The food abides…

Restaurants

Epcot International Food & Wine Fest – Lobster Alfredo Bake

I intend to talk a lot more about Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival after I’ve had a few more visits this season. But as a preview I’ll leave you with this:

 

Epcot Food and Wine - Lobster Alfredo Pie and Octoberfest

From the America Pavilion menu, a Lobster Alfredo Bake paired with a Sam Adams Octtoberfest. Loaded with huge chunks of lobster and three different kinds of cheeses, this thing was off the chain.

More to come as I’m hitting Food & Wine again this week with some friends who are visiting from out-of-town.

Until then, remember… the food abides…


Blue Crab at Pincher’s Crab Shack

Blue Crab Pinchers

Blue crab is notoriously difficult to get down here so when Pincher’s opened up in the Shoppes at Wiregrass I had to give it a shot. Taking apart and eating blue crab is hard work, but it’s totally worth it. Pincher’s carries just about every major variety of crab there is so it’s nice to have a place like this so close by.


Eggs & Grits at Datz

Datz Brunch

Eggs & Grits at Datz! Egg white omelet with spinach and mushrooms, cheddar grits and 7-grain toast. I have yet to have a bad meal at this place and they’re dog-friendly to boot!


Road Trip – Two Roads Brewing and The Walrus & Carpenter, Stratford/Bridgeport, CT

Took a short trip up to the Tri-State area for a family gathering this past weekend. Got to spend a little time with one of my best friends eating and drinking our way into early graves via malted hops and fatty meats. I know I usually keep my fare on the healthy side, but hey, I was on vacation.  We hit two spots that evening, Two Roads Brewing Company in Stratford, CT and the Walrus & Carpenter Smokehouse and Gastropub in Bridgeport, CT.

Two Roads Brewing

Two Roads Building

Most of my Connecticut friends have been raving about this place over social media and being a fellow zythophile, Two Roads Brewing Company has been on my radar for quite some time.

Two Roads Flight

We started with flights and I choose the seasonal selection as I figured I can always try their year round sampler at a later time. The beers were flavorful and unique which is something I look for when doing this kind of sampling. Among others, selections included their Road Jam Raspberry and Lemongrass Ale, Hizzoner Maibock and Henry’s Farm Double Bock, which were my favorites of the bunch. The Road Jam had a framboise flavor and mouthfeel which was fruity and refreshing. The Hizzoner was a bold maibock, woody with a light hint of honey. And the Henry’s Farm was a perfect double bock which had some really great toffee and brown sugar notes.

Two Roads Ol Factory IPA

I also gave their Ol’ Factory Pils a whirl and I was pleasantly surprised; it’s a solid, dry, hoppy pilsner. I’ve only been a fan of a few rare pilsners preferring dark malty beers but this one definitely made the list.

Two Roads Brewery Floor

One of the coolest things about this brewery is the fact that the tasting room is on the second story with full view of the brewery floor via wall length glass. Was really cool to have this kind of open-access view of the beer-making process while we sampled the goods.

If I was this impressed with this place I will need to make it a point to head in again in the future and sample their Fall and Winter seasonals.

The Walrus & Carpenter Smokehouse and Gastropub

Walrus & Carpenter Sign

For dinner we decided to head to the Walrus & Carpenter. I’d been to this location years and years ago when it was still the old Black Rock Castle and boy has this place changed. It’s honestly something I’d expect to find in one of the more sophisticated areas of New York City. The Walrus & Carpenter is a foodie’s paradise serving smoked meats and boasting of an impressive bourbon and craft beer list.

Walrus & Carpenter Oskar Blues GKnight

We started with some more beers and this time I decided to give the Oskar Blues G’Knight Imperial Red Ale a whirl. It was a really good blend of flavors with the caramel and tropical fruit notes balancing each other around a nice hint of pine. I’ve never had anything by Oskar Blues before but this was enough for me to remember to seek it out in the future.

Walrus & Carpenter Mason Jar

One of the more entertaining notions was that they served any beer designated for a pint glass in these unique mason jars etched with a dog on the side. I’ve never seen glassware like this before and I was almost tempted to offer to buy one before realizing I’d never get it on the plane when I returned to Florida.

Walrus & Carpenter Blue Cheese Olives

We started with a couple of small plates. I had the Fried Blue Cheese Stuffed Olives and my buddy ordered the Poutine. The olives were phenomenal, crunchy and salty just like you’d expect. Poutine is something that hasn’t worked its way down to Florida yet. Fried potatoes with gravy and mozzarella curds. While I was very curious, the gravy was made from veal which means I couldn’t sample due to my red meat prohibition. My compatriot was throughly impressed however.

Walrus & Carpenter Fried Chicken

Being a smokehouse meant that there were a good number of items on the menu that I couldn’t try but that didn’t stop me from enjoying what I could. I ordered the Southern Fried Chicken which was out of this world. Served with a black pepper biscuit and a srirachia-honey sauce this is about as good a fried chicken gets. My friend got the Maple Bourbon Baby Back Ribs which was served with a bourbon bbq sauce, cole slaw and a slice of cornbread; he was equally impressed.

Walrus & Carpenter Pig

It’s definitely a trendy place right down to the waiter with the vest and the handlebar moustache and the minimalist outline of a pig on the side of the building. Would you really expect any different from an eatery named after two characters in a Lewis Carroll story? As long as that kind of thing doesn’t bother you, this place is worth the shot.

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I usually try to hit new locations but both of these were impressive enough to warrant return visits on my next trip to Connecticut. If you’re already there and haven’t tried either of these, do yourself a favor and make a reminder to do so in the near future. You won’t regret it.

Special thanks go out to my buddy Z for accompanying me on the evening’s culinary adventure.

Tried Two Roads or the Walrus & Carpenter? Leave a note in the comments section below!

And remember… the food abides…


Review – The Mermaid Tavern

Mermaid Tavern Old Seminole Heights

I’m always on the lookout for new undiscovered hideaways and Seminole Heights seems to be very conducive for these types of establishments. So far it hasn’t disappointed me and the Mermaid Tavern has added another notch to its belt. Located just off of Sligh on Nebraska Avenue, the Mermaid’s outward appearance definitely belies something greater.

