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.
* * *
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.