Haven

Peel and Eat Shrimp

Cheese Monger

Hamachi crudo

Interior

**** (4 stars)

If you are a cheese lover, Haven is a must visit. There are dozens of cheeses on their menu, and the “Cheese Monger” offers a selection of 18(!) of them on one well-organized plate. My only wish was for more variety, as they were almost all cow’s milk, and mostly the same firmness. I’d have liked some more soft ones, and some stinkier ones. But that’s just me.

The menu also offers a nice selection of other small plates. We liked the hamachi crudo. The peel and eat shrimp was okay, but I didn’t care for the harissa flavor of the accompanying remoulade, as it overwhelmed the other flavors.

The interior decor is gorgeous, with reasonable lighting levels and not too noisy, even though there are no soft surfaces except the booths (which offer the quietest place to sit).

The wine list is extensive, and the more expensive wines are actually the better deals.

Service was friendly and efficient.

Haven
2208 W Morrison Ave
Tampa, FL 33606
(813) 258-2233
https://www.yelp.com/biz/haven-tampa-3

Restaurant BT

***** (5 stars)

Based upon the reviews I was expecting some fairly extraordinary food, and I was not disappointed. Everything we had was top notch. The complexity of the recipes and quality of the ingredients is definitely far above most Vietnamese restaurants I’ve been to.

At a recent lunch we worked our way through many appetizer courses, beginning with the fresh shrimp rolls and the mini crispy spring rolls. Both were elevated by the inclusion of very flavorful and fresh herbs.

Tuna Tai Chanh was a wonderful tuna tartare that was mixed with an unusually large amount of chopped fresh herbs that gave it a complex flavor, elevating it far about the tuna and sesame oil base.

We also tried two special. Pheasant pate was an excellent rough country style pate served with traditional French accompaniments of mustard, gherkins and chopped onions. Truffled burrata cheese was also nicely done, with a sort of pesto or chimichurri accompaniment.

For an entree I had the grilled pork banh mi. I’m a particular fan of that sandwich, and this one was as good as any I’ve had, with lots of fresh herbs, a savory soy marinade, and just the right amount of creamy mayonnaise.

I’m not sure I’d describe anything I had as “fusion” cuisine. Most of the dishes are gourmet Vietnamese, and the two specials we had were French, but I didn’t detect any fusing going on.

The wine list is reasonably priced and offers some nice choices. The Puligny Montrachet went well with the food, although not as well as the Chateau Carbonneau that we brought. The $30 corkage seemed a bit steep, but otherwise I thought the food pricing was very reasonable. I can only assume those complaining about the prices were expecting Vietnamese sandwich shop and the ingredients here mark this as a very fine dining restaurant that happens to serve lunch, too.

Restaurant BT
2507 S MacDill Ave
Tampa, FL 33629
(813) 258-1916
http://www.yelp.com/biz/restaurant-bt-tampa

Boca

***** (5 stars)

This neighborhood restaurant offers a collection of cozy rooms, although they can be noisy. The best place to sit is outside, which is warmed by heaters on cool nights, and offers a less rambunctious dining environment.

The menu offers a nice assortment of tasting size plates and some interesting flatbreads, plus a couple of nightly specials. We particularly liked the smoked fish dip, which was presented with a variety of accompaniments such as pickled onions and sliced peppers. The fried green tomatoes were a generous serving that looked more like eggplant parmesan.

A brie and apple flatbread was sizable, but has a nice thin crust that made it not too filling.

All of the wines on the list are available by the glass, and there are some beauties, including Klinker Brick Zinfandel, which won best of show at the state fair a few years ago. Some nice craft cocktails are also on offer.

Service was very friendly and helpful.

Boca
901 W Platt St
Tampa, FL 33606
(813) 254-7070
http://www.yelp.com/biz/boca-tampa

Ulele

**** (4 stars)

Ulele is quite a magical setting, notable more for its atmosphere than any particular style of food. Regardless of the characterization as Native American Char Cooking, whatever that is, there are few items on the menu that wouldn’t be at home on the menu of any plain old American bar and grill.

We liked everything we tried. My favorite was probably the closest to the theme, the grilled shishito peppers. They were perfectly charred and served on a bed of diced garlic.

The cheddar popcorn wasn’t apparent on the mashed potatoes, a huge mound of which propped up my excellent steak. It was described as a strip, but seemed more like a Delmonico.

The wine list offers some excellent values, particularly on the higher end wines such as the Caymus Cab we shared.

Service was extremely friendly, knowledgable and helpful. And the setting, overlooking the Riverwalk, can’t be beat.

