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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Boater's Grill

     Finally! A beachy afternoon at the foot of my favorite lighthouse in Key Biscayne. I waited patiently for a weekend not plagued with Summer storms, and as soon as the weatherman gave the go-ahead, we were off! Sunset-painted skies, evening tropical breezes, the ocean as warm as bath water, a little sangria... This is why I live in Florida!
     As the sun continued its gentle farewell to the day, I set out to get my seafood fix. Boater's Grill sits high over an inlet in Key Biscayne called No Name Harbor, where vessels drift lazily in and out, which makes for a picturesque view from the restaurant deck. If you can coerce the mosquitoes into leaving you alone, the scene can be quite zen.
     And that's where the appeal ends for me. The portions were small, food presentation was sloppy, the price was arrogantly high and didn't even include a basket of bread on the table, and the waiter seemed inconvenienced by having to do his job.
     John wasn't feeling seafood so he ordered Chicken Fetuccini Alfredo. Surprisingly, their Alfredo sauce was not terrible. I ordered Shrimp Scampi with a side of black beans and yucca fritters. I got six unimpressive shrimp swimming in somewhat watery garlic sauce, beans that tasted like they were from a can, and totally bland yucca fritters.
     Been there, done that, blogged about it. Sailing on!

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Balans Bar & Grill

     It's Jackie's turn! One of my favorite restaurant-hopping companions is having a birthday and we must celebrate. The dining terrace at Dadeland Mall has four new eateries and we have tried them all except Balans, so this is the obvious choice. To my great Anglophilic delight, turns out this restaurant is originally from my beloved London. Across the pond, it's a popular and trendy chain frequented by yuppie English crowds.
     The restaurant is not expansive, but it's elegant and sleek in décor. Photographic murals of London landmarks adorn each of the two distinct areas of the space, mixed in with some Art Deco-inspired seating and lighting.
     As is customary when I chill with the girls, we started with cocktails. Liz ordered the Happy Sundae, which indeed contained happy juices such as Bailey's and butterscotch Schnapps. The birthday girl ordered her signature Cosmo, and I reluctantly ordered a lychee martini because I have a very hard time finding a bartender that can make it to my satisfaction. Today the odds were in my favor. With just a few specs, Barkeep John succeeded in making me smack my lips with pleasure. In fact, he made it a point to come to the table to make sure that the waiter had conveyed my instructions properly. Good call!
     For lunch, Jackie ordered the spinach and ricotta ravioli, Liz ordered the Indonesian noodles, and I chose the Reuben. Jackie's portion was generous, and the ravioli was covered in a creamy blue cheese sauce that was pungent in a good way for me, not so much for Jackie. I will say, though, that since blue cheese has so much 'personality', the dish didn't require as much sauce as was on the plate. It made it a little overwhelming.
     Liz's noodles were also generous for a lunch portion and the flavor sweet, satisfying and surprisingly not spicy at all, as most Asian dishes tend to be. I think my sandwich was the only notable disappointment.
     A Reuben is quite straightforward, and all the expected pieces of the puzzle were present- the roast beef, the Thousand Island dressing, the sauerkraut and the Swiss cheese, although this last element was almost absent. The menu indicated that the sandwich would be served in a toasted onion roll. I asked if they had any type of whole wheat or grain bread I could have as a substitution. The waitress said yes. My sandwich came hastily put together between two lifeless slices of rye bread. Not even close. The roast beef was plentiful and delicious, I will say that. The side fries were pedestrian at best.
     No birthday meal is complete without a dessert, so Jackie chose the Amaretto cheesecake. This was not a dessert for sharing. It was so silky and flavorful, it was hard to refrain from encroaching on each other's portions. I could've had one of those all to myself! Birthday Girl also ordered a bread pudding that was doused in crème anglaise and rum-soaked raisins. I'm not a bread pudding fan, but I took a taste and found it predictable except for the crème, which had a haunting hint of orange that puts this dessert on the map.
     Some aspects of this restaurant are excellent and worthy of another visit. Others need improvement. We're all a work in progress.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Smith & Wollensky

