Friday, January 23, 2015
After two years of living in Tampa, I'd have to say that my feelings towards the local Major League Baseball team (the Rays) are only lukewarm at best, a sentiment that seems to be common among Bay area residents (as far as nearby pro sports franchises, they rate a distant third behind the Lightning and the Bucs). This could be due to, like hockey in Minnesota and basketball in Indiana, the market for baseball already being saturated here, hosting many minor league teams and Spring Training headquarters; it could also have something to do with fact that their home is a lifeless domed stadium in an unremarkable section of St. Petersburg, separated from the lively bars, art galleries, and restaurants of downtown by several blocks of drab neighborhoods. In any case, whatever good vibes surround the Rays were mostly a result of their charismatic, wonky, and well-respected manager, Joe Maddon, whose efforts transformed a small market, largely moribund expansion franchise into a multi-year playoff contender before he opted to take over the Cubs (yay!) late last year. Also a pillar of the community, M. Madden supports a number of local charities and has business ties here, including partnership in now two area restaurants. I closely followed the development of his newest dining venture, Ava (pronounced "Ah-va" and named after his granddaughter, if I'm not mistaken) all autumn and was even more anxious to dine there after reading the gushing 4-star review (the paper's first) that food critic Laura Reilly of the Tampa Bay Times gave the place. Not surprisingly, reservations have been difficult to come by; however, Mrs. Hackknife and I were able to secure a table early in the evening on New Year's Eve before all of the party people went out (not like us middle-aged parents who'd rather be in bed by 10p) and headed down to south Tampa (718 S. Howard Street) with a healthy dose of anticipation.
Homey and rustic are two terms that come to mind when you enter Ava's front door, not unlike the vibe of the Italian cuisine that's the specialty of the house. There was a large pizza oven behind one bar (not turned on at the time) and many servers in jeans and flannel plaid shirts (almost if to say "Look! We're hip and casual!) running about the half-filled restaurant. Because of the holiday, we had been informed that only a limited, prix-fixe menu would be available that night, not the usual family-style plates around which the whole venture had been designed; this change was blatantly obvious throughout most of the service, when one of us was presented a dish 3 to 4 minutes before the other person received theirs (usually a serious no-no) - this happened not once, not twice, but three times during the 4-course meal (a batting average of only .250 if you're playing along at home - I'm thinking the coach would've benched his kitchen if he'd been there). In spite of the pacing issues, the food was frequently all-star: my appetizer of charred veal meatballs in a slurry of kale, tomato, and spicy sofrito (see photo above) was spectacular, as was the red pepper soup I chose as my second course. Mrs. H. heartily indulged in a crock of steamed mussels, studded with chunks of nduja (an Italian sausage) and fennel seed, served with grilled slabs of crostini and also enjoyed her entree of wood-grilled prime sirloin. My chef's special entree of lobster bucatini sounded rich and featured perfect al dente noodles, but was a little on the bland side, needing a thorough piling of grated parmesan to kick up the dish. The desserts were safe and reliable (tiramisu), if not ample, ending the meal on a slight high note, yet still leaving us a little disappointed. Our initial experience at Ava was most definitely not 4-star, yet I can see the potential exists for great success here given another few months of staff seasoning. Let's hope the coach can do for his new restaurant (and the Cubs) what he did for his old team...