Monday, July 16, 2018
Dining

Review: At charming C House in Tampa, all food starts with the letter C

TAMPA

Remember that game? "My father owns a grocery store and in it he sells something that starts with C?" All sexism aside (my mom could have owned a grocery store, no sweat), I killed at that game. Yes, it was because my family was cheap and did a whole lot of cross-country driving vacations so I got to practice, but also because I seemed to know a lot of grocery store items.

So when I heard that Danna Haydar was opening a new restaurant in Seminole Heights that served only foods that start with C, my engines got revved. Coconut cream, Camembert, carambola. (Also, it was hard to stop humming the Cookie Monster classic C Is for Cookie.)

Funny thing: Haydar, who for seven years has been the in-house counsel for the Tampa Bay Lightning, came up with the idea on a long drive back from visiting her mother-in-law. She’s always dreamed of having a restaurant, and in enumerating menu items to her husband, realized the first big handful started with C. Whether you think it’s gimmicky or charming, the C House was born.

Opened at the end of March in what was a transmission shop, it’s a big indoor-outdoor restaurant with a covered outdoor bar, perfectly suited to family dining but seemingly a big draw for small groups of women. This may be because of the menu’s reliance on the "Big Three": Champagne, charcuterie and cheesecake. Not three things that I frequently think of in the same breath, but having Hoovered up a whole bunch of all three at the C House last week, it’s not a bad emphasis at all.

I’m going to say right up front that there are some cheats. Poutine is slyly described as Canadian fries ($11; Haydar is from Toronto), mac and cheese becomes Cheesy Mac ($10), and all the cocktails are renamed with C’s abounding so that an old fashioned becomes Circumstantial Evidence ($12, quite good, nice big ice cube). But otherwise, don’t expect any major C change: cobb and caesar salads, cioppino, ceviche, cheeseburger, chicken wings — it all hangs together in a loose but contemporary American idiom.

As is increasingly the case in Seminole Heights, parking can be an issue. The C House lot is not quite big enough, so folks are parking in the plaza across Paris Street and engendering the ire of Seminole Heights residents who can’t zip into the longtime businesses in that strip. Something is going to have to give in Seminole Heights parking wise, especially with a whole raft of new restaurants and other businesses poised to come online, but it’s certainly not the C House’s fault.

In a couple of visits, service was stuttery — sometimes attentive, sometimes overly laissez-faire, but always friendly. It’s a pleasant place to order a drink and a couple of noshes, then a couple more. The cheese and charcuterie options are a good place to start (pick three for $16, five for $25, seven for $33), with a punchy chorizo, slow-smolder and spreadable nduja (a lush-with-fat pork salumi), straightforward fresh goat cheese, nutty and crystalline manchego, etc., served with a pleasant but not epic set of accompaniments (grainy mustard, a good preserve, olives and nuts, but veggies like cuke and carrot that, while starting with C, were not pickled as advertised). C House has heavy lifting ahead if it aims to compete with cheese-and-charcuterie titans like Annata or Haven, but I thought it was presented and priced appropriately.

The house white gulf shrimp ceviche ($13) was perhaps my favorite dish, vivacious and balanced, with great acid, heat and veggie crunch. Chipotle honey chicken biscuit sliders (three for $14) are quite good and a little messy — you’ll end up chasing some of it around with a fork, scooping up those last crunchy bits of chicken with radicchio-cabbage slaw. Buffalo cauliflower ($10) and the poutine are both guilty pleasures — salty, fatty finger foods — but well executed in both cases, the fries having a rustic, housemade crunch and a greaseless but moist interior (you’ll see them again as truffle fries on the chimichurri steak frites, a generous flat iron, rosy centered and flavorful, for $22).

Dessert seems to be a passion for Haydar, with cheesecake taking center stage. I’m still thinking about the deeply chocolatey version (velvety and not too sweet, $7), which we doubled down on with a passel of chocolate truffles ($2 each).

Seminole Heights breeds quirky, and the C House is no exception. For a new restaurant, though, it has polish and a rakish charm (there’s a digital fireplace inside, check it out). Oh, and if Haydar is looking for suggestions, how about chowder? Or crepes? Or clafoutis? I could do this all day.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines unannounced and the Times pays all expenses.

     
         
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