Sunday, July 20, 2014

PJ's Oyster Bar, Indian Rocks Beach, FL

Well, the word of the day is "yuck".  I hadn't been to PJ's in 15 years, and it didn't take me long to remember why.

Crusty walls laden with remnants of 30-year-old dollar bills, snarky signs reminding patrons that THEY are the fortunate ones and dangling paper towel rolls are all the ambiance you'll be getting here.  Couple that with a dated, pedestrian menu and you'll be wondering why you didn't drive the extra mile to Keegan's or Guppy's.  The beer was cold and our server sweet, which were the only saving graces.
















Smoked fish spread was the same standard-issue variety served up and down the Pinellas beaches (scraped from a distributor's tub) and presented with stale Saltines. Gloppy, homogeneous and mayo-heavy. Somebody, please...dial up Waltz' Fish Shak to find out how this should be done.
















The Clam Chowder was so thick with roux that it was like eating a soggy biscuit.  I couldn't even gag down a spoonful. To her credit, our server noticed that it was left virtually untouched and removed it from our bill without being asked to do so.
















Grouper sandwiches were okay...fish tasted fresh, portions were generous and the cornmeal-dusted roll was a nice touch.  I'm not a big fan of tartar sauce sitting out on the table at room temp all day, which it was.  I ordered mine lightly breaded with a side of slaw...
















...and UD ordered the beer-battered rendition with grocery store freezer aisle french fries.
















Apparently, something has kept the lights burning at PJ's for three decades, although I'm not sure what that is. Perhaps it's the tourons, or maybe a it's a case of habit triumphing over hate.  I didn't cry too hard after receiving my $44 check, but I won't be back. EVER. A combination of mediocre quality and environment plus too many better choices for the price on the beach left me unimpressed.

http://www.pjsoysterbar.com/

PJ's Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

My blog entries contain the unmitigated, and sometimes unforgiving, dining truths and perceptions I experience as an ordinary restaurant patron. Every meal I post about has been fully paid for by one of the participating members of my personal dining party. I do not engage in the gratis blogger freebie dining events I'm constantly invited to attend and never will. If I ooze font-like love for a restaurant in my blog, it's because they totally earned it…not because they gave me free food or knew I was going to share the experience on the internet.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Cafe Luna Bistro, St. Pete Beach, FL

It's official, y'all.  I've suspected it for some time now and after last night's exquisite meal at Cafe Luna Bistro, I must announce that (for the most part) the independent restaurant cuisine of Pinellas County trumps that of Hillsborough County.  So what if it doesn't have a Bern's or an Edison Food + Drink Lab?  There are a plethora of often unsung culinary rawkstars on the left coast...Cafe Ponte, Middle Grounds Grill, Black Pearl of Dunedin, Black Palm, Pearl, Fetishes, and now, Cafe Luna Bistro...just to name a few.

Cafe Luna is a small, romantic bistro tucked away in a strip mall on St. Pete Beach.  You won't find a phone book-sized menu here, but you will still have a difficult time making your selection from its short list of delectable-sounding offerings.  The well-rounded wine list offers something to please every palate and many of the bottles are priced at $30 or less.  Indeed, entrees also pack quite a punch for their price tag (about half of them cost under $25) and are generous enough that you really don't need to order appetizers or dessert...but you'll want to anyway.

On this fine occasion, UD and I converged with another local restaurant blogger, JR of the SOG City Oracle and his charming spouse, The Belle of Ballast Point (who is recently retired in case you haven't yet heard her singing it from the rooftops...all the reason we needed to indulge in a celebratory meal).

Our warm and professional server promptly dispensed some crispy and airily-light fresh bread and better-than-average olive oil with herbs for dipping.















Our group started with an order of Smoked Fish Spread (fresh smoked grouper and snapper mixed in a chipotle, onion and mayonnaise spread served with warmed crostinis), which was the second best I've ever eaten in Florida.  It was close, but Waltz' Fish Shak's smoked fish spread has an almost addictive quality that I can't ever seem to get off of my mind (I'm pretty sure it's laced with crack).  I digress, however...this was ONE FINE smoked fish spread...chunky, smoky and mayo-light.  The accompanying Cholula Chipotle Hot Sauce and warm toast points only served to enhance the delightfully fresh flavor profile of what I consider to be the two best locally caught fish in Florida.



















