Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmas Gifts That Cost You Little

And mean MUCH MORE to the receiver than you will ever realize.

This Christmas, in the true spirit of the season, which is the celebration of the greatest birthday in human civilization, why not let His love shine, through you and find opportunities to give to others you would not normally think of giving to. You say money is tight? I hear you brother. Many of the gifts I am talking about do not even include money. Give time. Give encouragement. Give sweat. Give love. Give hope.

It is not up to the government to take care of all those in need, many of them actually in that position DUE to our government. No friends, it is up to us, God's people, the church and humanity to take care of needs of our society, our communities, our cities and our very own neighbors.

Many things can be done and the list is really endless if you use even a little imagination.

Volunteer to deliver toys to the less fortunate children via Angel Tree or Metro Ministries. Visit shut ins and the elderly who would not have any Christmas without you and sit with them and sing Christmas Carols, let them tell you stories, give them a kind word and a smile, hold their hand, let them know you care. Be a big brother or sister to a little one who has no one else. Bring them a book. Read it to them. Take them to get an ice cream. Look at Christmas lights with them.

Volunteer to serve food at the many places around the area that will provide meals to the homeless, the less fortunate and others. There are countless opportunities to do this and as simple as picking up the paper or the phone to find them.

Help a neighbor in your area with something they cannot do themselves. Mow the high lawn for the older lady, bring a meal to a family with sickness or with job loss. Invite a single or elderly person for Christmas dinner with your family if they will be alone.

Birth That Saved Us All!
If you do have some extra financial wherewithal and have been blessed in that department you can mulitply the blessings at Christmas for others AND yourself. Angel Tree kids are everywhere and want a Christmas like anyone else. You can make that happen for about $50 or less for each kid. Give to local food banks, $1 buys 7 meals for a hungry child. See Feeding America or local sites for this one. Adopt a foreign child via Compassion and let your family share in the growth of that child over the years. Currently $38 a month. Consider Samaritan's Purse as another option to give for very little money.

Buy the guy behind you in the drive thru their meal, buy the older couple the next table over their meal at the Cracker Barrel in secret, buy that military twosome their meal at Waffle House and thank them for their sacrifice.

I could go on for days. Merry Christmas to all and I hope this spurs something in your heart to give back something this Christmas other than a wrapped gift inder the Christmas Tree! God Bless Us Every One!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

My French Quarter Eating Tour

The Quarter: Always Exciting
As many times as I have been to New Orleans for business and/or pleasure, I still have a built in GPS if you will, that leads me to the same places time and again. In this edition, I will cover one of my French Quarter eating/beverage tours. If I had to guess I would say I have done this tour in some form or fashion well over 100 times over the years. There may be a slight deviation at times like the main eating place but all in all they are pretty consistent. They are one reason I have still to try some really good places in New Orleans, in the Quarter and elsewhere. Two places I found by finally venturing out of the comfort zone are Manales and Ralph's On The Park.

The places and faces may not all be 5 Star joints but they hold a special place in my life as memories and places I will still frequent when I am back in the area again. Hopefully soon.

Careful, They Are Strong
I began my treks to the Big Easy in the mid 70's and continued after school into the 80's, living in the city in the mid 80's for a short stint. I can recall the days of Saturday morning shopping at Schwegmann's with a draft beer in one hand and the cart handle in the other.  Pleasure trips brought me back often from 85-90 and then jobs, business and pleasure have had me back in the city of the best cuisine from 90 until now. I have seen more than 15 Sugar Bowls, three Jazzfests, a couple of Mardi Gras and countless other celebrations of birthdays, anniversaries along with another countless business trips. I was in the city with my son two weeks prior to Katrina and we walked and visited many of the places that you saw on TV in the aftermath. A surreal experience indeed. The memories can run together there are so many and some due to a few too many Pat O's libations or maybe a Hand Grenade too much at Tropical Isle.

So, without further delay, let's walk the tour of the Quarter and enjoy the journey together.

Early on I always stayed in the Marriott on Canal at the mouth of the Quarter and did so religiously for about 10 years or so. I was a Platinum in the Marriott Honored Guest program and after a while I was known by name by the Bellmen and was actually asked to participate in a marketing program to help them improve. I got to the point of getting suites on many of my trips into the city. Since then I have branched out some but lean toward Marriott due to the many choices and the fact I am now a lifetime gold with 950 plus nights to my credit. Other places I have stayed in are the Omni and the Country Inn and Suites, which is very nice and the right price.

For the tour sake we will use the Marriott as our starting point since the old lobby bar facing Canal began many of them. That was the meeting place for friends or business associates as we headed out. That being said, more of the tours were on my own than with people due to the nature of my visits. My wife has been on a good many of these as well.

From the Marriott I headed down toward Decatur by zig zagging my way off Royal to the corner where Johnny's Po-Boys is and then turned left and headed down to Crescent City Brewhouse. Sitting at the bar for a Red Stallion, Wheat or Seasonal and depending on the later plans, grab some raw oysters. The barkeeps knew me after a while. Great start to have a homemade and great tasting beer. From here I took a left on down Decatur to the Square and wander around there people watching, checking out the art and saying hi to the horses or mules on the buggys waiting to tour the area. Most of the time my next stop took me right through the square onto St. Peter, past Gumbo Shop and you might have guessed it, Pat O'Briens. Now, depending on the time, date and if the wife was with, I hit the CD Jukebox bar upfront or other times the Flaming Fountain Courtyard. Order? 99% of the time, Hurricane in a cup. Never more than two and if I had two I was good to go for the rest of the evening. CD Jukebox got alot of my money as music goes with Hurricanes nicely.

After this stop I usually head toward the place of choice for eating lunch or dinner. This is also where the tour could get into a diverse list of stops. Although I love my regular spots, I have enough of them where I can also go for some variety.More often than not I headed back toward Canal by way of Royal or a street adjacent and ended up at my all time favorite New Orleans restaurant, Mr. B's Bistro. Waiting at the bar with a Bloody Mary for a table and getting hungrier by the minute. This is our place and always will be which is why I still have yet to try Bayona for one.

