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Monday, April 7, 2014

Banking On Bernini

Stepping across the threshold of the Bank of Ybor City building is akin to taking a trip back in time. As you open the weathered doors and enter the ornate lobby with high ceilings you discover a room awash with character. 

Instead of patrons queued up at a teller’s window they sit at tables scattered about the tiled floor. Replacing the tellers and their windows is a bar with its tenders. Rather than being greeted at the door by a sleepy-eyed bank guard an energetic maître d' meets you and guides you to a table. This was certainly not a bank, but rather Bernini, a restaurant specializing in Italian cuisine. 

The Belle of Ballast Point and I met up with our dear friends, Sweet Polly and her Underdog, for dinner this past Saturday after Polly and I attended a three hour Florida Food Conference earlier in the day at the St. Pete campus of USF.

As a side note, the conference sessions Polly and I attended covered topics such as effective food writing and photography. The writing segment was lectured by Janet Keeler, Food and Travel Editor of the Tampa Bay Times, while her husband, Scott Keeler of the Times, covered the photography breakout. 

Polly and I agreed that while both sessions were informative, they did not break new ground for us, especially in the areas of sentence structure, spelling, and grammar (i.e. freshman English). What did amaze us was the lack of attendance by other Tampa Bay food bloggers, many of whom could have benefited greatly from these sessions.

Now, where was I? Oh yes, Bernini.

Menus were presented, and Jason promptly arrived to take our drink orders: a traditional $2 special martini for Underdog, and a bottle of Sonoma-Cutrer’s signature Chardonnay with fruity aromas of green apple, lime, and pineapple complemented with touches of nougat, and caramel for three of us to share. 

The table decided to try three of Bernini’s appetizers.

The crispy, breaded Eggplant Bonanno layered with ricotta, prosciutto, fresh basil, and topped with fresh mozzarella, basil pesto and tomato sauce was the small plate that received the most accolades.


The pepper crusted, seared, thin beef tenderloin Carpaccio with capers, red onions, shaved pecorino cheese, crostini, and white truffle balsamic drizzle was one of the best Carpaccio dishes that I can remember. That balsamic reduction put this dish over the pinnacle of excellence.



Our third sampling was the fresh Prince Edward Island bleu cheese mussels sautéed with fennel, shallots, grape tomatoes, apple wood bacon, Gorgonzola cheese, and finished with fresh herbs. This was a well-prepared dish, but nothing out of the ordinary. As I have written before, sometimes the sameness of Tampa Bay restaurant menus and food preparation is stifling.




It was about here that Jason informed us that we had consumed the last bottle of Sonoma-Cutrer, so the ladies switched to a creamy, rich and toasty Crème de Lys Chardonnay with hints of juicy pineapple and green apple, with a pinch of vanilla. I decided on the Michael-David petit Syrah with a pleasantly smoky nose along with plum, blackberry, and black raspberry fruit characteristics to accompany my entrée. But, ladies first.

For her large plate, my bride chose the pistachio crusted fresh Gulf grouper served with herb roasted mashed potatoes and broccolini finished with a Marsala brown butter sauce. Of this dish, she stated that it was the best she has had on this side of Tampa Bay. That is a glowing compliment from a person who claims not to be an aficionado of finny stuff from the sea.



The other member of the female persuasion in our dinner party requested the crispy skin roast duck. This Maple Leaf Farm’s half duck was served with goat cheese mashed potatoes and broccolini, finished with a dried cherry and vanilla Chianti demi-glace. I seriously considered arm wrestling Sweet Polly just for that heavenly crispy skin. She probably would have whipped my butt, so I stayed on my side of the table.



I tried a bite of Underdog’s entrée, the Veal Chop Aneto. This chop topped with prosciutto and Fontina cheese served over the utterly fantastic white truffle risotto and finished with sherry wine, mushroom, and dill reduction with a splash of cream was superb. Our table raved over that risotto.

Photo courtesy of Epicurean Perils of Sweet Polly

 I was torn between the Cioppino and the Pork Osso Buco. Jason suggested that the Osso Buco would be a good choice, so I went with that. This slow braised pork shank with natural au jus, roasted fennel, saffron risotto, and a grilled carrot wasn't particularly memorable. It was fall-off the bone tender, but was essentially just a shank on a bed of yellow rice in a puddle of broth. There was nothing unique about this dish to set it apart from others I have tried around Tampa Bay.




