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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Hablo Taco, Tampa, FL

Oh, Channelside...how do I loathe thee?  Let me count the ways.  First of all, anyone not gifted with an IQ level of at least 100 points will never be able to decipher the convoluted payment system at your "convenient" parking garage.  Hire an attendant and charge more, for gawd's sake, so everyone doesn't have to wade through a human clusterfluck of mass confusion in order to park and get on with their day.  Now that I've gotten THAT out of the way...onward to Hablo Taco.

The vibe here is relatively sterile, more bar-like than restaurant-like and predominately staffed by lackadaisical 21 year-olds.  I've honestly gotten more enthusiastic service at a McDonald's drive-through window.  Expect the place to be noisy, chaotic and awash in a broad swathe of rowdy humanity, especially if a Lightning game is imminent...















...as it was on my visit.  Due to that fact, we were presented with postage stamp sized menus with extremely limited offerings, apparently because it's too difficult to keep up during a local event rush...therefore, several items I specifically came to try were not available.  Sorry, but a full restaurant on a hockey game day is not the same as Christmas Day at the Columbia where a limited menu is a little more understandable.

Moving on to food and bev, there are few complaints in that department.  The Diablo margarita is one-of-kind and not for the faint of palate.  Mezcal, triple sec, blood orange liqueur, lemon and lime juice, simple syrup and jalapeno (heavy on the jalapeno) converge to create an interesting juxtaposition of tangy citrus, boozy goodness and sweat bead-inducing Scoville levels of heat in this libation.





















Fresh guacamole is available in an array of tantalizing applications.  We zeroed in on the Bacon and Cheese guac, which was a pleasing, generous mound of creamy avocado interspersed with crispy porcine crumbles and queso fresco.  Accompanying chips, however, were greasy and had an aftertaste of fryer oil.















My Southern Tacos (fried chicken, cabbage slaw, avocado ranch, roasted corn salsa and BBQ drizzle) were probably the largest tacos I've ever tried to shoehorn into my mouth...and I got two with a side of rice included for $8.50, which felt like a bargain.  This was an interesting application, but it didn't put me on the fast track to Flavortown.  I supposed I deserved that for making such a wimpy, gringa-sounding selection.















UD's fat, protein-laden Burrito Grande with beef barbacoa, pulled chicken, guac, shredded cojita, dressed lettuce, crema and black beans was the star of this particular talent competition.  I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the rice and bean sides were better than those served at most Mexican restaurants in town. 





















While the food (based on our limited options) was mostly good, service, ambiance, clientele and location combined to create a somewhat negative experience.  Hablo Taco seems to be geared towards more youthful diners who will undoubtedly appreciate it more than a couple of cranky old Baby Boomers.

http://www.hablotaco.com/

Hablo Taco 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, April 11, 2015

Crazy Cafe, Riverview, FL

Mama always said, "if you don't have anything good to say about someone, don't say anything at all"...but mama's taste buds were more forgiving than mine.  After reading glowing reviews on Urbanspoon and Yelp as well as receiving personal recs from friends whose palates I trust, we decided to give Riverview a chance and drive the few miles from our Stepford Valrico abode for a casual Japanese repast.

The interior of this strip-mall resto met expectations...clean and relatively sterile in ambiance. Service was prompt and low-key.  Food was SO nothing to write home about.

Entrees included the requisite iceberg lettuce salad with ginger dressing (it is what it is and I usually enjoy it despite its humble nature, but my salad bowl had half an inch of water in the bottom of it...try a Salad Spinner) and a wan and oddly flavored mushroom and onion soup.
















My Steak and Shrimp Hibachi Combo was all but inedible.  Both steak (which was livery in taste - most likely round steak if not an even cheaper cut) and shrimp were dry and overcooked.  The fried rice I selected appeared in the form of a gummy scoop of sushi rice that had been slightly darkened with soy.  There were only a few barely discernible flecks of egg and scallion to be found in this sticky mound and a magnifying glass would've been helpful when it came to identifying their whereabouts.  Guess what, though?  I ate all of the noodles so I wouldn't leave completely hangry.
















Underdog fared somewhat better with his $15.95 Sushi Dinner, which provided him with a decent California roll and seven other pieces of the house's choosing.  The selections were reportedly fresh-tasting while falling short of being memorable in any way.
