My stool is 2nd from the left
Now, if I did not do B's I would be heading down toward the Market and this might be a noshing night or afternoon where a few places were hit for the hunger pangs. Many times I end up at Margaritaville for the namesake drink and some Conch Fritters and some acoustic music. It is like a home away from home there. Always end up in the store for a few minutes too, never buying, always looking.

After this the tour can get to be like a hurricane in the gulf meandering slowly and not really knowing where it is going. So the MAIN tour is over but usually more remains. I might sit in for a set in some Bourbon St. bar with an R&B band and have a $7 Screwdriver, Stop in at a Daquiri joint for a small or many times hit Tropical Isle for a nightcap. And if you know the place, it is REALLY a night cap. To end it up the must have was, back in the day, Takee Outee shrimp on a stick but since they are not around anymore, it is more likely Krystal for a bag of cheeses or Popeyes on Canal for a two piece, all white spicy. They may or may not make it to the hotel room depending on how hungry I was at the time.

Careful of the Hand Grenade

So, that my friends is my tour for now. Not glamourous, not five star for the most part BUT a piece of the tradition, the legacy that is mine in my visits to the Big Easy and ALWAYS enjoyable.

Now I have to plan on my next tour. And add a few new spots to the itinerary this time around. See y'all soon and remember, Turducken is the ONLY way to go on Thanksgiving!

Friday, October 29, 2010

A Simple Meal Of Beauty And Taste!

              Seafood. Fresh. Simple. Delish. Waterfront. Pictures tell the rest. Enjoy.
A must hit spot when visting the little Island of Anna Maria Island is the Rod and Reel Pier. They are actually out in the bay on the end of the pier. An upstairs dining room and a downstairs bar where you can also eat. I submit, can anything be better than sitting in the seabreeze, watching the blue green waters roll in, the fisherman catching sharks off the pier and enjoying a good fresh plate of seafood with a cold cold Corona? I think not. The oyster Po-Boy above is not on the menu and is a request only dish. Request it. Now.
The Seafood gumbo here is creditable but of course mine is better. Mainyl due to the overload of seafood I put in mine and leaving out non seafood like chicken, sausage, etc. Mine is a delicate roux I spend 45 minutes to an hour on before moving on to assembling the rest of the dish. Okra is another key ingredient in my recipe.
Gumbo, Grouper, Oysters.......Fruiti De Mare Indeed!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Stone Crab Season On The Island

Expensive and Tasty
The search.....I mean chase is on to try and find the restaurant(s) not OUT of the seasonal and succulent Stone Crab claws that are actually harvested right off the west coast of Florida where they reside.

Tonight we ended up visiting three different places and did not actually eat any of the coveted claws BUT we did have an enjoyable evening nonetheless and will resume the quest tomorrow beginning with the lunch hour.

Our Table For The Evening Meal!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Seafood: Hole In The Wall Number Three

 For now, this will be my third and final entry into the Seafood Hole In The Wall Hall Of Fame. For now.

After hitting Harbor Seafood over in Kenner, La. and then stopping in for some oysters at Hunt's Oyster Bar in Panama City, Fla., we head south to another Florida locale for a fresh out of the water Grouper sandwich or Oyster Po-Boy in Anna Maria Island, my new favorite beach getaway spot.
This one is a part of a three restaurant group and is maybe just a bit more than Hole In The Wall but I believe it qualfies based on the simplicity, the locale and the at least some of the food.

My last entry for now.......Mar Vista in Longboat Key. Truth be told, not much in Longboat Key I do like but this find is now one of them. Sitting on the water but not the gulf it looks like a shanty as you walk in from the seashell parking lot. The bar is beach rustic as any HITW should be and the outside dining is expansive and under trees and on the waterfront. I will only consider eating outside in the cooler months so the quaint and fairly cozy bar area and a few tables are where I hang.

Bud and Old Bay Shrimp Bowl: Delish
  The drinks are not necessarily cheap here although they do have a Happy Hour and a couple of decent brews along with beachy drinks. But you get the feel of relaxing when you enter and perch on a stool or grab a table for some eats. The OTHER big thing that puts this one on my current list is one dish. One appetizer dish. I loved it so much I went back the next night and then the next trip JUST to order this dish.

The Bud and Old Bay Shrimp Bowl. Wow. It is not cheap but two people could make it a small meal with bread. It is large, jumbo shrimp in a nice spicy, buttery broth that is sweet, salty, rich and begs to have bread swimming in it. I think this may be THE best seafood item I have eaten in my time in this area. This is sad to say somewhat because we have been somewhat disappointed in the culinary treats from a seafood perspective in the Tampa Bay area.

So, the combo of the very laid back and relaxed mood the place sets, the drinks and then the one app I have had now three times straight make Mar Vista an entry on my HITW Seafood Joint list.

Must learn to make this dish at home soon. Happy Eating Folks!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Put a steak....I mean stake.....I mean fork in it!

 Yeah, that's the ticket! I'm talking about some grilled cow. A steak. A big one or a small one. A medium rare one or a medium well one. (Others are really not steak anymore if they are raw or shoe leather). Filet, Strip, T-bone, Ribeye, Porterhouse and Prime Rib. One of life's simple pleasures is sitting down to a nicely cooked, sizzling steak brought out with some complementary sides and begging to be eaten.

Steak sauce? Not if the place is any good. Maybe some fresh horseradish for the Prime or even one of the other cuts but A1 and Heinz 57 do not belong on my steak. Steak Oscar? Ok, I guess I can allow that one as long as the seafood is right out of the Gulf fresh and does not overpower the red meat.

Favorite steak places? Oh, let me see, there are many. I will highlight just a few here in this column. Some will be from days past and some will be from my current culinary life. I will also try to hit across the spectrum from fine dining to casual eats and anything in between. I may have to do a follow up at some point as this is a broad category with myriad good choices.

