This year marks the 110th anniversary of Tampa’s landmark eatery, the Columbia Restaurant. The restaurant has long been a tribute to the city’s unique culinary landscape and the diversity of its residents. Dining at this well-loved institution feels intimate and connecting, like flipping through the pages of a worn photo album or tracing the branches of someone’s family tree. So, when Richard Gonzmart (president of the Columbia Restaurant Group) announced that he would be opening Ū-lë-lē, a new restaurant that celebrates “native Florida” by drawing inspiration from an even more distant past, there was no doubt that it would be redolent of Florida’s unique and often under appreciated history and culture.
Let me start by saying that the food was incredible. In fact, plenty of more qualified people have been there and come to the same conclusion since the restaurant opened late last year. If you are looking for high quality, interesting, and wholly satisfying food, make a reservation. You won’t be disappointed. The menu is native inspired, but also reflects Florida settlement patterns and continuously evolving foodways. In a video produced for the restaurant, Ulele’s executive chef Eric Lacky (who was super classy and stopped by our table to ask how our meal was) explained that they wanted to “put what was here naturally, what the Native Americans had to use, what the Europeans and the settlers were able to use…to create a vast cultural cuisine.” Andrew Huse, a food historian who has maintained a long relationship with the Gonzmart family and written a book on the Columbia Restaurant, says he was a little incredulous when he first heard about Gonzmart’s vision for the restaurant.
I was surprised when he went with the [native Florida] concept because I thought it was way too limiting, but they were very liberal in the way that they interpreted it, which is good because, let’s face it, the [Tocobaga] Indians that were living here were eating a stone-age diet and most of it wouldn’t be considered very palatable today. I think he took liberties where he should have and they ended up squarely in the 21st century.
Offerings like Gulf Coast Oysters, alligator hushpuppies, and the delicious Florida Jumpers hint at the paleolithic Floridian diet of fish, shellfish, manatee, conch, turtle, and deer.
Spanish colonial influences can be seen in the quail, white limas and collards, and the Berkshire pork chop. The Florida Fresh beef from Strickland Ranch is a nod to Florida’s long established cattle industry and a history of ranching that surpasses Texas. The menu has updated southern classics, such as okra fries, deconstructed seafood potpie, and jalapeño corn beer quick bread as well as new takes on traditional Florida fare, such as lobster cakes, Florida pompano, and grouper Ulele. Order a bowl of Florida Native Chili and watch these worlds collide in a delectable meaty melee of alligator, wild boar, venison, duck, ground chuck, cranberry beans and chili spices.
For Huse, Ulele’s oyster selection is unique and bringing the oyster to the forefront of the menu was not only daring, but also has particular historical importance.
There used to be oyster bars all over [Florida]. We’ve got some of the best oysters in Apalachicola and now you can’t find them anywhere. No [restaurant owner] wants to bother to order fresh things that can go bad so they don’t bother with the oysters and that’s one of the things that Richard really did right with this, not only to hook into local history, but to try to hook into local ingredients and sensibilities.
Tapping into what’s local is also evidenced by the Ulele Spring Brewery that brews beer on site using locally sourced honey and seasonal ingredients. The inclusion of a brewery not only connects Ulele to the Columbia, which was established in part as an extension of the historic Florida Brewing Co. (est. 1896), but also taps into Tampa’s current thriving craft beer scene. Ulele brews five mainstays and also has a rotating seasonal selection. Our waiter Matt, a trained sommelier who also dabbles in beer, brought us something called “Tim’s Creation” (named after Timothy Shackton, head brewer) that does not appear on the regular menu. The red ale is aged in Knob Creek barrels for six weeks and was poured using a mix of CO2 and Nitrogen. The beer was very good and the barrel aging made a noticeable difference.
Like the Columbia, so much of what makes Ulele special goes beyond the menu. The restaurant is a thoughtful reflection of personal values and taste and it evokes a sense of place and time in a way that is probably unusual for new restaurants, but according to Huse, not unexpected from Richard Gonzmart. “[With the Columbia] he was curating a transatlantic journey, but now it’s more of a journey through time in the same place. He has moved beyond being a caretaker for someone else’s vision and created something altogether new. It’s a longer view, looking at an area’s history, geography, wildlife.” Gonzmart’s appreciation for the past and hope for the future is apparent in everything from Ulele’s architectural details and decor to the innovative food made with tradition in mind. Huse believes that “restaurants are always the most effective when they evoke and align themselves with a sense of place. The best food memories are always when the things you are eating are aligned with where you are and you couldn’t have that meal anywhere else but in that place.” Ulele is a total gift to the Tampa Bay area and the perfect place to make new memories.
- The Florida Native Chili ($6.00) was rich and delicious.
- Hand-cut okra tossed in lime juice and sea-salt ($5.00). These may not look like much, but the salty, tangy flavor was excellent.
- The delicious Florida Pompano was pan-seared and covered in a sun-dried tomato shallot cream and topped with perfectly fried sweet and salty carrot ribbons ($25.00).
- The “White Blend Murrietta’s Well ‘The WHIP’” pairs very nicely with the Pompano.
- Candied Duck Bacon Maple Fried Ice Cream ($9.00).