Thai Spring Rolls were crispy, golden brown and stuffed with beef and Asian veggies.  SO good, and everyone loved the sweet chili dipping sauce that came with.  Not a morsel remained of either app.
















Are you noticing a pattern yet as it applies to plating?  I believe the best dining experiences are the ones that provide a feast for all of the senses (not just the taste buds) and have a huge appreciation of visual stimuli when I dine. Everything we ordered at Cafe Luna Bistro was as gorgeous as it was delicious.

JR's $29.90 Filet Mignon Napoleon was almost obscene in its off-the-chain decadence factor.  The buttery slab of beef tenderloin was perfectly cooked and  topped with a grilled colossal crab cake, sliced portobello mushroom, a honey dijon horseradish cream sauce and sweet balsamic reduction.  Ummm...*thud*.  The included side of Loaded Mashed Potatoes with sour cream, green onion and Applewood smoked bacon were almost rich and heinous enough to double as dessert.  Unfortunately, we were on our way to seriously trashing the table in the throes of our feeding frenzy by the time the entrees came out.  Try to ignore the spots on the butcher paper and focus on what's important.












My $22.50 panko-crusted crispy snapper in a Thai red coconut sauce with mixed vegetables and jasmine rice was perfection on a plate.  Everything was hot, the fish tasted like it had been swimming earlier in the day and THAT SAUCE walked the perfect line between sweet and heat. I've eaten at Thai restaurants that didn't nail it so perfectly.  I haz a new drug.
















BOBP took our lovely server's advice and ordered the Chicken Marsala.  While I'll admit that next-to-never will I order chicken in a restaurant  (especially not breast meat) because I generally don't think it's all that special, I may have to change my mind after tasting this dish.  Anytime a chef manages to keep white meat moist and juicy, they earn my respect...and this was all of that and more.  The generous slabs yielded easily to the fork, the sweet and creamy Marsala sauce was almost candy-like and I loved the thick, earthy slices of fresh mushrooms.  At $14.50 with well-above-average sides of  mashed potatoes and a veggie, this may be the deal of the century on St. Pete Beach.













I was only able to NOT order the $19.90 Shrimp and Andouille with Grits (jumbo shrimp and andouille sausage sautéed with bell peppers, onions and celery in a port wine demi-glace, Cajun seasoning and chives, served with three cheese grits) because my better half pledged to.  OMG...I love grits almost more than life itself and these did not disappoint.
















It would be so fun to have something to bitch about...but since that plate never came, I am forced to be uncharacteristically syrupy.  I love Cafe Luna Bistro.  I'm ever-so-impressed by the quality of their cuisine and service, the aforementioned beauty and care of their plating, and also the fact that while the menu offerings encompass a broad swath of both regional and multi-national favorites, everything is so wonderfully executed.

While we really didn't have room for dessert, that's never stopped us from ordering it so we forged ahead. Bread Pudding is my Achilles Heel, so once I heard "Apple Cinnamon Bread Pudding" it was a foregone conclusion that I would have it.  This proved to be an excellent rendition...dense, moist, crusty around the edges and chock-full of cinnamon spice and apples.















Most chocolate desserts fail to thrill me, but the BOBP's double chocolate brownie with berries and vanilla ice cream had me double-dipping my spoon into it.
















Café Luna Bistro is an excellent (and affordable) fine dining destination on the Pinellas Beaches.  Can't wait to return!

http://www.cafelunabistro.com/

Cafe Luna on Urbanspoon

My blog entries contain the unmitigated, and sometimes unforgiving, dining truths and perceptions I experience as an ordinary restaurant patron. Every meal I post about has been fully paid for by one of the participating members of my personal dining party. I do not engage in the gratis blogger freebie dining events I'm constantly invited to attend and never will. If I ooze font-like love for a restaurant in my blog, it's because they totally earned it…not because they gave me free food or knew I was going to share the experience on the internet.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Columbia Restaurant, Clearwater Beach, FL

My galpal, Aries Wench, and I wanted to celebrate a recent Friday in style with a gurlz waterfront lunch on the beach...but being more in the mood for white tablecloths and higher-end service than we were for wooden tables, anchors and plank floors, we found ourselves in a bit of a conundrum.  I almost always enjoy Columbia and have dined at most of the locations across the state, but I always seem to forget about the one on Sand Key.  Fortunately, my AARP brain fog momentarily lifted on this occasion and, after digging deeply into my memory banks, I knew I'd found our spot.

