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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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Epicurean Hotel, One Week From Opening, Tantalizes With Details [Goat Cheese On The Mini-Bar]

Posted Dec 11, 2013 by Jeff Houck

Updated Dec 11, 2013 at 03:13 PM

Epicurean Hotel construction

Chef Chad Johnson’s shiny new baby sits in the middle of his new kitchen at the culinary-themed Epicurean Hotel like a silver Rock of Gibraltar.

The gaudy centerpiece is a $170,000 custom-made Viking stove that took almost two weeks to assemble. Within arm’s reach a cook can use two gas burners, two 12-inch induction surfaces and a chromium grill. In other corners there are flat-top plancha grills and pasta cookers and sous vide machines and blast freezers and just about every tool anyone could ever need to serve a food order.

An enormous stainless-steel exhaust hood hangs like a halo above the unit. A double-deck platform snakes around the room acting as a pass-through between the cooks and the front-of-house servers who will take plates to the Grand Cru ballroom, the Elevage restaurant or for room service.

“This is what happens when you don’t give a chef a budget and you let him buy a stove,” Johnson says.

Epicurean Exterior

Workers do detail work in the hotel’s Howard Avenue facade

One week from Wednesday, all of the hotel’s elaborately planned luxuries will go into service as the Epicurean opens for business on South Howard Avenue after more than six years of planning. The boutique hotel is a joint venture between Bern’s Steak House, Mainsail Lodging & Development and Marriott.

The resort promises an all-encompassing culinary experience for guests, including the new Elevage restaurant; a patisserie named Chocolate Pi; an instructional theater; the Bern’s Fine Wine & Spirits store; the Evangeline spa, which will use wine products in treatments; and the Edge Social Drinkery rooftop bar overlooking South Tampa’s skyline.

“I joke about how we designed a kitchen and built a hotel around it,” general manager Tom Haines says. “It isn’t far from the truth.”

Epicurean Hotel construction

A worker walks between the Epicurean’s lobby and the restaurant

As part of the Marriott Autograph Collection of hotels, Haines plans to give guests an intimate lodging experience. There is no front desk, bell staff or concierge at the $33 million, 140-room resort. Instead, an Epicurean host greets guests at the car door (or arranges their transportation from the airport) and escorts them to their rooms. All room keys and transactions will be swiped with an iPad.

Once in the room, hosts will introduce guests to their own “personal artisan pantry” stocked with gourmet goodies, including chocolate and sea salt caramels, prosciutto and 12-year-old Dewar’s Scotch. A handful of wines will be available as well, with tags that help guests pair snacks with their vino.

“Ever had Cypress Grove Purple Haze Goat Cheese in your hotel room?” Johnson asks.

Epicurean Hotel construction

The artisan pantry menu featured in each Epicurean room

Haines says his goal is to avoid having guests stand in lines at the hotel, where guest rooms range from $179 to $299 and suites run $299 to $449 a night.

“The thing I’ve always hated as a consumer at hotels is that you’re supposed to be the center of the universe in terms of hospitality, yet you have to deal with four different people by the time you get to your room,” Haines says. “We’re the non-hotel.”

Johnson and Haines brainstormed with others to deliver what guests usually expect in luxury lodging while playing to the opposite of a resort experience. As sleek and modern as the iPads and the spa treatments will be, there still will be hemp chandeliers, old railroad carts and a 10-foot Christmas tree made with wine bottles in the lobby.

Epicurean - Elevage decor

Retro-industrial light fixtures in the Elevage dining room

The quirky Bern’s decorating touch will be evident as well, with giant Shun knives as door handles at the culinary theater, knickknacks from steak house founder Bern Laxer’s own collection, and a $3,000 faux-leather end table near the zinc-rimmed bar in the shape of a 300-pound hog.

“Everything is a mix of new and shiny and old and beat-up,” Johnson says. “I’m sure there’s a more eloquent way to say that.”

“It’s been fun working with Chad because he comes from a non-hotel role,” Haines says.

“I’m the guy who raises my hand and says, ‘Too corporate!’” Johnson says.

Epicurean Hotel construction


Chad Johnson, left, with Tom Haines

Their personalized approach extends to the Elevage restaurant, where servers will present business cards instead of wearing name tags. Front-of-house staff also will be allowed to select their own casual attire instead of wearing one-style-fits-all uniforms.

The expensive kitchen notwithstanding, Johnson says he downsized at Elevage, choosing a menu of comfort food made with fine ingredients. He’s most excited about breakfast, which no Bern’s restaurant has served. Bern’s owner David Laxer and Mainsail’s president Joe Collier want it to become a power breakfast spot for South Tampa’s movers and shakers.

