Saturday, December 28, 2013

Closing Out 2013

How refreshing it is to read a professional food writer's opinion on the ubiquity that permeates Tampa Bay restaurant food offerings. In today's Tampa Bay Times, food critic Laura Reiley took a newly opened sushi joint in downtown St. Peterburg to task by stating, "In short, the [...] menu is so similar to a number of others downtown that it begs comparison."

I seriously doubt that Ms. Reiley looks to the Oracle for inspiration, but that is just what I have been ranting about in a number of my restaurant reviews. Reiley referenced a similar restaurant on Kennedy here in Tampa, "...which boasts the same menu at almost identical prices." This mimics the question that I have been asking, "Why travel across the bridge to dine at a venue almost identical to one closer to home?"

The restaurant in question doesn't have to be a sushi joint though, because from one side of the bay to the other the sameness is stifling. Imitation krab, avocado, cream cheese? Give me a break! Even my son-in-law, who is relatively new to the sushi scene, commented the other day that it would really be a treat to dine at a traditional sushi restaurant instead of the plethora of those serving nothing but Americanized...for lack of a better word...crap (my word, not his)!

A restaurant that rocks! As an aspiring food writer and critic, I find it challenging at times deciding how to rate restaurants that I review. Some reviewers use stars, others rely on numbers - one to five or one to ten. When my reviews are picked up by Urbanspoon, my rating choices are FAVORITE, LIKES IT, (leave it blank), DOESN'T LIKE IT.

Just the other day I was watching a television bio of Nigella Lawson during which she described her method of determining a restaurant's worth. Nigella, who is an untrained chef like me, said that if she could go home and replicate a meal or a dish served at a restaurant, then that restaurant would get very low marks in her review. Bravo, Nigella!

I have been told that I am a very good cook, and it offends me to dine at a restaurant that can do no better than what I can do at home. Sadly, the Tampa Bay area is loaded with just that kind of restaurant and they have the audacity to charge exorbitant prices for what I can do for pennies on the dollar in my home kitchen with menu items purchased at my neighborhood Publix.

I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of a Tampa Bay restaurant that rocks.

Speaking of Nigella. The season premier of the ABC program, The Taste, debuts this Thursday, January 2nd at 8 PM. “The Taste features no-holds barred chef Anthony Bourdain, British food star Nigella Lawson, expert chef and author Ludo Lefebvre and restaurateur Brian Malarkey. Each of the four culinary superstars and “Taste” mentors – Bourdain, Lawson, Lefebvre and Malarkey – will coach a team of four competing pro and amateur cooks chosen from a nationwide casting call as they vie to create the best tasting dish."

I am looking forward to watching this episode because my blogging friend Rebekah of Some Kinda Good out of Stateboro, Georgia auditioned for the program. I don't know if she made the cut, but I have crossed fingers that she did. Rebekah is a charming and talented food writer and critic who deserves national acclaim.

To all: Feliz Año Nuevo.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Tasty Treats From Statesboro

Just the other day I congratulated my blogging friend, Rebekah, on her blog's second anniversary. Some Kinda Good is located in Statesboro, Georgia, and Rebekah is a most talented food blogger, food columnist, and TV personality in that city and beyond.

Anyhoo, when I read her birthday blog, I didn't pay much attention to the part about thanking her readers with a chance to win food products from one of Statesboro’s own gourmet businesses. I am not the kinda (just for you Rebekah) person who wins stuff. The last time I won anything was 25 years ago when my bride agreed to put up with me "until death do us part." To my great surprise I received an email from Rebekah telling me that I am the big wiener, or was that "winner?"

Either way works for me.

Said Rebekah, "Braswell Food Company has been making specialty preserves, condiments and sauces for almost 70 years. Valued at $35, the set includes an assortment of Braswell’s most popular fruit butters and hors d’oeuvre jellies. And, to compliment that gift basket, winners will also receive one fresh baked loaf of bread from Sugar Magnolia Bakery & Cafe."

Click picture to enlarge

I am all a-twitter with excitement, and I can't wait to dive into my goodies. Thank you Rebekah, Braswell's, and Sugar Magnolia. The shipment arrived just a few minutes ago in great condition.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Pig In A Fur Coat

To stay current on trends and happenings in the restaurant industry, I try to catch as many cooking programs on television as I have time for. I rely primarily on the Cooking Channel and Food Network to keep me up-to-date on unique and innovative offerings to be found in restaurants around the country. Not here in the Tampa Bay area, of course, where ubiquity and lack of originality have found a home, but that brings me to the point.

