Political tastes

August 15, 2012

Charlotte and Tampa won the lottery when the Democrats and Republicans selected those cities, respectively, as the stages for their upcoming political pageants. Thousands of expense accounters will be pouring millions of dollars into those Zip codes in the next few weeks. By now, discerning advance teams will have booked tables for the sacred “meat & three” at King’s Kitchen in the Queen City and a juicy porterhouse at Bern’s Steakhouse in the Big Guava.

Having spent a dozen mealtimes in Charlotte and Tampa this summer, I can tell you that neither market was selected by convention organizers for its dining scene. In the spirit of bipartisanship, this traveling stomach can report that both are equally ... middle of the road.

Even so, I didn’t return from my fact-finding missions without some souvenirs: recommendations for where to eat well before, during and after the keynote and acceptance speeches. No matter your political persuasion, you should be able to rally around these nominations.

TAMPA-BOUND

Bern’s Steakhouse is to Tampa what the Supreme Court is to Washington: an institution. Since 1956, it has been a mecca for diners who appreciate the mineral tang of a dry-aged cut of beef washed back with a great wine — in some cases, breathtaking vino. Founder Bern Laxer began collecting grape juice early in his career; some of his discerning purchases remain on display in the restaurant’s 500,000-plus-bottle wine cellar and date to fabled Burgundies of the ’40s and ’50s. The oldest bottle in the bunch is an 1820 port. I counted myself fortunate to have sipped from a flask of the comparatively youthful Malmsey Madeira, circa 1907, during an after-dinner tour of the kitchen and wine cellar that is every bit as engaging as eating in one of Bern’s seven ground-floor dining rooms.

The menu is a beef eater’s fantasy. Fifteen cuts of prime Midwestern meat and dozens of ways to prepare them! If it’s offered, order the truly special “special chateaubriand.” Dry-aged in-house for up to eight weeks, the succulent cut of tenderloin (out of the short loin) is meat for the memory books. Like all the entrees, it comes with a parade of sideshows: soup (lobster bisque is worth an upgrade from French onion), salad, fully loaded potato and two other vegetables.

The (optional) behind-the-scenes strolls reveal how much thought goes into the show. Chef de cuisine Habteab Hamde, a 16-year Bern’s veteran, entrusts only four of his 80 kitchen workers with staffing the massive charcoal grill, which can accommodate 200 steaks at once. Bern’s is big enough, and busy enough, to maintain its own laundry facilities — and one person whose sole task is to slice and bread onions. In the founder’s era, the legendary wine list came with a chain attached to the table to keep it from becoming an expensive “souvenir”; these days, the spiral-bound list, updated yearly, can be yours for $25.

Laxer died a decade ago, at 78. His son, David, took over the reins in 1996 and runs the attraction in the visionary’s exacting fashion. No two waiters can use the same name, shares my expert server “Lee,” who later confides that his birth name is Mark. (The veteran waiter wears a silver tie, designating his senior status; captains are identified by their gold ties; newbies wear red.)

A patron can take dessert downstairs, but the better tack is to head upstairs to Bern’s dreamy, sugar- and butter-fragrant Dessert Room. There, I found myself in a cozy alcove booth with a retro, built-in music system — and not enough stomachs to put a dent in another epic list. Too full for bananas Foster prepared tableside, I opted instead for a sampler of sweet signatures. The plate showcased a rousing chorus line of bite-size vanilla cheesecake, chocolate cheese pie, macadamia cake and more. Bern’s is sybaritic to the end. // 1208 S. Howard Ave. 813-251-2421. www.bernsteakhouse.com. Entrees, $20.91 to $70.88.

* * *

Carved from what originated as a gas station — reportedly one of Tampa’s first — Boca retains the concrete floor, original wood and overhead rafters of its oily origins. Its menu, on the other hand, couldn’t be more topical.

Local sourcing? The Hyde Park restaurant, headed by chef Ted Dorsey, has its own farm 30 minutes away, which yields Boca’s eggs, collards and other fresh ingredients.

House-made products? If you like the champagne vinegar or breakfast sausage made by Dorsey and crew, you can buy those and dozens of other items in Boca’s front market.

The restaurant inherited a smoker from the barbecue joint that replaced the gas station in the ’70s, and the woodsy fires flavor a big part of the menu, including the whole red mullet I snapped up during my visit. The meaty fish was hooked up with a jazzy pickled coleslaw and Meyer lemon creme fraiche. Dorsey also smokes the meatloaf he serves to his employees, an entree that occasionally makes an appearance on the menu under the billing Staff Meal. “Just order it,” urges the menu. “The chef says you’ll love it.” That was certainly true of the staff rib-sticker I encountered: Crusty fried chicken gathered with summer-licious charred sweet corn and mashed potatoes with a crater of rosemary gravy spoke not only to the chef’s Southern roots (he’s from Atlanta), but to how well-fueled his workers are.