Let’s be honest here, when you think of Nebraska Avenue the first images that come to your mind are likely of prostitutes, crappy strip clubs and seedy motels. Indeed there’s one of the said motels right across the street from the Mermaid but if you can get past the location your tolerance will be rewarded.

Inside, the Mermaid is a polished gem; definitely a much more trendy establishment than you’d guess from the outside. There’s somewhat of a nautical theme throughout the place but slightly more eclectic. The tables and chairs are mismatched but somehow it all seems to work together. The lighting is dim enough to add some ambiance but still bright enough to see. A shelf full of board games lines the wall. A large blackboard hung by the bar showcases the evenings’ myriad of craft beer offerings.

While it doesn’t look like it would be, the Mermaid is a kind of half-service establishment. You get your own drinks at the bar and if you’d like to eat, you also order at the bar at which point they’ll give you a number to put on your table and bring out your food when its ready.

We started with beer as the menu listed quite a few brews I’d never even heard of and I spend a great deal of time at beer bars like the Brass Tap and World of Beer. I started with a Smuttynose Scotch Ale which I’d never tried before and which was surprisingly strong. After a beer or two we ordered from a menu which showcased a number of unique dishes; everyday pub-fare this was not.

Mermaid Tavern - Fried Pickles and Black Truffle Fries

We decided to start with a few appetizers and chose the Fried Pickles and the Black Truffle French Fries. Fried pickles have recently become more and more of a commonplace pub-food, but these were whole petite dills rather than pickle chips or spears and I think that helped cut down on the water which made them fry up a little more solidly. The breading was a beer batter that used a nice ale rather than just a standard macrobrew and the seasoning was spot-on.

The black truffle french fries were off the chain. Between the truffles, the shredded cheese and the garlic aioli, these things were a taste explosion. I’d recommend them to anyone who’s a first-timer at the Mermaid.

Mermaid Tavern - Drunken Grilled Cheese

For my entree I had to try the Drunken Grilled Cheese. At some point you have to say a grilled cheese is just a grilled cheese, but the flavor and texture of this thing was like no cheese sandwich I’d ever had before. A triple-decker, this sandwich was made with four different kinds of cheeses, including a drunken cheese which uses alcohol in the cheesemaking process. The chef added some olive tapanade which gave it a savory flavor and served it with a blackberry chutney that rounded out the dish quite nicely. A spinach salad with a raspberry vinaigrette complimented it perfectly and made me feel slightly less guilty about the heart-attack-on-a-plate it was sitting next to. On the recommendation of the mustachioed bartender, I ordered a Crafted Artisan Pollinator (a blackberry mead) to go along with this and it was an insanely good pairing.

Portions sizes were right in line with the price which was very reasonable and I don’t have a single complaint about the food, the booze or the service. When dinner was over we settled in, talked, enjoyed some more drinks and people-watched.

On that note, the people who frequent the establishment seem to be from very diverse backgrounds and appear to genuinely enjoy the melting-pot vibe of the Mermaid. This may be par the course for Seminole Heights but it’s still good to see.

If you’re looking for an undiscovered hideaway with excellent food, a great craft beer menu and an all-around enjoyable atmosphere, give the Mermaid a go.

Tried the Mermaid Tavern? Leave a message in the comments section!

And remember… the food abides…


Review – The Stein & Vine

Have you ever heard the phrase undiscovered hideaway? Whoever coined it could easily have been describing the Stein & Vine and they wouldn’t have been that far off the mark.

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My introduction to the Stein & Vine was for a friend’s recent birthday. They had been there once before and loved it so it was their location of choice for the festivities. They really built it up so I’ll admit that my expectations were kind of high, but it totally delivered.

Off of King’s Highway in Brandon, tucked in between a gun shop and a dollar store with only a simple red neon sign that says “PUB” visible from the road, you’d never know that the Stein & Vine was there if you weren’t told about it beforehand. However the humble and unassuming location belies an amazing establishment once you walk through the doors.

The Stein & Vine is decked out in brick, hardwood and industrial fixtures, with a large granite bar as the focal point of the establishment accented with Bavarian steins and rare wine bottles. Two large chalkboards tower over a decorative fireplace and advertise the evening’s current selections.

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As the name suggests, the Stein & Vine features a wide selection of draft beers and rarer wines, many of which are in a constant rotation. I happened to visit again two weeks later and only about half of the same beers were still there on the second visit, the rest being replaced by newer selections. As someone who loves trying new beers and wines, this is something that will keep me coming back again and again.

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Tried a Green Flash Palate Wrecker and loved it. This was a deep brown ale with a nice bite to it and it went really well with the drunken shrimp we ordered as an appetizer.

Speaking of food, the menu, while on the smaller side is rather impressive. They could have easily done standard pub food that could just be thrown in a fryer, but the owners made a wise decision to go with some really unique and tasty choices.

Pig Wings (fried pork ribs with served with a number of different sauces), Drunken Shrimp (cooked in Curious Traveler Shandy or fried in a batter with Cigar City’s Maduro Brown Ale) and a Spicy Buffalo Chicken Philly Cheesesteak are some if the items you’ll find on the menu. Additionally, they will sometimes create special dishes for certain events. During July’s New Belgium Brewery Welcome Party, they offered a Meatloaf Sandwich that was marinated in Fat Tire Amber Ale. I do not eat red meat, but the sight of that dish nearly drove me to break a twelve-year moratorium on beef.

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I went with the Baja Fish Tacos. As I’ve mentioned before, fish tacos are my hamburgers and I’ve got to try them everywhere I go. Served with Roasted Corn Salsa and an Avocado Salad these were just about as good as a fish taco can get and again, it’s something you wouldn’t expect here; every member of our party absolutely loved the food.

It’s important to note, that as small as this establishment is, they still took a reservation for 8 people on a Saturday night. This was a very good thing as I noticed it started to fill up pretty quickly as we headed farther into the dinnertime hour. If you’ve got a larger group, I’d recommend giving them a quick call.

