One of the many things I love about living in South Florida is if you’re in the mood to explore you can hop in your car, drive two hours in any direction (well, except east) and find yourself somewhere with a distinctly different “feel” and its own unique foodie vibe. As the Summer draws to a close, now is a great time to explore our state and all it has to offer before the craziness of season commences. Over the next few weeks I’ll be profiling some fun Florida Glamorous Getaway destinations to explore.
Recently, my husband and I had the opportunity to explore Tampa’s newly debuted Epicurean Hotel, an establishment dedicated to two of my favorite things: food and wine. The 137-room hotel, part of The Autograph Collection by Marriott, is dedicated to creating a unique “experience for the senses” for each guest. So with these lofty aspirations can this new concept possibly live up to its goal? Absolutely!
Opened in December 2013, the hotel is a collaboration between Bern’s Steak House and Mainsail Lodging and Development Group. Bern’s Steak House is a storied Florida landmark, established by Bern and Gert Laxer in the 1950’s that has definitely stood the test of time. It is widely known among wine lovers for having one of the world’s largest wine lists and its extensive wine cellar, featuring a treasure trove of collectible wines from around the world, can be toured upon request. As a guest of the hotel, it’s safe to indulge in Bern’s vinous cornucopia without fear of driving under the influence since the Epicurean Hotel is conveniently located directly across the street.
The Epicurean’s lobby serves as the perfect introduction to its theme, the backdrop of the check-in desk is a collage of wooden wine crates from some very well known producers. Directly across the lobby is the hotel’s wine boutique, Bern’s Fine Wines & Spirits, which features rows and rows of vinous selections. Casually leaning against the lobby wall are two bicycles bedecked with wicker saddle baskets, perfect for toting a picnic lunch and a bottle of rosé to a nearby park. The hotel’s main restaurant, Élevage, named after the winemaking process, is also located on the first floor, accessible through a stylish corridor of seating vignettes. To the left of the restaurant’s entrance is the hotel’s state of the art teaching facility where technique classes are frequently held, covering a variety of food and wine topics. Thus far every square inch of the Epicurean exudes food and wine yet rather than feeling grandiose or intimidating, the overall vibe is friendly and welcoming.
We checked into our room in the late afternoon, a stylishly appointed Junior suite which overlooked the entrance to Bern’s. After getting settled we headed up to Edge, the hotel’s rooftop bar, to enjoy the sunset and a selection of hand-crafted cocktails. While artisanal cocktails are frequently a stumbling block for many establishments they definitely weren’t here! Behind the bar a bevy of “mixologists” deftly assembled drinks from an assortment of imaginative ingredients including dried pink rosebuds, paper thin cucumber slices, honeycomb and a variety of premium liquors. Support staff worked in tandem to provide timely and excellent service as well as wonderful selection of food and drinks. Signature drinks included my personal favorite, the Ma Cheri ($15), a blend of Hendrick’s Gin, St. Germain, and Crispin Rose liqueur while Steve opted for the CLUBber Lang ($12), a riff on the classic Negroni featuring small batch twelve year aged Canadian Club and Averna that certainly packed a punch! The snack menu offered tasty small plates with some imagination featuring dishes such as Marcona almonds with sea salt and lavender as well as short rib flatbread with porcini mushrooms and Grana Padano. As the sun was setting it was difficult to pull ourselves away for our reservation at Bern’s!
After a decadent dinner at Bern’s consisting of a selection of caviar, steaks and wines which included White Burgundy and a Right Bank Bordeaux we wandered over to Chocolate Pi, the Epicurean’s pâtisserie (aka bakery) and coffee shop, for a little something sweet. Executive Pastry Chef Kim Yelvington’s passion for French confections was immediately evident in the colorful display of macarons and homemade marshmallows in sophisticated flavors such as St. Germain Elderflower, Champagne and Lychee Passionfruit. Intricately decorated and delicious looking chocolates were also displayed as well as a variety of sodas, coffee and teas – talk about feeling like a kid in a candy store! We sampled a selection of marshmallows and macarons which were well-executed and delicious: the macarons had crispy outer shells and chewy centers while the marshmallows were fluffy and delicately flavored.
After dinner at Bern’s, room service was in order the next morning and we selected from the hotel’s extensive in-room dining menu choosing the Shrimp & Grits with peppers, scallion, pork belly and soft cooked egg and Sesame Granola with Greek yogurt, honeycomb, and huckleberry jam. Both dishes were delicious and flavorful, the tender shrimp were nicely enhanced by the smoky pork belly while the runny egg yolk added to the dreamy texture of the grits. The sesame granola also had a delightful crunch complemented by the sweet, sticky honeycomb and jam. Our room service experience definitely had us looking forward to dinner at Élevage!