Boca’s food — pork belly with black-eyed pea succotash, crisp flatbread dappled with zesty tomato jam and chunky pesto — leans to the robust. Roseate slices of yellowfin tuna draped over a mound of vegetable-veined couscous was richer for the red curry butter moistening them.

Caramel-lashed pecan pie with a softball-size scoop of intense house-churned vanilla ice cream is one way to end a meal. Another fine finish is tangy Key lime pie with a reduction of locally roasted coffee.

But perhaps the best way to ease into the night may be drinks at the nearby speakeasy named Ciro’s, which happens to be Dorsey’s former roost and is owned by Boca’s backer. To access the moody watering hole and supper club (2109 Bayshore Blvd.; 813-251-0022), you’ll need to ask the chef or one of his managers for the code word, which changes daily. “Hendrick’s” — as in my favorite gin — cracked Ciro’s door for me and led to some ace cocktails. Ask for a daiquiri, and you can be assured of getting it as the classic was always intended. Or, as a bar mistress put this purist at ease, “Blenders are noisy and scary!” // 901 W. Platt St.813-254-2622. www.bocatampa.com. Entrees, $15 to $26.

* * *

I can’t forecast what anyone will be eating at The Refinery the week the Republicans meet in Tampa. In the 21 / 2 years since Greg Baker and his wife, Michelle, opened the funky foodie favorite in Seminole Heights, the chef has yet to repeat a single dish on the menu. Every Thursday, he whips up an entirely new list. Baker’s response to customers who might want to revisit a favorite meal: “Let’s see if I can make you happy with something else.”

While diners can’t predict what they’ll find, they can expect some pleasant surprises from the exposed kitchen. I was dubious about warm watermelon until I tasted it with pickled mango puree, a shock of jalapeño and a crouton dabbed with blue cheese. (The chef digs combinations of sweet and spicy; chances are you will, too.) The first-time restaurant operator rethinks french fries by using mushrooms, which he purees with onions, celery, thyme, wine and cream, then thickens with chickpea and tapioca flours, and pours into a sheet pan to bake. Cut into strips and fried to a crunch, they are a substantial snack made sassier with — forget ketchup — bell pepper sofrito. When Baker got a good deal from his butcher on beef tongue, he passed the bargain along to his customers in the form of a “deli platter” of thinly sliced beef tongue, potato salad and a house-made rye cracker that would have tasted at home in an echt delicatessen. As with many restaurants, however, appetizers tend to be more enticing than main courses.

No offense to Thomas Keller and company, but Greg Baker thinks the “smoke and mirrors” employed by practitioners of lofty dining in this country make that style of cooking inaccessible to the masses. So you won’t find matching silverware in his restaurant, and the plates might be edged with a chip or two. Mason jars are the glasses of choice, because “they keep costs down.” His focus on what lands on the tables rather than on the walls is emphasized in the clattery ground-floor dining room in what was a carriage house in another life. Upstairs awaits a small bar serving just beer and wine.

A category called “Craig’s List” is a response to an investor with the same first name who suggested that the Bakers always offer a steak and a burger on their menu. They agreed, although true to form, every Thursday the preparations for both are reimagined. // 5137 N. Florida Ave. 813-237-2000. www.thetamparefinery.com. Entrees, $13 to $19.

* * *

CHARLOTTE-BOUND

The offbeat Five Church, named for its Uptown address, does not look like any other restaurant in tradition-bound Charlotte. Which is exactly the intent of co-owner and designer Mills Howell. “Everything is handmade except for the chairs and the lighting system,” he is pleased to tell you. Among the locally commissioned art is a painting of an outsize $5 bill that doubles as not-so-subtle branding for the three-month-old eatery.

The Vegas-y setting is followed by food designed to “play along with the decor,” says chef Jamie Lynch, whose script doesn’t bother to stay within the borders of any one country. Among Lynch’s many snacks are a chickpea salad brightened with mint and lemon vinaigrette; first courses embrace Indian-spiced pierogies as well as a crackery flatbread spread with shaved sweet onion, Boursin cheese and flavorful wild-caught shrimp.

One of the restaurant’s bestsellers is a lamb burger, a juicy patty slipped between a sesame-flecked kaiser roll baked right here and served with Lincoln Logs of french fries. A “secret sauce” of house-made ketchup swirled with curry and mayonnaise gives the sandwich a good kick. Of the larger dishes, spring for the grouper, which Lynch gets fresh from a local fisherman who casts in Southport. Basted with butter and sweetened with glazed leeks, the catch is presented with a field of broccoli and crushed potatoes and a champagne buerre blanc that wouldn’t look out of place at the chef’s alma mater, Cafe Boulud in New York City.

