Friday, September 9, 2011

Red Mesa on Fourth: One Fine Table

Finally finished all my NYC posts and I am back on Tampa turf.  Shortly after my trip, Sister Foodie came to town.  Well, you know we've had some disappointing meals in the ol' Bay area.  On a mission to break this losing streak, I took her across the Howard Frankland to Red Mesa in St. Pete. 

I had never been to this Fourth Street Mexican eatery but had heard good things.  A little background check revealed this restaurant has two locations.  Although the newer downtown St. Pete cantina looks more colorful, with its lively outdoor courtyard and spiffy Latin-influenced interior, I heard the food is solid at the original.  It was.

We ordered a couple of Dos Equis and asked the waitress if the calamari was fresh.  After the Irish calamari calamity in New York, I wasn't taking any chances on freezer squid.  She said it wasn't frozen, so we ventured in that direction. 



Calamari Frito

Coated in a light, tasty batter, the Calamari Frito was tender and tasted fresh.  The two dipping sauces that came with it -- one a habanero and the other a chipotle chili aioli --  provided a welcome Mexican spin and a break from the usual squirt of lemon. The habanero mixture was a sinus-draining concoction that Sister F. and I loved.  The smokey aioli was good, too.

For the lunch mains, Sister selected a burrito and I stuck with the seafood theme with Shrimp Salteado.  This Mexican plate was a mouthwatering preparation of sauteed shrimp with rajas (a saute of chiles and onions), Spanish chorizo, tomatoes, mushrooms and potatoes, all cooked with a splash of sherry and finished with pasilla chile sauce.  Thanks to the diverse population living in the Tampa area, I count my lucky stars for having the good fortune to discover this type of authentic Mexican cuisine.  I doubt whether I'll ever be able to stomach Tex-Mex again.  Chock-full of spicy sausage flavor, mild chile heat, a fresh collaboration of vegetables and succulent shrimp, this dish was fantastic.  The saute was accompanied by a satisfying helping of black beans and rice.

As she devoured an enormous, flavor-packed burrito (also plated with black beans and rice), Sister Foodie forgot our poor history of Bay-area dining.  Mission accomplished.

Red Mesa would be a welcome addition to any neighborhood; I wish it would cross the bay to mine.  This location features a comfortable, casual atmosphere.  Two connected dining rooms offer booth or table seating and a small bar is available, too.  The prices are totally affordable and the weighty lunch and dinner menus would keep me coming back for eons.  Due to my New Tampa location, I won't be visiting as often as I'd like, but this restaurant's dizzying selection of soups, salads, appetizers, Mexican plates, burritos, enchiladas, tacos, wraps, sandwiches and house specialties will definitely lure me across the HF more often.  I can't wait to try the dinner menu, which is equally tempting and more refined than burritos and enchiladas. 

Verdict:  Ole! 

http://www.redmesarestaurant.com/welcome.html



Red Mesa Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Big Apple Bites: Leftovers

Tir Na Nog

So Frommer's said Tir Na Nog was among the best Irish pubs in New York City.  Just so happened this Midtown watering hole was a few blocks from our hotel, so off we went to hoist a few pints and grab some grub.

The place certainly captures the friendly feel of a well-worn European pub but on a much grander scale.  There's a bar, of course, but there are also three distinct dining rooms decorated with vintage furniture and other antiquated treasures that the owners extracted from Irish churches and castles and then shipped to New York.  Warmed by rich woods and earthy colors, the dimly lit rooms are teeming with Celtic charm. 

We were seated in the Cathedral room, named for the long pew of regal seats abutting the wall.  This room views the bar, which is where I actually longed to be perched due to the extremely uncomfortable church seating.  No slouching allowed in church!  My back was forced into a stick-straight position, propped against a hard, albeit beautifully carved, wooden chair back that was surely perfect for a bishop doing penance. The motto here should be Drink Up and Sin No More!  After a long day of travel and schlepping around the city, I wanted comfort -- and beer. 

Oh happy day, that beer was good!  We decided to get some snacks to go with them and our friendly Irish server obliged with a bar menu.  I often ask servers if there's a standout menu item, which I did here, and was told that many patrons enjoy the sausage rolls.  We shared an order of those and a plate of calamari. 

Calamari is a downfall of mine and I obviously was delirious when I ordered it at an Irish pub.  It was supposedly lightly dusted in panko and fried.  Come on, the description should have read:  Straight out of a freezer bag, compliments of our restaurant's generic-food supplier.  Every ringlet was exactly the same size, which was the width and circumference of a ring you'd put on your finger.  That was some emaciated squid!  And absolutely no spidery pieces, which are my favorite parts, were anywhere on the plate. This dish earns the dubious distinction of the worst calamari I have ever ordered.  (That award once belonged to a Peachtree City, Ga., Carrabba's and a rubbery batch that could have been used to make tires.)

The sausage rolls were cocktail weinies, pure and simple, but in sausage form, not the hot dog variety.  Sure, they were good.  Who doesn't like a juicy, salty pork-fat product dipped into mustard to enhance their beer-drinking experience?  I know I do, but not enough to trust the dinner menu.

Although this Old-Worldy establishment is lovely to behold and an interesting place to throw back a Guinness or three, the bar food (and those seats) sent us packing on a journey to find another restaurant for dinner. 

http://www.tirnanognyc.com/


Tir Na Nog on Urbanspoon



Heartland Brewery

That's how we ended up at Heartland Brewery near Times Square.  We were in beer-drinking mode now, and after wandering aimlessly looking for a non-touristy place to eat, we landed in a booth at just such a place:  a touristy, chain-reeking microbrewery.  More good beer, mediocre food.  One review I read after eating there said it is a step above T.G.I. Friday's and that's exactly how I would describe it, which is why I stuck with a burger and fries.  They were fine but forgettable.  That pretty much sums it up. 

This is a reasonable spot to grab a burger and a decent beer, but don't expect anything more than chain fare.  You get what you pay for.  With six locations throughout the city, this American pub appears popular with the 20-something set. 

This day's restaurant outings -- the museum, the bar and the brew chain -- prompted a speedy purchase the following day of Zagat's New York City Restaurants 2011.  No more stumbling into random places for me.  By the way, Petrie Court Cafe at the museum and Tir Na Nog didn't make the book, and Heartland Brewery got a 14 for food, which lands them in the "fair to good" range.  As a point of reference, Zagat's top score is 30.


http://www.heartlandbrewery.com/Times_Square.php


Heartland Brewery on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Big Apple Bites: Le Barricou, Brooklyn

Never order "the special." 

How many times have I heard Hubmeister utter that sage advice?  Several years and culinary letdowns later, I finally listened to him.  

Commonly known to people who have worked in restaurants, "the special" evolves from leftover or surplus ingredients the chef doesn't want to pitch, or it's a creative experiment that's being tested and tweaked before landing on the main menu.  When you take the plunge into "the special" pool, you might sink or you might swim.  And you might ask yourself, "Do I feel lucky tonight?" 

Unfortunately for Daughtress, she drowned in disappointment on our dinner visit to Le Barricou in Brooklyn. 

Daughtress currently lives in Brooklyn and wanted to give us a tour of the local scene in Williamsburg, so we ventured out of Manhattan.  Taking out my trusty Zagat Guide to New York City Restaurants, I flipped to Brooklyn and chose this French spot, which earned "very good to excellent" scores for food and decor, and also seemed reasonably priced.

Lest you be put off by my bold introduction, allow me to interject that I really liked this place.  The ambiance was charming and intimate, offering a romantic setting for couples -- and we saw lots of them.  A few candlelit tables were located outside the entrance, but because of the heat, everyone chose to dine indoors. Occupying a long, narrow space in a row of aging urban storefronts on Grand St., this cozy French bistro features a front room with a pretty dark-wood bar on one side and a smattering of tables on the other, and an adjacent dining area that stretches toward the back of the building. 

