Last Friday was our granddaughter’s 25th birthday and we asked Jessica where she would like to go. Her suggestion was that we try a favorite of hers, The Refinery in the Seminole Heights area of Tampa. At the outset, this establishment sets a new and extremely high standard for any place that we visit in the future.
The Refinery is, face it, not in the classiest part of town. It is an old home on a, now, run down stretch of marginal businesses, garages and empty stores. The area to the east has already well-involved in gentrification. The commercial area along North Florida Avenue is still in the process of change as unique and frankly funky businesses start to refurbish old homes and structures in the neighborhood. It is a temptation to just classify The Refinery as a quirky restaurant, but the quality of the food, its presentation and the nationwide recognition of its owner-chef demands that it be taken for what it is: an innovative and wonderful dining experience.
Although The Refinery is a new experience for Joan and me, it has won accolades and renown galore. This restaurant was a semi-finalist for the 2011 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. Out of over 28,000 entries, The Refinery was in the top 33!
Entering the restaurant, one is seated at tables that clearly are well worn, if not really shabby. The floor is hard wood, polished to a gleam and it is obvious that everything in the establishment is surgically clean. At the top of the menu, discussed later on in detail, is the statement, “We use mason jars, chipped plates, and mix-match plates …jailhouse silver…” So if you’re looking for a pretentious and fancy-shmancy place, this isn’t it.
The menu changes every Thursday, depending on what owner-chef Greg Baker finds is local and fresh. The veggies and greens come from local farmers and growers, the names of whom are posted. In fact, fresh and local are the operative words. There is a “warning notice” on the menu, “Substitutions will be politely declined.” Fortunately the menu is perfect the way it is. Our server was more than willing to take the time to explain each menu item and if additional help is needed, owner Michelle Baker is there to guide.
My wife, Joan, and I arrived before Jessica and decided to share a “small plate” of a Vegan “poutine”. Poutine is, originally, a Canadian dish where cheese or curds top French fries; there are endless regional variations and that night, Chef Baker topped the potatoes with a delicious hummus, topped with avocado, red onion and orange. The result was absolutely fantastic. Joan and I had polished off about half of the dish when Jessica arrived to “inhale” the rest. The fries were the best I have had, not greasy, freshly prepared and hot.
Other smaller sized portions included pulled pork and a crispy pork belly. We noticed that many items reappear on other menus, but nearly all with variations based local availability or the chef’s creative imagination. The small sized portions, perfect for a shared appetizer, run about $7 or $8; all items on the menu are marked, if applicable, “V” for Vegan and/or “GL” for Gluten Free.
Then on to our main course; I chose the Fire Burger. As far as I am concerned, hamburgers are my favorite thing to eat. Not the fast food variety but thick, juicy and rare. In fact, I believe that a restaurant should be judged by the character of its hamburgers! Perhaps a bit extreme, but in this case, the rule is affirmed. The Fire Burger is a work of art. First the burger itself is huge, thick and, as ordered, very rare. Sitting on the top of the meat, was a relish of chilies, cheddar cheese, and roasted onion banana pepper. Joan had her Fire Burger with just onion because she was concerned that the relish would be too spicy for her. Actually, the relish has a kick but it is incredibly tasty.
Jessica made a super choice, the Hanger Steak. I hadn’t been familiar with the cut of meat or the term. In the past it was sometimes known as “butcher’s steak” because butchers would often keep it for themselves rather than offer it for sale. It is closely related to a flank steak or a skirt steak, and, like everything we enjoyed, tender, juicy and rare. It was accompanied by roasted potatoes. It was the most costly item on the menu ($19) and well worth every penny.
Other items on the menu make us want to return. I really want to try the pork dishes, including a shoulder roast dish, and a fish meal. On the menu this night was a sturgeon meal that that sounded interesting. My personal wish is that when a whole fish is served that the head be missing but that is my personal hang-up. I really don’t want the fish looking at me.
At this point, none of us had room for desserts. More the pity!
Joan and I looking forward to the menu in coming week; we’ll surely return.