By Cynthia McFarland • Photos By John Jernigan
Tomas Vallejo likes to play with food. Whether it’s an appetizer, entrée, or dessert, the Ocala-raised chef enjoys nothing better than combining interesting flavors and textures to create a unique and memorable dish.
If Tomas had ended up doing anything but owning a restaurant and serving as executive chef, his family and friends would have shaken their heads in bewilderment. As it is, he’s doing precisely what he has always dreamed of doing. The Copper Pot, which he owns in partnership with Myron Manthe and his parents, Tommy and Judy Vallejo, is the result of years of experimenting and creating in his favorite medium — food.
Growing up in a restaurant-centered family (his father managed the Coach and Paddock supper club in Ocala until the late 1980s), it’s no surprise that Tomas channeled his energies in a similar direction. A Florida native, he was raised in Ocala and graduated from Vanguard High School in 1981. At age 18, immediately after graduation, he opened his first restaurant in Live Oak, serving Southern-style food.
Through the following 24 years, Tomas worked at 52 different restaurants in several different states, continually learning and fine-tuning his craft along the way. When his parents asked if he’d be interested in returning to Ocala to go into partnership on a fine dining type restaurant, he took them up on the offer — The Copper Pot opened in July 2004.
Fusion cuisine is the focus at The Copper Pot, highlighting different culinary techniques and a mixture of regional flavors fused together in delicious and sometimes surprising combinations. Scan the menu and you’ll find French, Asian, Italian, Southwestern, Southern, and Caribbean influences, among others. Ambitious? Yes, but it works because Tomas, who writes all the recipes himself, is tireless when it comes to inventing new ways to bring fabulous flavors together.
The Copper Pot exudes a sleek, cosmopolitan feel, despite its unpretentious location. Rich, vibrant colors drench the walls and a large wooden wine case dominates one side of the “living room,” a comfortable area complete with couches where guests can wait for a table or enjoy after-dinner drinks. The overall atmosphere is urban and edgy, but warm and inviting. In one corner, a cozy VIP room offers a secluded spot for special dining events.
The Copper Pot rolled out its new menu this fall, unveiling an incredibly varied array of choices including 35 appetizers, 60 entrees, and 20 desserts.
“I love educating people about trying new flavors,” says Tomas, who has cooked for John Travolta, among other local celebrities. “I want to cook things that people can’t make at home.”
As my dining companion and I settled in for a leisurely dinner, I quickly realized Tomas was right. I wouldn’t dare make most of the dishes at home simply because the expansive list of ingredients necessary and the time required would prove exhausting. Consider the soups. Each is made with real stock, never broth base, and this means hours of simmering to extract every bit of flavor from the bones. Linda Rivera, chef de cuisine and saucier, comes in at 5 every morning to prepare all of the made-from-scratch soups, sauces, and dressings. I’m tired just thinking about it!
A pleasant word of warning: don’t come to dinner in a big hurry. Part of the fun is perusing the extensive menu and deciding what to order. The tapas (appetizers) menu is incredibly varied and cleverly broken down by price, ranging from $5 to $9. Designed for sharing, the menu offers an ideal solution to those who want to try several different dishes without ordering multiple entrees.
There are “nibbling” selections, such as the Tuscan White Bean Hummus with Roasted Red Pepper Swirl, served with warm pita bread, and the Baked French Brie on a rustic cedar plank, served with seedless grapes and savory guava sauce. You’ll find seafood options by the score, such as Grilled Poblano Whiskey Shrimp with Chipotle Cheddar Arapas (delicately fried cornmeal cakes), Sautéed Hawaiian Blue Prawns with a Vanilla and Saffron Sauce, and our favorite, the Blue Lump Crab and Spinach Blossom, a lightly fried bundle of crab and spinach, perfectly seasoned with lobster and Poblano sauce. There are also a number of crab, salmon, and oyster selections, along with several tuna choices.
Heartier tapas options abound as well. We raved over the Smoked Chicken Enchiladas with fresh green chilies sauce, and agreed our husbands would prefer the thinly sliced Elk Carpaccio, presented with roasted garlic, shaved parmesan, and extra virgin olive oil. The Lobster Enchiladas with fresh salsa were rich and spicy, mingling the best of the Southwest and the sea. We decided the tender Fried Plantains with honey-lime aioli and Manchego cheese were almost dessert-like.
