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Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Mt. Washington Tavern

      Temperatures take a dip, I see everything through pumpkin-colored glasses, and my steps crunch on the ground covered in red and amber leaves. All this heralds the best time of the year. If you have to visit Baltimore, now is the time, the window between the humid end of the summer and the wet beginning of winter. Add a little wedding dress shopping, and you have yourself an exciting weekend getaway.
     Yes, my 26-year-old daughter, Laura, is getting married next year to a true Prince Charming. I couldn't have wished for a better son-in-law. That makes me grateful. He's also a native Baltimorean who knows all the trendy eateries in the city. That makes me giddy with anticipation.
     The Tavern, a neighborhood staple, was established in 1979, went through a major overhaul after a massive fire that pretty much flattened it in 2011. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, it reemerged in 2012 to reclaim its place as an area favorite. Its Chesapeake Bay-inspired coastal decor is bright and welcoming yet casually elegant in a way that makes you want to dress up a little when you visit.
     The menu offered too many enticing options, a problem I don't mind having. Our table was adorned by Stone Ground Cheddar Grits, Prime Rib Cheesesteak, Cuban Panini, Truffle Fries, Jumbo Lump Crab Dip, and Three-Beef Chili. The grits were lumpy and satisfying, although I wished for a stronger cheddar punch. The cheesesteak-filled hoagie provided soft, juicy bites with the subtle sweetness of the grilled onions as a bonus. The Cuban garnered respect, although I must admit I had my doubts about whether it would be executed to the same level as they are in Miami.
     The creamy crab dip screams 'comfort' as soon as you see it in the deep bowl covered in a sheet of steaming melted cheese escorted by thick baguette slices. The chili carried a promise in its name, but didn't quite deliver. We expected a hearty beef flavor, understandably, but it just wasn't there. Dare I say, it was even bland. That was probably the most disappointing dish. On the other hand, the fries made it all better. Fried to crusty perfection, a mountain of thin potatoes, with its Asiago-covered peak, arrived to put a smile on my face.
     It was our last day in Baltimore, and we made it an early night in expectation of a busy travel day. The dessert menu was left unexplored. Also, to be honest, I didn't want to tackle that with the sadness of having to go back to the real world. Dessert must be addressed with proper focus and attitude. The probability that I will return to this cheerful place and play some more with their menu is 100%!

BB Free ©2016

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Crimson Moon

     Dahlonega, GA... musicians' favorite gig? Turns out, yes. The Parker-Nix Storehouse, home of The Crimson Moon, was built in 1858 as a general store, and it's the oldest commercial building in the town square. It has even been romanticized by the locals as a once-upon-a-time mythical house of ill-repute. Today, it seems the acoustics provided by the wood interior is favored by club-circuit musicians. It's like playing inside a giant acoustic guitar, I guess.
     We arrived on a lazy Sunday afternoon, and the place was nearly empty. A lone guitar player, Jason Childs, was finishing a set. We sat right in front of the stage and enjoyed his last two songs. I joked with John, a prodigious guitar player himself, that I wish he would be the type to just jump on stage and jam with the talent. As if pixie dust had fallen on us, Jason turned to John and started a conversation with him about guitars which soon led to an offer to try out several instruments. What followed was a dream come true for me. I know what a gifted musician (disguised as a CPA) I married. I just want to share that with everyone everywhere we go. That made our visit to this groovy joint a highlight of our Georgia getaway weekend.
     The food wasn't bad either. Not award-winning, but appropriate for the venue and atmosphere. We ordered the Fab & Fancy grilled cheese sandwich, The Moon's Burger, and the BBQ Plate. My sandwich was generous, prepared on good whole wheat bread and containing plenty of crispy bacon and caramelized onions. What it lacked was cheese. The menu promised two cheeses, but all I could find was one slice of a cheese I couldn't recognize, and which evidently had a hard time melting on the grill. I didn't get that gooey experience you associate with a grilled cheese sandwich. Not 'Fab' at all. More like a 'Fancy' BLT.
     Once again, John gave in to his burger addiction only to be disappointed. All his usual ingredients were there, the mushrooms, the onions, the cheese, the bacon, but the flavor and execution fell short. I admire my husband for his perseverance. I would've given up on the quest a long time ago, and only trusted my favorite to tried and true establishments, but his hope springs eternal.
     Both the sandwiches were satisfying even if not captivating, but the BBQ plate earned the menu some points. A hearty portion of pulled pork in heirloom barbecue sauce, came with a thick, buttery slice of Texas toast, battered fries, and a kicky pineapple slaw.
     I could see myself returning to this intimate, friendly setting to enjoy performances by their accomplished visiting musicians, and even savoring the food, as long as I keep my expectations in check.