Ulele
1810 N Highland Ave
Tampa, FL 33602
(813) 999-4952
http://www.yelp.com/biz/ulele-tampa

Florida State Fairgrounds

**** (4 stars)

I’ve been judging wines at the fair for 24 years, and I always enjoy those few days of crowds, entertainment and incredibly unhealthful foods. The wine competition is one of the larger in the country, and attracts entries from almost every state. I also enjoy Cracker Country, which is a step back in time, and a great contrast to the garish neon lights of the midway. I also get a kick out of the tacky displays put up by Florida counties I’ve never heard of. And perhaps my favorite is visiting the chicken, rabbits and cows that are completely puzzled by all the fuss.

Florida State Fairgrounds
4800 N US Hwy 301
Tampa, FL 33610
(813) 621-0774
http://www.yelp.com/biz/florida-state-fairgrounds-tampa

Clarion Inn

**** (4 stars)

The staff here is very nice, and the place has been so completely refurbished that it’s hard to find a surface that hasn’t been covered with some new material or coating.

It’s the old style of motel, with window shaker AC units and exterior hallways, but I have to say the AC units here are the quietest I’ve encountered.

That’s in contrast to the incredibly noisy pool area, which features deafening music all day. Fortunately, they have very good taste in music. But if you want a quiet room then you should (counterintuitively) ask for one facing the parking lots, not the enclosed courtyard.

On the other hand, the east side of the building faces a noisy commercial street. So that leaves the west side of the building, which is basically an alley next to a flooring store. So there you have it.

I will say the room interiors have been redone fairly well, not to the level of a Hilton Garden in or other modern hotel (I mean, come on, this used to be a Best Western) but there is a microwave and nice sized refrigerator, and in-room coffee.

Clarion Inn
9331 E Adamo Dr.
Tampa, FL 33619
(813) 621-5555
http://www.yelp.com/biz/clarion-inn-tampa

Beef O Bradys

*** (3 stars)

I only had breakfast here, which is included in at least some of the rates at the adjoining Clarion motel. The breakfast buffet included scrambled eggs, biscuits, bacon, sausage, potatoes, and waffles, and the food quality was pretty good. In particular, the biscuits were better than I was expecting.

The interior is fairly typical sports bar. In the evening, the outside bar area becomes quite lively, and gas heaters keep it toasty in the winter.

Beef O Bradys
9331 E Adamo Dr
Tampa, FL 33619
(813) 621-7675
http://www.yelp.com/biz/beef-o-bradys-tampa-8

Taco Bus

***** (5 stars)

What a fun concept! The name may be misleading though, because while you do order at a window in the side of a bus, it’s simply a prop. This is no food truck, it’s a complete quick-serve restaurant that serves terrific (and authentic) Mexican food.

The two tacos I tried (soft corn tortillas with pibil pork in one and pastor pork in the other—the pibil was better) were as good as any street tacos I’ve had, and the crispy vegetable accompaniments were very fresh. On a return visit I tried the tostada with pastor, which I didn’t think was as good as the tacos.

The dip duo (I chose queso and guacamole) was also excellent. At almost $8 it seemed a bit pricey, but the chips were fresh and the queso had a wonderful creamy spiciness.

Taco Bus
301 S Falkenburg Rd
Tampa, FL 33619

http://www.yelp.com/biz/taco-bus-tampa-7

Epicurean Hotel, Autograph Collection®

**** (4 stars)

Spacious, modern rooms and nice bathrooms are the highlight at this hotel, located conveniently right across the street from Berns Steakhouse. I’m not a fan of the hotel restaurant, which is too austere, but the rooftop bar is great.

Epicurean Hotel, Autograph Collection®
1207 South Howard Avenue
Tampa, FL 33606
(813) 999-8700
http://www.yelp.com/biz/epicurean-hotel-autograph-collection-tampa

Bern’s Steak House

***** (5 stars)

Well, there simply is no other place like Bern’s. With the greatest wine list on the planet, it’s a draw for wine enthusiasts all over the planet. There are thousands of gems on this list, many priced below auction level. We routinely enjoy Burgundies from the 1950s without breaking the bank. And there are a couple hundred wines by the glass. Plus dessert wines. Where else can you get a glass of 1834 Madeira?

The food is great, too. and the offerings have really expanded in the past three decades we’ve been going. It’s actually not my favorite steak, because I’m not a fan of dry aging, but there are hundreds of other selections. We just usually have four or five appetizers per person and then go up to the dessert rooms. Our favorite app is the caviar (choice of more than a dozen) served Bern’s style with little foams.

And what other restaurant has dessert rooms? Private little spaces, dark and romantic, made from wine vats! The perfect end to a spectacular evening, all at reasonable prices.

Bern’s Steak House
1208 S Howard Ave
Tampa, FL 33606
(813) 251-2421
http://www.yelp.com/biz/berns-steak-house-tampa