From their website: My choice is the filet
 So, first I will extol the virtues and consistency of one, Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. My adventures in eating have taken me to many locations of this fine chain. I began the RC journey in New Orleans, then Mobile, on to Atlanta, up to NY, a stop off in Denver and then to Tampa. Out of all these only one has not been up to par, the one in Denver, and it was something about ownership as I recall. Other than that the steaks are top choice, the atmosphere and service remarkably consistent and the menu everything a steak lover could imagine and maybe a little more. Usually a filet man but have ventured into other territory as well for some change of pace. Some meals consist of just an app, salad and a glass or two of vino. The sides are always enough for at least two and spinach and fries fresh from the oil are two faves. They have great stuffed mushrooms, BBQ Shrimp, Crab Cakes and Ahi Tuna, a mouth watering chopped salad and the desserts always look fab but I am always already satisfied so it goes unordered. The sizzling platter and the sumptious sides are enough for this meat lover. If I had to rank the locations I would have to say the NY location is #1, maybe purely based on it's location in the Marriott where I stayed on business all the time. It was hard to only eat there once per trip up but I did it. Always a great meal here. Always. Save the Denver location where I hosted a group dinner.

From their website: Florida Style Steakhouse
Staying local here in the area, Charley's Steakhouse is on our list of favorites. This one is also on the top end of the scale pricewise and we always start in the bar for a cocktail before heading to our table for dinner. This is a nice spot for business dinners and have had more than a couple here. This location has a nice Florida feel and is upscale and laid back all at the same time. Aged steaks are presented at the table for your choice before you order. I have had the filet here often but have moved into other cuts as well as Lobster depending on whether it is on the expense account or not. The service is usually great here as well. I have had a couple of instances where the cuts of meat were not quite as I would like and once some rubbery (frozen?) lobster tails but for the most part Charley's delivers.

Other good steak places I have had the pleasure of frequenting are Del Frisco's in Ft. Worth, Seegars at the Sandestin Hilton, Smith and Wollensky along with Gallagher's in NYC, Chops in Buckhead and I am sure I will come up with more as we go.......

Also, will report in on some of the more inexpensive steak places and chains in another story.

For now I need a nap after all that red meat talk.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

It's in da hole......

Hunt's Oyster Bar, Panama City, Florida
As Carl, our friend from Caddyshack once screamed....."It's In Da Hole!"......the best seafood places are usually just that, in a hole...... in the wall.

We started over in New Orleans on our HITW Seafood journey and now we travel east a bit to Panama City, Florida to stop in at #2 on my list of seafood delights in a humble space. The place? Hunt's Oyster Bar!

Never knew about this place for years and years. My brother, who used to come in with his family for Christmas to Destin, would always take one afternoon and do a Hunt's Oyster bar trip. Now I know why.

The place I am talking about is NOT the original one downtown as it burned down a while back BUT it still is the hole in the wall type place that serves up some delish vittles in the form of fresh seafood, namely Oysters.

My first time in was for a workday lunch alone and as I pulled in I had a feeling I was going to like this place immediately. I have this affinity for HITW's so I was already halfway there before even eating their food.

It did not take long before I was ALL IN and planning my next visit in as soon as possible and with my wife who I knew as going to go bonkers over this one as well.
Hole In The Wall Hall Of Fame

I sat at a table the first time in and had a seafood basket, scallops I believe and a 1/2 dozen raw. The oysters were divine: cold, large, juicy and salty. And cheap. Cheap. Cheap.

On subsequent trips with wife and without we ordered raw but also began to choose from the large variety of baked oysters as well and they were just as good as the raw ones. Sitting at the bar waiting on baked while someone shucks fresh raw ones and places them in front of you one shell at a time is something I miss.

People are friendly and sometimes colorful too here and it goes with the territory. If you leave here hungry or in a bad mood then I feel sorry for you. The bill will also keep you smiling too since they are reasonably priced.

This is one of those places I think about how to get to by making up a trip I "need" to take for some other reason. Any reason.

So, if you are near Panama City, Florida, I suggest you hunt for Hunt's and enjoy a memorable HITW Hall of Fame experience. Tell 'em Gulf Coast Guy sent you and save me a few dozen too!

Christmas Eve at Waffle House

It all started rather simply. A meal at a Waffle House in a Florida town. My son and I on Christmas Eve almost 9-10 years ago now. I really do not know what started it except that we did buy a meal fairly often for a military table or for someone anonymously to pass on a blessing to them.

But on this occasion it was decided that we would buy the entire restaurant their meals in the spirit of goodwill and charity that the Birth Of Christ brings. I barely can recall now whether we were in for breakfast of dinner on this day since many have passed since. I do recall though the warmth and the blessing that is created for everyone who was there.

Not only did the people who were represented there appreciate the sentiment but we were on the receiving end of blessings as well that Christmas Eve. The Waffle House gang always gets a kick out of it too.

My fave: Omelette
As always (Or almost always), I ordered my ham and cheese omelette and some coffee for you see I order it for breakfast and dinner, sometimes lunch too. My only other order might have been two over medium with grits and sausage. The son either goes waffle or hamburger but always gets his hash browns. Waffle House omelettes are always good, always fluffy and always tasty. I do not remember a bad one in all my years of frequenting them.

Are they going to appear on Food Network or gain critical acclaim from the venerable NYT? I think not but who cares I say. They are part of American lore and will be here long after many other high end places have come and gone. They have loyal employees as well as loyal followers who search for the yellow sign off the highway.

Since that first Christmas Eve blessing we have repeated it every year since and each time at a different Waffle House location. So far all have been in Florida. Last year I went alone and as I drove into the parking lot said a little prayer that the people inside the one I would visit would be blessed and see the true meaning of Christmas in the gesture. Well, blessings it was as the place was jammed with folks and although this year had been lean for us financially, I received much more in blessing here than the people who received their food free. I met some great folks who came by table by table to express thanks, introduce themselves and exchange Christmas wishes.

Three years ago I remember meeting a Pastor who happened to be in the one we chose that year and he was signing his Christmas cards to send out. He sent one to our table. I also was asked by one of the couples there if they could take a picture with me as they were visiting locally on vacation and had never seen this happen before. Again, I was the one who was blessed that day.

This year, blessed as we are by God, we will again venture to a new to us, Waffle House, and enjoy a Christmas Eve meal with some folks and celebrate in the tradition of love and charity.

I invite you to share in this fun with us and next time you are at Cracker Barrel, pay for the elderly couple sitting three tables over in secret. At the drive thru, pay for the car behind you and tell the cashier to tell them Merry Christmas when they drive up and are surprised.

