The present time is April 2015. I've now had the pleasure of exploring Tampa Bay area cuisine for a full two years and I've learned a lot, like Cuban restaurants are as ubiquitous here as hot dog stands in Chicago and Florida might actually offer beef that's as impressive as the seafood that gets pulled from its surrounding waters. Mrs. H. and I have had (among other things) elegant tasting menus, down-n-dirty tacos, sublime pho, tasty grouper, spicy datil peppers, deviled crab, sofkee, a half of grapefruit slathered with chicken livers, and enough yellow rice/beans to feed a small Caribbean nation. But one thing we hadn't discovered was a local dining establishment that combined the best aspects of today's gastronomy; that is, a rarefied meal featuring equal parts high-quality and regionally-sourced ingredients, inventive and well-executed dishes, tremendous flavor, attentive service, and theatrical flair. I am excited to say that I believe we have now found such a dining experience in our adopted city at a place called Farmtable Kitchen in downtown St. Petersburg.
Farmtable Kitchen is one portion of a foodie complex named Locale Market, a larger venture spearheaded by celebrity chef Michael Mina (operator of restaurants nationwide) in partnership with local chef Don Pintabona. Open since December of last year, Locale takes up a decent chunk of real estate in the upscale Sundial shopping complex, with several food counters on the first floor (some offering take-out and others selling fresh ingredients) and a wine bar/restaurant upstairs. When we booked our table at FK (using the online ticketing software developed by our friends from Next/Alinea in Chicago), I was curious enough just to see what the marketplace was like as, to the best of my knowledge, there hasn't been any equivalent of this type of business around town (I'll have a future posting on Locale in the coming weeks). Prior to our meal, Chef Don and his head server Ron gave our small group a champagne tour of the market stalls before heading to the private dining venue on the second floor.
At the moment, seating for Farmtable Kitchen is limited to a single communal table (which sits about 12) in a small, rustic room with sliding barn doors closing it off from the rest of the wine bar and fishbowl glass on an adjoining wall (presumably to make other diners jealous as they head to and from the restrooms). We were comfortable (if not a bit cramped) and happy to talk with similarly-obsessed food nuts while waiting for our 8-course meal to begin.
Chef Don and Co. wasted no time in securing everyone's attention. Before too long, a whole swordfish perched on a rolling cutting block drifted by our fishbowl glass and was parked next to us, causing all conversation in the room to immediately cease. After the obligatory photos and a brief aside from Chef Matt Dahlkemper, the swordfish (which had been caught near Jupiter, on the Atlantic coast) was fileted tableside, seared with a blowtorch, and presented on a plate along with toasted peanuts, saffron threads, nam prik (Thai chili sauce), and a small salad of avocado and Lambeth Groves grapefruit.
The wine paired with this lovely dish was a Robert Weil "Tradition" riesling from the Rheingau region of Germany. In case you're curious, we were told that the remainder of the fish would either be sold at the fresh fish counter downstairs or used for other dishes in the restaurant.
Our second course (labeled on the menu as "Foraged/Garden") was a simple, yet punchy bowl of Faithful Farms beets (grown just across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Palmetto) presented in a few different ways (raw, cooked, and dehydrated "soil"), bull's blood greens, and an infusion of hickory smoke, a combination of tastes and textures I absolutely loved. An uber-grassy Round Pond sauvignon blanc from Napa was chosen to accompany the beets (Mrs. Hackknife enjoyed this, but it wasn't my favorite).
Course #3 featured a tree stump plate topped with slices of luscious prosciutto di parma and a little sandwich of oozing taleggio cheese on artisan olive loaf from the bakery downstairs. The richness of the ham and cheese perfectly melded with a glass of bright Corsican rose wine (Clos Canarelli), a bottle of which was brought home to the Canteen after dinner.
Chef Pedro Arreaza subsequently entered the room to prepare our pasta course, three pockets of cappellacci pasta filled with a mixture of blue crab and marscapone, topped with tarragon, lobster-infused butter, and a bit of black caviar. The chef joked that almost everyone asked for more of these once they finished and I could understand why after making them disappear in short order. The wine pairing for this dish was a bit unusual, a glass of funky Tahbilk marsanne (a white grape normally associated with the Rhone region of France) that I found overpowering by itself, but mellowed out by the rich pasta and sauce.
Next up came a palate cleanser of sorts (dubbed an "intermezzo" on the menu), two fruit and vegetable based shooters. The first was a vibrant green shot glass containing pureed kale, spinach, and mint with a minted salt rim (like a healthy virgin margarita), plus a tumbler with strawberry juice, scarlet radish, honey, and dehydrated strawberry petals. While refreshing, this was the one course I wasn't particularly crazy about.
Chef Matt returned to the space with another visual aid, this time a hunk of 80-day dry-aged prime beef from the meat locker in the market downstairs. Pieces of this beef had been sliced off and seared medium rare for our dining pleasure, then placed on a plate with a similar cut of wet-aged beef for comparison.
The beef was served with a bit of wilted baby spinach from Faithful Farms, some trumpet, maitake, and alba mushrooms (which I politely declined), and a smear of bold chimichurri-chipotle aioli sauce. Both slices of beef were divine and, as expected, I had a slight preference for the minerally tang of the dry-aged meat. Not pictured was a tasty country sourdough roll from the bakery downstairs (gone before it could be memorialized in pixels) and two glasses of wine, a delicate red Bordeaux (Chateau Coutet Saint-Emilion) and a vibrant Joseph Carr cab sauvignon from Napa.
One last tableside prep followed, this time a "pre-dessert" featuring a scoop of Tahitian vanilla bon-bon (which is what they call their house-made ice cream) flash frozen in liquid nitrogen, then topped with a heady dose of LAMILL espresso.
Now sufficiently jazzed by sugar and caffeine, we happily dug into our final dish of the evening, a deconstructed s'mores consisting of a long, thin slab of Valrhona milk chocolate ganache, oat graham base, dollops of browned campfire marshmallow, crispy chocolate curls, and a dusting of cocoa powder. Divine solo, this collection of sweets fared even better with the Alvear Pedro Ximenez Solera 1927 sweet sherry that accompanied it (if any of you would like to gift me a bottle, Father's Day is coming up).
The consensus opinion of the communal diners was that this meal (the whole experience, really) had been spectacular, breaking new ground in our local dining scene. I am keeping fingers crossed that Chef Don and his talented crew at Farm Table are able to sustain their early success and get the word out to folks on the far side of the bay that their new venture is well worth the drive over to St. Pete. The other chefs in town should be on notice that the fine dining bar has been nudged a little higher...