“We don’t have four different forks,” he says. “We have one fork. We all know how to use it. We’re trying to take away the things that cause anxiety for people when they get into a fancy restaurant.”

Adjacent to Elevage, 32 panels of vertically grown vegetables and herbs will greet customers through the Howard Avenue entrance. The panels, grown by Uriah’s Urban Farm of Tampa and replenished twice a week, will allow cooks to create salads using vegetation cut from the hallway display.

“If you come in from the street, you’ll walk by your house salad,” Johnson says.

Epicurean culinary theater

Workers assemble the culinary theater

A few feet away, a culinary classroom with tiered seating will showcase not only cooks from the Bern’s family of restaurants, but also wine and spirits experts from around the world and chefs from other restaurants.

With three convection ovens, six gas burners and two portable induction burners, a chef could prepare dinner for 30 in front of class attendees or for private events. Cameras will display techniques on two 70-inch flat-screen televisions as well as record demonstrations for showing on a channel in each hotel room.

Johnson says at first he was skeptical, but now he sees the classroom’s huge potential to attract local guests.

“Now it’s taken on a life of its own,” he says. “We’ll have everything from wine classes to vodka presentations, to champagne seminars.”

On the north side of the entrance driveway, Chocolate Pi will create pastries for the hotel and serve daily teas from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. On the hotel’s fourth floor, Edge Social Drinkery plans a menu full of craft cocktails and late-night snacks that include a macaron of the day, chocolate bonbons and chocolate chip cookies with milk foam.

Details that most hotels overlook until after they open have been considered, including where kitchen trash cans and dish pans will go. The Italian plaster in the wine store is stained Cabernet red. Hand sinks for employees were placed for maximum efficiency.

“We tried to find an appropriate place for all those items,” Johnson says. “Usually you’re stumbling over them because they’re dropped wherever needed. This is more work area than I’ve ever been around.”

A Word Or Two About Great Bar Food [And The Golden Snacky Award Goes To…]

Posted Dec 6, 2013 by Jeff Houck

Updated Dec 6, 2013 at 06:07 PM


I come now before you to praise bar food.

It’s a forgotten art, it seems to me, to provide great eats to go along with outstanding sips. Too many bars, lounges and pubs think throwing a bowl of pretzels or wasabi peas in front of you covers the territory. I consider those an insult to the drinking public.

Recently, I’ve been reminded how much better adult beverages taste when bites of well-prepared food ride shotgun.

Verily I say unto you, I really like the crispy-fried Mac Balls [pictured above] at Brewers’ Tasting Room on Fourth Street in St. Petersburg.

I’ve eaten fried macaroni and cheese before. And I am a fan of all food in ball form.

What made these succulent treats special was that they were served with a cider orange marmalade dunking sauce that was such a perfect sidekick, I considered making a batch to slather the skin of my Thanksgiving turkey.


The bar’s brisket sandwich was moist and tender. Their basket of parsley steak fries with garlic aioli would be the perfect late-night snack in a state where marijuana is legal to inhale. It didn’t hurt that I was washing it all down with 7venth Sun double IPA. But the balls, my goodness, they were outstanding.

Which got me to thinking about other wonderful bar food I’ve found in the area:

Edison Food + Drink Lab

* Goat cheese truffles with Medjool dates, foie gras, fenel pollen and citrus at Edison Food + Drink Lab in Tampa. [pictured above] Their escargot with a cippolini onion crostini and black garlic bagna càuda is also magnificently droolworthy.

Z Grille Nighttime

The Dr. Pepper fried baby back ribs with sweet chili sauce and sesame slaw at Z Grille in St. Petersburg. Not only do the ribs make great bar grub, they’re one of my favorite dishes ever.


The deviled egg flight at Anise Global Gastrobar in downtown Tampa, with blue cheese and bacon and curried crab flavors.


Duck fat fries at Dough in south Tampa. The potato wedges are first baked and then fried to a crisp in duck fat before being served with confit-roasted garlic aioli. Not to put too fine a point on it: They are my spirit animal.

The Tater Tots “Dauphine” at Domani Bistro & Lounge in Seminole Heights. Delicate and crispy, they’re even better when dunked in house-made curry ketchup and washed down with one of the bar’s amazing craft cocktails.

The pork-fried Marcona almonds at Cru Cellars in South Tampa. Served with applewood-smoked bacon and dusted with ancho chili, sea salt and lime, they make me want to drink a cellar full of wine. Which, if you think about it, is the entire plan.


The pates, sausages, salamis, hams, cheeses and cured and smoked fish at Mise en Place’s First Flight Wine Bar in Tampa International Airport. If you have to be inappropriately frisked by government workers in the name of public safety, you might as well make your mouth exceedingly happy.

