Friday, April 20, 2018

Shuckers Who Know How To Shuck

I recently read an excellent review of Baytenders Oyster Bar & Steamer at 4400 4th Street in St. Pete. I was inspired by that review to give Baytenders a try and I am glad I did.

We arrived a little after the four o'clock opening and were offered either indoor or outdoor seating. Since outdoors was close to the traffic on 4th Street we chose indoors. Amanda was our charming server who promptly brought our much needed drink orders.

After determining that Baytenders knew a thing or two about shucking and serving oysters on the half shell I was compelled to order a dozen. Holy moly, that was a pleasant surprise! Baytenders does know a thing or two. The oysters were freshly shucked, they were not mangled and they were not dipped in nasty water washing away that salty liquor. Those Texas oysters were, in a word, perfect.

My bride and I shared an appetizer, the decadent Maryland Baked Crab Dip. This rich presentation was loaded with crab. Again, perfection on a platter!

The Belle of Gulf Boulevard continued on her food journey with an order of fresh Florida Grouper Nuggets with sides of new potatoes and cheese grits. She brought a little of everything home in a box. It was too good to waste, but that crab dip was most filling.

I rounded off my dining experience with a huge bowl of Joe Island Steamed Clams. The perfectly steamed clams were swimming in a white wine and garlic broth with toast points for sopping.

Magic, the manager, and his staff provided us with a most delightful dining adventure. All food and several adult beverages came to a reasonable $87.75.

Baytenders Oyster Bar & Steamer Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Another Culinary Treasure In Downtown St. Pete

Fantastic dinner with friends at Il Ritorno in DTSP. Besides the food and service I was impressed to discover that "Chef David entered the restaurant business at just 13 years old, as a busboy at Villa Gallace on Indian Rocks Beach." Villa Gallace is a neighborhood venue for us beach folk.

The four of us had front row seats looking in on the precision of the gastronomic ballet playing out in front of us. Dayna, our delightful server, presented us with a bottle of Anica Chardonnay for the dainty damsels and superb Le Volte Super Tuscan for us manly men.

We started with appetizers of Steamed Mussels with lamb nduja (a spicy, spreadable salumi from Italy) caramelized onions and Calabrese chili, Spring Salad with a variety of veg and crispy pork jowls: my bride and I shared the Smoked Dry Aged Carpaccio.

Our entrees included Chef's Cast Iron Steak (I had the bone-in filet), Lamb Spaghetti, Capellini Nero and Pork Saltimbocca. While nary a discouraging word was uttered about any of the entrees, my personal favorites were the Capellini Nero on a bed of squid ink pasta, and the Lamb Spaghetti.

Wine, appetizers and entrees for four came to $314.58.

Il Ritorno Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sunday, April 1, 2018

ROAD TRIP: Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach

Let me start our journey with the admission that we live on an island, with a beach. To some, it may defy reason for us to take a mini-vacation to a different island that also has a beach. There was a perfectly plausible reason for this trip. There was a recent article about the oldest bars in each state on the Internet. Of course, I had to look up Florida's oldest bar. That would be the Palace Saloon in Fernandina Beach. There you have it! What better reason to go on a road trip than to visit a bar?

The first leg of our trip was probably the hardest and it seemed like the longest. Getting from Indian Shores to I-275 and then on to I-75 out of Tampa has become a freakin' nightmare. Gandy Bridge to Westshore has become a parking lot due to the new construction around the old Imperial Yacht Basin. It doesn't seem as though anyone can get on the Howard Frankenstein without screwing up somehow. The Courtney Campbell Causeway felt left out so traffic there was constipated. We delayed our departure until almost 10 o'clock and still ... molasses.

Sparky's Place

Up near Ocala I decided to get out of the stop and go traffic and cut across the state on SR 40 through the Ocala National Forest. A bit past noon we heard ominous noises from inside the cab of Gussie, our trusty Chevy. Thankfully it wasn't Gussie, it was stomach grumblings and just then, out of the blue (actually, the green of the forest) we spied Sparky's Place ... "JUST A FEW PAW PRINTS WEST OF THE ST JOHNS RIVER 24646 STATE ROAD 40, ASTOR FLORIDA ."

Krystal greeted us at the door as we mentioned that we didn't have reservations. She looked at several empty tables and gave us that look that the local folks everywhere give to people they know aren't from around these parts. With a giggle and a grin Krystal brought us a couple medicinal beers.

