It seems like Floridians eat twice as much seafood as the average American. Every time I escape to Tampa to visit family, I find myself enjoying my catch-limit quota of yellowtail and snapper. With the exception of Mahi-Mahi (due to overfishing), this week is another week of chumming for angler favorites.
While hiking at swampy Lettuce Lake, we came across a happy sportsman reeling in an ancient fish called the bowfin. The big catch would be prepared with his grandma’s recipe dinner, smoked and flavored, enough for him and his family. Armed with that information, we too decided we’d dine at a restaurant with Florida freshwater.
The dining scene at Tampa’s Ulele (pronounced You-lay-lee), a “native-inspired” restaurant and brewery by 4th generation restaurateur Richard Gonzmart, is a sustainability standout. Grouper, snapper, pompano, redfish, their vast selection of fresh fish hails daily from the Gulf of Mexico and coastal waters.
I asked if we could sit outside under the yellow umbrellas overlooking the Hillsborough River. A little bit of drizzle was coming down. We were escorted through the vast red-brick warehouse, a renovated space that housed a dilapidated, 112-year-old city water works building.
The walls were decorated with eclectic art sculptures, world-renowned Dali drawings and old sports memorabilia. Three vastly different design concepts that visually thrive in the two-tiered mezzanine layout.
The newly-minted Water Works Park sits adjacent to the restaurant. The riverfront playground is a magnet for families, city events and celebrations. Despite the ominous clouds overhead, two tiny tots ran back and forth in the splash zone dodging a bucket of water that tipped over every two minutes.
Our server, Brooks Boekelman, encouraged us to share bowls of the Native Chili for a starter. A true taste of Florida: a fusion of alligator, wild boar, venison, duck and ground chuck mixed with cranberry beans and chili spices. Dad’s eyes lighted up like a Christmas tree.
Boekelman dived into enlightening us on the importance of serving food harvested and raised in the United States. I brought my camera with me and asked if I could take photos of the interior. Like a passionate art curator, he was quick to showcase the owner’s deep pockets for acquiring beautiful art. It surprised us that so many originals were on display, one by surrealist painter Salvador Dali and several by Peru’s most famous artist, Victor Delfin.
Sis and I split the evening special, the fabled Gulf Sturgeon. The armored fish migrates between rivers and gulf waters but ours is farm-raised, the only farm-raised catch on the menu. The slow-growing species is still illegal to fish for in freshwater. The taste was so incredibly sinful, I can understand why.
1810 N Highlands Ave.
Tampa, FL 33602