The Clearwater outpost offers the best of both worlds: typical Columbia decor (albeit a bit lighter and airier than some of the others, befitting its intracoastal location)...
















...along with outdoor seating and sparkling, panoramic water views.
















We got the party started with a requisite pitcher of Cava Sangria...a delightfully refreshing and sneakily deadly concoction of Spanish sparking wine, brandy, orange liqueur, simple syrup and citrus fruit juices. This is the decidedly preferred method of meeting our MDR for Vitamin C.





















I tend to be a bit of a creature of habit when frequenting Columbia.  I have my menu favorites and don't often veer from them.  I've been addicted to empanadas de picadillo ever since I visited Argentina several years back (where I ordered them, literally, at EVERY place I dined). Columbia's version are as good as any I've ever tasted. Two hot and flaky pastry pockets were presented, liberally stuffed with a tantalizing combination of spicy beef, tomatoes, green olives, raisins, onions and garlic.  Food doesn't really get any better than this as far as I'm concerned.
















The Wench started with a cup of Cuban black bean soup. Dried beans are not super-high on my list of culinary faves, but the soup was quite nice.  The beans were savory, nutty, nicely flavored with onion and served over white rice.  This was one super-hearty concoction which decidedly belied its vegan status.
















We both zeroed in on the $9.95 half Cuban sandwich and half order of Columbia's famous (and not without warrant) 1905 Salad.  The perfect lunch for a hot June day in Florida, all of the components were of the quality I've come to expect from Columbia.  If I had a single suggestion to make, it would be that serving the tableside tossed salad (resplendent with crispy greens, olive, ham, Swiss cheese, grated Romano and garlicky vinaigrette) on the same hot plate that the sandwich was presented on was not conducive to helping it retain either its "crunch" or "chill" factors.
















We ate and drank heartily over the course of our 2-1/2 hour lunch and received very nice service from Edgar.  The bill came to right at $100 before tip for two pitchers of cava sangria, everything pictured above, plus a cup of Spanish bean soup and an order of Canellonni  de Langosta "7 Portes" (seafood cannelloni smothered in a lobster sherry Mornay cream sauce) for the hubster's dinner.  You didn't think I was going to try to cook after all that sangria, did you?  A girl could burn the house down.

Good times, as always!

http://www.columbiarestaurant.com/clearwater.asp

Columbia Restaurant on Urbanspoon

My blog entries contain the unmitigated, and sometimes unforgiving, dining truths and perceptions I experience as an ordinary restaurant patron. Every meal I post about has been fully paid for by one of the participating members of my personal dining party. I do not engage in the gratis blogger freebie dining events I'm constantly invited to attend and never will. If I ooze font-like love for a restaurant in my blog, it's because they totally earned it…not because they gave me free food or knew I was going to share the experience on the internet.

The Boardwalk Grill, Madeira Beach, FL

Ordinarily, the only thing that seems less pleasant to me than wading through the sweaty, slow-moving touron masses of John's Pass Village on a 90+ degree Florida day is being chained up in a Super Wal-Mart on Black Friday...unless, of course, I have a desperate need for a fix of the best smoked fish spread on the Pinellas Suncoast (maybe all of Florida) at Waltz Fish Shak.  I guess I'd better fill up my Pez dispenser with Xanax now because future hormonal cravings for The Boardwalk Grill are inevitable.

This little hole-in-the-wall is tucked away in the shadow of the pedestrian monstrosity that is Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.  Even if you stumbled across it, you might not be tempted to go inside (it's tiny and the decor is relatively spartan)...but you should, as the modest exterior belies the caliber of the treats awaiting within.
