BB Free ©2016

Monday, November 28, 2016

Victoria Gastro Pub

     The menu is varied and the atmosphere lively. The drinks are sophisticated and the intent to please perceptible. Those are certainly necessary features for a grastro pub, but they are not what captivated me at this suburban Baltimore spot. Instead, it was the commitment to celebrating London's Victoria Station and its environs in the decor. Tudor archways, velvet draperies, Renaissance chandeliers and banners festoon the dusky space.
     Victoria Gastro Pub's cocktail and draft beer menu offers a lovely selection of libations, every inventive name a lure toward investigation. The Flying Dog Horchata Lager and the Lagunitas Stoopid Wit made great conversation points, but John finally settled on the Bell's Amber Ale with a little citrus, a little caramel, a little bitterness. I ordered the Violet Beauregard martini with its promised sweetness from its muddled blueberries, Veev Acai liqueur, blueberry juice and Limoncello. Both our selections were solid, but neither caused any satisfied lip-smacking.

     We sampled a good cross-section of the brunch and dinner menus. As an introduction, small biscuits and butter arrive nestled in brown paper. Biscuits are always a welcome sight for John, but these were so dense, they stuck stubbornly to the roof and corners of your mouth. 
     We ordered the lobster grilled cheese, the Victoria Pub Black Angus burger, the mascarpone stuffed challah French toast, and the salmon Rosti, a combination of smoked salmon, eggs sunny side up, over a Gruyere potato cake, and dill creme fraiche. The lobster grilled cheese contained a Brie fondue with bits of Maine lobster and plenty of flavor. John found his burger disappointing. It was cooked slightly over his desired medium and bland. I've warned him about pursuing burgers in a place that doesn't specialize in them or has no reputation for them, but he won't listen. His argument is, if he doesn't try, how will he find hidden burger treasures? Fair enough.
     The Rosti was the quintessential brunch dish. However, the eggs were just a bit overcooked, so I didn't get that silky burst of egg yolk to penetrate the nooks and crannies of the potato cake and gently touch the salty salmon. Individually, all the elements were acceptable, but that little detail would have made it come together.
     The French toast was the best of our selections. Thick slabs of challah bread with blue and blackberry compote, vanilla whipped cream, and orange flower maple syrup combined to create a fresh, light, and addictive flavor pallette.
     Don't think the abundance of dishes on our table discouraged us from perusing the dessert menu. I was curious about the Tiramisu trifle, but John theorized that it was just Tiramisu in a glass, and in his world, that's just wrong. We decided to sample the brownie-bottom cheesecake. It was satisfying but predictable. In fact, I will confess that at this writing, I'd forgotten we had it until I found the picture in my phone. A sweet nothing, if you will. 
     Victoria Gastro Pub is the kind of place you want near home. It may not offer menu sensations, but it's a go-to spot where you're sure to get consistently satisfying fare in cozy yet elegant surroundings.

BB Free @2016


Thursday, October 27, 2016

Havana 1957

     The Cuban restaurant field in Miami is crowded, to say the least, and competition is fierce. To stand out in this contest, you can either go forward and innovate, or you can capitalize on the element of nostalgia. Havana 1957 impresses with its striking nightclub environment, a traditional Cuban menu, and a spirited live music show that is quickly becoming a favorite among the great Cuban population. That said, this native Cuban always looks for a certain flavor that will conjure memories of that special seasoning in my mother's and my numerous aunts' cooking. I have found it before, but not here.