Adopt an Angel tree child, a needy family, volunteer at Met Ministries and serve others Christmas dinner, support a foreign child through Compassion and on and on and on........

YOU will be the one who is blessed.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Better Than Ezra?


Are there places I like Better than Ezra? Yes. But it does hold some promise for another try next time I am down in Bradenton. My first trip to this little place, hidden off one of the main drags was a study in contrasts and irony. I decided to give them a try based on my research on Urbanspoon and a conversation I had with one of the Marriott foodies who knows the area very well and actually lives on Anna Maria Island, the lucky dog.

So off I went and less than ten minutes from the Marriott I found the place, well hidden of the main road. Looked pretty much as expected from the outside and really when I got inside, it was a bit better than my mind had it pictured. It had a nice bistro feel with bar up front and the dining room spread out over the rest of the place. No separation but that suits the space fine.

I chose to sit over against the wall at a two top. The restaurant had a nice crowd at just before 7 PM and I was greeted promptly by my friendly server. I asked her the beer selections and as we chatted I learned that HH was still on for a few more minutes and one of the specialty cocktails was a Lolita......Margarita with chili pepper honey as a finish to it. Be still my beating heart. Beer? Not when this is available. Rather than cover service piecemeal I will handle it near the end as it was a major part of the yin and yang of the visit.

The menu is pretty varied and lots of the items looked great. I was told by my source at the Marriott to try the Calamari salad but was not in the squid mood tonight. Two other salads really caught my eye and I started trying to put together an app and salad meal. Nice start on my diet. So when the server came back with my drink I asked her about a few things I was considering and found out they were out of oysters so the Po-Boy was not an option and they were also out of one other menu item which I had no interest in.

Once I ordered I chose the Caesar salad, smaller portion and an app that could have been called Crabcake Sandwich as it was two lump crabmeat cakes with a fried green tomato "sandwiched" in between and a couple of nice complementary sauces too. They had bread and butter but I politely declined since once I start on bread I tend to finish. My server told the crabcakes were MARYLAND approved, meaning no fake crab or snow crab meat,ONLY the blues were good enough.

This is where it really gets to be a contrast. Two things, one was connected to the owner or someone high enough up in the eatery to have a table eating and carrying around two cute little children all over the restaurant. In and out the doors, sitting in the elegant front "lobby", at the table. Not obnoxiously loud but enough that even a Jimmy Buffett personality began to notice. It did take away some from the dining. Second thing was interminable waits in between everything during the meal despite what appeared to be a normal crowd and ample staff to cover it all. More on that later.

Crabcake & Fried Green Tomato "Sandwich"
The food arrived and I enjoyed my salad and the bits of fried green tomatoes that were interspersed in the dish. Hearts of palm too and the dressing was tasty and not too heavy on this one. I did  not finish it though as I waited on the app. It came and it was by far the star of the meal. I think I ate it in about five minutes and scraped some of the sauce up too. The tomato was not mushy and had some bite to it in contrast to the lush softness and sweet taste of the crabcakes which were nicely blended with herbs and spices. They were a decent size as well making this the perfect entree for a single diner.

After the meal I waited........and waited.........and waited.......for the server to come by so I could get the check and be on my way. When she appeared I handed her my card and she said, be right back.

I waited......and waited.......and waited....................and waited some more only to have her show up and say, I will take this when you are ready, only to be informed I had already given her my credit card. Ooops, sorry.

So.....I waited.....and waited.....and waited and she finally showed up and let me reclaim the balance of my life here on God's green earth.

On my new five starfish rating scale, here goes......ATMOSPHERE 3.25(dinged for the children all over), DRINKS: 3.75, FOOD 3.75, SERVICE 2.25 ( Friendly but being there for one hour and 23 minutes to eat a salad and app is unacceptable) OVERALL 3.25.

A return trip is warranted.

Redeeming The Shrimp

 I finally succumbed to taking the exit to Ybor City after terrible traffic detoured me once again here in fabulous driver Tampaland. And it led me down 22nd to a place I had tried once before and where we had some issues. I let some time go by to let the place work out some of the kinks and the shills tire out on giving glowing reviews that seemed out of place.

 Here I was, back at Shrimp and Co., a seafood purveyor caddy cornered to the famous yet food poor Columbia Restaurant. As I walked in I felt like it was someplace in the French Quarter in New Orleans, kind of like a mini Acme Oyster although sparser in terms of the ambiance and offerings. I was heartened by the place being almost half full before 7 PM. In fact during the meal the coming and going was good and when I left they were more than half filled.

On to the meal. I was told to sit where I wanted and chose a four top near the front off to the side. Good place to see the whole restaurant.
I was greeted promptly by my server and asked about beers available and decided on a Stella knowing it's crispness would go well with the seafood to come. Interesting menu and it actually took me some time to decide what I would order and I peppered Jose with a few questions before finally deciding. NOTE: Some of the items that show up on the website menu are not on the one in house and vice versa. I was trying to choose between a shrimp/oyster platter, a steam pot or one other entree that escapes me now. After the questions and info exchange I went with the Steam Pot, a melange of clams, shrimp, blue crabs( the clincher this evening), cob corn and new potatoes. One thing they do point out on the menu is that when you order is when they bread it, cook it and bring it out hot and fresh.
My Steam Pot

It took a little while to get the food out and I was plenty hungry when it arrived. Very appealing on the appearance at the table as you can see and I immediately dug in. I asked for some drawn butter to dip in and was also informed that the whole platter was swimming in butter. But I like putting copious amounts of hot sauce in mine to spice things up even more and in this case it was Crystal doing the honors. Ok, now on to the meat of the piece, the review of my dining experience here at Shrimp & Co. I will be debuting my new rating scale of Five Starfish and will rate each aspect of the platter since it is all I ordered....unless you count the Key Lime sliver I took home.

Pardon me right upfront if this gets a bit long and involved but since my less than satisfactory visit I want to give them some constructive feedback of value to them and their customers. Right off the bat I will say service was much better than before BUT........

