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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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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Bocas Grill

    Looking through the menu at Bocas brought back memories of my decade in Venezuela. That was a long time ago, when that rich, beautiful country could be traveled and enjoyed without the burden of political upheaval, the disturbing reality currently unfolding in those parts.
    A breakfast platter seemed like a good choice to sample a variety of items, so I picked the arepa, steak, eggs, and grilled white cheese combination. Arepas are the daily bread of Venezuela and Colombia, but also feature prominently in Panama and Ecuador. They're made of cooked flour, and if done right, as they were today, they're doughy on the inside with a toasted crunchy shell.
     The steak was well seasoned, and the slice of white cheese was grilled, which brought out its natural saltiness without overwhelming. The eggs missed the mark on the first try. The yolk was overcooked and dry, but David, our amiable Lenny Kravitz-lookalike server, was quick to replace them with perfect sunny side ups. When that velvet yolk broke, it spilled its goodness on the dense, meaty arepa, and all was well in my world.
   
     My friend Kim ordered a stuffed arepa called Catira or 'The Blonde', filled to bursting with savory shredded chicken and American cheese. She added a little pepper for spice, but I thought the chicken was well seasoned without it, and combined effectively with the mild cheese.
     The food was flavorful and satisfying, and prepared with care and creativity, but the motivation for my visit was their milkshakes. Yes, their milkshakes. Sounds too simple, right? Hold on.
     The menu offers three options: Dulce de Leche Churros, Oreos and Churros, and Nutella. Not an easy choice to make, but we finally went for the Dulce de Leche Churros. What arrived was a tower of sweets that can only be conjured in dreams... or nightmares, depending on your taste. The base is a thick dulce de leche shake, as promised, in a mason jar smeared in all the right places with sticky, caramelly dulce de leche and crushed vanilla oreos, and glued onto a plate with more of this delectable mixture. Over the rim of the jar sits a perfectly crunchy round churro, then a scoop of vanilla ice cream topped by another churro, all of this dripping in syrup.
     I don't advise that you tackle this dessert on your own. Make sure you have a friend to help you, and possibly consult your doctor before attempting it. But if you're healthy and willing, it's worth every sugary bite.

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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Mulligan's Beach House Bar & Grill

     Who doesn't love a road trip? Long or short, it always carries a promise of adventure. John and I took our first break on our trek toward Baltimore from Miami at Mulligan's in Sebastian, near Melbourne, Florida. With seven locations in the state, this one is right on Indian River Lagoon and gives you the option of reaching it by boat, docking, and stepping right into a laid back Caribbean atmosphere.

   
     I craved a frozen drink from their extensive cocktail menu, but I abstained out of respect for the hours of driving I would be doing after lunch. And speaking of the menu, it provides a wide variety, including much beloved brunch items like eggs Benedict. Also burgers, tacos, flatbreads, wraps, seafood, steak, you name it, anything you might be feeling, I believe Mulligan's can deliver. But a bold sign advertising the 'Monster Fish and Chips' repeated in several places around the restaurant, and would not be ignored, so we gave in. It was, indeed, a monster-sized slab of white fish over crispy fries with a small bowl of coleslaw. The fish was thick, the breading light and well-seasoned. John, who stands staunchly by his conviction that well prepared proteins need no embellishment, found it quite acceptable, and the tartar sauce provided unnecessary. Even I, lover of all mayo-based sauces, felt the tartar sauce would compromise the perfect meaty-crispy balance.
   
     The appetizer selections were also enticing, and in an impulsive afterthought, I ordered the Pretzel Bread Sticks. I'm glad I did. Warm, doughy, salted just right, and in the company of melted cheddar. We surveyed the dessert menu and found nothing we hadn't seen before, so we settled on what they call Key lime pie. It turned out to be an unconventional Key lime cake, two layers of cake with a subtle Key lime cream in the middle. John the Purist was slightly disappointed. He was expecting the traditional, sweet and tart custardy pie we all associate with Key lime pie. I, however, found it refreshing and original. Not what I expected, but happy to try it.
   
     Here's yet another place I wish was closer to home. The endless menu choices, the huge bar and cocktail menu, the proximity to the water, the tropical vibe are all elements that encourage patrons to become regulars. You know, like the famous theme song says, "You wanna be where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came."

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Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Xitomate