A seat at the long concrete counter puts me in touch with the most happy bartender of my trip. He can’t wait for the Democrats to come to town. You’d be excited, too, if your monthly rent were $800 and you were getting $1,000 to sleep somewhere else for the week. // 127 N. Tryon St. (entrance at the corner of Fifth and Church streets). 704-919-1322. www.5church.com. Dinner entrees $16 to $40.

* * *

When chefs Bruce and Kerry Moffett were mulling a second restaurant in Charlotte, a nearby coffee shop worker gave the brothers her two cents about the intended location, a then-forlorn stretch of Montford Drive. “There’s no good food” here, Bruce remembers her saying. The cynic’s words lingered in his mind and became a challenge. When Good Food on Montford, the sequel to the brothers’ Barrington’s Restaurant, open three years ago, it soon emerged as a choice direction for dinner.

While big brother Bruce helms Barrington’s, Kerry, his former sous-chef there, commands Good Food. Small plates and global flavors are the draw at the latter, which sounds like a chef trying too hard until his vibrant handiwork starts crowding the butcher paper-covered table. A trio of crisp falafel dabbed with minty yogurt brings the Middle East to Tar Heel country, and shrimp-topped arepas (corn-flour cakes) are chewy-true to their South American source. Loose risotto speckled with sweet corn, meanwhile, hoists an Italian flag.

A fan of all things Asian, Kerry, who hails from Maryland’s Garrett Park, makes superlative steamed buns, which he stuffs with sweetly spiced pork belly and vinegary vegetables. Fried quail is tucked into cool lettuce wraps and best eaten with a swab of Korean chili oil.

Food is not all that’s good beneath the restaurant’s low-slung roof. Mirrors set at eye level give everyone a view (Claire Danes is a regular when “Homeland” is filming here), and silverware collected from flea markets has been handsomely repurposed as lights over the bar and an art panel on the wall. From the bar comes a mint julep injected with smoke. It’s haunting.

A grazer can work off any overindulgence at the sprawling ’60s-era attraction on the other side of the street, which is also Bruce’s response to callers who say they don’t know where to find Good Food: “You can’t miss us,” he tells them. “We’re right across from the bowling alley.” // 1701 Montford Dr. 704-525-0881. www.goodfoodonmontford.com. Tapas $6 to $12.

* * *

“We’re probably the only church that has a beer tap in its sanctuary,” says Jim Noble, founder of Restoration World Ministries and the Uptown restaurant that spun off from it, King’s Kitchen. Opened two years ago, the tidy corner dining room operates as a faith-based nonprofit; proceeds go to feed the poor and train the needy for restaurant employment.

“Eat some chicken and feed somebody,” preaches the menu, which brims with Southern charm, including boiled peanuts, shrimp and grits, and the option of “meat & three,” a diner’s choice of entree and a trio of side dishes. “Aunt Beaut’s” pays homage to a Noble relation who babysat him as a boy and whipped up fried chicken on Sundays. The dish, crisped in one of 13 cast-iron skillets, is a signature, though not the entree I’d race back to first. That distinction goes to the blackened catfish. The side dishes appear to have been plucked from church picnics or county fairs; go for the pale green coleslaw, peppery macaroni and cheese, and not-too-sweet potato mash.

King’s Kitchen, watched over by chef and missionary Jesse Spann, doesn’t stint on amenities. The napkins are cloth, the counter is marble, and bunches of seagrass bring the outdoors inside. The option of a glass of Cotes du Rhone with the grill-striped pork chop lifts not just a customer’s mood, but King Kitchen’s bottom line. The way Noble sees it, more income means more support for his causes.

The neighboring King’s Bakery produces the very good breads and desserts served at King’s Kitchen. It’s tempting to fill up on the moist cornbread and gravity-defying biscuits, baked in-house, but please don’t: You need to save room for the cinnamon-spiced, pineapple-sweetened hummingbird cake raised to glory with toasted coconut and fluffy cream cheese frosting.

Between lunch and dinner, which offers slightly fancier fare (pesto flavors the tilefish), the dining room plays host to a 3 p.m. Bible study. Aside from the name and a wooden cross displayed in front of the visible kitchen, the restaurant’s Christian bent is subtle. “I’m not the preachy type,” says Noble, who owns three other restaurants in Charlotte and Winston-Salem. “If you look around, you can probably tell what we are,” adds this missionary for soul food. // 129 W. Trade St. 704-375-1990. www.kingskitchen.org. Lunch entrees, $8 to $13; dinner entrees, $13 to $24.

Tom Sietsema is The Post’s food critic. To comment on this story, send e-mail to wpmagazine@washpost.com.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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