What makes a restaurant truly great? It’s obviously a subjective question as preferences in taste, service, ambiance and price vary widely from person to person. In my opinion, the overarching quality that I look for in a great restaurant, is consistency. The places that can provide, not only delicious, but creative food, along with knowledgable, friendly service and comfortable atmosphere, all at a reasonable price, are few and far between. That’s why I chose to wait a while before I sat down to write about Rooster and the Till in Tampa. It’s easy to get caught up in a one-off meal that blows you away, only to find out it was a fluke. The real test of quality is whether or not the restaurant in question can deliver equally impressive meals over multiple visits. It’s been a long time coming, but after a half-dozen trips to Rooster over the last few months, I can happily report that they’ve passed the test, wowing me each time with their inventive flavor combinations and constantly changing menu.Now I would expect a high level of performance from a place with access to vast amounts of financial backing, top of the line equipment and the hottest PR team to generate buzz. In that case, there are no excuses, you’d better deliver, every single night, without fail. Rooster is not that place, and yet they are capable of producing legitimately high level cuisine with nothing but four hot plates, an impeccable mise and a small crew of exceedingly talented cooks led by two no-nonsense dudes in Ferrell Alvarez and Ty Rodriguez, no excuses necessary.
Recently, Logan and I joined the boys from Tasting Tampa to put Rooster through its paces. I like to think four voracious eaters like ourselves, posed at least a small challenge to the kitchen as we ordered at least 80% of the menu. Keeping with tradition, we began with the raw items from the chalkboard, a scallop crudo and a smattering of oysters. The source and flavor profile of these items changes with the wind, so don’t be disappointed if you don’t see these specific items, I’ve never been let down by their raw offerings.
This crudo only reinforced my belief that scallops are, first and foremost, meant to be eaten raw. These were so supple they were nearly a mousse. Pickled onion with corn and red pepper offset the sweet and malleable scallops in both texture and flavor, as a smooth avocado schmear joined the creamy party.
For the carnivores, I suggest you add the charcuterie slate to your order. On any given night you’re likely to find a pâté, a couple of cured offerings and maybe even duck rillettes if you’re lucky. At the moment the slate is sporting a beef heart bresaola with bread and butter pickles and hibiscus all-spice mustard.
Rooster goes to great lengths to use what’s fresh, keeping it seasonal and local when possible. For us that meant heirloom tomatoes marinated in aged sherry vinegar, cucumber, smoked goats milk yogurt, charred lemon arugula emulsion and flax-seed pumpernickel crackers. Dishes like this are often the most impressive as they’re so simple, yet most of us would never think to combine the flavors just so. The short rib gnocchi is an auto-order item for me. Ferrell prepares his gnocchi in the Parisienne style, resulting in a far lighter and less dense pillow than their heavier set cousins. The clincher for me is the duo of smoked ricotta and pickled peperonata. Creamy and rich, tangy and electric, it’s a great response to the unctuous short rib as it relaxes in its San Marzano coating. The star of course are the dainty gnocchi that almost dissipate on your tongue instead of adhering to the roof of your mouth like a barnacle.
I’ve been called a pole bean my whole life. Until I had them at Rooster, I’d considered it an insult. When you add in potato confit, garlic chips and duck cracklings, it becomes a compliment of the highest order. If you are what you eat, then I’m a tasty fellow. Another small plate selection that keeps with the earthen theme is the roasted mushrooms. Thankfully Ferrell didn’t go crazy with the bleu cheese, a known flavor bully, by piping small dots around the plate. Savory mushrooms are showcased front and center with a bacon and roasted bone marrow backup band to rival the Spiders from Mars.
Ferrell presented us with a surprise care package of sous vide face bacon. That’s right, bacon of the face. A protein like this calls for some headstrong accompaniments, able to make themselves known. These came by way of chili flake broccolini, more of their amazing house ricotta, pine nut bread crumbs and tomato gravy. Dishes like this give me pause, if they can come up with plates of this calibre on the fly, out of leftovers no less, what else are they capable of?
Veggies, specifically beets. Normally I’m not a fan of this root, but the preparation here sold me. The healthy dollops of rich ricotta didn’t hurt either. Beets two ways, roasted and shaved raw, with cherry tomatoes was a light and refreshing departure from the previous dish, but no less enjoyable. Vegetarian friendly isn’t a phrase that rears its head on Eat a Duck often, but Rooster has a way of showcasing ground treasures so even this hardened protein protagonist can sing their praises.
I write about this next dish with a heavy heart. After a good long run, the orecchiette with uni butter and bottarga has finally been retired. Bitter broccoli leaves and chili spiked confit tomatoes proved to be winning combination. If it was available, I ordered it every time without fail. It really was one of the most memorable dishes I’ve had, but I know all good things must come to an end. I take comfort in the fact that Rooster always comes up with something new and exciting to replace classic veterans. As I write this, the menu is already reflecting the hot new rookie, garlic chive cavatelli with charred tomato, pancetta, arugula, shave crontonese and gremolata breadcrumbs.
At Rooster and the Till, for me at least, dessert consists of more savory dishes, or perhaps another half-dozen oysters. But their sweet dishes are as delicious and well designed as anything else on the menu. They’re typically on the refreshing end of the spectrum, a welcome palate cleanser after hearty meal. On this occasion they featured passion fruit, coconut and berries. The beautiful presentation is matched only by the depth of flavor.
Rooster and the Till are often maligned for serving small plates with high prices. I’m not sure what planet these commenters are from, but you won’t find a better value in Tampa. There are hardly any other restaurants in town serving up this calibre of food with such consistency. Even fewer establishments earn a spot in my “where to eat dinner tonight” list, but Rooster and the Till have landed a permanent reservation, as one of my favorite restaurants of all time.