The Boardwalk Grill is a paper plates/plastic utensils kinda place...but, trust me, you won't mind.  We received friendly, attentive service from the two young ladies who served us. Cold bottles of Mich Ultra were quickly dispensed as we perused the menu, which consists mostly of sandwiches, fried apps and fresh seafood tacos.

We started with an order of house-made, beer-battered onion rings, upon which UD bestowed his coveted "best I've ever eaten" award.  Surprisingly non-greasy, the feather-light breading was crisp and delightful while the interior onion slice was tender and yielded easily to the tooth (nothing's more aggravating than biting into a ring and having the entire scalding, veggie center slide out of its crust).  Enjoyed with dipping sides of the house "Dang-Screwy" sauce and requisite horsey sauce, these were off the chain...fresh from the fryer and ridiculously HUGE, almost to the point of resembling donuts.





















We also ordered a basket of the Famous Boardwalk Fries to go with our sandwiches (hand cut and fried twice, just as God intended). We loved these golden slabs of goodness, even if we weren't able to polish them all off (portion sizes are quite large at The Board Grill).













My Pennsylvania boy made a beeline for the Authentic Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich.  He ordered the pizza-steak application with mushrooms, onions, provolone and zesty marinara sauce...and "authentic" it was, right down to the Philly-based Amoroso's Baking Company hoagie roll. Juicy, tangy and delicious, this thing is huge...truly a man's sandwich.  Underdog did the best he could, but ultimately admitted defeat and brought half of it home with him.
















My Traditional New England Lobster Roll was just that...traditional.  No one is cavalierly throwing around adjectives like "authentic" and "traditional" at The Boardwalk Grill without having the goods to back them up. A full half-pound of sweet, chilled, lightly dressed lobster meat was presented on a warm and toasty buttered roll with a little celery and lettuce thrown in for crunch factor.  At $12.99, this may be one of the best deals on the beach.














The Boardwalk Grill serves up high-quality casual fare at surprisingly reasonable prices considering its tourist-dense locale.  Their pride is evident in the care they take to ensure that even the most seemingly simple menu offerings are fresh, done right and prepared to order.  This pleasing, waterfront lunch with two beers apiece set us back around $50 before tip.  I'll be back for the Fried Oreos.

https://www.facebook.com/TheBoardwalkGrill

The Boardwalk Grill on Urbanspoon
My blog entries contain the unmitigated, and sometimes unforgiving, dining truths and perceptions I experience as an ordinary restaurant patron. Every meal I post about has been fully paid for by one of the participating members of my personal dining party. I do not engage in the gratis blogger freebie dining events I'm constantly invited to attend and never will. If I ooze font-like love for a restaurant in my blog, it's because they totally earned it…not because they gave me free food or knew I was going to share the experience on the internet.


Saturday, June 21, 2014

Beachside Grille, Redington Shores, FL

Restaurants on the beach side of Gulf Boulevard are few and far between these days...and this little nook tucked away in a tiny, older strip center just south of Park Boulevard would be easy to miss if you weren't looking for it.  So look for it.

The venue is very small (perhaps seating 24 at tables and 5 or 6 at the bar) but charming, awash in adorable beach kitsch and decorated in soothing tones of sea blue, terra-cotta and white.
















Our party of six received friendly, knowledgeable service from Redington hospitality veteran Rick, who was a sight for sore eyes. The lunch menu was somewhat limited, but provided enough to satisfy all tastes at the table.  We started with Beachside Grille's whimsical, "beach boardwalk" take on Chicken and Waffles...a waffle cone filled with bleu cheese coleslaw and topped with buffalo chicken tenders. This proved to be real crowd-pleaser. Slaw fresh and crisp - check (bonus points for the bleu cheese infusion).  Chicken tenders tender - check. Generous lathering of hot sauce - check.  I'll take this over an ice cream cone any day.





















Smoked fish spread was standard beach fare but kicked up by its accoutrements of diced tomato, chopped onion and capers. Captain's Wafers might've garnered more love from me than the Saltines which were presented.