I only pray that East Hillsborough one day catches up with the rest of the county as it pertains to the evolution of the quality of local restaurant cuisine.  At this point, expectations of locals still seem rather low.  All is not lost, however...you can always hit Pacific Grill for good sushi and Asian cuisine in the Brandon area.

http://crazycafe301.com/

Crazy Cafe 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, April 5, 2015

Soho Backyard, Tampa, FL

This hip little spot in South Tampa is serving up some seriously good gastropub grub.  Let's get a couple of things straight right off the bat, though.  If you're over 40, you might be the oldest person in the place.  The bar and table stools are designed for the narrow and resilient arses of youth and will provide little comfort to the aching backs of Baby Boomers.  If you're looking to be pampered, this is not your spot.  While service is friendly and adequate, you won't be getting kissed on all four cheeks.  It's a little more bar and a little less resto in vibe, but the creative menu is worth checking out.

Goat cheese stuffed figs wrapped in crispy prosciutto set my taste buds to tingling...

...but the "World Famous" (and, yes...I consider that self-proclamation to be justly deserved) Duck Wings, which are actually drumsticks, left me positively starry-eyed.  I tried the succulent drummies sauced two ways...Orange Habanero, which catapulted me into the throes of  hot flash nirvana in the best of all possible ways; and the wimpier, but equally delightful, sticky honey and garlic application. 
I liked the fried chunks of lobster tail in my Lobster Basket, but was expecting a more tempura-like breading than what was presented (a little heavy for the delicacy of said shellfish IMHO).  There was nothing not to love about the sidecar of caramelized on the outside, tender on the inside, unctuously truffled potato wedges.


Cilantro Coconut Rum Gator Skewers were off the chain.  Sweet and succulent, they bore little resemblance to the gamy, breaded and fried nuggets ordinarily found on Florida menus.  It tasted like chicken does...in a chicken's dreams. Caribbean Cole slaw was pleasingly cool, crisp and refreshing.

Our Chocolate Mousse Cups with Raspberry Drizzle failed to thrill me as much as they did my better half.  To be fair, chocolate desserts rarely do.  While I appreciated the flavor and presentation, the mousse could've been a little sturdier and more well-chilled.  We showed up for our meal at the odd hour of around 3:30 PM, so this dessert might've still been in the early preparation stages for dinner patrons.
Don't expect a Bennigan's-esque tab at the end of your meal because quality ingredients come at a price (and justifiably so).  All of this plus two drafts, two glasses of wine and an order of to-go Duck Wings for late night snacking came to $120.  Fun spot and worth a visit.


The Soho Backyard 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.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Haven, Tampa, FL

The metamorphosis is complete.  The restaurant formerly known as Sidebern’s broke out of its transformational chrysalis in March and a sleek new butterfly emerged in the form of the eagerly-anticipated Haven.  I won’t lie.  My sentimental side will miss Sidebern’s a little bit.  My pragmatic taste buds, however, have moved on with nary a backward glance after their romp through the fresh and exciting new menu of small plates at Haven. 

The reinvention remains under the direction of Executive Chef Chad Johnson and the wine list is still phone book-sized with 550 regional and global vintages.  Many selections are available by the glass, some of which are served on tap (Keg of Wine, where have you been all my life?).  If you’re not a Bacchante maiden like myself, choose from signature hand-made cocktails, a staggering selection of over 300 bourbons, craft beers and homemade sodas. 

The Cheese Monger Plate (a sampling of 18 domestic and imported cheeses served with fruit chutney, marcona almonds, cornichons and crostini) is a must-order for all fromage fanatics.  It shows up looking for all the world like a little treasure-studded jewelry box, complete with a Whitman’s Sampler-esque guide to help you navigate your way through the gradient (arranged from mild and mellow to strong and pungent) array of offerings.  












A selection of 60 available cheeses, many in jaw-dropping wheels the size of truck tires, are displayed in a spectacular glass cave that’ll make you wonder why you didn’t have the foresight to bring a glass-cutter and a getaway car.