Yesterday on the Cooking Channel I caught America's Best Bites host Natalie Forte as she discovered "a restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin you won't soon forget called A Pig in a Fur Coat! Natalie learned where the name comes from and how it is perfect for Chef Dan Bonanno's small plates filled with big flavored food!"

What I discovered was my newest foodie hero, Chef Bonanno. When asked how he decides on menu offerings for A Pig in a Fur Coat, Bonanno replied, and I paraphrase, that he looks at the menus from competing restaurants and if he sees something on their menu that is on his, then that item is removed.

My brain exploded! What a novel idea, a restaurant not offering the same stuff offered by every other similar restaurant within a fifty mile radius. Chef Bonanno said what I have been harping on for months. If a restaurant wants to attract patrons from across town, let's say, then don't offer the same stuff that can be found just down the street...and up the street...and over there...and there.

I challenge local restaurateurs to do the Bonanno Test, and show some originality. As a restaurant patron, I also use a variation of the Bonanno Test. If I see seared ahi tuna, mussels any way, and fried calamari on the menu, I generally eschew that restaurant. Those dishes are so old they have grown whiskers.

Carpaccio is also getting a little long in the tooth around these parts; however, Bonanno has a dandy one that he shared with America's Best Bites viewers:


Lamb Carpaccio with Salsa Verde, Pea Shoots, and Egg Yolk
© Recipe courtesy Daniel Bonanno

Yield:
    6-8 servings

    3 pounds of lamb loin
    6 ounces parsley, chopped
    2 ounces chives, chopped
    2 ounces tarragon, chopped
    1 ounce thyme
    1 shallot, chopped finely
    1 clove of garlic, chopped finely
    4 ounces extra virgin olive oil
    Zest of one lemon
    6 egg yolks
    1/4 pound of pea shoots
    Block of Parmigiano Reggiano

Take the lamb loin and trim off the fat and silver skin. Then wrap the loin tightly in plastic wrap and place in the freezer. Once frozen, use a deli slicer to slice the lamb 1/8-inches thick. On a 9 x 9 plate, lay slices starting with the middle. Only cover 1/3 of the plate.

Make the Salsa Verde. Place herbs in a medium size bowl. Add shallots, garlic and lemon zest. Slowly add olive oil and add salt to taste.

Spread the salsa evenly on the sliced lamb. With a peeler, shave 3-inch strips of Parmigiano Reggiano and place on top of the salsa verde-covered lamb. Garnish with fresh pea shoots, salt, black pepper and lemon juice.

Crack the egg carefully separating the yolk from the whites. Discard whites and clean off the chalaza. Place the egg in the center of the plate and finish with salt and fresh cracked pepper.

NotesCook Notes: Ask your butcher to slice the lamb thinly on the deli slicer. Any combination of fresh herbs may be used in your salsa verde.

What an exciting recipe! But, with a raw egg yolk and raw lamb I am thinking that might be too adventurous for Tampa Bay diners, many of whom consider Taco Bell, 5 Guys, Burger King, and Wawa to be haute cuisine. Still, hope springs eternal. Maybe, just maybe, Tampa Bay may one day become a culinary destination.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Popcorn Stuffing

Thanksgiving is done, but if you are thinking of stuffing a bird for next year's gluttonous feast, I.C. Sharks has a recipe for you.

Popcorn Stuffing

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Use your favorite stuffing recipe, omitting all bread products. Replace the bread crumbs with 3/4 cup of unpopped popping corn. Mix the ingredients, and stuff the mess into your turkey. Tent the turkey with foil as desired, and place in oven.

Bird is done when its ass blows across the room.


This is a re-post from the I.C. Sharks newsletter, so don't blame me for any mishaps. 

Easy Tex - Mex En Su Casa

I was talking with our daughter last night on the telephone when she asked what we were doing for dinner. I told her I was whipping up my quick and easy enchilada recipe. She inquired as to the ingredients and method.

So, for you Mish, here is especial del chef:

Click to enlarge

I don't normally endorse any particular brand, but Wolf seems to have the best canned chili, both with and without beans. This brand can stand on its own, but certainly you should feel free to adjust seasonings to suit your taste. I do.

Here is what I wound up with last night:



Your Mom likes them with a dollop of sour cream on top along with some chopped raw onions. I always add hot sauce to mine. These enchiladas even taste good the next day. My bride took a couple of them to work with her to have as her almuerzo today.

Speaking of the Belle, she compared these enchiladas with those from a local Tex - Mex eatery.

Buen provecho.