After dinner we retired to a little area in the back with a couple of dart boards and some hightops where we were able to just relax, have some drinks and throw some darts in peace. Great night, great birthday fiesta for my friend and a great establishment. If you’re in the Brandon area or you’re just looking for an undiscovered hideaway to brag about, give the Stein & Vine a shot.

Tried the Stein & Vine? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

And remember… the food abides…


Review – Copperfish Seafood Grille and Raw Bar

CopperFish - Logo

Historically, the location at 1502 SoHo has never really been a place I paid much attention to, largely because it’s located at the very end of Howard Ave. When you’re rolling the dice you literally have 30 other restaurants or bars to pass before you get to the end of the strip and something else always caught my attention before I got there. When I first moved to Tampa it was Le Bordeaux. After that it became St. Bart’s Island House. Most recently it was the Samba Room. Honestly I never really had the desire to try any of them. However, the new concept, CopperFish Seafood Grille and Raw Bar aims to change that. If my dining experience last night was any indication, they’re going to do an incredible job.

After valet parking (VERY much appreciated in a place like SoHo which can get really crowded), the first thing I noticed was the feel of the place. It has a slightly upscale vibe but without that pretentiousness that restaurants like this can sometimes fall victim to. The decor is a really interesting blend of contemporary and New England coastal. The heavy beechwood tables, wrought iron fixtures, copper art and bright white hurricane shutters almost made me feel like I was dining on the water in Rhode Island, Connecticut or Massachusetts. There’s an outdoor bar with couches, white curtains and a cool-looking fountain and the patrons there seemed to really be enjoying themselves.

Our group was seated immediately at our reservation time and our server was well versed in the menu, specifically noting the items on the largest raw shellfish selection I’ve seen anywhere in Florida.

Copperfish - Grilled Gulf Oysters

Our group started with the Grilled Gulf Oysters as an appetizer and they were absolutely amazing. They had at least eight different types of seasonal oysters available from all different regions and we decided to go with the Gulf variety. Grilled as opposed to steamed, which is something I’ve never tried before, these were cooked with a little garlic, butter and parsley, a bit of parmesan and romano cheese and a light dusting of seafood seasoning. Easily some of the best oysters I’ve ever had and you could tell how fresh they were in the first bite.

Following the apps, I had to decide on my entrée, and I was drawn to one item on the menu before anything else… the Hot Lobster Roll. A lobster roll is a New England thing and it’s incredibly hard to find a place down here that serves one. If they do, it’s usually a mayonnaise-laden cold lobster roll (which I maintain is not a real lobster roll; it’s a lobster salad sandwich). CopperFish does serve a cold version of the roll if that’s your preference.

Copperfish - Hot Lobster Roll

This was a phenomenal Lobster Roll. The lobster meat was incredibly fresh, the bun was toasted perfectly and the sandwich was lightly buttered rather than slathered in it as lobster rolls can sometimes be. There was also the welcome addition of a tiny bit of what I can only describe as a creamy seafood au jus and it kicked the whole dish up a notch. If you’re from New England like me and you really miss a good lobster roll, definitely consider this.

Copperfish - Salt and Vinegar Potato Planks

The roll came with their signature Old Bay Kettle Chips, but I wanted to try a side item that looked really good, so I also grabbed an order of the sea salt and vinegar potato planks. These were crispy and pulled in the flavor notes without overpowering you with salt or being so drenched in vinegar that they’re soggy. They also served the planks in an individual fry-basket on top of a heavy cutting board which I thought was an ingenious presentation choice on the part of the chef.

Copperfish - Red Bear Bomber

It’s worth noting that their alcohol selection, while not overly extensive, included quite a few uncommon wines and unique microbrews. There were a handful of 22 oz “bomber” beers and I tried the Bear Republic Red Rocket Ale which is a microbrew I’ve never had before. A deep red-brown ale, it had a great flavor and complimented the seafood perfectly.

Each of my friends enjoyed their meals as much as I did and we left more than satisfied and intending to return. The manager even stopped us on the way out to ask how we enjoyed our experience which just proved to me how serious they are about making sure their patrons are pleased.

If you like seafood as much as I do and you’ve driven by 1502 without ever giving the eatery there a second glance, do yourself a  favor and try CopperFish. I can’t imagine anyone having anything less than a stellar dining experience.

Tried CopperFish? What did you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments section!

And remember… the food abides…


Ground Duck Burger @ Square 1

I’ve been a fan of Square 1 Burgers for quite some time now.  Since I can’t eat red meat but still love burgers, I’ve found their variety of other burger options to be really impressive. In addition to the standard turkey and veggie burgers that can be found as substitutions in most other restaurants, Square-1 also serves ground ostrich, duck, chicken, salmon, and portabello mushrooms, among others.

Square 1 Duck Burger

Decided to give the ground duck a shot and I’m glad I did. While they had a specific duck burger that was served with ginger, carmelized onions and baked apples, I decided to go with their standard Old Fashioned burger. Just lettuce, tomatoes, red onions,  american cheese and Dijon mustard. Subbed out the standard fries for sweet potato with a little sugar and cinnamon.  

The flavor was incredible. Duck tends to be gamey but the meat was made with a decent grind and it wasn’t overcooked so gaminess wasn’t even a concern. With a good char, this was probably the closest thing I’ve come to an actual beef burger (although since I haven’t had one in about 14 years my memory may be a little shaky) Bottom line, even if you’re not a fan of game birds, this is well worth a try.

Ostrich is next on the “to try” list, but I’ll still hold the duck pretty high up there.

Have you tried the duck or another of Square 1’s specialty burgers? Leave a message in the comments section!

And remember… the food abides…


Yellow Curry Chicken & Chips @ the Pub

Was at the Pub with some friends this weekend and tried the Yellow Curry Chicken & Chips

Yellow Curry Chicken and Chips

Really good stuff. I’m not a huge fan of the really spicy red type of curry so the fact that they had a milder yellow curry option on the menu was awesome. Went perfectly with a pint of Hobgoblin Ruby Ale.


