I haven’t been getting out as much as I used to. So many things pull us in different directions these days. We always say that being so busy takes away from what we really want to be doing. But really, don’t we all deserve to take a moment to let things slow down? To get back to ourselves, just for a night? Recently, I’ve noticed a huge shift in how I choose to enjoy a meal. Actually, this choice is really an observation I’ve gleaned from the restaurants I’ve visited. Small plate concepts are being thrown at my head as if Randy Johnson decided to trade pitching for cooking. It’s no small thing (at least here in the States) to say to a prospective diner “there’s no rush, just take a seat and stay for a few hours”.
I arrived late to an event held at Vizcaya by my newfound friends at the helm of TastingTampa.com. Not really knowing anything about the food, the chef, the space or even the location, it was a bit of an unknown for this Lakelander. The only thing I knew at this point was the word tapas. But as many of you know, this can mean many things to many people.
Almost immediately I was greeted by a long narrow plate of gigante Langostine wrapped in bacon and dressed with toasted almond, arugula, crimini, what I believe to be a sprinkling of feta and then a final light shower of balsamic. Was it feta? Sweet and creamy with a twist of tang because of the goat’s milk cheese, it was a surprisingly well thought combination for the enormous, what seemed to be, U-1 prawns.
I should say at this point, that I finally realized that the meal would be a selection of the chefs choices as they came out steadily. Next came a beautifully contrasting dish of lightly pan-fried sea bass, with over easy fried egg, red pepper coulis, chorizo oil. It reminded me of my mothers arroz con pollo with the flavors of red pepper and saffron. The chorizo was so slight that it almost felt like it was my imagination, like it wasnt really there, but I knew it was. It was a clever way of putting classic flavors together in a peculiar way.
Grilled octopus with cauliflower purée, paprika oil, buttery, viscous and tender with little to no bounce back. I’m used to my octopus sharing the texture of a kickball. Well, my milk toast strength teeth eviscerated these tentacles with the ease of a berserker barrage. Mellow flavor not too charred lingered for a few minutes until I cleansed it with a mellow Spanish white.
Plates were being dealt to the table at such a rapid pace I thought I was at the World Series of Poker!
Oxtail stuffed piquillo peppers with bechamel. Very rich and creamy with a beautiful “gravy” made with the oxtail drippings. One of the best things I ate but not as complicated as many of the seafood presentations.
Squid ink “risottoesque” paella had great spice. The pepper lingered on the tongue. There were spikes of spicy, yet in a way, floral punches of pepper that brought things to a crescendo at every other mouthful. The rice was expertly cooked, with some contrasting texture with some of the grains crisp but not burnt on the bottom like some paellas tend to be.
Iberico pork cheeks, rioja wine gravy, cheese grits, fatty fork tender, the richness of the gravy along with the cheesy polenta was like a blanket on the tongue, leaving my head floating. I’ve never been to the Basque region but I’d imagine many farmers would choose this as their last meal. I was ready to die. It still lingers. You can tell the chef’s heart still lies in España. He wasn’t afraid to aggressively season the food, and we as diners, deserve that attention. I get the feeling that if I were to be a regular at this place, this would be my go to dish, and quite possibly be my cause of death when the paramedics arrive to wheel me out.
The final touch of brilliance came when we were presented with a small plate of dates stuffed with house made ricotta, wrapped in bacon. Like little crispy devils on horseback galloping down my esophagus. The slight burnt sugar and that not so easy to explain perfection, dinged in my brain as if a perplexing question had just been asked, and the sweet salty morsel was obviously the correct answer.