Ours was not the best table because we were sandwiched in a corner between the bar and the front window, and the wait staff had trouble serving us.  We ordered a bottle of Macon-Lugny white Burgundy, and Hubmeister was charged with putting it on ice and refilling glasses because the servers couldn't get to the bucket.  It was also uncomfortably warm inside, but I'll cut them some slack because the city was experiencing temperatures that I imagine might be found in Hell.

The oppressive heat was probably what drove Daughtress to select not one, but two specials:  a cold Cucumber Soup and a salad of Grilled Watermelon on Mixed Greens.  The soup was passable but a bowl of it was overkill, and the salad was a disaster.  The taste was off balance and she barely touched it.  The watermelon was devoid of sweetness, so any type of sweet and salty flavor contrast was missing.  The fruit possessed an unpleasant char and the dressing contained a mysterious ingredient that everyone at the table disliked.  It was a choppy night in the Sea of Specials, as Daughtress tried to stay afloat by sharing her parents' entrees. 

Hubmeister ordered a tasty and creamy Vegetable Risotto that he enjoyed, but I confess that I am the only family member who enthusiastically recommends trying this place.  I apparently made the best choice:  Coq au Vin.  Chicken falling off the bone and luxuriating in a delectable red-wine sauce was served over a heaping serving of some of the best mashed potatoes I have had anywhere.  The whole dish tasted as if it were lovingly prepared by a French grandmere.  This was comfort food defined, a perfect stew to order when there's a chill in the air. 

Pre-entree, both Hubs and I ordered house salads of mesclun dressed with Dijon vinaigrette, and they were fresh, bright and clean-the-plate good. We also reached a few times for the bread basket, which consisted of lovely baguette slices.

I would return to Le Barricou, but I am a sucker for rich, slowly cooked French food and an authentic Parisian bistro atmosphere.  Hubs could take or leave this place, but, really, how many vegetable risotto entrees are going to knock your socks off?

Will Daughtress give Le Barricou another try?  Probably not. 

Will she order off the standard menu from now on?  Do kids ever listen to their parents? 

Note:  No charge cards accepted but ATM on site.

Verdict:  Inviting neighborhood cafe.  Stick to the tried and true dishes.


http://lebarricouny.com/menus/menu_011909.pdf



Le Barricou on Urbanspoon









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Monday, August 8, 2011

The Big Apple Bites: Adrienne's Pizzabar

If only a walk down Wall Street would bring some luck.  With so many uncertainties these days, there is one thing I know for sure:  If I were a NY trader right now (or probably any time, for that matter), I'd be drowning my sorrows on nearby Stone Street in the plethora of pubs and eateries flanking it.



Restaurants line the aptly named Stone Street.



If it weren't for the heat wave, dining al fresco may have won us over.

At the top of my list of hangouts would be Adrienne's Pizzabar. 




In a city that could be paved with pizza, you take note when you see this sign posted in a restaurant's window:




Named "Favorite Place to Eat Pizza"  by The New York Times?   Or how about these accolades:



Zagat rarely lets me down.

After enjoying the pizza at Eataly, I felt compelled to try it. 





Not your mama's pizza joint.

Like Eataly, this modern-looking establishment features Neapolitan pizza.  Sitting at the bar watching soccer on TV, and placing our order with the Italian bartender, we fell happily into the European vibe.  Service was somewhat aloof and there was a bit of confusion with Daughtress' order, but it was quickly remedied. 

What did I care?  My attention was focused on one thing and one thing only:


My 10-inch round of love.


Pizza Napoletana.  It tasted as good as it looks. 

The tomatoes were fresh and bright, the crust charred and crispy yet a tad chewy, and the garlic shavings and basil provided just enough seasoning.  It was an OMG moment.  Sorry Batali and Bastianich, this pizza reigns supreme.  I also saw several people consuming a thin-crust square pizza that looked favoloso


http://www.adriennespizzabar.com/

Adrienne's Pizza Bar on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Big Apple Bites: Chelsea Market

After writing that last post about crummy museum food, I thought I'd tell you about foodster heaven over at Chelsea Market.

Chelsea Market is colorful, and quite handy if you are searching for green cactus pears. 

I loved this place.  First of all, this section of Chelsea proved one of my favorite areas of the city. With its red-brick buildings and neighborhood charm, it's a pleasant spot to wander.  It's also a perfect fit for a marketplace teeming with bakeries, restaurants owned by Iron Chefs (Morimoto), kitchen shops, produce markets, fresh seafood stores, delis, creperies, coffee bars, spice and nut vendors, and an assortment of other interesting food and merchandise targeted at foodoids.  Last but not least, it is home to Food Network, which is why you may have seen some of the purveyors in the market featured on Food Network programs. 

A welcome respite from the blazing inferno outside, Chelsea Market is a cool indoor food cave housed in a restored biscuit factory.  What?  No wonder I like it.


With several locations throughout the city, Amy's is a wise place to spend your bread.

A winding brick promenade led me straight to Amy's Bread, where I sampled a savory black-olive twist and the biggest sticky bun you've ever seen.  Good?  Are you  kidding?  The yeasty specimen had to be 4 inches tall and oozed with yummy, buttery caramelization.  I detected an ingredient not usually present in sticky buns, possibly maple syrup or molasses.


Bakery voyeurism.  Huge panes of glass invite nosy foodies to peek.


http://www.amysbread.com/menu.htm

Amy's Bread in Chelsea Market on Urbanspoon


Next up:  Sarabeth's Kitchen.   Hubmeister and Daughtress sampled the pain du matin (translation:  bread of the morning) and a cheese-filled pastry. 

Folks enjoying the fruits of Sarabeth's Kitchen.



Meet the lovely Daughtress as she peruses the goods at Sarabeth's.

Sounds of "mmmm" resonated throughout the quaint little shop as the Food and Loathing family made their presence known.  Sarabeth's had several people sitting around drinking coffee and noshing on sweets in its pleasant little environment, but I understand it tends to pack 'em in.  I appreciated the calm.


http://www.sarabeth.com/restaurants.asp


Sarabeth's Bakery on Urbanspoon

A strong gravitational pull was drawing Hubs to Dickson's Farmstand Meats, a place boasting homemade hot dogs, but clearer heads prevailed and the estrogen-fueled members of the family yanked him away.  If Son of Hubmeister had been with us this trip, I know I would be reporting about those dogs right now.

Before I forget, I must mention the fresh -- as in still breathing on the crushed ice -- softshell crabs at the Lobster Place Seafood Market.  Boy, did they look good!

We arrived at Chelsea Market mid-morning, which was ideal, because the lunch crowd was piling in when we left for the next stop on the food train, Eataly.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Big Apple Bites: Petrie Court Cafe

How in the world did we end up hungry at a museum? It's an amateur mistake. With a gazillion restaurants in New York City, the last on my wish list would be one located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  But there we were, Hubmeister the Museum Freak and myself, hungry at 2 p.m. in a phenomenal museum, the fantastic bagels we savored that morning having faded into a happy memory.

As bad luck would have it, the Zagat-rated museum restaurant with the great view of the city, the Roof Garden Cafe, was closed due to the over-100-degree temperature, which left us with the choice of the cafeteria or the Petrie Court Cafe.  We picked the latter.



Floor-to-ceiling windows (right) provide a clear view of Central Park.

Petrie Court reminded me of an enormous, upscale hotel ballroom.  The clanking of dishes, waiters rushing about.  It's certainly nothing to write home about in the looks department, unless you are partial to monochromatic color schemes.  It is bright and airy, thanks to the great wall of windows overlooking Central Park.  Other than that, meh.  No warmth.  Lots of white and very museum-y.  Some people might like it, but it's not my thing, and we didn't have the benefit of window seating.