Review – Cooper’s Hawk Restaurant and Winery

Coopers 1b

Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant recently opened a Tampa location within a relatively close proximity to my office (yes the Food Dude has a day-job) and a co-worker gave it a shot and really liked it. A couple of weeks later another friend of mine was talking about it and she was absolutely raving.  This had me more than a little curious. A quick internet search yielded a whole lot of people echoing the same sentiment so I resolved to give it a try.

After paying them a visit with a couple of buddies, I can happily report that it’s everything it’s been hyped up to be and more. If there’s a phrase that applies to Cooper’s Hawk, it would dining experience.

I love it when a culinary experience is about more than just food. It’s a rare thing when ambiance, character, flavors and personality all come to to provide a level of immersion that you don’t find very often.

Being both a restaurant and a winery, Cooper’s Hawk includes a shop and tasting room. The shop sells various wine accessories and of course you can purchase bottles of their wine. My friends and I decided to show up about 45 minutes before our reservation to do a tasting. Tasters are given multiple options for a tasting; whites, reds, a mix of both, desert wines and seasonal samples comprised of some of their limited offerings. 

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We went with the mixed sampler composed of both reds and whites. There wasn’t a bad wine in the bunch. Our server was knowledgable both about the history of the winery as well as the wines she was serving us. She also allowed us to substitute a Sangiovese for an Orange Muscat that none of us were interested in and it turned out to be my favorite of all the reds. I never once felt like it was just a gimmick to get you to buy their wine.

Our table wound up being ready shortly before our tasting was done but we were told we could come back after our meal to finish up, another great service move.  I would still recommend showing up at least an hour ahead of time if you would like to do a tasting in order to get the most out of it and not be rushed.

The restaurant itself is casual but the design is so contemporary it has an almost an upscale air to it. Our server knew her stuff and was quick to explain the menu concept. Each dish is prepared by the chef to work with a particular wine, with certain specials coinciding with seasonal vintages. Each dish has an associated Bin number which is the pairing suggestion they recommend.

There are also wine specials. On the server’s recommendation we all decided to try the Vintner’s Blend which was a red table wine made from five noble grapes. Once again adding to both the value and the experience, she brought us each a sample so we could taste it before committing to a full glass. Hands down one of the best glasses of red that I’ve had in a long time.

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For an appetizer we decided to try their sampler platter which included their Over the Border Egg Rolls, Tenderloin Sliders, Chicken Potstickers and Mini Crab Cakes. Far from your standard greasy pub food, the flavors went perfectly with the Vintner’s Blend.  The potstickers, crab cakes and eggrolls were excellent and although I don’t eat red meat, my compatriots stated the sliders were phenomenal.

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For dinner I decided to try the Roasted Eggplant Ravioli. This was a ravioli stuffed with eggplant, squash, zucchini, red onion and mozzarella and it was served with artichokes, kalamata olives and goat cheese in a San Marzano tomato sauce. Perfectly executed, this was a really flavorful dish and my iPhone photos do not do it justice. The tomato sauce was light and not acidic at all and the goat cheese gave it a creamy balance.

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This dish was paired with their Lux Pinot Noir that had a slightly spicy finish to it and it could not have complimented the meal better. When they say they build the menu around perfect pairings they’re NOT kidding.

Portion sizes were spot on which was something I was worried about before the food came because one of the first things I noticed about the menu was how reasonably priced it was. I fully understand that the booze is what they’re making their money on but oneophiles know what kind of pricing to expect when drinking wine. The fact that they offset that by making their food prices as reasonable as possible is a great business plan. So if you’re not a wine drinker, Cooper’s Hawk is some incredible food at a great price.

After the disappointing visit to the Cigar City Brewpub, a similar concept that was executed very poorly, I couldn’t have been more pleased with my first  visit to Cooper’s Hawk and intend to return multiple times with more wine-swilling friends in tow. If you like wine or contemporary american cuisine, give them a try some weekend. If you like both, give them a try NEXT weekend.

Tried Cooper’s Hawk? What did you think? Leave a message in the comments!

And remember… the food abides…


Review – Cigar City Brewpub

I’ve been a fan of Cigar City for quite some time now. The Tampa-based brewery has long produced some really great styles of microbrews. In fact their Autumn seasonal, Good Gourd, is one of my favorite pumpkin ales. When I heard they were opening a Brewpub in the Carrollwood area I was more than a little curious. So last Saturday a buddy of mine and I decided to head up there and check it out.

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I made a reservation and it was a good thing I did, because it was extremely crowded and I’m assuming that was a good sign. The majority of the traffic seemed to be going in and out of the bar, as is to be expected from an establishment such as this, but there wasn’t an empty table anywhere else in the place and plenty of patrons waiting for a seat.

The decor was interesting with dark wooden panels, Key West-style shutters and lots of brass. It felt like a throwback to a pre-revolution Cuban jazz club, which isn’t surprising given Cuba’s influence on our city’s local culture. However there’s also a trendy contemporary influence such as the wall borders made from vintage beer cans.

Our server wasted no time taking our drink orders and we obviously chose the beer. I was a little disappointed that they did not offer any beer flights. They have so many unique beers on draft and I would have preferred a sampling of all of them rather than just having to choose one or two for the evening. She knew her beer and was able to answer questions on the fly with a complete knowledge of their catalog.

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I started with the Maduro Brown Ale which I’d had before. I wanted to see if there was a consistency in their brewing and there was. This is easily one of my favorites among their standard offerings. Rich and hearty, it’s a deep brown ale with a nutty, oatty complexity. There’s faint hints of cocoa and espresso which is good, because I don’t like being overpowered by those flavors unless I’m drinking a desert beer. It’s heavier for an ale, but in the right proportions. Definitely a solid beer.

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After the Maduro, I tried the Hotter than Helles Lager. As a Lager it’s a lighter brew which admittedly I don’t do as well with, but not a bad beer at all. There’s a citrus and strawberry note which mellows out into a light grassy flavor after a while. I didn’t expect such hints of fruit which may have caused my palette a little bit of confusion and ultimately I didn’t enjoy it as much as the ale but it still got the job done.