Both soups our party tried were hearty, flavorful and above average.  Serving sizes are massive...they're practically a meal in themselves.   Cajun Gumbo:
















Black Bean Soup:
















If a low point of the meal must be identified, it came in the form of some huge and extremely tough rings of calamari...over-breaded, over-cooked and served at room temp.  Potential exists, but this was not a stellar day for the house squid.
















Grouper sandwiches were quite fresh-tasting and highly enjoyed by teens and adults alike.  The "Traditional", priced at a very reasonable $12.99, is served with a choice of sides (our gurlz selected off-the-chain Italian al dente pasta salad laden with tons of herbs and fresh veggies):
















I opted for the Grouper Reuben and my request to substitute coleslaw for sauerkraut on the sammie was met without the blink of an eye.  I so love a place that's reasonably accommodating to the preferences of their diners...especially when no one's asking for the kitchen to turn itself upside down.  More sweet, recently-off-the-hook grouper appeared nestled on rye toast with crunchy coleslaw and a light slathering of Thousand Island dressing. Yummmzzz.  And I must reiterate as to the fabulosity of the pasta salad.
















UD went beach rogue and zeroed in on the mighty Slaw Dog...and a righteous dawg it was.  A premium frank (guessing Nathan's or Hebrew National) was delivered on a top-notch poppy-seed bun and laden with the aforementioned fine-ass crunchy coleslaw.  Could it get any better than this?  Yes.  Rapture came in the form of some exceptionally crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, probably twice fried, slabs of  french fry heaven.















Final word:  Pleasing and affordable lunch on the beach.  I definitely see a return visit in my not-too-distant future for a casual beach dinner.

Beachside Grille on Urbanspoon
My blog entries contain the unmitigated, and sometimes unforgiving, dining truths and perceptions I experience as an ordinary restaurant patron. Every meal I post about has been fully paid for by one of the participating members of my personal dining party. I do not engage in the gratis blogger freebie dining events I'm constantly invited to attend and never will. If I ooze font-like love for a restaurant in my blog, it's because they totally earned it…not because they gave me free food or knew I was going to share the experience on the internet.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Guy Harvey RumFish Grill, St. Pete Beach, FL

As stated on their website, "The restaurant’s main attraction is a 33,500 gallon aquarium that encompasses an entire wall of the dining room.  The aquarium was built by Wayde King and Brett Raymer of Animal Planet’s hit series 'Tanked' and was featured in the hour-long season finale on May 16."  Indeed it is.  RumFish boasts a tranquil setting where tourons may escape the heat and bask in the chill glow of said gorgeous aquarium (along with a plethora of Guy Harvey prints) and dine on all the usual suspects in the coolness of this dimly-lit venue...with a requisite entry and exit through the gift shop.
















To be fair, the restaurant has only been open for a few weeks and they are clearly still in the process of finding their way.  Service staff seems to care (or at least they've been instructed to seem to care) since we must've been asked at least half a dozen times over the course of our meal by a steady stream of random personnel if everything was okay (in fact, we only saw our own server twice - once at the beginning of the meal and once at the end). Yes...it was "okay".

While my better half heartily slurped his Spiced Blue Crab Bisque with sherry, thyme and cream, I recoiled upon first taste at what I perceived to be Old Bay Seasoning overload. This is probably a case of personal preference since UD obviously did not agree, leaving nary a droplet remaining after he had his way with it.
















We reached a common consensus as far as my cornmeal-crusted fried oysters were concerned, however.  In addition to have a slightly funky, not-as-fresh-as-they-could-be flavor, they were presented at room temperature and their limp crusts were shiny with residual oil.  Maybe the fryer temp needs to be ratcheted up.  Three out of six were left untouched and, despite the constant and generic displays of concern by the ubiquitous wait staff, no one asked why.












UD really enjoyed his Spiced Mahi Fish Tacos with ancho aioli, salsa and jicama slaw.  Their sidecar of cinnamon spiced sweet potato waffle fries were decadent, candy-like and addictive.  Nothing to bitch about here.















My Grilled Tandoori Chicken Salad (with napa cabbage, mango, pineapple, red onion and honey curry dressing) had potential but ultimately failed to thrill.  I liked the overall flavor profile of sweet/spicy/heat, but the chicken was bone dry and there wasn't enough of the salad carrier to balance the weightiness of the protein.













