8 seat kaiseki in Tampa with product imported from Japan

I'm always happy to return to this amazing restaurant. Chef Eric Fralick delivers truly stunning high end Japanese cuisine. Though the details will remain private, I do want to mention that Chef Eric was very kind to me and did a favor that went well beyond what is owed to any restaurant guest. Thank you Chef.

Koya earned its first Michelin star last year and this meal seemed to indicate they want a second. With ingredients of the very best quality flown in from Japan daily and innovative and delicious flavors and sauces, they are well on their way, in my opinion.

Also noteworthy is the length of the meal. Previous visits (during the COVID era) seemed to be just short. For the money, there needed to be another course. You can read the details in a previous review of my discussion with Chef about it.

Today's meal did not feel that way. Full value was felt. Sure, they reuse a number of ingredients to stretch their food costs amongst more plates, but I appreciate the effort and certainly left feeling more sated than in previous visits.

I do need to call out the crab cannoloni with vinegar powder. This dish was truly spectacular. From the flavor profiles, to the textures, visual composition, creativity with..vinegar powder! This was a 3 Michelin star dish without question and far and away the best composed dish I've had here. It shows the continuous push that they are giving to their food. "I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about food. It's all I think about...", Chef said.

It's been an honor to come here essentially once each year since they opened. It allows me to see their growth and forward movement. Last visit, he had two new, young chefs out front - clearly working to bring up those who can run the business without him. (He is opening his 3rd restaurant later this year.)

A year ago, these chefs were green and awkward (in terms of guest engagement). This year, they were far more polished and formal, connecting naturally to those seated in front of them. Such terrific growth to observe in a small restaurant like this.

Service did have a few issues, however. Please understand that these are "If you're going for 2 Michelin stars..." critiques. 

As the ngiri courses were being prepped, the large bowl of rice stood in the way of me and a few other guests, rendering us unable to see the fish nor even the process of how each piece was made. By putting the rice bowl on the other side, it would have welcomed us (visually) in to the process, which is a big part of any high end sushi experience.

The only service person is the sommelier. She is lovely but stretched thing with handling wines AND the various service needs. For example, I walked in with a coat and she was working with other guests. So there was no greeting, no indication of where to sit and I didn't know if there was a coat room, a coat rack or if I should just hang it on the back of my chair. They would be well served with a dedicated service person behind the bar taking care of water, clearing, welcomes, etc. - as they had at Sushi Noz and Soseki.

Lastly, the tea service was a problem. The tea itself (Hojicha) was absolute delicious! And seemed to be properly made. But it was served in a pot and poured in to a very large cup. The effect is that the tea cooled rapidly and your final sips from the cup were cold. Pour more hot tea in half way through, the hot tea was tempered by the lukewarm tea that was already in there.

There was no way to keep it hot.

This is why proper tea service is poured into very small cups. It allows the tea to remain hot in the pot and each small glass to be piping hot. At one point, I asked the sommelier to not refill my cup so it could remain in the pot. She obliged, but my 2nd pot of tea remained mostly unenjoyed because it was so cool by the time I wanted to have a sip.

For a 1 star restaurant, these are minor issues. Small service adjustments that could go a long way towards the guest experience. For a 2 star restaurant, these are issues that need to be resolved.

A next visit which is sure to happen. The consistency and growth of this restaurant is definitely something I am excited to experience moving forward. Sure - let's watch where they go and how they continue to evolve. But also - let's go have an absolutely stellar and incredible meal in the heart of Tampa.

Koya is a credit to this city. There's a reason it sells out so quickly. (Another party this evening talked about how it took them many months to get a reservation.) Sure - there are only 8 seats each night. But the realization that a meal of this quality is not easily found in large cities like New York, much less a small, emerging culinary city like Tampa...you have to think the word is getting out.

Koya deserves it. It is sure to continue to be one of the best restaurants in Tampa for a very, very long time.

I was excited to revisit Koya, which has received a Michelin star since my last visits. (I have no idea why they didn't earn one out of the gate.) The experience was much the format and quality. Previously, it was just the chef/owner Eric Fralick and his wife. This time, there was a hostess/server (who was outstanding) and two young chefs at the helm, overseen by Chef Fralick. The staff came from their sister restaurant Noble Rice and did that place proud. They were all excellent and very well trained. Chef's 3rd restaurant opens later this year, so I can understand why he is working to be able to have this place run without him.

This experience was much the same as the previous one. Super high end cooking, phenomenal product. It still feels a little "short" given the price point. (See my previous review for the discussion I had with Chef about it back then.) Some of it makes me wonder. For example, we received one dessert - a single bite. (The preceding scallop dish was a "bridge"...more on that below.) It brought the meal to an abrupt end. Would a sorbet or similar offering break the budget too much?

Or the wagyu...which was extraordinary! But 2 small pieces feels a bit chintzy. A 3rd would have made the plate feel more full and generous. Given the size of the pieces, I would presume the budget would allow that small shift...? The wagyu dish on my last visit had 3.

