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Interview: Executive Chef Lee Aquino of Birch & Vine at The Birchwood St. Pete

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I had the pleasure of sitting down with Executive Chef Lee Aquino of Birch & Vine at The Birchwood in Downtown St. Pete recently for an interview. Aquino is originally from Amelia Island. The restaurant and hotel owner, Chuck Prather, is also making moves to soon expand into the new St. Pete Pier that is opening in 2020.

Photo via Birchwood

Here is the interview:

Q: What’s new on the menu at Birch & Vine?

A: Birch & Vine is updating all facets of our menu. We’re updating the face of the building and our scratch kitchen with fun, awesome, but also approachable food. Our style is French rustic with an American twist.

Our diners are a variety of people: hotel guests, passerby customers, and people who see our menu in the front of the building on the first floor.

On our top floor at The Canopy, it’s a little different. We have retired folks and a variety of young people as well. Our menu is mainly bar food and we are looking to update the flatware and menu items. Lighter and fresh vibes. Food that is easy to eat.

No caviar here.

Q: What trends do you see coming in 2020?

A: Towers. I’m sure you’ve seen them in old school tea parties.

Smaller portions with more variety and more choices. Multiple appetizers and hors d’oeuvres with in-between price points.

Q: Do you think plant-based meat will join the menu in 2020?

A: We are not using plant-based meat at Birch & Vine. My main concern is cross-contamination issues, which has been a concern as some of the big concepts and chains that have deployed it.

We try to be as conscious as possible about our imprint at Birch & Vine.

Seasonality is a thing in Florida, even though there’s one season things don’t grow the whole year. If a party orders a fig salad – it can be a tough thing to find when a farm runs out of it. Sourcing can be difficult and we try our best to get ahead of it.

We never want to mislead the clients. Be honest.

Q: What’s your history and background?

A: I have been at Birch & Vine for 2 years as Executive Chef. I started at the Tampa Yacht & Country Club as an Executive Sous Chef for 6 years in the past. I bought a house in Downtown St. Pete and made it my home and that led me here.

Q: Where do you like to eat on your day off?

A: Somewhere I haven’t been. I like to be provoked and taste the town. I have no favorites though (laughs).


The Birchwood is located at 340 Beach Drive Northeast in Downtown St. Petersburg, Florida. The hotel features Birch & Vine restaurant, an 18-room boutique hotel on the second and third floor, conference, event, and entertainment space in The Grand Ballroom on the fourth floor and a rooftop lounge, The Canopy.

It is a Spanish Mission-style building originally built in 1922 and underwent historically correct renovations in 2013. It is listed in the National Registry of Historic Places. 

Visit them online at thebirchwood.com.

Birch & Vine. 340 Beach Dr. NE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701. (727) 896-1080.

Carlos Eats

January 29, 2020 |

Tampa Chef Rosana Rivera successfully ‘Beat Bobby Flay’ on Food Network

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Tampa Chef Rosana Rivera made history as the first Latina woman to beat Bobby Flay on the Food Network on December 26th, 2019. She first beat her husband and business partner, Chef Ricardo Castro, in an elimination round before Bobby Flay using the papaya secret ingredient on a special episode called “It Must’ve Been Love”.

Bobby Flay has a fairly high win-ration that is over 60% of his competitions so this is no small victory for Chef Rosana Rivera.

The dish that beat Bobby Flay. Chef Rosana Rivera’s classic empanadas. Photo Credit: BKN Creative

Chef Rosana Rivera beat Bobby Flay with her beef empanada recipe. Flay had equipment malfunctions during the battle and a track record of empanada fails.

“This experience has been one of the highlights of my year. I feel super proud as a Female Chef, Entrepreneur, Puerto Rican, and Tampanian to have had the honor to not only participate in Beat Bobby Flay but to have competed against Ricardo, my other half in business and life. Ricardo is a Chef that has my utmost admiration. Most importantly, competing against Iron Chef Bobby Flay is an experience I will never forget. I have a deep respect for his talent, charisma, and the amazing team that works with him. It is an honor that I was able to cook side by side with him, compete against him, and can proudly say I Beat Bobby Flay,” said Chef Rosana on her win.

The couple previously owned the French-inspired bakery Piquant and are currently proprietors of Xilo at The Hall on Franklin in Tampa. The Chefs also own R2 Provisions, a national catering company, and a gourmet food truck. Additionally, they also own Kofe, The Hall on Franklin’s in-house coffee bar.