Stein & Vine

“Pig wings” — fried pork shanks — at The Stein & Vine in Brandon. I dare you to decide among the Sriracha Ranch, Habanero BBQ, Latin Lime, Teriyaki Chili or Buffalo dipping sauces. I dare you.

Louisiana oyster shooters with tomatoes, cilantro and jalapenos in tomato lime mojito at Red Mesa Cantina in downtown St. Petersburg. These are technically a foodstuff and a cocktail, which makes them a highly efficient delicious use of taste buds.

I would, if I could, bestow each of these esteemed spots a golden Snacky Award for great achievements in the appetizer arts. But trophies cost a lot of money. Until I hit it big in scratch-off lottery tickets, they’ll have to make due with my undying love and endless appetite for their goodness.

What about you? Got a favorite Happy Hour snacking place and dish? br>

This Haiku Contest/Is All About The Fruitcake/Get To Writing, Stat! [Guess Who’s Judging?]

Posted Dec 5, 2013 by Jeff Houck

Updated Dec 6, 2013 at 05:44 PM

Mrs. Lucille Harvey

In 1951, Mrs. Lucille Harvey entered a white fruitcake in a Tampa Tribune baking contest. The recipe became so beloved that reprinting it each holiday season became an annual tradition.

Unwittingly, her beloved recipe inspired a fruitcake-themed haiku contest several decades later. This year marks the seventh year we will attempt to piggyback the popularity of Mrs. Harvey’s holiday treat by inviting readers to send us their poetry.

Last year, Steve Winchell of Sebring won the whole shebang with this lovely poem:

A fan of fruitcake,
I search for a kindred soul.
Alas, fruitlessly.

Kyle Roberts of Tampa took second place by going for the funny, playing off the fiscal cliff the U.S. was headed toward:

The fruitcake cliff nears!
Increase fruit or decrease nuts?
Can’t slice it both ways.

Nice to know that we left all that congressional squabbling in 2012.

Oh. Right. Nevermind.

Other top contenders last year included this one from Esther Sarris Rupp of Seffner:

CAKE? You call this CAKE?
I think it’s a conspiracy
To add fat to thighs.

Janet Watson of Wesley Chapel made us giggle with this ditty:

Sent to a sailor
the cake arrived moldy green
was buried at sea

As in previous years, you are invited to write as many haiku as you care to pen, with the understanding that a perfect snowflake of verse is just as effective as an avalanche.

Perhaps you enjoy writing topical haiku such as:

Sebelius blames
HHS web site problems
on fruitcake eating.

Or maybe:

Obama decides
Health Care Act covers fruitcake.
New name: Bidencare.


Edward Snowdon says
U.S. spied on allies, but
no fruitcake drone strikes.

Perhaps other current world events will be your inspiration:

Russian meteor
exploding in atmosphere
was a fresh fruitcake.


Vatican voting
elects a frugal pontiff.
First words: Eat fruitcake.

Then again, there’s the world of entertainment:

Hey Miley Cyrus!
Maybe your big wrecking ball
is full of fruitcake!

Of course, the travails of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers seem tailor-made for fruitcake metaphors:

Coach Greg Schiano
punishes his quarterbacks
with fruitcake drills.

Injuries, tirades,
MRSA, losses and bad trades
Thank god, no fruitcakes.

Okay, now for the really big announcement.

Each year, I invite an esteemed food colleague to judge the entries in the contest. Previous judges have included baking legend Rose Levy Beranbaum and Shannon O’Malley, author of the book, “Apocalypse Cakes.”

This year’s judge?

Wait for it.

Wait for it.

Sorry. I’m hyperventilating as I type this…

Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond

Ree Drummond, author of “The Pioneer Woman” blog and star of he Food Network series “The Pioneer Woman.” (I’m sensing a theme.)


Ree has a new book out: “The Pioneer Woman Cooks a Year of Holidays.”

You can read more about it here. Scroll all the way down to find links for ordering it online.

I reached out to Ree because I had a holiday contest and she had a holiday book. One hand scrapes mud off the boot of another, I always say. Also, Ree is a certified 100 percent doll. Just one of my favorite people.

The winner of this year’s contest will win a copy of Ree’s book.

To enter: email your haiku to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) with the subject line “Fruitcake Haiku.” Or mail them to:

Fruitcake Haiku
c/o Jeff Houck
202 S. Parker St.
Tampa, FL 33606

All entries must be received by Dec. 11. Winners will be announced Dec. 22 in Baylife.

Best of luck!

