It's no doubt that you've caught some of the Rooster and the Till buzz. The joint is being declared as the best restaurant in Tampa by food critics and aficionados alike. And after just one much-anticipated visit to the cuisine venue that everyone is talking about, I can't say that I disagree.
If you fancy yourself a food lover; one who truly appreciates quality and uncommon ingredients, fashioned into dishes that exude a thing of edible beauty; then you my friend, have likely dined in Tampa's ever-changing, Seminole Heights. Many cities boast design districts and fashion districts, often found off the beaten path and in areas that appear modest with nondescript buildings, spotty neighborhood streets, and warehouses galore. In Tampa, we boast the similar, but with a restaurant district, and it has proudly set up camp on the 1920's bungalow covered streets of central Tampa.
From the James Beard award-winning Refinery, to the eclectic Independent bar, to the many well-received craft breweries, the streets of Seminole Heights are booming with talent and diversity. And just two months ago, the 'hood scored a new dining place, a place that had been a long time in the making, a place that strives to deliver its patrons only the best locally sourced ingredients from nearby farms and gardens, and a place that after only 60 days of service, earned itself a spot on St. Pete Times' best of Tampa restaurant list.
I waited two grueling months to visit Rooster and the Till. But last Friday night, with my brother and my fiance by my side, I stepped into the quaint 37 seat eatery, ready to eat the perfectly concise one page menu from top to bottom, left to right.With an hour wait that was made tolerable with two glasses of five dollar wine, we were seated front and center at the bar, where we watched chef and co-owner Ferrell Alvarez work his magic on the dishes he dreamed up for the better than stellar culinary venture.
There'd be no question that we'd start with their charcuterie slate. Made in-house, Rooster presents its meat-loving guests with Chicken liver pate, gelee, Candied walnut crumble pork shoulder tasso, Apple coffee butter rabbit pate de terrine, Vegetable pickle, Mustard smokey duck rilette, and an Orange black pepper marmalade.
While naming a favorite would be nearly impossible, I can say that the pork shoulder tasso received the highest of nods with its sweet and savory pungent bite and a texture that kept us coming back for more. We were also pretty enamoured with the Rabbit Pate De Terrine. Oh, how its rich and smooth quality had me almost licking that slate clean. Every component of the charcuterie spread was absolutely divine and I found the marmalade and pickle were perfect contrasting flavors to the various meats.
Those who know me know that I'm one serious fan of raw oysters. So when I heard that Rooster has daily oyster, clam, and crudo offerings, the decision was clear. We'd be ordering some of Rooster's oysters served on Old Bay ice, cured lemon, and horseradish. The sea suckers of the evening came from Rhode Island and were Umami and Beavertail varieties. Huge, and silky smooth (precise shucking takes place here), I slurped down one of each and found that both had an incredibly clean finish. The cured lemon and horseradish mixture only further contributed to that awesome crisp slurp.
Ahhh, duck. The Rooster is no stranger of the duck. My most-loved meat, I was delighted to see that there was not one, but two duck dishes on the menu. The first preparation came from the "Smalls" portion of the menu and was served as a mound of confit on top of smoked eggplant. Made fancy with acidic fennel, a warm foie gras emulsion, and a lovely touch of paper-thin watermelon radish, it was a piece of art for the eyes and for the palate. Watching Alvarez so carefully construct this dish made eating it that much more special. The duck confit was beyond decadent and paired effortlessly with the smokiness from the eggplant and the surprisingly subtle (but noticeable) acidic fennel. Oh, and did I mention the foie gras? Need I say more?
Up next was a selection made by Chris. With not an ounce of meat, this vegetarian plate was a surprising choice for a carnivorous man. But he knew what he was doing. House ricotta, raw beets, tomato, red onion yogurt, and pine nut butter was composed beautifully and made for an impeccable palate cleanser between the rich meat-laden dishes. Tangy, creamy, and bright, we were fighting for bites from the moment it was served. Who needs sorbet when you can cleanse your palate with this thing of wonder?
Back to some meat. Some gorgeously fatty and crispy, meat. It was a plate that I was urged to order. But I didn't need any convincing. The menu description alone would've reeled me in. Pork Belly, cornbread, pickled apple, and peppercorn honey. That is what I read but what we were served was so much more. Strategic in presentation, this plate of fare was gone before we knew it and had all of us begging for more. But I think that was the point. The luscious sous vide prepared pork belly was some of the best I've ever devoured and remained prominent in the dish that claimed so many strong flavors. The other ingredients held their own too, making this one of the best dishes of the night. Now, I urge you, to order the pork belly. But you didn't really need any convincing, now did you?
Onto some "slightly larger" plates. We were torn. For all five options sounded like heaven on a plate. Not shocking though, since this place is a food geek's ultimate haven. We knew we couldn't go wrong and since Alvarez was standing right before us, we took his advice. "Get the rabbit," he assured us in a sincere (and yet strict) tone. If we must... Rabbit Ballotine, chicken liver, raisins, porky kale, and soft polenta made for a combination that my tastebuds will forever remember. The meat was downright succulent and presented atop that velvety polenta, it was a concoction for the books. I must also add, that this was the first time my brother has ever enjoyed kale. Then again, it was "porky kale." Flawless execution in every way.
For our last savory selection of the night, we opted for some more duck...because honestly, one can never have enough duck. A unique creation of grilled duck breast, charred carrots, spiced granola, lentils, and a heavy drizzle of duck demi, this was a plate for the most discerning of palates. Seemingly simple, the flavors it flaunted made for a party on my tongue. And the various textures made it that much more interesting and that much more delectable.
Not one of us is super serious about sweets. But nonetheless, we ordered both desserts that night. And since their desserts aren't listed on the menu, I had our server recite each ingredient as I scribbled on the back of the receipt. Dedication right there, people. The first was most memorable. Presented in a Mason-like jar filled with a rosemary vanilla bean creme fraiche, salted caramel, granola, and spiked with Hooker Tea Company's Orange Spice Black Tea, it was an explosion of alluring sweet and salty elements. It was also a superb sweet ending for a gal who lacks a sweet tooth. I can only pray that they'll have this dessert when I return.
The other dessert that night was an elegant plate composed of a miniature spiced cardamom cake, white chocolate, strawberry compote, streusel crumbs, and a nice sized dollop of hazelnut butter ice cream. Sugar and spice, and everything nice made for the most harmonious union. Not one to usually order desserts, Rooster will always be the exception to that rule. Alvarez definitely doesn't limit his skills to the savory selections.
I feel that I must enlighten you on Rooster's drink menu. No liquor exists here but their beer and wine list is pretty righteous. Granting both wine snobs and amateurs with three price levels of vino- $25 ($5 a glass), $45 ($9), and $65 ($13), there is a wine for everyone. They also have four local craft brews available on tap as well as almost 10 bottled craft beers from all over the country.
I think now is the time to inform you that if you're one who needs to leave a restaurant feeling food-coma full, then Rooster is not your kinda joint...unless, of course, you want to spend $100 a person. But if you're someone (and I hope all of you are) who can really get down with a memorable dinner experience full of local ingredients that swoon and with presentations that awe, then Rooster is up your alley. It's obvious that hard work has gone into the making of this restaurant. From the rural-inspired ambiance that is reminiscent of a farm-to-table eatery in NYC to service that is bar-none, not a single factor has been overlooked. It is my honest opinion, that Rooster and the Till is in fact, a perfect restaurant in every way.