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The wildly creative kitchen at this North Tampa restaurant tries to mitigate the high cost and uneven service.
By CHRIS SHERMAN
Published July 28, 2005
TAMPA - To name a restaurant in Carrollwood "Opium" is provocative as well as evocative, though the attributes can be at odds with each other. They also are rather out of place on the not-so-mean streets of suburban North Tampa.
Opium the Restaurant provokes with more than its name. Servers work in black studded bustiers as dated as Miss Kitty's. Prices are over the top, too, most of them from $25 to $37, and only one of those big-bucks entrees is a steak.
Throw in the dark red and black interior and the restaurant does evoke a sense of luxuries forbidden, or at least rarely seen in a strip mall. With the colors, owner David Hao's collection of antique pipes, the costumes, a soundtrack that mixes Piaf and the Levant, and a polished international staff, it feels like David Carradine's Kung Fu character may walk through the back door at any time.
Kao says he wants the food to rival the "euphoric pleasures" the ancients sought from the poppy. And almost every dish is dramatic, stuffed with rare, expensive ingredients and combined with California-Asian flavors and classic techniques. If pan-seared foie gras has become too common, Opium adds a twisted tarte tatin made with peppered peach. Escargot gets fennel and Pernod, and nicoise salad features not just ahi tuna but quail eggs and fried capers. There are few escapes for the timid or tired.
That doesn't mean it always works. Grilled ostrich was dressed to the nines with a gastrique of currants, goat cheese mousse and - what are we smokin' now - charred watermelon. The last actually was a surprisingly brilliant idea and set off the syrupy currants, which made for a finger-lickin' sauce. But the ostrich was overcooked. Some of my best friends eat beef well-done, but something like ostrich has to be at least pink. It was redone, and our dessert was comped, but it shouldn't have happened with such a precious and precocious entree.
On the tame side, snapper en papillote was fine fish nicely done with still-crisp julienned vegetables. Promised roast tomato citrus bitter wasn't noticeable, but inexpert service was. Cooking in paper adds mostly to presentation, when a great burst of aroma erupts as a waiter slits the envelope and rolls back the bag with clever knifework. It doesn't add anything when the bag is poked and pulled open with fingers.
Sauces and soups, my favorite test of a professional kitchen, were exquisite. A tiny sample of asparagus soup was the best those spears can be. A vichyssoise with truffled cream and a bite of pear provided an exquisite chill. However, a terrine of goat cheese and red and yellow tomatoes had too much cream, and over time, too much water; it was icy and soggy. I'd have liked it better made to order as a Napoleon and foregone the more complicated assemblage.
Still, this is the boldest cooking north of Kennedy Boulevard and among the most extravagant on either side of the bay. This is one of the most inventive menus in a slow decade; credit it to a large, young kitchen. Chef Caroline Thaxton came back to Tampa with Signature Room Grille at Tampa's Channelside and finally got a chance to do a modern number here: sweet potato frizzle, risotto cakes, galette of wild mushrooms and truffle oil.
The same sophistication should extend throughout the house, and though the hosts are gallant, the servers sometimes goof despite good intentions. They seemed to know food but not the languages. You don't have to Frenchify the patter with amuse bouche or haricots vert, even at these prices. But if you wish to impress, then try to get it right, s'il vous plait.
Besides, Opium's wild culinary imagination, dreamy sauces and high-end ingredients would be heady stuff anywhere. Done right, it's pure for this part of Tampa, which for decades has had more money than good restaurants.
For me, I wish Opium's concern with good ingredients, fresh vegetables and clever creative flavors was not a luxury.
Yet around the Tampa Bay area, those things are still too precious, much as I wish they were common, simple and affordable.
- Chris Sherman dines anonymously and unannounced. The St. Petersburg Times pays for all expenses. A restaurant's advertising has nothing to do with selection for a review or the assessment of its quality. Sherman can be reached at 727 893-8585 or email@example.comOpium
14445 N Dale Mabry Highway
HOURS: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
DETAILS: Full bar, no smoking indoors, outdoor tables
PRICES: Appetizers $8 to $18; entrees $18 to $37
[Last modified February 7, 2008, 17:24:04]