Capitalizing on its captive and hungry audience, this place zaps its clientele's wallets for the meals.  A Croque Monsieur is around $18.  Looked good.  I saw a lot of them go by.  But is a ham and cheese sandwich worth $18?  Yeah, I know.  It's New York.  Whatever. 

Immersed in this haughty atmosphere, I adopted the "When in Rome" mindset and ordered Traditional High Tea ($24).  

At High Tea, I had high hopes for the scones (top).  Read on.

The cinnamon spice tea was very nice; the little sandwiches - egg salad, a mini-croque monsieur (missing from photo because I grabbed that first), cucumber, and chicken salad (I think, I can't remember) - were fine bites, as were the dessert petits fours and raspberry tartlet.  The poppy seed cake stood out in flavor and texture.  I could have consumed a very large piece.

So much for the positive.  The rolls before the meal were terrible.  I had never seen people salt their bread   until this day, when I witnessed two patrons nearby take the salt shaker and do just that.  I was amazed when I saw the first person do it and astounded by the second.  This city is loaded with some of the best bakeries on the planet, so Petrie Court has no excuse for serving dry, stale-tasting rolls.  To make matters worse, the butter was served almost frozen, which prompted me to thaw the paper-wrapped pats under my hot tea cup to make it the least bit spreadable.  Yup, reminded me of hotel conference food.

Here's the topper, not only on my list of criticisms but also on my tea presentation:  the scones.  If you read my blog, you know I am a biscuit nut.  I make them.  I eat them.  I am obsessed with them.  Seeing the pretty scones perched atop the tea service at other tables cinched my order for traditional tea.  I was in New York City and I figured these scones had to be good.  These were not scones.  These were an embarrassment.  I can't even describe to you my disappointment, except to tell you that I started laughing as I tried to cut one in half and this is what happened:


To call them hockey pucks would be complimentary.

Hubmeister was still hungry after scarfing his entree salad topped with chicken, so he actually ate the scone fragments that exploded across the table. That should also tell you something about portion size. 

FYI - The bill was $71 (including tax and tip) for the tea service, a salad and a beer.  For that price,  I expect an exceptional lunch.  It was not.  We should have checked out the food trucks outside the museum and grabbed a quick bite on the steps.

Verdict:  Tourist trap.  Never travel without protein bars.


http://www.metmuseum.org/visit/dining/petrie_menu


Petrie Court Cafe and Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Big Apple Bites: Eataly

Where do I begin
To tell the story of how great the food can be,
The sweet love story that is older than the sea,
The simple truth about the weight it put on me...
Where do I start?

Forget the first hello! How about with last weekend's trip to New York City and the 4 pounds I piled on.

Daughtress is interning in Manhattan this summer and Hubmeister and I decided to swoop down on her for a visit. Hubs grew up on Long Island and I had been to NYC on a few occasions, so it wasn't virgin territory. What was new to us was vacationing in triple-digit temperatures. I don't know why I packed any makeup because it melted off my face. Leave it to us to leave an area known for sweltering temps for one that is even hotter. But the food (and seeing the lovely Daughtress, of course) were worth it. Here's a taste of one our dining excursions...

Eataly
I posted about this Mario Batali-backed food emporium last year when it opened. The concept seems to have taken off because this place is a friggin' Italian madhouse.

Picture a grand food court. Noisy atmosphere. Crush of people. It's a scene you would expect to find at noon in most malls in America during the Christmas shopping season. The difference here is that the coffee shop features Lavazza, not Starbucks; the frozen treats are gelato, not ice cream; the baked goods are cannolis, not tollhouse cookies; and the food looks really topnotch, not like greasy mall grub.  

Interspersed with counter-service offerings are several sit-down Italian restaurants, many with bar seating overlooking the cooking areas, and each featuring a specialty such as seafood, pasta, pizza, vegetables, meat, you name it. 

The dining setup is confusing to the uninitiated, due in part to the lack of defined space for each restaurant, creating a free-for-all atmosphere. The absence of enclosed spaces, and no clear directions about where to go or what to do to get a table, produce an air of chaos and confusion. We wandered around and saw what looked like a hostess station at one of the eateries, so we figured we weren't supposed to plop down at any open table. But we did see several other folks committing this faux pas, totally unaware of it until they were asked to remove their keisters from the recycled plastic chairs and put their names in at the appropriate hostess station. Embarrassing. As we dined, people were stumbling haphazardly into the restaurant space, with one brazen lady approaching our table and asking to see my menu. What the heck! Did she think she was in Fort Lauderdale?

After we checked in with a not-so-friendly hostess, whose greeting consisted of "name, how many?", we waited an hour for a table. If you like roaming around with huge crowds of people, you won't mind the fact that there are no waiting areas. By chance, we happened upon a few chairs stacked near a window and tried to remain inconspicuous sitting beside a group of extra highchairs.

While I am "loathing," here's another bugaboo:  The hostess doesn't call your name when a table is ready or give you a buzzer -- she tells you to keep checking in with her. This procedure is totally stupid and a royal pain, especially when the line at the hostess stand is always 15-people deep and pushing your way through the sweat-drenched masses is not on Frommer's list of Top Ten Things to Do in New York City.

Okay, enough about the atmosphere and operational snafus. You know not to expect cushy environs or serenity. The food, however, was worth these annoyances. (Read:  You must be a foodie to put up with this crap.)



We chose the pizza and pasta eatery, where I saw Neapolitan pizzas (go elsewhere if you are looking for Brooklyn-style New York pizzas) landing on tables right and left.




If Mario and partners Lidia and Joe Bastianich are putting their stamps of approval on the pizza recipes, you know they've got to be good. And mine was. Simple and satisfying, the Pizza Margherita had a crispy crust and no trace of sogginess. The few quality ingredients -- tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil and dough -- gelled harmoniously, none overpowering the others. Fresh and simple ingredients topped the thin and delightfully blistered crust. The only herb in this pizza was a sprig of fresh basil, and the pie was absolutely delicious. My minor criticism is evident in the photo below, which screams, "More cheese, please!"



Daughtress and Hubmeister both ordered a pasta dish of ravioli stuffed with meat, then tossed with butter. You could really taste the veal in this dish and appreciate the freshness of the handmade pasta, which came in the shape of petite squares. The waiter indicated menu items that featured homemade pasta because not all dishes do. Portions were adequate -- not overwhelming -- and my dining companions had no trouble downing slices of my pizza while cleaning their own plates.

The only accompaniment with our orders was a basket of fabulous Italian bread and plain olive oil for dipping. Again, simple and flavorful. You don't need to add a ton of seasonings to good olive oil. This Italian oil was fruity and tasty enough to stand on its own.



A limited beer and wine list is available, so Daughtress enjoyed a glass of Italian pinot grigio while Hubs and I swigged refreshing Morettis. Prices ranged between $10 and $20 for our entrees.

After watching Mario for years on TV talking about the peasant food of Italy and the simplicity inherent in Italian cooking, I feel I was able to appreciate his philosophy first-hand.

Here's a tip if you hate crowds but still want to try the food at Eataly:  Buy a takeout panini or some fresh bread, cheese and cured meats, and head across the street to Madison Square Park.  Hubmeister and I enjoyed this nice little park after our meal.  Ahh...serenity now!

http://eatalyny.com/

Eataly on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ft. Lauderdale Grub Notes

Have you noticed my absence? I have a paid writing gig that's taken me away from my Food and Loathing habit. I'll still be posting, though, because I love to throw around my opinion...

Which brings me to a couple nights I recently spent visiting the Oldsters, a.k.a. my parents, in what I like to call Ft. Liquordale. As usual, I was lax in my picture taking. I am trying to stick to the New Year's take-more-photos resolution, but we all know how that goes. So, here is a quick rundown (sans photos - sorry!) of my dining adventures in the old stomping grounds of my youth.