For lunch, my bride had the homemade baked potato soup with a garden salad. Other than the fact that the soup was blissfully good, my bride was overwhelmed by the bucket-sized Sparky's soup bowl.

Since it appeared to be a Sparky's specialty I decided to burger myself up with a Sparky's Burger - an 8 ounce hand patted burger mixed with peppers and onions smothered ... let me emphasize smothered ... with cheddar cheese.

That juicy burger with an apron of grilled cheese was one of the best meals I had on this trip. I waddled out the door and pondered a nap in the shade of a forest pine. We had 6 o'clock dinner reservations in Fernandina so it was back on the road again for us.

The Hampton Inn and Suites Amelia Island Historic Harbor

We made it through Jacksonville without incident only to wind up in monster traffic snarl on A1A leading on to the island and our ultimate goal, Fernandina Beach. Let me pause here for a few moments to clear up any misconceptions.

Amelia is the island. On the east shore is the Atlantic Ocean and the island's beaches. Fernandina Beach didn't have a beach that we ever saw. Fernandina Beach is the town on the island. There is a historic district on the west side and that is where we were headed.

The Hampton is smack dab in the historic district adjacent to the harbor. Most everything we wanted to see, eat and drink was within easy walking distance. We only had to move the car once and that was because Uber is pretty much non-existent.

In addition to location we chose the Hampton because our king room had a fireplace and a Jacuzzi.

A tasty dinner with a couple bottles of wine, a fire and a relaxing soak in the tub brought our first day to a relaxing close.

The Palace Saloon

After checking in at the hotel we made our first stop, the raison d'être for even being on the island.

"Between 1880-1910 Fernandina's docks were among the busiest in the south. Basking in her heyday, she welcomed ships from the far corners of the globe. Of the many saloons that lined the lively streets of the harbour district - and there were over 20 at the time - only one bore the distinction of being the "Shipcaptain's Bar." and that was the Palace."

In the late 1800's there was an even older bar, but that bar was sold with the stipulation that alcohol would never again be served on the premises. The Palace Saloon then is the last of the old-timers still standing and serving the thirsty traveler.

On the first day at the bar we met some fellow veterans. We all bought rounds of drinks and told war stories and other tales. The next day we secured seats at the bar and were able to trade lies and tall tales with George, the tender of the bar. George paused for a moment and said, "See that guy that just walked in? He's the mayor of Fernandina Beach." It turns out that George was also the mayor's campaign manager.

We were told that the mayor also tends bar at the Palace, and according to legend has been spotted mopping up the bar after closing while being drunk as a skunk and butt-nekkid. Without verification I'd have to think that was a tall tale, but it did make me think that our mayor, Mayor Pat, of Indian Shores needs to step up his game and get a little beach cred. Maybe work a shift or two at Mahuffer's.

España Restaurant and Tapas

A few blocks from our hotel we found España. Several couples were ahead of us trying to secure a table. When the hostess looked at us I mentioned our reservations and we were immediately escorted to a table. Reservations are so necessary these days.

After the very filling lunch at Sparky's neither of us was starved so we decided to stick with tapas and wine. We chose a superb Garzon Sauvignon Blanc from Uruguay.

This Sauvignon Blanc combines citrus and fruity notes with a delicate presence of passion flower. There is a distinct minerality, freshness and vibrancy and it definitely complimented my Buquerones - fresh anchovies marinated in EVOO, vinegar, parsley and presented on toasts with an olive for accent.

I followed the anchovies with Chorizo Encebollado (sausage and onions) - sliced Portuguese sausage sautéed with onions and flambéed with brandy. This was a rich and very flavorful tapa.

My dining partner and number one traveling companion chose the Beef Enchilada Special with goat cheese, a filling and delectable presentation.

Since the Uruguayan wine was so tasty and we needed something to sip while we soaked in the Jacuzzi back at the hotel we asked our server, Justin, to bring us a to-go bottle. He broke the seal and bagged our wine and away we went.

A Walk-a-bout In Historic Fernandina Beach

After a forgettable, but free, hotel breakfast we began our first full day with a tour of the waterfront. One of the first sights we saw was the train depot. A Florida historical marker in front of the old railroad depot reads as follows: "The Florida Railroad Company was incorporated January 8, 1853, with David L. Yulee as president. The line received both federal and state land grants. Despite early financial difficulties, construction was begun from Fernandina, where the main office was located, in 1856. The Final trackage to Cedar Key was lain March 1, 1861, and Florida had its first cross-state railroad."

