Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Fodder and Shine

I think it's fair to say that Southern cuisine (fried chicken and biscuits, for example) is a hot trend at the moment; at least, it is, well, in the South (that may just be the most absurd sentence I've ever written). Perhaps it's more accurate to say that different regions of the South are embracing the dishes that are specific to their localities more so than any time in the last 75 years (before which, you know, most people were ACTUALLY gleaning the bulk of their food from the farm and garden in their backyards). This includes Texas barbecue, Cajun/Creole cooking in Louisiana, Lowcountry cuisine in the Carolinas, and so on. Until just recently, chefs in Florida hadn't quite established an historical food roadmap unique to the state (outside of the occasional grouper sandwich or slice of Key lime pie); this is now starting to change with the opening of eateries like the Floridian in St. Augustine, Cask & Larder in Orlando, and Ulele in Tampa. Another new entrant in this field is Tampa chef Greg Baker's Fodder & Shine, a restaurant with a focus that's even more precise: Florida "cracker" (or backwoods) cuisine from the first half of the 20th Century, a mystical time before Disney when the state was primarily inhabited by hardy homesteaders (working cattle ranches or citrus orchards) who were largely unperturbed by mosquitoes or the lack of refrigerated air. Mrs. Hackknife and I first became aware of Chef Baker's venture when we met him at the Norman's 10th Anniversary gala way back in August 2013, and had been keenly anticipating Fodder & Shine's opening ever since. Although they don't take reservations for parties smaller than 10, the missus and I were able to arrive early on a Saturday night before the usual crush of weekend evening revelers and were seated relatively quickly at a table in the bar.

My first impression of the new digs (which are located at 5910 N. Florida Avenue in Tampa's Seminole Heights neighborhood, just a few blocks north of Chef B.'s flagship place, the Refinery) was that they were larger than I expected, much more so than the cozy confines of the Refinery - the extra space (which was formerly an auto body shop) allows the proprietors to place tables well apart from each other, a nice change of pace from the loud, cramped dining venues that are de rigeur these days. Decor is stark gray and tilts towards (surprisingly) 80s retro, with arcade game consoles in the foyer and vintage punk band concert flyers (I hadn't thought of Black Flag since seeing Henry Rollins at a Clark Street sushi bar in Chicago about 15 years ago) that I suspect have long been in Chef's personal archives just waiting for the right venue to display them.

I was planning to meet the guys in the neighborhood for drinks later, so I took a pass on the craft beer/custom cocktail menu and zoned in on the bill of fare, which was both jarring and exciting in equal measure (you have to respect a place that lists "Fried Livers and Gizzards of the Day" as an option - well played, Chef). Although the choice was difficult, we selected the smoked mullet spread (mullet meat mixed with scallions, celery, datil pepper, mayo, and lemon, accompanied by pickled onions, sliced jalapenos, smoked mullet roe, and sheets of crunchy hardtack) and the house bacon fat cornbread (arriving at our table in a cast iron skillet much quicker than the 20 minutes referenced on the menu) for our appetizers. This fish dip was austere compared with the gloppy beach shack versions I've seen elsewhere in the state, yet supercharged with complexity, a description I'd also apply to the cornbread (which, despite its inclusion of bacon fat, was more subtle than expected).

For my entree, I went with the tasty cornmeal-fried chicken (apparently, the Florida pioneers didn't have access to flour and the nearest Wal-Mart was more than a full day's ride away) with tomato gravy and rice (boiled rice mixed with more bacon fat, stewed tomatoes, and chiles, something I could have easily eaten a full pot of) and cane syrup-roasted beets (I found these to be a little underwhelming). Mrs. H. tried the cornmeal-fried mullet (which also seemed to be lacking a little boost - I ate the leftovers with tartar sauce the next day, something that would probably make the chef cringe) along with some amazing bacon braised greens (mixed with bacon, onion, apple cider vinegar, sugar, and pepper flakes) and something called sofkee, a grits-like concoction traditionally enjoyed by Native Americans consisting of fermented rice, butter, and cream. The sofkee reminded me of the Minute Rice recipe that had you throw in a slice of Kraft American cheese at the end (a side dish I fondly consumed a couple of times in my childhood) - this is meant to be a compliment, however, I can see where the F&S kitchen staff might not interpret it that way.

Although we were pretty stuffed by this time, I couldn't pass on dessert. Sour orange pie is a not-well-known Florida delicacy that may predate Key lime pie (the recipes are essentially the same, with sour orange juice swapped in for the lime juice) and was on the F&S dessert menu. To my amazement, it's not terribly difficult to find wild orange trees growing in pockets of forest throughout the state (they're descendants of cultivated orange trees gone rogue) - we saw some while hiking on our last Cub Scout outing near Brooksville and their juice is bracingly tart, so their uses are somewhat limited (dessert and marinade are two of the more popular things to do with them). The pie filling was quite scrumptious, but I couldn't say I was a big fan of the cornmeal crust (there's that missing flour again), which seemed, well, underdone.

Overall, we enjoyed what's on offer at F&S - I'm anxious to try many other items on the menu (rabbit and cornmeal dumplings, wood-grilled oysters, fried jam pie, the list goes on and on) and I think the restaurant is a valuable addition to the Gulf Coast dining scene. I'm sure Chef Greg's goal is to have F&S be to Florida Cracker cuisine what Husk (Sean Brock's temple of Carolina heritage cooking) is to Lowcountry gastronomy; he's not there yet (after all, they've only been open for about 2 months), but I like the direction it's headed...

No comments:

Post a Comment