     We ordered two cocktails we believed would be executed to perfection considering the context, an orange Mojito, or Orangito, and a mango Daiquiri. John said the Mojito had a hint of orange in the rum, and it was sweet, as expected. My $11 Daiquiri, however, was no more than a glorified mango pulp slushie. I've had better and cheaper.
     I live for gastronomic experimentation, but when it comes to Cuban food, there's a standard that must be met for me to consider it good. It's a generational benchmark set a long time ago by a group of masterful women who ruled in the kitchen. For that reason, when I visit a Cuban eatery, I have to go for the staples. John ordered the 'vaca frita', refried shredded beef and sauteed onions, with rice and black beans for sides. I ordered pork chunks, also with sauteed onions, in the company of black beans and 'tostones', or plantain fritters.
John's vaca frita was arguably one of the best I've had. It was well seasoned and tender, a quality not easy to achieve with refried beef. My pork chunks were average. The flavor was forgettable, and they were just a bit overcooked. The tostones were perfectly suited for the pork chunks- toasted right, but not accompanied by any 'mojo', the traditional garlic oil marinade for your dipping pleasure.
     The dessert menu offered the expected flans, guava cheesecake, and Tres Leches (Three Milks), a moist yellow cake that has been soaked in a mixture of whole, evaporated, and condensed milks. We skipped the course for two reasons. First, we weren't thrilled with the meal, and second, we were on the hunt for a concoction we'd heard about in a different restaurant called Nutella Overdose. I will leave the details on that for a forthcoming post, but the name says it all.
     Havana 1957 came highly recommended, and I do believe their live music and performances offer entertainment with a unique Cuban flavor. That and the nostalgic feel of the space are the elements that would entice me back, but sadly, not the food.
BB Free ©2016

Saturday, October 1, 2016


     Take an old riverfront warehouse, refit it with an industrial air duct system painted a delicate ivory, and treat the dock roll up doors with royal blue velvet drapes. Fill the space with furniture mixing shabby chic and nautical styles, and add a well-executed global cuisine menu with emphasis on fresh seafood, and the result is a sophisticated hot spot with views of the Miami skyline. All types of vessels, some enormous, parade so close to the outdoor seating, you might feel a gentle spray in their wake.
     Even before I took the first bite, Seaspice earned my respect. When we were seated, I placed my purse and my camera bag on the floor careful to keep it out of the way. The shape of the chairs did not facilitate hanging anything from them. Almost immediately a server appeared with an elegant wrought iron floor stand for hanging shopping bags, purses, briefcases and such. While practical for everyone, I think whoever came up with this idea, is a friend to the female of the species. Already delighted with this little detail, I was psychologically predisposed to like this place. There was an instant of panic when I remembered that the food, ultimately the main factor, might not live up to expectations. Perish the thought!
     Lately we've been on a roll where cocktails are concerned. Today was a good day for me again. A very good day. I had the Kiwi Elyx, a simple mixture of vodka, fresh kiwi, ginger, and lychee, of course lychee being the selling point. This made the end of summer even brighter. Fresh, sweet, and spicy in a perfect balance. John tried the blueberry sangria made with Sauvignon blanc, blueberry, and strawberry orange. I found it light and ideal for brunch, though not quite bold enough for a full meal. It would be hard for any sangria to follow our recent discovery of Chef Adrianne's masterpiece version. It was too soon.
     We began with a yellow tomato gazpacho and a cheese souffle for appetizers. Every time I think of that gazpacho, I get a strong craving for it. It was light and full of flavor, and every spoonful felt like a fresh breeze to my palate. This is the perfect summer soup, and it was smartly garnished with tiny pieces of chilled cucumber and red onion. A perfect combination of flavors.
     The souffle was intriguing. The texture was redolent of panna cotta and the flavor so muted, it bordered on indistinct. The panic returned until I coupled the souffle with the Parmesan cream that dressed it. Suddenly, the dish came to life. I took a moment to take some pictures, and when I came back for a second taste, John had inhaled it. I didn't even get a chance to mix it with the curious tomato jam that shared space on the plate.
     Then came the prime rib sandwich au jus with horseradish cream. The beef slices were tender and generous, the horseradish cream was an aioli with a pleasant little kick, but the au jus part sent me into rapture. The rich, savory oil stained the bread a bright, delicious orange, and infused it with buttery flavor.
    I ordered the fish and chips, crispy, glistening Atlantic cod, potato ribbons, and classic tartar sauce. And by the way, I suppose 'classic' means the predictable mayonnaise, sweet pickle relish, and minced onion, but the Seaspice version is thick and seasoned to stand out. Not a drop was left in the serving cup.
     I consider myself pretty savvy when it comes to food. I still have a lot to learn, but I can hold my own in a sophisticated conversation about the topic. On this day, dessert blew my mind. Simply mic-dropping sensational. Both the Mango Shortcake and the Guanajo Chocolate Cremoso brought a complexity to the table that garnered special props to the pastry chef, Jill Montiola. There were elements of molecular gastronomy in these confections which showed careful planning and a drive toward experimentation and innovation. The shortcake bites came in the company of cardamom Chantilly cream dots and mango lassi ice cream. The Cremoso was surrounded by cocoa nib crumble and seaweed snow that vanished as soon as it touched my lips leaving only a playful pop of flavor.
     I had fun today. The surroundings were bright and stylish, my drink was refreshing and titillating, the food solid and flavorful, and dessert was a stimulating sensory and intellectual experience. I like to learn while I play, and I LOVE to play with my food!

