Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Pinky's: Diner Nouveau

Man, I love a good egg. I cook them a few times a week and I like to order them out, but they can be tricky for a restaurant to get right. After all, people are picky about their eggs (maybe because they're so easy to cook at home). I remember my brother's college roommate asking my mom to scramble his eggs so they could "bounce off the walls." Ew. I prefer my scrambles creamy. What about fried eggs: over easy or sunny-side up? Some folks don't even know the difference. Then there's poached...which brings me to Pinky's.

The Mississippi Maven and I headed to Pinky's Diner the other day to try out their breakfast. Pinky's on Bay to Bay in South Tampa is a cute breakfast and lunch joint with a reputation for being jammed. We got there around 10 on a weekday and landed a table but, living up to its rep, every table was taken the entire time we were there. Counter seating was scarce, too, and we got the feeling that everybody in the square-foot-challenged space was a regular.The clean-cut crowd ranged from a kid wearing a Jesuit High T-shirt who looked as if he just rolled out of bed, to a dad decked out in eye-popping, lime-green argyle-print pants, to a mom in teeny-weeny bike shorts. This place screams South Tampa, and I'm not saying that's a bad thing.

Unless you have totally absurd tastes, you can find something appealing to order off Pinky's menu. Choose the mundane egg breakfast if you aren't adventurous or amp things up with a frittata, pork belly bacon or oatmeal pancakes.The Maven was in the mood for Mexican and got an egg quesadilla consisting of eggs, ham, Cheddar and Provolone. Salsa and sour cream were accompaniments.

Bring your appetite for the Breakfast Quesadilla.

I would have tasted it but I got this gorgeous plate:

The Blackstone Benedict with rosemary home fries and fruit

One egg yolk gushed nicely but the other was cooked solid. Like I said, those eggs are devils to get right!  Poached eggs should ooze, and Pinky's knows it. Technical issue aside, when I bit into the bacon, grilled ham, spinach and tomato that were stacked beneath the eggs and homemade hollandaise, I forgave the glitch. Traditional English muffin halves were the base for this tasty Blackstone Benedict conglomeration, which was served with rosemary home fries and fresh fruit.

Known for its oatmeal pancakes, Pinky's offers them a la carte, so the Maven ordered one:

The Oatmeal Pancake. All hail the carbohydrate! Life is worth living.

Dusted with powdered sugar and a bit of butter, it was fluffy, savory and sweet. These fine specimens rate a return visit.

We ordered cafe con leche and a latte. The cafe con leche was too foamy. I had to slog through the foam to get to the coffee, resulting in a milk mustache. Pass. The Maven had a latte. I forgot to ask her how it was. Maybe she'll comment.  I'll stick with standard coffee next time.

Service was scattered. Our server was friendly but inattentive and the Maven had to get up and lasso him at the bar to get him to cash us out. We both would have liked a second cup of coffee but he never came around to ask.

Breakfast for two, including tip, was $36.

Verdict: It's Pinky's, not Stinky's

Pinky's Diner on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 20, 2012

Carmel Cafe and Wine Bar: A Shooting Star

How many times have you heard the assertion that 90 percent of restaurants fail in their first year? Well, I've got some news for you: According to a study done by Ohio State University's hospitality management program, that's a myth. Results of the study, published in 2007, found that about one in four restaurants close or change ownership within their first year of business.

Surprisingly, the nine-out-of-10 urban legend seems to have been perpetuated by none other than American Express in a 2003 TV spot featuring chef Rocco DeSpirito. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Ohio State hospitality professor H.G. Parsa asked American Express where they got that number and the company had no clue. Uh oh!

One local restaurant that's beating the odds, whether accurate or inflated, is Carmel Cafe and Wine Bar. In fact, I'll wager it's destined for "chaindom," which is hardly surprising when you know who's behind it -- a restaurant success story himself, one of the Outback Steakhouse founders, Chris Sullivan. His savvy new group premiered the first Carmel Cafe in Clearwater in 2010, the second at this location in Carrollwood in 2011 and this year adds two more -- one which recently opened in Sarasota and another that will launch next month in South Tampa.

