Foodies’ Favorite Survives, Thrives

Originally published in The Tampa Tribune on Sept. 4, 2008

TAMPA – Good food has amazing curative powers. Thick tomato soup with drizzled olive oil at a Tuscan wine bar rescued me from car sickness induced by bouncing around wine country in a full backseat. Three-bean soup from the grocery store a block away from my college apartment cured my hangovers. A four-hour, eight-course meal from then-under-the-radar chef Grant Achatz cured me of the flu.

To that list add SideBern’s foie gras appetizer with caramelized peaches, pine-nut puree and sherry reduction. The dish rescued me from an impending cold.

Though it may have been the heirloom Berkshire pork belly, cooked sous-vide (a cooking process that involves vacuum sealing food in plastic and cooking it for long periods of time in warm water) and served with figs, walnuts and Taleggio cheese that has been blowtorched.

SideBern’s, described nine years ago in these pages as “a hip cousin to venerable Bern’s Steak House,” is still good at mixing the hip and the elegant. The interior, which hasn’t changed in a decade, features high ceilings, high-backed banquettes and classy blue sheer curtains.

But since executive chef Chad Johnson and chef de cuisine Courtney Orwig took over for popular Jeannie Pierola in December, the pair have slowly been putting their personal stamp on the menu. The dim sum and all but a vestige of Pierola’s “One World Cuisine” are gone. The outstanding cheese selection remains. Less elegant – but thoroughly respectable – meats, such as bison and pork belly, have appeared. The food has kept its edge.

But at times the hipster thing goes too far: When seated, each guest is presented with a 12-by-18-inch steel clipboard. Sorry, dear dining companion, if I accidentally smacked you with the unwieldy menu.

Picking an entree dish from that menu is still a pleasurable chore, and any of the constantly changing options would be a good bet. On a recent visit, we ate SideBern’s seared duck breast with pears and port glaze, filet mignon au poivre with wild mushrooms and creamy peppercorn sauce, and a great buffalo striploin with smoked hummus and pepperoncini sauce. Each lived up to our high expectations.

If picking one entrée is too much of a struggle, SideBern’s offers a five-course tasting menu for $75. Paired wines are a $35 option. But that may make the struggle to decide worse; for each of the five courses, diners choose between two options.

The desserts, a specialty of both SideBern’s and Bern’s, were a slight letdown. The chocolate beignets – five of them – were overcooked and accompanied by a dunk tank each of peanut butter, raspberry and orange sauces. The $8 Ultimate Milkshake, offered in any flavor of the house-made ice cream, wasn’t the best we’d ever had (it was too airy), but where else can you get a goat-cheese-and-almond shake? And the letdown says more about the quality of the entrees than the quality of the desserts.

Service was generally superb from the moment we walked in without a reservation until the time we left, but we had a few nit-picks: Our bread was served with butter that was still ice cold and unspreadable, and on three occasions, a dining companion was asked if he was still “working” on his entree before he had finished his meal. Between the unnecessary euphemism for “eating” and its repetition, we felt pestered.

Still, even with the changing of the guard in the kitchen, SideBern’s remains a beacon of hope on Tampa’s culinary landscape.