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My Ulele Feast with the Tampa Bay Bloggers; Or, That Time I Ate Alligator

Monday night, I had the delightful opportunity to be among the Tampa Bay Bloggers on a tasting event* at Ulele (pronounced yoo-LAY-lee), a newish restaurant along Tampa's River Walk, which is in a revitalization phase.




The restaurant, which opened this past fall, has already received several significant commendations: One of the Top 100 Restaurants in the U.S. (by Open Table),  One of the Best New Restaurants in Florida (by Florida Trend); Best Overall Restaurant (by Yelp Tampa Bay); and, its most recent achievement, the #7 spot for Top 50 Restaurants in Tampa Bay, as scored by Laura Reiley of the Tampa Bay TimesSo I felt honored to eat there, and I'd been wanting to go since it opened, but reservations were always difficult to get. When I saw the call for bloggers to attend this event, I jumped at the opportunity! Fortunately, I was chosen--among may others:

That's a lot of hungry bloggers!

At least 20 of us were treated to our own space upstairs, overlooking the outdoor patio and river on one side and the lower portion of the restaurant on the other. The restaurant space is wide open with woodwork throughout--beams across the ceiling, door and window frames, tables and chairs. The exterior walls, however, are made from charming and beautifully laid brick. 

Our wonderful and knowledgeable host, Michael Kilgore (Chief Marketing Officer), told us everything about the restaurant--from the bidding for it by Richard Gonzmart to the soon-to-be-erected statue of Princess Ulele, for whom the restaurant was named.


Princess Ulele (see p. 2 of dinner menu)

Speaking of the origins of the restaurant, the inspiration for the place, the space, and the food was all local and native Florida. Almost all of the building materials were sources from local places. The tables are made from a 100-year-old barn in North Florida, and the benches on the first floor are from Tampa's old federal courthouse. Eight billion dollars went into the effort to revitalize the Tampa Heights neighborhood and the River Walk, much of which went into the restaurant.

Before I can talk about the food, I should mention that Ulele has its own brewery. We were all offered samples of two different kinds of beer--a light and a dark--but as I am not a beer drinker (in case you couldn't tell from that description), I went straight to the wine menu. My server helped me pick out a red wine based on what I told him my tastes were. He suggested a red blend from Blue Rock Vineyard--their proprietary blend named "Baby Blue," which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Merlot, and Malbec. His recommendation was on-point. It was delicious.

Not part of our deal, but I had to imbibe.

Now on to the food! We began with starters--the Ulele salad, mac 'n' cheese (award-winning), and chili. Because of my dietary restrictions, I just loaded up on the salad, which was delightful. It featured cranberry beans, which I'd never before heard of, and I'm a bean lover. It's sort of a cross between a pinto been and a red kidney bean.


Simple but delicious.

Next, we were served raw oysters. I've tried these once in my life, in New Orleans, and I layered the oyster with so many crackers that I could hardly taste the oyster (which was the point). I thought I'd give it another go and try them the intended way, but here it was with a toasted pita point, cocktail sauce, and shredded horseradish. Turns out I still have an aversion to the texture of the raw oyster. It wasn't bad, but I wasn't interested in going back for more.

I used a lot of garnish...

Fortunately, our next offering was charbroiled oysters. These were phenomenal, and I definitely helped clean the plate.

Now these were delicious!

So, here's where I should've read the menu but didn't. I knew we were being served alligator hushpuppies, and as a vegetarian who eats fish (what some might call a "pescetarian"), I felt conflicted over whether I should eat alligator. I never had before, but it seemed far enough removed from land animals that I should give it a try. So I did. And I have to admit I enjoyed it very much (it did not taste like chicken, btw). But later I learned that the hushpuppies had bits of duck bacon in them--something I didn't notice as I was eating mine, and I know for sure I don't (usually) eat duck. But oh, well. It was all in the spirit of adventure. 

My delicious shame.

Next up was Squash Gratin, which also included zucchini, red onion, and tomato. Even though I tend to stay away from dairy, this dish was much more up my alley! Unsure of how much more food was coming, or how much would consist of fish or veggies, I consumed a pretty healthy serving of this one.

Just one more...

To my delight, the next dish was the featured vegetarian dish of the night. You'll notice on the menu that there aren't many purely vegetarian offerings, and even the one dish specifically called vegetarian is unknown until you ask. This one was called Native Saute, and as you can see it's loaded with veggies on a pile of wild rice, and it featured a light, slightly sweet, sesame-flavored sauce. My hope is that they will eventually take some of their most popular vegetarian items and make them regular menu items, to make the restaurant a bit more vegetarian-friendly (especially for people who are a lot more strict than I apparently am!).

A winning dish in my book!

I could have stopped there. I was truly stuffed. But then they brought out the fish dish--Florida Pompano. Suddenly there was a tie for favorite dish between the saute and the fish. This white fish was pan-seared and topped with lightly battered and fried carrot shavings, along with a tomato shallot cream sauce. It was amazing. I dug in, despite the fullness of my stomach.

This one gets my highest recommendation!

Fortunately for me, because I was so full, the next THREE dishes (would it ever stop?) were all meat, so I didn't partake; although, I did have a taste of the popcorn mashed potatoes that accompanied the filet, and they were outstanding and unique.

And as if that weren't enough, we were then treated to multiple rounds of desserts. Ice cream, namely. Lots of ice cream. But it was impossible for me to have another bite without hurting myself, so I just watched as others dug their spoons into the Candied Duck Bacon Maple Fried Ice Cream, and then into about five more flavors of ice cream that were presented in coconut half-shells.

After a long evening of sitting and eating and meeting new blogger friends, I decided to skip the brewery tour that was on the agenda next. I could barely roll myself out of the place as it was. But if you're interested in others' takes on the brewery, you can soon find all of our posts on the Tampa Bay Bloggers site at http://tampabaybloggers.org/, under Recent Posts, or follow the group on Facebook!

*For full disclosure purposes, our food was comped in exchange for our reviews and live social media buzz.

Comments

Yes, I could not remember the name of the veggie dish but it was SO good! It was great to meet you at this event!
Lee Davidson said…
Great to meet you as well, Nichole! I will definitely be going back to Ulele :)
Lora said…
Wasn't it SO GOOD? I'm going back on Sunday! :D
Paulina said…
Hush puppies with bacon? That sounds pretty amazing. I was wondering if I could ask you a question over email, would you mind letting me know where I could reach you? Thank you!

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