2 Tampa Bay chefs named James Beard Award 2019 semifinalists

Tampa Bay is on fire this morning with two chefs named James Beards Award semifinalists for 2019. The James Beard Foundation awards are the most prestigious award a chef can receive in the food industry.

Chef Jeannie Pierola from Edison: Food + Drink Lab has been nominated as a Semifinalist for Best Chef in the South 2019. Chef Pierola has been nominated numerous times in the past for the James Beard Foundation awards. She previously worked as a chef at Bern’s Steak House and SideBern’s in South Tampa. Her most recent project is Edison’s Swigamajig at Sparkman Wharf.

Chef Rachel Bennett from The Library in St. Petersburg is nominated as a Semifinalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year 2019. The Library is the latest project from the owners at the Oxford Exchange in Tampa. Rachel is a graduate of the Hillsborough Community College (HCC) Culinary Program. Her past projects include Bern’s Steak House, Edison, Puff ‘n Stuff Catering, and the Oxford Exchange itself.

Congrats to these chefs and keep up the great work!

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Food Critic Laura Reiley leaving Tampa Bay Times

Tampa Bay Times Food Critic, Laura Reiley, is retiring after a 10 year run at the paper and heading over to Washington Post.

Laura Reiley was an entity I always knew about throughout the last 9 years I have written this blog, but due to the anonymity of newspaper food critics, I had no clue what she looked like – so I would only imagine what she looked like as I perused her reviews and as chefs and restaurant industry folks constantly gossiped about her to me.

Most of the time we disagreed over the years about restaurants (especially when a top restaurants list was involved) and also the kinds of stories I would read from her, but there was a moment where Laura Reiley made a huge difference to Tampa and to the restaurant industry nationwide.

Laura’s Farm-to-Fable story was a super-sleuth investigation into how Tampa restaurants were manipulating and lying to their customers about organic and farm-to-table cuisine. Laura worked overtime to get to the bottom of this story and to be quite honest I am sure there could be an entire book filled with this topic alone.

The story was incredibly embarrassing for the City of Tampa, but also very necessary for the future of our city. Suddenly, I stopped receiving a thousand press releases claiming organic or farm-fresh cuisine, and when I started to question where the food was coming from when waiters or chefs spoke, they were more careful about their words and I warned them they wouldn’t want to be on another story like that.

For me the story didn’t just speak about the food industry, which is vast and complex, but also about the customers in Tampa who were not demanding more from restaurants. The difference between grouper and tilapia is quite great, yet diners were buying up fake Tampa Rolls at premium prices. Why do people in Tampa continue to support business that lie to them in their faces? I have questions.

Sometimes my discourse with diners in Tampa can be like this and ultimately along the way I came to appreciate Laura Reiley as a necessary being that operated in the shadows.

There is a benefit to having a critic whose job is simply to write and cover food. Not just to consumers, but also for people in the restaurant industry who are working on their craft. Laura asks the questions people do not want to answer and takes deep dives into what makes people and businesses tick and I do respect her for that.

Then – one day Laura exposed her identity and showed what she looked like which was a little strange for me to witness.

San Francisco Chronicle Food Critic Soleil Ho can attest that times are changing though and anonymity is no longer what it once was.

Many restaurateurs would brag to me that they had printed out photos of Laura Reiley hidden behind their counters. Indeed, being anonymous in today’s food critic world may be impossible for someone my age (thanks Facebook).

I wish Laura the best at the Washington Post and thank her for her hard work writing at the Tampa Bay Times.

Clearwater Beach named “Best Beach in America” 2019 by Tripadvisor

Clearwater Beach has been named the “Best Beach in America” by Tripadvisor for 2019 beating out Siesta Key down south.

Clearwater Beach is known for powdery white sand, beautiful sunsets, and really embodies the heart of Florida. Tripadvisor analyzed the quantity and quality of the reviews for beaches over a 12-month cycle to decide on the list.

Credit: City of Clearwater


Clearwater averages 361 days of sunshine every year and holds the record for consecutive sunny days at 768.

The home of the Pier 60 Sugar Sand Festival and Clearwater Beach Uncorked has a number of beautiful resorts and hotels popping up every year along the Gulf of Mexico.

You really have not watched a Florida sunset until you’ve seen it at the top of the Grand Hyatt on Clearwater Beach with a drink and snacks in hand at their pool deck.

