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Review: Ulele brings Old Florida style, substance to Tampa waterfront

TAMPA

It's the most expensive $1 Richard Gonzmart ever spent.

In 2011, part of the agenda of newly elected Mayor Bob Buckhorn was to expand on the success of Curtis Hixon Park, to extend the Tampa Riverwalk, to revive the derelict historic Water Works Building. Gonzmart got the bid, leasing the 1906 serious fixer-upper from the city for $1 a year. To open a restaurant there? Maybe another $2 million.

Which became $3 million. Then $4 million. Final price tag for Ulele Native-Inspired Foods & Spirits: $6 million. It was supposed to open in time for the Republican National Convention, then sometime after that, then in May. It opened Aug. 26.

But it is not those delays or the blinding price tag that have caused local and regional media to write and broadcast about it so breathlessly and copiously. It is a project of prodigious moving pieces, a thousand stories — an intricate cogs-and-wheels front door made by Dominique Martinez of Rustic Steel Creations; furniture and decor elements of reclaimed Florida wood by Andrew Watson of Built in Seminole Heights; countertops made by Jeff Downing of Downing Designs and inset with arrowheads from Gonzmart's own collection.

I could go on for the rest of this page. Seriously. But my job is this: How's the food? Should you spend your money there?

You should. Because it's good.

I've eaten more stunning oysters. I wish each entree came with custom sides. And desserts have too many soft, ice cream-like options. But that's all the bellyaching I'm going to do.

I chose my dining companions wisely. I went with Tampa Bay Times Real Florida columnist Jeff Klinkenberg; I took a Florida food historian and her husband, who studies the Spanish colonial experience in Florida. Florida boosters all, they were excited to see gator hush puppies ($9), glad that pompano ($25) and quail ($10) had places on the menu, and eager to tuck into a homey bowl of oh-so-Florida stewed White Limas and Collards ($5). They beefed a little that mashed potatoes edged out maize as a central starch, but seemed genuinely tickled to see executive chef Eric Lackey's updated interpretations of early Florida foods.

Gonzmart and managing partner Keith Sedita have assembled an extremely capable and personable team of servers, bartenders, hosts and such, which is essential because this place has been a zoo since Day 1. It is sprawling, with great upstairs and downstairs spaces separated by a floating staircase resting on a display wine cellar. There's a broad barbacoa pit that functions as center stage with seating along one side and a generous bar at the room's other edge. Outdoors, there's a beer garden, and next door is a gleaming stainless brewery where brewmaster Tim Shackton presides. Wait, looks like I'm blathering again.

I'm reviewing Ulele (pronounced you-lay-lee) earlier than I generally do for a new restaurant because the public is curious and the team has its act together. There's a thoughtful and well-priced wine list, a short array of slickly contemporary cocktails (hey, how about getting one of those orange juicers and showcasing the state's original liquid gold?), and valets who efficiently check you off a list and call you by surname.

In a couple of visits, what I enjoyed most: a margarita ($8.25), not too sweet, made with Patrón Reposado from a whole keg Gonzmart snagged; Rusty's Red ($5.75), a nutty-caramely classic amber lager named for Gonzmart's dog; half a dozen buttery, garlicky, Parmesany broiled oysters right off the barbacoa pit ($12); crisp-skinned, semiboneless quail with a swirl of tropical-spicy mustard and an accompaniment of peppery cress and sweet pecans ($10); and a generous scoop of housemade toasted coconut ice cream ($5).

Now I have to blather for one moment: Tying in with a fierce devotion to showcasing local talent, Ulele is serving Florida-born, -raised and -slaughtered beef, a surprisingly revolutionary move. I had one New York strip from Strickland Ranch ($36) that was perfectly cooked and another bone-in version that was slightly overcooked, but in both cases, the flavor of the meat was beguiling — musky, with almost a cheesy funk (that sounds bad, but trust me it's not) that makes the meat itself the most memorable thing on the plate. The barbacoa lends a little of that smoky-charry flavor to dishes like a simple bowl of green beans ($3) with an aioli too demure on the advertised datil peppers (an incendiary chili made famous in St. Augustine), so even veggie dishes have an oomph.

If you really want to picture yourself as an early Floridian taking a break from hunting cattle and slapping skeeters, the Crackling Pork Shank ($24) is the way to go. It's caveman-big, with skin like the top of a delicate creme brulee and unctuously moist flesh beneath, juxtaposed with little cubes of tangy apple chutney dotted with sweet craisins. Not a stickler for early Florida verisimilitude? The buttery-creamy Deconstructed Seafood Pot Pie ($22) comes with a few pillows of flaky puff pastry off to the side of a low bowl studded with grouper, shrimp, bits of octopus and smoked oysters lending their savoriness.

The lucky thing is, you don't have to be a Florida historian to get this stuff. It's accessible. As the Riverwalk is completed, this will be where tourists end up after a spin around the Tampa Museum of Art or a show at the Straz. They may know nothing of Tocobaga princesses or the Spaniard Pánfilo de Narváez's adventures here. Frankly, they don't even need to know how to say "you-lay-lee." They'll just be here for a nice dinner.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

.Review

Ulele Native-Inspired Foods & Spirits

1810 N Highland Ave., Tampa

(813) 999-4952; ulele.com

Cuisine: American Indian-inspired

Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Details: V, MC, AmEx, Disc.; reservations suggested; full bar

Prices: Appetizers $5 to $12, entrees $17 to $59, desserts $5 to $9

Rating, out of four stars:

Food: ★★★ Service: ★★★ Atmosphere: ★★★★

Overall: ★★★ ½

Review: Ulele brings Old Florida style, substance to Tampa waterfront 09/08/14 [Last modified: Monday, September 8, 2014 5:20pm]
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