Just a block away from CW’s Gin Joint, the folks at Urban Juice Co. have retooled, taking the historic Franklin building, one of the city’s oldest, erected in 1895, and re-envisioning it in September as 1895 Kitchen-Bar-Market, a "Southern comfort bar and kitchen" concept where the cocktails are fueled by wholesome cold-pressed goodies from Urban Juice.
I visited a couple times and am still scratching my head a bit. The food reads like straight-up sports bar fare, not a lot of Southern nuance in evidence. The space itself has insanely good bones with great old brick, but the overall effect is flotsam-and-jetsam messy, with two bars and a big 10-foot television. The front bar seems to be where cocktails are whipped up, the bartenders seldom putting back their bottles or mixers, giving the bar a slovenly, crowded feel. The dining room is overhung with what I suppose you’d call a chandelier with dozens of black cords looping around and ending in uncovered light bulbs, funky but kind of industrial-cold for the space.
Between my first visit and my second, the kitchen switched chefs, new chef Chris Polazzo making some tweaks but keeping the overall tenor of the menu: burgers, grilled cheeses, chicken sandwiches and other standard bar fare we already have in abundance downtown. Cocktails, many served in mason jars, lean to the very sweet and overly juicy, mixology talent a far cry from what’s happening at the Gin Joint down the way.
Maybe I’m suspicious by nature, but when I see a "premium hand-crafted grass-fed angus burger" for $11.90, I want to know more about where that beef is from. Same goes for a "farm-to-table bowl" of jasmine rice topped with shrimp or chicken, broccoli, onion and carrot ($9). Which farms, and does the name signal something special about the provenance or production of the chicken or shrimp? And one evening’s "fresh okra hand-rolled in our seven-blend spice rub" ($5) — little nubs of breaded, fried okra — tasted so akin to a commercial "Southern Style Breaded Okra" Sysco product I’ve had numerous times that my spider senses started tingling.
When co-owners Todd Lax and Kevin Kenny made the switch, they sent out a press release promising Southern slow cooker specials and intriguing-sounding Southern fried pork wings (regular chicken wings seem to have been mercifully eighty-sixed from the menu by Polazzo, the debut version wan and flavorless). Those Southern dreams seem to have been jettisoned in favor of things like a lackluster mushroom swiss burger ($8.90).
In the increasingly competitive environment that is downtown Tampa, there is a niche unfilled in the Southern cuisine space, but the details of dishes like chicken and waffles ($10.50) — their waffles woefully floppy, the chicken dry — have to be scrutinized. And even workhorse dishes like a Caesar salad ($7.90) must go beyond bagged lettuce, bagged croutons, bagged cheese shreds and commercially available dressing. The dining public increasingly demands it.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.