What are some of the top ranked restaurants in Clearwater Beach according to Tripadvisor?

  • Marina Cantina
  • Another Broken Egg Cafe
  • Caretta on the Gulf
  • Cristino’s Coal Oven Pizza
  • Badfins Food + Brew
  • Maggie Mae’s Sunrise Cafe
  • Salty’s Island Bar & Grille

View the complete beach rankings here: http://www.tripadvisor.com/TravelersChoice-Beaches-cTop-g191

4th Annual Kissimmee Cuban Sandwich Festival this Saturday

Ready to enjoy some delicious Cuban Sandwiches in Central Florida and get that bread? The 4th Annual Kissimmee Cuban Sandwich Festival is this Saturday, March 2nd, at Kissimmee Lakefront Park located at 201 Lakeview Drive from 11AM to 6PM. The event is presented by Ford.

Festival goers will be able to vote for the Best Cuban Sandwich at the festival and participants will compete in both a traditional and non-traditional Cuban Sandwich competition.

Alton Brown on a Cuban Sandwich taste test in Tampa.

What’s in a traditional Cuban Sandwich you ask? Ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard, and salami on Cuban bread will make a traditional Cuban Sandwich.

This sandwich was created in Tampa, Florida in the late 1800s and is recognized by entities such as The Food Network as the official Cuban Sandwich of the world. Miami can say what they want, but we know the truth.

Organizers and participants at the festival will be making one of the biggest Cuban Sandwiches in the world at the event at 163 FEET LONG, a spectacle to see. The sandwich will then be donated to the homeless.

General Admission tickets are FREE and the event is family-friendly. Live music and dance performances will be entertaining guests throughout the day and Orchestra Fuego will be there.

VIP tickets are also available for the 4th Annual Kissimmee Cuban Sandwich Festival and range from $30-$105 for a family of 4. VIP guests get to eat and schmooze with VIP attendees, media, and local celebrities. Seats will be available for VIP guests as well. The best part is that VIP gets access to the Cuban Sandwich contest entries and refreshments that are exclusively available there.

Buy VIP tickets: http://bit.ly/2NvTsY9

Participating restaurants/vendors:

Event Name: 4th Annual Kissimmee Cuban Sandwich Festival

Date & Time: Saturday, March 2nd, 2019

Venue: Kissimmee Lakefront Park

Address: 201 Lakeview Dr. Kissimmee, FL 34741

Cost: FREE Admission, VIP tickets available

Ages: All ages welcome

Facebook RSVP: http://www.facebook.com/events/259906308059627/

Dining Guide: 3 vegan eats that don’t break the bank in Tampa Bay

This post comes from Deborah Bostock-Kelley. Deborah is a food writer and is going to highlight some great vegan and gluten-free eats for us. I am asked all the time about vegan food, but it isn’t my specialty so I am very excited to have her writing for us.

It’s hard enough to find restaurants when you are following a gluten-free lifestyle, but throw meat, dairy and egg-free into the mix and you would think your eating-out meal options would be limited to salad, salad and, yes, more salad.

For most chain restaurants, that option is sadly true, but surprisingly in Tampa Bay, individually-owned gems are making healthy living – vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free – more mainstream, affordable, and available to an appreciative public.

With the help of the Now Find Me Gluten-Free, Happy Cow, and Vanilla Bean Vegetarian/Vegan restaurant-finder apps, my husband and I have been able to navigate this lifestyle to find several delicious options on the weekends through restaurants that can accommodate.

3 vegan eats to start your trip around Tampa Bay

Here are the first three restaurants to dip your toe into the animal-products-free lifestyle:

1. Thai Legacy

Photos via @michaelsalamey

First and foremost, the family-owned Thai Legacy, is hands-down the best Thai Restaurant for vegan options. Open for just two years in February, from the complimentary puffed shrimp toast with chili dipping sauce to an every-visit order of the huge bowl of lemony Tom Yum Soup, (family-sized because we love the leftovers) to the Pad Thai or Drunken Noodles or scratch-made red and green curries ranging from mild to I-can’t-feel-my-face hot, the separate Vegan menu offers nearly 30 different options – appetizers, soups, fried rice, noodles, curries, specialty meals and desserts.