The charcuterie menu reaches far beyond all the usual suspects.  Blood bologna, hog head cheese, quail galantine or boar and cherry country pate, anyone?  Our party sampled foie gras and beef tongue terrine (which is an offal lover’s dream come true) and the pistachio-studded pâté grand mere.  The latter, being much less “livery” in taste and texture than expected, would be an easy baby step for the forcemeat-ambivalent.














Veggie lovers have their share of options at Haven. The sweet corn offering (which is basically a sensory overload of all things maize) includes baby corn, corn nuts and popcorn in addition to fresh kernels accented with zamorano cheese, basil and a bright swipe of rocotto chile is summer on a plate and a must-order.  Is "ridonkulous" really a word?  I think it applies here, regardless.













Whole roasted cauliflower (which is apparently the new “it" veggie) is enhanced almost beyond recognition of its humble, cruciferous self by accoutrements of shallot, ginger, ham and goat’s milk beurre noisette.  This is how you get mommy to eat her vegetables...at least when she's not saving the precious real estate in her belly for pasta or bread pudding.















As you drill down into the “Hooves & Feathers” and “Fins, Scales & Shells” sections of the menu, you’ll be bitterly wishing for a second stomach because you’re going to want almost EVERYTHING you see.  Top crowd-pleasers on my visit were tender little slabs of pomegranate molasses-glazed pork belly; 













Velvety, ocean-scented tuna crudo with bright little pops of pomegranate, tomato, watermelon, radish, fresno pepper and hisbiscus interspersed; 














Fork-tender skirt steak topped with chimichurri and served with a luxe bone marrow canoe (think of it as “meat butter”).















When dessert time comes around, Haven's macarons should not be overlooked. Not your ordinary cookies, these pastel, meringue-based confections redefine the classic application and are sandwiched with fresh berry jams and complementary creamy cheeses, making them the perfect hybrid for those seeking a not-too-sweet finish.










If you need to get your “Sugar Rush” on, try the pillow-like apple fritters with Calvados and quince caramel.  Holy Muthah of Gawd...you want these!















Our dining foursome agreed that the Baba au Bourbon sponge cake dessert with bourbon syrup, whipped cream and an incongruous tomato "ash" component was the weakest link of our evening. Not bad, but the least sexy in our trifecta of happy endings.




Haven provides an approachable and unpretentious experience with highly professional and well-versed service personnel who seem happy to walk diners through the menu.  Don’t let the Bern’s pedigree intimidate you...prices are surprisingly moderate and ambiance is upscale-casual.  Visit and take your tongue on an expedition.

Haven Wine 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, March 22, 2015

Global A'Fare, Tampa, FL

Global A'Fare is a friendly and chill little gastropub on Kennedy Blvd. with an ambitious menu of globally inspired offerings.  UD and I hit it at a most opportune hour this afternoon as half-priced domestic beers and well drinks (as well as a selection of 50% off apps) are offered from 4-7 daily. We found the outdoor patio to be nicely shaded and the staff pleasingly welcoming to our furry family members who needed a change of scenery on a Sunday afternoon.

"Oh, Hai.  I likes Brazilian Balls".  Stay tuned and get your mind outta the gutter.



















Brazilian Cheese Balls are complimentary at Global A'Fare and are indescribably delish, hot and chewy, gluten-free (not that I give a rat's behind about "gluten-free", but apparently there's a whole movement in that direction that I neither understand nor care to) globes of cheesy goodness...and Molly Maguire appreciated the fact that there were enough to share.















The Eggplant Parm starter was an interesting and tasty riff on the classic dish.  Crispy, fried eggplant roulettes were presented piped with warm ricotta and drizzled in a tangy marinara sauce.















The zesty Seafood Cioppino was a nice rendition and liberally studded with tender shellfish.  Bread was offered, but we were dialing down the carbs on this particular Sunday and had to decline. Our newest pack addition, Neutron (aka "Newt"), prepares to belly flop into this trough of crustacean-laden decadence.



















Wings are my favorite treat when I'm in high-pro mode and Global A'Fare's did not disappoint.  Juicy and wood-fire roasted, these fat, meaty specimens are sauced your way...balsamic glaze with caramelized onion, Thai peanut, or traditional Buffalo.  I liked my Thai peanut wings, but probably would've had a greater appreciation for a stickier, spicier and more substantial shellac.















