Monday, February 14, 2011

Quick Bites, Greek Style: The Hungry Greek

Are you lamenting the closing of Louis Pappas near USF?  I'm not. 

When Acropolis opened in the same strip center on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, that place was doomed.  The Pappas food was okay, but the orders were always screwed up, at least ours were.  For our Greek-to-go, we turned to the Acropolis salad.   A deconstructed gyro and salad combo, it's a flavor bomb bargain for $10, easily feeds two normal appetites, and you actually get what you order. 

But I am not here to discuss the merits of Acropolis or the demise of that Louis Pappas location; I am tipping you off to another place that you can rely on for a fast Greek food fix.

The Hungry Greek has two restaurants in Tampa, one in the Westchase area and this one, which occupies a strip center space on the west side of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, north of the Shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel.  It serves an extensive menu of Greek favorites in a noisy dining environment that I would compare to Moe's.  The operation is also somewhat similar:  You order at the service counter, pay, take a tabletop prop to identify your order, and your meal is brought to your table on plastic plates. 

It's a simple system, in a simple atmosphere, and the food is simply good.

I ordered a gyro, and Blame It on Rio, my lunch recruit this day, put in a request for dolmades.  I added a Greek side salad and Rio's "Light Meal" included one.   The salad, the kind with the potato salad lurking deliciously beneath the vegetables, was not on a par with the outstanding Greek salads for which I drive to Tarpon Springs, but it was tasty.  The greens were cold and fresh; the beet was sweet; and the dressing and feta were tangy. 

I also liked the gyro, which consisted of crispy slices of a seasoned beef and lamb mixture that I watched being shaved off the spit; it included the traditional accompaniments of tomato, onion and tzatziki.  The meat was not as intensely seasoned as that on most gyros I have sampled, the kind where you reek of garlic for days.  Sometimes I am in the mood for major garlic overload, i.e., Acropolis, and sometimes not.  For those who prefer less garlic, this gyro meat is a good alternative.  The tzatziki was average; it didn't knock my socks off.   The commercially prepared pita bread was soft and acceptable.

Since stuffed grape leaves are not my favorite things, it was good to have Rio with me to weigh in on the dolmades.  Filled with ground meat, rice, tomato and herbs, they had a drizzle of lemony sauce on them, which was a nice twist.  She approved, and I preferred them to the dolmades at Acropolis.

A Greek restaurant must have dessert, right?  The Hungry Greek offers several sweet options, one being the perennial favorite - baklava.  I am not usually a fan of honey-filled Greek pastries but let me tell you that I would get the baklava again.  It was light, flaky and lip-smacking good. 

The Hungry Greek will not leave you hungry, dissatisfied or penniless.  Lunch for two, including two drinks, one dessert, tax and tip, was about $25.

Verdict:  Fills a void for fast Greek food.  I smell a chain coming on.

Restaurant Info:
The Hungry Greek
2653 Bruce B. Downs Blvd.

The Hungry Greek on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 11, 2011

Voila! Paris Bistro in Winter Park

It's no Paris, but Winter Park is a charming Central Florida town that's managed to maintain its Old Florida character.  In stark contrast to the manufactured universe nearby, it boasts cobblestone streets, gigantic moss-covered oaks, gorgeous homes, and quaint shops and cafes.  You have to love a place that lines its sidewalks with water bowls and free treats for pampered pooches.  

It was Mississippi Maven's birthday and she had never been to Winter Park.  A natural for a girls' day out of shopping and lunching, downtown Winter Park offers many enticing dining options, high-priced boutiques for eye-popping browsing and fantastic people watching.  It's not uncommon to spot a celebrity.  Everyone here is so filthy rich that nobody bothers them.

After a scenic walk around Rollins College's lakefront campus, we shopped browsed our way to our Park Avenue luncheon destination:  Paris Bistro.  A waiter was stationed on the sidewalk near a chalkboard menu, ushering willing customers into the restaurant.  I can see why they have someone positioned there because you'd never find it otherwise.  He guided us through an office-building atrium, past a few koi ponds, and into a lovely Parisian-themed restaurant.