     This was not my first visit to Xitomate, which means 'tomato' in the Aztec language. My first time here in Columbia, Maryland, back in October 2016, went by in a blur because we were in a hurry to catch a flight. There was no time to try their enticing cocktails or desserts, but one thing caught my attention long enough for me to wait patiently for a second opportunity eight months later! Read on.
      I started my do-over with an 'Enamorada', a margarita containing agave nectar, lime juice, coconut, mango, and of course, tequila. The glass had a coconut flake rim that made the drink look wild and adventurous. I liked it, except that aftertaste I always get when I drink tequila. I should've told the bartender to make it with rum.
     Here's why I came back: the Filete de Res burrito with tequila cream sauce. This is no ordinary burrito. It comes stuffed to bursting with filet mignon tips, mushrooms, onions, and black beans tossed in a red wine cream sauce and soft white Chihuahua cheese, and a luxurious tequila cream sauce covering the soft tortilla. From the first time I tasted it to this moment, as I write, every time I think about this burrito, my mouth waters and the hunger center of my brain is stimulated. And I'm not even a big fan of Mexican food. Even the fresh pico de gallo guacamole garnish makes for a nice complement.
     John ordered the Enchiladas de Res, smoked beef brisket braised in Dos XX beer with Chihuahua cheese and refried beans. Both our dishes came accompanied by moist, well-seasoned cilantro rice. John found the enchiladas savory and pleasing.
     I felt a sense of satisfaction while indulging in this meal. I had a hunch that I should return, and it paid off. Then came dessert. We ordered the Xitomate Dessert Tasting, a platter containing churros, caramel flan, and Tres Leches (Three Milks). The churros were a bit chewier than I expected. After the initial crunch, the dough inside should melt in your mouth. But in all honesty, I haven't had a proper churro since I left Spain decades ago.
     The flan surprised me with its dense texture, my preference in flan, although it's not the traditional way of preparing it. Tres Leches is one of my baking specialties, so I know what to look for when tasting someone else's version. This one was moist, and thick, but it had an alien sour finish (hopefully not from one of the 'Leches') that turned me off. I asked the manager if they used some ingredient I didn't recognize, like citrus, or buttermilk, even sour cream, none in the classic recipe, but everyone's entitled to their own interpretation. I didn't get a straight answer, which led me to some unsettling conclusions.
     I've come full circle with this restaurant. I'm glad I came to revisit and get the full experience. I leave with a new favorite, and my purpose now is to find a similar burrito in other Mexican restaurants offering sophisticated fare.

BB Free ©2017
   

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Leopold's Ice Cream

     In 1919, three brothers from Greece brought hand-crafted ice cream to Savannah, and the people of this charming city, and its visitors, remain faithful. At all hours of the day, long yet fast-moving lines fringe the street where iconic Leopold's stands. It has a '50s vibe, and the menu offers fountain classics, freshly baked pastries, and café items for those who wish to make a meal out of the experience.
   
     But the magic is in the ice cream, without a doubt. By the time I discovered what the flavors of the day were, John was already in line and out of sight while I saved our table, and I couldn't change my order from pistachio to the Dutch Utopia, chocolate ice cream with chocolate chips and orange candies. Or the Savannah Socialite, milk and chocolate ice cream with bourbon infused caramel and pecans. Now, don't those sound like a lot of time and love were put into creating them?
     My regret soon evaporated when I got the first taste of my pistachio. Not only was the flavor distinct and rich, but I didn't have to dig for the pistachios. They were everywhere, every spoonful covered in chewy nuttiness. John had classic chocolate, and once he started his gentle shoveling, he didn't come up for air until the cup was empty. I can safely assume he liked it.

   
     We did sample the Leopold's Club sandwich from their café menu. It had good ham, turkey, and bacon, but it wasn't any different than the sandwiches Mom made hastily to put in our lunchboxes. It didn't really matter. We weren't there for the sandwich, were we? It's all about the ice cream, and for good reason. Had we spent more time in Savannah, I know Leopold's would have been a daily stop in our gastronomic tour.

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Monday, October 16, 2017

McConnell's Fine Ice Creams

               Ever since our return from Italy four years ago, John and I have been in search of gelato made authentically outside of The Old Country. Our Quixotic quest may not have yielded great results as of yet, but the journey has had its enjoyable moments, McConnell's being one of them.
     McConnell's is on State Street in trendy downtown Santa Barbara, California. Founded in 1949, they have stores only in the West Coast at this time, but I'm crossing my fingers all the way from the other coast for speedy expansion.
     Their ice cream is made in small batches, with sustainable and organic ingredients provided by local farmers and artisans. This attention to detail results in finely crafted ice creams with bold yet balanced combinations of ingredients, well-defined flavors, and perfectly textured density.
     I counted 32 flavors on their list, and Olive Oil and Salted Almonds just screamed to be tasted. I figured whatever I felt about this combination would be a benchmark for all the others. When something has two flavors, my expectation is to be able to taste each flavor separately and for the mix to be harmonious. I asked for a sample, and that's exactly what I got. The almonds softened the olive oil's potentially overbearing presence, but it was certainly there.
Emboldened by the execution of this risky flavor, I ordered the Churros con Leche and the Salted Caramel Chip with hot fudge and salted chocolate covered nuts. I went too far. The salty elements were delectable, but they cast such a shadow over the Churros con Leche, I forgot it was in my cup until I was almost done. By then, it was too late to assess that layer of flavor. It still made it into my list of top ten favorite ice creams.
     John had the Dutchman's Milk Chocolate and the Sea Salt Cream and Cookies. He actually waited for a fresh batch of waffle cones to be ready so he could have his warm. He went into transcendental meditation mode when he ate his ice cream, so it's clear that he had no objections.
     There's a special place in our hearts for small scale merchants that take pride in providing quality products and services, a lost art in this the age of the conglomerate. McConnell's is such a place, and supporting these family businesses while enjoying their delicious offerings is how John and I like to help the economy.

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