Our favorite, Veggie Pad Thai, is incredibly flavorful stir-fried rice noodles with diced tofu, sweet radish, beansprouts, and crushed peanuts. It’s cooked in a mouth-watering, homemade, vegan Pad Thai sauce. Owner Preeda Saeiab always make you feel welcome and her chef, son Perry makes sure you leave with your belly full and taste buds happy. 120 North Parsons Avenue Brandon, FL 33510. (813) 685-8005. thailegacyrestaurant.com

2. Loving Hut

Loving Hut is a staple to the vegan community on the USF college side of town. Every menu item is affordable as the founder wants healthy vegan food accessible for everyone. We visit for their monthly buffet (usually the first Saturday of the month) featuring soups, salads, summer rolls, spring rolls, pasta dishes, sandwiches, veggie dishes and desserts that are always changing.

The restaurant features appetizers, salads, vegan chick’n wings, shrimpless shrimp and fishless fish, as well salads, burrito wraps, sandwiches with staples like French fries and vegan mozzarella sticks. While my husband gravitates to the sandwiches and wraps, as the soy substitute is not gluten-free, I enjoy the spring rolls and creamy potato kale soup with vegan cream cheese or the delectable Beyond Meat Burger without the bun. The large menu can please even the most finnicky of palettes. 1905 East Fletcher Avenue Tampa, Florida. (813) 977-7888. lovinghut.us/tampa/

3. Rawk Star Café

At Rawk Star Café it may seem odd that a restaurant would not have an oven, but it makes sense when you realize everything you eat there is raw. If you are what you eat, you are super healthy raw vegetables masquerading as burgers, pizza, spaghetti, and chili and you taste incredible.

Peanut, wheat/gluten, and soy-free, Rawk Star Café serves only organic, raw, and living vegan cuisine. From powerhouse smoothies, Mother Kombucha on tap, Bulletproof Coffee, eggless egg salad, collard leaf wraps, and salads to Rawghetti, a Raw Burger, Raw Pizza, a Raw Chili plate, and many types of raw desserts and sweets, there is something to tempt even the strongest meat-atarian.

My absolute favorite, the Raw Chili plate, is loaded with fresh tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, walnuts, carrots, celery, shiitake mushroom, red bell pepper, and jalapeno and cayenne for heat. It’s served over a bed of thinly chopped zucchini, and then topped with a macadamia nut “sour cream,” fresh tomatoes, and house-blended Prama Sprinkle. Despite normal, non-supersized portions, you do not leave Rawk Star Café still feeling hungry. The high nutrient food leaves you feeling full longer. 4011 Tampa Road Oldsmar, FL. (813) 855-0007 rawkstarcafe.com

Next time, we’ll visit Queen of Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant, Ray’s Vegan Soul, and Halelife Bakery.

About Deborah: Deborah Bostock-Kelley is a busy restaurant reviewer, Broadway World theatre critic, playwright, producer, director, actress, children and young adult author, reporter for Groove Magazine, Seedling Magazine UK and Tampa Bay News & Lifestyles Magazine, and owner of The WriteOne Creative Services, a graphic design, web design, and copywriting company. As the philanthropic side of her company, she founded Life Amplified variety showcase in 2013 to give back to her community and was recognized in February 2016 as Bay News 9’s Every Day Hero and in May 2014 as FoxTV’s Hometown Hero. Life Amplified CONNECTIONS Broadway Tunes for Project No Labels is at Stageworks in June 2019 is her 13th showcase. Winning a 2017 Theatre Tampa Bay Jeff Norton Dream Grant, in January 2018 she wrote and produced the 2018 Broadway World award-winning (Best Actor & Best Actress) production, A Necessary Conversation (with Peter Nason) about bullying/gun violence/mental health with a community talkback at the Straz with proceeds going to Moms Demand Action, Tampa Chapter. The show has been expanded and she is directing later in 2019. Her one act plays have been performed in competition at Carrollwood Players, Tarpon Arts and Tampa Bay Theatre Festival. She also runs a blog about her gluten-free and vegan journey. www.dkvk.fun.

Tampa Bay Beer Week 2019: March 2-10

Tampa Bay Bay Week 2019 is pre-kicking off on Friday, March 1st will go until Sunday, March 10th. It is a series of beer events supported by local brewers, distributors, and vendors. Tampa Bay is currently the home to over 100 breweries serving a wide-variety of beer styles.

Lately Tampa Bay has been moving into the hyperlocal space with new breweries popping up in neighborhoods such as Leaven Brewing and Bullfrog Creek. The craft beer industry has evolved every year and continues to grow.