Is it any wonder this is a winning concept? Small plates offered at a good price point, mouthwatering beauty shots of all the menu items showcased on a user-friendly iPad, an interesting selection of modern Mediterranean entrees, nice pours from a wide array of wines, comfortably hip and delightfully lit decor...Everything is so tempting and enjoyable that before you know it, your guest check has ballooned. Ingenious!

Each table gets an iPad. We were given a printed menu too.

Carmel Cafe is especially fun for a group because many plates are geared for sharing and the iPad menu promotes an "I'll-order-this-if-you-order-that" mob mentality. One thing I want to point out: You set the pace of the meal, so if you initially order from the iPad everything you plan to eat, expect to see all of the courses crowding your table at one time. Nobody told us that bit of information when I first visited for lunch and the appetizers and salads appeared simultaneously because we ordered our whole meal in one full swoop. At dinner, our server explained that the diners set the pace. If you want to linger over your wine and nibble on your appetizer for 20 minutes, have at it. When you're ready for the next plate, reach for the iPad and tap in your choice.The order shoots to the kitchen and as soon as the dish is ready -- which is crazy fast -- it's brought to the table. Armed with that knowledge, we had a leisurely dinner that flowed flawlessly.

During my two visits, here are a few things I sampled:

Chickpea Fries with Tomato Jam and Curry Aioli
A little crispy and a little creamy. Sister Foodie and I liked these with the curry dip.

Pistachio Apricot Quinoa Couscous
This was unusual but not memorable.

Red and Yellow Roasted Beets with Goat Cheese, Watercress and Arugula
A very tasty lunch salad that I would repeat on another trip.

Pressed Angus Burger with Caramelized Onions and Chili Aioli
 A Hubmeister favorite! 

Spinach Gnocchi Marseille
Hard to go wrong with mussels, shrimp and scallops in a bouillabaisse broth.
 I could have done without the goop on the crouton but in general
the flavors were mighty fine.

The evening atmosphere attracts a more sophisticated crowd -- picture romantic-date-night 20s and 30s meets middle-aged-to-aging country clubbers who can knock back their fair share of vino.The night of our visit the bar area was buzzing but pleasant, packed mostly with people waiting for tables.

Some interior shots for your enjoyment:

Pretty is a pretty lame adjective, but here it suits.

Lots of wine. Mmmmm.....
Carmel Cafe is open for lunch and dinner and serves brunch on the weekend. Reservations are accepted for parties of six or more, but smaller parties can call ahead for preferred seating.

Verdict: Fun night out


Carmel Cafe and Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Local Flavor: West Tampa Sandwich Shop

I discovered this place when Son of Hubmeister went to nearby Tampa Catholic High School. A  modest, stand-alone, homey establishment, West Tampa Sandwich Shop is on Armenia Ave. near MLK and it's easy to miss. The parking lot closest to the front door is always full but they have an overflow lot just south on Armenia. This is a quintessential Tampa haunt where you're just as likely to spy prominent local politicians as you are Spanish-speaking grandmas.

Yup, plastic covers are on the tables.  

This bustling place is on my list of culinary rarities I will miss if I ever move out of Tampa. The photos of family, friends and random diners papering the walls of the little house, the bizarre food-service carts rolled through the tiny dining area by ladies who look as if they've worked there for decades, the incessant grinding of coffee beans, the crowded, old-fashioned food counter overlooking women crafting Cuban sandwiches on bread that is 10 feet long, old Cuban guys meeting for a meal or simply getting a cup of Cuban coffee and reading the paper - it all adds to a certain retro Latin charm. I can best describe it as the Cuban version of the American diner.

Empty seats are uncommon. I was here at an off hour.

Breakfast and lunch are the meals I've enjoyed, but they serve dinner as well. I recommend the ropa vieja sandwich, but I usually can't resist ordering half a Cuban and a cup of black bean soup with a cafe con leche.

Half a Cuban and a cup of soup: Find a better meal for $5.50!

The Cuban sandwich offered here doesn't get enough media attention. It's one of the best in the city.

With prices so affordable, I don't know how they make a profit, but after 30 years in business, I think they've got it figured out. And the people watching is free!

Just a note: After a visit to WTSS, head south on Armenia to Cacciatore Bros., a family-run Italian market and butcher shop that also stocks Spanish products. Be sure to take home some homemade sausage. They also have terrific olive salad in their deli area.

