A recurring thought kept wandering through the caverns of my mind last night as I basked in Ulele's aura. If there were more innovative restaurants in Tampa, like Ulele, casting aside the hackneyed menus found all over the bay area, then maybe Tampa could wind up being a culinary destination.
From the moment we stepped inside Ulele's gastronomic chickee (Ulele was a Seminole Indian princess) to the moment we waddled out the door we were in awe of the charm of the restaurant and Ulele's staff. We had not made reservations since none were available. Ulele is pretty much booked solid for several weeks in advance, but our party of four decided to take our chances since we were told that the bar and patio seating was first come, first served.
My bride and I received a most friendly greeting at the door as we entered around four thirty. The hostess said we could leave a name and number and she would call us if a table became available. She also mentioned the Oyster Happy Hour. I almost fainted! Oysters on the half shell are a buck apiece between four thirty and five thirty. She pointed towards the oyster bar and I was there in a flash.
The Belle of Ballast Point and I seated ourselves as the best oyster shucker in the entire Tampa Bay area handed us menus. Sara took our drink orders, a glass of Chardonnay for milady and a Water Works Pale Ale for me. Sara then proceeded to shucking those salty Gulf Coast beauties from Louisiana. Let me say this about that. Until last night I have not experienced a venue in Central Florida that has a clue as to how an oyster should be shucked and presented. Sara is the High Priestess of Oyster Shuckin'.
As I was polishing off my baker's dozen, we were joined at the bar by our friends Sweet Polly and her Super Hero Underdog. Polly's Epicurean Perils of... is the best food blog in this part of Florida, in my professional opinion.
Since we hadn't been called to our table yet Polly and UD ordered some adult beverages and appetizers: a lobster claw cocktail with two claws, corn, avocado, and cocktail sauce that looked out-of-this-world good, and the Alligator Hush Puppies with ham and duck bacon. I can't comment on the lobster since Sweet Polly didn't look at me too sweetly as I eyed her claws. The hush puppies reminded me of conch fritters, but kicked up a notch or two.
Just as I ordered my second appetizer, we were notified that a table was awaiting our presence. We paid our bar bill and went to our table. My Pulpo Carpaccio soon followed and my taste buds went into swoon mode as I savored the shaved octopus with a tangy piri piri sauce and a mound of sea weed salad. The salad was good, but the octopus was spectacular.
While awaiting our entrees, the table shared an order of Jalapeno Corn Beer Quick Bread, or corn muffins to us who don't know no better. When asked by our server Jorge how they were, it was suggested that they were good but could have been better if they were warmed. In an instant a new, warm serving was presented. And, yes, they were better especially with the creamy butter.
For our entrees both Underdog and I went hog wild over the Crackling Pork Shank, a brontosaurus sized crispy on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside shank with firecracker apple craisin chutney. The slightly sweet and piquant chutney perfectly offset the richness of that shank.
After a few moments of indecision, my bride settled on the Florida Pompano. This light and flaky fillet was pan seared and served with a sun-dried tomato shallot cream, and fried carrot ribbons. While this dish was well prepared, said she, it lacked something in the way of flavor.
Oozing with creamy delight was Sweet Polly's Deconstructed Seafood Pot Pie. This was a succulent chowder brimming with seafood and a side of puff pastry. This was definitely not my Mama's pot pie.
I was about to nod off in a caloric coma as the table ordered two tasty treats from the dessert menu: the Fortune Taylors Guava Pie, and the Candied Duck Bacon Maple Fried Ice Cream. The guava pie was light and delicious. The Candied Duck Bacon Maple Fried Ice Cream was so good it is probably illegal in some parts of the country.
Ulele, next to the Water Works Park, at 1810 North Highland Avenue in Tampa Heights, is a gastronomic Tampa treasure. The concept, the location, the art work, and the food are without equal in Central Florida.
The bill for oysters, all food and adult beverages came to $155 for the two of us. We tacked on an additional 20% for our servers. We dine anonymously and pay full price for all that we consume, and we consume a lot.