I have to admit, I was quite livid when my favorite Tampa BBQ restaurant, “Smoke” had a sign on their door: “Gone for the Summer” for 10 months straight. What in God’s name were these successful South Tampa restaurant owners thinking? What could possibly top Smoke, an “upscale” but insanely delicious BBQ eatery? My questions linger no more. Boca, the newest South Tampa foodie hot spot tops Smoke, hands (and forks) down. The brains behind Boca who also own the ever so popular Ceviche and the sexy and swanky Circo’s Speakeasy knew exactly what they were doing with this innovative twist on Tampa food. Boca opened up just a few months ago and immediately caught my eye. The words “organic” and “local” inscribed on the building’s exterior shed bright light on Tampa’s very slowly evolving culinary community. Farm to fork cuisine where one can savor the unity of healthy and delicious is finally publicly upon the trendy South Tampa Hyde Park district. Halleluiah, it is about time.
We made reservations for a late dinner last Friday night. As we approached the restaurant, there was an immediate consuming energy. This was no stuffy joint. Boca screams fun dinner parties and girls’ night out. Hundreds of conversations were seeping through the floor to ceiling windows. Laughter was distinct. Boca was slammed. So slammed in fact, that even with reservations, we were told it’d be 15-20 minute wait. We opted to sit on the street side patio. Considering the echoic noisy ambiance inside, the patio turned out to be a preferable choice for a romantic dinner.
As our hostess walked us through the lively chaos, I could not help but notice the sophisticated, yet sultry lightning, fabrics, and furniture. Big city dining radiates from this Hyde Park newbie. A food case, filled with local market ingredients including fine cheeses, heirloom tomatoes and Oysters added that perfect market touch.
After receiving the exciting news that Boca is BYOB (with a $10 corking fee), we decided to bring own bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. Our friendly waitress was quick to de-cork our bottle and bring us glasses and an ice tub. For once, I had come to a restaurant without having read the menu beforehand. I should do this more often. The menu read like a romance novel for foodies. I was in love with every dish description. With a grueling personal debate, I selected the Yellow Fin Tuna. Chris chose the Seared scallops.
Although overwhelmingly busy, Boca’s service was pretty prompt. My Yellowfin tuna was beautifully plated and with a pleasing portion for a 9pm dinner. Chris’ jumbo seared scallops appeared heavenly but three jumbo scallops were hardly enough for his appetite-not to mention the big bite I would be forced to take from him. My tuna came medium rare and with roasted garlic couscous as well as a perfectly tender local vegetable medley consisting of peppers, onions, zucchini and squash. Drizzled generously on top was Charmoula aioli. This delectable sauce is the incredibly tasty aromatic aioli version of a North African paprika and cumin sauce used to marinate and dress seafood. The second I took a bite of tuna drenched in this stuff I wanted the recipe. Then I took another bite of the tuna with much less aioli. To my disappointment, the Yellow Fin tuna could not stand alone. Sure, it had that amazing buttery smooth tuna texture but the flavor was doing very little for my taste buds. I almost asked our server for an additional bowl of the aioli but chose to refrain from insulting the chef. The couscous and vegetables were surprisingly satisfying. Most often when I try couscous, I find it very dry and bland. This was hardly the case for Boca’s couscous. The roasted garlic was pungent and sweet in the most moist couscous I’ve ever eaten.
After watching Chris’ eyes shut with each bite of his seared scallops, I knew he was in food euphoria. I politely yanked his fork from his hand and took a bite from his scallop dish. These scallops were undoubtedly large but the super silky texture was something else. Seared with that ideal golden crust and bursting with flavor from the mild blackening seasonings, these may have been the best scallops I’ve ever had. Served with local spring peas, yellow squash and asparagus tips, I was a little disgruntled by the lack of a grain. That was until I took one more small bite covered in yet again, another amazing sauce. Champagne mustard cream played a key role in this dish with its sweet and tangy beauty nicely complementing each bite.
Although I insisted we take our time, Chris and I were done with our small dinner potion plates in no time. As someone who has experienced the typical fine dining trendy portions hundreds of times, in multiple cities, I felt a little cheated this time-with the atmosphere laying between casual and fancy I felt that the price-tag on these small portioned dinner plates ($22) was just a bit too presumptuous for even the seasoned and substantial salaried foodie. With that said, we were still hungry. We played it completely backwards and ordered a starter-the baked feta which came out in no time. Wrapped in phyllo dough and baked until golden, the creamy and sharp feta was oozing from the pastry’s seams. Adorned with pickled chow chow and local citrus, this colorful starter was visually pretty and packed with an abundance of diverse tastes. The chow chow, oranges and tangerine added a sweet something to the buttery flakiness of the phyllo and the intense strength of the feta. I think I had unintentionally saved the best for last.
Boca, with its local farm food flair, is a top player in Tampa’s new -found love for the “buy local, eat local” movement that has already consumed so many big cites in the U.S. The service is timely, the food is executed with style and skills, and the mood is fun and lively. With subtle letdowns easy to overlook with organic and original attempts to gastronomy, I thoroughly enjoyed my night at this new and already victorious venture and plan to go back soon.