DRINKS: Not a huge selection and they were out of two brews that the table of fun loving ladies tried to order. They seem to push the Sangria as the go-to in the alcoholic genre, maybe due to the Columbia behemoth next door. I ordered a Stella and it came out cold sans glass. RATING: 3.00 of out 5.00

ATMOSPHERE: As I said before, it was a nice atmosphere and matched well with the expectations of the food and overall experience. The place is not huge inside BUT I believe that to be a good thing as you could still hear yourself speak yet there was good energy around. RATING: 3.75 out of 5.00

ENTREE: For $19.99 I was pleased with the amount, even as a HUGE fan of seafood, especially when it is boiled or steamed spicy. I feel I need to rate each food on the platter since they varied widely in my opinion. I started with clams so will rate them first. They were small but that is most always the case with steamed. One small annoyance, the clam shells were almost all empty and I had to fish for the clams under all the other food. RATING: 3.00. Blue Crabs should have been the star here and they were fresh and the meat was sweet and tender as it should be BUT the crabs were almost obscenely small and the meat hard to get to as a result. And the smallness meant the claws were really just a garnish and I hate it when I cannot eat the entire crab. RATING 2.50. The shrimp were the most plentiful seafood on the dish and came out cooked head on. This is a plus in my book since flavor comes from the heads when cooking. A few were a bit difficult to peel but overall they were tasty morsels. RATING: 3.75. Potatoes and corn were REALLY really good and the potatoes not overcooked mush and the corn sweet and tender. RATING 4.00. Overall the dish was cooked well letting me know the guy in the kitchen does know how to prepare it. RATING 3.50.

Nice Ambiance and Right Size Dining Room
DESSERT: Took what was supposed to be a piece of Key Lime pie, housemade, to go. It was a good rendition but hardly could be called a piece of pie in the deep south. It was more like two bites. RATING: 2.75

SERVICE: Again, much improved BUT I have some suggestions. For this dish the discard plate was a small saucer when either a bucket or another platter of the same size should be brought out. Also, the napkins given were inferior and with this dish you need a roll of paper towels for the table at a minimum or a stack of napkins. The after dinner wipes were a joke, seriously, get a new supplier. Once my beer was brought I was checked back with on beverages after 45 minutes. Also, bring out water without being asked, it adds class. To the defense side of things on service, I think the coverage may have been a bit overwhelming for the number of servers on hand. RATING 3.50

I WILL however make another trip in with my wife, the goal of the restaurant. I will ask more questions and try some of the other good looking dishes on the menu. For now, on my new 5 Starfish rating scale I am giving Shrimp & Co. a solid 3.33 out of 5.00.

And by the way, THEIR food is much better than the food at Columbia. Next time I will try some Sangria "Joda".

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Best Thing I Ever Ate

From The Mr. B's Website
Best thing I ever ate? It gets a "B"!

As in Mr. B's Bistro in New Orleans. A place I have dined in over 50X in my life and that I look forward to visiting each time I have the opportunity to travel to the Big Easy.

Mr. B's is the benchmark, or should I say, a benchmark restaurant for me as I eat in other cities and the total experience here has almost always been one of the best in my vast culinary cruise. I have been stopping in here since 1978. I have had many celebrations here, many business meetings here, many meals alone here and every now and then just stop in over at the bar for a Bloody Mary, B's style. I have been known to eat one day for lunch and the very next day come in for dinner here. It is THAT good. I have had reservations for other new places on the scene countless times and while out and about somehow stumbled into B's and called the other place to cancel my reservations. And yes, I am one of the ones who will actually call to cancel reservations.

Back to the subject at hand, the BEST thing I ever ate. Not surprising it was here that I ate said dish. I mean when they have some of the best gumbo, oyster apps, BBQ Shrimp, Rabbit and Steak to name a few, how can you go wrong. But it was none of those that made the BTIEA top rank.

It was on a business trip. It was one time I dined alone for dinner. It was a defining moment in my dining life. This trip in they had a special on the menu which I eagerly ordered not knowing what awaited me when it came out to my table. It was on the menu as a "Free Form Ravioli w/ Lump Crabmeat". Of course being a lifelong fan of anything fresh crab I had to try this one. I do not even remember the other items I ordered that night and they do not matter at all for this piece.

THE dish came out and was two huge handmade pasta sheets draped around a filling of lump blue crab meat, chanterelle mushrooms, other herbs and spices and then lovingly drenched in a delicate yet assertive lemon butter sauce. I will never forget the first bite....or the second....or the last. It was heaven on a plate and I had the Chef show up at my table after I commented endlessly to my waiter that night about how good this dish tasted. I have had the pleasure of having this dish one more time on a trip in with my wife to celebrate my birthday a few years back. The dish was a tad different BUT still the best thing I ever ate. My wife ordered it as well and agreed and we never order the same thing so we can share. I had already told her if she wanted some to get her own because I was likely not going to share much if any.

So the favorite overall restaurant in my life is Mr' B's and they also lay claim to serving me the BEST THING I EVER ATE!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Anna Maria Eats!

.Ok, so I am heading back to my secret little place..... taking you with me..........Shhhhhhhh, remember, all this is just between you and me. Don't want the whole world to know what we do now do we? ;o).

This time to broach the subject of a few of my fave places up on the north end (only place to stay IMO) of the Island to grab a bite or make an evening of it. There are some good choices for both from breakfast to dinner and everything in between. All within a bike ride or a walk of each other. This will not be all inclusive but I will re-visit again as we unveil the little gem of Anna Maria Island's North End.

Now, where do we begin this little jaunt? Let's go with the Ginny And Jane E's coffee shop/gift shop/internet cafe/breakfast and lunch eatery. This is the old IGA store and has undergone a change in ownership in the last year or so BUT the mood is still beach relaxed and a MUST stop on any visit to AMI. Bring the dog and bring the family, all are welcome here. They serve some good breakfast baked goods and also have some tasty items for your choosing for lunch and maybe even early dinner too. Pick up some gourmet snacks here for the rental cottage. Check emails and let the pooch relax here as well. Oh, and pick up some AMI gifts and souvenirs. Crowded at times so be patient and relax in a chair that is for sale too. Great spot to grab some liquid energy before heading out on your morning walk on the beach in the sunshine.