After a while we moved onto the food. This is where Cigar City Brewpub is a rousing success while simultanouesly being somewhat of a disappointment.  Like Cigar City’s beer, the food is a throwback to the Latin influences of our city. The chef obviously did his research and it’s apparent in the menu.

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As an appetizer I ordered the Devil Crab Roll.  This was a breaded crabmeat roll infused with lime and spices and really packed a flavorful punch. It was served with a very spicy habanero sauce which complimented the roll perfectly. My sole complaint with this roll was its size, as can be seen in the photo. Yes, I’m aware I’m eating crab and crab isn’t cheap but this is not what I would consider proportionate at all. If they had brought me two of these for $14 instead one for almost $10 they would have made money and I would have been satisfied with the dish. Sadly this was not the case.

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For dinner I ordered a Grilled Yellowtail with Root Vegetables and Sautéed Collard Greens. The fish was flavorful, moist and served under a brownish sauce that I couldn’t identify; it tasted very similar to an Asian fish sauce but with a slightly more Latin flavor. The root vegetables (which were not named but tasted like turnips and celery root) were crispy and not greasy but could have used a pinch more salt. The collards were excellent but I’m a sucker for my leafy green veggies so I may be biased. The flavors went well together and I was a little more satisfied with the portion size to cost than I was with the Devil Crab.

Ultimately I was left with a feeling of not quite enough food for the price I paid. I know portion sizes are a pet peeve of mine but this is doubly so when you’re dealing with a drinking establishment. If I’m going to sample their beer I want a solid base in my stomach so I can better avoid a state of inebriation and I shouldn’t have to break my wallet doing so.

Final thoughts: give this place a shot if price is no object as the food is worth experiencing. If not, I’d recommend eating somewhere else and just partaking of the beers at Cigar City Brewpub. It’s their forte and when it comes to beer they know what they’re doing.

Tried the Cigar City Brewpub or any of their microbrews? Leave a message in the comments section!

And remember… the food abides…


Review – Gallery Eclectic Bistro

Recently had some family in town for a quick overnight trip. On our way to the airport we had a couple of hours to kill before their flight so we decided to grab a little lunch and figured Bay Street at International Plaza would be a good idea due to the proximity. We had planned on just grabbing a table at the Cheesecake Factory but they were slammed even at 2PM on a Saturday afternoon and the wait would have left us cutting it a little close to their flight. After a quick scan of the local establishments we decided to try the Gallery Eclectic Bistro.

Gallery Eclectic Bistro

I must have walked past this place at least twenty times without giving it a second glance, probably because I’m usually making a beeline right for the Pub, one of my all-time favorite watering holes. I’d read a couple of reviews on Yelp and another in Creative Loafing and everything seemed to insinuate that this place could be a little bit hit-or-miss. Always one to form my own opinions unless a rabid majority is telling me otherwise, I went in with an open mind.

Gallery seemed to be an appropriate name as the entire restaurant looked like one big art gallery. The architecture is art-deco, there’s modern art on the walls of most of the tables and art lamps lighting them up which gives it a true gallery feeling. I have no idea if the art is local or if they switch it out every so often, but it makes for a pretty interesting environment.

I’d heard complaints about the service but found no such problems during our visit. Our server was attentive and took no time at all bringing us our orders. Additionally, I always consider it a huge plus when I ask “what do you like here” and the server doesn’t just rattle off random names but actually conveys personal favorites; our server did so with gusto.

I wound up ordering the Goose Island seasonal brew which I’d never tried before. Goose Island is a midwestern microbrew which is starting to slowly make its way into the bars and restaurants down here and this is a boon as I’ve found most of their other varietals to be rather flavorful. I’m glad the Gallery Bistro decided to carry it.

When it came to the food, “Eclectic” is definitely an apt title. I would consider this contemporary american cuisine with a little twist. Each dish had kind of a cool spin on what would usually be considered normal.

Fried Zucchini and Blue Cheese Stuffed Olives 

For an appetizer we ordered a plate of fried zucchini and blue cheese stuffed olives. It was quick-fried in a tempura batter rather than your standard flour and egg dredge (typical of pub food), which actually made a huge difference. I’d also never had a fried olive before but the flavors were rather unique. I’d recommend this app to anyone who is a fan of tempura.

Caribbean Jerk WhitefishEntrée was a caribbean jerk whitefish topped with an amazing pineapple, mango and jalapeno salsa with some raisins thrown in for good measure. These flavors melded together perfectly, with the sweetness of the fruit complimenting the heat of the jalapeno and jerk seasonings, giving an excellent taste to a usually bland type of fish.

My cousin ordered a sesame-honey cedar plank salmon (a bite of which she insisted I try can be seen on my plate) and her husband got the thai-grouper reuben wrap. Both noted that their dishes were excellent, with my cousin especially impressed that the salmon wasn’t dried out which sometimes happens when cooking on a cedar plank.

Portion sizes were spot-on and I left feeling full. If I had one nitpicky complaint it would be that they put a good amount of food on plates that are kind of gigantic which makes the presentation look a little empty. However, I suppose if they did it the other way around, smaller plates would give the illusion of skimping on food and that would probably be worse.

Given that it seems a lot of people pass this place by and the reviews are so hit-or-miss, I have to say I’m a little confused. Gallery Eclectic Bistro was an excellent dining experience and my first visit left me with one hell of a positive impression. If you’re on the fence, give it a shot.

Tried the Gallery Bistro before? What did you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

And remember… the food abides…


Road Trip – Chicken Sandwiches @ Sam’s Bar and Grille, PCNY

Had to head up to Connecticut for my cousin’s wedding this weekend and since most of my family was at the rehearsal dinner, my two best friends volunteered to pick me up from the airport. I usually fly into New York and since one of them lives in Greenwich, we figured that general area would be a good place to stop for a little dinner and a couple of beers.

