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Wednesday, February 14, 2018


     Treasure Island is a sleepy beach town with an endless strip of oceanfront resorts and vacation rentals. John's Pass Village is a quaint section with a boardwalk full of seafood restaurants, souvenir shops, an ice cream shop every two doors, and even a salt water taffy store with more than one hundred flavors. I had fun filling a bag with flavors such as Mojito, Egg nog, and Belgian Waffle.
   Nearby, the Tampa/St. Petersburg area sparkles with city life that includes some top of the line restaurants. Haven is the sister of iconic Bern's Steakhouse, which I learned requires almost a month of advance reservation. Not getting in was a disappointment that turned into a blessing. Haven delivered an unforgettable tenth anniversary meal for Hubby and me. In fact, with their cheese cellar and cheese bar, I do believe this restaurant may be the mother ship I've been waiting for to take me to the cheese planet where I belong.
     Haven's phenomenal team of Chad Johnson and Courtney Orwig, Executive Chef and Chef de Cuisine, respectively, does mediterranean cuisine with precision and care. Their service is inspired by Spanish tapas where almost all dishes are small, and you tailor a menu for everyone at the table to enjoy. We created the most delectable charcuterie plate worthy of the greatest sensualist. Along with Iberico ham, in my opinion the best ham in the world, we had Finocchiona fennel salami, Prima Donna Gouda, a mild and triple creamy Brillat Savarin from France, and Cambozola blue cheese from Germany. The plate came with glazed California almonds, Cornichons, Medjool date puree, fruit chutney, and seedless red grapes.
 To go with this voluptuous beginning, I ordered a Pool Boy, a potion containing Soul cachaça, coconut liqueur, blackberry-mint shrub, coconut salted caramel, and lime, which added a hint of tartness to the drink, but it didn't deter from the refreshing and subtle sweetness. John ordered a Legacy 4, a bourbon barrel aged IPA beer in a rich amber color. He expected the bold flavor to leave a slight bitter aftertaste, but he found it acceptable.
     By the time our entrees arrived, I was already in love with the surroundings, the impeccable service, and the quality of the meats and cheeses. I could hardly wait for the next course. I ordered the Israeli salad, a refreshing yet rich combination of couscous and chopped cucumbers and tomatoes dressed in extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. John ordered the colossal Miso Glazed Dry-Aged (for weeks) Ribeye with gloriously sauteed maitake mushrooms and tomatoes. The meat was gently touched by a tamarind, red wine, garlic, ginger, and brown sugar sauce. If this steak is a preview of what to expect at Bern's, I can hardly wait to pay them a visit.
     As time for dessert approached, I began to get a little sad, not something I usually feel in expectation of sweets. But I knew this delicious evening was coming to an end, and I didn't want to leave. I cheered up quickly, though, when the Dirt Pie arrived, an adorable mason jar with three levels of chocolate intensity, including dark chocolate cremeaux, milk chocolate mousse, topped with coffee "soil", a mint leaf growing out of it, and its own denizen, a gummy worm. I dare you not to smile in the presence of such cuteness.
     It's possible that you can forget nine out of ten meals you eat. You will never forget the Haven experience. And to punctuate the top-notch service at this establishment, after dessert, the bartender delivered glasses of champagne to toast our anniversary. Haven is class all the way!

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Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Olde Pink House