Now that we have covered the AM hours let's get you to a place for lunch. How about a fresh grilled Grouper sandwich and a cold Corona while sitting on the water? Ok, just a few short minutes by bike is the Rod and Reel Pier. Here, you walk out to the end of the pier and plop down in the bar or upstairs in the dining room and order up some fresh seafood and a good cold one. I suggest the bar since the action is in there and right outside people are fishing for their dinner. And the company there is always friendly. If you like oysters you can also order an Oyster po-Boy although it is not on the menu.

These two are a good start but we have much more for you in future posts on the AMI eateries. Relaxing? yes. Pretentious? No way. Flip Flops may be too formal for these places but I think they will still let you in.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Seafood served from a Hole In The Wall.....

Some of the best places in my memory for seafood, you know the kind, steamed, broiled, boiled and grilled, are those with very little to do with putting on airs. I can count on my left hand (yes we are in our right minds) the number of these little joints that make my "Best Of" list. Of course there will always be arguments for what is and is not a "hole in the wall" but to me these few are currently at the top of my Gulf Coast Guy Seafood Hole In The Wall Hall Of Fame. (Say that five times fast)

First let me define Hole In The Wall from my perspective. Usually you hear of this type place by word of  mouth first for some reason. Then you do your homework and make plans for that first visit. Usually the place is not much to look at from outside and even inside not much of an upscale type dining establishment. This means that they HAVE to be great at one thing.......THE FOOD. And usually price will be a factor as well, at least in my humble opinion. Now don't get me wrong, some places who qualify for HITW distinction can have added bonuses as I have found in my adventures all along the Gulf Coast from New Orleans to Mobile to Destin to Panama City all the way down to Tampa.

My current list contains three places which are most recent in my memory and one is at the top currently due to multiple visits in the past two years. Of course, many places in New Orleans alone could qualify but for the sake of brevity here I will list only one from the Big Easy in this one. And it is not even in the Quarter or downtown as one might think. It is in Kenner and it is called Harbor Seafood. For years and years I came to New Orleans and never had heard of this place. You guessed it, I was told by a friend and business partner about it one trip in and made plans to visit with my wife immediately on our next trip into town.
Boy were we happy we did. This place is right off the main drag in Kenner and not much to look at outside or really inside BUT the menu is a seafood lovers dream and the food, the seafood, is fabulous.

First time in we tried Turtle Soup( with Sherry), Raw Oysters, Boiled Crawfish and Po-Boys. Along with cold cold Barqs Root Beer. The menu has so many choices it is hard to decide. EVERYTHING was good and fresh and tasty. Service was down home style friendly and the place feels like one big get together at someone's house.

The BONUS I was talking about? Receiving the check for one, it is so reasonable for what they deliver and right next door is their seafood market that ships or packs for take home, which I have done more than once.

I have now been back a dozen or so times and waited for a table only once or twice but still enjoy the seafood and have expanded my horizons to boiled blue crabs, seafood baskets, calamari and much much more.

So, Harbor Seafood in Kenner, La where you can eat like a King.......A King Neptune. And still have some green for a New Orleans Sno-Ball or Plate of Beignets later on. And ladies, there is a nice big mall right down the way. In fact, once I stopped to eat and asked the wife to pick me up AFTER her shopping trip.

Next stop, Panama City.......

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Oui, Oui for the Brasserie!

 I am not French nor do I speak the language but this past weekend I did visit a place that reminded me that I do like their food. And one day will sit and eat it on the Champs De Elysee with my lovely bride. I will thank them for the Statue Of Liberty and for Steak Frites.

I digress.

We visited the other side of the bay and stopped in for dinner at The St. Pete Brasserie on Central Avenue. Very unassuming from the outside but when you walk in you do get a sense right away of a nice and lively little bistro with a bar on the right side and ample tables spread throughout. The crowd was buzzing when we arrived and we were shown to a table all the way at the back of the dining room.

A diverse crowd was in house and as we dined we noticed a lot of regulars coming and going based on the interaction with the ownership and staff.

We also had the pleasure of using a gift certificate for our first time here which had us looking at the apps right off the bat. Nice thing about GC's is that you can then add on items you might not normally try and really get a good cross section of the menu. We ordered a Chicken Liver Mousse that came with cornichons, toasts and a ginger pallete cleanser. It was lovely and delish.

I got a beer and ordered my wife a glass of the Clos Du Val Chard to start and we took our time perusing the entree selections before making the call. We decided on the old standby, Steak Frites and also the Duck Confit with a Brasserie Salad and a side of the recommended Mac and Cheese.

The salad was pretty standard fare BUT the lively vinegar based dressing was a real standout in this dish. I asked our server to bring me a good red wine with my Steak Frites and she did choose a nice one, the name escapes me but it was right on for my dinner. The Duck Confit was rich and flavorful and sitting atop braised red cabbage and some whipped potatoes. My steak was perfectly cooked and had a bit of a sweet taste from the marinade and the fries were crispy, hot and perfect with the meat.

The reco of the Mac and Cheese was a GOOD one and the al dente pasta and the rich cheese blend made this a must order for next trip. We could not finish half of it due to our full state.

We did LISTEN to the dessert choices before politely declining them and coffee due to my wife's tired state.

Our server was good for this evening but I felt she was "selling" a bit too much.....I don't know if it was due to the GC or what. Still all in all attentive service though.

Bottom line, we will be back and this one was one of those places where you talk about it the next day and try to dream up a reason to go back as soon as possible.

Tab with our GC and lavish tip was only $65. It was worth it without the GC and they did their jobs so to speak. They will get us back.......and soon. I hope to be able to order in French next time in.

Monday, August 16, 2010

I love Thai and I love Sushi...

So, always a welcome sight when a decent place comes along that caters to both types of cuisine in the same space. Such was the case this past weekend when I ventured down 54 to the shadow of the Sun Coast and found Bangkok Thai and Sushi in a little strip center right off the road.

I was actually fairly surprised at the nice relaxed and almost upscale feel when I walked in and was greeted immediately by the staff and seated in a little two top with a couch against the wall bench to relax on. I noticed a new brew which I had not had before on the table tent so I ordered a Chang as I was pretty thirsty. Similar to Singha in flavor and cold!

