Who is Tasting Tampa? It’s a question long pondered and seldom answered to anyone’s satisfaction. Some say they’re nocturnal beings with a penchant for strong cheeses and the gonads of sea creatures, and that they can smell foie drippings from over a mile away, all I know is, they invented the infamous “13th Step Dinner”, and a few days ago, I was able to secure a spot at the coveted event.
The 13th Step Dinners spawned years ago when the gastronomic power bromance of Todd Sturtz and Kurt Raschke met for a brainstorm session over lunch. A name was formed to accurately capture their willing addiction to all things edible, a sort of support group for foodies. Predictably, Todd’s Midas touch took this seed of an idea and turned it into one of the premier food events in the Tampa Bay area.
This 13th Step was unique, as Tasting Tampa had not only recruited one of the top restaurants in Tampa to host it, but also partnered with Cigar City Brewing’s own Chris Lovett to provide beer pairings with each dish.
I arrived early and was met by a dapper Mr. Raschke, overseeing the goings on with all the grace and decorum of a top-tier symphonic composer. I was handed a menu that up to this point had been a mystery to me. With one glance I highlighted the pertinent information quicker than Robert Langdon. Oyster, sweetbreads, porcini, foie gras, beef, cipollini…GERMAN CHOCOLATE CAKE. I tried to regain my composure as I’m well aware that the proof is in the proverbial pudding, and many restaurants use these ingredients as a crutch. But this was Rooster and the Till, and anyone who’s made the pilgrimage knows that any level of excitement is warranted, Chef Alvarez never disappoints.
After a quick introduction, the 13th Step hit the ground running with a gorgeous plate of fried riptide oysters, roasted brussels sprouts and smoked bacon on a shmear of miso caramel. A soft dusting of Korean chili powder left a lingering heat at the back of your throat. The oysters were crisp at first bite until your teeth hit the soft center. Their subtle ocean flavor was paired with a refreshing fermented cucumber for a little acidity. My favorite component was the miso caramel as it brought a sweet umami quality that served to heighten the flavor of its neighbors. The Hunahpu Imperial Stout had some clear soy and sesame notes that perfectly matched the miso sauce.
The winning dish of the night for me, came second. Veal sweetbreads with brown butter crumble, fried capers, preserved Meyer lemon and Rooster’s famous Parisian gnocchi. I might be crazy, but this dish initiated an Anton Ego style flashback to my mothers turkey dinner, albeit with far better ingredients and technique (sorry momma!). I’m hard pressed to remember a sweetbread prepared better than this. There was no stringy, chewy gristle to be found, it was perfectly tender throughout. Little explosions of salt from the capers only accentuated the flavor of the sweetbread while the preserved lemon lit up the palate with measured amounts concentrated acid. I didn’t speak a word during this dish as I was throughly enjoying my cozy little time travel session to my childhood. The paired Strong Ale that had been stored in cognac barrels was one of my favorite beers of the night. Whether it’s CCB’s brewing process, or just the nature of beer to absorb flavor, the 2012 Cheers was steeped in the buttery smooth flavor of cognac.
I’m not going to lie, when I read foie gras, I was hoping for a nice slice from a whole lobe. It was greedy of me and I feel terrible about it (sounded sincere no?), but this dish of porcini mushrooms topped with shaved foie, perfect sous vide egg yolk on a pine nut butter was no less luxurious. Dates and granola added a much-needed sweetness and crunch to this very savory affair. I didn’t even miss a protein (not counting the egg) as the porcinis were more than meaty.
I have to start with the Bourbon Barrel Big Sound on this fourth course as it was truly impressive, even to my beginner beer palate. I swear I got a faint hint of bleu cheese on the nose (though it could have been the Calabrese wafting from the kitchen) and as off-putting as that sounds, it invited curiosity. The flavor was all bourbon. They could have said they had poured a shot in each glass and I would’ve believe it. The dual medallions of beef tenderloin were the perfect match for a full flavored beer like the Bourbon Barrel. The combo of beef, potato, onions and bleu cheese is classic, but Rooster elevated it with braised cipollinis and smoked potato confit. Dots of whipped Calabrese cheese asserted themselves with the perfect amount of tang. It was a dish that would have felt right at home in a smokey steakhouse circa 1962.
Dessert arrived all too soon, but time truly does fly when you’re having fun. A broken down German chocolate cake was the subject of the fifth and final course. Like many of the dishes at Rooster, this was a reimagined version of the tired dessert we’ve all had since childhood. Broken segments of chiffon chocolate cake balanced precariously on chocolate crumbles like ruins of an ancient civilization. Sweet little dots laced with coconut framed the double stout infused ice cream against a pecan smear backdrop. I’ve been threatened on pain of death not to speak in specifics about the beer pairing for the dessert course, all I can say is that it made for one of the most amazingly flavorful ice creams I’ve ever tasted. The pecan smear brought the savory component to bring the consistent balance of flavor that Chef Alvarez achieves with each dish. Aside from the boozy ice cream, my favorite part may have been the little coconut milk custard blobs hidden between the cake shards. This was one of the most well composed desserts I’ve had in a long time.
So that’s it, my first 13th Step Dinner all wrapped up. It goes fast I know, but I plan on becoming a regular attendee whenever the chance presents itself. If you live on the gulf coast, I’d advise you to keep a watchful eye on Tasting Tampa. I had a chance to speak with Kurt after the meal, and while I can’t reveal anything specific, I can say that tickets to the next 13th Step Dinner will go fast as soon as the chef and venue are announced, so keep on your toes!