A few of the dishes definitely stood out. I'll remember that scallop dish for a quite some time. Using it as a bridge to dessert (cooked in vanilla, served with a white chocolate buerre blanc) was masterful and imaginative. And SO delicious! Its texture was affected by being sous vide - I would have preferred only a pan sear. But a truly special and remarkably delicious dish.

The tiger prawn, served with a lot of heat and offsetting sweet was also imaginative and delicious. The kiniki was so beautifully cooked and balanced with a thai coconut milk sauce and punchy green apples - it's clear he knows his flavors and how to compose a truly elevated dish.

To me, the meal took a small step back as I compare it to my previous visits. The terrific dishes were terrific, but I was missing a few that were groan- or giggle-worthy. Most of the dishes invoked admiration and appreciation more than guttural attraction. The wine list is excellent and service is familial and friendly. Clearly intended to be a "dinner party" with the 8 guests around the bar for the single seating each night.

When I sat down, Chef graciously welcomed me back and upon leaving, asked if he would see me again next year. (My visits have been roughly a year apart.) That he researches his guests and makes an effort to knowing and understanding each one says so much about him and his vision. He assure that you feel special and welcome. 

Now that I live in Tampa, it probably won't take me a year to return. This is really good stuff. He still sells out nearly instantaneously. (The couple next to me marveled that it was my 3rd visit. "Who do you know?? It took us forever to get a seat here!") Koya is sure to live in the upper realms of Tampa eateries for years to come. But competition is definitely growing with the Michelin guide's arrival. Combine that with the addition of his 3rd restaurant later this year (albeit in the same building as Koya), it will be interesting to see if he can maintain such a high vision and standard as he stretches himself into more restaurants.

He is insanely likable. And I sure hope he succeeds.

There is a reason this place sells out its 8 seats per night in just 15 minutes. They have sold out every night since they opened.

This chef is truly special. "An artist", as the gentleman next to me described. His imagination is topped only by his execution. He clearly loves playing with food combinations, and doing so at the very highest level.

Sourcing is top notch. Each dish loudly declares the clean excellence of its foundational ingredients. I asked whether COVID had affected his ability to source. "Not really. Our ingredients don't come on ships. But the prices shot through the roof." This forced his hand. Does he raise his own pricing, or provide slightly less?

Clearly the latter. The meal did feel slightly short for the $275 price tag. 7 courses tonight compared to 10 last time. I didn't leave hungry but definitely was not full. 

However, the groans and "My God"s and "Holy shit"s that enveloped the room with each course  were clear indications that no one felt short-changed. The presentation of each ingredient was improved from my previous visit. Tonight's scallop/gruyere dish was better than the scallop and beets from before. The uni/prawn dish was better than uni chawanmushi and separate prawn dish from my first visit.

How I love to see chefs progress and improve!

The 2nd dish tonight was a true marvel. (I always feel so uppity when I use that word.) Prawn and uni with an avocado/asian-pear slaw, caviar and a mango gelee. The layers of texture, incredibly deep yet balanced flavors and precision knife skills to create this bite are all at their highest level. A chef that knows his ingredients and his craft.

Scallops with gruyere cheese? Combining fish and cheese is a key no-no of the culinary universe. "A purposeful thumbing of your nose at the fish/cheese rule?" I asked the chef. With a wide, wry and very proud smile, he replied "Absolutely." Fun! And boy did it work. 

If there were improvements to be made, it was the back-to-back use of fried potatoes (under the eel and accompanying the wagyu) and the undercooked (read: not fully rendered) A5. The chimichurri was somehow the star of that dish - he should bottle that. 

The dessert doughnut was quite delicious, but needed more contrast from the duck prosciutto. I really wish he had lightly fried the prosciutto to add texture and bring out its saltiness. But fois gras pear jam is my new favorite food. He should bottle that too!

Michelin stars are surely headed his way when the Tampa guide drops this fall. My guess is a solid 2 stars, which will make this an even more difficult reservation to land. For good reason.

I will be a regular once I live here in Tampa permanently. I can't wait to enjoy more of this chef's work.

 

A $250 tasting menu in Tampa? I was prepared to be hoodwinked. The next most expensive meal in the area costs about half of that. There was no way this would be at that level...right?

Wrong.

8 seats. 1 seating per night. This meal was world class, including some of the most inventive and well-executed bites I've had in any restaurant anywhere.

The opening salvo was 3 pieces of tuna, from the same fish, immediately demonstrating the quality of the ingredients, incredible knife work, and a deep knowledge of how to properly prepare and serve them.

The sushi bite is one of the best bites of food I have ever had. My friend Donna was midsentence when I grabbed her arm as if to say "Stop talking. I no longer have room to do anything but enjoy this bite." When I apologized right after, the guest next to me said "Nope. I did the exact same thing."

The Chef was friendly, helpful, informative and made sure you had everything you needed to understand the dishes. He delighted in explaining the details of how and where he sourced these ingredients.

So very glad to have this gem in my (future) hometown. I will return quite regularly when I can find a seat.

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