Revisiting The Art Of Dining At The Refinery in Seminole Heights, Tampa

It was the bone marrow on The Refinery's menu that drew her in.

"I was so excited to see a restaurant in Tampa finally serving it," says 31-year-old Jenn Hills Ranck.

Once there, the Seminole Heights woman said her palate was well-pleased.

The bone marrow was delicious, she proclaims. "It was tasty, tasty meat butter on a crunchy, herby crostino. Creative and delicious!"

While the menu is inventive, it is not pretentious or overdone, says Ranck, who has only dined at the restaurant once because she has a newborn.

"I would eat there every week if I could get out more," she says. Even so, she enjoys reading the new menu every week.

 "I'm excited to see a restaurant in Tampa is serving things like sweetbreads, bone marrow, trotters and tongue,'' Ranck says.

That's precisely the kind of enthusiasm that Michelle and Greg Baker want to inspire with their passion for offering patrons unusual flavor combinations at prices they can afford.

The menu at The Refinery, 5137 N. Florida Ave., changes weekly because the Bakers are committed to buying local.

The fish they serve comes from Sammy's Seafood, a fish monger in St. Petersburg.

The veggies are mostly grown on farms in Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties and delivered to the restaurant by The Suncoast Food Alliance in Sarasota County.

They do get a few of their veggies from an even closer source: They trade compost for veggies grown by gardeners with plots at the Seminole Heights Community Gardens.

The restaurant's fresh bread comes from Mauricio Faldo's Bakery, directly across the street and it gets some of its beers from two local brewers, Cigar City Brewing and Dunedin Brewery.

Once they know what raw materials they'll be working with each week, they put their heads together with sous chef Eddie Shumard to concoct inspired dishes.

In essence, they ask: "OK, what can we do to make this interesting?" Greg says.

"There's applying different flavor combinations. There's applying different cooking techniques. You can have something roasted versus something sautéed. It's completely different.

"It's just playing with the food – trying to make each aspect of it stand out, and make a cohesive dish at the same time,'' Greg says.

Thursday is the most challenging day in the kitchen.

"Thursday is the new menu. It's like opening a restaurant all over again. They have to make everything from scratch for the entire new menu," Michelle says.

Their mission is to share their passion for food – taking their customers on culinary adventures, while keeping the costs within reason.

There may be other places around Tampa Bay that offer bone marrow on their menu, the Bakers say. But normally not for $7.

Indeed, if it is served at all, it's usually found at an expensive French restaurant, where it will cost a princely sum just to taste it.

Becky Rubright, a regular who came up with the restaurant's name, describes The Refinery as a place that serves high-brow food at reasonable prices in a comfortable atmosphere.

The 37-year-old Seminole Heights woman conceded her taste buds have not been delighted by every single dish she's tried – but she appreciates Greg's willingness to explore new food flavors.

Putting Out The Welcome Mat

Besides being a place where people can try unusual dishes, the Bakers want The Refinery to be a place where everyone feels welcome.

"I think Greg said it best when he said, "If you are wearing flip-flips, loafers or combat boots, you are welcome,' '' said 32-year-old Michelle.

 Tom Wheatley, 32, of Seminole Heights and Kyndal Oneal, 29, of Tampa Heights, ate dinner at the restaurant on a recent Friday night.

Wheatley had been there before; Oneal was a first-timer.

Wheatley says he's drawn by the restaurant's commitment to using local suppliers. He also likes the ever-changing menu.

"It's always a surprise -- what's going to be there. I like that," Wheatley says, noting it is fairly easy to quickly exhaust the menu at most restaurants.

Oneal said the food's flavor will bring her back.

She especially enjoyed the flatiron steak with asparagus, fingerlings and chimichurri ($18). "That was divine," she said.

The pair also raved about the dessert, a tart consisting of a shortbread crust, chocolate, bacon and salted caramel ($6).

It's enormously satisfying to serve food that makes people happy, say the Bakers, who also are known as The Culinary Sherpas and have a food column in The Tampa Tribune.

It's rewarding work – but also demanding.

"This is one of those jobs that if you are going to stay in it, you absolutely have to love it," says 43-year-old Greg, who got his start as a dishwasher at 12, graduated to being a cook at 16, went to culinary school at 20 and has honed his skills ever since.

"You go to work ridiculously early. You get off work ridiculously late. It's constant stress from the moment you walk in until the minute you walk out.

"It is just as intense as full-contact cage-fighting, just trying to get by and not screwing anything up. The orchestration of the whole thing -- it's this intricate dance that can fall apart at any given second," Greg says.

Harboring Big Ambitions

Michelle has complete faith in Greg's culinary skills.

"He's a superstar when it comes to the kitchen – flat out," she says.

"He knows what he's doing. He has chefs around town who have asked if they can come and work for him on their days' off, for free, so they can learn."

The couple is so confident that there's a market for what they have to offer, they've invested $600,000 to $800,000 in The Refinery and in its newly opened upstairs bar.

Inside, the bar is cozy place – and then it steps out to an open-air deck.

The couple has big ambitions.

 "We're hoping within five years to open Restaurant No. 2, and within 10 years to have No. 3 and No. 4 open," Greg says.

"All in Seminole Heights," Michelle adds, noting they won't all necessarily be restaurants, but all will involve food and drink.

They think the market will support their plans.

"Seminole Heights is starving for this right now,'' Michelle says.

The economy is challenging – but they see opportunity.

 "I think if you're doing something you are really passionate about and you're not trying to rip people off and you work hard, you will succeed in any kind of an economy," Michelle says.

B.C. Manion is a freelance writer working out of her 1932 bungalow in South Seminole Heights. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

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