BB Free ©2016


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Chef Adrianne's Vineyard Restaurant & Wine Bar

     At the age of 22, Chef Adrianne Calvo opened this diminutive speck in the culinary sky, in an unlikely strip mall, in a totally non-commercial suburb of Miami. You could say the odds of achieving success were not the best. But talent knows nothing of odds, and Chef Adrianne has a refined gastronomic talent, no question about that. Nine years later, the restaurant is in the same place, and it's always packed to bursting, whether for lunch or dinner. I'd say she beat those odds fair and square.

     We begin with two different types of sangria, a white wine with passion fruit, and a red wine with pomegranate. Both have been added to the very exclusive list of my favorite alcoholic drinks. I expected the white wine version to be honey-sweet, and yet it had a hint of citrus that tempered the sweetness. I expected the pomegranate to give the red wine version a tart aftertaste, but instead I was gifted with a bright wine gently touched by a fruity finish. It's been a few days since our visit, and I still sigh at the memory.

     The tender veal and prosciutto meatballs with whipped ricotta and white truffle delight the palate, and they come swaddled in the most robust and luscious marinara sauce. My first tiptoe into the world of tartar is a happy one. Three amuse-bouche-sized crispy wontons topped with yellow fin tuna and shallot caper cream are light yet full of flavor. My only lament is that I only got three. I could eat a tray of these without an ounce of regret.
     The free range chicken braised in wine was tender, and the sauce naturally enhanced the flavor of the bed of mashed potatoes that held the chicken, carrots and leeks. John's filet mignon tips au poivre (pepper steak) was served with a cognac dijon and crispy onions. This meat was also tender and flavorful, although the cognac dijon was a little too subtle. It was velvety and pleasant, but I wanted that cognac bite, and hard as I tried, I couldn't find it. And John also searched in vain for the peppercorns. This dish, I noticed, also came on a bed of mashed potatoes. I wondered why the chef would design two out of three dishes on the short Miami Spice prix fixe menu using the same accessory. I asked our server what the side was on the third option, a brown sugar crusted salmon, and the answer was... guess- potatoes! That felt a bit lazy to me. A nice risotto, some roasted vegetables, maybe a little polenta... so many ideas come to mind to give each dish a little more individuality.
     Dessert was an easy decision. The only choice on the menu was a dark chocolate Nutella croissant bread pudding served with vanilla ice cream and chocolate ganache. So many things are lovely in that description, but the angels in heaven sang so loud when I read Nutella, I didn't notice anything else. Again, the cute little bowl that was delivered contained a rich mixture of beloved flavors. Every bite was like hugging a puppy. That's the best way I can describe it. Hubby liked it too, but spent the rest of the day pouting over the small size of the bowl and its contents.
     Before we left, we took a peek at the regular menu and found some items were priced equally to other comparable restaurants, but some were downright overpriced. The service was exemplary, the food of high quality and expertly prepared without a doubt, but nothing was unique or stood out enough to warrant the inflated prices. John and I love the location because it's but a stone's throw from home, and while we would love to make Chef Adrianne a regular in our weekend rotation of eateries, we couldn't justify the cost. But I will gladly return... some day.

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