The depot now houses the Chamber of Commerce and is no longer used for railroad purposes. I wondered to myself if the tracks were still being used. The answer came to me at exactly 11:38 that night as a freight train whistled and chugged past our hotel, and from somewhere I thought I could hear Cousin Vinnie screaming.

After snapping a couple pictures I turned toward town and maybe another stop at the Palace Bar. I thought my bride was at my side, but she wasn't. "Oh, hell, where did she wander off to now?" I found her chatting up one of the locals. I'm sure Mr. Yulee appreciated her arm on his knee

The town of Fernandina Beach is quaint and picturesque with tree lined streets, quirky shops and ancient homes. More than once I was reminded of Key West as it used to be 40 or 50 years ago.

The Patio Place

Lunch time was fast approaching so we sauntered over to Ash Street and The Patio Place, a bistro and creperie I found while surfing the 'net.

The Patio Place is located a few blocks away from Fernandina's Centre Street, their equivalent to Duval in Key West. As in Key West, the tourists rarely stray from the main drag. Except for a few locals, we had the place and our delightful server, Nicholas, to ourselves.

We ordered a Tiger Beer for me and a Chardonnay Latour for she as we relaxed in the cool, shady dining area.

For her noon time repast my bride decided on the Classic Brittany - egg, ham and Monterrey jack cheddar served the classic French way – sunny side up in the crêpe.

I was intrigued by the Tango - Argentina spiced tri-tip steak, onions and spinach, topped with chimichurri sauce and tomato jam.

Both crepes were perfection on a platter and probably the two most memorable meals we enjoyed while on the island.

Continuing our journey of exploration we passed someones back yard entertaining area. I remember thinking, "I might like to party with these folks!" 

Lawn chairs, grills and a bathtub? What fun these folks must have.

Marlin and Barrel Distillery

While planning our island and beach adventure I came across the web site for the Marlin and Barrel Distillery and after reading about them and their products I knew this had to be one of our stops while in Fernandina. The distillery offers tours (limited hours), tastings and retail.

A few years ago I saw a cooking or travel channel program filmed along the Amalfi coast. The program had a segment on Limoncello - the beverage and how to make it. That looked easy enough but I discovered the process is time consuming - but, oh so worth the effort. After that initial production I wondered how the recipe would turn out if using oranges instead of lemons.

I wonder no longer. The Marlin and Barrel produces Blossom Orangecello, hand zested all Florida orange liqueur; and that is some smooth drinking. The M and B tones down the sugar a bit so it isn't as sweet as the limoncello I made. Also, M and B doesn't produce limoncello at this time, but they do have a dandy cello made from grapefruit.
While at the distillery the effervescent Shannon gave us tastes of their vodka made from molasses (who knew?), rum, whiskey and cellos.

We brought home two bottles of the Blossom Orangecello and the Smoked Pepper Vodka - all hand signed on the bottles by the owner, Roger.

That pepper vodka makes the best Bloody Mary. We've tried it like a sangrita: a shot glass of the vodka with a Zing Zang Bloody Mary Mix chaser.

Cheers, y'all!

Gilbert's Underground Kitchen

We reserved a table at Gilbert's for our last dinner on the island. First, a couple of points: one is that the kitchen isn't under any ground, it's right over there; and parking can be a freakin' nightmare.

All spaces in the lot were taken. We circled the block a couple times. Nada! There were no signs referencing additional parking. We finally settled on a spot across the street at business that appeared closed. We braved heavy traffic crossing the street but made it to the door in one piece. We advised the hostess of our reservations.

Before we were seated I mentioned where we parked and asked if we would likely be towed. The responses ranged from don't know, to a maybe, to a shrug of the shoulders, to a "... you'll probably be fine. Just look out the window and you can see your car." That really gave us the warm fuzzies.

We took our assigned seats and ordered a Chard of some sort for her and a Sam Adams (in a can?) for me. I knew from the start that I had to have the much touted Fried Chicken Skins. 

I had seen this dish on a TV program: pieces of skin laid flat and cooked crispy and thin. What I was served were small chunks of chicken, battered and deep fried. I was sorry I ordered them. 