For dessert, the table ordered the sampler platter: Flourless Chocolate Cake, Cassata Cake, and Crème Brulee. I am not much of a dessert person, but I do love Crème Brulee. This one was spectacular! I am not even sure if I shared with my tablemates. If I didn’t, then by-gones you guys; I’ll try to do better next time.



When all the food and drinks for the table were tallied, we split the bill in half. Our share came to $130.28 and we added a 20% gratuity for Jason. Ubiquity aside, we enjoyed our culinary adventure at Bernini. As always, our greatest pleasure was dining with our dear friends, Sweet Polly and Underdog. 

Bernini on Urbanspoon

Bernini on Foodio54

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Dining With The AARPers

I was hesitant to write a review of a Carrabba's Italian Grill since this restaurant chain can be found nearly everywhere. I mean, if you've been to one Carrabba's, you've been to them all. Right? Not necessarily. While they all may share the same corporate philosophy and menus, the diner is still at the mercy of local managers, cooks, and wait staff.

Since I now, as my lovely bride points out frequently, am older than dirt and the possessor of an AARP card I decided to explore the possibilities available to members of the vintage people club. I discovered that many Carrabba's offer AARP card carriers a 20% discount on Wednesdays. Well, yesterday was Wednesday, so off we went to the Carrabba's at 700 N. Dale Mabry. After all, a 20% discount is a 20% discount.

We arrived around 5:30, so we beat the crowds that soon after began pouring in. Our server, Ernesto, presented us with menus and water and inquired about our desires for adult beverages. He also pointed out that we had arrived during happy hour, so we chose two glasses of a house Chardonnay.

I wanted to try an appetizer, but the choices were rather uninspiring. After mulling it over a bit, I decided on the ubiquitous steamed mussels. I will have to say that the Cozze In Bianco, Prince Edward Island mussels steamed in white wine, basil and house made lemon butter sauce, was very good. The mussels weren't raw or over cooked and the sauce made a savory broth that was perfect for sopping.


Both my bride and I had the house salad. The lettuce was cold and crisp, but beyond that it was...well, a house salad.



For her main course, my Belle of Ballast Point requested the delightful Conchiglie al Formaggi. This dish consisted of shell pasta tossed in house made Alfredo sauce with mozzarella, fontina, romano, parmesan and goat cheese. With a modest up charge, juicy and flavorful chicken was added. That chicken, pasta, cheeses, and sauce was deemed heaven on the buds of taste.


I decided on the Sirloin Masala with a side of Cavatappi Amatriciana, a dish made famous by Carrabba's Restaurant. It consists of cavatappi, chopped onions, minced garlic, red pepper flakes, olive oil, dry white wine, diced tomatoes in juice, freshly grated Romano cheese, pancetta and salt and pepper.

The steak came to the table cooked to a perfect medium rare over a wood grill and topped with mushrooms, prosciutto and house made Lombardo Marsala wine sauce. The steak was excellent, the pasta a little bit less so. There was no real depth of flavor. It tasted as though there was something missing.


Our server, Ernesto, was personable, professional, and provided us with great service. I thought he was a little out of place at Carrabba's. His knowledge and talents would fit in quite well at a more upscale restaurant...maybe Bern's or Donatello. That should be taken as a compliment to him.

The kitchen and bussers need to work on their timing. Salads were served before the appetizer bowl was cleared, and entrees were served before salads were consumed. Other than those two issues, we were pleased with our experience at Carrabba's and our comestibles. We would possibly go back if the menu were more expansive. There just wasn't that much that titillated the taste buds on this visit.

Before our check was presented, I produced my AARP card for the 20% discount. Our bill with the discount was $72.25. Alcohol and taxes are not included in the discount. Our gross total was $81.43 and that is what we based Ernesto's 20% gratuity upon. Discount or no discount, it is always a pleasure to waddle out of a restaurant with bellies full of food and wine, and not drop a hundred or more dollars.

Carrabba's Italian Grill on Urbanspoon

Carrabba's Italian Grill - South Tampa on Foodio54

The Oracle has not and will not trade reviews of any kind for free food or money. Our discount last night is available to anyone who presents an AARP card.
 

Monday, March 17, 2014

A Gastronomic Gem On 49th Street

Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined 49th Street in Pinellas Park to be a culinary destination, but twice over the last several days my bride, the Belle of Ballast Point, and I found ourselves drawn to this boulevard of nondescript strip malls.

