The Food Issue: Unforgettable

The 25 local dishes CL restaurant critic Jon Palmer Claridge still dreams about.


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In the two years since I began reviewing restaurants for Creative Loafing, I’ve tasted nearly 1,000 dishes. Some took my breath away; others made me wonder if anyone in the kitchen had ever eaten what they put on my plate. The best ones offer balanced flavors where each component contributes and the whole is greater than the parts.

Great chefs have moxie; they’re not afraid to experiment. Some harness new methodologies, others embrace tradition but find ways to refine and enhance familiar dishes. All command impeccable technique.

As I look back over the past 24 months, I recall so many memorable tastes from my favorite restaurants that choosing the best is like choosing among beloved children; making a list like this one requires painful elimination of worthy efforts. However, after several hedonistic voyages down memory lane, these 25 dishes are, for me, “such stuff as dreams are made on.”

Dishes are listed alphabetically by establishment. To see the restaurants’ overall ratings, check the CL Stars Guide.
* Indicates a dish that is no longer available

  • Shanna Gillette

ABC Seafood
Honey-Walnut Shrimp with Baby Bok Choy

While not ABC’s most authentic dish, the perfect shrimp ooze a sweet, but not cloying, glaze straight from the beehive. Sesame seeds cling and give added dimension to the walnuts, and the Lilliputian bok choy, apart from being so damn cute, is soft, lightly caramelized and absolutely scrumptious.

  • Chip Weiner

Anise Global Gastrobar

Stinky bunz quintet

Puffy white Asian “bao” stuffed with: beer-battered shrimp, crunchy papaya slaw and ginger aioli; luscious braised pork belly with tangy kimchi; red-curried crusty chicken with the snap of fresh cucumber; fried zucchini with crispy garlic; and Chinese BBQ pork with pickled radish — your head will spin.

  • Nick Cardello

Armani’s at Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay
Antipasto misto

Fabulous, with a capital “F.” There are balsamic glazed meatballs, clams with sambucca vinaigrette, fresh hearts of palm, fine Italian cheese and cured meats, baby squid, shrimp, perfect grilled asparagus and earthy cubes of roasted beets — more flavors on the plate than you can shake a breadstick at.

The Black Pearl
White truffle risotto with lobster tail

Great risotto is seductive. It’s creamy, it’s luscious, it’s the most comforting of Italian dishes, when every grain of Arborio rice resists ever so slightly before yielding to the tooth. Add the essence of fragrant white truffles and a whole, succulent lobster tail and your knees buckle.

  • Chip Weiner

Byblos Cafe
Taste of Lebanon

A stunning sampler in generous portions perfect for sharing, Byblos’ mezah includes hummus, smoky baba ganuj, labneh, kebbeh, falafel, stuffed grape leaves, minty tabbouleh, plus warm homemade pitas. After an entree combo of shish kabob, chicken kabob and kafta you’ll feel an uncontrollable urge to join in the belly dancing.

  • Shanna Gillette

Cafe Ponte
Braised short ribs

The short ribs are perfect; braised for 24 hours and served atop a parsnip and Bosc pear purée with red wine salsify, baby spinach, and surrounded by caramelized shallot-port sauce. Truly a great dish from one of the Bay’s finest.

  • Shanna Gillette

Caretta on the Gulf at the Sandpearl Resort
Florida heat*

This dessert knocked my palate for a loop: a tower stacking blood orange mousse, pink grapefruit mousse and perfectly torched Italian meringue atop delicate lemon sponge cake. It was lighter than air, explosive yet velvety on the palate, and hauntingly delicious.

Oxtail gnocchi

The oxtail ragu is an umami-filled miracle. The sauce has so much sweet meaty flavor that you almost forget just how scrumptious the lovely gnocchi are. They simultaneously deliver soft potato flavor with the contrasting crunch that comes from a caramelized, brown pan sear. It’s everything you could wish.

Ciro’s Speakeasy
Old-fashioned cocktail

Beverage-centric Ciro’s Speakeasy lives up to its name, using historic mixing techniques from a bygone era. One huge ice cube, an enormous fragrant rectangle of orange zest, a splash of simple syrup with bitters, smooth whiskey and a skewered, sweet, dark cherry. As good as it gets.

Della’s After Dark
Duck breast, confit ravioli and gorgonzola cream*

Chef “Dolce Debbie’s” years in Venice were reflected in this special dish in which crisp seared duck breast, fanned out all pink and rosy, snuggled with duck confit ravioli floating in a transporting Gorgonzola cream sauce, with crispy duck cracklin’s that added a welcome crunch. Paradise!

