Sunday, January 31, 2016

Armani's, Tampa, FL

Oh, Armani's...how have I managed to eschew you for the past couple of decades?  Admittedly, I do tend to turn my nose up at most hotel restos...mainly because the very thought of them makes me yawn.  You, however, dispelled every preconceived notion I ever had when I dined with you on my birthday this month.

First of all, the view overlooking Tampa Bay to the west and the Courtney Campbell Causeway is a seriously stunning, so-romantic-your-clothes-practically-fall-off-on-their-own aphrodisiac. Add in the sleek, contemporary vibe and stellar service, off-the-chain sexy cuisine and you're done.  You've been successfully wooed. Any indiscretions you may indulge in after the fact are totally beyond your control.

Because my annual bogus New Year's resolution to lose 10 lbs. was already in full swing, I was forced into the heartbreaking position of trying to eat low-carb at a celebratory dinner.  At the end of the day, however, it was much easier than I could've imagined.

We were presented with warm, crusty bread and tapenade right off the bat.  I only know it was warm and crusty because I touched it...certainly, not a morsel of it passed my lips.  Well, perhaps just a tiny crumb.  A girl only turns 39 a dozen or so times.














The gleaming, swoonworthy antipasto bar made it easy to be good.  We each began with the chef's selection of assorted marinated veggies, shellfish, meats and cheeses.
























No celebration is complete without foie gras, which was fortuitously featured a as a special appetizer on this particular evening.  Accented with a berry reduction and pistachios, the perfectly seared lobe was truly a veryfine thing.














UD selected the starter of Crab Granchio - lump crab meat presented atop a truffled pea puree.  A study in elegance, it was a stunning dish and the deal of the century for $12.














As we continued to pull out the stops, hubs slurped a silken trough of sherry-laced lobster bisque laden with generously-sized crustacean morsels...














...while I attempted to stay on the path of righteousness by ordering a Caesar salad.  If there was anything I tasted at Armani's that I would not order again, it would be this.  One definitely needs to be a garlic-and-anchovy lover to the highest power to fully appreciate this salad.  While it was crisp and fresh, it was also heavily redolent with pungent odors and flavors that might best be avoided on date night...although its powerful punch will certainly hold appeal for some.














My grilled beef filet and lobster tail with creamed spinach and charred tomato beurre blanc was a classic and perfectly executed dish.  As far as I'm concerned, nothing says "Happy Birthday" quite like surf and turf!














UD never met a veal chop he didn't like, and Armani's Cotoletta alla Griglia was no exception.  He proclaimed it "exquisitely prepared" and "more flavorful than most"...high praise from this carnivorous cave man.  Because cruciferous veggies are his Kryptonite, the accompanying cauliflower gratin was not as well received as it could've been...but sweet, caramelized cippolini onions worked overtime to turn his frown upside down.














Although I bitterly resisted ordering dessert, our incredibly caring and attentive server, Qasim, wasn't having any of it and I was presented with a complimentary slab of creamily dreamy tiramisu.  It would've been rude not to at least take a bite.














Dinner at Armani's is an exquisite, highly sensory experience.  Yes, it's expensive...but somewhat less so than I expected.  Highly recommended for a Big Night Out.

www.armanis.com

Armani's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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 

Mad Beach Craft Brewing, Madeira Beach, FL

Ordinarily, the only thing that appeals to me less than wading through the slow-moving human wall of tourons and navigating the painful pay-station parking in John's Pass Village is being chained up in a Super Wal-Mart on Black Friday. Still, I have occasionally made the sacrifice to get my fix of smoked fish spread at Waltz Fish Shak or a lobster roll at The Boardwalk Grill. I don’t know whether to be thrilled or agonized by the fact that I now have added incentive to do so.

Mad Beach Brewing Company opened in October of 2014 as a taphouse only, featuring an eclectic selection of house-brewed craft beers, ales, ciders and local wine. In late December of 2015, it morphed into full-blown brew pub with the addition of chef Tyson Williams, formerly of the Baystar Restaurant Group.

The venue is cavernous, boisterous and industrial-chic, with miles of stainless bars, long communal tables and four-tops. This is not a romantic date-night destination or a place to rendezvous for serious conversation. With its multiple jumbo flat screen TVs, pool tables, air hockey, dart boards, corn-hole, giant Jenga, live music and more going on, it’s a veritable Chuck E. Cheese for grown-ups where the “littles” are also welcome (a kids’ menu is available). Being a restaurant that is both adult-oriented and family-friendly is a fine line to walk, but Mad Beach Craft Brewing Company admirably manages it.