I like the concept here and you will not find a friendlier or more caring staff anywhere at a resto of its reasonable price point.  There's a nice but short selection of wines, a full liquor bar and array of local craft beers (in addition to all the usual nationally familiar suspects).  There's good stuff going on at Global A'Fare, with perhaps a little room to grow and refine.

www.globalafare.com

Global A'Fare 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.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Florida Cracker Kitchen, Brooksville, FL

Who's up for a gastronomic field trip to Brooksville?  Don't be slinking away so quickly...you may change your mind by the time I'm finished here.

Florida Cracker Kitchen is the product of a 20-year-old mini family dining dynasty on Jefferson Street in Brooksville.  This collaboration of brothers Ethan (a formally trained chef) and Blair (silver-tongued southern charmer and veritable one-man PR firm) Hensley is worth the drive from wherever you may be situated in the Tampa Bay area. Their mother, Larie Dewitt Hensley, owns the nearby acclaimed Mallie Kyla’s Café.  The restaurant opened two years ago serving breakfast and lunch only and recently expanded service to include dinner hours on Friday and Saturday.

The vibe at Florida Cracker Kitchen is kitschy, old-school-Florida at its finest and service is both attentive and small town friendly.  But don't let the down-home decor, Christmas lights, vintage advertising signs and requisite Adirondack chairs and rockers out front fool you...this is no Cracker Barrel.

Our dining group of three was presented with an amuse-bouche of "Cracker Caviar" to stimulate our taste buds upon being seated.  This addictive combo of marinated artichoke hearts, assorted olives, chickpeas, pearl-sized mozzarella balls and other goodies served as a perfect prelude to the bountiful offerings to come.
Portions of everything are huge at Florida Cracker Kitchen, so be prepared to take a to-go box home with you because you will want to sample it all.  For starters, the house-smoked fresh mullet spread could be a meal in and of itself and is one of the finest renditions to be found in the Greater Tampa Bay area for my money...and I can be extremely judgmental when it comes to fish spread. Creamy slices of avocado were an unexpected garnish, but made a surprisingly delightful foil for this nicely spicy pescetarian's delight.











Likewise, you don't want to pass on FCK's escalated riff on crab rangoon.  These flaky, sherry-laced lump crab and Gruyere stuffed phyllo purses are a study in luxurious decadence.

The term "shrimp" is something of a misnomer here, as Florida Cracker Kitchen's shrimp cocktail features some of the largest specimens of said crustaceans I've ever laid eyes on, served chilled and nicely spiced.  
Entrees were equally impressive, reasonably priced (all but the Filet of Beef are under $20) and served with a starch, a fresh veggie and choice of soup or salad.  While house dinner salads rarely do much to ratchet my heart rate up, this one did.  UD's gorgeous bowl of fresh greens with red onion slivers, heirloom grape tomatoes, carrot strands and toasted walnuts was drizzled in a light, house vinaigrette and heartily snarfed.
The soup of the day was crab and corn chowder (which I can almost never pass up), so I had to admire the salad from afar.  This was an excellent rendition and I appreciated that fact that no one was skimping on either the crab morsels or the trough size.
The bone of  the spousal unit's 1 lb. grilled porterhouse pork chop with apple rum glaze looked like it had been bleaching in the sun for a month after he had his way with it.  
I have no idea where she put it all, but little remained of our petite dining companion's fat and meaty Chassahowitzka river crab cakes after she tucked into them.  
Lastly, I enjoyed perfectly pan-seared grouper cheeks with beurre noisette sauce with fluffy jasmine rice and some outstanding Brussels sprouts with sauteed onion that I daresay would be sweet enough to convert even the most hardcore cruciferous veggie haters.
Creamy, mile-high kumquat pie is a must-order for citrus junkies.  When this shell-pink cloud arrives at the table atop its cinnamony graham cracker crust, you won't know whether to eat it or snuggle up in it. But go ahead and dive in (with your fork!)...the tangy and refreshing key-lime-meets-grapefruit flavor is quite remarkable.
The wine and craft beer list is short but thoughtful and most will find something on it to satisfy their taste.   For the bona fide "Crackers", there are tall boy cans of Miller Lite, PBR and Old Milwaukee on hand.

