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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

4 Rivers Smokehouse

     How do you balance the search for satisfying food and budget-friendly dining? Because frankly Wendy's and Kentucky Fried Chicken have their limitations as comfort delivery systems. 4 Rivers presents a tantalizing option if your craving du jour is barbecue. It all started with John Rivers' barbecue cookouts for charity, and now it's the most popular barbecue chain in Florida and expanding with a new location in Atlanta, GA. And by the way, the Barbecue Ministry is still the highest priority. I cheered when I read that they would be hosting a fundraiser at their Coral Springs, FL location for those affected by the Parkland high school shooting.
    The food is served cafeteria style, and ample seating is available once you pay for your tray. I have no doubt that what's made them popular is the quality of their ingredients and their work with brisket. Don't let the casual surroundings fool you. Their smoked brisket demands respect.
      John and I picked the sandwich with two sides. John had the baked beans, and he believes he filled his daily nutritional allowance of vegetables with fried okra, while I chose only the cheese grits in expectation of dessert. Again, the brisket was tasty, juicy, and smoked to perfection. However, I was disappointed that the sandwiches were cold, and the bread was too mealy, and chewing it distracted me from my focus on the meat. John found the beans thick and sweet, with just the right amount of molasses, and I enjoyed the toasty, rich grits which came in a pie square.
     I can't help but like this place, and one of the reasons is that they also do dessert with care. The choice of sweets is as comprehensive as the rest of the menu, and that means their priorities align with mine. Rich chocolate, coconut, carrot, and red velvet cakes, cupcakes and sweet bars, and sundry confections and sweet treats. This is not your ordinary apple pie and soft serve ice cream. Now I'm forced to return because I could only allow myself one. I bounced between the Crispy Creme Bread Pudding, the Seasonal Whoopie Pie, and the Coconut Bomb. I finally decided on the Bayou Bar, a curious chunk of pecan shortbread crust with cream cheese filling. So thick, so decadent, it took me three days to finish it. No complaints here.
    With all the positives, a cold sandwich and chewy bread will not deter me from a repeat visit. There's plenty to explore on their menu and killer smoked brisket to enjoy.

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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

5300 Chop House

      Located in The Blue Hotel, with a view of a monster golf course, Chop House has that casual executive feel where lunches and dinners are the setting for intrepid business deals and sophisticated talk about international finance. The menu is not extensive, but it contains enough to put together a satisfying repast.
   
     Daylin, Mario, John and I, the Fab Four of Feasting, are together again this evening, curious and eager to begin our adventure. We begin with a small charcuterie board packing some punch— an exquisite serrano ham, a bold manchego cheese, crispy flatbread chips, olives, red grapes, walnuts, and dried mango and fig.
   
The boys, avid carnivores that they are, both ordered the Chairman's Reserve, grass fed NY strip with a faint schmear of chimichurri, and in the company of a twice baked sweet potato and sauteed vegetables, a dish they both found savory and satisfying in its simplicity. DJ and I were drawn to the beef tips with gorgonzola crumbles, but in service of this blog, we diversified our versions for maximum quality control. My beef tips came with fragrant jasmine rice and sauteed vegetables, and DJ wisely chose a hearty risotto which gave her dish that comforting quality that makes you close your eyes with every bite.
     Dessert shared by four people is guilt-free in my world, so it's often my favorite course. Tonight we shared a caramel cheesecake and a Key lime tart. Both were no more than acceptable. The cheesecake seemed store-bought, and my dinner companions reported an off-putting grainy texture, like sugar crystals, in the tart's filling. Frankly, I completely forgot the tart.
     Everything about this meal was adequate, but nothing was remarkable. Nothing offended, but likewise, nothing wowed. I can't say I wouldn't come back, but I also can't say it would be my first choice.
Photo by miamiandbeaches.com

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Thursday, April 12, 2018

Tambo Grill

      Peruvian cuisine, when done right, is an adventure for the palate. Tambo does it right in spades. Besides flavor, I look carefully at three elements in any dining experience: atmosphere, attention, arrangement. Check, check, check. This was the best Peruvian meal I've had so far.
   
     I began with a sweet and lively Tambojito, the house's version of a maracuya (passion fruit) mojito. My coworkers and friends Mabet and Indira tried their robust pisco sangria and the tangy virgin lemonade, respectively. The pisco sangria is made with distilled brandy produced in the regions of Peru and Chile. All three choices made for a sparkling launch to a much anticipated end of a long and busy work week.
     A jaw-dropping sampler platter arrived to take center stage on the table and stoke our appetites. It contained a melange of zesty octopus and fish ceviche, grilled octopus with diced potatoes, an oversized ball of mashed potatoes, lightly breaded and fried, and adorned by more fish ceviche, and grilled shrimp skewers. A party-starter, without a doubt.