Verdict: Local favorite


West Tampa Sandwich Shop on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Finding Faves at Dockside Dave's

Holy rhymes and alliteration, Batman, my blog break is over!

What brought me back?

I needed a nudge, I needed inspiration, I needed....a fried grouper sandwich and onion rings at Dockside Dave's on St. Pete Beach!

I feel compelled to share my half-pound black grouper bonanza with the food-following public. That, and to shout out a new Totally Tasty Find:  Dockside Dave's onion rings!

Let's begin with those sweet vegetables of shame, shall we? They were sliced thick, dipped in a fairly light batter that was seasoned to salt and peppery perfection, and then fried to a golden crisp. Sure, there was some grease left behind on the tissue paper in the basket. Who cares? These babies rank among the best onion rings I have ever eaten. You know when you bite into an onion ring and the strand of onion sometimes disengages from the batter and all you're left with is a greasy, empty shell and chin-singeing onion trailing from your mouth? That doesn't happen here.What you bite into is what you get. No flesh-scorching facial surprises.Try them dipped in the horseradish sauce that is brought to your table. Yowza! I would return for a basket of those alone (along with the ice-cold Michelob I downed).

But, wait! This meal is just beginning. First of all, Hubmeister hilariously asked our amusing T-shirt-and-shorts-clad server if they had fish sandwiches, to which she flatly replied, "Nobody feels like reading today." Amen. She was a hoot.They sure as hell didn't feel like listening, either. On our way to the little beachside hangout, I explained to my loving husband that sampling the made-famous-by-Southern-Living grouper sandwich was the whole point of this mission. In addition, this beach dive features the hallowed fish sandwich at the top of its menu and states six different ways you can have it prepared, thus the waitress' comment about reading the menu. Earth to Hubmeister!

So, the Southern Living magazine article is hanging on the wall facing me and I can't wait to see if this sandwich beats out the best grouper sandwich in the Bay area (and possibly anywhere on the planet), which, in my opinion, is the beautiful beast served up by Frenchy's in Clearwater. (See my blog post: "Totally Tasty Find: Frenchy's Super Grouper Sandwich.")

Funny Waitress (and I call her waitress because she is old enough to be cool enough not to be insulted by the term waitress) told us that the beer-battered version is Dockside Dave's signature item, so Hubs and I ordered that preparation, while Son of Hubs opted for the blackened technique.The server also recommended that we scale down the sides because the fish portions are big. I believe she meant GARGANTUAN! A half-pound of fried grouper was placed before me, twice the size of the cornmeal-dusted bun it crowned, and I knew immediately I would be ditching the bread.

The grouper fillet spanned the length of the basket. Can you find the bun? It's there!

The grouper - fresh, mild and moist - was the heavenly star of the show. If you can manage to eat it sandwich-style, which Hubs and Son did, you can top it with the fresh slice of tomato, onion, pickle and romaine lettuce leaf that are served alongside the fish. The sandwich comes solo and is market price, which was $12.95.

In our blissful ignorance, we ordered small baskets of onion rings and waffle fries for the table. FYI - the adjective "small" is an understatement.They might be considered small to giants.The fries were totally wasted and it's a shame because they were piping hot and brought to the table by a guy from the kitchen who obviously didn't want them wilting under a heat lamp, indicative that the people here care about food quality. Nevertheless, we had no room for fries as we were practically morphing into fish and swimming out the door by the time we left. Note to self: When dining at Dockside Dave's remember the old adage, your eyes are bigger than your stomach.

Despite our grouper afterglow, Hubs and I still place Frenchy's fish sandwich as winner by a nose. For me, it's mainly because I can manage Frenchy's rendition as an actual sandwich; and for Hubs, because Frenchy's version comes topped with melted cheese. By the way, you can order cheese on your sandwich at Dockside Dave's, and Dave's batter is crispier than Frenchy's, if you happen to prefer it that way.

All told, if you are in the area and feel like some bodacious onion rings and a monstrous portion of fresh seafood, don't hesitate to visit the cheesy (and greasy) Gilligan's Island atmosphere and wiseass waitresses at Dockside Dave's.

Verdict: Greasy thumbs up...and postworthy!


Dockside Dave's on Urbanspoon