Our first trip took us to Terra Mar Brazilian Steakhouse where we enjoyed a very flavorful and affordable churrascaria. As we were pulling into the parking lot, there right before my very eyes, I spied Rosie's Clam Shack. Oh, be still my thumping gizzard. I considered a change in dining venues, but we had already made reservations at Terra Mar. I am glad we kept those reservations, but a return to 49th Street was in our future.

Editor's note: Restaurant parking lot photos seem to be the new big thing on Urbanspoon reviews, so I felt obliged to include one here.

So it came to pass this past Sunday that the Belle and I made that trek across Gandy Bridge to Pinellas Park to answer the Sirens's call of Rosie's.

We were immediately greeted by the vivacious and ever so charming Janai who would be our server, guide, and instructor on our dining adventure. The early dinner crowd had not arrived yet, so we were fortunate to have Janai pretty much to ourselves.

The first order of bidness were beers to wash away the road dust. Next on my agenda were appetizers. I couldn't make up my mind, should it be oysters on the half shell or Whole Belly Steamers in Shell. To break this mental impasse, I decided to have both.

The oysters were perfectly shucked to preserve that delicious salty liquor and brought to mind these lines written by Hemingway, "...as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”


My happy plans were to polish off the supremely delightful clams, after a quick lesson from Janai. She correctly observed that I didn't have a clue as to what I was doing and suggested that I remove the sheath from the clam appendage before rinsing it. Who knew? We didn't have "them there Yankee" clams when I was growing up in the Florida panhandle.


My only disappointment while at Rosie's was finding out that some hog-dawg before me had scarfed up the last of the whole Maine lobsters. What now, thought I? I remembered that a previous visitor to Rosie's had commented on how good the fried oysters were. I haven't had any fried oysters since Altman's Drive-In burned down on Panama City Beach, and that was over fifty years ago.

Rosie's fried Oyster Plate was piled with lightly breaded, perfectly fried oysters. These mollusks were still plump, flavorful, and juicy. The oyster plate comes with a two sides. I chose extra crispy fries with a bowl of coleslaw.


My dining partner was mulling over the Fresh Catch of the Day. "I wonder what it is?" queried my bride. "Haddock," called out Janai who was cleaning a nearby table. So, a lightly battered, succulent haddock it was, with a side of parsley potatoes.


Even if the food had not been delightful, the trip across the bay still would have been worthwhile just to enjoy the company of the very professional and personable Janai.


We were seated in the main dining area, but as we were leaving I discovered a rather cozy looking full liquor bar with a happy hour from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.


Rosie's Clam Shack was a great food find, and I can definitely suggest a return trip or two. The food, adult beverages, and 20% gratuity for Janai came to a very pleasant $86.72.


Rosie's Clam Shack on Urbanspoon

Rosie's Clam Shack on Foodio54

Editor's other note: The Oracle dines anonymously and we pay for all that we consume. We do not 'ho' great reviews for money or free anything. We do have an abundance of scruples. They are not for sale either.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Churrascaria On The Cheap

If you have ever dined at the now closed Boizao or the still cooking Texas de Brazil here in Tampa, then you have been to a churrascaria (pronounced shoo-HOSS-ka-REE-ah), a place where meat is cooked in Churrasco style, which translates roughly from the Portuguese for 'barbecue'.

In either of these two all-you-can-eat steakhouses you have probably paid around $45 per person to pig out on some really gut-busting meat. Last night my Bride and I made the trek across Gandy Bridge to Pinellas Park to try a churrascaria I had just recently discovered while surfing on Urbanspoon.


Picanha
The one thing that really piqued my interest were the prices at the Terra Mar Brazilian Steakhouse. Holy picanha Bat Man, All You Can Eat Buffet - plus Rotisserie Grill for just $19.99. That sounded great to me, so we fought rush hour traffic on Gandy Boulevard and arrived at Terra Mar around six.

We were immediately greeted at the door and guided to our choice of tables in a rather minimalistic dining room. Terra Mar is far from fancy, but we were there for the food, not the decor. Oh, yeah, and all the meat we could eat for about $25 less than we would have paid at Texas de Brazil or Boizao.

To wash away the road dust from our trip, my Bride requested a half bottle of a delightful Portuguese red, the Monte Velho. This wine exhibited a bright crimson color with a fresh, lively nose of cherry-berry fruit with hints of pepper and creamy-coffee.

