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Monday, July 2, 2018

The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Kitchen Feast

     Meet Professor Doctor Penelope Tibeaux-Tinker Toothsome, an adventurous 19th century lady who traveled the world in search of new and inventive ways to infuse chocolate into complex recipes with the help of her faithful sidekick, Jacque The Robot. At the end of her long tour, she returned home with a vision to share her new and fascinating knowledge with the world by creating an emporium that everyone near and far could visit.
     And that's exactly what the people who designed this fantasy have done. The Emporium at Universal Studios, Orlando, is a steampunk feast for the senses that includes visits to each table by the main characters in the backstory behind this concept. There was a surreal moment when I found myself discussing Cuban pastries (pastelitos) with a Victorian English upper class lady in a bustled dress, and a robot.
     Not to mention that as you open the door, you enter a wondrous retail space, the aptly named Emporium, crammed with displays of all things sweet, moslty chocolate, and staff in period dress flashing those big theme park smiles and personalities.
     Let's not forget that there's food here too. The brown leather-bound, gold embossed book they call menu is busting with popular fare and a sprinkling of intriguing novelties like Chocolate Almond Bread with Salted Caramel Butter for an appetizer, or a Fire Grilled Pork Chop with Bitter Chocolate Mole Sauce, or Chocolate Brioche S'mores French Toast for brunch. This is the extreme tip of the iceberg, so if you visit, I encourage you to take time to review the menu carefully before you make your choices.
     After an enchanting visit to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, mecca for avid fans like me, this fantasy place offered the perfect finale to a magical day. Exhaustion precluded us from ordering overly complex dishes, but my Croque Monsieur offered melted Gruyere, crunchy toasted bread, and good country ham. What I never seem to get is enough Bechamel sauce. I'm starting to think my expectations are to high on this issue.
     John had a standard, or classic, as he calls it, cheddar bacon burger. For him, the brioche bun is all the luxury he needs. Although unremarkable, it satisfied his hunger. Our choices came with fries and sweet potato wedges. Both were also satisfying, but predictable. I'm ashamed to say that I let fatigue get the best of me, and I decided to forgo enticing items from the dessert menu like Brookies, Cookies and Cream, and Cream Puff and Eclair for the equally intriguing but less overwhelming Jacque's Specialty Milkshakes menu. I ordered the Heavenly Hazelnut and John tried the Key Lime Pie, and both were refreshing and comforting, but I feel they could've packed a stronger flavor punch.
     It's not gourmet dining, but the menu has something for everyone, and all of it is comforting and gratifying. Without a doubt, the Emporium is an experience that should not be missed. Fun for the whole family!

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Friday, June 1, 2018

Hash House A Go Go

     It is the self-professed home of twisted farm food. I say twisted, experimental, bold, even dangerous. My informant on this unconventional adventure was our server, Judy. She had just started working at Hash House but a few days before my visit, and was happy to share some of her most interesting observations. "I love working here. I'm proud of the product they offer." Judy has every reason to be proud.

     The first thing I noticed after the bright orange tractor that greets you as soon as you step inside was the odd way the tables were set. The napkins were placed in a crisscross pattern, and the utensils presented as farming implements ready for labor or swords ready for battle.
     The next source of pleasure came when I learned their monster breakfast installations were offered all day, and we all know that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, no matter what time you have it. And folks, this menu is epic. If you're a hard core foodie, it reads like Michener. I swear I could smell the farm freshness just from looking at the dish descriptions. I would feel sorry for you if your mouth didn't water at the words "Stuffed Hash House Meatloaf, with roasted red peppers, mozzarella, and marsala cream sauce." Marsala cream sauce, really? My apologies for drooling as I write. Or "Crispy Indiana Hand Hammered Pork Tenderloin Benedict on a massive biscuit dressed in yellow tomato, spinach, barbecue cream, and basted eggs." Pure poetry.
      John boldly faced the Sage Fried Chicken and Waffles, a massive tower of waffles, two fried chicken breasts, drizzled with a hot maple reduction, and fried leeks. The chicken was juicy and tender under the heavy breading, the waffles contained bacon, a favorite of John's, and I brazenly stole the fried leeks from his plate, and fell in love in a hurry. I see why this leviathan got the New York Times' seal of approval.
       Along with a divine Spiked Strawberry Kiwi Lemonade, I had the farm eggs Benedict with House smoked salmon and sundried tomatoes. I asked for a substitution of the chili cream for a Hollandaise, and I was told, almost in a whisper, that the chef/ kitchen manager, Andreas Feliciano, is peculiar about changes to his compositions. Anywhere else I would consider that a strike against the restaurant, but here it earns my respect. I totally understand that any alteration to these works of culinary art would be an artistic and unnecessary crime. I have this image of a mad scientist in an experimental kitchen, admiring his own creations in manic worship. Still, the kitchen staff did their best to accommodate me, removed the chili sauce, and gave me blue cheese dressing on the side. 
     Our dessert choice, Andy's famous bread pudding, was another audacious interpretation of an otherwise commonplace treat. It was warm, chocolatey, and mushy, which I like in bread pudding, especially with melting ice cream and chocolate sauce. And it was enormous. Six people would do it justice. We had to take three quarters of it home, and eat the ice cream or lose it.
     And on the subject of portion size, they are bordering on obscene. It's done on purpose to evoke a farmer's supper plate after a long workday on the farm. Hash House is what we think of as a dining experience, not just a restaurant. It's entertainment. It's exploration. It's unforgettable.

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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.
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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 LimeƱo, 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


     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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