I was super excited to be selected to try Ulele with the Tampa Bay Bloggers. I had heard about the new Tampa restaurant through social media right when it opened up last August, and from the reputation of the family behind it figured I would be in for quite a treat! Then they were named One of the Top 100 Restaurants in the U.S. by Open Table and One of the Best New Restaurants in Florida by Florida Trend. I knew I had to get over there!
From their website: Ulele (pronounced You-lay-lee) celebrates the vibrant fusion of ingredients from Florida waters and land once home to many Native Americans, including the young princess Ulele. Expect intricately flavored, visually appealing dishes prepared on the 10′ diameter barbacoa grill.
With my husband waiting for our table
When I arrived on the scene, I was treated to beautiful water views (luckily the sun hadn’t set yet, so I could see the surrounding area). I was a bit confused by the front doors though, because the handle is a heavy chain and I thought they were closed with the doors chained shut!
While waiting to be seated I simply took in the eclectic art hanging everywhere. There was great energy, lots of scents and sounds, and wonderful things to look at!
The TBBloggers were taken upstairs to a special long table prepared to seat 20. To wet our whistle we were offered tastings of 2 house-made beers:
- Honeymoon Beer, a cold fermented unfiltered lager infused with fresh Plant City strawberries. It displays a strawberry nose and a fruity, honeysuckle finish.
- Buckhorn’s Black Lager, named for the Mayor of Tampa Bob Buckhorn. A chocolate rye oatmeal cold-fermented black lager. Watch the premier of this brew from Ulele Spring Brewery here.
We toured their in-house brewery, and I’ll tell you about that after the meal. But here’s what was important for me. I don’t like beer. I don’t like the smell or the taste, and I tell my husband that when he drinks it I think of rotten rice. I’ve toured the Busch brewery, since I grew up in St. Louis, and that was not fun for me. But they handed me that double shotglass of Honeymoon Beer to taste, and I sniffed it. It totally smelled like my 1980 Strawberry Shortcake doll. So I took a little sip, and the beer flavor was light. And before I knew it, I had finished the glass! I have never finished a beer. Now, granted, I didn’t want a pint of it, but I did sip on that all evening and didn’t hate it once. Next to me, Lora ordered the pretty, ombre Water Works Sunset from their menu of cocktails.
Along with our beer choices, we were given starters to taste. They had their award winning mac and cheese and chili, which won cookoffs before the restaurant was even open, as well as the house salad. The mac and cheese was served with mix-ins of crab, duck bacon, scallions, and more. The Florida Native chili was smokey, chunky and not too spicy. And it only had a few beans. (I found out later it was called Florida Native chili because it contained boar, gator, venison, duck, ground chuck, cranberry beans and local spices.) The mac and cheese had great flavor but was creamier than I would have liked. I prefer my Mac thickened or baked.
Next we had 2 rounds of oysters: raw on the half shell with lavash crisps and chargrilled with Parmesan served with crusty French bread. The chargrilled oysters were great, with the savory cheese adding just an extra bite!
Soon after, Alligator Hush Puppies arrived. Their fluffy, beignet-like consistency had chunks of alligator, country ham, duck bacon, fresh corn, jalapeño – and a drizzle of honey datil pepper sauce and fresh-ground horseradish aioli.
Along with that we tried the Squash gratin, which thankfully was more about the trio of squash than the manchengo cheese. I like my cheese, don’t get me wrong, but I also really enjoy veggies that taste like veggies.
Those were our appetizer tastings. I didn’t bother with raw oysters or salad, and saved room for items I knew I’d enjoy more.
To quote blogger Nichole from Casa De Crews: “Each dish was prettier than the last, and I couldn’t tell you which plate I enjoyed eating the most. Yes, I can. I lied to you; a perfectly cooked filet mignon, from Strickland Farms in Myakka City.”
This dish was a 10oz Filet with White Cheddar Popcorn Mashed Potatoes [Russet potatoes with white cheddar, roasted garlic and leeks, topped with popcorn], and a few spears of asparagus. It was literally the best piece of red meat I have ever eaten in my life. You have to be a master to get the crispiness on the outside and maintain a soft, red center. Red meat is not my go-to, but this was perfection!
Next we all tasted the Florida Pompano: Lightly dredged, Pan-seared pompano fillet over nutty brown rice, sundried tomato shallot cream topped with fried carrot ribbons. Those carrot ribbons could be a side dish unto themselves – I munched on quite a few of those!