     It seems that everyone is familiar with this steakhouse except me, so John's birthday seemed the perfect opportunity to check it out, especially since steak is the best way to lure him into another foodie adventure. The location is the first thing this restaurant has going for it. It sits right on the edge of South Pointe, the southernmost tip of Miami Beach.
     The ocean views from their outdoor seating or the tables situated near the expansive windows are tropical and invigorating. High-rise condos tower on the other side of the inlet, jet skis cut white foam gashes on the turquoise water, fitness lovers walk, jog or ride bikes on a boardwalk framed by monumental rocks.
   
     I began lunch with a Blood Orange Mimosa and loved the Prosecco fizz, but being the unsophisticated drinker that I am, I couldn't take the added bitterness of the blood orange taste. This is in no way an indictment on the drink, but more on my juvenile preference for sweet alcoholic beverages. If it doesn't taste like a liquid Jolly Rancher or Tootsie Roll, I check out. Hubby was happy to finish the Mimosa for me.
     Their table bread is scrumptious. A flower-shaped loaf of meaty, sweet bread with just a hint of glaze, sprinkled with rosemary and Kosher salt, and served warm with whipped butter on the side. Oof! Too good!
     There was no question that we would be sampling their beef as that is what they're known for, and I don't think any establishment should call itself a 'steakhouse' if it can't deliver superb beef consistently. Both of us chose the Filet Mignon, medium-cooked, but prepared differently. John ordered it charbroiled and I the Gorgonzola-crusted. Smith & Wollensky is a steakhouse, alright. Their medium-cooked is a perfect shade of pink, as it should be, John's steak had the expected thin layer of charbroiled crust, and the beef is conservatively seasoned so "meat tastes like meat", like Hubby says.
     The Gorgonzola 'crust' on my steak turned out to be a creamy cover that wasn't too much or too little, but the ideal amount for each bite of meat to be complemented by the assertive flavor of the cheese. Every morsel of that steak was magic in my mouth.
     We ordered a sharing portion of Creamy Corn with Manchego as a side that I found silky and flavorful. Hubby didn't appreciate the presence of scallions and red peppers. His argument is that corn should not be in the company of other vegetables.  Uh... John, meet succotash.
     This was one instance in which I would make sure not to skip dessert. S&W's Coconut Layer Cake came with high recommendations and I was intent on trying it. Several components promised to make this cake extraordinary. The sponge cake is infused with Malibu Rum, the wafer or 'tuile' is crisp and together with the thick shavings of fresh coconut, adds a dramatic touch, and it's all served with a generous dollop of heavenly homemade coconut whipped cream. Sounds good, right? Not so fast. Sadly, the one weak link was the most critical- the sponge cake. It wasn't evenly moistened, so some bites were disappointingly drier and less flavorful than others. My mother-in-law's no-frills or tuiles coconut cake can give this one a run for its money on the flavor front.
     Generally speaking, I really liked the restaurant. They're not renowned for nothing. I wouldn't mind coming back, but for now, I can check it off my list.

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Latin House Burger & Taco Bar

