Cuban Nuances in Tampa’s New Generation of Restaurants

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Ulele restaurant

Senor Castro may have left this world, but the intrigue and influence of the Cuban culture is still alive and well in Tampa, a historic Cuban cigar-making town since the 1880s. Ybor City is the Cuban foodie epicenter with such historic, landmark restaurants as the original Columbia Restaurant, La Tropicana, Carmine’s, and La Segunda Central Bakery.

But Cubano foodways are not confined to Tampa’s Latin district. Cuba and its Spanish abuela insinuate themselves into most menus, even the newest, finest, and most progressive. Besides the ubiquitous Cuban sandwich that everyone claims bragging rights to, you’ll see and taste the influence in dishes from ramen to ice cream.

I was recently engaged in a mission to sample and write about six of Tampa’s most up-and-coming restaurants. There I found delightful ways that Cuban cuisine had purposely or unknowingly creeped into the chef’s head.

In the case of Ichicoro Ramen, the fusion is intentional. The roast pork asado in its Tonkotsu ramen bowl takes cues from Cuban pork mojo. If that’s not evident enough, consider the CuBaoNo – a not-so-subtle nod to the Cuban sandwich in an Asian bun. “This is Tampa,” says manager Eric. “Our Asian fusion has to incorporate that tradition.”

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Tonkotsu ramen

Oxford Exchange, just off downtown Tampa near the university, may emulate a British club, but there’s jolty Spanish cortado (similar to café con leche) beside sthe tea sommelier’s menu.

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Coffee at Oxford Exchange

It was less of a surprise to find tostones – albeit breadfruit tostones rather than plantain – at Seminole Heights’ darling Rooster & the Till. Considering that Chef Farrell Alvarez has Colombian roots, Latin influence is expected. It came with the crisp chicken thigh and yuzu habanero kosho the night I dined.

Also no big surprise at Ulele, one of the latest brainchildren from Columbia Restaurant dynasty kingpin Richard Gonzart. Although the culinary concept is defined as native American, the Naviaera Espresso Chocolate Swirl Ice Cream uses a coffee blend straight from Ybor City.

A native Tampan, Chef Jeannie Pierola has reached semifinalist status four times in the James Beard competition and was recently a guest chef at the Beard House. Her latest edison: food+drink lab near downtown draws on influences from here to Cyprus. The paella negra on the dinner menu the day I visited draws on strong Spanish tradition with a few of Chef Jeannie’s trademark twists such as squid ink rice, saffron uni foam, and piquillo pepper jam.

Chef Greg Baker at Fodder & Shine had me stumped. He professes strict Southern cuisine (with his own interpretations), and whereas I expected Florida Cuban influence to show up, it took a while to find it. There it is! On the Cornmeal Cake Sandwich, topped with killer collard greens, tomato, green pepper, scallion, and cayenne vinegar slaw. And served on – tada! La Segunda Cuban bread.

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Uncorking ‘Clearwater Beach Uncorked’

The paella was going to be a hard act to follow. Luckily we hit SHOR’s culinary presentation before the big crowds arrived.

SHOR, the flagship restaurant for Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach, somehow managed a fresh-tasting true taste of Florida for thousands of guests on the beach that Saturday afternoon in early February – part of Clearwater Beach’s third annual Uncorked festival.sign

Under tents set up right on Clearwater Beach’s patent brand of sugar sand, the food and wine adventure is unlike any other of Florida’s barrel-loads of winter wine festivals.

For starters, organizers have decanted out any snob, elitist dregs. Here, beach bash meets foodie feast. It runs for two weekend days and draws a diverse, grape-happy crowd that cheerfully – for the most part anyway – endures long lines and crowds so clotted it got tricky raising glass to lips.

Barefoot and Bountiful

A shoe check-in at the tents’ entrance gave permission to wiggle toes in sand, but I feared for the safety of said toes. At Saturday’s peak, crowds were five to eight deep at the more popular food and drink stations. That’s when we were gladdest to have passes to the VIP Grand Tasting, where vendors were pouring top-shelf drinks, and we could score a splendid plate of escargot with smoky mac ‘n’ cheese from the Lobster Pot in Redington Shores.

The VIP lounge was available only during Saturday’s 1-to-5 p.m. event. It’s worth paying the extra 40 bucks (regular admission is $85 for each day) .

View from the Hyatt Regency

View from the Hyatt Regency

For the most top-shelf Uncorked experience, book a room at the Hyatt, central to the festival: Avoid parking hassles and easily escape the crowds in Skimmers bar or your sumptuous room.  After a couple of hours we were ready to do just the latter, since scoring tastes of food and booze was becoming near impossible.

Sip. Savor. Repeat.

We started earlier the next day so we could pick up what we had missed the day previous – wowsome pancetta-wrapped shrimp atop lime cream corn from Caretta’s on the Gulf and smoked fish dip and house ale from Crabby Bill’s, both on Clearwater Beach; grilled scallops with cheesy grits from Oystercatchers in Tampa; and crab cakes from Salt Rock Grill in Indian Shores – to name a

The Caretta team

The Caretta team

few.

Wines came from all over the country. My favorite new tries were White Lightning Chardonnay, Dreaming Tree Everyday White, and a Florida-made Hurricane Category 5 sangria.

Available both days, a separate lounge area provided samples of liquors ranging from Cape Coral’s artisanal Wicked Dolphin rum to Tito vodka in lemonade with fresh basil and Jim Beam Honey.

So the moral of the story: If you’re expecting hoity sit-down dinners and break-the-bank tastings at your Florida wine

Wine flows freely

Wine flows freely

festival, head to Naples, Sarasota, or South Beach. Otherwise, mark Uncorked on your calendar for next February.

In let-loose Clearwater Beach (warning: no drinks outside of the festival areas), it’s all in the spirit of fun and food that comes uncorked on several levels.

For more information about beach-going on Clearwater Beach, read my USA TODAY coverage.

Eating Sarasota

For 15 days in June, foodies can get their fill of Sarasota affordably.

Number one beach in the U.S. in 2012? Sure, I’m impressed by Sarasota’s legendary sugar sand.

Sweet pears poached with lavender and honey, topped with goat cheese ice cream, and served in a pool of black pepper caramel sauce? That, my

Matthison's chicken and wild mushroom bread pudding

Matthison’s chicken and wild mushroom bread pudding

friends, is the first sweet thing that comes to my mind when I’m headed to Sarasota.I’m not even that big of a dessert fan, but this particular dish at Derek’s Culinary Casual definitely rates in my taste bud Hall of Fame. Derek’s, one of more than 50 independently owned members of Sarasota-Bradenton Originals within the cities’ two-county area, excels at the “original part.”

Other dishes I’ve tried and will never forget: salad “Caesaresque,” braised lamb shank, and Prince Edward mussels dish — at once rustic, elegant, smoky, and surprising in its broth of chorizo, garbanzos, and grilled tomato butter.

It’s a stellar example of the standard of dining one finds throughout the Sarasota region – everything from home-cooked Amish to house-created ingenuity.

Savor Sarasota Discount Dining Days

A good time to try out Sarasota’s dining scene is during the eighth annual Savor Sarasota, June 1 through 14. Special multi-course pre-fixe menus encourage experimentation without wallet pain in more than 35 restaurants this year. Lunches cost only $15; dinners, $29. Read more of this post