For the patron who can’t make up their mind, The Copper Pot Trilogy of Soup is a great idea. The platter contains three small dishes of the house soups, including Lobster Bisque, French Onion, and Chicken with Wild Rice. You can literally taste the time that goes into making each one.
Throughout the meal, Jennifer, our server who has been with the restaurant since it opened, was quick to bring us different wines. Now that “flights” of wine are available, you can sample a variety of wines with each dinner course.
“For the cost of one glass of wine, you get three two-ounce glasses and this allows you to taste more wines,” says Tomas. The cost of each flight is averaged by the glass.
As Jennifer poured, she noted the vintage and year of the wines, and described the flavors we would experience. The concept is an excellent way to enlighten patrons about wine and allow them to discover new favorites without over-indulging.
The immense variety found in the tapas menu increases with the entrée choices. Let me say up front that we could easily have made the tapas items our entire dinner. In fact, Tomas admits that option is one of the reasons he created so many appetizers. (That and the fact that he gets bored very easily!)
Jennifer explained that each entrée comes with your choice of house or Caesar salad, a starch, and a vegetable. We tried the Baby Spinach Salad with warm applewood smoked bacon dressing, but were also intrigued by the Warm Brie Cheese Pockets and Toasted Walnut Salad.
Whether you’re craving beef, seafood, pork, poultry, or pasta, you’ll find it on the menu in an orgy of inventive flavor combinations. From Pecan Crusted Tilapia and Oven Roasted Black Grouper to Thai Spiced Orecchiette Duck and Pumpkin Ravioli, the menu provides plenty to ponder. Steak-lover choices include strip, ranch steak, tournedos, filet, and Chateaubriand for Two. We enjoyed the juicy and succulent filet. Additional sauce options are available, but this cut of beef needs no dressing up.
The gorgonzola mashed potatoes were flat-out fabulous. I made my own brand of fusion by mixing them with sweet caramelized onions and decided a bowl of this alone would have made me a happy camper.
Many patrons confess to wanting something sweet at meal’s end, but stop short at oversized, pricy desserts. Tomas kept this in mind when fashioning his new dessert menu by featuring miniature desserts priced at only $2 each. If you have just enough room for a few bites, you’re in luck. Better yet, order several for the table and share a variety of tastes!
There is something for every palate among the desserts, from Bourbon Pecan Tart or Baklava to Caramel Crème Brulee or Hot Apple Crisp. Cool, creamy options include the sensational Lemon Parfait, Tiramisu, and the Key Lime Pie. You’re certain to enjoy the elegance of these tiny, but flavor-intense desserts.
If you really want to end the evening properly, order a cappuccino, espresso, latte, or flavored coffee with dessert. We felt truly decadent sipping our chocolate raspberry lattes.
The Copper Pot’s eagerly-awaited Martini Lounge opened in November. The lounge is accessible from the restaurant or through a separate outside entrance. Warm and sensual, the lounge’s onyx bar top and imported rice paper wall coverings invite relaxation and intimate conversation. Flights of martinis are available, perfect for when you want to try more than one of the 52 different flavors, but don’t want to indulge in multiple full-size drinks.
Tomas has a slew of ambitious goals for the future. Plans call for the opening of five more Copper Pot restaurants over the next five years, located in Tampa, Jacksonville, Gainesville, The Villages, and in the new Ocala mall to be built at Heathbrook. Within the next year or so, the partners also intend to build a gourmet grocery, a supper club, and a banquet hall. If this fusion of food-oriented enterprises is as good as The Copper Pot’s tantalizing cuisine, it’s certain to be a success!
The Copper Pot
2019-102 E. Silver Springs Blvd.
(Next to The Rag Shop)
Open 10am to 10pm, Monday-Saturday
Ask about Guest Chef Dinners on the last Sunday of every month, featuring a 6-course meal, 6 courses of wine, and limo service. Check out the Thursday wine tastings and monthly cooking classes.
Open 10am-1am Monday-Saturday
By Cynthia McFarland • Photos By John Jernigan