After perusing the menu for a few minutes and the variety of sushi rolls and nigiri as well as the Thai salads, I ordered pretty simply. A Yum Squid which is a salad, medium spicy and Red Clam and Escolar nigiri. I asked if they had Uni and was told no....a hard one to come by most of the time. I also ordered a hot sake as is my custom with sushi.

The servers were all in tradtional Asian dress which made the feel of the service that much more authentic and matched the decor nicely.

My Thai Squid salad was really good and presented beautifully on it's plate and the sushi came out looking artistic as well. The salad was pretty spicy and had my water glass refilled about four times as I ate. The sushi was fresh and tasted as good as any I have had in the area.
The original plan was to eat lighter and then head across the way to the International Beer Garden BUT I was too full and getting a bit tired so I saved that treat for my next time out this way.

And that will be pretty soon as I promised the wife a meal there. Real nice place for date night and also for a table full as you can hear yourself talk in this place.

On my four seashell scale I am going with:

Atmosphere 3.25
Service 3.00
Food 3.00
Drink 2.50
Overall 3.00

See You Next Thai!!!!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Tapas are on the Mapas......

Oysters With Shot Of Vodka At Ceviche
(Copyright GCG Vibe 2010)
Little plates. Ceviche. Meatballs. Cheese. Artichokes. All these and more are on the menu at one of the many Tapas places here in the area.

Ceviche, Vizcaya, Cafe Ole, Spain, Sangria, Tinatapas. Ceviche has many locations. I am quite sure I am missing some others.

All of them are primarily Tapas and Sangria purveyors. All have a different take on things which makes the journey more pleasing to take. Out of these named, I have eaten at all but Sangria's to date. So far, I would have to say that Ceviche has been my overall favorite and most frequented of the ones I have had a meal. I suppose we have been there at least a dozen or more times. Have had very few instances where we were not pleased with something. Of course we have found some items we just do not care for on the menu but on the huge menu at Ceviche you will not like them all BUT do not let that stop your culinary adventure.

Our other most frequented Tapas place has been Vizcaya on Dale Mabry. Have been there five times or more and it is a completely different atmosphere than Ceviche. A much smaller place and for that reason alone maybe a little more intimate. The menu here is less varied that Ceviche BUT we have always loved the plates we have ordered here save one or two. I think I found I did not care to their Octopus one for instance.

Salad Vilafranca at Ceviche
(Copyright GCG Vibe 2010)
Ceviche is all about festive and variety and the menu for the newbie can appear daunting. Have always liked the Sangria, especially when they mix it right at your table for you. The Tabla Mixta, a platter of cheeses, meats and yummy accompaniments is one of our faves here. Also Vilafranca salad is awesome and is one to share with a few folks as well. The list of others we like here would be pretty long so I will devote some space for them next time we head there.

For now though Ceviche is our go to for Tapas and Sangria with Vizcaya right behind them. Spain and Cafe Ole will need more to move up on our list. Visit them on Tuesday for $4 Tapas and Sangria......

Happy Small Plating!!!!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Another one bites the........burger

So, I fulfilled one more on my list of to eats this week. I visited the newcomer on the burger block, The Burger Monger on Dale Mabry over in Carrollwood. It was a close call though as I drove right past the Ybor exit and thought about giving Shrimp and Co. their second chance meal.

So, after I actually put Burger Monger on the Urbanspoon map before they opened and followed them from day one, I was feeling a bit conflicted due to the mixed reviews and some issues with shills in the early days. (Over one dozen people voted "like it" before they even opened for instance).

But all that was put to rest when I arrived and walked into the latest burger bonanza here in Tampa.

The atmosphere is actually a bit on the upscale side and nicer for sure than say......Five Guys, who goes after that soda shoppe look. With nice furniture, and decor and some well placed TV's for watching the Rays or something else, the place has a nice comfy feel.

Service was downright cheerful which is uncommon these days and you can tell the mgt has a rigorous training program AND expects his people to treat customers as just that, their guest. Not having been here before, I ordered pretty basic from the menu for my first time and got the 6 oz Kobe burger with pepper Jack, Shrooms, lettuce, tomato and a little mayo. Also the 1/2 lb fries, hand cut. Two of my favorite words, hand cut. Nice to see they had a good beverage selection including beer and wine. I do not necessarily needs a beer with my burger BUT ordered a Sam Adams anyway. One thing I was not asked was how I wanted my burger done. A slip up?

I watched as others ordered and got their food and the servers were very pleasant and polite and when one table asked for their fries crispier there was no question asked, the fries were taken and a serving of crispy ones appeared in minutes.

My brew took a few minutes and when it got there was not icy cold like I would expect went down good nonetheless.

My burger and fries came out hot and ready to eat and the server even went and got me ketchup but alas did not ask if I wanted silverware too. I got more ketchup and silverware and noticed they also have malt vinegar for those who enjoy it on their fries.

So, to the food. The burger was good. Not dry as many have said, but a good solid burger. As I ate I read all about the Kobe beef thing and the health claims and all that. It did not change the burger to anything other than a good tasting burger. The fries were very fresh and a little bit on the limp side BUT to me, any hand cut fresh fries beat most others in burger joints. The plate I had was just enough as well. There were none left on my plate.

So all in all, I will certainly be back to try more items on the menu including the $14.99 Two patty pounder. And when I bring a crew with me we can order the huge chili cheese fries to go with it and a thick milkshake.

I escaped for $13 and change and felt pretty good about that tab.

On my four seashell scale and keeping in mind the place I was eating in comparison to others in the genre:

Atmosphere: 3.00
Service: 3.50
Food 2.75
Drink 2.50

Overall 2.90

Monday, August 9, 2010

Brocato's: Doing It THEIR Way

Since 1948 no less. Been here a few times now and decided to grab a meal to go for the family. Called the wife and orally recited the menu above the counters. She chose, of all things, Chicken Parm....with black beans. I ordered an Italian (medium out of three sizes), two empanadas and a stuffed potato to give us some nice variety.

This place draws from all walks of life and all socio-economic groups. There are construction workers, execs, medical folks in their scrubs, families and you name it in the place when I sit down to wait on my order.