Five Edible Christmas Gifts To Buy For Friends and Loved Ones [Black Friday Comes Just Once A Year]

Posted Nov 29, 2013 by Jeff Houck

Updated Nov 29, 2013 at 01:37 PM

Reindeer backpack

Thursday was the biggest eating day of the year, what with the mash-up of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, so food likely is the last thing you want to think about right now when it comes to gift-giving. And yet, you should absolutely consider edibles, because unlike that Side Socket you received last year (and never plugged sideways into a wall to hide all of your electrical wires), food makes a great gift. Here are a few local offerings to consider:

Hunahpu's Imperial Stout T-shirt

1. Chances are, you have a beer nerd in your life who craves craft suds. Few things say Enormous, “Star Trek”-Sized Tampa Brew Geek more than wearing a T-shirt bearing the most sought-after local craft beer: Cigar City Brewing’s Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout. (Don’t ask. Just take our word.) Hundreds of thirsty disciples wait in line once a year for the limited-edition beer. You can buy the mustard yellow Hunahpu’s shirt for $20 at their Spruce Street tasting room as well as through their online store at

2005 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Pauillac

2. If you believe, as Reformation leader Martin Luther did, that “Beer is made by men, wine by God,” then you want only the best grapes to touch the taste buds of those you love. If you’re gonna go big, go for a bottle of 2005 vintage Chateau Mouton Rothschild Pauillac. Wine Advocate gave the Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon a score of 96. We give it a credit score of “Oh my, goodness!” since each bottle runs about $1,095 at Bern’s Fine Wine & Spirits on South Howard Avenue in Tampa; (813) 250-9463.

Yacht StarShip

3. You might have noticed, we’re almost surrounded by water. (Thank you, skyrocketing flood insurance rates!) The Yacht StarShip takes advantage of the picturesque aspects of our coastal environment by offering River of Lights Christmas Cruises throughout December (including Dec. 27 to 29). Not only does the lavishly festooned boat serve a delicious dinner buffet, it floats passengers up the Hillsborough River to see beautifully lighted bridges and the holiday decorations along Tampa Harbor. The cruise finishes with a visit from Santa, hot chocolate and holiday cookies. Prices, not including tax, port fee or gratuity: $49.95 for adults, $29.95 for children. For reservations: (813) 223-7999.

Toffee To Go

4. You shouldn’t want to give a scrumptious box of Toffee to Go because Oprah just named it one of her favorite things of 2013. But it can’t hurt the gifter to brag about such things when it comes to impressing a giftee. The Tampa snack maker sells assortments of milk chocolate, milk chocolate almond, dark chocolate pecan and white chocolate macadamia nut toffee in a variety of sizes. Gift boxes start at $10 for a small assortment. Available at as well as at their store at 3251 W. Bay to Bay Blvd., Tampa.

Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival 2012

5. The premier food festival in the country is just a four-hour car ride south at the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival, which takes place Feb. 20 to 23 in Miami Beach. This annual spring break for chefs attracts every Food Network bigwig to swanky parties like The Q, which mixes barbecue and champagne on the sand a few hundred yards from the Atlantic Ocean. Food stars from Jose Andres to Andrew Zimmern will make appearances at dozens of food and booze-filled events. For info and tickets — they sell out fast! — go online to

Giving Thanks For Alternatives To Thanksgiving [Turkey, Shmurkey.]

Posted Nov 25, 2013 by Jeff Houck

Updated Nov 26, 2013 at 12:23 PM


So, you’re not into the whole Thanksgiving thing. Or maybe you’re just weary of the standard A+B=C or turkey, green bean casserole and pumpkin pie.

I feel you. I do.

I dig the holiday, although I’m not sure why. It’s fun in concept to bring all of those whom you love around the table. Fun, that is, until everyone gets comfortable enough to unleash all of their pent-up frustrations with one another that they’ve barely kept contained all year. I’m my head, I envision the Pilgrims saying, “Oy vey!” and getting back on the Mayflower to sail back to England.

As for the food, I’ve started in recent years to experiment with the turkey, mostly because it’s a dull and flavorless protein. When you have to fry, grill, sear, bake, smoke or convect something to make it better, it would indicate that the traditional foodstuff could use some reinvention.

In the interest of alternative view points, here are a few links to take you to paths less traveled.

You may not choose to execute any of these strategies. But sometimes, just thinking about doing so is enough.

Thanksgiving is the annual tradition

Food & Wine: Alternatives to turkey

Food & Wine: Vegetarian cassaroles Calvin Trillin’s Alternate Thanksgiving Menu

Mother Nature Network: 4 Alternative Thanksgiving Celebrations

Bon Apetit: Alt-Pumpkin Thanksgiving Desserts

Mayo Clinic: Thanksgiving recipes - Delicious and healthy options