When you consider Tampa area restaurant dynasties, there really are only two that immediately come to mind: the Laxlers (of Bern's, Elevage, and Haven Wine Bar fame) and the Hernandez/Gonzmarts (of the Columbia Restaurant Group). While the Laxlers have taken steps to surf the foodie wave that's swamped the nation over the past decade (opening both SideBern's and the Epicurian Hotel complex), the Hernandez/Gonzmart crew remained largely stagnant, instead relying on expansion of their historic namesake property (Columbia in Ybor City) to other parts of Florida (for example, the family and I dined at a Columbia in Orlando recently); that is, until last year. As part of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn's initiative to revitalize the riverside neighborhood of Tampa Heights (just north of downtown and I-275), the Columbia folks signed on to transform the historic Water Works Building (built in 1906, but largely derelict since the 1970s) into a modern restaurant. This section of the city had long been ripe for gentrification, some of which had even begun before the economic downturn landed a good chunk of it in insolvency. Now, the restaurant (named Ulele after a 16th-Century Indian princess that allegedly saved the life of a captured Spanish explorer) was to anchor the new development, including a splash park, boat launch, performance stage, extended riverwalk, and natural spring (more on that in a bit). Nearby amenities aside, Ulele (pronounced "you-lay-lee" was hotly anticipated by the local press as a dining destination, featuring a giant wood-fired grill (plopped in the middle of the dining room) for grilling steaks and oysters, an on-site brewery using water from the spring next door, and a menu emphasizing native Floridian cuisine. As of this date, dinner reservations are still difficult to come by (a problem not normally encountered in this town); however, the missus and I were intrigued enough by the buzz to grab a very early supper there one recent Friday night to see if the hype was warranted.
When arriving street-side to 1810 N. Highland Avenue (this is the way you will approach the property unless you're on the riverwalk or in a boat), the view overlooking the restored building and parkland towards the river is nothing less than stunning. Similar comments can be made about the restaurant itself - the Gonzmarts spared no expense during the renovation, utilizing historic brick, wood, and glass (the windows alone allegedly cost a small fortune) to create a legacy for the family's next generation. A quick walk around the exterior leads to the now-revitalized spring, which has enough of its own history to fill a book. Pumping 80,000 gallons of water per day into the Hillsborough River (a mere 50 feet or so away), the water and its attendant wildlife sustained generations of Native Americans and provided pioneer Tampanians with drinking water. Eventually, a recreational pond and (later) industrial concerns entombed the spring (then called Magbee Spring, named after a local circuit court judge from the 1870s who apparently was more famous for his drinking exploits than his accomplishments from the bench), where it remained more or less forgotten until its recent rechristening as "Ulele Spring" to honor its native heritage.
Our reservation was for 4:45pm, and while there were plenty of empty tables at that time of day, there was also a large number of patrons waiting for attention, along with a vague vibe of "we're too cool to seat you right now, so just wait until we're ready" from the primped and aloof hostesses. At around 5, we were finally led upstairs to our table in the mezzanine, the sole patrons up there save for one other party (why the wait then? No idea...). As with most farm-to-table operations these days, cocktails and craft beer (in this case, brewed in the warehouse next door) are a large part of the experience, so I partook in a very refreshing mojito to start, followed by a glass of the house Magbee's Honey Lager (which was just ok). A review of the menu revealed a number of "native-inspired" dishes as they call them here, a less-risky marketing ploy by the Gonzmarts to have a casual tie-in to old Floridian cuisine rather than a more rigid interpretation of Cracker recipes like one might find at Fodder & Shine (after all, there's not much popular demand for hardtack). Right away, the charbroiled oysters (with grated Parmesan/Romano and garlic butter) and the alligator hush puppies (alligator meat, duck bacon, country ham, corn, and jalapeno, served with horseradish aioli and honey datil pepper dipping sauce) jumped out at us - both were rich and delicious.
We were equally pleased with our salad course, a vibrant dish of roasted beet, balsamic-charred red onion, and saffron-poached pear, perched on a riot of color in the form of blackberry honey gastrique, plus watercress, whipped goat cheese, and toasted almonds. This was one of the better salads I'd had in recent memory and the kitchen was kind enough to divide it onto two plates for us. So far, the food was definitely living up to the lofty atmosphere.
Unfortunately, things started going off the rails when the entrees arrived. The brontosaurus-sized pork shank I ordered (1.5 lb of crispy pork roasted on the wood grill and garnished with firecracker apple raisin chutney) certainly drew envious glances from surrounding patrons, but had very little flavor depth (thank goodness for the chutney, I say). Mrs. Hackknife had a similar opinion of her cast iron-seared tuna steak, which sounded great (pumpkin seed crust and ginger soy grapefruit reduction) and tasted just average for the $27 it set us back. I did a casual survey of entrees at other tables and found pretty much the same pattern repeated over and over; that is, large wood-fired protein atop a massive mound of garlic mashed potatoes (while good, I couldn't have eaten all of them in three sittings) or rice and a few token vegetables (like 4 whole asparagus spears).
Dessert was a slight improvement, yet still left us wanting a bit more. Our server had talked up how tremendous the candied duck bacon maple fried ice cream was (you certainly can't beat the description), a concoction of vanilla ice cream coated in cinnamon corn flakes and candied duck bacon, lightly fried, then plopped onto a Knob Creek Bourbon creme anglaise/caramel sauce and served with a sweet potato waffle crisp and a protruding slab of said duck bacon. Looks right, sounds right, tastes, well, not as awesome as all that.
It's a shame that the meal didn't quite live up to the hoopla of its resident history and surroundings. At the end of the day, our first experience at Ulele reminds us of our experiences at their other restaurant, Columbia - there's a terrific backstory and structure, it's a fun place to dine with a large group, your relatives will love the food, but they're not exactly a temple of high gastronomy (even though that appears to be a goal here). I'm aware that the Gonzmarts have sunk a lot of capital into this venture and both the family and the city have a lot riding on its success - given the crowds, I suspect that they'll hit their targets and Tampa Heights as a whole will be buoyed by the rising tide (indeed, the old trolley building/armature works next door is being renovated into something big). I think it's admirable what they've done and the complex is clearly a civic benefit, I just hope that the food can someday inhabit the same strata...