I didn’t need a website to tell me that Ulele has delicious food, outstanding service and a truly Tampa vibe. For years, Ulele has been one of my favorite places to dine, and I usually go there to celebrate special occasions. But when I saw that Ulele was named one of the “most beloved restaurants coast-to-coast” based on OpenTable reviews, I thought I’d give my own review.
Named for a young Native American princess, Ulele opened in 2014, and is part of the Columbia Restaurant Group and Gonzmart Family of Restaurants. Ulele is a very popular restaurant, so securing a reservation is a must, especially on weekends or during busy times of the year. We made our reservation online several weeks in advance for a Sunday evening. Since the weather was nice, we arrived at Armature Works early and walked the scenic path along the Hillsborough River. Before it was time for our reservation, we had drinks at Stone’s Throw, an outdoor bar and dining spot with amazing views of the water and sunset.
Upon entering Ulele, we were warmly greeted and promptly seated at a table on the first floor. Not only is the restaurant beautiful, but it feels large and airy because of high ceilings and tall windows and glass doors that open up to the outdoor seating area. There is a large staircase that leads to the second-floor dining area, which offers great views of the kitchen and first floor dining room. A large, walk-in, glass wine cellar is a unique and prominent fixture in the middle of the restaurant and reminds diners to check out the extensive wine list.
The menu offers a fusion of fresh ingredients from Florida waters and land. As we looked over the menu, the enticing aromas from the kitchen and large, barbacoa grill were a good indicator of the meal we were about to have. Our first pick was the Charbroiled Oysters ($20) which are baracoa-grilled with garlic butter, grated Parmesan and Romano cheeses. Oysters Half Shell are also available, but if you love oysters, definitely try the Charbroiled Oysters. The grill gives them an incredible flavor that you don’t find in most restaurants.
The entrees on the menu are divided into options from the Water or Land. Seafood dishes include Grouda Grouper, Florida Pompano “Pallardy,” Blackened Redfish, Mahi-Mahi “Mr. Henry,” and Seafood Risotto. Land items include Fire-Roasted Chicken, Crackling Pork Shank, Barry’s Tomahawk Pork Chop, Water Works Meatloaf, Short Rib and more. Though we didn’t order any appetizers other than the oysters, options include Barbacoa Shrimp, Calamari and Gator Tail. There are also salads and the unique sounding Native Chili. It’s made with alligator, wild boar, venison, duck, ground chuck, cranberry beans and chili spices. While everything sounded delicious, we ordered the Seafood Risotto ($38) and Mahi-Mahi “Mr. Henry” ($30).
Not long after we enjoyed the oysters, our friendly server brought our entrees. The Seafood Risotto had pan-seared shrimp and sea scallops, butter-poached lobster claw, crawfish tail meat, saffron risotto, charred corn cream sauce and a seasonal vegetable. Not only was the presentation impressive, but it tasted just as good. Thanks to Top Chef head judge Tom Colicchio, fans of the culinary competition reality TV show know that risotto isn’t easy to cook properly; however, this was done to perfection. There was a generous amount of seafood and it all paired well together for an incredible seafood dish. The Mahi-Mahi “Mr. Henry” was a blackened fresh Gulf of Mexico fillet with green papaya slaw, charred corn salsa and garlic spinach. The fish was tender, nicely cooked and had a delicious flavor.
For dessert, choices included Key West Key Lime Stack, Flourless Chocolate Torte and Candied Bacon Maple Ice Cream. Ulele also offers several flavors of Gustavo’s Ice Cream, which is made onsite using only the freshest ingredients. Based on our server’s suggestion, we opted for the Pineapple Upside-Down Bread Pudding ($11). It was served with house-made toasted coconut ice cream and dark rum sauce. It was gooey and decadent and a perfect way to end our meal.
It’s not surprising that Ulele was named one of the most beloved restaurants based on national diner reviews. From the picturesque location along the Riverwalk just north of downtown Tampa, to the outstanding food and service, Ulele is a true gem among the Tampa dining scene.
Ulele: 5 Stars
Location: 1810 N Highland Ave., Tampa, FL 33602
Hours: Sun.-Thu., 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. & Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.