You can watch the episode on the Food Network’s website here: http://watch.foodnetwork.com/tv-shows/beat-bobby-flay/full-episodes/it-mustve-been-love

Chef Rosana Rivera has shared her beef empanada recipe with us. Disclaimer: This recipe is not to be shared without the author’s permission. Chef Rosana can be reached at chefrosanarivera@gmail.com.

Carlos Eats

December 28, 2019 |

International Cuban Sandwich Festival seeks home chef entries

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The International Cuban Sandwich Festival, held annually in Tampa is seeking home entries for this year’s festival which will occur on Sunday, March 31st, 2019 at Ybor City’s Historic Centennial Park. The festival is now in its 8th year.

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The organizers of the festival are seeking home chefs or someone with an incredible Cuban recipe to enter their competition. The new category is officially called: “Homestyle Cuban Sandwich Smackdown Contest!”

There will be cash prizes and media packages for winners of the new category.

Interested participants can send an email to vpadilla@latin-times.com. Hurry because entries are limited.

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For those who don’t know, the Cuban Sandwich was created in Tampa by immigrants in the last 1800s who worked in Ybor City’s cigar factories. Ybor City was home to a number of immigrants during this era with community buildings such as the Cuban Club and Italian Club. Those buildings can still be seen today in Ybor City.

Despite some controversy with Miami, Tampa is the home of the Cuban Sandwich and has been served since at least 1905 in restaurants there.

Carlos Eats

January 13, 2019 |

Chef Jose Andres opening Jaleo restaurant at Disney Springs this year (Orlando)

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Chef Jose Andres will open a new Spanish restaurant called Jaleo in Orlando at Disney Springs later this year right next to House of Blues and Bongo’s. I couldn’t be more excited. Jaleo has operated 5 locations in Vegas, Washington D.C., and Mexico City. His restaurant group is called ThinkFoodGroup.

The menu will have Spanish tapas and of course feature Paella. Some menu items featured at other Jaleo locations include Gambas, Patatas Bravas, Jamón serrano Fermín, and Chorizo ibérico de bellota Fermín.

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I have been following Chef Andres since he helped the people of Puerto Rico last year during the horrific Hurricane Irma catastrophe. His non-profit, World Central Kitchen, served over 3.5 million quality meals to the people of Puerto Rico while FEMA was dealing with issues providing food and water supplies as well as contractor issues.

Chef Jose Andres was named 2018 Humanitarian of the Year by the James Beard Foundation for his efforts in Puerto Rico. World Food Kitchen is now working with farmer’s in Puerto Rico to help “build resiliency” since Puerto Rico currently imports about 85% of their food.

Check out more about World Food Kitchen: http://www.worldcentralkitchen.org

Now that Wine Bar George is serving a variety of wines to the masses, it only makes sense for someone to represent authentic Spanish food and wine together at Disney Springs. Once Jaleo opens, I’ll be there to support Chef Jose Andres. He has done a huge service to the people.

Carlos Eats

June 2, 2018 |

Chef Spotlight: Gia Tran of Zukku Sushi & Astro Ice Cream Co.

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Full disclosure: Chef Gia Tran and I are personally acquainted and have collaborated/worked together. He is a mutual friend through an old friend and we were first introduced at the first Sushi Battle in Ybor City. We have gone on to see each other around town at different restaurants and businesses. I reached out to him for this story when Armature Works opened. All opinions expressed are my own and do not represent him.

The writing scene in Tampa often captures restaurants opening and closing as well as menu items and new trends. However, we don’t cover the chefs in the city that often and although some events try and make up for this – chefs are busy people and so are writers in this growing city.

The main reason for the lack of coverage is because chefs are always in the kitchen cooking (go-figure) and many of them aren’t really people-people (laughs).

Chef Gia Tran is a unique chef that I thought would make a great article when discussing the new Armature Works  – so I reached out to get his story.

I initially met Chef Gia Tran at the first Sushi Battle in Ybor City. Surrounded by Godzilla costumes and Taiko drummer group, Tampa Taiko, as well as thousands of hungry people, we were quite busy and did not get to talk much besides talking about the sushi burrito I ate (he was a vendor competing in the competition). I was a Judge at the competition and was impressed.

Chef Gia was doing sushi burritos long before anyone in Tampa probably knew what a sushi burrito was (alas many people still do not know). As a food writer myself, I had not seen sushi burritos anywhere besides on popular food websites such as Eater in 2015.

