In the same moments that I was hard at work baking a cake for J-Fur’s birthday, Tampa Restaurant Company, Grillsmith, was readying for the launch of a re-branding of their menu. Since the restaurant’s doors opened in 2004, the company’s identity, concept and menu had remained largely the same. It was time for a change and they invited a few bloggers (That Girl Allie, Dive in Tampa Bay, My Other City By the Bay, Carlos Eats and myself to name a few) to experience this change.
On my previous visits to Grillsmith (which have always been because of celebrations or events, never by my choosing) I’ve been very unhappy with the vegetarian options. Nary so much as a veggie burger to provide an alternative to all the meat and seafood on the menu. I was hesitant to even accept this invite because of past disappointments. But part of the re-branding campaign is a slogan that says “we don’t offer vegetarian options, we offer vegetarian rewards.” That was enough of a shift for me to give Grillsmith one more try.
I would best describe Grillsmith’s new collection of vegetarian foods as ‘a collection of things I don’t normally like fused into something I can enjoy.’ There’s Feta, balsamic reductions, mango salsa, chive mayo and cilantro sour cream on the menu. All of these toppings, if done wrong, would really make a mess of my palette. I expected the worst, but got much better than that.
The first vegetarian option that came out was the Mediterranean Platter. This appetizer is a plate of artichoke dip and creamy feta spread served with tortilla chips and warm pita triangles. The artichoke dip was decent, not overly creamy and a nice blend of cheese to cream. There wasn’t a layer of oil on top that haunts some artichoke dips. I liked it a lot with the homemade tortilla chips that were lightly salted and not too oily either. But the real winner on this platter is the feta spread (crazy since I am not a huge fan). The Feta did not drown out the rest of the dip, it was a subtle taste, and it worked will with the soft pita triangles.
Next up was the Margherita Flatbread. This starter was a crispy flatbread topped with Italian cheeses, Roma Tomatoes, whole milk mozzarella and basil. I liked the crispiness of the Flatbread, it didn’t look or taste like it just came out of a house fire which you get in some places around Tampa.
Along the same lines as the flatbread is the Caprese Stack. This appetizer looks pretty crazy as it is vine ripened tomatoes layered with whole milk mozzarella and arugula. It is stabbed in the heart by a piece of flatbread. The plate is drizzled with balsamic reduction and basil-infused olive oil to give you something to dip into. The reduction and olive oil were great. As with the other appetizers there wasn’t any overpowering tastes to steal away from the collection of vegetables. While I don’t think any of these appetizers are particularly unique, you can probably find them in a lot of Tampa restaraunts, they are the kind of thing that J-Fur and I enjoy because they allow the vegetables to be what they are instead of masking their freshness with a ton of other tastes.
When I first entered and poured over the tasting menu one of my immediate disappointments is that I would not have an opportunity to try the Voodoo Cheese Fries because of the Andouille Sausage on top. Grillsmith and their chef were very accommodating and they offered to make me a small batch without the sausage. These fries were my favorite taste of the night. They were the anti-appetizers as the creole seasoning, white barbecue sauce, gouda, cheddar and Swiss joined together to create a crazy fusion of flavors. I tried to think of what I can compare it to and I came up with a blank. It is a collection that I have not experienced before in my life.
Voodoo Cheese Fries
Since I was the sole vegetarian in the group, although there was a creative loafing writer who eats an “almost vegetarian” diet, Grillsmith brought out their Caribbean Black Bean Burger and placed it right in front of me. The burger seemed like your typical black bean burger, it didn’t taste like it was homemade which was a disappointment. But what the burger lacked in creativity was made up for by what was on top of it. The combination of mango salsa, chive mayo, cilantro sour cream and jack cheese sounds like it would be too much to handle. But unlike other places where the toppings are slathered on and the burger is forgotten, these toppings were lightly placed to make it less like sweet cream monster mess and more a piece of art. I didn’t like the burger as much as the Black Bean version at Burger 21 but it was better than a lot of corporate restaurants.
Caribbean Black Bean Burger
The tasting was finished with two desserts. The newest addition to the dessert menu is the Ultimate Brownie Parfait. It is layered whipped cream and chocolate mousse with warm brownie bites and finished with a raspberry-pomegranate preserve and caramel sauce. The whipped cream made, what looked like an ice cream dish, taste much lighter than your typical sundae. It was hard to get past that. The highlight was the pomegranate preserve because it tasted perfectly fruity without the sickening sugar feel that you get from a lot of desserts. Also sampled was the Grillsmith’s famous Chocolate Decadent Cake which was way too rich for my blood.
Ultimate Brownie Parfait
In the end, I was very pleased with my meal. It was a nice combination of fresh vegetable dishes and crazy fusion vegetarian fare. There are options for both the sensitive palette vegetarian and the adventurous one. While I wouldn’t go as far as to say the dishes are “rewards” as there are very few places that can live up to that type of hype, I can see myself making Grillsmith an occasional dinner destination now. That is something that I couldn’t have said even two weeks ago.
In order for full disclosure, all food was provided free of charge by Grillsmith.
In the same way that Grillsmith left behind their original menu for something more creative and intense, Josh Ginsberg of Slothbear brought his bandmates to his vacant childhood home that would soon be demolished. The “last hurrah” or “leaving behind” for the house was the recording of the bands latest EP Canter On. With the stripped walls and empty rooms the abandoned house lent a sense of spacious and swirling acoustics to the EP. The highlight Canter On is the ten minute “Goodnight, Retrograde,” a “collage of several live improvisations, tempering musique concrete apparitions with the band’s idiosyncratic pop immediacy.” You can get a hold of the EP here.