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Jeff Houck

The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.

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Kitchenbar Cooks Flavors For The Holidays [Eating Tampa]

Posted Dec 14, 2011 by Jeff Houck

Updated Dec 14, 2011 at 09:18 AM

Kitchenbar 4: Naughty or Nice

Had a chance to dine last night at chef Jeannie Pierola‘s fourth Kitchenbar pop-up restaurant, the “Naughty or Nice” edition for the holidays she put together at Knife & Co. on Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa.

Having eaten at her three previous incarnations, I came expecting Pierola’s trademark mixing and mingling of flavors and textures in surprising ways.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Kitchenbar 4: Naughty or Nice

A dish that looked like it should have been an elegant version of poutine - a cold-weather French Canadian staple of French fries and cheese curds, covered with gravy - had fried chickpea planks instead of potatoes, an unexpected mint puree, whipped yogurt instead of cheese and an oxtail gravy with slight Indian tandoori highlights.

Kitchenbar 4: Naughty or Nice

The Diver scallops with duck fat potatoes, frisee pear salad, truffle jus was a study in soft textures, with the potatoes sliced micro-thin, the pear slices and salad offsetting the truffle flavor and the scallops seared perfectly.

Kitchenbar 4: Naughty or Nice

The chicory peanut butter milkshake? It was so addictive, I wondered if it was made with heroin, nicotine, Sofia Vergara‘s accent and large-stakes gambling.

Kitchenbar 4: Naughty or Nice

Still, there is a noticeable difference in tone between this Kitchenbar and its predecessors. Other than a “creamsicle” dessert made with liquid cheesecake and candied kumquats, the food on KB’s first menu during this run seems more serious and sober. Part of that may be due to the seasonal flavors Pierola has chosen to use. It’s not the time of year to go wild and play with summer mango or champagne ingredients. Still, there’s plenty of luxury and mirth, like the foie gras shrimp toast on the vichysoisse and the white chocolate emulsion in the Maine lobster risotto.

Bottom line: I dug what I had. A lot. Trying to pick from the a la carte menu (there was no tasting menu Tuesday night) took almost a half-hour - there were that many amazing possibilities. From a front-of-house standpoint, it was a blast to watch from the dining room as Pierola managed the open kitchen from the expo station with help from sous chef Allison Beasman. That she was able to push out that many great dishes from a phone-booth-size kitchen with a staff she barely knew is kind of amazing. Some diners moaned about long wait-times between dishes, but it’s still the first week of operation. By the time the restaurant hits Noche Buena, everything should be firing on all cylinders.

Customers last night gossiped about Pierola moving in permanently at Knife & Co., after Kitchenbar ends its run on New Year’s Eve. I’m more interested in seeing where she takes her menus in the coming weeks before Kitchenbar folds its tent. If the hundreds of reservations it sold in the first hours last week are any indication, so are local diners.

Here’s a gallery of photos I shot last night during dinner:

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