The Refinery – Tampa, FL
“Good food is a necessity.”
I think we can all agree with that 100%. Good food is one of the many things The Refinery aims to offer their patrons week in and week out. The team at The Refinery also believe that being able to eat well should not depend on the thickness of your wallet. It’s easy to see that the people of Tampa share in this belief. Looking out into the small dining room, up the stairs to the quaint bar and finally to my destination, the rooftop patio, there is a veritable cornucopia of demographics all dining together as one. Everyone is all smiles (including my buddy Phillip and myself), as they enjoy the chefs fare for the weeks of May 3-16. You see, the menu is not set. As the availability of the foods from local sources come and go, so do menu items. I couldn’t be happier that the chef plays with that double-edged sword.
It reminds me of a recent interview the New York Times had with one of the pioneers of avant-garde cooking in the states, Wylie Dufresne. He recently decided to gut his menu and change it completely. To avoid the “Stairway to Heaven” effect of people coming to his restaurant only for the familiarity of a “signature” dish instead of the anticipation of an entirely new experience. Honestly, I would have called it the “Life is a Highway” effect, but whatever. The Refinery doesn’t need to worry about that little issue, because probably, the things you’re reading about here will either be tweaked, or not in season by the next menu cycle.
Before I start things off talking about specific menu items, I’ve got to applaud the front of house. Had I been responsible, I would have made a reservation far in advance. What I did do was call 40 minutes before dinner service the day of, in an attempt to procure a spot. Although, Michelle the manager informed me, it was the worst possible day to try to get a table in the main dining hall due to a local college graduation, she graciously welcomed us to dine at the bar or the roof, and that we could still order whatever we wanted off the menu.
At the bar, Phillip and I enjoyed a beer and an appetizer while it was still relatively hot outside. I selected a salad of olive oil poached oysters, atop ribbons of shaved carrot and cucumber. A little extra touch of the ocean was added by some strands of seaweed. It was topped with a citrus truffle vinaigrette and sprinkles of togarashi chili powder. The salad was the right start to the meal, due to the high alcohol content of our brews. The only thing I would critique (before we can get back to me completely falling all over myself with compliments) is that the oysters and the truffle in the dressing didn’t add much in the way of flavor. However the plate was visually pleasing, the other flavors were brilliant and the slow burn from the chili was gorgeous.Photo: www.pietriphotography.com
We made our way outside to enjoy the rest of the meal. The sun had begun to fade and a slight breeze was stirring. I ordered two more starters instead of a main course. Phillip chose a single large plate entrée, reminiscent of something you would be served at a family dinner. Of course, in this scenario your mother is April Bloomfield. A thick hunk of crispy roasted pork shoulder, with a stuffing of grain mustard and sweet onion was presented. The meat was not overly tender, it bounced back a little when bitten into, but was still as moist as could be. All the little islands of fat as we call them, surrounded the meat in flavor on one hand, and created a lovely crisp crust on the other. The potatoes lived up to their creamery name and provided a classic accompaniment to the meat. The green beans….were not ordinary, they were phenomenal. They were pickled in some sort of red wine solution and then warmed throughout, unlike anything I’ve had with a similar meal. I was definitely impressed by that combo, it was one of those ideas you have to steal for private use.
My first dish was lamb belly and pork terrine with a grapefruit marmalade. As opposed to the traditional toast point, green radishes were provided to serve as the vessel for a paté to mouth coupling. I loved it. All that “lamby” goodness and the range of spices from sage to coriander and peppercorns, instantly took me to the French countryside. A place I’ve never been to but it seems quite nice in my head.Photo: www.pietriphotography.com
I then received what looked to be a giant wonton. I could have sworn I ordered a ravioli. The menu lists it as fried beef tongue ravioli. I must have completely misunderstood. Some of the worlds greatest mistakes turn out to be triumphs, and this was one of them. I mean really, either way it would have worked. How could it not with a luscious mousseline of beef tongue inside that deep-fried gigantic piece of noodle? Underneath lay intermingled pools of thinned out tomato aioli and green onion pesto. When dishes are this delicious, it can be sad knowing, due to the ever-changing menu, that you’ll probably never see them again. Although without this temporal shift, you may not be enjoying that very plate! On to bigger and better things!Photo: www.pietriphotography.com
I really like their approach to dessert course. Every, and I mean every time I look online at the menu, dessert has a savory component to compliment the sweet. To my memory, the best desserts, or at least the most distinct, involve some abnormal combination. This time the key ingredient was thyme. It was laced throughout a salted caramel sauce that laid inside the crevices of a soft, pillowy, individually sized polenta cake. The cake was then finished off with a few slices of macerated peaches and a generous helping of ganache. I think this, more so than any of the other fine menu items that stood on The Refinery’s list, was a case of either, “you fall in love with this cake so much you want it to be a part of your life” or “you hate it and never want to see its ugly face again”. I can’t really argue the point of not liking it. I get it. Savory sweets aren’t for everyone. You’re either all in or your out.Photo: www.pietriphotography.com
I’m in on The Refinery. It’s a great spot bringing complex yet welcoming dishes to the masses. These kinds of establishments need our patronage as much as we need them to widen our culinary horizons. We should all show our gratitude toward those in the kitchen working to keep things inovative and fresh, so that we as diners don’t lose interest and move on. I let far too much time pass between visits. Who knows what amazing creations I missed out on and could have been inspired by? I can tell you one thing, it won’t happen again if I have anything to say about it.