We also shared an order of Duo of Drop Biscuits and Skillet Corn Bread with green tomato jalapeno jam, cane syrup, butter and assorted pickles.

Gilbert’s bills itself as a neighborhood-driven Deep Southern American restaurant. While the menu may change with the seasons, during our visit BBQ seemed to be the order of the day. I had the Duo of Brisket - sliced brisket and burnt ends, shaved onion, shishito peppers, Texas Toast with hot tomato molasses. The brisket was good, the burnt ends were the real treat, though.

After the biscuits and cornbread my dainty dining partner decided to just go with small plates or cups of Southern delights: field peas, potato salad, cheese grits and slaw. All were good and filling.

On a happy note, our car wasn't towed away and Gussie, our trusty Chevy, was able to get us back home to our island at the beach. If we ever plan another trip like this it won't be during spring break or around Easter. The Interstate traffic is horrific, but Fernandina Beach is a treat.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Food For Thought

Donald Trump is a traitor to our republic and needs to be  removed from office ... both he and his Republican congressional enablers. I do not believe I am alone in my thinking:

Former U.S. Congressman Charles Djou (Hawaii) penned an open letter announcing he is resigning from the Republican party over their embrace of Donald Trump and his harmful anti-immigration platform, which has been embraced by the Republican party itself at this point. In a lengthy open letter on Honolulu Civic Beat, Djou lays out his reasons for leaving the Republican National Party.
Today, after much consideration, I abandon my party because I am unwilling to abandon my principles. I can no longer stand with a Republican Party that is led by a man I firmly believe is taking the party of Lincoln in a direction I fundamentally disagree with, and a party that is unwilling to stand up to him.
It disturbs me that the Republican Party under President Donald Trump is now defined as a party hostile to immigration. We are the leader of the free world, not because we are great (or need to be great again), but because we are good. [...]
Civility is an inner trait of true character. Trump’s belittling of Sen. Jeff Flake and immature name-calling of Sen. Bob Corker reflect a weakness of character. Trump’s penchant for conspiracy theories, such as his assertion that Sen. Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination of JFK, is disturbing. His poorly constructed stream-of-consciousness tweets are not only immature, but provide real harm to the stability of our democracy.
As President George W. Bush recently lamented, “Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children. The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.”
Even George W. Bush gets it! He wasn’t a great president, but at least he had some values, some core principles to guide him. Trump’s only guide is his own fragile ego. But, Djou saved some of his harshest criticism for Republican leaders who stand idly by and/or enable Trump’s boorish, racist, misogynistic behavior:
But I am most disappointed by the failure of the GOP to clearly and consistently condemn Trump’s childish behavior. Sadly today, too many Republicans either applaud Trump’s tirades or greet them with silent acceptance. This leads to an implicit ratification by the GOP of Trump’s undisciplined, uninformed, and unfocused leadership as a core part of the Republican Party. This is something I cannot accept and will not be a part of.
Hopefully more Republicans like Djou will publicly denounce Donald Trump and help Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell find their spines. If it isn’t already too late." ~ Daily KOS

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Old School Dining At Clearwater Beach

There was a piano player. I don't think his name was Sam and he didn't "play it again", but we four had a pleasant dinner at the 70 year old Bob Heilman's Beachcomber.

Everything about the Beachcomber seemed retro but not long in the tooth. There was a certain charm in the decor and the servers who in many cases were dressed better than some of the clientele.

Our server, Jackie, started us off with a relish tray, something I had not experienced since my childhood in Atlanta. From there we manly men chose to treat our taste receptors to what promised to be savory and delicious marrow bones.

The jus did not disappoint though there wasn't a lot of marrow in those bones. Only one of the bones served to me had any marrow. The other two were devoid of anything except hot air ... a waste of money!

Our table had much better luck with the  tomato salad, my bride's wedgie (salad, not pictured), Caprese halibut, famous farm-to-table chicken dinner, French fried onion rings, lamb chops and lamb shank.

If you are brave enough to challenge Clearwater Beach traffic and the hoards of milling-about-tourists, I think you will be pleased with Heilman's. Dinner for four with wine came to a fairly reasonable $250.58.

Heilman's Beachcomber Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Monday, January 15, 2018

Ichicoro Ane, A Dining Destination

As you approach Station House at 260 1st Avenue South in downtown St. Pete you will encounter a short flight of stairs leading down to Ichicoro Ane which is described as "a Japanese inspired eating and drinking den".