I think improvement is likely here as RumFish gets its "sea legs" over time, but there will always be better places on the beach for great seafood. That said, I smell the makings of a tourist destination and will probably not return.

http://www.rumfishgrill.com/

Rumfish on Urbanspoon

My blog entries contain the unmitigated, and sometimes unforgiving, dining truths and perceptions I experience as an ordinary restaurant patron. Every meal I post about has been fully paid for by one of the participating members of my personal dining party. I do not engage in the gratis blogger freebie dining events I'm constantly invited to attend and never will. If I ooze font-like love for a restaurant in my blog, it's because they totally earned it…not because they gave me free food or knew I was going to share the experience on the internet.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

I. C. Sharks Tiki Bar, St. Petersburg, FL

Located just off the west end of the Gandy bridge, I. C. Sharks could easily be mistaken for a simple seafood market...especially if you go by too quickly.  If I had been less hungry, I could've easily missed the arrow pointing to the waterfront tiki area in the back and the sign that read "homemade conch fritters". Ummm...now you haz my attention.

We parked in the gravel lot and followed the designated path past an indoor oyster bar nook and a shady area with picnic tables situated in freshly raked sand for outdoor dining.  We almost stopped there, but the lure of I. C. Sharks' large and squeaky-clean tiki bar beckoned.  After determining that we could order from the menu there, we settled into comfortable stools and took in the tropical Tampa Bay ambiance.  Soft reggae music was piped in and the entire parameter of the bar was lined with small box fans blowing inward, keeping us cool and comfy throughout the course of our lunch despite the Florida Labor Day weekend temps.  We got our personal "party" started at 11:00 on Friday morning (thus the level of vacancy), but many others followed  us shortly thereafter and before long most of the seats were taken.
















Our bartender/server was sweet, attentive and low-key. Cold beers and copies of the short menu (consisting mainly of sandwiches, simply prepared fresh seafood and burgers) were promptly presented. The Creamy Crab Bisque boasting a hint of sherry was a no-brainer.  UD and I both loved the silken texture and the generosity of sweet crab morsels in this offering.  If I MUST find fault with something, I would say that the dried oregano sprinkled atop it was unnecessary and perhaps even detracted from the delicacy of the soup with its pungent odor and flavor.  
















Sharks' Conch Fritters were a fine rendition, boasting copious bits of chopped conch dredged in just enough batter to hold them together.  Crispy fried on the outside and tender on the inside, they came with a little sidecar of zippy remoulade.  Almost everything on the menu is served with a side of potato chips and a small (somewhat dry) plastic cup of crunchy slaw. French fries are MIA here.
















Finally, we tried a basket of Grouper Cheeks and Chunks (which turned out to be pretty much only chunks) with honey mustard sauce for dipping.  They were tasty, clearly fresh and simply prepared.  There was a common thread running through everything we ordered, however...and that was Old Bay Seasoning applied with a very liberal hand.  As with the oregano in the bisque, I would've preferred that it had been dialed back...but that's just my personal opinion.
















I. C. Sharks is a nice place for a cold one (there's also a full liquor bar complete with frozen drinks), a simple burger or seafood snack and a relaxing, waterfront view.  It's very clean as far as outdoor dining venues go, which is always pleasing...especially to the womenfolk.  The seafood market itself is liberally stocked with fresh and frozen seafood of all varieties.  We grabbed a half pound of smoked fish spread and some red grouper to prepare at home the next day and both were excellent.  Polly loves one-stop eating and shopping!

http://www.icsharks.com/TikiBarHome.html
 
I. C. Sharks Seafood Market on Urbanspoon

My blog entries contain the unmitigated, and sometimes unforgiving, dining truths and perceptions I experience as an ordinary restaurant patron. Every meal I post about has been fully paid for by one of the participating members of my personal dining party. I do not engage in the gratis blogger freebie dining events I'm constantly invited to attend and never will. If I ooze font-like love for a restaurant in my blog, it's because they totally earned it…not because they gave me free food or knew I was going to share the experience on the internet.