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

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

Frenchy's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 11, 2011

Ciccio's Lodge: Which Is It?

I often wonder what the Ciccio's Lodge proprietors were thinking when they combined two totally different restaurant concepts, two names and two logos.   I realize these guys have launched successful restaurants in Tampa, which is why I find this unfocused approach - and this logo - even more incredulous.

The Dueling Logos 

When we moved to Tampa in '07, Ciccio's in New Tampa was a colorful little restaurant specializing in health-conscious stir-fry dishes, sushi and wraps.  Despite including pizza and several Italian entrees, they dubbed the theme "California cuisine."  The decor was bright and cheerful, with a neat aquamarine-colored bar, and blue-green hues conveying a Pacific-coast mood.  A couple of years ago, they moved the restaurant into a larger space in the same Publix-anchored shopping center, threw in menu items from their Lodge restaurant in South Tampa and revamped the design, which curiously fails to reflect either concept. 

Walk past the outdoor patio and into the restaurant, where a giant square of a bar greets you in all its big-screen-TV glory.  White-vinyl booths flank a wall to the left, and as you move farther inside, you reach an adjacent dining area with additional booths and tables.  Gone are the bright California colors, replaced by a bit of dark-brown wood and crazy-looking red chandeliers, a meager and odd attempt to incorporate a lodge look. 

I don't pretend to know anything about design, but it is unlike any lodge atmosphere I've encountered.  Aren't lodges supposed to be cozy, with wooden beams, stone fireplaces and stuff like moose heads mounted on the walls?  This looks as if a couple of food guys axed the designer from the expansion budget and threw the place together themselves.  It's like a minimalistic bachelor pad in restaurant form.

The "Tennessee Puzzler" agrees.  That's my big sister, who was in town a few weeks ago, fresh off a jigsaw marathon with "The Oldsters," a.k.a., my parents.  She breezed into Tampa from Ft. Lauderdale on a lovely evening, so we decided to walk to Ciccio's Lodge for dinner.

Before retiring to a life of gardening and crossword puzzles in Hixson, Tenn., the Puzzler taught school here for many years and recalls delicious brunches at Ciccio's.  She was puzzled, shall we say, by this latest endeavor.  Unlike moi, Tennessee Puzzler has a talent for interior design and she described this restaurant as "cold and institutional."

Now that you've got the picture, I'll move on to the food.  Although it lacks any extraordinary characteristics, Ciccio's cuisine is consistently satisfactory and tonight was no exception.  We ordered TV dinners.  An imaginative idea, Ciccio's Lodge's TV dinners combine an entree and two sides on one sectioned plate, as well as dessert, plated separately.  Sides run the gamut from sauteed spinach and tater tots to turkey chili and bread pudding, with a dozen or more choices thrown in for good measure.  Portions are reasonable, especially well-suited for a normal appetite.  Priced at $11, they were a significant value. 

I had Black and White Sesame Crusted Tuna, Sticky Rice with Black Sesame Seeds, and a green salad.  The tuna was delightful, nicely seared on the outside and bright pink in the middle; the brown rice clung together appropriately and contained a sprinkle of black sesame seeds; and the salad, mostly lettuce, was boring but dressed well in a sharp balsamic vinaigrette.  Dessert was Tiramisu, which was a passable sweet finish to the meal. 

The Puzzler had a Mediterranean Wrap, a vegetarian concoction of hummus, feta cheese, black olives, tomato and lettuce.  From the varied list of accompaniments, she choose sweet potato fries, cucumber salad and sauteed spinach.  The sides are up to you; if you don't feel like including a dessert, as Puzzler did not, simply substitute another savory side.  She especially liked the wrap and fries.

The old Ciccio's menu remains intact, including salads, wraps, stir-fry dishes, California bowls, sushi, pizza and pasta; and I assume the Lodge entered the scene with burgers, sliders and TV dinners.

Servers are mostly college kids and ours was attentive and friendly.
Speaking of youth, Ciccio's Lodge actually took over the space once occupied by The Lime, the owners' other restaurant in this center, which offered Mexican fare and attracted more of a drinking crowd.  Bar business at Ciccio's Lodge seems busy; they offer nightly promotions and live entertainment on the weekend.  The restaurant also resurrected Sunday brunch.

Surely, it's no coincidence that all of these changes occurred when the economy tanked.  Restaurants were under the gun to get people in the door, which could explain why the vision here appears blurred, as if the partners threw ideas against a wall to see what would stick, and they didn't want to invest too much while doing it.  The logo speaks volumes.
Verdict:  Reliable neighborhood bite.  Bleak atmosphere.

Restaurant Info:
Ciccio's Lodge
16023 Tampa Palms Boulevard W.

Ciccio's Lodge on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 4, 2011

On Deck: Mama's Greek Cuisine in Tarpon Springs

A few days after returning home from Georgia and the Carolinas, I got a call from a friend and former neighbor.  "Flying Standby" had a few days off and craved some Greek food, a specialty that is scarce in her little 'burb outside of Atlanta.