The menu offers Caribbean and southern inspired pub and comfort food classics - beer-infused whenever it makes sense, which is always a good idea as far as I’m concerned. Appetizers include escalated versions of several pub staples like craft beer cheese dip, Buffalo wings, sliders, pulled pork nachos and the particularly hearty and homey Tots Poutine (crunchy, seasoned tots topped with melting cheese curds, house made stout gravy and fried sage).

Sandwiches are lumberjack sized, range in price from $8 burgers to $15 for locally sourced grouper, and are served on sweet Cuban-style coca rolls. My fried grouper selection was a real stunner – what had to be close to 8 ounces of the flaky fish was delicately breaded with a roll in seasoned flour, a dip in buttermilk and light dredge in more flour. Topped with Swiss cheese and nestled atop a bed of arugula and cilantro crema, it was one of the finest I’ve ever wrapped my lips around. Still, it may have been trumped by my better half’s $9 selection of The Beer Belly – house brined roasted pork belly, bacon, arugula, tomato, more of the crema, guava jelly and beer battered onion rings piled onto another of the sweet, pillowy buns. In his words, “the best sandwich ever created by man”, this nefariously decadent beast would be best served with a sidecar of Lipitor. Then, for those who scoff at danger and laugh in the face of arterial plaque, there’s the Jelly Donut Burger – a beef patty sandwiched between two glazed donuts with raspberry jelly, bacon and smoked cheddar. You can’t make this stuff up.

Similarly, the BBQ pulled pork sandwich is worth the calories. Marinated in ale (but, of course!), roasted, shredded into juicy tendrils and tossed in mango-rum-scotch bonnet barbecue sauce, the end result is heaped atop a salted pretzel roll and lavished with sharp cheddar and slaw.

All of this decadence notwithstanding, there are options available for the health conscious. In the interest of journalistic reporting, I sampled the lightest of the four available entrees on my second visit – Square Grouper. Wrapped in parchment and roasted with herbs and veggies, it was cooked to moist perfection. The accompaniment of fluffy green tea infused rice studded with pineapple bits and coconut, redolent with the scent of cilantro and ginger kept me from getting as sulky as I usually do when I try to watch my calories in a restaurant.

Let’s talk sides. Although there are far greater injustices in the universe, chomping into an onion ring and having the not-fully-cooked scalding center slide out and slap me on the chin is one First World Problem that never fails to make me inordinately cranky. Second degree burns need not be feared here, however. Battered in a combo of four ales, Mad Beach’s crunchy O-rings yield easily to the tooth while remaining solidly encased in their crusty exterior.

Southern Style Sweet Potato Casserole will make you wonder how you ever got through life without it. Laced with butter, brown sugar, cinnamon and house brewed yam ale, the indulgence factor is ratcheted into to the “OMG You DIDN’T” category by way of pecan praline and toasted marshmallows. Easily doubles as dessert.

One might also consider Fire Roasted Jalapeno Mac & Cheese. It’s ridiculous. Fat, corkscrew pasta noodles slurp up the Mornay sauce they’re lolling in along with bacon and roasted pepper bits. Topped with a bed of cheddar, a sprinkling of toasted breadcrumbs and a bacon rosette, the result is a study in American pasta sensuality.

And then came Peanut Butter Cup Bread Pudding.

Presenting a surprisingly subtle and adult-like flavor, this dessert combines barley and wheat from the brewhouse mixed with bread chunks, chocolate, peanut butter and cinnamon-vanilla custard. Ice cream, whipped cream and chocolate syrup are all piled atop it, however, lest you forget your inner child. Not a peanut butter fan? Key Lime Crème Brulee and a Toasted Marshmallow Banana Split are also available.

Good times, good beer and good food make me a fan of this Mad Beach fun spot.

www.madbeachbrewing.com

Mad Beach Craft Brewing Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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, January 16, 2016

Grey Salt, Tampa, FL

As a Brandon area resident, I am painfully aware that upscale dining options are few and far between in East Hillsborough County…but here’s some welcome news! We got an early Christmas present just before Thanksgiving with the debut of the eagerly-anticipated Grey Salt, a collaboration of celebrated New York chef (and judge on the Food Network series “Chopped”) Marc Murphy and the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. I’ll admit that, justifiably or not, visiting restaurants with “celebrity” chef pedigrees invariably makes me a little starry-eyed and I couldn’t wait to check this one out.