We wound up heading to Sam’s Bar and Grille. It’s just a tiny little dive bar right on the Port Chester NY/Greenwich CT line. The rumor was that this place supposedly had one of the best chicken sandwiches around.

Fried Chicken Sandwich

They weren’t kidding. There’s usually nothing special about chicken sandwiches but this one is definitely the pick of the litter. The sandwich itself was huge (a plus because I was starving from a day of traveling on an empty stomach). It was crispy and crunchy and not greasy at all. The breading was fantastic and while they wouldn’t tell me what it was seasoned with, it’s not any chicken sandwich breading I’ve ever tasted before. We washed it down with a couple of really great ales that they had on draft which complimented the meal perfectly.

I doubt many Tampa readers will find themselves in that area, but if you do, it’s worth stopping in to try.

And special thanks go out to my boys, Trev and Z for the ride, the meal and the chill session. Always good catching up with you guys.

And remember… the food abides.


Road Trip – Inside-Out Chicken Pot Pie @ Prime Time Cafe

We headed up to Disney’s Hollywood Studios this weekend and for dinner we decided to eat at the Prime Time Cafe. Prime Time is a 50’s theme restaurant famous for their comfort food, black and white TVs on every table and servers who yell at you to get your elbows like your mother would.

Aforementioned comfort foods included classic staples like meatloaf, macaroni and cheese and pot roast amoung other choices. I opted for the Inside-Out Chicken Pot Pie:

Inside-Out Chicken Pot Pie

Disney is not known for cheap meals, especially at most of the sit-down restaurants, but this was well worth the price. There was at least 1 and 1/2 chicken breasts worth of meat in this dish which was cooked perfectly in a creamy sauce filled with carrots, peas, celery and mushrooms. See that giant flaky pastry on top? Well there was another one on the bottom of the bowl sopping up all the liquid. The chefs there knew what they were doing when they came up with this.

For desert I had a Peanut Butter and Jelly Milkshake and yes it was as good as it sounds. It was served in a gigantic milkshake tin which unfortunately made a photo quite moot.

Prime Time is an interesting little restaurant so if you’re ever up in Walt Disney World, give it a shot…


Review – Blue Lagoon Island Grill

De-Christmas-ifed my house yesterday and since that took the majority of the day, I didn’t really have time to cook dinner. A buddy of mine was in the neighborhood so we decided to head up to Wiregrass and grab a bite. We decided to try the newest edition to Wiregrass, the Blue Lagoon Island Grill which recently opened in the space that used to be occupied by Cosi.

There aren’t a lot of straight-up Caribbean restaurants around which makes Blue Lagoon Island Grill pretty unique. This isn’t Bahama Breeze which is essentially american food with a little bit of coconut sprinkled into the menu; Blue Lagoon is legitimate island cuisine. The menu is chocked-full of island fare and there are a good deal of dishes you’re not likely to find anywhere else like real jerk chicken, curry goat, oxtails, pumpkin soup and plenty of seafood and shellfish dishes prepared in distinct Caribbean styles.

Goat and oxtails are unfortunately out for me since I do not eat red meat so I stuck mainly with chicken and shellfish.

Blue Lagoon Conch Fritters

Ordered the Conch Fritters as an appetizer. There’s a couple of other Bay Area restaurants that serve conch fritters and they’re usually all breading. These were prepared perfectly and while quite large were still mostly conch.

Blue Lagoon Dominican Chicken Salad

Dinner was a Dominican Chicken Salad which consisted of a pepper and curry chicken tossed with walnuts, olives, banana peppers and goat cheese. For a dish that is pretty simple it was surprisingly flavorful, The curry mixed with peppers was the right amount of heat and it blended perfectly with the smoothness of the cheese.

Admittedly, this type of food isn’t for everyone but if you’re a fan, it’s definitely worth the visit. Should you decide to stop in and give it a shot, leave a note in the comments with your thoughts!

And remember… the food abides…


Review – Ciao Italian Bistro

Was up at Wiregrass this past weekend with my special lady friend doing a little shopping. We wanted to catch the Symphony in Lights Christmas show but we had a little time to kill before the next one started so we decided to grab a bite. Since Ciao had just opened a couple weeks earlier, we chose to give it a shot.

Cards on the table, I will fully admit to the fact that I am more critical of italian restaurants than most, probably due to my heritage and upbringing; nothing can hold a candle to what my Mom, Dad or Grandmothers cooked for dinner on a Sunday evening. However even adjusting for the inherent bias, Ciao didn’t impress me, mostly because they broke one of the cardinal food sins that I’ve mentioned multiple times before.

CIAO

Located in the Shoppes at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel, Ciao currently occupies the space that was once filled by Pagelli’s, another Italian restaurant which, interestingly enough, I throughly enjoyed. They did no remodelling whatsoever so you still feel like you’re sitting in Pagelli’s, at least until the food comes.

The staff was friendly and our server was polite, attentive and surprisingly knowledgable about all the dishes we inquired about. I have to assume since they just opened, the menu training was fresh on his mind but I was still glad he was able to answer every question without hesitation. The food came out quickly which again, was a good thing considering they were quite crowded due to the Black Friday weekend.

Shrimp and Tortelini

I decided to try the Shrimp and Lime Tortellini which was cooked in a pinot grigio and fresh tomato sauce while my special lady friend ordered the Mushroom Ravioli. We shared and I can honestly say the food was not bad but it didn’t floor me either. I really enjoy any dish that uses lime as it’s one of my favorite infusion ingredients. However I didn’t taste much lime at all and it was curiously served with a lemon on my plate. Barring that however, Ciao had one major flaw: the portion sizes.

As you are well aware, I’m a stickler for portion sizes. I’m not expecting King Henry’s feast when I go to a restuarant, but I do expect the portion sizes to match the pricing, especially in a bad economy. I don’t mind paying a little extra for a large portion of food, nor do I mind small portions if the price is equally reasonable. Ciao’s portion sizes were just way off. 19 dollars for five normal sized shrimp and a what amounts to a ladel-full of tortellini is not kosher. My date claimed her Mushroom Ravioli was sufficient but her six little pasta pockets looked awfully sparse on the plate as well.