I was intrigued by the Portuguese and Brazilian beer selection. I couldn't decide on just one, so over the course of the evening I tried one of each.

The Sagres Cerveja is a American adjunct lager style beer brewed by Sociedade Central de Cervejas in Vialonga, Portugal. It was light and flavorful, but the real winner for me was the Brazilian Xingu, a good, easy drinking dark beer that was much lighter than, say a Guinness Stout.

Our server offered us two choices for dinner, the Rodizio for $19.99 or the Prime Rodizio for $24. Said he, this up-charge gives the diner a better meat selection. My dining partner chose the regular and I decided on the prime.

The difference between the regular and the prime was four dollars and a penny, and that was absolutely the only difference I could discern. Both of us sampled the rather pedestrian choices from the hot and cold buffet tables, and we both received the same meats from the server with the meat machete. He didn't seem to know or care which one of us was prime. Also, an adjacent table got the same selection of meats that I was offered. Save your $4.01.

The meats that were presented were savory enough, but some were raw and some were way over cooked. There was a toughness and chewiness in some of the meats that I don't remember from Texas de Brazil or Boizao, but then again, I wasn't paying $45 either.

While Terra Mar did not compare with Texas de Brazil on several levels, neither of us walked out hungry. Actually, stuffed would be a better description. Our total bill, with all food and drink plus a 20% gratuity came to $88.80. For that price and the quality of service we received from the friendly staff, I could envision a return one day.

Terra Mar Brazilian Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

Terra Mar Brazilian Steakhouse on Foodio54

Friday, March 14, 2014

Not Your Momma's Phở Gà

Phở Gà is a Vietnamese chicken noodle soup, but last night I played around with the concept of a fusion bowl with Vietnamese, Chinese, and Japanese flavors. I was inspired by a recent visit to Alésia Restaurant in St. Petersburg, "...[f]ounded by three partners with French, Vietnamese, and Chinese upbringings..."

What I wound up with was a rich, flavorful faux phở (say that real fast several times) that provided us with a very filling and warming soup that banished the Florida March chill that we aren't enjoying. I have entertained thoughts of figuratively bitch slapping the next TV weather person who gushes over this marvelous cool weather. But, I digress.

I took more than a few liberties with my phở gà. For one thing, I have neither the time or patience to cook the traditional rich broth for 24 hours or more. My local Publix, where shopping is an adventure, has some very flavorful prepared stocks, so last night I just poured a Swanson chicken cooking stock directly from the carton.

If time and desire exist, you can enhance the richness of the prepared stock by boiling it down by maybe a quarter. The spirit didn't move me in that direction this time, but whether you pour from the container or perform a stock reduction, do use stock, not broth.

For heat and flavor I use a Vietnamese chili garlic sauce. If you absolutely have to, I suppose you could substitute the ubiquitous sriracha. They are both available from the same company, but sriracha is for pussies.



Not Your Momma's Phở Gà


  4         each  chicken thighs -- skinned and boned
  1         tablespoon sea salt
  2         tablespoons five-spice powder
  2         tablespoons peanut oil
  2         cloves  garlic -- thinly sliced
  1         tablespoon  ginger root -- peeled and thinly sliced
  1         cup carrot -- peeled and shredded
  1/4      cup mirin
  1         tablespoon Vietnamese garlic chili sauce -- or to taste
  4         ounces rice noodles
  1         head  bok choy -- cut into 1-inch pieces, separate leaves from stalks
  1/4      cup soy sauce
  32       ounces chicken stock
  1/2      cup  cilantro -- chopped

Cut the chicken into bite sized pieces and season all over with salt, to taste, and the five-spice powder.

In a large pot over medium-high heat, add the peanut oil.

When the oil is hot, add the garlic and ginger, and saute until they become fragrant with a slight dark char.

Add the chicken to the pot and saute until golden but not cooked through.

Stir in the bok choy stalks and carrots and saute for 1 minute.

Stir in the mirin and chili sauce, and cook for 30 seconds, then add the rice noodles, bok choy leaves, soy sauce and chicken stock and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the noodles are al dente.

Ladle the soup into large, wide bowls and garnish with the chopped cilantro.

Start to Finish Time:  45 minutes
                                    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

In the interest of total honesty, I didn't have any rice noodles last night, so I substituted angel hair pasta. Whatever works!