  • Chip Weiner

Don CeSar’s Maritana Grille
Tasting trio: Tuna/beef/prawn*

This wonderful “tasting trio” appetizer highlighted hand-minced tuna tartare with a crispy wonton, beef tenderloin carpaccio with micro greens, and a mouth-watering fresh gulf prawn with jicama salad and juicy watermelon. Simply sublime.

edison: food+drink lab
Sugar crusted butter cake & brown butter ice cream

From the [ FLAVOR PROFILE: MOIST | HEARTY | TOASTY ] section of edison’s scientific-ish menu comes a tender slice of soft, buttery cake crackling with a sugar crust in lush toffee sauce. Pistachios, orange segments, and meringue “pellets” garnish, adding more flavors and texture. Dreamy brown butter ice cream melds perfectly. It’s dessert heaven on a plate.

Elevage at the Epicurean Hotel
Hanger steak

Fork-tender “sous vide” hanger steak surrounds a long marrow bone, split lengthwise, with gorgeous chunks of rare beef swimming in a heady hickory-smoked bordelaise sauce. And the ubiquitous steak house creamed spinach ends up as croquettes. Brilliant.

Il Ritorno
Octopus puttanesca

The charred tentacles are magical, but the trick to the puttanesca (named for “ladies of the night”) is kept under wraps. How is the octopus so tender? Lap it up with the sauce of Kalamata olives, confit tomatoes, garlic, salted capers and a Parmesan crisp and you’ll practically be swooning.

  • Shanna Gillette

Jade Bistro
Tamarind shrimp with avocado salad

Beautiful layers of sweet-sour shrimp are balanced by cool cucumber and avocado with the crunch of crispy shallots and peanuts. We’re so used to chunks of cucumber and avocado in cold salads that their presence in a hot dish lends a welcome and scrumptious element of surprise.

Shrimp meditarraneo

Proof that less is more — a dish that’s stunning in both taste and simplicity. Ten juicy, butterflied Gulf shrimp, a pinch of black salt, and the light char from a cast-iron sizzle platter à la fajitas. Skip the spicy sauce; the shrimp alone are not to be missed.

  • Chip Weiner

Scallops smoked tableside with blood orange air

Perfect huge, amazingly tender scallops with the arresting smell of seductive char rest on a lush, enchanting ratatouille. Floating atop the mollusks is blood orange “air,” an intensely flavored, barely-there foam that adds the ideal hint of bright citrus.

  • Chip Weiner

Red Mesa
Enchilada trio

First there’s duck enchilada with raspberry chipotle sauce, then the subtle chicken enchilada with salsa roja, and finally a crab and shrimp enchilada with poblano cream. By the time you add the congri (perfect rice and black beans) with herbaceous chimichurri, your taste buds rejoice in sensory overload.

  • Chip Weiner

Rooster & the Till
Pork belly, cornbread, pickled apple

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. This carefully constructed combo is best tasted with a forkful that includes all the ingredients in a single bite.

Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion
Roy’s trio: salmon, mahi mahi, butterfish

Hibachi-grilled salmon in a Japanese triple citrus ponzu sauce joins roasted macadamia nut-crusted mahi mahi with lobster cream and hints of bacon, plus the delectable misoyaki “butterfish,” a marinated Alaskan black cod with baby bok choy and furikake rice. It’s a fish lover’s dream.

  • Chip Weiner

717 South
Havana short rib “spring roll”

An unforgettable fusion of flavors, textures and aromas. Soft, shredded beef with Cuban spices bursts with meaty flavor inside an ultra-crisp deep-fried wrapper. Add a touch of sweet, creamy almond guava spread and a squiggle of spicy Peruvian pepper aioli and you’ve got gastronomic Nirvana.

  • Jon Palmer Claridge

Tasting menu

SideBerns offers a six-course tasting menu of progressive American cuisine with wine pairings, each with two options. There’s also a matching vegetarian degustation. My favorite dining experience in Tampa Bay is to gather an adventuresome friend or three and share 18-24 courses and wines. It’s pricey but transcendent.

  • Chip Weiner

Thai Gourmet Market
Pork, shrimp & crab dumplings

Slivers of pork, shrimp, and fresh blue crab plus a colorful tiny carrot cube peek out of the top of soft steamed wonton wrappers. A drizzle of olive and garlic oils, the thinnest julienned ginger, and a few wisps of scallion and cilantro make these dumplings complex and scrumptious.

  • Shanna Gillettte

William Dean Chocolates
Lemongrass & coconut artisan chocolate

The sense of creaminess makes an initial impression on the tip of your tongue; the white chocolate ganache is unexpected. You swoon as the mix of lemongrass and coconut develops in layers of flavor. Like great wine, the taste lingers and the texture is seared into your memory.

Z Grille
Gluttonous gordita slider*

A toasted brioche bun topped with a luscious slab of crisp pork belly, sweet and spicy orange jalapeño jam, a slice of creamy La Belle Farm sautéed foie gras, and a fried quail egg dripping yolk made this the Mount Everest of appetizers. The gastro-sherpas among us hope it'll someday return to the menu.


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