The gentleman at the register looks as if he has been there for years and years and it is fun to watch the whole place working to fill the orders. Kinda reminds me of Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory of Cuban food. Everyone has their place and their job to do and it flows nicely in a quirky kind of rhythm. He saves me a few bucks by putting some of my ala carte orders in combos and it gets me chips and drinks as well. Nice touch.

The food takes a while and I watch intently, getting hungry now, as the orders for others are filled. A couple of larger catering orders head out the door too while I wait. Once I get the food, I am able to carry it all out in a box and two bags to the car for the 20 mile drive home at rush hour.

Of course the drive home seems as if it takes a day or two because I am hungry and the food smells fill the car and my nostrils. I do eat a piece of buttered Cuban Bread that goes with the Chicken Parm dish.

Once home and I spread it all out it is a HUGE spread and I sense I did over order just a bit. But hey, we WILL eat it. Funny but one of the best things about the meal was the yellow rice with peas and black beans spooned over it with fresh onions. The Chicken Parm is also a big serving and is fresh pounded chicken breast and not the fake pressed stuff many places serve. The empanadas and stuffed potato are very flavorful as well. The potato is huge and has ground meat stuffing in it.
By the way, this trip I did not buy a Deviled Crab but it too is a famous fixture here at Brocato's. And no less food than the stuffed potato.

Right now I am STILL full from the meal about 3 hours ago and look forward to visiting again soon. Brocato's has personality, tradition and good food waiting for those who find it.


More High End Burger Places Coming

Seems that one of the biggest dining trends out there right now is centered around the All American Classic, the hamburger.

Almost every month we see a new one pop up in our area with the latest entry being Burger Monger in the Carrollwood area. The reviews on it are quite a mixed bag but it seems to be drawing a lot of interest in the area. Lately a few of the more creditable Urbanspoon diners have stopped in for a visit so I feel a bit better about what I am reading about them now than I did before. I have yet to get by there but will make a point of it very soon.

To date, Five Guys has been one of my burger and fries places of choice for a couple of reasons. One, they deliver a pretty good product and their fries are really a big draw for me personally. Two, locations are near us and convenient and their food is much better than Mickey D's, BK and Sonic to name three. I always opt for the smaller burger since the larger size and an order of regular fries qualifies you for an episode of Man vs. Food. I tried one of their dogs for a change once and although it was tasty enough, it was pretty pricey for a hot dog IMO.

Now another entry is opening over at Citrus Park and also being built as we speak in the Shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel. The Red Robin chain is coming to town. We ate at a few of these back when we lived in Ft. Worth, Texas and I recall that they were pretty good. Based on their website though, they do a whole lot more than gourmet burgers. I look forward to giving them a try the minute they open their doors in Wiregrass, right up the road from my home.

So, I have my work cut out for me. Burger Monger and then Red Robin with a follow up on both.


Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Refinery: Third Time Through

Took a drive for a later night dinner foray to The Refinery with my daughter who had never been able to visit before now.

I took a quick peek online to see what this weeks menu held in store for us and we called them before
we left on a Friday night to make sure we could get
a table around 9.

Although the menu does change weekly a pattern can be seen in the offerings most every time.

My two previous visits have been a bit of a mixed bag but overall the food, service and atmosphere have been good quality and made me want to come back and try more of the fare here.

(Pictured left: Flat Iron Steak)

Once we arrived we had a table waiting on us and immediately were seated and ordered a wine and a Downtown Brown dark
brew. The wine was unusual and tasted great.

For our meal we got the Pork Belly app, that came with braised cabbage and included a sliver of cashew brittle with it. I guess my daughter scooped up the brittle because I only saw it in the picture. This one took a while to get out to us and when it came it was sans any discernible pork. The two pieces of pork on the platter were 98.45% fat and the usually crispy outer skin was limp and fatty as well. This dish really should not have been served.

The main entrees were much better as the veggie lover daughter ordered the Grit Cakes with all kinds of "friends" on board......carrots, figs, sweet potato mash.....and I opted for the Flat Iron Steak after asking for a reco between it and the Thai Burger. The three large grit cakes kind of overwhelmed the bowl but all in all it was enjoyed by it's owner. My skirt steak was medium rare and tender and came with a serving of fingerlings and asparagus. Also had a pat of rich herb butter with some anchovies in it. Rather strong but a nice complement. Ordered another dark brew here, The Hooker Liberator which was richer than my first one.

We were really full when we finished and did not have room for dessert yet

again but there are two choices I believe on the menu each week. The service was consistent as always and as a matter of fact I have had the same waiter all three trips now.

I would say we will visit again and see what adventurous items we can discover on the menu. This trip was a bit uneven foodwise but still all in all an enjoyable trip into culinary enjoyment.

Overall on my four seashell scale I am giving this meal a 2.75.

Monday, August 2, 2010

So, when you die please leave me this....

I mean, you have to leave it to someone right? Why not me? I will take great care of it and make sure I also leave it to someone very deserving when my swim is up. Contact me here to make all the arrangements. Thanks a bunch.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Anna Maria Island.........Shhhhhhhhhhh!

Ok, before I wax eloquent here please let it be known this information is on the down low, the QT, confidential. Capisce? Now we have that out of the way. I will actually add more than one entry on this place since there are many things to say and report on here.

For now, as an introduction, Anna Maria Island is my NEW favorite beach haunt replacing the overdeveloped and ultra crowded Destin, located in the panhandle.

Why you might ask? Well, I will tell you why.It is the definition of an old time, laid back, unpretentious, no high rise, Florida beach destination where the beach is the main attraction and along with it, a relaxed vibe, which is EXACTLY what I am looking for when I choose to venture to the beach.

What I DON'T need or want is traffic jams, beaches where you cannot see the sand for the people, crowds of tourists, 3 hour waits at local eateries, high rises as far as the eye can see.......and I think you are getting the picture here.

I stumbled on this place over three years ago as a Google search and the rest is history. I have now stayed on the island about 25X give or take in the last few years. First visit was by myself and co-incided with July 4th and the island parade which was a great start.

More to come and I will highlight certain areas and places along with nearby towns in future posts.For now, North end and Bean Point are calling my name.

Ah, the smell of the salt air, the gentle waves lapping the shell laden shore, the azure water beckoning, the sandbar not too far off shore.