Local favorites have increased their footprints across the state and across the country as well as they search for new markets.

Tampa Bay Beer Week is one of the best weeks to be a beer fan in Tampa Bay and Florida. Exclusive beers will be poured and collaborations will be everywhere. Enjoy the beautiful sunny weather and support all your favorite local brewers as they put all their effort into events that will allow you to taste and experience all that the potential the craft beer industry has to offer.

Some key events for Tampa Bay Beer Week 2019:

Visit Tampa Bay Beer Week online at tampabaybeerweek.com.

Tampa Bay Beer Week is presented by Armature Works. Sponsors include BJ’s Restaurant, Creative Loafing Tampa, New Belgium Brewing, Estrella Galicia, J.J. Taylor Distributing, Inc., Pepin Distributing, and more.

Vietnamese Coffee Pop-up: Kasama Cà Phê coming to SF

Filipino and Vietnamese culture is colliding with a Vietnamese coffee pop-up from Kasama Cà Phê coming to San Francisco starting on Sunday, February 17th at MAC’D (2127 Polk St.) and The Brew Coop (819 Valencia St.). The pop-up will also appear on Sunday, March 24th and Sunday, April 28th at the same locations.

Kasama is a reference to companionship or togetherness in Filipino culture and cà phê means coffee in Vietnamese.

The menu will consist of strong cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese iced coffee) and ube affogatos (Philippine purple yam ice cream topped with Vietnamese coffee).

Photos via kasamacaphe.com

Vietnamese coffee background

Vietnamese coffee dates back to the 19th century when French colonialists introduced coffee to the country according to BBC News. Most Vietnamese coffee is actually exported today rather than consumed in Vietnam itself and Vietnam was ranked 2nd in the world in 2017 for coffee exports behind Brazil. Recent reports suggest a rise in both the quality and quantity of Vietnamese coffee.

Vietnam is a major producer of Robusta coffee which has more caffeine and has a much more bitter flavor than the commonly-known and used Arabica beans. Robusta makes up at least 79% of Vietnamese coffee production according to the General Department of Vietnam Customs in 2016.

Robusta can be described as earthy, harsh, or grainy. Most consumers of Vietnamese coffee will add condensed milk to sweeten it from its bitter taste. Vietnamese coffee is something you’ll want to ease into if you’re not used to high caffeine coffee.

About the people behind Kasama Cà Phê

The owners of Kasama Cà Phê are first-generation Asian-Americans and are sourcing their coffee beans from Vietnam with a plan to offer coffee from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand in the future and a plan to focus on brewing techniques from Southeast Asia.

Most people probably consume Vietnamese coffee at Vietnamese restaurants or at home at the moment, it will be interesting to see how Kasama Cà Phê differentiates themselves to make it a worthwhile experience.

Find out more about Kasama Cà Phê at kasamacaphe.com

10 food journalists to follow on Twitter

Food Twitter has always been entertaining, but the world of food media is finally advancing and recovering from some tumultuous years (thanks Web 2.0).

New voices and personalities are appearing online, including plenty of writers that I personally enjoying reading on a regular basis both in newspapers and on Twitter.

Many of these writers are also incredibly funny and interesting people in general. One thing you’ll notice about food writing is how it is evolving from simple reviews or critiques to more thought-out pieces that reflect the people writing about it and their cultural roots…and I love that.

In a world where the media industry seems to constantly be in upheaval, there is quality content being rolled out all the time that could always use more love (and a paid subscription).

Here are 10 food journalists to follow on Twitter:

  1. Noah Cho (@NoahReservations): Noah writes a column called Bad Kimchi for Catapult that I can connect to on so many levels after living in South Korea in 2011 and coming back to an America that is experimenting and popularizing kimchi. His writing is very personal and enjoyable to read and he actually led me to start throwing American cheese in my ramen and boy is it good.
  2. Soleil Ho (@hooleil): The new food critic at San Francisco Chronicle is entering a giant food void that has been left post-retirement of Michael Bauer, who ruled SF for 32 years. Soleil is a partner in the Racist Sandwich Podcast, which explores race and food issues. Although she hasn’t published her first article yet, her tweets and social media posts are entertaining and she is very active in the food media ecosystem. From what I can gather, her style will be completely different from the previous era of food and that’s a good thing as the food media industry is evolving.
  3. Joseph Hernandez (@joeybear85): The current Travel Editor at Thrillist and former Food Writer at Chicago Tribune knows his food. There are not too many Filipino food writers on the internet nowadays and Joseph’s story about his experiences growing up are a great read.
  4. Gowri Chandra (@gowri_chandra): Gowri probably consumes just as much food media as I do and is a great person to follow to stay updated on what is happening around food online. Her hot takes are actually good. She also contributes to a number of publications including Food & Wine, Condé Nast Traveler, Thrillist, Los Angeles Magazine, L.A. Weekly, Vice, and more.
  5. Dan Q. Dao (@danqdao): My experiences with New York are limited, but Dan provides interesting commentary that makes me think of what I would encounter should I head to NYC someday. He is funny, sassy, and writes a good number of pieces for Food & Wine and other publications as a contributor.
  6. Serena Dai (@ssdai): Serena writes for Eater New York and sparked quite a debate recently when Yelp came for her local Thai neighborhood spot. Her tweets are very relatable as someone writing in the food industry.
  7. Gustavo Arellano (@GustavoArellano): Gustavo tweets a ton (215K+ tweets) but his opinions and responses about food are truly great. His stories and commentaries on Mexican food should not be missed including a recent one about Vegan Pozole. He is also the author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.
  8. Carlos Frías (@Carlos_Frias): It’s a little surprising that there isn’t more Twitter activity in Miami for food considering how quickly restaurants open and close there and how many interesting concepts exist there. Also the unusual things that happen in Miami (think Florida Man) are constantly hitting the press. Carlos keeps everyone updated on Miami’s food scene as the Editor at Miami Herald Food and Miami.com. He writes and produce tons of engaging content in that sassy Miami vibe that I’ve come to love. Carlos is also a James-Beard Award winner.
  9. Mona Holmes (@monaeatsLA): This writer from Eater LA has some spicy tweets that I enjoy reading. Her tweets are’t always about food, but they generally involve something happening in the food sphere.
  10. Andrea Chang (@byandreachang): I am so happy that LA Times is beefing up their food content with a print food publication back in the market as a long time fan from the East Coast. Andrea Chang is the Deputy Food Editor there and there has been noticeably great coverage lately from her and her colleagues Peter Meehan (@pfmpfmpfm), Lucas Peterson (@lucaspeterson), and more. I’m rooting for this team and you should too. Go subscribe!

BONUS: Lauren Lee (@lauren_lee_la): This Audience Engagement Intern for LA Times sparked a battle across the internet this week about french fries that did not miss a single timeline and led to some interesting conversations between myself and a brand I hardly ever engage with: Checker’s. She has a promising future.

Seasons 52 Valentine’s Day menu tasting

Full disclosure: We were invited to Seasons 52 for a complimentary tasting of their Valentine’s Day menu options and a variety of dishes on their regular menu in exchange for our opinion. Opinions are our own and are not the opinions of Seasons 52 or its affiliates.

We popped over to Seasons 52 in Tampa for a tasting of their Valentine’s Day menu items and a few items off the regular menu. Here are thoughts on the things tried:

Starters

  1. Pinot Noir & Mini Riondo Prosecco paired with Flatbread Mushroom “Four mushroom” Goat cheese, truffle oil, scallions, four different mushrooms.

From the start we were served Pinot Noir as well as given a Mini Riondo Prosecco. Our server, Adam, recommended to pair the wines with one of their flatbreads on the menu. We felt that we needed to try the four mushroom flatbread, due to the umami flavors coming out of the cooked mushrooms and goat cheese being a perfect match for our wine.

Main Course

The presentation was wonderfully done, with my first bite I took a sip of wine and was met with satisfaction, just the right saltiness, buttery-flavor joined with the natural umami od the mushrooms as well as fresh greens to bring balance to the dish. It was truly a pair made from heaven. I wanted to gobble it down, but there was more food on the way.

  1. Grilled Artichokes with preserved lemon hummus – Celery hearts, radishes, green olives

          I was extremely curious to try the preserved lemon hummus as well as seeing how well it would pair with a grilled artichoke. To my surprise I was taken back by how delicious it was, the lemon hummus joined with the artichoke packed a flavorful punch that also went well with the starting wine. I truly enjoyed the presentation of the dish and the colors that popped such as the radish and the variety of beautiful color greens.