     The Olde Pink House was a highlight of my time in Savannah.
In 1771, Habersham House in Savannah, Georgia, welcomed its builder and owner, James Habersham, Jr., and served as his family's home until 1800. Its soft brick eventually began to bleed through the plastered walls and changed its color from white to Jamaican pink. The house has had several reincarnations. In 1811 it became Planter's Bank, the first bank in Georgia. General Sherman gave the city to President Lincoln as a Christmas present, and the house became a military headquarters. During the Civil War it was an attorney's office, a bookstore, and a colonial tea room. Finally, in 1992 the Balish family from Charleston, South Carolina, purchased the stately building and returned it to its original grandeur for the enjoyment of all who visit and dine in this most fanciful, mystical structure.
     Every room of this mansion is a dining area, each with subtle differences in decor, yet always part of the whole splendid Georgian manor. The main floor is all classic refinement. You just have to feel romantic in this environment. Two other floors provide more dining areas, one called "the ballroom" is long, elegant, sparkling with chandeliers. Smaller rooms have a slightly more rustic look as the glossy banquet chairs turn into bulky straight back leather ones. The basement is a dark, casual area called Planter's Tavern with exposed aged brick walls, a rough-cut stone fireplace surrounded by large wingback chairs in distressed leather, and a piano for live music. In the back of this room is a small intimate space outfitted for a sexy dinner for two surrounded by endless bottles of wine and illuminated only by candlelight. It's actually a wine cellar that originally served as the money vault during the house's reincarnation as a bank. The space is inviting in an eerie way. Some say the house is haunted by the ghost of James Habersham, Jr. If so, I'm pretty sure this is where he hangs out the most. I would.
      I began this journey with a Planter's Punch, a cocktail of Papa's Pilar dark rum, Bacardi rum, pineapple and orange juices, and grenadine. John ordered the Service Brewing Company Compass Rose IPA, a local beer with infusions of grapefruit, pear, and orange peel. He's on a citrus kick these days. Even when he can't identify a flavor, he calls it citrus. My drink was deceptively gentle. It turns out the rums settle at the top and the bottom of the drink, so while I sipped the fruity liquid, it was quite benign, but as I reached the middle of the glass, I felt the heat of the alcohol in every skin pore, in a good way.
     The basket of table bread was a promise of good things to come. It contained dainty little corn bread muffins, warm, meaty biscuits, and soft, moist rosemary bread.
     The feast began with the Habersham Platter, a combination of shrimp and grits, a crab cake, and seared scallops. The grits were noteworthy because they came in the shape of fried triangle wedges which provided a crispy covering to the expected creaminess. Crab cakes are tricky for me. Most of the time they are either too bland or contain unwelcome hot spices. This crab cake was perfection, and it came sandwiched between two slices of tangy fried green tomatoes, a popular selection from the menu. And the scallops were thick and juicy, and left you wanting more.
     My entree was the Sweet Potato Ravioli with caramelized Vidalia onions and oyster mushrooms, finished with a pecan cream sauce. The sauce made this dish. It offered a perfect balance of sweet and savory and a distinct flavor that complemented the subtlety of the sweet potato in the pasta.
     If you're a foodie, you know that feeling you get after a luxurious feast that ends in an equally glorious dessert. The House didn't disappoint. Good ole' Southern pecan pie done with flair on a cinnamon pecan crust, with dark chocolate, served warm with vanilla bean ice cream. Let me tell y'all, that dark chocolate gave this pie a vitality of flavor unmatched by any other pecan pie I've ever tried, even others of the chocolate variety.
     Before I wrap, I must take time to write about the service at The House. Our server was amiable but professional and so knowledgeable about the history of the building, she should be a docent and give guided tours. She invited us to roam to our hearts' content after dinner, and when we did, I felt we were in everyone's way as we weaved around the bustle of servers on every floor. I found myself apologizing every few seconds, but every employee was gracious, eager to make space for us to explore, and willing to answer questions with a smile.
     I'm sure I don't have to tell you that I want to go back. I want to live in that house, really. When I return, my problem will be deciding on whether to repeat the luxurious experience of the upstairs restaurant, or explore the dark, mysterious Planter's Tavern in the basement. All my problems should be this delightful.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Morton's The Steakhouse