     No other way to start than by saying BEST burger I've ever had in Miami, and I've been living here for 34 years! When I heard there was an award-winning burger place in my neighborhood, I couldn't get there fast enough.
     As you walk through the doors, you are greeted by a handsome bar with two flatscreen TVs, and two large seating areas open on each side of it. On the side where we sat, a bold mystical mural in deep, dramatic colors adorns the entire wall. Even more seating is available outside in the form of tall tables and cheerful red chairs. Based on all my observations and the buzz on their food, my conclusion is that this place attracts large crowds.
     Let me tell you about their menu... but where to begin? When my husband is faced with a menu of this magnitude, he becomes overwhelmed. For me, on the other hand, it feels like that moment when you first enter DisneyWorld- the possibilities are endless! I hadn't made my choice for this visit and I was already wondering what I would have next time.
     I'll mention some of the things that caught my attention, but I can only scratch the surface without turning this into a thesis. In the appetizer section I saw Calamari Blossoms with Asiago cheese, Tangled Love, potato crisps topped with avocado lime sauce, pico de gallo, cheese and your choice of protein, and Timba, fried queso blanco squares injected with guava marmalade.  (Big sigh!)
     I'll skip over the Main Event entrees section of the menu in spite of items with enticing names like Taqueria Calle Tacos (rumored to be the best in town) and Puffy Flatton. My ultimate destination was the Burger Love section. Eleven choices danced in front of me, every one more inviting than the next. You can choose from a quarter pound or half pound patty, but if you choose the half, they will split your portion into two adorable sliders (Muffin Tops, they call them) that can be two different menu selections! I was all over that!        
      John the Purist would not venture outside the boundaries of the classic burger so he ordered the Original, nothing to scoff about since this is the award-winner, and it's easy to see why. This is the classic but the 2.0 version, if you will: maple-glazed bacon, three cheeses, butter-grilled onions and mushrooms, crema (sour cream) and Avocado-lime sauce. See, this is what I call going above and beyond in attention to detail. This is what I mean when I say put love into your cooking. I don't think I'll ever forget Hubby's face when I gave him the "well?" look. His eyes widened, his lips fought a smile while working on a mouthful of deliciousness, and his head gave a serious nod of approval.
     I of course, took the opportunity to sample two burgers and ordered my half-pounder split into the Cuban, with guava marmalade and Queso Blanco, and the American, similar in construction to John's Original. The ingredients in each married blissfully. A note about the meat: Latin House is not secretive about their formula for rich, juicy, savory patties. They use a mixture of ground sirloin, chuck and brisket, and it does set these burgers apart from the mundane.
     A special mention must be made of the sides. John ordered fries and got the most ethereal potato shavings, lightly fried and yet perfectly brown around the edges. How do they do that?! I ordered the Sweet Petals, and if I liked sweet potatoes before, these crisps have taken my devotion to a whole other level.
So delicate, so ambrosial, they melt in your mouth right after the crunch. So addictive!
     I can't close without talking about Willy, our waiter. A would-be stand-up comedian who infuses his mordant style into the presentation of the history and menu of the joint. Before he begins, he warns, only half-jokingly, that no interruptions or questions are allowed until he's done. You don't know whether to be indignant or amused.
     Casual food can have flair and demonstrate inventiveness in preparation, presentation and even menu design. Latin House proves that the dining experience can be adventurous and amusing regardless of price range. I rest my case.

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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

94th Aero Squadron Restaurant

     In the interest of honoring my magnificent husband on Father's Day, I took a break from my month-long birthday celebration to take John to brunch. There's been a rumor circling around town that this restaurant has a budget-friendly yet lavish Sunday brunch, and this was the perfect opportunity to investigate. I'd been there once before over twenty years ago for a bridal shower, so this was a day of rediscovery.
     The Squadron was understandably packed, but since we had reservations, we only waited five minutes to be seated. Fortunate, because the waiting line was overwhelming. I found the decor whimsical and successful in recreating a wartime European farm, complete with bales of hay, an antique plow, a silo, military trucks, and strategically situated weaponry, seemingly at the ready.
     And that was just outside! Indoors the theme
continued with wartime posters, lighting fixtures in the shape of airplanes, aircraft wings hanging from the ceilings, and stone arches and fireplaces.
   When a buffet brunch begins with unlimited Mimosas, we're starting off on the right foot!
     Now, to say that the variety of dishes available was wide is an understatement. Beef, pork, ham, and chicken each prepared in at least three different ways; crab legs, shrimp, oysters, and my best friend that afternoon, a stunning Valencian Seafood Paella done to perfection. The taste of the sea was potent and satisfying, the texture of the rice was ideally pulpy, not too soppy, not too loose, and it made the perfect home for the usual inhabitants- lobster, mussels, cuttlefish, shrimp, all living together in mouthwatering harmony.

