Saturday, February 28, 2015

One Night at Ulele

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of joining a group of Tampa Bay bloggers to experience a wonderful new Tampa restaurant and brewery called Ulele. 

Ulele was named one of the Top 100 Restaurants in the U.S. by Open Table, one of the Best New Restaurants in Florida by Florida Trend, and Best Overall Restaurant by Yelp Tampa Bay.  Its most recent achievement was the #7 spot for Top 50 Restaurants in Tampa Bay as scored by Laura Reiley of the Tampa Bay Times.

As a working mom, it takes something very special to keep me away from my husband and kiddo on a weeknight.  After hearing some wonderful things about Ulele from friends, I knew I couldn't pass up the opportunity to experience Ulele for myself, especially with such a fun group as the Tampa Bay Bloggers.

Upon arriving to Ulele, I was greeted by not only fellow bloggers, but the restaurant's manager and the restaurant group's Chief Marketing Officer.  These gentlemen were welcoming and gracious, and quite enthusiastic about introducing us to their fantastically restored building and gastropub-style menu.  They were so happy to educate us on their philosophies and food that I was riveted--this is exactly the kind of thing I love!

Ulele serves approximately 1,000 guests per day, and is acutely focused on having nearly every element of the restaurant experience reference Florida and the Tampa Bay area.  This includes nods to local history, ingredients, and materials on most surfaces.  Our table?  The base was made at a metal workshop 5 miles away, and the wood top was made locally from the reclaimed wood of a hundred year old barn in North Florida.  Those benches in the entry way?  They're from the old federal courthouse downtown.  It's really something to see, and it's refreshing to see such a business supporting other local businesses in more than just words.  Another cool fact was that the building itself is a rehabilitated 1903 water pump station, though you'd never guess it based on the sleek and industrial-modern exterior.

One area of the restaurant that was not highly influenced by the local area was the Biergarten (big ups to Germany!), hops and yeast from Europe and New Zealand for brewing their signature craft beers, and brewing equipment that was handmade in Portland, OR.  Since Tampa residents love their beer, I find nothing foreign about any of them.

I also learned an intriguing story about how the restaurant got it's name.  Ulele is named after the Native American Princess Ulele, who lived in the region in the 1500's.  Local legend says that she saved a teenage Spanish explorer and prisoner of her tribe, Juan Ortiz, from being burned at the stake by her father.  Many people say that she was the influence for Disney's Pocohontas, but that's just a cool-sounding rumor.  The owners and people of Tampa love a good legend (Gasparilla is the basis for another popular one), and to celebrate Princess Ulele, the owners are installing a statue in her honor outside of their restaurant.  I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek...

Princess Ulele in her Tocobaga tribe attire with seashell accessories

The brewery is another interesting facet of this establishment, as it has a solid "tap-to-table" concept tying freshness and locality throughout the entire experience.  The brewer is a self-described minimalist, and his brews have 6 ingredients or fewer to preserve the flavors from tried and true ingredients and brewing techniques.  I've got to respect a professional who sticks to his guns and lets the ingredients and techniques speak for themselves.  The food was made under the exact same philosophy.

We had four main parts of our menu tasting, which I'll refer to as Comforting Starters, Indulgent Appetizers, Enticing Entrees, and 'Diet? What diet?' Encores.  

Comforting Starters

Clockwise from top left:  Craft Beers, Ulele Salad, Mac & Cheese, Chili and fruit-infused water to cleanse the palate
The starters were simply delicious, and I could have made a meal out of those items alone.  The chili was quickly my favorite.  I loved that it had large chunks of pulled meat, beans and a moderate heat that kept me going back for more.  It really put my own homemade chili to shame.  The macaroni and cheese was also great, especially with the additional toppings like scallions, crab meat and bacon.  The salad also had beans on it, as well as a light but flavorful dressing.  

Indulgent Appetizers

Raw Louisiana Oysters, Chargrilled Louisiana Oysers, Squash Gratin, and Alligator Hushpuppies
Okay, friends.  This was my first foray into the world of oysters.  To say I was scared and skeptical would be an understatement.  However, I set that fear of slimy mollusks aside and made the brave decision to try them.  I'm pleased to report that they were better than I ever expected!  The chargrilled oysters were delicious and I could have eaten the whole try... but I would have had to fight off 4 other hungry bloggers who also feel in love with them!  The squash gratin was very tasty and a hit with the vegetarians at the table.  The gator hushpuppies were also new to me, but I found them very tasty.  Gator can be a bit chewy, but that texture didn't bother me at all in this preparation.