LaSpada's
The sign out front of this Lauderdale-by-the-Sea location indicates the owner's Philly origin, but around these parts, the subs are all homegrown. This itty-bitty place is packed on a daily basis and why is a no-brainer:  The subs are amazing.

Why anyone would order anything other than the Italian Special is beyond me, but the menu offers numerous sandwich options. The fresh-tasting bread is chewy yet soft and the cold cuts are cut to order. No pre-sliced junk here. 

As you wait in the snaking line at the counter, you will actually be treated to a slice-and-toss show the likes of which you have never seen.  One guy slices all the meats and literally throws the stack of cold cuts down the line, aiming for the roll that will house them.  I saw him land a few.  Random misses are caught by the sandwich maker and slapped into place, then topped by cheese of choice, lettuce, tomato, onions, and sweet and hot peppers, and then topped again by more meat. That added meat is a nifty way to hold everything in.  Oil, vinegar and a sprinkle of oregano dress the Italian Special, but choose mayo or mustard if you must. 

Subs come in two sizes:  6 or 12 inches. Yes, I went for the mondo size and made it through about 10 inches worth before caving.  Twelve-inchers are about $10 and worth every cent.  These subs are well-known throughout the city and for good reason. 

A word of advice:  Go a little before noon to beat the crowd and be prepared to yell your order over the hoard of bikini-clad and business-attired sub lovers. Takeout only.

http://www.laspadashoagies.com/


LaSpada's Original Hoagies on Urbanspoon


J. Mark's
With a couple of locations, one in Lauderdale and one in Pompano, J. Mark's is popular with the locals. The Oldsters love it because Mom can sit comfortably in a booth and order gigantic hunks of red meat that she never finishes and ultimately takes home.  Most of the time she hones in on the Fred Flintstone prime rib (which is something you don't see on a lot of menus these days -- this restaurant serves it on specific nights) but this time she went for a variation of the theme:  Prime Rib Sliders. 

Mom reads a million newspapers a day and she was well-aware that J. Mark's had just won the award for best sliders in the city, an accolade proudly proclaimed by the waitress as she nodded approvingly while taking Mom's order.  Dad, whom I believe is responsible for Sister Foodie's and my adventuresome spirits when it comes to dining (thanks to our childhood flashbacks of him devouring steak tartare and raw ground beef), ordered the Ahi Tuna appetizer for his entree.  He recommended the Ahi Tuna at J. Mark's, so that's what I got, but in entree form.

Before I get to the mains, however, I have to tell you about the weird appetizer. They were egg rolls with a Mexican twist, loaded with avocado and cilantro. The menu states the ingredients also include red onions and sun-dried tomatoes, but I don't remember them. This appetizer ($10.99), which Dad ordered for the table to share, was Mom's idea, and if you knew my mother, you'd know she would loathe this starter. She pictured traditional Chinese egg rolls.  As expected, she hated them.  Dad and I ate them but one still remained when the waitress removed the plate. Bad sign. I don't think Mexican flavors pair well with egg roll wrappers.  Perhaps this appetizer explains why you never see Mexican-Chinese fusion cuisine.

The Ahi Tuna ($24.99), on the other hand, was mouth-watering.  Prepared with a perfect sear on the outside and retaining a cool pink center, the tuna had a really flavorful, crispy-peppery crust.

Dad's tuna appetizer ($13.99) was picturesque and offered a lovely portion if you had pigged out earlier in the day on a 12-inch LaSpada's sub. His tuna was accented with wasabi pesto and the plate included pickled cucumbers and a Soba Peanut Noodle Salad.

Mom savored those award-winning sliders ($12.99) and, yes, took most of them home. Smeared with horseradish and basil pesto, they were served au jus and came with sweet potato fries. Those fries looked good to me, but Mom is a traditionalist who likes her fries white, not orange. She will remember to specify her preference for Russets next time.

With its warm, all-wood decor, ice-cold beer, and dependable food and service, J.Mark's is an understandable local favorite.

http://www.jmarksrestaurant.com/menu.html

J. Mark's on Urbanspoon



Aruba Beach Cafe
Talk about a location! I can't believe I had never been to Aruba when the Oldsters live only a couple blocks from it. Aruba is located smack-dab on the beach beside the pier at A1A and Commercial Blvd. We had a clear view out the walls of windows of gently rolling waves and all the lively sights of Lauderdale's beach.  I highly recommend this spot for heterosexual men because the ladies out there sunbathing had spent some serious time at the gym and they were letting everybody know it. Thankfully, I was spared the stomach-churning vision of men in thongs because that would have killed my appetite.

Aruba has three massive bars inside one huge restaurant, and the joint was jumpin' as Mom, Dad, our friend The Professor, and I wove our way around the bars and through the tropical, Caribbean-themed dining rooms to our awesome table.

Mom ordered the Pulled Pork Sandwich and Dad got a Cold Seafood Platter, both specials of the day. The Professor selected the Lobster Salad Sandwich and I got a Blackened Mahi Mahi Sandwich.

Mom and Dad were very happy with their selections. Dad's plate offered crab legs, shrimp, oysters and a variety of dipping sauces. My Mahi Mahi was grilled with Cajun spices, served on a good bun and complemented by a tasty tartar sauce that I used as a dipper for my fries. Although the fries weren't homemade, their crunchy seasoned coating made them irresistible.

The least impressive dish at this oceanfront lunch fest was the Lobster Salad Sandwich. It tasted fishy, the lobster was pulverized, and it was sandwiched between three pieces of supermarket-variety whole wheat bread. The restaurant advertises this as Bimini Bread, which they say they make daily. What? I will pass. The Professor gave me half her lobster sandwich, I gave her half my fish sandwich and it's clear which dish was the winner.

Service was memorable; we had a fun older waitress who constantly brought me fresh cups of coffee. She clearly enjoyed her job, and that enthusiasm is seldom seen in restaurants these days -- at least in my travels.

Sister Foodie says the food at Aruba has always been mediocre. Considering this city's endless dining choices, I don't think I would invest in dinner at Aruba, but lunch and/or drinks are worth it just for the atmosphere. 

Oh, and if you were there during my visit, you would have seen my mother trying to pocket the coffee creamers. Dad pulled her away from the table just in the knick of time. She has lived in South Florida far too long.

http://www.arubabeachcafe.com/home.htm


Aruba Beach Cafe on Urbanspoon

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Weighing in on "Top Chef Masters"

If you've been watching "Top Chef Masters," you recently saw Chef Hugh Acheson voted off.  Actually, it was the second time this season he got the boot.  In a strange turn of events, one of the other chefs dropped out of the competition and Chef Hugh returned to redeem himself from the mortal sin of oversalting.  He was doing pretty well until he committed another whopper in "chefdom" -- a broken mayonnaise.   Although Chef Hugh disputed the criticism, he was given the "pack your knives and go" directive. 

It's too bad the chef never got to make Frogmore Stew or the pumpkin dessert that Son of Hubmeister and I fought over at his Athens, Ga., restaurant.    

I warmed to Acheson as I watched this season unfold and he revealed with each episode more of his quirky personality. His dry sense of humor brought some levity to an otherwise boring group of chefs.  His recent sarcastic exchanges with the scientist on the science education challenge were especially entertaining. 

If you read my post about his award-winning restaurant, Five & Ten (http://foodandloathingintampabay.blogspot.com/2010/10/eating-up-athens-five-ten.html), you'll now understand that placing that Chaines des Rotisseurs membership certificate near a toilet doesn't seem that out of character.  I suspected an off-the-wall sense of humor.  Sorry to see him go. 