That afternoon a massage was on the agenda and even the hotel’s spa, Spa Evangeline, exuded a vinous theme! The space itself was small and inviting and the far wall is adorned with wine corks arranged in a two-by-two pattern. Spa Sommeliers were available to guide you towards an optimal treatment selection or to help you customize one to suit your specific needs. The spa’s two product lines are, Caudaulie, one of my personal favorites founded in 1995 by Mathilde and Bertrand Thomas of Château Smith Haut Lafitte in Bordeaux, France and FHF, Farm to Table featuring FarmHouse Fresh, a line of natural and organic bath and body products made in Texas with southern vintage flair. The spa’s selection of Signature services makes use of herbs from the hotel’s living “herb walls” found on the premises. Some treatments are inspired by the desserts from Chocolate Pi including the Dulce Delight which uses a caramel coffee salt scrub to energize and exfoliate. I chose the Swedish Epicurean massage ($110 for 50 minutes; $174 for 80 minutes) which utilized the Caudalie Divine Oil, a blend of grapeseed, hibiscus, sesame, and argan oils with a lovely, subtle floral fragrance. The oil and my very skilled masseuse made the experience extremely enjoyable and relaxing, so relaxing I couldn’t resist purchasing a bottle of the Divine Oil to take home with me.
By dinnertime we were ravenous and happily seated upon check in at Élevage, which features the cuisine of 2012 and 2014 James Beard “Best Chef South” Semi-Finalist, Executive Chef Chad Johnson. Johnson has an uncanny ability to reexamine classic cuisine from around the world and elevate it with a modern twist which is why Élevage has been aptly described as, “where nostalgia meets nouveau.” The high level of service we had encountered since arriving at the hotel was immediately evident. The hospitable and enthusiastic manager and wait staff seemed genuinely happy to be working as part of this culinary concept. The wine list offered nice diversity yet wasn’t overwhelming in terms of options although it definitely could be. Since the hotel is “related” to Bern’s Steak House they could’ve easily dropped a 5 pound wine list in our laps, but thankfully this was already skillfully whittled down. In addition to the regular list they also offer a selection of featured wines and we opted for the 2011 Vincent Girardin Puligny-Montrachet, a white Burgundy which paired very nicely with the selection of dishes we sampled.
The menu featured a selection of dishes with diverse ethnic influences as well as edgier interpretations of classic comfort food including Pork n’ Beans, Welsh Rarebit, and Tuna Casserole. We started with a round of small plates including Deviled Eggs with blackened blue crab, BBQ Gulf Oysters with sweet chili butter, and Rabbit Rillette with foie gras mousse, cornichon and crostini. The deviled eggs had only small bits of fresh (non-blackened) crabmeat placed on top of the filling and while tasty, the flavor of blackened crab was noticeably absent. The Gulf Oysters on the other hand were generously sized and painted with a bright red, mouth-watering sauce that had us duking it out for the third one – delicious! While the rillette was a little too chilled when it arrived at the table and therefore difficult to spread, it warmed up quickly and was quite delicious. We even requested extra bread to ensure there wasn’t a bite of it left.
For our second round, we ordered the Scallops Grenobloise with capers, meyer lemon and goat’s milk beurre noisette and the Escargot Risotto with parsley, lemon and toasted garlic emulsion. The scallops were beautifully presented with giant caper berries and capers dressed in a delicious sauce that was seasoned to perfection. The escargot risotto was a vibrant shade of green albeit with great flavor that was nicely complemented by the clever use of the toasted garlic foam. The texture of the risotto and escargot made for a nice mouthfeel as well. Due to our heavy meal the night before we decided to call it a night and popped over to Chocolate Pi again for some more of those macarons. All in all the meal at Élevage was fun, flavorful and relatively reasonably priced (especially compared to Bern’s) but just needed a little more attention to detail to really knock it out of the park.
Whether you’re in the mood for culinary exploration, a relaxing spa treatment, sleeping in and enjoying room service, or taking any number of Epicurean classes (click here for current schedule) The Epicurean Hotel makes an ideal weekend getaway for the culinarily inclined. The hotel is currently offering a special through September 15 which you can read more about by clicking here.
The Epicurean Hotel
1207 S. Howard Avenue
Tampa, FL 33606
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