A wonderful type of restaurant to have in your dining-out repertoire, to be played as frequently as you want honestly, is the “local treasure.” Now, this isn’t to be confused with the “neighborhood hangout,” which is usually a favorite spot as much for its location as for its food.
A local treasure is a place that really represents an area or city, but does it in an honest way, while still offering up an enticing atmosphere that invites you to come on in and get comfy. This is the lovely kind of spot that you can pop in for any occasion and becomes a must-stop for all visiting friends and family.
I have a number of favorite haunts that I introduce visitors to, but am so excited to have discovered a true local treasure at Rooster & the Till. I am even more thrilled to have worked with the two owners, Ferrell Alvarez and Ty Rodriguez, back in my college days as a server. In fact, Ty actually gave me my first fine dining serving job, taking a chance on a shy college kid newly transplanted to the area (ah, memories).
Situated in the increasingly hip Seminole Heights neighborhood in Tampa, Rooster & The Till sneakily nods to passersby with an unassuming exterior, sandwiched in a small strip of businesses off Florida Ave. The sign on the corner is the only thing besides the few tables outside that let you know that you should pull over and check it out.
Walk in the front door and you’ll find yourself facing an open kitchen that doubles as the bar, which is open to a relatively small room bordered on two sides by metal tables. A giant-sized photo of an Ybor City rooster crossing the railroad tracks claims much of one whole wall and makes you appreciate the somewhat subtle nod to a local icon.
A casually dressed person, you may confuse with a guest (but who looks way too cool to possibly be one), greets you at the door and shows you to either the kitchen-bar, where the chef and his team work their magic in front of your eyes, or a table a short reach from the bar.
Seeing as Nick and I weren’t in any rush and really wanted to be able to sit back and relax, we opted for a table that we called ahead to reserve.
Our server promptly greeted us like old friends and proceeded to guide us through the way things worked, including the two menus. One is printed out and slid in front of you when you sit down…
The other, boasting fantastic and eyebrow-raising combinations of flavors, is written out on a chalkboard wall for all to see, as that day’s raw bar menu.
Our server explained that at least 70%, and usually more, of their food is lovingly sourced locally, with the remainder being for their raw bar menu, which comes from various places around the country where the seafood is seasonal and fresh.
Being earth-loving, local-supporting eaters, both Nick and I were intrigued by everything we heard. Encouraged, our server pointed to the boarded walls behind us and the light fixtures dangling above the heads of patrons seated at the kitchen-bar, and told us that even the building materials were reclaimed local supplies and custom built by master craftsmen.
Taking in all this information even before diving into the menu may sound like a lot, but it’s all absorbed rather quickly and we were eyeballing the menu before we knew it!
Of course, our server expertly navigated us through the unknown waters of the menus, explaining ingredients and preparations, and making recommendations on where to start.
Sharing is highly recommended, as the menu is mostly made up of either larger sampling platters or smaller dishes or “smalls.” The upside of this? You can order everything on the menu (which apparently a couple people have actually done to date)!
Not sure if we were quite up to that challenge, but happy to try, we opted to start with a his and hers favorite – the Charcuterie & Cheese Tasting. Meat for him, cheese for her; or at least that’s how it planned out in my head.
Some local craft brews were quickly ordered to wet the ol’ whistle and before I could snap too many fun pictures of Farrell doing his thing in the kitchen, a rock slab was delivered featuring a mouthwatering selection of flavor combinations.
After walking us through each unexpected pairing, the server left us to our own devices.
Nick eyed the thin slices of fatty guanciale (pig cheek) sitting innocently beside a smear of cocoa aioli (yes, you read that right), while I began drooling over the beautiful bleu d’auvergne with local honeycomb, possibly one of my favorite flavor combinations of all time.
We ended up sampling a bit of everything. I immediately took a strong liking to the semi-soft morbrier, which was paired with a golden raisin chutney. Nick seemed to especially love the smokey duck rillette and its orange black pepper marmalade accompaniment.
We next decided to venture into the “smalls” section of the menu, with the intention of ordering one before diving into maybe a slightly larger dish. Yeah (and by that I mean, no friggin’ way did that happen).
It turned into plate after plate of flavor explosions that we shared gleefully amidst gasps and groans.
The house made ricotta with fresh beets, heirloom tomatoes, pine nut butter and red onion yogurt drops was exactly as a delicious as I thought it would be.
The gnocchi (french preparation – so not potato based like many)… oh my…
I especially, had quite the moment over the gnocchi as I absorbed the flavors of the ricotta, spicy pickled peppers and tender short ribs.
There may have been more than one moment…
Then the pork belly arrived, all perfectly crisped and positioned between rectangles of cornbread, which had absorbed the peppercorn honey syrup drizzled over everything, contrasted with two pebble-sized pieces of pickled apple. Nick said it best – it tasted like an autumn breakfast, the warm and cool flavors all perfectly balanced and complimented by a touch of sweet sunshine.
Bay scallops in an ancho tomatillo sauce with avocado and mango off the raw bar menu followed. The tomatillo sauce had just enough zip but with that great bit of smokiness to make you want to go back for more.
Knowing at this point that we weren’t going to make it through even one whole section of the menu, we drew out our white flag and surrendered… to the desserts.
Oh the desserts. Usually, they are hands down one of my favorite parts of a meal, but the entire experience was so rich, so memorable, that the desserts just became this utterly perfect bow atop an already exquisite meal.
Being completely comfortable with the whole sharing thing at this point, we didn’t even hesitate to order both desserts. And each brought its only little thing to the game.
A lemon olive oil cake and berry sorbet was a refreshing palette cleanser.
And it made way for the rice pudding, which included some amazing saucy partner that I horribly blanked on, being so happy when our nice server explained it all.
Patting our happily full tummies, we realized that we had sipped, tasted, nibbled and slurped away almost two hours. We never once felt rushed, simply well tended to. It never got dull, as a satisfyingly constant rumble of clustered conversations throughout the small room accompanied some mellow but upbeat tunes.
It was exactly what it promised – modern cuisine using locally sourced foods and cooked with love, served by thoughtful and knowledgeable staff – and more. It was inviting, comforting and humble.
Maybe it was the familiar smiles and faces of two people who I had trusted from years back, or maybe it was the communal style dining that encouraged talking and tasting as much as it did outright eating, but Rooster & the Till is exactly what I always wanted – a true local treasure.
They’ve only been open since January, but are making some serious waves in the culinary world, so be on the safe side and give them a shout to book your table.