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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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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Casacuba

     Cuban food is ubiquitous in Miami, of course, but when you have to pick one place to introduce newbies to the cuisine and the cultural experience in general, making a choice is not as easy as it seems.
     The South Carolina contingent of the Free clan visited our fair city to attend a regatta, and they came with a hankering for some Cuban flavor. Suddenly, it was on. I had to make a choice that would impress.
      Casacuba's menu contains all the staples. If I'm looking for traditional, that's the first thing on my checklist. There should be no dishes from other countries in the mix. Every dish must be either a Cuban creation or a dish from Spain. And Cuban bread is incomparable to any other and a must with every meal. The very first thing at our table was a basket of freshly baked rolls, crusty on the outside, warm and hearty on the inside. So far so good.
     Susan and Bobby ordered the coconut and the classic mojitos, respectively, and went into fits of ecstasy. I was a little jealous, but I like my coconut mojito made with a shot of coconut milk, and this one didn't include this ingredient, so I ordered one of my go-to whistle-wetters, an Amaretto Sour. It offered a delightfully perky combination of sweet and tart. Cheers to the bartender from all around the table!
   
     This evening was a food blogger's dream. The variety of dishes displayed at our table provided me with a trove of material to inspire my muse. We started with a sampler that included yucca fries in the company of a cilantro garlic dipping sauce, dense, sweet Cuban corn tamales, fried pork pebbles with sauteed onions, the best ham croquettes I've ever had, and be assured that I've had them all, and the most adorable plantain cups filled with savory 'picadillo', or ground beef cooked in a tomato-based sauce. Susan couldn't take her mind off the plantains stuffed with shrimp from the appetizer menu, and she gave in, so I guess we'll call that the palate cleanser.
   
     And that was just the first course. The parade of main courses began with Lechón Asado, slow-roasted pork marinated in 'mojo', a magical mixture of garlic, bitter orange or other citrus, and olive oil. This little piggie came adorned with loads of sauteed onions. Bobby got overexcited with the side dishes and ordered a lot more than he could handle. He ordered Moros, rice cooked in black beans, Maduros, fried sweet plaintains, and grilled vegetables for good measure. That's the thing about Cuban food. Leftovers to carry home are always plentiful. Boy, do I enjoy watching someone savor a meal like he did this one. It borders on sweet voyeurism.
   
     Then came Gambas al Ajillo, plump shrimp sauteed in garlic oil, and Camarones Enchilados, Gulf shrimp sauteed in a sweet and punchy Creole sauce. Our table was suddenly enveloped in the intoxicating scent of good seafood.
     John and I shared his classic Vaca Frita, shredded beef grilled with onions and the ever-present mojo, accompanied by classic rice and beans. All the right flavors were present, but my joy in the moment came from watching my fam-by-marriage captivated by the taste of my culture.
     Then, came time for dessert. The menu offered a special of Torrejas Rellenas de Crema Catalana, or, are you ready for this? fried dough bathed in syrup stuffed with custard. Brief consideration was given to sharing a plate, but only one in our group of six had the courage to try, and no, it wasn't me. The rest of the table waved a white flag. In the end, majority prevailed and dessert was bypassed.
     The family left with full, contented bellies, and a fantastic first impression of Cuban cuisine. Casacuba did me proud.

BB Free @2017

   

     

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

ROK:BRGR

     Once again it's hunting season for John. Anytime the suggestion of a burger is made, he perks up like an English setter sniffing out game.
   
     ROK:BRGR is a stone's throw from the campus of the University of Miami, so it stands to reason that its patrons are mostly college students and preppies in general. We saw lots of twenty-somethings in Bermuda shorts and boat shoes, young ladies in bright summer shift dresses, and even some bow ties. The hostess herself was an exotic young lady with a dynamic smile, and beautiful caramel skin accentuated by pink hair.
She was the perfect representation of the joint's chic collegiate vibe.
     It's a small space, a third of which is taken by a wall-to-wall bar with five flat-screens showing any and all sports battles happening in real time. However, additional seating outside welcomes more patrons, even those of the furry four-legged persuasion.
   