Enticing Entrees

Clockwise from upper left:  Filet Mignon, Florida Pompano, Ulele Burger, and Native Saute

The entrees began flowing,and I could already sense that I may need to be rolled out of Ulele Veruca Salt-style, on my side and being pushed by a group of enthusiastic Ulele staffers.  The traditional filet mignon was impressive and cooked to perfection.  I loved the mashed potatoes and asparagus, as well as the unexpected popcorn garnish, paying homage to the local Native American traditions.  The Florida Pompano was an utterly delicious fish dish that would delight even the most discriminating pescetarian.  The fish filet was lightly sauteed and topped with a scrumptious tomato shallot cream sauce and crispy shaved carrots.  If you haven't had fried carrot shavings before, you must.  Trust me on this.  I need to learn how to make these at home!

Next up was the Ulele Burger, which was insane.  I ate a quarter of it and had to eat it in stages due to it's thickness piles of toppings.  The beef patty was made using a blend of ground short rib, chuck and brisket, and its depth of flavor and juiciness was unparalleled.  The toppings on this lunchtime favorite included roasted red peppers, fried leeks, cheddar cheese, and portabella mushrooms.  This was followed by the Native Saute, a vegetarian entree featuring seasonal vegetables on a bed of flavorful wild rice.

 'Diet? What diet?' Encores

Clockwise from top left:  Kilo Porterhouse Steak, Candied Duck Bacon Fried Ice Cream, and 5-Ice Cream Sampler

The final entree I had the opportunity to try was the Kilo Porterhouse steak.  I put this in my "Encores" section because anyone would be stuffed after eating this baby.  The more you eat, the more you want because this cut and the preparation was so, so full of flavor.  It was the fireworks finale of this amazing celebration of meat food.  I even tweeted that this experience should have been called "Bloggers vs. Food" because it required a professional eater's stomach to sample everything, and it was my most liked and re-tweeted message in ages.  (For the record, bloggers would win every time.)  The Kilo Porterhouse is aged 28 days and like all other beef products, comes from a local cattle ranch just south of the Tampa Bay area.  The grains used to make the restaurant's beer are then fed to the cattle, since spent grain is an excellent source of natural protein.

The desserts were absolutely delicious, but I admit that my sweet tooth wasn't in high gear after having such an amazing sampling of appetizers and entrees.  However, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to try their version of Fried Ice Cream.  Built on a base of creamy house-made ice cream swirled with pieces of candied duck bacon, this cornflake-coated scoop was swimming in a pool of creme anglaise and Knob Creek whiskey, and was garnished with a strip of candied duck bacon and a pizzelle.  These great new flavors and textures made this a winner for me.  The other house-made strawberry, espresso, vanilla, chocolate and coconut ice creams were also delicious and sweetly served in coconut shell halves.

Following this food extravaganza, we took a tour of the brewery and met the brewer himself, a nice guy with a lot of knowledge and storytelling experience.  The walk helped my stomach settle and hearing him speak so passionately about his craft was awesome and inspiring.  He shared that the beer uses local spring water and minimal ingredients to create fresh and uncomplicated brews.   And folks, these brews were delicious.  They aren't currently available anywhere except the restaurant, but the owners are considering offering them at other area restaurants they own.  One can only hope this comes to fruition!

My opportunity to meet the Chef, Chief Marketing Officer and other wonderful staffers at Ulele was fantastic, and I know this will be a restaurant that is not only part of my regular dining rotation, but a place for special events and out of town guests as well.

Check out Ulele for yourself!  It's located at 1810 N. Highlands Ave. in Tampa, FL, right along the riverfront.  You can also make a quick and easy reservation using the Open Table app or by visiting Ulele on Open Table's website,   

I hope you enjoy your drinking and dining experience as much as I did!

1 comment:

Nichole @ said...

Everything was SO good!!! I'm taking Jason for his bday in a few weeks so he can experience the yumminess that is Ulele!

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I'm a wife, daughter and amazing twin sister. I'm a mom to my adorable dog, Bella. Loves: Shopping, cooking, baking, good grammar and Dave Matthews Band. I'm also a Bath and Body Works addict, a Michigan State Spartans fanatic, and an iPhone aficionado. I see beauty in simple things and little things make me ever-so-happy. Welcome to my world!

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