Raising the Bar at Élevage
Shortly after the Epicurean Hotel made changes to its Élevage Restaurant’s leadership team last November, I had the pleasure of meeting the two new hires: Executive Chef Jason Bamford and General Manager Vicente Lavayen.
These two talented men, with their storied backgrounds and expertise, are elevating the dining experience at the Élevage Restaurant, the Edge Rooftop Bar and The Epicurean Theatre. I was able to enjoy an evening experiencing their culinary wizardry, tantalizing drinks and their outgoing personalities, as I soaked up their new ideas for the hotel, their energy and their love for food.
I arrived at the boutique hotel around 5 p.m on a Thursday evening, valet-parked my car and moseyed into the Élevage bar area to find it abuzz with activity. I wasn’t expected until 5:30 p.m., but when you beat the flow of traffic coming down to South Tampa you take advantage of the gift.
I spent my extra time in the bar, located conveniently between the hotel lobby and the restaurant. With glass of wine in hand, I people-watched and enjoyed the view out the floor-to-ceiling windows of busy Howard Avenue. The happy hour menu was a pleasant surprise. With offerings like black and blue quesadillas, salmon ceviche, vegetable risotto, mussels and a shrimp special, it took bar appetizers to the next level.
Chef Jason arrived, and I asked him about the happy hour menu. He said he likes to change it up every few days, and was looking at doing the same at The Edge.
My friend Randy joined me, and we decided to get reacquainted with the rooftop bar. We had both stopped in one night many years ago, but neither of us had been back since. When we ventured off the elevator to find a paradise of its own, I wondered why I hadn’t been back?
With picture-perfect weather and the sun starting to slowly drop in the sky, all your cares seem to dissipate as you take in the picturesque views. There are options to enjoy the atmosphere based on your mood. You can relax at a table under the overhang, or lounge in their overstuffed rattan patio furniture, with mixologist service, inspired drink choices and yummy appetizers at your disposal.
I deviated from wine for a change and chose a Mai Tai. It was scrumptious, sweet and very tasty — a definite favorite. Vicente, the general manager, met us and chatted about the changes he was making to the hotel. I asked about my delicious cocktail and he shared that it’s an Epicurean specialty made with a few different dark and spiced rums barrel-aged for about two months in small-liter barrels to impart a smoky flavor. Then instead of egg whites, a traditional Mai Tai ingredient, he uses chickpea water and adds crème de Orgeat, dry Curaçao, lime and two different types of bitters.
That yummy drink set me up for the rest of the night! We sat mesmerized by the sky and the view of Bayshore Boulevard and watched the sun set on the horizon.
After our drink and small plates of pork belly buns and spring rolls, we made our way downstairs to Élevage, where we had an amazing dining experience.
During dinner, Vicente and Jason shared their culinary journeys with us and talked about how they want to create a memorable restaurant and food service at The Epicurean.
Over a glass of cabernet, we learned that Jason had grown up in central Michigan close to East Lansing, which was not too far from where Randy grew up, and went to Michigan State for college. Jason, who enjoyed cooking from an early age, went on to the Culinary Institute of America and worked at the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, the Delano Hotel on Miami’s South Beach, the Waldorf Astoria in Orlando and in Napa at the Bottega Ristorante. While working at these cool places he was able to pick up innovative techniques and especially loved creating new twists on comfort food.
Our first dish was definitely a unique variation on comfort food: mushroom risotto with shaved fresh truffles on top. It was the best risotto I have ever eaten.
Meanwhile, Vicente told us that his own vegan preference has led him to add more options to the menu. They cook for the Tampa Bay Lightning, so his focus is on making healthy dishes.
He recommended we split the whole roasted cauliflower, and for Randy he suggested the charred avocado entrée for his dinner. The cauliflower was beautifully presented, with sliced cucumbers, radishes and greenery on top and a smattering of sunflower seeds. The charred avocado was just as unexpected, with hearty vegetables, quinoa and field greens displayed on the plate.
Being a steak girl, I couldn’t pass up the Australian Wagyu steak with charred broccoli, candied garlic and a bordelaise sauce that made the dish out of this world.
Not only are Jason and Vicente elevating the Epicurean experience at all the dining venues, Vicente is also creating more engaging events at the Theatre. He wants to dedicate one Monday night a month to hospitality industry events, and one or two Fridays a month to “Date Night” with food and beverage themes.
If you are a food and wine connoisseur, make The Epicurean your next dining destination and sign up for their newsletter at epicureanhotel.com to find out about all the events this culinary team is developing. It could be your next new favorite place.
Author: Tracey Serebin