Perhaps it was an off-night. It’s possible that because they’re new, their chefs aren’t quite used to making the dishes yet and are moving foward sparingly as a result. Maybe they had high patron turnover due to the Black Friday shopping weekend and they needed to make their supplies last until their Monday delivery. I don’t know.

What I do know is that I will probably give Ciao one more try to see if they’ve adjusted but until then I would not recommend it. There are plenty of other great restaurants at Wiregrass like Cantina Laredo, Prime Bar, Grillsmith and Yamato where your dollar will go much farther and you will still leave satisfied.

Have you tried Ciao? If so, what was your experience? Leave a note in the comments section!

And remember… the food abides…


Review – Boca

Last night I had plans to meet some friends down in South Tampa for drinks at their place in Hyde Park and then we were going to grab some dinner at a local restaurant. When they suggested Boca I was ecstatic as I’ve been looking forward to giving that place a try for quite a while now. I was not disappointed.

 

A couple of months ago, I reviewed the Refinery which is somewhat in the same vein as they both tout local ingredients. Indeed, when you enter Boca there is a wall-sized blackboard listing the local farms they are currently purchasing from. The main difference is that both establishments change their menus based on the ingredients they can obtain, but Refinery has a completely new menu every week and Boca does a partial rotation combined with certain fixed items.

Upon entering the establishment I noticed a distinct difference. Where the Refinery’s style is very hipster and trendy, Boca goes after more of a classy feel. They occupy the same place where the open-air BBQ joint, Smoke used to be. They did a really good job converting the building to a more upscale, enclosed area while still retaining some of the unique architecture. The clientele seems to be a little older and the staff slightly more serious. Not to imply anything negative about the Refinery, they’re just two separate ideas.

I chose to stick with the Samuel Adams Octoberfest, because I know the season is drawing to a close, but some of my friends tried some of their crafted cocktails. Some of the more eclectic libations were the Thai One On, (coconut, lemon grass, lime and gin), the Georgia on my Mind (grilled peach and honey with sour mash whiskey) and the Indian Summer (watermelon, apple shrub, basil and Bombay).

The menu was on the smaller side but very diverse, with apps, salads, signature flatbreads, main entrees and deserts. Every item appears to be a slight twist on a standard dish.

For an app, I tried the Fire Roasted Mussels with fresh herbs in a Sambucca and garlic reduction sauce. I’ve never seen anyone use Sambucca in a seafood dish before but the fennel/black licorice taste of the alcohol mixed with the mussels was a wonderfully unique melding of flavors. They served it with a couple hunks of crusty italian bread, which was perfect for sopping up the sauce.

For my entree I chose the Penne & Prawns with wild mushrooms and baby heirloom tomatoes in a truffle butter and parmesan reggiano sauce. The penne was a whole wheat, organic and gluten-free variety of pasta and did a good job holding the incredibly rich sauce. The prawns were cooked in a blend of spices that almost made them taste like they were smoked.

Boca’s portion sizes were spot on. Some of my party finished their meals feeling full while others had leftovers to walk away with. I’m a stickler for portion sizes, especially when the menu is a little pricey; I’d rather order a dish and take home what I don’t finish than walk away still feeling hungry. Plus, I like to enjoy a few cocktails when I’m dining with friends or family and with a full stomach I can safely enjoy one or two without worrying about becoming inebriated. I chose to skip desert but there were a few items that caught my eye. Most notably, the local berry tartlet with vanilla bean ice cream and what appeared to be some kind of pistachio fritters with candied bacon.

The staff was friendly and professional. Our server was weeded to begin with and then they stuck him with our party of eight, yet he did an excellent job attending to us. I noticed the wait staff was in such synchronization that other servers helped him out if it looked like he was going to be fall behind. An attentive manager walked around ensuring guests were satisfied. In an interesting little twist, the checks were delivered on a cedar plank rather thank those vinyl bill folders which I thought was a nice touch.

Boca is a perfect place for dinner and drinks in an intimate, classy environment and I can’t recommend it enough. I spent the evening with a group of friends, some of whom I do not get to see as often as I would like. The amazing experience we had at Boca was a perfect end cap on a great night.

Eaten at Boca before or interested in trying it? Drop me a line in the comments section!

And remember as always… the food abides…


Das Boot!

Tonight a couple of friends and I headed up to Mr. Dunderbaks a local Bavarian biergarten, market and delicatessen to catch their Oktoberfest celebration. In addition to experiencing the traditional music, cute girls in lederhosen, plenty of marzens and Oktoberfest beers on draft and some out of this world pierogies and pommefrites, I managed to snag a prize from their balloon-pop raffle.

  

Behold… Das Boot! This Warsteiner traditional-style beer-boot is the type of thing I would never have purchased for myself . However, now that I own one, I’m very proud and it will likely be displayed prominently in my home like the leg lamp in A Christmas Story.

Mr. Dunderbaks holds their Oktoberfest celebrations nightly during the month of October and I recommend giving them a shot as it’s a really enjoyable experience and about as close as you’ll be able to get to that kind of authentic cultural experience without taking a trip to Europe…


Octoberfest Milkshakes @ Red Robin

Headed up to Red Robin for lunch with my buddy so we could try one of their new signature drinks, the Octoberfest Milkshake!

This bad boy is made with vanilla ice cream, caramel, vanilla syrup and Samuel Adams Octoberfest beer. It’s an interesting comination of flavors and textures. The beer itself is a marzen-style ale which has plenty of caramel brewed into it so it goes really well with the vanilla.

I won’t say it’s good or bad, but I will say that I think you have to like the Octoberfest beer in order to get any real appreciation out of this concoction.


Shrimp Tacos @ Prime Bar!

Headed up to Prime Bar last night with a buddy of mine to grab a beer, catch the baseball game and munch on some shrimp tacos. Black beans, a stiff white rice and a little lime-infused salsa. Washed it down with a Dunedin Redhead Ale.