Final Word:  This was an extremely pleasing experience in all respects.  The place is fun, it's friendly, the food is excellent and nicely presented, and (bonus points!) it's quite affordable.  Everything you see here plus two glasses of wine and two beers set us back a relatively modest $125 before gratuity.  Be aware that this is a cash-only business, but there is an ATM onsite for diners' convenience (if you're lucky, you might get some of your change back in whimsical $2 bills).


Florida Cracker Kitchen 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, February 22, 2015

Del Frisco's Grille, Tampa, FL

Although I generally prefer to support locally owned and operated restaurants, Del Frisco's Grille is not a huge restaurant group (less than 18 units) and its menu gives a wide berth to standard, cookie-cutter chain resto fare.  On this balmy February day in Florida, UD celebrated his *coughsixtyfirstcough* anniversary of being pushed from the womb and and woke up squawking for "special" waffles like a five-year-old.  Since I haven't fired up a waffle iron since I was twelve, I let my fingers do the walking on my keyboard and, lo and behold, a Red Velvet Waffle in Tampa jumped out at me in my search results.  God, I love the Information Age.  And thus, we dawgs hightailed it to Del Frisco's Grille for a birfday brunch...arriving mere moments after the doors opened.

The top floor of Del Frisco's is open-air and throws off an uber chic and relaxing vibe.  Yeah, you're overlooking a retention pond and Boy Scout Boulevard, but the ambiance is quite pleasing, nonetheless.















First off, we needed a little hair o' the dog following our Big Birthday Blowout at Charley's the evening before.  All the usual drug delivery systems are on the menu (mimosas, screwdrivers and build-your-own Bloody Marys - all available by the glass or carafe), but we zeroed right in on the White Sangria (a blend of pinot grigio, white peach purée, Peach Schnapps and fresh berries) and oh, what a wondrous concoction it is!  At $17 for a generous carafe for two, it's also the deal of the century.  Just what the doctor ordered:

















While someone had already decided on his brunch entree, I needed time to peruse the menu...so we decided to warm up with a couple of starters.  The smoky Pulled Pork Empanadas (Swiss cheese and tender pulled pork tucked into golden, flaky pastry pockets and embellished with spicy apricot mustard and finely chopped dill pickle) were a delightful riff on a classic Cuban sandwich.













I was envisioning something chunkier and heartier when I requested a cup of Corn Chowder (crab meat, smoked bacon bits and fingerling potato chips), but I couldn't have been happier with the more subtle, sophisticated and sherry-laced version that showed up.  I loved its silken texture and there was no skimping on the crab morsels...plus, it was a nice-sized serving for $7 (I even let the spousal unit have a bite, but only because it was his Special Day).












Birthday wishes and dreams came to fruition when the tender-on-the-inside/toasty-on-the-outside, luxuriously cocoa-laced Red Velvet Belgian Waffle appeared.  Drizzled in whipped vanilla bean-spiked cream cheese, the waffle quads were served with a sidecar of maple syrup and topped with a lattice of thick-cut bacon slabs.  Waffle Nirvana:





















I personally felt that The Grille Benedict (perfectly poached eggs, French ham and chipotle hollandaise piled atop two halves of a scallion and white cheddar cathead biscuit) would serve as a better-suited sponge for sopping up the remnants of my Saturday night's transgressions, and I was not disappointed.  In fact, I tore into it with such vengeance that half of it had been consumed before photo-documentation even occurred to me.  All of the basic Sunday morning food groups were met here:  fat, salt, protein, carbs, spice.
















I would be remiss if I failed to give kudos to our darling and efficient server...our sweet "morning after" nurse, Pepper.  When our gorged Birthday Boy cried "uncle" at the offer of being comped a celebratory dessert, she boxed up what must be the most decadent coconut cream pie known to man for him to take home.  Luxe coconut cream filling was piled atop a sturdy, shortbread cookie-type crust and the entire diabolical concoction was slathered in whipped cream and liberally showered with shards of white chocolate.  You want this.













Final tab for all of this?  Around $65 before gratuity...and we didn't have to eat again all day.  I like it here.

http://delfriscosgrille.com/

Del Frisco's 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.