For me, a casino always feels like the odd juxtaposition of a Technicolor dream world filled with endless possibilities and a sad fog of Marlboro smoke, cheap cologne and desperation. Per usual, I got sucked into the vortex as I wound my way from the casino entrance to the hostess station, trying to hold my breath while making multiple detours and compulsively dropping – and losing - several $20s on slots (money and I always seem to be quickly parted when something shiny catches my eye). The 30 minute “journey” turned out to be worth it, lighter wallet notwithstanding.

The 240-seat restaurant is almost surprisingly tranquil considering the raucous den of hedonism it’s nestled in, flaunting sleek, contemporary lines and a subdued, neutral palette stunningly accented by a wall of backlit jars of canary-hued preserved lemons. A gleaming open kitchen with a wood-burning grill provides a secondary focal point.


The Mediterranean-inspired menu is comprised of locally sourced seafood, house made pasta dishes, flatbreads and roasted or fire-grilled meat, poultry and fish. Appetizers range in price from $9 for Soup of the Day to $20 for the Grey Salt Charcuterie Board and entrees will set you back $26 to $59. The menu is a la carte, so things can (and do) add up quickly with the inclusion of salads and sides – albeit not surprisingly considering the venue and the quality of the cuisine. Tables do get a complimentary drop of grilled pita wedges and some really fine hummus bursting with bright, lemony flavor, however.




My party raved over the roasted oysters with parsley, butter and lemon ($18 for a dozen, nicely separated into two portions for sharing), which were perfect in their simplicity. I’ve gotten a little spoiled of late by restaurants like The Mill and Annata in St. Pete, who offer mix-and-match charcuterie boards accented with a plethora of tasty accoutrements like Marcona almonds, jams, honeycomb and the like. Grey Salt’s rendition has no options and the meats are simply presented with pickled veggies, mostarda and crostini. Still, ours was an attractively plated and generously portioned plank.
The sight of flatbread on a menu generally does little to inspire me and I rarely order one, but was intrigued by the clam and chorizo option with dandelion greens. Bitter greens and pork are already a match made in heaven, and the briny sweetness of the clams provided a nice foil for the acridity of the dandelion and the spice of the sausage. The flatbread itself was thin, crispy and well-done -- pleasantly wafting of char from the grill and sturdily supporting its toppings. Priced at $18, it was substantial enough to be a meal for most and made me feel quite pleased with my decision to give it a shot.




Like any good carnivore, my resident caveman fell upon his juicy and flavorful cow chop – the 24 oz. Prime Bistecca alla Florentina – with gusto, but was ultimately defeated by its heft and toted the remainder home for another meal. This is a steak that can easily be shared by two, making its $59 price tag a little more palatable. The roasted duck breast with dried fruit mostarda was similarly well-executed and cooked to a nicely precise medium rare, as requested, although the portion seemed light for $32 with no accompaniments. A shareable side order of crushed potatoes with Parmesan was also sampled, which proved to be pretty remarkable. Tiny and multi-colored, the tender orbs had crusty, golden-brown exteriors, creamy centers, and were lavished with a fine confetti of cheesy goodness.





Typically suspicious of any dessert that doesn’t demand the penance of several extra hours on the treadmill, I went rogue and ordered fruit to help me ramp up for that veryshortlived lie of a New Year’s Resolution I pledge every January. It almost pains me to say it, but I will. The grilled pineapple spear with its caramelized edges and succulent center might’ve been my favorite aspect of this meal. Accented with mascarpone, Moroccan honey and pistachio, it was a candy-like marvel.






At the end of the day, Grey Salt’s price point and location are less than ideal for many restaurant diners and there are definitely better options if you're willing to drop the kind of coin it demands. Still, it’s a solid destination for high-rollers and celebratory dinners – especially for residents living near the I-75 corridor.

www.greysalt-restaurant.com

Grey Salt Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Hog Island Fish Camp, Dunedin, FL

As a southerner and a casual seafood restaurant devotee, my heart always beats a little faster when a place bills itself as a “fish camp”. Fish camps sprang up along the riverbanks of the southeastern United States in the ‘30s and ‘40s in the form of rustic sheds where anglers could purchase bait, rent tackle, and then later convene with other area fisherman to clean and fry their catches (and hang out with the boys, of course). At some point, an opportunity was recognized and larger camps began offering pavilion-style seating, drinks and side dishes to their patrons. Over the years, the term “fish camp” has morphed into a term used to describe an affordable restaurant specializing in heaping servings of fried fish and southern comfort food…and what’s not to love about that?

Located in the building formerly occupied by Sam’s Fresh Seafood, the vibe at Hog Island is convivial and rustic with plenty of repurposed wood, trophy fish nailed to the walls and directional signs in case you didn’t leave a trail of breadcrumbs when you drove up from Key West.