Review (sort of) – Snow Crab Night @ the Rack

A group of friends and I had been talking about trying to get together and find an All-You-Can-Eat Snow Crab place for quite some time. I don’t know if it’s that snow crab is out of season or if the economy is just so bad, it doesn’t make fiscal sense for any restaurant to offer it but we’ve had no luck finding a place. We did however run across an advert for the The Rack in Brandon which had a Snow Crab special: 14.99 for 2 lbs of snow crab and 5 for another half pound.  That wasn’t a bad deal and most of us had dined at the Rack’s other location in South Tampa so we decided to give it a shot.

The crab itself was very tasty but as long as it’s not prepared wrong, crab is crab. It was sweet and not at all overcooked or rubbery which is a pitfall some of these places encounter when they’re pushing mass quantities of crab out the door for these specials. Was served with a side of hush-puppies, fries and some corn-on-the cobb, which added to the value.

It was the service that I have to call into question because they did something rather bizarre. It was a Monday night so I wasn’t necessarily in the mood to drink but I always take a look at the beer options just in case someone happens to be carrying something I haven’t tried before. So I asked the server what they had on draft and nothing jumped out at me. Then I asked her what they had in bottles and she said she didn’t know.

“Umm. Is there any way you can find out?”

She comes back a few minutes later with a beer menu but warns me that it’s old. I see a choice I’d like to try. She says they don’t have it. I see another one, they don’t have that either. At this point I am completely over it and like I said, I really didn’t feel like anything alcoholic in the first place so I just ask her to bring me a water and go back to my conversation.

About five minutes later the manager, a big burly guy who looks like he completes in competitive MMA, comes over to the table and says “Sorry about the thing with the beer, I can comp you a glass if you’d like something.”

I respond, “Awesome, can you tell me what you have in bottles.” He replies that he cannot.

At what point is the staff going to figure out that all I want is for someone to go into the cooler, look at what kind of bottled beer they carry and let me know? This just seems like a foreign concept to them. Hell I would even have been okay with going back there myself and looking but to no avail. At this point my friends are starting to get annoyed on my behalf.  

By now I’m completely over it and I’ve now gone on to expend more energy on this than any human being should have to spend. I just look at him and say “Hey man, I’m okay. I really didn’t want to drink tonight anyway” and then I turn around and go back to my conversation for the second time.

This is when it gets weirder. MMA-looking manager just stands over my shoulder for a good two or three minutes. I have no idea if he didn’t understand that I was no longer interested in a beer or if he was insulted that I turned away his free offering. One of my friends noted that at one point we were talking about how I was a critic so it’s possible someone on the staff overheard that and they were trying to head off any negative reviews.

Regardless, the whole experience was just bizarre. Maybe they had an off-night; it was a Monday after all. Either way my evaluation stands; food was great, service was… strange. I hesitate to call it bad, as no one was rude or inattentive at any point. Just strange.

If you’re in the mood for some good snow crab, give them a shot. If you’re looking to drink anything other than Bud Light, look elsewhere because apparently they are not aware of the existence of any other beer which may or may not be stored in their establishment…


Review – The Refinery

Located in a renovated house on Florida Ave in the Seminole Heights area of Tampa, the Refinery is something unique.

The building itself is has a kind of self-styled hipster vibe going on and although that’s become more and more commonplace in the Heights, the Refinery owns every bit of it, right down to their purple walls and “Hippie Side Entrance.” Beyond the decor, the first thing I noticed was that seating was sparse and every table was filled. It’s small and doesn’t appear to be conducive to small groups but I find that to be a positive, because I prefer smaller, more intimate settings. Fortunately there were only three of us and my friends had the foresight to book a reservation early. It was a good thing too, because after a quick conversation with the person who seated me, I learned that apparently the next open table they had available was two-and-a-half hours later.

I was greeted with an amazingly varied selection of rare craft beers which is something love seeing as I’m somewhat of a beer snob. I settled on one from Colorado called Crazy Mountain Amber Ale. Deep red, malty and a thousand times more refreshing than a Coor’s Light, I was happy with my choice and even happier with the restaurant for introducing me to a new microbrew.

My friends had already made me aware of the fact that the restaurant features local food. But I had no idea how far that actually went. The chef, who recently won an award for “Best Chef in the South” buys locally and builds his menu based on what was currently available that week. Some people see food as an art and this guy is no exception as the menu was incredibly interesting. A completely new menu is created every Thursday. The boon here is that the adventurous get some amazing dishes to choose from, and should the picky take a look at their menu on their website and not see anything appealing, they can simply wait a week.

There are a variety of small plates, the sizes of which in comparison to the price left a little to be desired. We each settled on a small plate and shared: duck wing confit, clams in an onion cream sauce and some firecracker grilled corn on the cob with lime-butter. All three were amazing and the flavors were perfectly complimentary.

The main course options were even more interesting. I saw a game hen with ancho-cocoa sweet potato puree which looked good. There was also an eggplant cannelloni with roasted quinoa. There was a chocolate chipote burger which I swear I would have ordered on the spot if I could eat red meat. Yes, you read that right. Chocolate… chipotle… burger. These dishes were just so inventive I had to make a mental note of some others to come back and try (but promptly erased it once I realized this  menu would be gone in five days).

I settled on the polenta cakes with creamy chai butternut squash, collards, red potatoes, chick peas and toasted cashews. Being italian, polenta is a staple but I have never had anything like this before. It was a perfectly balanced dish despite having no meat course. The polenta was buttery and firm, the veggies were crisp and flavorful and the seasoning was perfect.

We had tickets to a show at Skipper’s Smokehouse later that night so we opted to skip desert but upon making a trip upstairs to the restroom I realized there was a second floor with a rooftop bar that looked really cool. The mental note was definitely made to return, try another dish and spend some time up there.

All through the meal the service was attentive and prompt. Our server was personable and able to recommend his favorite dish-of-the-week when asked (which is something I value). Aside from the size of the small plates, I don’t have a single complaint and would recommend that anyone who’s looking for something off the beaten path in location, creativity and taste.

Check out the menu at http://www.thetamparefinery.com and if you give it a shot, let me know in the comments.

And remember… the food abides…