The vegetarian dish we tried was Native vegetable sauté in a ginger soy reduction over nutty wild rice. It had delicious, meaty mushrooms and crisp asparagus on top. I could easily eat this for dinner over and over!
Then it was back to meat with the Ulele Burger: A blend of ground short rib, brisket and chuck chargrilled and topped with house steak sauce, Wisconsin sharp cheddar, a portobello mushroom, fire-roasted red peppers and fried leeks. Now, the portobello mushroom would have made a fine burger on its own, but this meaty blend was divine. I took a slice on a side plate – I’m not sure how one would eat it without a fork! The fries were just OK, but they weren’t really the point. The fried leeks on top, on the other hand, were a fun touch. Oddly, the following weekend I saw a burger on a menu topped with fried leeks down in Siesta Key at The Hub. I hadn’t heard of that before this month, and now I had come across it twice in 2 weeks.
Next came more meat. To quote blogger Marissa:
The final main dish was the infamous “KILO Porterhouse”! Lions, tigers and steaks oh my!? This is one huge hunk of meat. The porterhouse is the ‘best of both worlds’ because it includes the filet mignon (seen earlier) and the new york strip steak. This baby was dry-aged to perfection for 24 days and is served chef-carved off the bone.
I couldn’t eat any more meat at that point, so I left that for the others to try. I wanted to save room for the promised house-made ice cream. They said they would serve us their Award winning dessert and I asked to try their strawberry ice cream, because I had been craving that for a few days. Little did I know what was coming…
First – the award winning specialty – Candied Duck Bacon Maple Fried Ice Cream. (Try saying that 10 times fast!) Vanilla ice cream with cinnamon corn flake crust, drizzled with caramel, topped with candied duck bacon and sweet potato Pizzelle crisp floating on Knob Creek crème anglaise. To. Die. For. This dessert had a whole spread in TBT when it won its award!
But then they let us try every flavor of their ice creams in precious coconut shells! Valhrona Chocolate, Ugandan Vanilla Bean, mocha, fresh local strawberry and toasted coconut. The basic chocolate was my favorite, but because I had been craving strawberry and begged for it, that’s what got photographed.
Throughout the evening, we learned history of the area, the family running the restaurant and Princess Ulele herself. There are fewer than 15 restaurants in the country over 100 years old still owned by same family. The Columbia is one of them, and the same family started Ulele (after an $8mill renovation.) The location was a former waterworks pumping station. Water from Ulele Spring provided Tampa with water. Now it is used to make their beer on site. When they say their food is Native American, they mean fresh and local. The beef is local. There are no freezers, only coolers. Even all the art is local, minus the French stained glass from the 1790s. The glass bottles the water was served in were water bottles from the original Columbia restaurant over 100 years old.
Here are some of the details I saw on my trip to the ladies room:
Marketing Director Michael told us, “Ulele was a Native American princess who lived in what is now Philippe Park, Safety Harbor (about 25 minutes away), 80 years before the story of Pocahontas. Her father was going to kill Spanish deckhand Juan Ortiz and she asked to spare his life. We’re not sure if this is where the Pocahontas story originated, or if they were in love. Her statue is soon to be unveiled, and is waiting patiently in the back.” (Don’t worry, I got a picture!)
Just when I thought I might not be able to walk, I was asked to head on over to their in-house brewery to meet Head Brewmaster, Timothy Shackton.
Timothy said the Ulele Spring Brewery is on a site predating western man. The Native Americans here ate manatee, dolphin and scallops. His impassioned voice told the whole story of how much he loves to make beer that’s balanced, up front and all natural. Most have just six ingredients and are animal free. “That’s not just a trend, but a way of life.” He uses a simple process starting with barley and hops from all over the world. The spent grain mash is fed to Strickland farms cows, where they get their meat. The beer is served exclusively at Ulele and the Gasparilla races.
Recently, Ulele commissioned a statue of their namesake. Out of 20 artists vying for the job, only one was female and she drew the princess standing, in a pose of power. Everyone else had her sitting or reclining. It was the commanding and energetic stance of a woman with her arm outstretched in protest that won the job!
Ulele is turning over about 1000 tables at lunch and dinner, so if you plan to go I suggest you make a reservation online or calling 813-999-4952.
Ulele’s most recent achievement was the #7 spot for Top 50 Restaurants in Tampa Bay as scored by Laura Reiley of the Tampa Bay Times. I can’t imagine her meal was as awesome as mine!
I was treated to a meal, dessert and drinks with the help of Tampa Bay Bloggers, but the opinions are always my own.