Restaurant review: Knife and Co. in Tampa still needs a little sharpening

Freshly ground bacon burger gets jalapeno relish.

A wisecracking critic could have a field day mocking a restaurant during the first week during a dreadful economy. A writer with a chip on her shoulder could make mincemeat of a new enterprise that acknowledges her reservation but still doesn’t have a table available. Still, there is hope for Knife & Co. One of its defining features is the chef’s commitment to prepare almost everything in-house, from hot biscuits and grape jam to curing their bacon.

It’s trying to be trendy but missteps resonate loud and clear. Once the cooks and wait staff relax, and perhaps learn the menu better, customers are more apt to return.

The place was packed on its second weekend, a little surprising since it had received two alarming stories that morning. The newspapers detailed how owner Ron Stewart had lost three pastry chefs as well as his executive chef, Gary Moran, and his wife, four days after opening. Her departure was pertinent because she was both catering director and dining room manager.

Ron promoted twenty-something Allison Beasman, formerly of SideBern’s, to chef, and his son, Jay, to manager. If I were the owner, four Excedrin and three martinis would be my next move, administered every other hour.

Beasman, however, shows some flashes of promise. She sends out complimentary, steaming hot, boiled peanuts while you read your menus.

Harbingers of good things to come were the appetizers. A cup of the earthy, hot Spanish bean soup, chock full of chorizo and potatoes, lit up tasters. Cornmeal-fried okra fingers with a spicy, buttermilk and scallion cole slaw offer a refreshing counterpoint to a heavy meal. Disco fries, coupled with red wine braised oxtail gravy and cheese, grab your attention. Roasted beet salad with homemade duck bacon, candied pecans and goat cheese, scented with an orange blossom-honey vinaigrette, is as delightful as it is original. Knife’s creamy Mac and Cheese gives this everyman’s dish a welcome refinement.

Wild caught shrimp team with pork bark-spiked grits.

We were disappointed, however, to be told the kitchen was out of the romaine because a grilled romaine salad with Green Goddess dressing sounded heavenly.

The menu bills itself as Southern-rustic so shrimp and grits had to be ordered. They were pure comfort food, and given a shot of flavor from pork bark, tomatoes, wine and basil. The plump shrimp injected a great spike of flavor. Mom’s meatloaf was kept moist by a tomato jam blanket.

We liked the idea of a white cheddar-bacon burger with jalapeno relish but ours was overcooked and lacked the cheese altogether. One of the two side dishes was also forgotten. Green bean casserole, topped with a mound of fried onion rings, suffered from too much sauce.

We may be tempted to come back and try the dessert offerings but the slow delivery on this occasion had us preferring to leave instead. The chef’s preparations were creative and intelligent, but some bordered on eccentric.

The restaurant has that Zen minimalist thing going for it. There’s lots of stainless steel, its long bar takes up one side and the kitchen is open for viewing. The dining space is decorated with an antique pulpit that subs as a hostess stand. A wide, communal table sits in the middle of the dining room.

A lack of color on the décor is a marked contrast to its former life as Algusto’s, which was a colorful and busy stop for enchiladas and refried beans. (Sidenote: Amy Scherzer reported in the St. Petersburg Times last week that its former owner Alberto A. Morillo was arrested in June for worthless checks and later filed for bankruptcy.)

Let’s hope all the ghosts from the old owners and opening jitters from the new folks are all behind them.

Knife & Co.
912 W. Kennedy Blvd.
Open for lunch,  Monday through Wednesday, and dinner,  Thursday through Sunday, with brunch on Saturday and Sunday.
Website: http://www.knifeandco.com
(813) 251-5210

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Cooks serve up nostalgia: Former Smoke chef Dave Del Rio and George Tamargo serve the kind of Spanish foods they loved eating as children at their new venture, Del Rio’s Cafe, 3210 N. Armenia Avenue, near Columbus Drive. The phone number is (813)  679-5144. Del Rio knows a thing or two about a rich and savory New Orleans gumbo. Read the Times’ story.

Anyone know what is going on at the former Smoke at 901 W. Platt St., where Del Rio used to work? Let me know in the comments section.

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Read it: Check the labels on your cereals. If you think you are paying for healthy blueberry products you may be wrong and food companies are making plenty of $$$. Read more.

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