Unbridled enthusiasm: The unforgettable experience of Urban Stillhouse (PHOTOS)

Urban Stillhouse, in St. Petersburg’s Warehouse District, is a rare find in the Tampa Bay area restaurant scene. It’s special, and unique, in many ways. First, it’s owned by American Freedom Distillery, makers of Horse Soldier Bourbon. So, it’s no surprise that this is a restaurant that knows its spirits, and how to skillfully use them at the bar, and in the kitchen. Second, it’s exclusive, open for dinner only three nights a week, Thursday through Saturday. Brunch is served on Sunday and for any shift, reservations are required. Next, the interior design is stunning. Imagine an opulent ski chalet decorated by Ralph Lauren and the best team at Restoration Hardware.

But as special as all that is, the food is the most special of all. Executive Chef Lenny Tufo fills the menu with items not easily found, prepared in unique ways. The result is a celebration of flavor and texture combinations you will only find at Urban Stillhouse. If you are looking for an unforgettable experience, this is the place.

With a close relationship to a bourbon distillery, expectations for a great old-fashioned run high. Urban Stillhouse delivers, and then some. It’s made with Horse Soldier straight bourbon, maple syrup aged in Horse Soldier bourbon barrels and two types of bitters, Angostura and orange. Then it’s precision-smoked and garnished with an orange twist and a Luxardo cherry.

As the drink is poured, a thick layer of smoke swirls around the single square cube of ice and over the rim of the glass. As soon as the smoke clears, it’s time to taste. Bourbon steps forward first, followed by the slightly sweet syrup. Every sip is enhanced with a smoky flavor and it’s smooth to the last drop. This defines the quintessential old-fashioned experience. Pair this with the crispy rainbow cauliflower. The dry-fry creates a crisp thin shell that offers great texture but allows the colors of purple, gold and alabaster cauliflower to shine through. Alongside the cauliflower are peppadews and saffron aioli that add color and flavor. It’s tasty, beautiful and a great way to start the night.

Another signature cocktail is the Pear Pressure. Once again, Horse Soldier Bourbon is used but this time it gets served with a housemade pear shrub and a grilled lemon syrup. A touch of Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur gives a kiss of heat while dehydrated edible flowers grace the side of the coupe. This cocktail is bright with flavor and the presentation is charming. A smoked diver scallop is a perfect nosh for the Pear Pressure. A jumbo sea scallop, from Maine, is applewood smoked, creating a firm but nuanced texture and is set on a smear of puree made from roasted beets, honey and sherry vinegar.

Slices of housemade venison sausage and wilted watercress crown the dish and a drizzle of chive oil provides a lush feel on the tongue. The presentation is dramatic, the colors are vibrant and the flavors are exceptional.

Main courses at Urban Stillhouse offer a selection of seafood, fowl and grilled game. For something delicious, and different, order the crispy whole market catch. When it arrives, a whole fish, head to tail, is presented on a bed of roasted corn salsa and an orange-soy glaze. The fish changes from time to time. On one recent night, it was a whole yellowtail snapper. All fish varieties are dusted and dry fried. To make it easier to eat, the body is scored, so a tug from a fork, placed just to the side of the spine, releases a plank of flesh. The plank is bone-free, moist and flavorful. The sweet and spicy salsa is a mix of roasted corn, mango and jalapeno. The orange glaze gets a little sweetness from agave, a little heat from wasabi and a little salt from soy sauce that’s aged in—you guessed it—bourbon barrels. Don’t hesitate to order this dish. It’s easy to eat and an experience you won’t soon forget.

Bone-in bison, lamb and wagyu rib-eye are popular game selections at Urban Stillhouse. And there is often a special game item offered, like grilled elk chops. The elk is seared over a wood-fired grill and paired with a mix of root vegetables, including rutabaga, golden beets and celeriac. Cipollini onions give a hint of sweetness complemented with saba and black currants. Saba is a syrupy Italian sauce made from unfermented grapes. Chef Tufo embellishes his saba with black currants, which complements the slightly sweet and grilled flavor of the elk.

This is another example of special ingredients and culinary wizardry not found in most restaurants anywhere on Florida’s west coast. Even the side items get elevated by special ingredients, like potatoes mashed with comte and another side, purple rice grits with whisky cheddar.

Desserts showcase chocolate, fruit and citrus, often infused with spirits. A dome of mascarpone cheesecake crowns a disc of cara crakine. Cara crakine is a crunchy mix of caramel-laced milk chocolate and toasted cookies. At Urban Stillhouse, it’s spread into a sheet pan, rolled thin, and cut into discs. Rekker rum-soaked apricots and fresh raspberries help make each bite a celebration of flavor and texture. This is a seasonal dessert that changes from pears in the winter to stone fruit in the summer, so you can enjoy a version of it all year round.

Urban Stillhouse offers unique menu items, skillfully prepared and artfully presented. For a foodie, it’s a “must try” in Tampa Bay.

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