We were seated at the end of a plush, red velvet banquette, near floor-to-ceiling windows viewing an artsy children's clothing store/photography studio, a man-made banyan tree twinkling with white lights, and the ornamental ponds we passed on the way in. 

In fact, during our fine lunch I had a direct view of a woman's full-body plunge into one of the ponds.  No kidding!  (I told you that the people watching is good.)  Talking or texting, she tumbled in with a yelp and a splash, and then, out she jumped, cell phone in hand, none the worse for the dunk.

One thing I have discovered about the Orlando area is the surprising number of dining deals at great restaurants.  This spot featured a three-course lunch for $11.95, and there were choices aplenty. 

The salad course consisted of either a Caesar or house salad.  The Maven had a Caesar and I chose the house, which was a simple combination of spring greens and vegetables dressed in a garlicky herb vinaigrette.  Having had some mediocre-to-bad vinaigrettes lately, I appreciated the strong flavors in this one.  A basket of sliced bread - yes, it was the authentic French variety - didn't last long because the Maven and I like to carb up.  The waiter offered to replenish the basket and we sheepishly agreed. 

Entrees ranged from Coq au Vin and Veal Normande to Crepe du Jour and Quiche, with several other temptations in between.  After much hand wringing, I selected a Croque Madame, a French version of a ham and cheese sandwich.  Served warm, this luscious sandwich contained thinly sliced sweet ham nestled between two Texas-sized pieces of white sandwich bread, the outside of which were smeared with a mixture of Gruyere cheese and possibly a roux (sorry, it's just a guess), then decadently topped with a fried egg and broiled.  I couldn't wait to pierce the yellow yolk and watch it cascade down every nook and cranny of that Croque. 

Merci, madame, may I have another?

The French love to top things with fried eggs and that's just what they did with the Maven's hamburger. 

I have already tried this at home.  I highly recommend putting a fried egg on just about anything.

Her Paris Bistro Burger featured ground sirloin, lettuce, tomato, red onion, Brie and Dijon mustard - and an egg, of course.  Heads up:  The waiter didn't inquire how she wanted the beef cooked and it was prepared medium-well.  If that's not how you like it, you better speak up.  Evidently, that preparation was fine with the Maven because, except for some inferior tomato, she really enjoyed that burger. 

Both lunch plates came with a side of fries, which were totally unnecessary.  We were getting stuffed and dessert was on the horizon - creme brulee and profiteroles.  The Maven cracked into the brulee and I devoured the profiteroles, which were ooh, la, la outrageously enjoyable, the sweet cream puffs sandwiching vanilla ice cream and basking in an intense ganache.  The pleasures of these treats were magnified by cups of delicious coffee that our attentive and friendly-but-not-overbearing waiter refilled from a silver coffee decanter throughout our meal. 

My review would not be complete without a nod to Paris Bistro's ambience.  This is an intimate place that exudes the refined but welcoming nature of a true French bistro.

Are you reading this, Hubmeister?  Soft French music, delectable French food, fine French wine, quaint French atmosphere.  It's perfect for Valentine's Day.  How timely! 

Verdict:  A praiseworthy bistro, aptly named.  C'est merveilleux!

Restaurant Info:
Paris Bistro
216 North Park Avenue
Winter Park

Paris Bistro on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Totally Tasty Find: Bagels at Bagels Plus

Tucked unobtrusively off Fletcher Avenue, west of the intersection of Fletcher and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, sits Bagels Plus.  It's a place without much curb appeal and you would probably drive by it a million times and never go in - unless you were aware of the treasures inside.  

After returning to Tampa four years ago, we needed to locate a "dealer" to satisfy our bagel binges.  We popped into Bagels Plus to sample a dozen and were unimpressed.  Must have hit them on a bad day is all I can say.

A few weeks ago we craved an authentic bagel - not an Einstein's "fagel" (fake bagel) but one actually boiled in water and baked, crafted on site from start to finish.  We wanted bagels and we wanted them now!  Time to give Bagels Plus another try. 

