An aloha miracle at Hapa
In the land of strip malls, a gracious fine dining establishment stands out. Restaurant Hapa exquisitely melds Asian flavors with French technique.
By Chris Sherman
Published February 23, 2006
God must love little strip shopping centers, for the Tampa Bay area is blessed with so many of them.
What sprawls all about us rarely seems like a blessing to diners with slow food dreams, yet this is where little miracles sometimes are born.
You'll find an exquisite one in Hapa, an intimate feast of Asian flavors and French technique in an unlikely strip mall on Tampa Road. The center is best known for Alberto's, where red sauce, cocktails and monstrous pizzas are neighborhood faves.
Next door, at what was briefly a Mexican restaurant, windows are curtained and blackened, relieved only by large paintings of hibiscus.
Inside, Hapa is a gracious dining room of salmon and cranberry and soft Hawaiian slack key guitar. The luxurious food would be a grand blessing in any part of town. But in Oldsmar, this elegance is manna direct from heaven, a place for gold potatoes wrapped around tiger shrimp in miso vinaigrette on the way to the racetrack, halibut crusted in lemongrass, just past the mightiest flea market in the South.
The miracle on Tampa Road is the work of two mortals, Brett and Nina Gardiner, who ran Six Tables in Dunedin for three years. The format is different, 11 tables, not six, and the menu is short and expensive yet a la carte, but the spirit of personal service is the same.
Brett Gardiner is a Hawaiian-born chef, meticulous in sourcing and preparing ingredients for every dish, with a taste for organics and Asian flavors. Nina Gardiner is a chef as well but serves as a consummate host, elegant yet unassuming, catering for just you. Hapa is a Hawaiian term for a mix of nationalities, and in this case, skills.
This is true private dining, with first-quality talent in the kitchen and at the table devoted to pleasing you with comfort and sophistication. It started with Irish soda bread, a homey delight anytime, punched up with raisins and surprising caraway, sweet, savory and rich even without butter.
First courses set a high-end example of precision cooking and innovation. Green papaya salad, the Thai favorite, is brightly refreshed with basil and peeled Asian pear slices thinner than sushi: bracing. Sea scallops are set off with bitter brilliance, by arugula and cilantro, with avocado, pink grapefruit and chili oil (I'd like a spark more).
Entrees are limited: three standing meat dishes and three or four seasonal plates of fish or chicken, all well balanced between classic luxury and modern flavors. Filet mignon, hefty and touted as hormone-free, was elevated by the best Bernaise in memory and exceptional vegetables. Red meat needs and rarely gets perfect whole young carrots, seared parsnips and a mother lode of smashed purple sweet potatoes from Okinawa.
Our fish order got confused and we wound up with redfish. Lucky us; it was perfectly cooked, dolled up with crisp almonds and sauced lushly with truffle oil and Pernod in a cream bisque. Oh, my.
Desserts are the same combination of classic and contemporary. The souffle is as handsome as I've seen, but I'd like it and my whistle wetted with more Grand Marnier. Semi freddo, a custard Italian ice cream served soft, is a tower of luscious textures. At Hapa, Gardiner likes his pistachio and adds crisp pistachio brittle.
It's not cheap. With wine, Hapa can be a $150 splurge. Yet two hours of such painstaking care is precious. That the Gardiners give it to Oldsmar is priceless.
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.com.
3970 Tampa Road, Oldsmar
Hours: Seatings from 6 to 9:15 p.m., Tuesday though Saturday
Details: Credit cards accepted, wine available, no smoking allowed
Prices: Entrees, $24 to $32
[Last modified February 23, 2006, 09:49:32]
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