     A garden of different salads covered an entire wall- hearts of palm, pasta, couscous, Chinese chicken, potato, mixed greens, and various others. A mountain of bread pieces of every type imaginable, including some I didn't recognize, rose over a corner table flanked by another table with an extensive selection of cheeses, hard, soft, and spreadable.
     During my reconnaisance walk,
I peeked under each of the roll top chafers standing at attention in perfect formation, and I found more surprises awaiting- lamb stew (Estofado), salmon, Island Rice, stuffed pasta shells, lasagna, fried plantains, corn tamales, and fall-from-the-bone barbecue ribs.
     For breakfast food lovers (who isn't?) a small open kitchen is designated exclusively for the preparation of waffles, omelettes, Eggs Benedict and home fries, all to order.
   
     Sweets were displayed at several locations within the restaurant. A table dedicated to coffee included breakfast and danish pastries as well as mini-muffins. A shoehorn-shaped table burst generously with cheesecakes, carrot cakes, brownies, blondies, several different chocolate cakes, flan, rice pudding, and at the center, a chocolate fountain with marshmallows, strawberries, and lady fingers ready to be dipped in the velvety flow.
     There are certain repercussions to serving unlimited Mimosas. Patrons can potentially get so comfortable that they feel compelled to take the microphone from the keyboard player and regale the helpless audience with hilariously sloppy renditions of Frank Sinatra and Olga Guillot classics. When John and I were first seated right next to the music, we thought it would inhibit our conversation, but as it turned out, we had front seats to the impromptu portion of the entertainment. Some people have real guts, and I applaud them for it. We got brunch and a show!
     I'm faced with a dilemma- There's a place in Miami Beach that I believe provides the quintessential brunch experience. It's called La Gloutonnerie and I have mentioned it before in passing. My feelings about it haven't changed, but my purse strings and my heart strings are intimately connected, and the 94th Squadron offers a very respectable brunch for a very reasonable price. I suppose you can never have enough good places to brunch.

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Sunday, July 6, 2014

2014 Kitchen Experiment #5 - No-Bake Cheesecake

     It works! I was skeptical, but I'm a believer now. Courtesy of my daughter Laura, this no-brainer of a recipe is a quick 'go to' when the cheesecake craving hits and 'from scratch' just won't do.
     Six simple ingredients, one of them optional: one can of condensed milk, eight ounces of softened cream cheese, one tablespoon of vanilla extract, 1/8 of a cup of lemon juice, a graham cracker pie crust, and a can of fruit in syrup, if you so desire.
     Mix everything together but the fruit until smooth, pour on the pie crust. That's it! It even starts to set before you refrigerate it. The flavor is rich, the texture is silky and caresses your palate. Craving crisis averted!
     I made the mistake of buying an extra-large crust without making adjustments to the rest of the ingredients, and my mixture was too thin and barely made it to the edge of the tin. I had to spoon the servings on the plates rather than cut neat slices. Didn't stop my 86-year-old mother from licking the plate clean, though!



