion, smoked trout caviar (which I had trouble locating), and aji amarillo (a spicy pepper from South America) salt. The flavors of this dish clearly worked, but I definitely needed more than the meager bits there (and would have happily run a $10 bill back to the kitchen to get another serving).

Sticking with the seafood theme, our third course was a tender jumbo scallop that was dusted with ground pumpkin seed and then darkly seared on both sides. With the scallop was a mini-salad (composed of beef cheek, trumpet mushroom, shredded Brussels sprouts and corn kernels) and two schmears of sauce, a turnip leek puree and a sherry vinegar black truffle vinaigrette. The ingredients on the plate were a little more ample than the one before (and just as tasty).

Our meat course was probably my favorite, a lamb dish two ways that veered off towards India and North Africa. Perfectly medium-rare slices of lamb loin were crusted in vadouvan (a mixture of traditional curry spice with shallots/garlic) and paired with what was called a lamb shank "brick" on the menu (I considered it to be more of an egg roll or wonton), a deep-fried wrapper filled with shredded lamb shank meat. The lamb was garnished with a bright yellow dollop of saffron leek potato puree, slices of breakfast radish braised in chermoula (a marinade frequently used in Moroccan cuisine) and turnips, plus a harissa (another North African spice) red wine jus. As far as I'm concerned, Chef Blitz hit a home run with this combo - the missus and I could have easily polished off a platter's worth of those lamb shank bricks.

No self-respecting restauranteur offers a tasting menu without a cheese course and this was no exception. Our friends at Sweet Grass Dairy in Georgia provided MEP with a block of their semi-firm Tomme cheese (likely the same one we sampled recently at the Floridian in St. Augustine), a slice of which was crowned with a crispy crostini and paired with a knockout verjus grape conserve and some candied pistachios (the verdict was split on the pistachios - I liked them, but Mrs. Hackknife demurred).

For dessert, our server brought over a decadent dome of chocolate truffle cake loaded with caramelized cocoa nibs for added texture. Surrounding the cake were four dollops of custardy creme anglaise, each with its own slice of bruleed banana, blackened no doubt with a blowtorch. Although I can recall trying several versions of the chocolate truffle cake dome over the years, this was definitely one of the better ones I'd encountered.

From top to bottom, I'd say that the missus and I were tremendously pleased with the tasting menu, including the price (a little over $60 per person with the cheese course added - very reasonable). Chef Blitz and MEP would have no trouble holding court in a bigger restaurant market like Chicago and I think that my fellow Tampadres should be happy that it's here, even if just to grab a late-night dessert or a few cheese nibbles before bedtime (every metropolis needs one of those). Thanks, Uncle Bob...

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