This past Wednesday evening (while most of Florida was anxiously tracking Hurricane Matthew) my husband and I found ourselves at Grey Salt–the upscale Mediterranean-inspired restaurant at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa. Grey Salt has been on my personal restaurant bucket list for quite some time, but as any honest South Tampa resident will agree–its just so. far. away. Well neighbors, I’m here to tell you it’s NOT that far and it’s ABSOLUTELY worth the drive. Whether you live in North Tampa, South Tampa, Westchase, Brandon or somewhere in between – plan a date, hop in the car and go check it out.
This was anything but a typical Wednesday evening dinner service. Chef Marc Murphy, Owner & Executive Chef of Benchmarc Restaurants, came together with four other well-known local chefs to create a unique five-course dinner to benefit Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign. Murphy is a member of the Leadership Council for No Kid Hungry and saw this as an opportunity to bring awareness to the Tampa community about childhood hunger in our country.
Sadly, 1 in 5 children in the U.S. (and 1 in 4 children in Florida!) will experience hunger this year. No Kid Hungry is working to shrink that number both by providing healthy meals to children as well as teaching families the skills needed to shop and cook on a budget. To date, they have connected hungry kids to over 460 million meals. One of the most heartbreaking moments came from Chuck Scofield, Executive Vice President of Strategy with Share Our Strength, when he detailed how hungry kids are being robbed of a carefree childhood. Most children love the weekend and dread going back to school on a Monday morning, whereas a child that struggles with hunger is the opposite–they look forward to Monday morning because they know they will have breakfast and lunch waiting at school. After watching a few videos and listening to Mr. Scofield talk passionately about their mission, it was clear why this fundraiser needed to take place. Hats off to Chef Murphy & the Hard Rock for hosting the event and raising money for such a worthy cause.
Chefs Uniting for a Cause: The Courses
The evening began with a cocktail reception that I can review in three words: Hendrick’s Cucumber Spritzer. I don’t even like Gin and this blew my mind. It’s the kind of drink you crave while enjoying one of our hot, sticky Florida sunsets. Cool, crisp and refreshing; this drink was impossible to put down. As an added bonus, it’s as simple as they come: Hendrick’s Gin, soda water, cucumber & lemon. I’ll be recreating these every Friday after work!
While we were getting our drink on, an army of excellently-trained servers were passing an assortment of hors d’oeuvres throughout the crowd. The Chilled Lobster Bites, served with a complimentary tarragon aioli, were an immediate hit. Another standout was the Ash-Roasted Beet & Goat Cheese Crostini. Beets are not my favorite and nothing pleases me more than when a talented chef can take something I dislike and make me like it. If you had told me I would be feasting on Gin & Beets (and loving it) I wouldn’t have believed you. Last but not least, I need to mention the Patatas Bravas. Given my husband’s background, I’ve eaten my fair share of these–including about a dozen variations in Spain. Chef Murphy’s, however, came out as tiny, perfectly seasoned whole potatoes with just the right amount of smoked paprika aioli delicately placed on each. Bravo!
Shortly after we were seated and started getting to know our table-mates, Robert & Susan of Tarpon Springs, the first course was served. Chef Greg Baker of The Refinery and Fodder & Shine prepared a Cannelloni Bean Salad accompanied by bitter greens, charred bread & crispy country ham. The beans were perfectly cooked and the flavor was on point with notes of lemon and garlic. However, the real standout of the dish was the crispy ham on top–the saltiness of the ham really brought the entire dish together. Everyone cleaned their plate and this dish really set the tone for the entire meal.
Next up was Chef Courtney Orwig from Haven. Haven happens to be a personal favorite of mine so expectations were high. Beautifully plated and colorful, the dish was very easy on the eyes. A generous slice of Shrimp Chorizo sat atop an avocado puree and a salad of saffron pickles and almonds with a drizzle of px vinegar and a dash of espelette pepper. The dish was well thought out and enjoyed by the table.
The third course came to us courtesy of Chef Michael Buttacavoli, Executive Chef at Cena. Unsurprisingly, the dish was fresh, inventive and thoroughly enjoyable. The paccheri pasta was perfectly, and I mean per-fect-ly, cooked and stuffed with a filling made of just the right amounts of ricotta, pancetta and wild mushroom. The paccheri was served over a bed of creamy parsnip puree and was topped with a calabrian chili braised cabbage salad. Each element of the dish was enjoyable, but together they were perfection!
Then it was time for our host Chef Marc Murphy to shine with the fourth and final savory course. This was the one I had been waiting for since previewing the menu. The duck arrived expertly cooked and incredibly tender. The foundation of the dish was a silky butternut squash puree and some wilted swiss chard that paired outstandingly well with the duck breast. The final element that really finished the dish was the cranberry agrodolce–I admittedly cut some of the cranberries in half just so I could enjoy every bite of the duck together with their sweet, tart flavor.
After four amazing courses there was no way we could fit in dessert, right? That thinking changed when the final plate arrived with not 1, not 2, not 3, but FOUR delicious desserts. Chef William Gideon from the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino really outdid himself with the spread he prepared. Pictures do not do it justice and everything truly tasted as good as it looks. We took our chocolate guitars home for the kids (who absolutely swooned when they saw them the next day!) and got to work on the other three offerings. The tropical almond gateau had several layers of perfection and each bite was better than the last. The verbena sorbet was a great palate cleanser and had a very unique flavor. Finally, the lemoncello-raspberry syllabub was both yummy and fun to eat with the tiny little spoons. Everyone at the table had fun with this one!
While this menu was one-of-a-kind, the takeaway I want to leave you with is that the Tampa area food scene is starting to burst with talent and opportunity. Sometimes these new and inventive restaurants might require you to travel outside your comfort zone–be it actual distance or to try a new dish or cuisine. Embrace it. Put yourself out there. Eat local. And support great charities like this one while you’re at it. See you at next year’s dinner!
For more information on the No Kid Hungry campaign please visit nokidhungry.org