     The lychee martini on the cocktail menu beckoned, and I, of course, obliged without hesitation. John ordered a Fat Tire just because it's familiar beer, and he likes the name. My martini was sweet and zesty in all the right places. The splash of pineapple overshadowed the subtle taste of the lychee syrup a bit, but the skewer of lychee fruit made up for that quite nicely.
   
     John ordered the award-winning signature ROK:BRGR with aged Vermont cheddar and smoked pepper bacon. Lately, I've been craving a fried egg on everything, so the Farmhouse, with cage aged gruyere, caramelized onions, garlic aioli, and topped with a fried farm egg piqued my interest.
 
     The mix of prime chuck, brisket, and short rib makes for a deep-flavored, juicy meat patty, but we can all agree that cooking it to the desired degree is key to a satisfactory burger experience. John and I like ours medium, and these burgers came a little closer to medium well. I missed that shy pink peeking from the inside of my meat.
     The bun was an artisan brioche that I wanted to like, but was simply too dry and disconnected from the burger and its fixin's. On hindsight, I should've ordered the optional pretzel bread. John had his with hand-cut fries, and I upgraded to sweet potato wedges. The fries were limp and forgettable, and the wedges were predictable but generous in size.
     ROK:BRGR is great on paper. Good location, pleasant atmosphere, quality service- it's all there. But as for the burgers, our hunt continues.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Talavera Cocina Mexicana

     The mention of Spring Break conjures images of college students gone wild. The mischievous merrymaking, the abandon, the regrettable choices, dare we say, the debauchery. But you know, us elementary school teachers experience our own psychological rush during that short respite between testing season and the chaotic end of the year. It's hard to put into words. It's a sense of freedom akin to the feeling of cool water on your skin when skinny dipping. By the way, is that still a popular Spring Break activity? No matter. It's refreshing and it's thrilling because you know it won't last long.
     While I don't partake in the bolder side of the revelry, this year's Spring Break gave me an opportunity to indulge in a few of my favorite activities- tinker around the house, catch up with friends, and explore new restaurants. My friend Claudia is in the top three of my list of favorite dining companions. Claudia just knows food. She's traveled the world, hangs with chefs, and is a killer cook herself. In fact, I've often said she should be writing this blog. Ironically, though, she is one of my strongest supporters and faithful cheerleaders in this writing journey.
   
     This time we decided on upscale Mexican food, a cuisine I can only enjoy at a very high level of quality. I'm a Mexican food snob. Talavera resides in Miami's bustling area of Coral Gables. The space is bright and sleek with oversized blue and white ceramic vases providing pops of color. The menu is not overwhelmingly long, but it's a good representation of classic Mexican fare.
   
     Claudia gave up alcoholic indulgences for Lent, but insisted that I try a cocktail without the burden of guilt. So I did, and it was a good decision. I ordered the Flor de Pasión from their all-Margaritas specialty cocktail menu, a refreshing mixture of hibiscus, passion fruit, lime juice, and tequila. It was all that I seek in my spirits, a sweet, jaunty, fruity drink with a gentle spike that interacted quite well with the salty rim on the glass.
   