Here's a link to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution interview with him about the show:    http://blogs.ajc.com/food-and-more/2011/06/08/catching-up-with-hugh-acheson/  If you read the comments section, you'll see that not everyone shares my humble opinion.  What do you think?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Takin' It to the Ybor Streets: The Bricks

Daughtress was in town last week, which meant a trip to Ybor.  As luck would have it, the Ybor location of Urban Outfitters was closing and having a message-all-your-friends-on-Facebook-worthy sale.  Her timing was impeccable.  I knew she'd approve of The Bricks, so that's where we headed for a post-shopping lunch.

I really like The Bricks and she did, too.  On the road to AARP membership before I can slam on the brakes, I realize that I am not the intended audience for this trendy college-type hangout, but I am inexplicably drawn to its youthful vitality.  The tatted-up, weirdly pierced servers and their crazy hairstyles amuse me while I marvel at the colorful artwork (for sale) gracing the walls.  I don't understand any of it, but I get a kick out of it.  I also appreciate the year-round display of Halloween props and how the staff decorates the vampire and skeleton mascots according to the season.   Humor is good.

That could be why this was my second lunch outing at The Bricks.  Hubs and I tried it a few months back.  He wasn't thrilled, since he's more of a Tampa Bay Brewing Company kind of guy.  That's not to say The Bricks doesn't have beer.  This place morphs into a bar scene at night.  But before the vampires and Ybor City night stalkers come out, it's a coffee shop, breakfast and lunch venue that occupies a red-bricked corner space on the west end of East 7th Avenue. 

Passing on the peanut butter and jelly offerings for which they are known, I opted for the Blackstar Bean Burger ($9) and Asian slaw.  On first bite, the burger was less than exciting, but once I got going on it, it really hit the spot.  The bean patty was topped with smoked mozzarella, spinach, tomato, red onion and ketchup.  The amped-up ketchup imparted a sweet heat and played nicely with the other elements.  The more I ate, the more the heat came through. You've really got to pump up the flavors to electrify vegetarian dishes and The Bricks did an admirable job with this beaner. 

The slaw was particularly memorable -- in a good way.  As I contemplate the dressing ingredients, I venture a guess that a splash of sesame oil is one of the key components, along with vinegar, of course.  The no-mayo-added slaw consisted of shredded carrot and red and green cabbage, all of which were fresh, crunchy and infused with Asian flavors.  It was delicious on both visits. 

Daughtress ordered the Bird and Pig ($9), a combination of roasted chicken, bacon, brie, sliced apple and agave nectar on pressed Hawaiian bread.  You've never had agave nectar on a sandwich before?  Me, neither. The Bricks gets a hat tip for innovation.  There is some smart stuff going on here:   Notice the sweet and salty balance -- in addition to the alternating textures -- of ingredients.  The apples were tart and crunchy, the brie soft and oozing, the bacon salty, the nectar honey-ish and the sweet bread pressed to a warm crisp.  All that adds up to an intriguing and tasty chicken sandwich.  We all know how boring chicken breast can be and this was far from bland.  Hubmeister happened to order this sandwich on his visit and he also sang its praises.  He likes that Hawaiian bread!

From the available sides of potato salad, mixed greens, slaw or tortilla chips, Daughtress also selected the Asian slaw.  It made the cut with her, too.   We also loved the peach ginger iced tea.

We had a couple of servers, and both were efficient, friendly and stylistically unique.  (Insert smile here.)

I am happy that Ybor City is emerging as a restaurant hotbed because this little corner of Spanish-Cuban-Italian history is by far my favorite slice of Tampa.

Maybe the old spirits of Cigar City are inspiring The Bricks' mad scientists.  It's clear they aren't afraid to experiment with their food and I am more than willing to visit their laid-back lab de cuisine.   Where else in Tampa can you find "The Amsterdam, " a sandwich of peanut butter and melted smoked Gouda on a baguette?

Verdict:  Fun choice for the open-minded hipster, oops, I mean diner.

Restaurant Info:
The Bricks
http://www.facebook.com/thebricksybor

The Bricks of Ybor on Urbanspoon

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Pucker Up for Pickles

I just noticed that I've recently had a flurry of activity on my "In a Pickle Over Pickles" post from last year (http://foodandloathingintampabay.blogspot.com/2010/08/pickle-post.html) , and I realized that I never told you how they turned out.  Well, the most critical people I know, and probably the most critical people most of us know -- our own extended families -- said they were awesome!  Yup, they want more.  No one could be more surprised than I.

So, when you see those kirby cukes, buy them up and make a batch of pickles.  I also can't say enough about the pickyourown.org website.  Everybody loves the jams (in addition to the pickles) that I have made off of this website, and believe me, I am no canning expert. 

And, on the subject of canning, heads up on the $1.39/pint blueberries at Aldi this week.  Get them while you can.  You know what I'll be doing this weekend.  

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Sampling Tampa Thai: Sukhothai

During the last four years in Tampa, I have dined at more than a half-dozen Thai restaurants and one Asian restaurant claiming to serve Thai specialties.  More sampling is on the horizon but I am getting antsy.  None can compare to our favorite restaurant in Peachtree City, Ga.:  Thai Spice. 

Now, Peachtree City is just about the most ideal place you could raise a family or retire but it has a few - mind you, just a few - drawbacks, one being a lack of good restaurants (another is the 45-minute commute to Atlanta).   But it did have at least one reliable dining establishment in the always tasteful, sophisticated and satisfying Thai Spice.

Where, oh where is my Thai Spice in Tampa?  I am still searching for something other than an Epcot version of Thailand - restaurants brandishing gilded Buddhas and ornate decor.  Just give me that runny-nose-inducing, wickedly spicy Thai food, serve it carefully plated in a serene, white-tablecloth setting and play contemporary, easy-listening music softly in the background.  Throw in some decent service, an icy cold Singha, and ta-da! 

Easier said than done, I guess.

In the food realm, my demands were met a couple weekends ago when I convinced Hubmeister to give Sukhothai another shot.  It's the first time in Tampa that the spice level has been exactly as I ordered, a tongue-tingling medium to hot.  Judging a person's tolerance or craving for heat is a daunting task, since a little bit of this or not enough of that can screw up the guest's whole experience of a dish.  That's what happened to Hubmeister, but I'll get to that. 

Let's talk about the Chicken Massaman ($12.99), the best bay-area Thai dish that I've had to date.  It featured a nice ratio of sliced chicken to mixed vegetables cradled in an addictive coconut cream and curry peanut sauce, a pretty straightforward curry creation.   Richly flavored, this dish was seasoned well and cooked properly.  Its sidekick was brown or white rice (I chose brown), which I used to absorb every last bit of that fabulous creamy sauce.

Poor Hubs!  His bland-loving taste sensors went berserk when his Chicken Pad Thai ($12.50) arrived.   Although I couldn't detect any heat, he swears this classic Thai noodle dish was too spicy for him.  He ordered it mild and left most of it on his plate; I relished the "peanutty" leftovers the next day.  Is there a hold-the-spice order at a Thai restaurant?  I have a feeling you get laughed out of the kitchen with that one.

Backtracking to the beginning of the meal, we started with Thai Spring Rolls ($3.99).  They were huge, burrito-sized beauties accompanied by a sweet dipping sauce.  The dipping sauce didn't live up to the sweet-hot Thai Spice standard but the veggie-stuffed rolls were crispy and impressive.

So, the food - at least for me - hit most of the right notes. 