My well-traveled friend landed a spare seat on a Delta jet and off we went to the sponge docks of Tarpon Springs, home to a large population of industrious Greek immigrants, many of whom work in the restaurant business. 

The main thoroughfare is Dodecanese Boulevard, which is lined with cheesy trinket shops that sell obnoxious T-shirts, hometown sponges, jewelry that looks as if it could turn your skin green, superstitious "evil eyes," and bamboo wind chimes.  One side of the street fronts the docks, where you can hop aboard a sightseeing tour boat or watch the sponge-diving boats ease along the Anclote River.  It's a kitschy place to visit for a couple of hours, the primary reasons to go being awesome Greek food and entertaining cultural phenomena.

I had dined previously at two restaurants on Dodecanese but felt we should wander off the main street to test less-traveled territory.  Since Flying Standby flew standby for this experience, I left it to her to pick the lunch spot.  Whether it was due to the non-English-speaking elderly Greek grandma stationed outside hawking free Saganaki with an entree purchase, or the burly relative perched on Dodecanese hollering to try his family's place, we ultimately wandered onto the patio deck of Mama's Greek Cuisine. 

Did I mention it was a chamber-of-commerce day in Tarpon Springs?  Absolutely gorgeous weather with a slight breeze and little humidity made for a perfect al fresco dining experience.  The restaurant's covered deck features a bar and dining tables overlooking a quiet side street.

Here's what we ordered:  the complimentary Saganaki of course, Souvlaki and Kalamarakia.  The entrees each came with bread, a tossed salad that we upgraded to small Greek salads, and an additional side. We chose oven potatoes. 

Let's start with the bread basket.  Flying Standby recounted the wonderful Greek bread she relished while living in Greece.  It has a distinct crust and is extremely dense.  She said this was nothing like it.  It wasn't bad, mind you; it just wasn't a true representation of Greek bread, and she would know.

I had never tasted Saganaki, which is a pan-fried cheese spectacle that is brought to your table and set ablaze to the delight of everyone around you.  The result is an ooey-gooey melted cheese appetizer that you smear on bread.  Mmmm. 

Next up was the salad course.  Flying Standby says that Greeks don't use out-of-season vegetables in their cooking, a fact that she shared upon viewing the sad-looking tomato in the salad.  The salad was surprisingly standard fare for this area.  Take those little feta crumbles and bring on the slab!  I also thought it would include potato salad but you must order that as an add-on. 

Standby saw lots of squid in Greece, which prompted her order of Kalamarakia, commonly known as calamari.  The tube-shaped and tentacle pieces of the squid were coated in a light breading and pan fried.  The squid was tender and the breading had a pleasant flavor and crunch.  Fantastic with a squirt of lemon.

I ordered the Pork Souvlaki Platter, which consisted of cubes of well-seasoned, marinated pork, tomato, onion and tzatziki.  My instruction in Greek cuisine continued as Standby explained that Souvlaki is Greek fast food, which her kids ate often in Greece.  Street food served in kebab form or wrapped in pita bread, it may include chicken, pork or lamb.  To me, the flavors, which are garlic infused, are the same as those found in a gyro.  Mama's tzatziki is sour cream based and I prefer the tangy quality of yogurt-based tzatziki, but this version was okay.

Mama's oven potatoes, bathed in olive oil and lemon and baked till tender, were a new Greek treat for me.  Standby says this is the way the Greeks cook them, and they were a yummy and refreshing change from rice, orzo or french fries.

This place was loaded with tourists, as evidenced by the numerous hamburger orders being delivered to unadventurous folks dining at nearby tables.  What a shame!  They probably loved the baklava, which was not anything like the baklava that Standby and I have ever had.  It was a mass-produced oozing mess that we left on our plates.

Were you wondering about the service?  It was brusque.  Our waitress didn't look like she was enjoying herself one bit.  She was probably thinking, "Why are these stupid tourists ordering hamburgers in our Greek restaurant?"  Flying Standby innocently inquired if she had forgotten our Saganaki because she brought the salads first.  This query was not met with a smiling face nor a genial reply.  She said the kitchen was busy with Saganaki orders because so many people were seated simultaneously and she'd bring it out when it was ready.  I got a kick out of her demeanor but this no-nonsense style is not exactly hospitable.  She may have been part of Mama's family because when we walked past the guy touting the place on the street, he asked if his sisters had treated us well.   I guess that depends on how you define well.  We got our food!

Verdict:  Pleasant outside atmosphere, but it's not the best Greek food in Tarpon Springs.  If you go, sit outside with a sense of humor, an order of Kalamarakia and a cold brew.

Restaurant Info:
Mama's Greek Cuisine
735 Dodecanese Boulevard
Tarpon Springs

Mama's Greek Cuisine on Urbanspoon