     In the exclusive world of iconic steakhouses, Morton's occupies a significant position. Miami Spice is a marketing strategy that allows patrons to experience the ultimate in fine dining at a reasonable price. The August-September season is also an opportunity for exclusive restaurants such as Morton's to make a good impression on first-time customers that may not have the financial wherewithal for such indulgence too frequently. I fall into that category.
     Two stories of impeccably decorated dining areas, all in black, white, and metallics make for an elegant atmosphere. We are greeted by an oversized onion roll and whipped unsalted butter. The bread was a bit dry, but I had an intriguing cocktail to help me wash it down. I ordered the Pumpkin Spice Mule, a rather cloying concoction of Tito's vodka, pumpkin puree, ginger syrup, and pumpkin pie spice with a cinnamon rim. I rejected the rim immediately. The dusty texture and the overwhelming flavor distracted me from the drink itself. Once I focused on the sickly sweet mixture, I found myself loving it and yet wondering if I'd be able to finish it. It was that potent. John is on a Stella Artois season right now, so today he didn't venture into the unknown.
     Our first of three courses began with the Baked Five Onion Soup for John and the Morton's Salad for me, a mixture of iceberg and romaine lettuce, blue cheese dressing, egg, and anchovies. John's soup was rich in sweet onion flavor. My salad was tossed in the perfect amount of blue cheese dressing with some hard boiled egg sprinkled on it, and one anchovy. It was a small but disappointing detail in an otherwise satisfying meal.
For the main course, John ordered the center cut filet mignon with a side of creamed corn. I ordered the Chicken Christopher, robust chicken paillards crusty with savory breading and wearing a subtle beurre blanc. Every bite offered an ideal balance of flavor and texture- meaty, crispy, and silky.
     My dish came with sour cream mashed potatoes. Reading the item on the menu didn't thrill me, but I have to admit that carefully whipped potatoes with just the right amount of butter and sour cream is just as luxurious as other flashier accompaniments. John's creamed corn, also not an attention-grabber at first glance, provided another opportunity for Morton's to take a standard to another level. The corn wasn't enmeshed in a thick cream, but rather danced in a light, velvety sauce with a subtle but definitive sweetness.
     For dessert, we ordered the double chocolate mousse and the Key lime pie. Both were predictable yet satisfying and gave us that sweet punctuation we always seek at the end of a meal.
     For John, a visit to a steakhouse is all about the meat, and he wasn't disappointed. For me, it's all in the details. Morton's is a classic, and their consistency in serving well prepared steakhouse staples is why it lives up to its reputation.

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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Old Lisbon

     Portuguese food is traditionally simple, hearty, and flavorful. Old Lisbon honors that tradition. When I visit a restaurant that specializes in regional or ethnic food, I like the flavors to transport me to that part of the world, and this unpretentious little spot in bustling South Miami did just that.
     Our appetizers were Bolinhos De Bacalhau, or codfish fritters, and Caldo Verde, a light potato soup with collard greens and Portuguese sausage. John's fritters came with an unexpected side of black-eyed peas that he described as cold and weird, which turned out to be chilled and delicately tossed in olive oil, garlic, and cilantro. Since he didn't want them, and my bowl of Caldo was so generous that I had to take most of it home, I appropriated this lovely and refreshing surprise.

     For entrees, John had the Vitela Assada, or roasted veal, and I the Bacalhau a Gomes de Sa, a heavenly casserole from northern Portungal consisting of shredded codfish, boiled potatoes, eggs, black olives, onions, and significantly enhanced in flavor by olive oil .While my dish had the traditional freshness and flavor I expected, the scent and hearty flavor of the veal was intoxicating. Each bite immediately turned into a savory cloud. It came with rice cooked in chicken broth, which is always a smart way to give rice flavor, and roasted potatoes. I thought it was starch overload, but in the presence of that sublime protein, all can be forgiven.
Photo by Old Lisbon
     Dessert was elegantly simple, and more importantly, well carried out. Pudim de Caramelo con Vinho do Porto is a caramel flan with a density and texture somewhere between the traditional flan and a bread pudding. It sat in a shallow pool of sweet, robust port, which I'm not ashamed to say I scooped with a teaspoon until it was all but gone. A dessert that sits on the digestif is a brilliant idea anytime.
     Portugal has been on my travel radar for a while, and thanks to this meal, it's gone up a few spaces on my priority list.