Here's the rub:  we hated the atmosphere.  Once you find the restaurant in its off-the-beaten-path, behind-a-shopping-center location, you may choose seating at the sushi bar or a standard table, or you can sit Japanese-style on the floor.  Both times we've dined here we have opted for a table, but the floor seating area, which is isolated from the kitchen and sushi bar, seems like it might be more quiet and relaxing.  Hubs isn't one who likes to sit on the floor.  The tables with chairs are directly opposite the sushi bar and its television - I am starting to hate televisions in restaurants - and you hear every conversation nearby.  (Excuse me, my New York friends, I don't care to hear your loud stories about life on Long Island.  If I want to hear about Long Island, I can ask Hubs and he prefers to black it out.)   Maybe they should crank up the music in this place.  It also felt a bit claustrophobic, as our server snaked awkwardly around tables.  

The food may have surpassed other Tampa Thai cuisine, but the plating was average.  Don't expect orchids or beautifully placed edible flowers.  Although I appreciated the absence of brassy accents, the noisy environment could use some window dressing.   

I noticed lots of takeout orders awaiting pickup at the register and that's how I plan to get my future Sukhothai meals, at least at this location.  I have yet to try the Sukhothai on Dale Mabry.  Stay tuned.

Verdict:  Hits the mark for food but misses on atmosphere.

Restaurant Info:
Sukhothai
http://www.sukhothairestaurant.net/files/color-menu.pdf

Sukhothai on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sumatra: A Brandon Bistro?

Sorry for the question, but we spent five months in Brandon when we first landed in this part of the state in 1990, and the most sophisticated eatery there was Olive Garden.  While the town is still a chain-lover's dream, a smattering of independent restaurateurs is attempting to break new ground.

A case in point is Sumatra Bistro Cafe & Bakery, which occupies a corner space of a building located east of Lakewood Drive, off Oakfield Drive.  Once I found the place, which, approaching from the west, has terrible visibility and a dysfunctional parking lot, I joined the Mississippi Maven at an outside table on a spiffy spring day. 


Sumatra's patio is a plus, but server access was a problem during our visit.

Although I have my share of beefs with Brandon, this sprawling bedroom community has managed to retain a vestige of small-town folksiness, and we were greeted with enthusiastic hellos and a smiling staff.  The level of professionalism ended there, however, as I received the wrong meal and servers busing open-air tables tried futilely to enter the restaurant bearing armloads of dishes.  Patio diners politely offered to open the door for the plate jugglers - which begs the question, why not prop open the door?   I could take a trip down Snarky Lane, but I'll forge ahead to the food.

Reminiscent of Season's Fresh (see recent post), Sumatra is following an emerging trend:  a focus on fresh, organic and locally grown ingredients featured in salads, paninis, wraps and sandwiches.  Gourmet coffee, tea, and baked goods complete the cafe-bistro profile. 

Since the Trib gave Sumatra an enthusiastic review, I guess I expected more substance and creativity.  I ordered a cup of Tomato Basil Bisque and an Eggplant and Mozzarella Sandwich. What I mistakenly received was hard-boiled egg and cucumber served on a Pepperidge Farm deli flat.  Rather than remove the dish and correct the order, the server said the chef must have misunderstood her "egg" instructions.  I didn't want to hold up the Maven's meal by requesting a new sandwich, so I simply ate what was before me, which certainly was no guilty pleasure.  In fact, it was quite diet-friendly.


Weight watchers, rejoice!

Deli flat.  Cucumber.  Egg.  Need I say more?  The high note was the fresh-tasting soup, rich with tomato and nicely infused with basil.   I would also recommend the coffee, which the server said was - you guessed it - Sumatran. 

The Maven had a Chicken Caesar Wrap, which she uncharacteristically remained mum about throughout the meal.  Both entrees were accompanied by a handful of mixed greens, some carrot shavings, a few cheese crumbles and a side of ordinary house vinaigrette. 


The word verdant comes to mind.

When I asked her in the parking lot what she thought of the place, the Maven shrugged and said we've had better lunches.  She's right.  We both could have made any of this stuff at home.

Sumatra Bistro serves breakfast and lunch, and stocks a bakery case full of treats.  The hours posted on the website vary depending on the day, so consult before you go. 

Verdict:  So-so bistro.

Restaurant Info:
Sumatra Bistro Cafe and Bakery
1602 Oakfield Drive
Brandon
813-655-6200
http://www.sumatrabistro.com/menu/

Sumatra Bistro Café & Bakery on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 13, 2011

El Puerto: Primo Latin Fare

Flying below the Tampa radar on Ybor City's 5th Avenue,  El Puerto Restaurant goes about its business serving up some of the finest Latin cuisine in town. 


The corner of 5th and 17th, now on my list of favorite places.
 
This spot is another example of a solid Tampa restaurant that gets lost in the foodie buzz created by new kids on the culinary block.  That is the only reason I can come up with to explain why I have missed it.  I should say missed out on it because this is one good restaurant - in all respects.


Shrimp guaranteed to make your taste buds tango.

On a recent lunch visit, I savored the best shrimp dish I have experienced in ages.  Picante de Camarones ($13, available for lunch but listed on the dinner menu) consisted of eight or nine perfectly sauteed colossal fresh shrimp swimming in a spicy orange-colored cream sauce.  I could have eaten eight more.  They were far superior in taste and size to the shrimp that I recently had in a shrimp and grits dish at the much-ballyhooed Datz  - and these were more plentiful and less expensive. 

Two sides are offered with each entree and I selected maduros (sweet plantains) and a house salad.  Other choices included white or yellow rice, black beans, tostones and fried cassava.  The soft, caramelized plantains were a sweet complement to the giant, peppery shrimp.  Although the house salad, which consisted of iceberg lettuce, fresh sliced tomato and wilted red onion, was fine, I hated to see that incredible creamy shrimp sauce go to waste.  I should have ordered rice or another starchy carb to sop it all up.  The warm, yeasty dinner rolls would have done the trick, but I resisted the temptation to scarf down a second.

True to her Brazilian roots, Blame It on Rio zeroed in on the meat. 

The juices were flowing as Rio dove into that Grilled Churrasco.

Her medium-rare skirt steak ($12) blanketed the plate.  The family-sized portion was tender and juicy, made even more flavorful by the condiments sitting on the table - a mustard-colored hot sauce and an herbaceous chimichurri.   The yellow aji sauce was thrillingly hot. I witnessed the guilty red pepper flakes but I suspect some other fiery culprits contributed heat, too.  The green chimichurri sauce, however, was our preference; it yielded an agreeable sweetness that partnered well with the beef. 

Rio's sides were fried cassava (yucca) and yellow rice.   This was my first foray into yucca territory.  It reminded me of potato and this preparation resembled french fries in both taste and texture. 

Due to the impressive lunch crowd - predominately business folks - we dined at the bar.   A muted flat-screen television flickered with CNN talking heads, while pleasant Latin music played in the background.  Enhancing the tropical Argentinean-Peruvian vibe were exotic hand-painted murals and abundant sunlight streaming through the eatery's many windows.  I loved the breezy Latin atmosphere and the smiling servers who happily translated menu items and stopped by numerous times to refill our tea. 

Set in an understated brick building that fuses with the rest of the neighborhood, this place is easy to overlook.  But with its white tablecloths, cool Ybor setting, cheerful service and excellent food, El Puerto is a sparkling diamond in a land rife with cubic zirconias.

Verdict:  Affordable gem.

Restaurant Info:
El Puerto Restaurant and Grill
1623 E. 5th Avenue
Tampa
813-248-8222
http://www.elpuertoybor.com/menu.html

El Puerto Argentinean Grill on Urbanspoon

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Season's Fresh: A Chick Pick

Like movies, some restaurants appeal to women and getting men into them practically requires an earth mover.  To determine if a place fits into a tennis ladies or Red Hatters category, for example, I simply ask myself if Hubmeister would set foot in the door. 

Just as he wouldn't be caught dead watching "Sleepless in Seattle," Hubs undoubtedly would go next door for Wood Fired pizza or Big Papa's Pit barbecue before he'd opt for a meal at Season's Fresh.  I, on the other hand, do not possess these studly standards and enjoyed a quick bite there.