Per Serving (excluding unknown items): 437 Calories; 22g Fat (47.6% calories from fat); 20g Protein; 34g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 79mg Cholesterol; 4540mg Sodium.  Exchanges: 1 1/2 Grain(Starch); 2 1/2 Lean Meat; 1 Vegetable; 3 Fat.

Monday, March 10, 2014

A Delightful Fusion On The Other Side Of The Bay

For the Belle of Ballast Point and me, one of our great dining pleasures is meeting up with dear friends to share a table laden with good food and drink. This weekend my bride and I met up with Sweet Polly and her hero Underdog for a blogger convergence at the Alésia Restaurant, 7204 Central Avenue in the South Pasadena section of St. Petersburg.

"Founded by three partners with French, Vietnamese, and Chinese upbringings, Alésia Restaurant is the culinary embodiment of these childhood influences and the eclectic mix of dishes and flavors they were naturally raised with."

We arrived at Alésia promptly at 5:30 to ensure a table. Reservations for less than five people are not accepted, so seating is on a first come, first seated basis. We secured a tiny four top next to a large window looking out to Central. Patrick, our server for the evening presented us with menus and took our drink orders.

I began my Alésia adventure with a bottle, and I do mean bottle, of Hitachino Nest Beer. This 24.3 ounce bottle of Japanese white ale poured a cloudy pale straw color with a thin layer of head. The nose had hints of wheat and yeast along with some citrus notes. This was an interesting brew, erroneously described as a rice beer, that went well with my dinner choices.

After being served our adult beverages of choice, the next order of business were appetizers that were shared amongst the four of us.

Probably the most popular of the dishes were the Potstickers, delicious pan-fried dumplings with Chinese chives and ground pork served with soy-ginger dipping sauce.


Underdog said that the Charcuterie Platter, with prosciutto, sopressata, pâté, dry salami, olives, basil pesto, cornichons, served with toast points brought back pleasant memories of a trip to Italy.



A little less spectacular were the Shrimp Chips, light airy chips with subtle hints of shrimp. The accompanying house made, seasonal salsa with diced apple more than made up for any flavor lacking in the chips.


Not topping the charts for Sweet Polly was the Lobster Bisque. This creamy soup with hints of lobster was served with a toasted baguette. It was good, just not at the bisque pinnacle of greatness. Creamy soups have never titillated my taste buds, but I could actually taste the lobster so that was a plus.


Moving past the appetizers, the next leg of our gastronomic journey was to the happy land of entrees, and I believe my Bride landed in the happiest of happy places. The Belle requested a dish that we had heard several people simply rave about, the Asian Style Beef Stew.

This was no Betty Crocker beef stew. This beef stew reminded me of a super rich version of pho with tender beef and carrots with a heavenly broth over rice vermicelli, topped with fresh herbs and served with a French baguette. Oh my, was that ever good, though I felt the noodles were a bit overcooked. A little more al dente, and this stew would have been over the top.


Sweet Polly's Honey Glazed Cornish Game Hen was roasted to perfection, or at least the leg I tried was tender and juicy, not dry and overcooked. The hen was presented with a side of au gratin potatoes.


Underdog had the Sirloin Back Ribs, grilled pork ribs with a sweet spicy ginger glaze, served with the ubiquitous potato au gratin. The ribs that I tasted were tender and juicy.

 

I was thrilled with my Chinese Short Ribs. These incredibly tender beef ribs were soy-marinated and served with crispy house greens and savory roasted vegetables. This was an excellent fusion of seemingly disparate culinary traditions that some have referred to as Chinois, combined French and Chinese cooking.

Photo courtesy of Sweet Polly

Three in our party finished the evening with desserts: House Brownie, Bread Pudding (one with walnuts and banana, and one with chocolate chip). All were served with French vanilla bean ice cream. I am not a dessert person, but I heard that the brownie was the best of the three. I am not including individual photos because they all looked essentially the same. Seen one, you've seen them all, I always say. This was the brownie.


We split the total bill in half and our share came to $111 and some change. That included a 20% gratuity for Patrick. With all of that delicious food and our beverages, our evening at Alésia was pleasantly affordable and worth the long drive from Tampa.

As a side note: Restaurants do not pay for our reviews; good, bad, or indifferent.


Alésia Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Alesia Restaurant on Foodio54