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 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

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

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

Season's Fresh on Urbanspoon