Ulele (pronounced you-lay-lee) opened exactly 6 weeks ago today; and even years before that there has been buzz about this restaurant. It was developed by Richard Gonzmart (who owns the Columbia restaurant) in collaboration with Keith Sedita (from Carmel Café). It is located in an adapted pump house in Tampa Heights overlooking Ulele Springs, one of Tampa’s original sources for fresh drinking water. The neighboring Water Works Park is a new addition to Tampa’s Riverwalk.
Ulele is named for the daughter of a local Tocabaga Indian chief who saved the life of Spanish explorer Juan Ortiz (pretty similar to the Pocahontas/John Smith story). The cuisine is inspired by the food of Florida natives. They use locally sourced products fresh from Florida. In an interview, their executive chef Eric Lackey said that they bring in fresh food every day – and that the only frozen food is their ice cream.
My parents and brother were anxious to try it as well, so we tried to make reservations a week or so ago for this past Saturday, but they were completely booked. So we settled on Tuesday night (tonight) instead.
The park itself is beautiful – we took a walk around it when it first opened two months ago. I had really never been to this area of Tampa before, but now it’s a destination worth visiting. And the architects did a fantastic job keeping the history of the original Water Works building, while adding their own unique touches to adapt it for the restaurant. I especially love the doors to the front entrance!
The interior is artsy and industrial, with stained glass panels (which used to be in Gonzmart’s parents’ home), sculptures throughout, and exposed brick from the original building near the large 10 foot barbacoa grill.
We were seated at a table overlooking the patio, which had large bi-fold doors that were opened later at night once it got cooler out. The only downside to our table was that it had a view of the rear end of a large horse sculpture.
We started our meal off with their charbroiled oysters with garlic butter, Parmesan, and Romano. They were very tasty, but I think I still prefer the char-grilled oysters at Roux. My dad liked them so much though that he ordered another round as part of his entrée.
Ulele has their own brewery, so we were excited to try their beers. They offer flights if you want to try a couple at once (only $3 for 3 small samples). I actually started off with the Water Works Sunset cocktail – a mix of Fontana Pisco, elderflower liqueur, ruby red grapefruit juice, and lime. It had a nice gradient to it, and the flavor was a balance of tart and sweet.
Overall we weren’t as impressed with the beers as we thought we would be – I’d say Cigar City and all the craft breweries in St. Pete have them beat. But I did enjoy their Wedding Beer – a berry fruit lager. The brewer, Tim Shackton, calls it that because he brewed it for a friend getting married 12 years ago, then everyone loved it so much that all his friends started requesting it for their own weddings. It was subtly fruity – not overly sweet.
Next we ordered about half the appetizers on the menu – the Lobster Claw Cocktail, Lobster Cake, Florida Jumpers (frog legs), and Alligator Hush Puppies. The cocktail had a generous portion of crab, and the presentation was great!
My favorite appetizer was the hush puppies – and I’m not always a fan of them. They had a mix of alligator, ham, duck bacon, corn, and jalapeno, so unlike some hush puppies that are mostly breading, they were loaded with flavor. The lobster cake and frog legs were both tasty, but not as memorable.
For my dad’s entrée, he ordered several more appetizers (the Crab Mac & Cheese, White Limas and Collards, Chilled Florida Avocado Soup, and more oysters. My mom and David split the Deconstructed Seafood Pot Pie and that night’s special – strip steak topped with shrimp. Lance had the Crackling Pork Shank, and I had the Yellowfin Tuna.
We all enjoyed bites of my dad’s mac & cheese, and he loved the limas & collard greens. His avocado soup was good, but to me it was a bit like eating guacamole on its own.
The seafood pot pie was wonderful – really filled to the rim with chunks of shrimp, octopus, grouper, and oysters. It was served with a side puffed pastry.
The steak was a bit overcooked, and nothing too impressive. We agreed it was our least favorite of the entrées.
Lance’s pork shank was HUGE! 1½ pounds with a firecracker apple craisin chutney. It fell right off the bone, and he took at least half home. The mashed potatoes on the side had little bits of popcorn mixed in which gave it some interesting texture.
And finally, I was so happy with my tuna! I was on the fence between that and the mahi mahi, but our waitress told me the tuna has been a big hit. It was seared with a pumpkin-seed crust over a ginger soy grapefruit reduction. Wow – I would order this in a heartbeat again. And the portions were very generous.
Despite all we ate, we were still tempted by the dessert menu. We ordered the Candied Duck Bacon Maple Fried Ice Cream. We also got scoops of the toasted coconut and a coffee flavored ice cream on the side (we were warned that the coconut wasn’t very strong, but we decided to try in anyways).
The fried ice cream presentation was great! It had a corn flake crust and was garnished with a strip of duck candied bacon and a sweet potato waffle crisp. My dad was a bit hesitant on the bacon & ice cream combo, but after trying it he agreed the sweet and salty mix was a good idea.
The coffee ice cream was pretty good, but the coconut was a disappointment. We were warned that it was a mild coconut flavor, but I’d say it had nearly no flavor at all – it could have been vanilla. And with the intricate presentation of the other dessert, the scoops in a bare coconut shell were a bit underwhelming. They could have at least added a bit of toasted coconut to the top for some decoration.
We all took home plenty of leftovers – while they were getting wrapped up, several plates fell off the server’s tray and shattered, but luckily none of the food was lost! And they cleaned up the mess very quickly and professionally.
After the feast we ate tonight, we took a stroll around the park since the weather has been so nice in the evenings lately. It was a night filled with amazing food and I’m happy to have more of it leftover to enjoy tomorrow as well!
Ulele is located at 1810 N Highland Ave, Tampa, FL 33602 and is open 5pm – 10pm Sunday through Thursday and 5pm – 11pm Friday and Saturday.