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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 PiƱa 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.

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