Ulele's local flavor

The new restaurant on the Hillsborough River will pay homage to Tampa and the community’s evolution.

Posted by Meaghan Habuda on Wed, May 21, 2014 at 3:13 PM

Housed in Tampa Heights' historic steam-powered pump house, Ulele is the Columbia Restaurant Group's most recent undertaking. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • Housed in Tampa Heights' historic steam-powered pump house, Ulele is the Columbia Restaurant Group's most recent undertaking.

Ulele, a Timucuan woman, pleaded with her father, the Ucita village’s chief, in 16th-century Tampa Bay.

The chief was about to execute Spanish explorer Juan Ortiz until Ulele threw herself over his body and persuaded her father not to follow through. She saved Ortiz’s life.

Almost eight years ago, at the recommendation of a resident Boy Scout, the former Magbee Spring, which once supplied Tampa with drinking water, was renamed Ulele Spring in her honor.

Richard Gonzmart and the Columbia Restaurant Group’s latest endeavor is also named after her. The spring flows right beyond its walls.

During a May 12 tour of the Ulele restaurant at 1810 N. Highland Ave., Keith Sedita, managing partner, said the eatery will tell the city’s history through its food. It’s the tale of the spring, of pioneers, of the people who used the Hillsborough River as a resource and inhabited the area long ago.

Considering Ulele’s locale within the historic Water Works Building, “There’s so many stories to tell,” he said.

Though its not set in stone, the restaurant is slated to open the third week of July. Different tenants are being added to Ulele’s native-inspired menu as it’s being created, according to Sedita, who noted that the cuisine must revolve around the history.

With executive chef Eric Lackey using seasonal, indigenous (read: Florida) ingredients, the fare will have local origins.

Blue crabs and oysters, for example, will be among the offerings. A blue crab beer cheese mac debuted during the Mayor’s Mac & Cheese Throwdown on May 10. Sedita said Ulele purchased an ice cream machine from a family-owned company in Brookesville, and found a place in Myakka where it can source fresh cream. Both products align with Ulele’s concept and will be used to craft its homemade frozen sweets.

Like any new restaurant, Ulele will adjust and adapt to customer feedback about the food, said chief marketing officer Michael Kilgore. Lunch and dinner will be provided five days a week, with brunch served Saturdays and Sundays in addition to lunch items.

Through what Sedita calls “adaptive reuse,” the restaurant incorporated as many original pieces of the building as it could. Although some of the interior has been painted white, there’s a stretch of worn brick behind the bar and near the kitchen. One part of a wall still reads “emergency shower.” Dominique Martinez, of Rustic Steel Creations, constructed bases for the dining room tables, which are topped with red and white oak from Built’s Andrew Watson. The light fixtures were made in Seminole Heights, and an Ybor artist built the restroom stalls.

By July, a 7-foot-tall bronze statue of Ulele will rest outside.

Nearly every part of Ulele, from the aged pipes repurposed as door handles to Tampa’s old courthouse benches fashioned into banquettes, is turning out just how the restaurant team imagined.

With 230 seats, two mezzanines and a rooftop patio that’s decked in high-tops and a lounge area overlooking the beer garden, Ulele gives diners access to the sunset from the east or west. There’s also community table seating and room at the oyster bar, which sits next to the round barbacoa, a dining room focal point.

Looking in from the beer garden, diners may admire Ulele’s brewery. It’s headed by brewmaster Tim Shackton who will create various beers in-house, and plans to produce a bourbon-aged brew from 27 cases of Knob Creek. A barrel of Patron that Sedita and Kilgore traveled to taste in person, composed of 27 cases of tequila, will be used for cocktails, while a wine cellar under the mezzanines' staircase will store about 1,000 varietals from independent companies in locations like Washington and New York.

The restaurant is housed across from the project underway in Water Works Park, which the city is reconstructing and connecting to the Tampa Riverwalk. The Ecosphere Restoration Institute is managing Ulele Spring's restoration. Sedita said the Riverwalk, beginning near the Tampa Bay History Center, will extend 2.2 miles to Ulele.

Custom bike racks are being developed for the restaurant, and the park will have public boat slips for those who choose to travel by water. Kayaks and canoes are welcome, too.

Ulele, in connection with the park, has a mission larger than its cuisine.

“We want people to appreciate what [Tampa Heights] is and bring it back to splendor,” Sedita said.

 Tampa Heights' Ulele

By Meaghan Habuda

CL photographer Chip Weiner and editor-in-chief David Warner got another sneak peek of the soon-to-open Ulele restaurant Wednesday, May 14, from its managing partner Keith Sedita and Michael Kilgore, chief marketing officer.

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