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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Florida Seafood Bar & Grill

     This past Labor Day weekend we visited Exploration Tower, a stunning architectural landmark with seven floors of interactive exhibits full of in-depth information about Port Canaveral and Florida in general. The seventh floor includes an observation deck that offers breathtaking views of the port, Cocoa Beach, and on a clear day, even Kennedy Space Center.
     After nourishing our minds with knowledge about Florida's environmental history and space race nostalgia, we fed our bodies at Florida's Seafood, a busy eatery with decor that can only be described as nautical gone wild. Life-sized pirates, tropical greenery, a wall of fish tanks, umbrellas in drinks, and the smell of fresh seafood, all parts of the beach vacation cliche, but you can't help getting caught in it. Florida Seafood is a happy place.
     Since I was totally on board with the theme, I ordered a Banana Piña Colada, which delivered that sweet, deceptive frozen delight I was looking to get lost in, while forgetting the alcohol content. I assure you, I was reminded of it later.
     The first thing to adorn our table was a basket of crispy, doughy corn fritters dusted with powdered sugar. Who wouldn't smile at that? Then came my Scallops Rosamaria, huge scallops in garlic lemon butter with roasted tomatoes, artichoke hearts, and goat cheese. I know some people won't agree, but for me, goat cheese just adds pizzazz to almost anything. Not that the dish needed any help. When all the elements of the dish were gone, I finished the leftover sauce with a spoon. It was a gift to the palate.
     My dish came with crisp steamed vegetables and bacon cheese grits. The grits needed more butter, a LOT more, and a lot more cheese. The bacon could not compensate for the lack of flavor.
     John ordered the bacon wrapped shrimp with a basket of fries. The proper execution of bacon wrapped shrimp is tricky. Shrimp overcook easily if you're not careful, and if you add a strip of crispy bacon to it, the shrimp will certainly become gummy. That's what happened here. They were flavorful, but too chewy, and the intensity of the bacon overwhelmed the tiny shrimp. It might've worked better with larger shrimp. The fries were large wedges in a glorious shade of gold, crispy on the outside and meaty on the inside, as God intended.
     The dessert menu held nothing that caught our attention, and considering I was still nursing my decadent banana cocktail, my sweet tooth was satisfied.
     I wouldn't call this the perfect meal, but while some elements lacked sparkle, others were sophisticated, and the place is just plain fun. Two thumbs up!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Squid Lips Overwater Bar & Grill

    The name just draws you in, doesn't it? The sight of the building surrounded by water as you walk to the end of the pier heightens my anticipation for a lazy, tropical lunch. Even in the humid days of Florida's summer, a forgiving ocean breeze allows for al fresco dining.
     One item on the appetizer menu caught my eye, something I'd never seen or thought of before: Coconut Onion Chips. They were more like onion petals, but oh my, what a find! Dipped in coconut rum batter, rolled in coconut flakes, and gently fried, they came with a honey citrus glaze I used on everything on my plate. And how perfectly they paired with my Mudslide. When this cocktail arrived at the table, I felt my Labor Day getaway had officially begun.
     Inspired by the coconut onion glory, I ordered the Shrimp Caesar Wrap. It was supposed to contain shrimp tossed in parmesan cheese. The small shrimp were scarce, and the parmesan unnoticeable. Romaine lettuce was abundant- correction, excessive. The Key-lime caesar dressing advertised was nowhere to be found, hence my decision to use the sublime honey citrus glaze instead. It came in the company of potato chips devoid of any personality. The wrap was a veritable disappointment.
     John stayed on dry land and ordered the Pulled Pork Sandwich with hickory smoked barbecue sauce, french fries, and coleslaw. The pork was tender and the sauce savory, although John thought there wasn't enough of it. The fries were satisfactory, but the coleslaw left me dumbstruck. Sadly, I can't sugarcoat how objectionable it was. The cabbage was swimming in some sort of tasteless, milky sauce. Totally unpalatable.
     Fortunately, I didn't have to leave with the dreadful taste of that coleslaw dressing. We found one of John's dessert favorites on the menu, Key lime pie. My criteria for this dessert is that it must be rich, silky, sweet, with a punch of tartness that makes me pucker and smack my lips. This one had all the elements, but the punch was powerful. It put hair on my tastebuds. I wished for a little more sweetness.
     I don't know that I would return for a second visit, but if only for the onion chips and the Mudslide, I'm glad we made a stop at Squid Lips.

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