All of this, plus a cold beer and a fried grouper sandwich, would be all I needed to make my life complete. But there’s so much more to this unassuming restaurant. The menu cuts a broader swathe than one might expect, offering over 20 craft beers on tap, cocktails and an extensive selection of wines (by the glass and bottle) to satisfy every taste and budget. Then there’s the food.

A trio of house made spreads (pimento cheese, smoked mullet and smoked salmon) proved to be an excellent choice for staving off hunger pangs while perusing the menu.


On my first visit, my party and I sampled locally sourced hogfish (both fried and blackened) with better than average hand cut frites and crispy cole slaw; feather-lightly breaded salt and pepper fried oysters; and a mound of juicy, prepared to order buttermilk fried chicken dinner that was SO worth the 30 minute wait the menu warned us about. “Fried” is the word du jour at Hog Island, so don’t get crazy and try to count calories here. You can always make an attempt at damage control by eating salad later.

Salt and Pepper Fried Hogfish


All side dishes sampled elicited raves – especially the dense, cast iron skillet corn bread studded with bacon bits. Remarkable. Similarly, sweet, butter pan fried (again) corn set everyone’s imaginary tails to wagging along with a trough of smoky collard greens liberally peppered with pork morsels.  Hush puppies were light, airy and non-greasy.






While the generous sandwich and entrée portions (most come with two sides) will be more than most bellies can handle in one sitting, you don’t want to miss an opportunity to tuck into the hearty, tomato broth-based Bay Bottom Chowder packed with scallops, shrimp and fish. It’s a “must-try” and practically a meal in itself.


Red meat lovers need not despair…there are plenty of menu option for you, including hanger, pork and sirloin steaks. On visit #2, a gorgeous, ribbon-textured pulled pork sandwich lavished in zippy sweet-and-spicy barbecue sauce, white cheddar and house bread and butter pickles left me crying “uncle” before I could finish it. I’d be remiss if I didn’t bestow kudos on the tender roll with the beautifully egg-shellacked surface it was presented on.  My side of Mac and Cheese was not my granny’s version. Surprisingly sophisticated, fat pasta tubes were presented lazing in a subtly cheesy béchamel sauce beneath a golden, breadcrumb crust.









Underdog's melt-in-your-mouth Cheer Wine Glazed Ribs literally slid off of the bone of their own accord.

While I was little bummed that no house-made desserts are offered here (Mike’s Pies and a couple of other pre-fabs are the only options), it was probably a blessing in disguise.

If you needed another reason to visit Dunedin’s charming shops and waterfront vista, here it is. Easy for two to dine heartily here for around $60 with beer and wine.

www.hogislandfishcamp.com

Hog Island Fish Camp Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Mátyás Pince, Budapest, Hungary

When in Rome, do as the Romans do...correct?  Or, in our case, do as the Hungarians do.

While in Budapest during our recent Viking River Cruise, we decided to skip the ship food and seek out a bona fide Hungarian dining experience.  As luck would have it, the bartender on duty was Hungarian and didn't hesitate to draw us a map to Mátyás Pince (which was fortuitously located only a short walk from where we were docked).  This 100+ year old restaurant charmed us upon entry with its starched linens, sparkling glassware, professional waitstaff, live Gypsy music and authentic Hungarian and Renaissance decor.  Suffering mightily from jet-lag, our drooping eyelids forced us there at the most European-ungodly dining hour of 6:00 PM, which explains the empty venue.  It was filling up nicely by the time we finished a leisurely 2-hour dinner and headed back to the Njord, however.















Warm, crusty bread and sparkling wine were dispensed while we perused the menu.  Doesn't this look romantic?















We started with Rare Muscovy Duck Breast stuffed with duck liver and presented on a bed of greens...














...and a selection of Royal Pâtés.  Liver was present in abundance on Mátyás Pince's menu, which always earns my great favor.
















We both then proceeded to slurp the proffered bowls of classic Hungarian beef goulash soup, which was far more amazing than I ever would've expected and nothing like anything I've ever tasted in the U.S. that was labeled "goulash" - thinner, more "noodly" and laden with hearty chunks of beef.
















Settling on an entree selection was so difficult that my final decision practically came down to a coin toss. Offerings all sounded homey and comforting, ranging from roasted goose leg to bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin, to beef cheek braised in carrot sauce with dumplings...the tantalizing list of options never seemed to end. I chose wisely with my Steak Budapest-Style, which was served atop potato croquettes and a pool of veggie ragout.  The fact that it was crowned with a slab of goose liver and a giant broiled mushroom cap took it over the top.   Folks, we have a winner!
