My dining partner and I have walked down those steps on several different occasions, once when it was Cafe Alma and twice again as Ichicoro Ane. On both visits to Ichicoro Ane, once with friends and again with just we two, reservations had been made in advance for seating in the main dining room as opposed to the ramen room. Seating is a bit more comfortable in the main dining area with chairs, though unpadded, that had backs. For us, this is more conducive to relaxed dining.

The decor of the interior does not inspire peaceful contemplation. I am more reminded of a orange shipping crate. There is interesting art work scattered about, but the feeling is that we walked into an industrial disco with blaring music bouncing off of hard surfaces which made hearing our server and engaging in conversation difficult. We had asked if the dBs could be dialed back a bit and were told this was not as loud as usual.

Mixologists manning the bar have been, on our two visits, both talented and gregarious. There is a modest list of signature cocktails and we can easily recommend the White Wind (Genkai Iki shochu, Carpano Bianco,Luxardo Bitter Bianco, absinthe, orange bitters) and the Genji Glove (white rum, draft matcha, orgeat,orange cordial, lime juice, Angostura bitters, mint).

We have wandered around the food menu with great success. Every morsel that we have tried has been pleasing to our buds of taste. From the Bao menu on this visit we enjoyed the Gyu Beef Bun, smoked beef shoulder with creamy gochujang mustard.

A few plates from our last dining adventure were so good we had to try them again, and they were still great. My favorite is the Tako Amiyaki, perfectly grilled octopus with black garlic and a savory pickled edamame.

A favorite of my dining partner is the Smokey Bacon Karroke, North Country applewood smoked bacon with spiced Kirin beer cheese and ontoma. Our best guess is that otoma is an egg white beaten into a froth.

I had tried the Kaarage (tempura-like fried chicken) and a couple of wagyu (translation: Japanese cow) presentations on a previous visit and they were good. The wagyu was similar in taste and texture to Angus beef tenderloin. The wagyu, I discovered, is any of four Japanese breeds of beef cattle that have been imported and are being raised in this country. Our server had no idea of where Ichicoro sources their beef.

On this visit I was intrigued by the brothless Shellfish Soba Ramen with shrimp, crab and calamari accented with shreds of (I think) wakame and sliced green onions. This dish had the taste and aroma of the sea, and I mean that in a good way. I've had the soupy ramen many times so on this visit I wanted to get away from the mundane and this bowl was a pleasant change.

The big surprise of the night was dessert. I don't normally order dessert and I didn't this time, but the server apparently took my dining partner's order as a double order. I was going to send it back until I saw this Hawaiian delight, Halo Halo with a small carafe of rum. I had seen this treat on a cooking or travel channel program and was thrilled to give it a try.

Halo Halo is an icy concoction with guava, coconut, black sesame fudge, and ube ice cream. Ube (pronounced OO-BAE), is a purple yam that can be mashed or pureed and incorporated into sweet treats like this rum enhanced delight. It is best to add the rum a little at a time so as to not overpower the rest of the ingredients. As you scoop from the top, be sure to dig deeper for the goodies at the bottom.

I would go back to Ichicoro for that halo halo alone ... after the weather warms up ... probably in May. All food and beverage for two came to a pleasing $100 or so before gratuity. Ichicoro Ane is a worthwhile dining destination. 

Friday, January 5, 2018

Broke N Bored On The Beach

After a frustrating afternoon trying to fill a grocery shopping list at a Publix, then a Winn-Dixie (depleted stock due to winter storms perhaps) I was too pooped to cook. My bride, Lydia Rector, and I decided to dine out.

We chose Broke N Bored. This was our first time this year and it was as good as it was last year. We started with a cup of delicious and rich potato soup with bacon and cheese for her and the drunken shrimp for me. The perfectly cooked shrimp with savory sauce and toasts for sopping was sinfully good.

The caprese chicken was, according to my bride, spectacular - tender, juicy and full of flavor. The chicken breast was served with a loaded baked potato and the superb pineapple coleslaw.

I couldn't resist the boneless rib-eye. I had it once before and it was so delicious I had to have it again and it was still mouth-watering good.

The Broke N Bored isn't fancy but if you are into good food, dine here. If you are into decor, go to a furniture store. Beer, wine and food with a 20% gratuity came to a bit over $90.00.