   
     Choosing entrees was an adventure in itself. We had to be schooled on the menu language, but once we had the basics, we ordered a good representation of their offerings. Indira ordered the churrasco with fries, a generous and savory serving of skirt steak. After a lot of pondering, I ordered the Seco de Res with Tacu Tacu, which translates to shredded chunks of beef slow cooked in cilantro sauce, and the traditional Peruvian rice and beans. As expected, the braised beef was tender and its flavor infused with unmistakable cilantro, which I happen to love. But the MVP this evening had to be Mabet's Lomo Saltado with risotto, beef strips sauteed in onions, tomatoes, and cilantro served over a bed of a vibrant risotto.
    You'd think we would've lost curiosity for dessert after all the Peruvian flavor excess, but you'd be wrong. We couldn't wait to see what sugary delights awaited. We shared a Suspiro Limeño, a cup of a thick layer of dulce de leche topped by another thick layer of meringue. We also tried the Chocolucuma mousse, a perfect dome of passion fruit cream resting on a thin bed of chocolate graham cracker crust. The passion fruit flavor was powerful, and the texture was reminiscent of panna cotta. It was well executed, but we all gravitated toward the sweet Suspiro.
     Tambo's staff is primarily Peruvian, and they are proud to teach you how their heritage is infused into their food. It's not just a meal, it's a cultural experience. If you close your eyes as you enjoy the flavors and textures of the dishes, you can imagine yourself on the sacred mountaintop of Macchu Picchu, the crown jewel of the Inca empire. Your palate can be your passport.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Mrs. Mac's Kitchen

     A drive through the upper Florida Keys, and lunch at Mrs. Mac's on a brisk and bright March Saturday, can have restorative powers after a long work week. It's the cool breeze, and the emerald and turquoise waters that flank Overseas Highway, and the lampshades in the restaurant made of license plates from every corner of the U.S. and beyond. All of it conspires to make it a vibrant day of leisure.
   
     Mrs. Mac's menu is chock full of fresh seafood choices to complement the Florida Keys atmosphere, but they also provide a variety of options not from the sea. With solid homemade chili, churrasco, hot dogs, and a respectable list of burgers, this menu offers something for everyone.
     John ordered a Keybilly Island Ale but found nothing special in its flavor. A Miller Light in a pretty blue can. I saved my beverage calories for the promise of a dessert Key Lime Freeze, which although tasty and generous in size, lacked richness and depth of flavor.
    We both chose Docksider Baskets, John the fresh fish
basket filled with fat strips of tender breaded mahi in a bed of cottage fries. I was feeling adventurous and decided to try the alligator tenders, also with puffy, crispy cottage fries. My take is that alligator tastes a little like chicken, a little like fish. Freshwater chicken, if you will. They're chewy, but not in an off-putting way. I dipped the tenders in blue cheese dressing and tartar sauce, and both blended well with the reptile.
     The coleslaw was a pleasant surprise. Take it from a coleslaw snob- this one was outstanding.
     While I indulged in my Key Lime Freeze, John went for the traditional Key lime pie, touted here as world famous. It was sweet and tart as expected, with a little more bitterness than I would like, but a solid interpretation nonetheless. However, with all due respect to Mrs. Mac, we've had better.
     If you're in the area and want a basket of fresh seafood in a diner-style environment, Mrs. Mac's is your ticket.

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Saturday, March 10, 2018

Crust

     This is not your ordinary pizzeria with miscellaneous pasta dishes listed on the menu's perimeter. In fact, I will confess I didn't even acknowledge the presence of pizza while at this establishment in spite of the unrivaled quality of their pies which have won Crust numerous accolades. Even their bread rolls are extraordinary. They're a little bit Italian bread, a little bit flaky croissant, a little bit brioche bun, and besmeared to perfection in garlic olive oil and parmesan.
   
     The restaurant sits in a corner of the Miami River district, an area not known for its accessibility or abundant parking. Yet six nights a week the place is bustling with fervent repeat customers who tell their friends who in turn tell their friends, and they all want to try the inspired, generous dishes, and the exceptional service. It's a warm and inviting environment, a tone set by co-owner Macedonian-born Anita Kovaceski, who welcomes everyone who comes through the door with a sincere and grateful smile. Her husband, Klime Kovaceski, is the mastermind creating platters of love back in the kitchen.
     And platters they are, no joking. They take pride and pleasure in serving gigantic portions of the most comforting, well-thought out Italian dishes made with carefully selected fresh ingredients. Let's cut to the chase. They just want to feed you.
   