Blame It on Rio sang the praises of Season's Fresh even before it moved from a New Tampa shopping center location north of I-75 to its current venue in a restaurant-filled strip center off Bearss Avenue near Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.  She was excited when the owner decided to move to a more visible location.  Lo and behold, I hear the tennis ladies have discovered it.

As the name suggests, the Season's Fresh culinary focus is on seasonal, organic ingredients.  The menu consists of wraps, paninis, soups, salads and smoothies, which are served in better-than-your-average-sandwich-shop surroundings. 

The multi-talented owner has been a caterer and a decorator; the latter skill she has applied here to create a bright, contemporary space featuring modern art showcased against a backdrop of pelican blue-gray walls.  Red cushions, black tables and white chairs add to the colorful mix.  Exposed overhead ducts are painted black with a few wood beams added to warm things up.  An inviting, tree-shaded patio presents a nice niche to dine alone or with friends.

The ordering procedure is similar to Panera's, but here the food is brought to your table.  I got a sandwich and Rio ordered a panini.  My Shaved Roasted Chicken Breast Sandwich ($7.95) was served warm. 


It lived up to the fresh ideal, with hunks of oven-roasted white-meat chicken, caramelized onions, fontina cheese and spring greens, all encased in thick country bread that was warmed to a toasty crunch in a panini press.  While there was no shortage of pungent fresh herbs, in fact there were too many, the missing links were moisture and fat.  The dry sandwich cried out for a saucy partner, or at least a slather of butter on the bread.  Since I noted that wraps are accompanied by a choice of dipping sauce, I will be sure to order a side of sauce with my sandwich next time. 

A few cornichons and nicoise olives, as well as a small seasonal side salad, are included with sandwich selections.  Rio is a regular and highly recommends the soups, which change daily. 

My favorite part of this place is the Illy coffee bar.  Italian coffee gets my vote as one of the best and Illy is up there with Lavazza.   I have not discovered any other business in Tampa that serves it.  I mentioned this to the owner, who said the Illy honchos have strict guidelines about the product, including the equipment on which it is prepared.  She has thousands of dollars invested in Illy-approved coffee apparatus. 

I can see this spot taking off with organic-frenzied USF students, laptop-toting coffeehouse junkies, health-conscious yoga fanatics, and generally those who appreciate fine ingredients and are fatigued by the often careless preparation and waning food quality at Panera. 

But Season's should stick to the hours it advertises if it wants to build a customer base.  I stopped by a few days ago for lunch and it was closed.  According to the hours posted on the front door, it should have been open.  And I can't find the hours on the website, either, which brings me to my...

Verdict:  Needs tweaking but has promise.

Restaurant Info:
Season's Fresh
2816 East Bearss Avenue
Tampa
813-866-4444
http://www.seasonsfreshcafe.com/

Season's Fresh on Urbanspoon

Friday, April 22, 2011

L'Eden: Quelle Belle Surprise!

I seldom cook French food.  It's fussy and complicated, which is why I think French restaurants are my favorite dining destinations.  And, surprise of surprises, I found one in the vast French restaurant wasteland that is Tampa.

It's killing me to share this because I selfishly would like to keep my discovery all to myself, but Chef Gerard Jamgotchian's culinary talents deserve recognition, as do the fine service and quaint milieu of L'Eden. So here goes, mes amis...

Open since 2007, L'Eden is a charming bistro tucked into a corner nook of a turn-of-the-century building located at the downtown intersection of Tampa and Madison streets.  Before taking Hubmeister there for his birthday dinner a few weeks ago, I had never heard of it.   After reading a handful of quickie reviews on Urbanspoon, I decided it looked promising.

Parking on Saturday night was a cinch because downtown is not (yet) a weekend destination.  We parked on the street a few steps from the restaurant.   Arriving at 7 p.m. without a reservation, we waited only five minutes for one of the eight or so tables within the cozy space.   It appeared the crowd consisted of a few tourists mixed with a table or two of Straz theater-goers.  While waiting, I read a glowing newspaper clipping about the chef and was beginning to feel pretty good about my choice.

This spot is so small that one very efficient guy waits all the tables, tends the bar and prepares the specialty coffees.  He mentioned that they had done a killer lunch business that day and a subsequent visit at lunchtime demonstrated that downtown office workers are well aware of L'Eden. 

One of the lovely things about this cafe, and perhaps this is another reason for my affinity for French restaurants, is that you do not feel rushed.  The emphasis is on the food - and your enjoyment of it - not on turning the tables at lightning speed.  That is something to keep in mind at lunch, when service was also leisurely.

A menu featuring la cuisine du monde, virtually a global network of dishes from Spain, England, Panama, Russia, France, India, Asia and elsewhere, requires explanation because it combines a dynamic mixture of small plates and entrees in a single list.  This is not a problem when you have a helpful server to advise you, and we did. 

Our starter was Assiette de Charcuteries, a delectable assortment of cured meats encircling a dollop of pate.  The salty, peppery meats were good, but truthfully we ordered the platter for the pate, which we smeared on wonderful French baguette slices that serve as the house bread.  Welcome additions would be toast points or other crisp breads on which to spread it, and a larger portion.  Less meat, more luscious pate.  Better yet, a stand-alone pate appetizer would be heavenly.

We followed the first dish with a Poached Pear and Bacon Salad topped with blue cheese - a shared plate.  It's hard to beat the sweet-and-salty combination of those ingredients.  The bountiful salad was both eye-catching and delicious.

Our entrees consisted of Hubmeister's Steak Diane and my Duck and Brie Crepe.  The crepe filling wasn't as creamy as I would have liked - I anticipated more oozing brie.  The crepe itself was fine but not super delicate.  I plead ignorance when it comes to judging duck, but I liked it.  On the whole, though, I probably wouldn't order this dish again.

Since it was Hubs' birthday, it was only fair that he get the outstanding entree.  The Steak Diane, smothered in sauteed mushrooms, was a dish that I will be sure to repeat at L'Eden.  Tender slices of filet mignon bathed in a classic sauce of cognac, cream, green peppercorns - and who knows what else - exemplified the painstaking culinary complexity I love and it gets an A Plus.  The accompaniments were asparagus and potatoes that I can't comment on because I was too busy stealing steak off Hubs' plate. 

With an espresso bar in full view and a pastry-savvy chef commandeering the kitchen, we should have ordered dessert.   But this is what happened:   On a Saturday night at 8:30, a brazen woman brought in three young children, one of whom was carted in in a stroller.  Of course, the infant got antsy and you can guess the rest.  They obviously were tourists, but it's clear from L'Eden's intimate setting that it is not a place for kids.  We made a run for it and headed home for a Food and Loathing-crafted birthday cake, which certainly was not a gateau up to Chef Gerard's standards but it was damn good rum cake, if I say so myself.

Before I sign off, I want to mention that this dinner didn't even run $100 and we each had a couple of adult beverages.   Also, a note about lunch:   I enjoyed excellent Quiche Champignon in the garden courtyard behind L'Eden.  (Yes, the garden of Eden, hee...hee...hee.)   This outdoor space was not utilized the night of our dinner, but the whole place was rocking during a weekday lunch. 

L'Eden serves breakfast and lunch Monday - Saturday, 8 a.m. - 3 p.m.; dinner Wednesday and Thursday, 5 - 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 - 11 p.m.  Closed Sunday.  I strongly suggest dinner reservations.

Verdict:  Tres bon!