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Over the years I saw him and his staff at the Margarita Festival, Rum Festival, and other drink festivals organized by Big City Events, whose leadership (Ferdian Jap and Monica Varner) are now a partner in his two new ventures inside Armature Works: Zukku Sushi and Astro Ice Cream Co.

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Years passed and then I was a Judge again at the Sushi Battle – this time in St. Petersburg. I wandered the booths consuming plenty of sushi. The best booth? Ocean Prime. I was a little shocked because I was previously unaware that sushi was even on the menu at Ocean Prime. Apparently, Chef Gia Tran pioneered this successful menu at Ocean Prime and it is still served there after his departure and a top seller.

The rolls were simply superb and I could not resist going again and again for a bite until Ocean Prime eventually was sold out. The rice, fish, and composition was all excellent. I wasn’t accustomed to Tampa sushi restaurants getting these things right (sorry I’m from San Francisco). Ocean Prime won the Audience Choice Award that year.

I was initially unaware that Chef Gia Tran was behind this menu. I just knew it was delicious.

Years passed again and then I heard about a new place opening in Brandon called S Bar from  Chef Gia. This restaurant was a new project by a few original management pieces of The Rack. Although a short-lived venture due to the owners relocating, this project lead way to what is arguably the biggest project Chef Gia Tran has to date: the opening of Zukku Sushi and Astro Ice Cream Co. at Armature Works.

Chef Gia Tran has saved since his first sushi job 10 years ago at Sushi Alive in Carrollwood (now in Westchase) for this business venture at Armature Works.

Many of Tampa’s local head sushi chefs had their start at Sushi Alive, which was one of the busiest places in town thanks to an excellent dollar sushi deal and happy hour specials.

Ask anyone about Armature Works in the food business and they will tell you it represents a change for Tampa and hopes for the future of our city.

It’s forward-thinking, historic, and diverse. People might argue about different facets of the venue, but can anyone deny that this undertaking is a huge risk? Restaurateurs have embraced it in a move for something different. I respect that as someone who covers the food scene on the other side.

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Zukku Sushi has a variety of poke choices and sushi rolls on the menu.

What makes it different? A sharp attention to fish quality. Chef Gia Tran is clearly using his background at other restaurants to decide the menu items and to source higher quality fish. The price does reflect it, but fish is one of those things where you get what you pay for.

Prices are comparable to nearby Poke Rose at The Hall on Franklin, but here you can pick your toppings and customize your bowl which is definitely one of my gripes about Poke Rose. Also – Poke Rose seems to lean towards Poke Salad while Zukku is clearly connect more to the sushi side of things with sushi rice being carefully prepared.

Zukku Sushi is open at Armature Works in Tampa Heights 7 days a week. Astro Ice Cream Co. will also provide nitrogen ice cream to the public. Chef Gia Tran is on the move in the City of Tampa.

Carlos Eats

March 5, 2018 |

Chef Mark Estee 4-Course Dinner & Tequila Pairing – 1/24

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Vuelo Mexican Grill in New Tampa will host a 4-course dinner and tequila pairing on Tuesday, January 24th from 5PM to 9PM with restaurant Chef Mark Estee. The chef is a James-Beard Semifinalist for Best Chefs in America and has been featured on both the Cooking Channel and the Food Network.

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The cocktails pairings will feature Azuñia Tequila which is produced with 100% pure Weber Blue Agave grown in dedicated fields of the Jalisco lowlands. An exclusive export of Agaveros Unidos de Amatitán, the agave is aged for 8-10 years before harvesting and then proceed to use open-air natural fermentation.

On the menu:

  • Florida Rock Shrimp Tiradito with Citrus, Chiles and Corn
  • Luis’s Chicken Mole with Crispy Masa Cake and Chicken Chicharrón
  • Carne Asada with Salsa Verde and Smashed Potatoes
  • Warm Chocolate Cake with Cajeta Caramel Sauce

Tickets are available for $ 40 in advance and the pairing will be available for $ 50 on the day of the event. Walk-ins will be welcome and the regular menu will also be available.

Buy advance tickets: http://www.eventbrite.com/e/meet-chef-mark-estee-four-course-chefs-dinner-premium-tequila-tasting-tickets-31106492356

Click to view slideshow.

Carlos Eats

January 30, 2017 |

Chef Marc Murphy and Chef Anne Burrell hosting demo, dinner

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Chef Marc Murphy and Chef Anne Burrell are hosting a culinary demonstration and dinner at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa located at 5223 North Orient Road Tampa, Florida 33610 on Saturday, November 12th, 2016 beginning at 6:30PM.

