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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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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Haven

     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 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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