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Saturday, July 5, 2014

Russian Tea Room

     Just the name of this iconic place, situated right next to Carnegie Hall, conjures images of celebrities, artists, and politicians sharing ideas and debating issues while wining and dining in elegant surroundings for the past 80 years. Founded by members of the Russian Imperial Ballet, the restaurant has changed hands many times, and has been given several different purposes throughout its life. It closed in 2002 after declaring bankruptcy and, reopened in 2006.
     As soon as you enter the opulent space, a field of red lavish booths greets you with the promise of a luxurious experience in a Russian salon circa the late 1800s. The waiters are dressed in black shirts closely resembling Russian peasant attire. The walls are bejeweled by elegant artwork and shiny samovars, the traditional teapots of Russia.
     Our decision to visit The Russian Tea Room was not planned, and we didn't have reservations. However, when I called them already en route, they encouraged us to come and welcomed us warmly when we arrived. We had dinner a bit late so we left without visiting the gift shop or the other three floors, which I understand are as interesting as the first. I would really like to go back for brunch or lunch perhaps, and tour the entire place.
     I took a deep breath of the Continental air as I sat in my extravagant booth, and promptly ordered a Chocotini while John boldly stepped out of his comfort zone and ordered a Baltika 7, beer straight from St. Petersburg. My drink offered a satisfying blend of alcohol and chocolaty sweetness, and John's beer had the distinct hint of bitterness he expected from a Lager.
     We certainly got caught up in the Russian motif when ordering entrees. John had the Boeuf à la Stroganoff and I picked the Chicken Kiev. Hubby found it satisfying but wasn't blown away, and in his apathy, he paid my braised beef recipe a compliment. "Yours is better." He's a keeper.
     My chicken had a lot of potential. The crust on the generous breast was light and perfectly crisp, but the flavor of the meat was slightly bland, as in the apricot jasmine rice on which it rested. Apricot is a pretty distinctive flavor, and I had difficulty finding it. The fig compote held the most promise, and it delivered, except it was cold... was it supposed to be cold? This mix of soft stewed figs and white raisins in its naturally rendered syrup is the perfect match to the juicy chicken, but it would've been much more comforting had it been warm.
     The dishes were hearty and filling, and as I said, dinner was a bit later than is our habit, so we opted out of dessert. I did, however, take a cursory look at the available selections and didn't see anything that jumped out at me. No matter. I know I will be back and have another turn at their fascinating menu.

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Friday, July 4, 2014

Tony's Di Napoli

     Benvenuti a New York! Birthday month continued with a bang. You can't beat a long weekend in the Big Apple to extend the celebration, which now included John's special day as well. We planned a small family reunion with some relatives from New Jersey, and Tony's is the perfect family-style eatery right off Broadway and 43rd. Street, in the heart of Times Square.
     I have looked assiduously for a place like this in Miami, and I am sorry to say I haven't been able to replicate the feeling I get when I'm at Tony's. The closest I've come is Maggiano's and that was in Atlanta. But even there, the scent of franchise seeps into the experience. When you walk through the door at Tony's, you know you're about to be treated and fed like family and with friendly sophistication. There's always a celebratory air- every meal is a party.
     Tables of all sizes accommodate parties of any number and are covered in red-checkered and white tablecloths. Walls full of pictures feature recesses full of wine bottles. The restrooms in the basement remind me of every restaurant in Italy, and their unmistakable huge chalkboard menus look down on the joyous patrons.

     John and I arrived early and waited for the family at the bar. A stunningly beautiful lady bartender took our orders of a Corona for Hubby and a deliciously sweet and potent frozen Bellini for me. Let me just say, I was the life of the party after only one delicious drink!
     We began with the most delectable mountain of fried calamari with Marinara and Fra Diavolo (for the spice lovers) sauces on the side. For entrees, we all agreed on family platters of Chicken Marsala, spaghetti with Marinara, and Shrimp Fra Diavolo.
     I didn't try the shrimp, but those who did
were making satisfied noises, so I concluded that it met expectations. The chicken was stupendous and covered in copious amounts of mushrooms, the Marsala sauce rich in flavor, yet light in texture. In fact, I will confess that when the sauce accidentally touched one of my calamari, the combination was surprisingly pleasant. I know most people wouldn't agree, but I like to experiment with unlikely fusions. I was so intrigued by my new creation, Calamari Marsala, that I totally passed on the spaghetti.
     We were all so full at the end of the meal, that we didn't order any dessert, to my great disappointment. It would've been fun to see a huge platter of Tiramisu, Chocolate Mousse Cake or Ricotta Cheesecake in the middle of our table. No worries... it's New York. I'll be back.

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