  1. Wood grilled Handline Tuna
    • Mint tabouli, tomato salad, preserved lemon hummus.

The wood grilled handline tuna was recommended immediately by our waiter. Morgan had no hesitation that this would be an amazing dish to have if you were looking for a seafood dish for your evening. Served on a bed of mint tabouli with an appealing, wood-grilled, handline tuna-seared to perfection with a beautiful display of tomatoes on top. The lemon hummus complimented the mint tabouli with wood-grilled seared tuna. It is a perfect rendition of sea meeting land joined by the natural flavours coming from the tomato. This is must order from Seasons 52!

  1. Slow braised Beef Short rib
    1. Stone ground cheddar grits, heritage carrots, horseradish crema

The slow braise Beef Short rib was the first recommended dish if seafood wasn’t an option. The presentation was beautifully done, the three different colored carrots appealed to my eyes, but I knew that the delicious gleaming slow-braised beef short rib was the star of the bowl. Seasons 52 literally blew me away with not just taste, but also the beauty of the dish. As I took my first bite, iIwas overwhelmed with the flavors, from the horseradish crema, combined with the cheddar grits, applied to the short rib, my mouth just continued to water as I chewed the delicious combination.

  1. Mac N Cheese
    • Cave-aged Gruyere cheese sauce, panko crust

You can never go wrong with a Mac N Cheese that is piping hot! The cave-aged gruyere cheese sauce had a beautiful rich creamy and slightly nutty taste. Gruyere cheese is usually found in fondue , so I knew what was coming towards my tastebuds. Absolutely an amazing combo that I truly enjoyed!

  1. Caramelized Brussels Sprouts

            Brussel sprouts cooked right is always delicious. Brussel sprouts cooked with a caramelization? Now that’s a star side dish, honestly it made me so happy, the profile of the flavors complimented each other so well. During my meal,  I found myself joining the flavors with the main meals that really continued to make my salivate.

  1. Maine Lobster Tails

The Maine Lobster was phenomenal, the grilled marks and lightly seasoned with salt and pepper with a coat of butter is always a magical flavor combination. It was extremely fresh and applying the roasted lemon to the tail joined the flavors like a proposal on the day of St. Valentine.

Did I mention that if you get engaged at Seasons 52 you get to enjoy a free champagne toast every time you dine for a year?             

It’s the perfect idea to propose love!


Dessert:

For dessert you can indulge with the various of flavor, such as: a strawberry shortcake with fresh cut strawberries topped with whip cream or a chocolate pudding smores shot with a graham cracker for the extra crunch.

My favorite dessert was the carrot cake, oh my goodness the flavors were amazing! It was creamy and packed with flavor. It is probably the best carrot cake I have ever enjoyed.

Seasons 52 also offers pecan pie, a tiramisu, and a coconut cookie cake, which were all wonderfully delicious as well.

Overall, we had a great time at Seasons 52. Check them out!

Restaurant Name: Seasons 52

Neighborhood: WestShore

Address: 204 North Westshore Boulevard, Tampa, FL 33609

Cost: $$

Phone Number: (813) 286-1152

Website: http://www.seasons52.com/

Review: WTR Pool & Grill Tampa

Hello!! My name is Natalie Kass and I’m a fellow travel blogger based in Tampa (see: Journey to the East). Last week, Carlos invited me to experience WTR Grill’s new dinner menu debut. I made it just in time to snag some beautiful photos with the setting sun, and dinner began shortly thereafter.

As a Florida native, I’m very familiar with beach hotels/restaurants. In fact, I’ve visited this location twice before and never knew about WTR Grill because the space was totally unrecognizable. Beachside venues are made to be transformable so they can accommodate diverse events — from weddings, to concerts, to formal events — which is why I never noticed the restaurant side of it!

The general aesthetic of beachside venues are always “beach themed,” meaning, light blues, soft lighting, and beach artifacts as decor. Usually, you can only get what I call “beach food” which might include burgers, fries, and chicken tenders — strictly casual dining items. However, WTR Grill’s new dinner menu offers more sophisticated dining options like NY Strip and Steamed Snapper!

In my opinion, the aesthetic of WTR Grill does not accurately reflect the upscale dining experience they’re trying to sell. For example, there was a large, empty space in the middle of the restaurant and ship rope hanging from the ceilings.

If they want their space to be cohesive with their menu, I would suggest keeping it traditional and elegant: fill the empty space with tables lined with nice tablecloths (rather than keeping the tables bare), and remove the ship rope and perhaps replace with a lattice design.