     They start you with a basket of crisp blue corn tortilla chips and two dipping salsas, tomato and tomatillo, both too spicy for me, although I tried the tomatillo and found it delightfully sweet until I felt the kick. We ordered a bowl of guacamole, which came garnished with pork rinds, definitely an inventive twist. The guac gifted my mouth with a fresh pop of spring in every bite.
     Claudia ordered the green enchiladas, filled with pulled chicken, surrounded by their peppy tomatillo sauce, topped with lettuce and crumbled cotija cheese. A simple dish, with mild flavors that come alive with the saltiness of the cheese. We thought the chicken was just on the side of overcooked, but the sauce provided a savory moisture to compensate for the slight dryness.
     One particular traditional Mexican dish that has always intrigued me but I've never tried is Cochinita Pibil. I've heard Rick Bayless, a popular American chef who specializes in Mexican dishes with a modern twist, speak of it on TV with contagious excitement, and this was the day that Cochinita and I would be properly introduced. It consists of slow roasted pork wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in citrus juice, which results in a savory sweet explosion of flavor. This is not your average pulled pork, folks.
     The succulent Cochinita Tacos brought some friends to the party besides warm soft tortillas. Savory rice and black beans prepared well enough to impress this tough Cuban expert. Also invited were more fresh guacamole and strips of pickled tomato so tangy, even Cochinita puckered up with delight. Some meals just make you happy.
   
     Our dessert choice was the perfect ending note to this delicious adventure. Churros con Chocolate Abuelita, six classic thick sticks of perfectly fried dough, crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, sprinkled with sugar, presented with a Mexican chocolate dipping sauce and fresh whipped cream. Claudia was in such rapture, I almost felt the urge to give her some privacy while she indulged.
     Good company is a key element in a satisfying dining experience. Good company in addition to good food create a spiritual moment for me. On this day, I had both in spades.

BB Free ©2017
   
   

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Prohibition Restaurant and Speakeasy

     
     We didn't have to enter through a false brick wall door, or whisper a password. And liquour flowed freely and generously. But the servers dressed as flappers and mobsters, the black and white movie playing over the bar, and the small vintage chandeliers sitting at the tables draw you into the roaring '20s and '30s prohibition era theme. The music wasn't bad either. Not ragtime, but classic jazz and swing. The music was actually one of the elements I enjoyed the most.
     
     
     Five minutes after I walked into Prohibition, I was committed to the '20s throwback, so I ordered a 'Mary Pickford', a cocktail named after the silent movie actress known for her spunky sweetness. This mixture of white rum, pineapple juice, maraschino liqueur, and grenadine was pleasant but unremarkable, not at all like its namesake.
     We ordered the Classic Steak Frites and the Shrimp Chorizo. The medium New York strip we ordered was more of a medium well and lacked the pink tenderness we expected. John enjoyed the truffle fries more than I did. The truffle element is always lost on me, but that's my pathology. However, shredded confetti covered the fries, but what I assume was cheese, had no flavor. I refused to ask what it was and tried to identify it, but failed.
     Four plump jumbo shrimp arrived over tostones (plaintain fritters) doused in the most savory sofrito (tomato-based sauce) which allegedly contained the chorizo (Spanish sausage). Sounds good, right? Well, only on paper. While the sofrito was exceptional and the tostones satisfying, the stunning shrimp were so overcooked, I had to chew them like gum. And, the chorizo is still on its way from Spain, I suppose.
    The dessert items didn't scream to be sampled, but the Kit Kat Bar caught Hubby's attention, so we took a shot. Except for their special, a homemade Tres Leches, all the sweets are outsourced to nearby bakeries. Our choice was an attractive rectangle with layers of cookie crust, dark chocolate fondant with hazelnuts, and milk chocolate mousse. It was good. That's it. Just good. And we only found one hazelnut.
     Loved the general vibe and the music, but the rest of the experience wasn't worth the inflated check. Sadly, Prohibition will not make it on my 'repeat' list.

BB Free ©2017
   
   
   
   

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Red, The Steakhouse

     When I prepare to visit a high-end steakhouse, I brace myself for a hefty check, but I also anticipate select cuts of beef, flawless execution, and miscellaneous treats depending on the menu.
     Red has been touted by many around town as one of a few exceptional steakhouses. I get the impression the servers are trained carefully to be warm yet politely distant. I appreciate that. I'm sensitive to servers that come with the best intentions to be helpful but interrupt table conversations. Sadly, that happens a lot, even in fine establishments. What separates good service from excellent service has a lot to do with timing and intuition.
     