Holy smokes were they good.  I could almost taste their crusty exteriors and warm, chewy insides from the aroma seeping through the brown bag.  They were hot from the oven.  I ran off with the loot, barely making it home with the full baker's dozen intact.  Hubmeister immediately downed three, Son of Hubs two and I forced myself to stop at one. 

Hubmeister and I have had our share of bagels over the years, Hubs - with his New York roots - more of an authority than I.  My bagel background started in Ft. Lauderdale, where the New York transplants opened bagel shops and introduced the rest of us to this jaw-pumping addiction.  For this I say, thank you!

The "everything" bagel was everything I could ever want a bagel to be.

After years of laying off the hard stuff, we have fallen victim to a bad bagel habit.  We now pick them up regularly.  Several in the assortment are usually still warm from the oven.  Heaven!  Hubmeister may need to go into bagel rehab.

Goodbye forever, fagels!

Restaurant Info:
Bagels Plus
2706 E. Fletcher Avenue

Bagel's Plus on Urbanspoon

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Brocato's: Bigger Isn't Better

Calling all Tampa sandwich shops!  Do us traditionalists a favor and ask people if they want lettuce, tomato and mayo on their Cubans.  FYI - I don't, so please quit slapping that stuff on them like it's a given. 

It happened at Brocato's a few weeks ago.  I waited in line with the lunch crowd, walked to the counter and ordered a six-inch Cuban sandwich.  A few minutes later, with lust in my heart, I tore open the wrapper and what did I find?  A big, fat hammy Cuban full of lettuce, tomato and mayo. 

When people rave to me about the sandwiches at Brocato's, what seems to impress them most is how meaty they are.  To me, a good sandwich need not be measured by weight.  I had to remove mega-hunks of cold ham from this sandwich. 

The best Cuban (at the Columbia, hands down) focuses less on ham and more on slow-roasted pork, and by focusing, I don't mean piling it on three inches thick.  I mean preparing it with TLC and lots of seasoning, injecting so much flavor that only a few thin slices are necessary.  As with all cooking, flavors should be balanced, where one ingredient doesn't overpower the others.  If the ham is stacked to the gills, ham is all you are going to taste.  This ham was mundane and there was so much of it, I can't tell you what the pork tasted like.

Good Cuban bread is essential and this was decent but not killer.  I also wouldn't consider it pressed because all of the sandwich contents were cold.  Strike two.  That's one of the reasons I pass on lettuce, tomato and mayo.  I like my Cubans warm and smashed, with the Swiss cheese verging on meltdown. 

The crowd at Brocato's - a mix of business people grabbing a burly bite and laborers dropping by to wolf down a pound of meat - doesn't seem to mind, and I have heard of people driving miles to get one of their sandwiches or hefty, football-shaped deviled crabs. 

This family-run dive, off I-4 at 50th Street, does a booming business.  Mississippi Maven and I were lucky to land an inside table.  Don't expect much in the way of atmosphere.  It's a no-frills sandwich shop that's seen a few decades and it shows.  The overflow crowd can sit outside on a covered patio and take in the sights, sounds and traffic fumes of I-4. 

Hey, you aren't paying for ambiance and table service.  You will spend less than $10 for an overstuffed sandwich, chips and drink, and it will far surpass fast food and the precut refuse masquerading as food at most chain sub shops.

Verdict:  Overrated.

Restaurant Info:
Brocato's Sandwich Shop
5021 East Columbus Drive

Brocato's Sandwich Shop on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Datz Good

Datz is evolving into something wonderful, but I can't put my finger on its ultimate goal.  When it grows up, does it want to be a tony sandwich shop, a cafe and bakery, a neighborhood bar, a casual foodie hangout or a fine-dining destination?

This two-story South Tampa eatery seems to encapsulate all of the above.  Urbanspoon currently lists it among the top five fine-dining destinations in Tampa.  What?  Last time I was there, it was a deli. 

So how did this transformation come about?  One Food and Loathing theory is that the culinary chops behind Datz outgrew the sandwich menu, leading this restaurant on a journey of self-discovery and continued thematic experimentation, one in which its loyal patrons are the beneficiaries.  Or, a more likely scenario, the owners rode the wave of the recession trying to get people in the door by pulling rabbits out of their hats. 

Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, Datz now dubs itself a gastropub and offers an ongoing rotation of craft beers, cooking classes, and wine and cheese tastings.

An area that formerly featured an enclosed glass deli case and displayed potato salad and other cold take-home items, has been converted into a liquor bar.  A spot near the front door is now an interactive food bar that features cooking demonstrations.  The bakery is still in place downstairs, along with some tables and a display of gourmet market fare, and upstairs the scene is familiar with a full liquor bar and two dining areas.  The busy atmosphere is welcoming, warmed by exposed red-brick walls. 

The lunch menu - I have never dined here for breakfast or dinner - focuses on sandwiches, really big (and expensive) sandwiches composed of high-quality ingredients and a superior assortment of fresh breads.  The variety is mind-boggling, a selection that makes you throw up your hands and ask the waiter to tell you his favorite just so you can narrow down the choices.  If you are bashful about opening your mouth as wide as it can go to stuff your face, then you might opt for a salad.  But I had a salad a couple of weeks ago and it couldn't hold a candle to the big ol' honkin' sandwiches.

My partner in culinary crime this day was my friend and neighbor, Blame It on Rio. When Rio and I pulled up to the building on S. MacDill Ave., we were waved away from the restaurant's full parking lot, prompting us to park on a side street, which was also filling up fast.  Parking is a pain at Datz, but even more so this day because the place was conducting a culinary class and had a Gasparilla-related craft event in full swing out front.  Bustling!

Despite all the activity, we immediately were taken to an upstairs table, where a waiter appeared promptly to take drink orders.  He suggested a specialty iced tea, which we pounced on.

I decided to stay on the healthful side of things and get a spinach salad.  Wait a minute.  Do bacon dressing and big chunks of crispy applewood smoked bacon and blue cheese crumbles qualify as healthful?   That's the way I like my salads - full of BACON and CHEESE.   It's too bad that's where the excitement ended.  The dish was rather ordinary otherwise, without any of the wow factors characteristic of the sandwiches.  The bacon dressing, barely lukewarm, was unpleasantly gooey.  The piece of bread atop the greens was inedible, neither crispy like a crouton, nor soft and chewy like a slice of fresh baguette.   I was surprised by its semi-soft, semi-hard texture, akin to stale toast.  The salad would also have benefited from some crunchy red onion. 

Rio had the right idea.  Get a sandwich. 

The Slab It, Grab It with house chips.  Why did I order a salad?

She ordered what I would call a glorified BLT with guacamole, the colorful contents cradled between slices of grilled country bread.  There was that awesome bacon again, front and center in this sandwich like the prize-winning pig at the county fair.  Although I didn't taste it, I could tell from the drips running down Rio's hand that the "Slab It, Grab It" was one juicy offering.   She only managed to eat half, as we mused how nice it would be if they opened a Datz in our neck of the hoods. 

Sandwiches at Datz are accompanied by sweet-and-salty homemade potato chips.  The first time I had these, Sister Foodie was with me and we thought someone in the kitchen confused the sugar and salt shakers.  They were exceedingly sweet.  On subsequent visits, however, the seasonings on these crispy snacks were well balanced.  A drizzle of blue cheese sauce graces the top of the chips because everything tastes better with blue cheese sauce.  It's a fact.

No visit to Datz would be complete without a stop at the bakery counter.  We got a chocolate-laden devil's food treat for Rio's daughter and a gigantic piece of red velvet cake for Son of Hubmeister.  The cake had the crazy red-food-coloring blaze of the traditional Southern recipe and a thick coating of cream cheese frosting.  It was rich but good.

Datz not cheap.  Sandwiches and salads are in the $10-plus range.  The piece of cake was $6.

So is the metamorphosis complete?  Probably not.  This place knows how to adapt to trends and meet the demands of an ever-changing marketplace.  Lucky for us. 

Verdict:   Repeat customer.

Restaurant Info:
2616 S. MacDill Avenue
Tampa 33629
(813) 831-7000

Datz on Urbanspoon