I thought UD's sirloin chop with fried potatoes, bacon and onions looked a little "ugly stepsister-ish" by comparison, but I didn't hear any complaints.
















Desserts were off the chain.  My better half's plum strudel packed a fruity punch and was served with a brandy-laced prune ragout.
















HOWEVER...it was trumped by my Gundel pancakes flambéed in rum.  Oh, did I mention that they were filled with ground walnuts, slathered in chocolate sauce and set afire at the table?

Such a fabulous dining experience...and one that I'll remember for the rest of my life.

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.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Donatello, Tampa, FL

Some things never go out of style - like starched linens; fresh roses on every table; top notch live entertainment; impeccable service from a swarthy, tuxedo-clad staff; and exquisite, classic Italian cuisine. I don’t throw this compliment around lightly, but my recent dining experience at Donatello was the finest I’ve had in Hillsborough County in years ...and I’ve eaten just about everywhere (food being my #1 hobby). It was, quite simply, opulence on steroids.





















I can’t guarantee that you’ll get to first base by taking the object of your desire to Donatello, but you’ll certainly have no one but yourself to blame if you don’t. Romance orchestrates itself and all you have to do is shower and show up. This a destination for leveraging your expense account or taking your beloved out for a milestone anniversary, a marriage proposal, or to repent for an almost unforgivable act. My first thought upon being seated was, “I want to stay here all night”. And then, they let me. No one is trying to quickly turn tables here.

While the menu is comprised mostly of Northern Italian dishes, there are nods aplenty to various regions throughout the country. Warm, crusty bread and brightly fresh bruschetta are presented upfront. Appetizers sampled by my party were plump scallops gratinate presented on the shell; house pate (a rustic chicken liver version) and fresh mussels in a zesty marinara sauce (nicely divided into two servings at our request) that no one could resist going all "fare la scarpetta" on. Yep, we sopped it all up with our bread…good manners notwithstanding. It was too delish to waste a drop. 


































You definitely want to start with the traditional Caesar salad – cold, crisp and redolent of garlic, anchovies, lemon and Parmesan cheese, just as God intended. I don’t have enough superlatives in my vocabulary to do justice to this leafy masterpiece. You want it. Make sure your date orders it too, though. Did I mention “garlic”? 
The extensive main course offerings include a plethora of beef, seafood and chicken entrees, but the house-made pasta dishes all sound so swoon-worthy that it almost feels wrong not take that direction. Protip to my fellow (sometimes) Atkins dieters, just take the day off because it’s impossible to navigate safely here.

Two of us tried Linguini Al Granchio (pasta in white wine sauce tossed with caramelized garlic slivers and luxe chunks of lump crabmeat) which was ridiculous in its indulgence factor with a nice snap of heat on the end. It ties for the best pasta dish I’ve ever eaten with the unforgettable bowl of fiocchetti with pears. ricotta and Parmesan cream I had the fortune to tuck into at Trattoria 4 Leoni in Florence (Italy, not Alabama) a few years ago. 








Similarly, the classic Bolognese, a hearty and homey dish comprised of tomatoes simmered with a “soffritto” of onions, celery and carrots along with beef and pork, was a stick-to-your-ribs kind of meal with the sauce clinging nicely to its bed of creamy, al dente pasta.





My carnivorous cave man’s veal scaloppini with imported Italian ham, mushrooms and truffle in white wine sauce was a fork-tender and umami-riche wonder, flanked with sautéed veggies and a crispy potato croquette. I offered to split my entrée in the interest of mutual reciprocity, but he’s never been much of a team player. 

No one had any room for sweet finishes, but we ordered a couple of them anyway (in the interest of journalistic documentation). The Napoleon, layers of creamy custard sandwiched between sheets of airy puff pastry, was a cross-cultural taste sensation. If ordered, prepare to lose consciousness as you slide your spoon through the textural contrast of this European classic. This is a creation that can go south quickly if left to sit, but Donatello’s version had zero sogginess factor.






And, then…just when I thought the bar had been set…lemon gelato appeared, the likes of which I’ve never experienced before. The ultimate palate-cleanser, this extraordinary dessert rolled the richness of ice cream and the intense citrusy flavor of sorbet into one remarkable frozen concoction. 








At the end of the evening, long-stemmed red roses are dispensed to the female patrons in a thoughtful finishing touch. As much as I hesitate to show favoritism, Donatello rules when it comes to upscale dining in Hillsborough County.

www.donatellotampa.com

Donatello Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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.