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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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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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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.

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