Restaurant Info:
L'Eden Restaurant and Bar
500 North Tampa Street
Tampa
813-221-4795
http://www.dine-at-leden.com/menu-dinner.html

L'Eden on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 18, 2011

Datz Update: Tasting Ruse and Sloppy Service

With Tampa's unemployment rate hovering at 12 percent, you better be on your toes and doing your best at your service job.  You can be replaced in an instant, and if there is any justice in the world, the guy I am about to tell you about will be weeded out and replaced by someone honest and conscientious, someone who needs the job and will do it well.  I have waited tables and I know a sucky server when I see one, and this guy was an incompetent ass.

Blame It on Rio and I went to Datz a few weeks ago for a cheese tasting, which consisted of exactly three crackers of cheese.  FYI - Do not fall for this marketing "event."  Since we drove 25 minutes for our tasting - if you call standing awkwardly at a cheese case for all of two minutes a tasting - we ended up staying for dinner.  Note to Datz:  Host the tastings at the demo bar and sell drinks to the tasters.  Chances are, people will stay for dinner.  The current ploy is uncomfortable and annoying.

Rio and I got an upstairs table and looked over the dinner menu.  I ordered a beer, a menu pairing suggested for my entree of shrimp and grits.  Rio wanted a beer but was unfamiliar with all the microbrews so she solicited help from the waiter, whom I just overheard telling a nearby table that he didn't know much about wine but was well-versed in the beer selections. 

Alrighty then, what did he say when Rio asked for a beer suggestion to accompany her ahi tuna? 

"People usually order wine with that dish," he says. 

Yeah, but she wants a beer.  What does he suggest?  He stares blankly and repeats that people usually order wine with that dish.  Fine, fish and white wine go together.  Who cares?  She wants a beer and Datz has a great variety.  Suggest one, beer expert!  In fact, this arrogant twit took responsibility for the menu pairing that was listed  for my entree, stating,  "Oh, I see they've included my beer suggestion for this dish."   Oh, puh-leeze!

So, Rio is swayed into ordering wine because Waiter Boy insists that's the way to go. 

Then, he asks which wine and suggests Pinot Grigio.  She goes with his Pinot suggestion and he brings the drinks.  Rio shrugs as she sips the uninteresting Pinot Grigio, eyes my frosty IPA with envy, and proclaims, "That's what I wanted."

We order our entrees.  He asks which side I would like with my shrimp and grits.  I order a salad with the house vinaigrette.  The entrees arrive.  No salad.  I tell the runner that I didn't get my salad.  Next thing I know our crackerjack waiter is back to tell me he's sorry, my entree doesn't include a side.  He then blamed his mistake on the changing menu.  Lame.  Get with the program, buddy.  It's your job to know the menu, especially if it changes. 

The guy who hosted the cheese tasting knew his stuff and, although it was weirdly brief, it was informative.  He happened to mention that every entree at Datz includes a pimento cheese spread and a basket of crisp bread.

It occurs to me that Rio and I never got this sampler.  I mention this to the waiter, who apologizes for the oversight and hurries away to retrieve one.  What is up with this dude?  Now, we are eating the tasty cheese, celery and bread crisps with dinner, instead of snacking leisurely before the meal.  They were really enjoyable, too, and I probably would have ordered another beer with dinner had Waiter Boy timed everything properly.  Higher bar tab, higher ticket, bigger tip.  Novice. 

I returned home and mentioned these service blunders to Hubmeister, who reported that the last time he dined at Datz, the service was terrible.

By the way, our food was good.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Totally Tasty Find: Frenchy's Super Grouper Sandwich

You know that show on Food Network, "The Best Thing I Ever Ate"?  This sandwich ranks up there on my list.

That little sign says it all.


A couple of weekends ago, we decided to drive to Clearwater Beach to watch the sunset and get fish sandwiches at Frenchy's.  Turns out, not only was it spring break, but everyone in Tampa had the same sunset idea.  We suffered through ghastly traffic snarls and watched from our car as the sun disappeared while we tried to locate a parking spot.  A drink was in order.
 
But before I get to that, a bit of background:  I first became aware of Frenchy's through my sister-in-law, who lived in Clearwater many years ago.  Frenchy's was her go-to beach spot for entertaining out-of-towners.  She insists The Original Frenchy's is the best - and she may be right.



In case you are unfamiliar with Frenchy's, it commands an impressive restaurant and small-business monopoly on Clearwater Beach.  I counted four Frenchy's restaurants, a stone crab retail outlet, a gift shop and a hotel.  If you haven't been to Clearwater Beach, it's not a big place, so this is no minor presence. 

I have some dining experience at Frenchy's Rockaway Grill, which is smack-dab on the sand, and I mean it's so beachfront that it's in serious jeopardy if "The Big One" hits.  It boasts an amazing view of the Gulf and its breezy deck is most pleasant when it's not jam-packed with spring breakers and snowbirds.   We knew from the traffic that we wouldn't even try to get into this one.  

Down a side street about a block away, we stumbled upon The Original Frenchy's and, as luck would have it, aced a parking spot right in front of the little joint.  We headed straight for the tiny bar, which had two stools open.  Ice-cold beer was placed before us by a cheerful bartender, who also was in charge of bellowing the names of the parties whose tables were ready.  She didn't need to look far for people on the waiting list because this is a compact place, with eight inside tables and a handful outside. A wall inset with an aquarium divides the bar from the dining area, which is enveloped by circa-1980 wood paneling adorned with neon beer signs, a specials chalkboard, a few posters and a giant plastic fish.





In drinking time, it only took a beer-and-a-half until the bartender shouted our name.  She placed us outside the kitchen in a booth that the people next to us vacated because of the Arctic breeze blasting from the air-conditioning vent above our heads, a fact the old geezers merrily shared after they saw me shivering.  Hubmeister and I huddled on one side of the booth for warmth!


Our taste buds already primed for grouper sandwiches, we took a cursory glance at the menu.  A small selection of seafood entrees, a couple of soups and a few salads presented a more limited menu than the other Frenchy's locations, so if you want a ton of choices, visit one of them.

You may choose to have your fish sandwich prepared in one of the following ways:  original, fried, Cajun, or grilled.  Trying not to add any additional tonnage to my physique, I have always chosen the grilled preparation without the fixings.  Not tonight, baby!  After that drive, we were going full throttle into hot grease.  As far as I could glean from the waitress, there isn't any difference between original and fried, so we placed our order for two Original Super Grouper Sandwiches. 


I can barely find the words....Whatever you do, if you go to Frenchy's, splurge on the fat and calories and get this sandwich.  It's $12.50 and worth every penny and fat gram.

The crispy batter encased a mammoth portion of grouper - and it was REAL grouper, not some impostor fish.  White as snow and tasting as if it were pulled from the Gulf waters minutes before meeting the fryer, it was about two inches thick and flaked beautifully, like fresh lump crabmeat.  So mild.  So outrageously delicious fried in that flavorful batter. 

"All the way" meant it came topped with American cheese, lettuce, tomato and tartar sauce.  The cold toppings on the just-out-of-the-fryer fish offered a welcome temperature contrast.  The tartar sauce was kicky, but a slice of lemon would have been welcome for an additional burst of flavor.  The only other things that could have improved this sandwich would have been a better piece of lettuce and a homemade bun. 

Hubs and I both got fries, which were average Joes, but hot and salty enough that we didn't pass on them.

My previous meals at Frenchy's Rockaway were forgettable and I'm not sure whether it's because I got diet-minded grilled fish or if The Original Frenchy's cranks out better food.  I will say this:  The Original is where I am heading when I drive to Clearwater Beach.  A dive in the best sense of the word, this place has a friendly, shorts-and-flipflops atmosphere and exudes an aura of organized chaos while churning out grouper so super that Hubs and I both agreed it was one of the best things we ever ate.

Verdict:  Dive worth a drive.

Restaurant Info:
The Original Frenchy's Cafe
41 Baymont Street
Clearwater Beach
727-446-3607
http://www.frenchysonline.com/original_index.html

Frenchy's Cafe on Urbanspoon