Small Wonder

Rooster & the Till serves spectacular food in Seminole Heights.

Posted by Jon Palmer Claridge on Wed, Mar 19, 2014 at 2:50 PM

The 37-seat Rooster & the Till accepts no reservations or parties larger than five. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • The 37-seat Rooster & the Till accepts no reservations or parties larger than five.

Haute cuisine is served in temples of gastronomy exemplified by crisp white linen tablecloths, designer stemware and sterling silver cutlery, right? Teams of synchronized waitstaff in Armani and Chanel attend carefully coiffed diners in hushed voices while the dulcet tones of a live harp plays in the background, right? Celebrated chefs cultivate a rock star aura as they serve a cornucopia of exotic ingredients from around the globe prepared by an army of sous chefs, right?

Serious food is usually serious business. But a short trip to Seminole Heights proves the exception to the rule. Rooster & the Till explodes all the benchmarks and upends any preconceived notions about what constitutes the highest level of fine dining across Tampa Bay.

The vibe is distinctly casual and the dining room tiny, dominated by mason-jar fixtures, a giant rooster mural, and brushed stainless steel tables. The kitchen and crew of three are in plain sight behind a bar where diners are up close and personal. And the food, from a menu of plates designed to share, is, in a word, spectacular. Every dish delivers surprise, fresh farm-to-table ingredients, and an unfailing sense of balance so there’s nary a false note.

A server arrives clad in a black T-shirt and ball cap, and while you peruse the menu of small and slightly larger plates, you still have no clue as to the superlative dining experience yet to unfold. Each and every dish exits the kitchen and arrives at your table in a seamlessly choreographed manner. Plates and knives and forks and spoons come and go in what appears to be an effortless symphonic dance as eye-opening flavor combos reach the table.

First there’s a hush, then a moan, then an “oh, my” followed by an excited exchange of tablewide commentary as each dish disappears in a few shared bites that leave you wanting more. As each plate arrives, the process is repeated. Previously reluctant diners step outside their comfort zones, compelled by their tablemates to stretch their palates. And the crackerjack team of chefs delivers on every exciting combination that they have dreamt up for your pleasure.

We skip over the tempting cheese and charcuterie platter and the raw oysters hawked from the blackboard in the rear to focus on the yellowfin tuna crudo special that combines perfect small, dark-red cubes of succulent raw fish with the sweetness of coconut milk tempered by tamarind and kimchi sprouts. The flavors touch every taste bud and you’re on notice that this is no ordinary night.

A series of delicious small plates bursting with flavor follows in close succession. Roasted cauliflower florets with toast-colored edges are surrounded by pickled golden raisins coated in walnut bread crumbs that swim in a nutty brown butter sauce. I can still taste it as I write.

Then, R&tT takes the old culinary truism that “everything is better with bacon” to the next level by incorporating pork products in as many dishes as possible. Luscious slices of pork belly cooked low and slow “sous vide” are seared and topped with homemade cornbread drizzled with black peppercorn honey and accompanied by small spheres of pickled apple. These combinations are carefully constructed and best tasted with a forkful that includes all the ingredients in every single bite.
OH, HONEY: Pork belly and cornbread with black peppercorn honey and pickled apple. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • OH, HONEY: Pork belly and cornbread with black peppercorn honey and pickled apple.

The quartered chunks of tart, bitter turnips balance lush creamy white beans topped with piquant mustard seed and pickled celery bathed in a pork fat vinaigrette that ties all the elements together.

As we move to the “slightly larger plates,” we are so enamored of the pork that it’s an element in all three chosen dishes. A ballotine of juicy rabbit is wrapped around chicken liver and raisin filling. These stuffed morsels sit atop sautéed kale flavored with pork jus and crunchy bits atop cheesy soft polenta.

Three small house-made sausages created from an artisanal pork species called “mangalista butifarra” arrive with lardo whipped potatoes. Lardo is not to be confused with lard. Lardo is cured pork fat that is all about richness; the creamy texture and succulence make for kickass spuds. The richness is cut by savory akino savoy cabbage and a piquant sofrito marmalade. Again, the combined flavors on your fork will have you seeing stars.

Pan-seared sweet, delicate tilefish sits on a caraway-studded cabbage slaw with fresh fava beans, shredded pork shoulder and huge wafer-thin orange slices of pickled radish. The juxtaposition of flavors and textures is magical.

There is no dessert menu. Instead, Chef Ferrell Alvarez and his team produce regularly changing special desserts that are worthy successors to the stunning plates that precede them. A small mason jar sports layers of creamy coconut-oolong tea custard, a crumble of flourless chocolate cake topped with a subtle scoop of peanut butter-coffee ice cream, and a crusty slice of brûléed banana. The combo is as surprising as it is delightful.
Chef Ferrell Alvarez prepares a dish of house ricotta, raw beets, tomatoes, red onion yogurt and pine nut butter. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • Chef Ferrell Alvarez prepares a dish of house ricotta, raw beets, tomatoes, red onion yogurt and pine nut butter.

Next comes a light vanilla chiffon cake topped with strawberries that have been compressed with lavender, imparting a slight perfumed note. That contrasts with bright, fresh strawberry sorbet, which transports you right to a patch in Plant City. As the smooth, cold fruity scoop softens, it blends into a crunchy streusel base, adding unexpected texture that is gastronomic poetry.

Wine, of course, is an important element in a great meal, and R&tT’s selective list offers diverse choices at three price points. Bottles are $25 ($5 per glass), $45 ($9), and $65 ($13); it’s a clear delineation that focuses the list. They also offer a quirky selection of bottled beers from PBR to Zombie Killer, a mead-cider blend from Michigan.

Food and service this good reflect teamwork and trust built over time. Chef Alvarez and his posse have moved together over the past decade from Mise en Place to Cafe Dufrain to their exciting new venture. Their cohesiveness is apparent in the entire operation. But be aware that there are no reservations or parties over five. And recently, they’ve begun offering a five-course chef’s tasting menu at the kitchen bar for $65. The completely new menu changes weekly to reflect the best foodstuffs of the season. I am salivating like a culinary terminator at the thought; I assure you, “I’ll be back.” 

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