     The Steakhouse is serious about its atmosphere. Stone walls, soft lighting, dark wood, sleek, modern lines, and splashes of bright scarlet everywhere make this space just plain sexy. It's the kind of place I have to visit with DJ, foodie genius, because I know she will not be shy about ordering anything she feels should be tried regardless of whether we can eat it all or not. I always leave with comprehensive knowledge of any restaurant I patronize in her company.
     In 23 years of friendship I've never asked, but I suspect that second only to the brunch section, appetizers and sides are DJ's favorite items on the menu. At her table, there is never a short selection, and I find them to be a great example of what goes on in a restaurant's kitchen. On this day, we also had a tomato mozzarella salad with balsamic reduction mixed in with the appetizers. Thick slices of local tomatoes and the creamiest mozzarella offered a fresh beginning to what would become an intense dining experience.
     A charcuterie plate with thin cuts of some serious cured meats enticed the carnivore out of us. Bresaola, wild boar sausage, and lamb and duck prosciutto came to call in the company of a powerful and stimulating whole grain mustard and fresh brioche triangles. Before I address our beefy main events, let me tell you about the side dishes. These were not your every day side of fries.
     DJ favored the truffled risotto, John ordered the four-cheese mac 'n cheese, and I couldn't overlook the Brussel sprouts with pancetta. The risotto was rich and patiently cooked to creamy perfection. My Brussel sprouts were salty, crispy, and addictive. But the headliner had to be the mac 'n cheese. The four angels of this divinity are Fontina, Pecorino Romano, Parmiggiano Reggiano, and Raclette, my best friends for the evening, over organic pasta, all enveloped in a house mornay sauce. Is it legal to visit a steakhouse and only order Brussel sprouts and mac 'n cheese? Because I could without missing the meat. They were that good.
   

     And that's where the honeymoon ended. Our steak orders included DJ's filet mignon Oscar (with asparagus, king crab, and Bernaise sauce), my filet mignon with artisanal blue cheese, and John's ribeye. DJ is a fan of their steaks, and they are, indeed, the best cuts available. However, John and I found ours just shy of expectation. At $45 per steak, I expected an even sear and a perfect pink center, and John looked forward to a silky, melt-in-your-mouth tenderness. Mine was slightly overcooked, and John's offered a tiny bit of resistance, and the seasoning didn't bring out the natural beefy flavor of a fine steak. If you're not high maintenance about your meat, these are superb. If you're uber sensitive about flavor and texture, they lack a certain something.
     Nonetheless, I was excited about the dessert menu. In fact, I asked to see it even before the appetizers arrived, and since they and the side dishes were such a hit, I had full confidence that the sweets would delight. The clear choice was the Tasting Trio which included the Key Lime Pie, the New York Cheesecake, and the Fresh 'N Hot Doughnut Holes.
     DJ is easy to please when it comes to sugary bites. She retreated to her corner of the booth and quietly enjoyed every morsel she had coming to her in our game of 'musical desserts'. John and I, on the other hand, were a little chattier about them. John enjoyed the simplicity of fried dough dusted in powdered sugar. He also enjoyed the chocolate ganache that came with them, but ignored the raspberry jam. I thought the cheesecake wasn't dense enough to deserve the 'New York' in front of its name. The dark cherry and vanilla compote was a nice embellishment, but it didn't distract me. Real New York cheesecake stands up with attitude, rather than jiggle at the touch of the fork. My favorite was the Key Lime pie in its cilindrical container, topped with toasted meringue, and graham cracker streusel laying on the plate like so much delectable debris.
     Look, I've had better steaks in comparable places with less buzz, but there is no denying that Red is at the top of its class and deserves respect. The stunning surroundings, the extensive and eclectic menu, the outstanding service are all there. With all the pluses, I would even go as far as to say the experience is worth the price (almost).

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