The actual dinner was served in 3 courses with 3 dishes each. Here is my review of all the menu items:

First course:

  • Chef’s Soup of the Day — Cajun style soup with sausage and okra

This soup is perfect for cold weather. Chef Joe Garcia explained that it was one of his sous chef’s homemade recipes that had been in her family for generations — you can definitely taste the love! The Cajun broth itself is loaded with spices and anchors the rest of the ingredients. If Florida gets hit with another cold front — I’m going back for seconds.

  • Apple Panzanella Salad

I was most skeptical about this dish because I don’t usually like fruit mingling with my veggies, but this salad actually turned out to be one of my favorites of the night! The sweet apples and tangy dressing were perfectly balanced — I ended up having 2-3 portions!

  • Kale Caesar Salad

While I wasn’t a huge fan of the kale itself (it had a lot of dressing on it), I really liked the baked cheese and multigrain bread that came along with it. The baked cheese was similar to a soft, cheese cracker and the multigrain bread was freshly baked, but I would order these 2 items as an appetizer without the kale.

Second Course:

  • Crispy Brussel Sprouts

Whenever I roast brussel sprouts at home, they have this distinct “roasted” taste, so I was expecting that when I tried this dish. However, these brussel sprouts maintained their fresh, green color. Not only that, but the bacon accompanying it was high quality and delicious!

Out of all 3 appetizers, if I were trying to get my greens in for the night, I would choose the Apple Panzanella Salad.

  • Caribbean Shrimp Lettuce Wrap

I was really looking forward to this dish as I anticipated a “mango-chili-salsa” experience….but it just wasn’t. The lettuce made the wrap taste bitter, so I decided to ditch the lettuce and just eat the shrimp and glaze. Still, there could have been more flavor — whether in a sweeter mango or a spicier glaze.

  • Smoked Salmon Dip

I, personally, am not a huge fan of Salmon or Lox sandwiches, which is what this dip reminded me of. I took one bite and decided it was not for me. For those who do like it, though, the dip was creamy and had lots of Salmon slices in it.

Third Course:

  • Pepper Crusted NY Strip Steak

When I used to work at a steakhouse, the chef taught me “If a steak is cooked right, you don’t have to put sauce on it!” Since then, I’ve never used A-1 sauce or any other kinds of sauces. Additionally, I usually order filets or sirloins, so I was excited to try a different cut. To my surprise, the strip came paired with a mushroom gravy which I decided to try “just for fun” — I am so glad I did because the gravy completes the steak! By itself, the steak was just okay (again, I prefer a filet or sirloin), but with the gravy? Amazing!!!! I would order the NY Strip again as long as it comes with the gravy.

  • Steamed Florida Snapper

Oddly enough, as a Floridian, I’m not a huge seafood fan. But when Chef Garcia explained that the Snapper was steamed with just a little bit of white wine and minimal spices, I decided I would try the fish. I was surprised by how much I liked this dish because I didn’t taste anything overly fishy at all! In fact, it tasted really clean. Additionally, the jasmine rice underneath was a nice touch because it soaked up all the flavor. As a non-seafood lover, I have been proven wrong and would definitely come back to order this.

  • Seafood Pasta (scallops / shrimp)

Usually when I eat a red-sauce pasta, I can taste the acidity from the tomato which is why I usually go for a creamy alfredo sauce. This seafood pasta, however, even though it was made with a red sauce, actually tasted sweet! I don’t know how they did it, all I know is that I went back for seconds! This dish is not overly fishy and it was my favorite dish of the night — I’ll be back soon to order it again.

Dessert:

  • Waffle Cone with Brownie & Ice Cream

The homemade waffle cone was crisp and not stale at all. I think the brownie inside was mixed with cookie dough because it wasn’t just a chocolate – it was chocolate, cookie, ice cream, and whipped cream all in one. I ate mine and my partner’s!

Overall, I enjoyed dining with a nice view of the Tampa Bay. I would most likely come back to WTR Grill after a day at the beach so I could enjoy something more sophisticated and creative than regular old “beach food!”

Restaurant Name: WTR Grill

Cuisine: American, Seafood

Neighborhood: Rocky Point

Address: 7700 W. Courtney Campbell Causeway, Tampa, FL 33607

Phone Number: (813) 281-0566

Menu: http://wtrpool.com/pool-grill-menu/