     On this fine evening, in the company of Daylin, my favorite partner in epicurean crime, and her husband Mario, we begin with Pan-fried Mozzarella and Meatballs for appetizers. Sounds like standard openers, but perfect ratio of cheese to breading, tender, large, shareable meatballs, and fresh, rich marinara sauce are elements that put these starters in a whole other league.
     It was an evening of classic dishes that somehow, in this place, were magical. I ordered the Risotto with Chicken, a massive plate of velvety, flavorful arboreal rice with golf-ball sized chunks of chicken breast, mixed with red peppers and zucchini. Daylin also received a mountain of Chicken Marsala on a king sized bed of mushroom risotto. The Marsala sauce was refined, with the right amount of sweetness, and a tingle of acidity, like God intended.
    Mario chose the Tuscan-style Tuna grilled in garlic, herbs, and truffle oil and served over sauteed fresh mixed vegetables. But the star of this spectacle had to be John's Chicken Parmesan. It was a mountain of baked chicken tenderloin over linguini, all covered in a luscious blanket of mozzarella, parmesan, and that addictive marinara. An intuitive dish that knocks your socks off unexpectedly.
     And as if this night had not already been magnificent, my favorite course was still ahead. The prospect of sampling four different sweet bonnes bouches, is nothing short of paradise for me. The parade began with Limoncello cake, a Sicilian sponge cake infused with lemon, accompanied by Italian mascarpone and European white chocolate curls. Is there one wrong word in that description?
     Then came another classic performed to perfection- a masterful Key Lime pie that blended creamy, sweet, tart, and crunchy. A Kentucky Bourbon pecan pie followed, warm and in the company of genuine vanilla gelato. The finale was a bowl of fresh berries in a Sabayon sauce that danced gracefully between subtle and sublime.
     Can you taste commitment to excellence? I believe so. And I also think that every single item on the Crust menu contains that flavor, that extra punch that turns the ordinary into extraordinary. Personally, neither distance, nor lack of parking (they do offer valet parking), nor the fact that they don't open for lunch will keep me away. It's worth any inconvenience. Crust is that good.

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Monday, February 19, 2018

Bulla Gastrobar

     Inspired by the currently popular Spanish tapas restaurants, which encourage tasting and sharing a  multitude of menu items, Bulla now has two lively locations in the greater Miami area. This space is modern and open and yet so busy this Saturday afternoon, that customers and servers must navigate the area carefully to avoid bumping into each other.
     We begin with a red sangria for me and a Golden Monkey beer for John. My sangria was sweet as candy, just the way I like it, and John's Belgian pale ale was smooth as silk, the way he likes it. We sampled their brunch menu with the Huevos Bulla, a large bowl of homemade potato chips, Serrano ham, potato foam, and truffle oil, all bathed in the succulent goodness of punctured egg yolks. It made for a hearty beginning although undistinguished.
   
     I also ordered the Bikini, a Brioche bun with tetilla cheese, Serrano ham, covered in bechamel sauce, and in the company of a fried egg. Once again, dipping the doughy bread into the thick, rich yolk mixed with the creamy bechamel made the dish gratifying.
     My second course was the Melón con Bellota, a platter of watermelon, Bellota, or acorn ham, heirloom tomatoes, Leonora goat cheese, and a drizzle of truffle honey. All these elements are of the highest quality, and yet on this platter, their blending was dull. There was lots of watermelon and tomatoes, sufficient ham, but the cheese pellets were scant. I don't like it when I get the feeling a restaurant is trying to economize at the expense of my satisfaction.
   
John tried the Cochinillo Hash, a poached egg, which I inherited, braised shredded pork, and breakfast potatoes. But now that I think about it, this was simply a reconfiguration of his earlier dish, Huevos Bulla.
Photo by Louise S. (Yelp)
     A humdrum meal that ends in bright, delicious desserts gets redemption points, and this one ended on a positive note. We ordered the Brioche French toast and the Churros con Chocolate, that traditional Spanish treat of fried dough sticks tossed in sugar. They came with the promised chocolate sauce, but better even, with some thick dulce de leche for dipping. I had to force myself to share with John. The moist and doughy French toast came bejeweled with the freshest, plumpest berries, vanilla-berry syrup, and white chocolate Chantilly cream.
     Although nothing seems unique about this restaurant, their dishes are solid and prepared with high quality ingredients. It was worth a try.

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