Tickets cost $ 150 per person and can be purchased by calling (813) 627-6630 or via e-mail at info@greysalt-restaurant.com. Space is limited.

Guests will be treated to hors d’oeuvres during the demonstration at 6:30PM and enjoy a 4-course dinner at 7:30PM inside Grey Salt. Guests will also enjoy a special “Meet & Greet” with celebrity chefs inside in the VIP Plum Lounge.

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Chef Anne Burrell is the host of Food Network’s “Worst Cooks in America” and “Worst Cooks in America – Celebrity Edition.” She was also one of Iron Chef Mario Batali’s sous chefs in the “Iron Chef America” series and appears on other shows on the network such as “Beat Bobby Flay,” “Chopped” and “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.”

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Chef Marc Murphy serves as the Chef and owner of Benchmarc Restaurants (Landmarc & Ditch Plains) and Benchmarc Events by Marc Murphy, and is the Chef and partner at Kingside in the Viceroy Central Park as well as the Chef and partner of Grey Salt at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa. He is a regular judge on the Food Network’s top-rated show, “Chopped” and “Chopped Junior” and has appeared on “Guy’s Grocery Games,” “Beat Bobby Flay,” and the Rachael Ray show among others. He is also the author of “Season with Authority: Confident Home Cooking.”


Carlos Eats

November 2, 2016 |

Celebrated Chef Marc Murphy Opens Grey Salt

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Celebrity Chef Melds Rustic Farmhouse with Modern Casino Glitz

Get a taste of the Big Apple in Tampa with the new Mediterranean-inspired restaurant by celebrity chef, Marc Murphy. Inside the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, Marc Murphy has brought his latest concept to the Bay area. The rustic farmhouse meets modern-twist interior, sets the tone for a casual, yet refined, dining experience. The interior of Grey Salt is clean and reminiscent of easier, simpler times. Large jars of bright yellow lemons decorate one wall inside the restaurant, along with chopped wood for the grill and other spice filled jars. The exposed kitchen allows guests to watch the culinary team create the delicious dishes and watch the rotisserie go around.

 

lemons in jars on wall at Grey Salt Tampa Florida

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Grey Salt in Tampa Florida

While the Bay area has cultivated many local celebrity chefs, it now attracts national chefs, as well. The latest addition being New York-based, Chef Marc Murphy. The culinary bar is certainly being raised, much to the Bay area foodies delight.

“Tampa is a great location for my Mediterranean inspired grill because of the close proximity to the Gulf and its amazing seafood,” says Murphy. “The climate is also very similar to the Mediterranean where I grew up, spending time in Italy and France. Tampa was the perfect location and I’m looking forward to creating an oasis for people to enjoy. Tampa has a fantastic community of restaurants and I am excited to be part of it. I’m so impressed with the dining scene and I look forward to joining such a talented group of chefs.”

elebrity Chef Marc Murphy opens Grey Salt in Tampa FloridaChef Marc Murphy

In addition to his restaurant and catering group, Murphy appears regularly on The Food Network, along with other guest chef TV appearances. His debut cookbook: Season with Authority: Confident Home Cooking was released last year.

The Seminole Hard Rock established its culinary chops with Council Oak Steakhouse and Grey Salt is the newest addition to add to the dining scene. A focus on locally sourced ingredients including local seafood, along with flatbreads, handmade pastas and rotisserie and grilled meats fill the menu. The selection on cheese and charcuterie boards make for a great starter, displayed nicely with pickled vegetables, marcona almonds – almost a meal in itself. One of General Manager Thomas Allen’s favorite dishes is the housemade pasta bolognese and I couldn’t agree more. Cooked to  perfection, the red sauce with skirt steak topped the cooked to al dente pasta and rich ricotta cheese. He shared that once the deluxe pasta maker arrived, all the chefs were so busy ‘playing’, he had to remind them to get to work. Another delicious dish is the spinach ricotta gnudi topped with brown butter and sage.

For a side, try the lentils which were hearty and tasty, not mushy at all. Other entrees include wood-grilled prime skirt steak, snapper, grouper, lamb chops and roasted duck. The chocolate hazelnut tart served with pine nut gelato and a cappuccino is worth saving room for to end the meal. The round, curved bar  near the entrance is a great place to grab a pre-dinner handcrafted cocktail, glass  of wine or craft beer.   M

 


Grey Salt

Located inside the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino
5223 North Orient Road, Tampa, FL 33610
813-627-8100  |  www.seminolehardrock.com


 

 

 

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March 31, 2016 |
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