Editor's update at 2 PM, 12/6/2013: I had the rest of the enchiladas for my lunch today and I am going to suggest they were even better than last night. Five minutes in the microwave on high and they developed a delightful crust around the edges. Mierda, eso era bueno!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

It's Back To The Outback For Us

My sound receptors immediately perk up when they hear the phrase "bone-in ribeye", and they have been hearing that phrase a lot on the "teevee" of late. Outback Steakhouse has been running ads for a limited time special, the butcher cuts. These include a bone-in pork porterhouse, ribeye, and New York strip.

Cooking any of those cuts bone-in can only enhance the flavor, and I knew I just had to have that ribeye. So last night the Belle of Ballast Point and I climbed into the pouch of the family wallaby and hopped off to the Outback on Henderson Boulevard in Tampa.

We were greeted at the door and escorted to our requested booth. Soon, Ashley, our server for the evening appeared with menus and gave us a few minutes to decide on our drink orders. To wet our whistles after that long hop from SOG City, we decided to indulge in a couple of Old Fashioned cocktails. We decided on the old Old Fashioned as opposed to the new Old Fashioned. Yes, both are on the Outback menu.

The difference in these Old Fashioned cocktails is the old one is made with Makers Mark and the new one with Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey.

One of a mere two glitches in our Outback experience was our drinks. They were made with the Jack Daniels instead of the requested Makers Mark. The drinks were good, just not what we asked for. We did the only sensible thing we could do...we drank them anyway. Waste not, want not is our motto.

While we were sipping our cocktails, Ashley brought our included house salads and the loaf of bread for which Outback is known.


I am including this picture not so much for the salad or bread, which is really good, but for that tub of creamery butter shown in the lower right side of the photo. I shall now be tacky and point out that this is a far cry from the rock hard, foil wrapped pats of butter we were served at Malio's Prime in downtown Tampa. I still shake my head in wonderment and disappointment at that memory.

After a couple of weeks seeing that Outback commercial, I knew that I wanted the bone-in ribeye, but the menu didn't indicate the portion size. Ashley checked with the kitchen and they advised it was indeed 16 ounces. Well then, bring-er on and make it medium rare. The kitchen also tossed my steak on the wood fired grill for a minute or two to add more delicious char to the outside. That ribeye was a tender, juicy hunk of perfectly prepared goodness.


I keep hearing and reading negative comments about "chain" restaurants, but this is the second "chain" ribeye I have enjoyed (the first was at Longhorn on South Dale Mabry) that was so far superior to the $47 Malio's ribeye that was so tough and devoid of flavor that I couldn't even force myself to eat it. The $47 bone-in ribeye at Eddie V's a few weeks later still couldn't compare with Longhorn and Outback. And, how much was that Outback ribeye? How about $29! I think that was the same price as the Longhorn steak.

What's up with these high priced and pretentious steakhouses? Have they brainwashed the dining public into believing the higher the price, the better the quality? It certainly appears that is the case.

My bride suffered the only other glitch in our dining experience at Outback. Her 6 ounce filet, while so very tender and juicy, was prepared medium rare as opposed to the requested medium. She let that slide since filets can tolerate a little less cooking time. Still, the customer should get what they ask for.


That loaded baked potato might have made up for the under-cooked steak. The Belle was in full swoon mode over that spud. She commented that you don't see baked taters being offered that much any more, and even then, rarely as good as this one.

To accompany our steaks, we chose a delightful bottle of Argentine Alamos Malbec.

When I was presented with the check, I asked my bride how much she thought this meal with wine and cocktails was going to set us back. She proffered a guess of $150. Nay, nay, my lovely lady, says I, our bill is but a pittance, $90.40. Of course, we tacked on 20% for Ashley.

How about that! Less than $100 (before tip) instead of the $200 to $300 that we have shelled out at a few of Tampa's magniloquent steak joints. I'm good with that.

Outback Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

Outback Steakhouse on Foodio54

Monday, November 25, 2013

Happy Birthday SKG

My most favorite food blogger in Georgia, Some Kinda Good, is celebrating her second birthday. Actually, Rebekah is the only food blogger in Georgia...at least the only one I follow.

From Rebekah: "Some Kinda Good is two. Happy Blog-iversay to me! The year 2013 has been filled with amazing opportunities, complete with my local TV debut on Statesboro Cooks, lots of feature writing, live cooking demonstrations, volunteering and more. What a year!"

I have never met Rebekah in person, but from her writing style, sense of humor, and sense of food, I know that she is on my "bucket list" of people to met before I kick...well, you know.


Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Sweet Polly And Jolly Jon Radio Show

I can't imagine that there was anyone who was not glued to their radio between 10:30 and noon today, unless you happened to attend this event at Square 1 Burgers & Bar in person. Two of the Bay areas top food bloggers were interviewed on 1250 WHNZ. Sweet Polly, the high priestess of The Epicurean Perils of Sweet Polly, shared the air waves with The SOG City Oracle during this remote broadcast.

Sweet Polly and I were interviewed by Ian Beckles, the most gregarious and charming host of his program Flavor of Tampa Bay. From Mr. Beckles's Facebook page earlier today: "Some of Tampa's top food bloggers are on Flavor of Tampa Bay right now. Tune in now till noon to hear from "Epicurean Perils of Sweet Polly" and "The SOG City Oracle" about their favorite dishes around Tampa Bay. 1250 AM or whnz.com/listen."

My friend and fellow blogger, Sweet Polly
 
Now this is how we did it at WSCM Radio, 1290 on your dial, Tall Tower Town and Country Radio, back in the sixties.

 
Well, all right, it's your show. We'll do it your way.

For those unfamiliar with Ian Beckles, I provide this little snippet from Wikipedia: "Beckles was drafted in the fifth round of the 1990 NFL draft and started immediately for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at right guard. The rookie was a bright addition to an interior line that had struggled with guards Tom McHale, John Bruhin and Carl Bax.

Beckles became a mainstay during his seven seasons with the Bucs, along with left tackle Paul Gruber and center Tony Mayberry, while the left guard and right tackle positions were in flux from season to season. During his time, the Bucs had 1,000 yard rushers and Reggie Cobb (1992) and Errict Rhett (1994, 1995).

Beckles, who wore jersey no. 62, departed as a free agent after the 1996 season, inking a deal with Philadelphia."

While Ian may have been thrilled to have Sweet Polly and I on his radio show, it was my bride, the Belle of Ballast Point, who was thrilled to meet Beckles. She is the football fanatic in the family. I'm just the cook.


All of us had a very enjoyable morning at Square 1 Burgers & Bar on Henderson in Tampa this morning. We were treated like stars by staff and management. It was a real thrill to be invited to Ian Beckles's program, Flavor of Tampa Bay.

The  Flavor Of Tampa Bay radio show, hosted by Ian Beckles, airs Sundays 10:30 a.m.-noon, 1250 WHNZ.


Friday, November 22, 2013

The Day Kennedy Died

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Florida, November 22, 1963 - This sunny but crisp autumn day started like most others. Betty was screaming at the kids to get up, get dressed, "...eat your breakfast." That was my alarm clock, so I got up, got dressed and ready for work.

Work wasn't really work. I was an announcer, disc jockey, copy writer, news reporter, and assistant to the chief engineer at WSCM, Tall Tower Town and Country Radio, 1290 on the right side, the bright side of your radio dial. As a country music radio personality on what was eventually called the Redneck Riviera, you could say I was something of a celebrity. The talents of a young stud radio man were always in demand - if you get my drift.

As a consequence I most always looked forward to going to the station and getting The Jolly Jon Show on the air. There was no telling what the day might bring. Well, this day brought something that I don't believe any of us in America could have imagined.

WSCM was a little tea-pot of a radio station tucked into a tiny strip mall next to the Holiday Lodge Resort right next to the marina. The studio and office were the only two rooms. We shared a bathroom with everybody else who visited the marina. Our newsroom was a broom closet with a United Press International (UPI) teletype machine and was probably eight feet at most away from our mixing board.

There is no way I could tell you what was playing on the turntable when the teletype went wild around 12:30 that afternoon - ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding - and it kept going. Normally if there was a news bulletin the machine would ding three times and then quit. This time the damn thing wasn't quitting. I figured it was broken. I didn't want to open the mike and talk over that damn bell so I segued into another record.

When I opened the door to the broom closet, or rather newsroom, I was startled to see that UPI machine spewing paper. I ripped off the lead story.

PRESIDENT KENNEDY HAS BEEN SHOT

SHOTS WERE FIRED AT KENNEDY'S MOTORCADE IN DALLAS

KENNEDY SHOT AS LIMOUSINE ENTERED DEALEY PLAZA

GOVERNOR CONNALLY ALSO SHOT

KENNEDY RUSHED TO PARKLAND HOSPITAL

And, a half hour after 1 p.m. CST:

PRESIDENT KENNEDY IS DEAD

When I realized the gravity of the situation, I quit even trying to play records. I left the mike open. Listeners could hear the teletype bell constantly dinging. I would race to the machine, rip off new copy and race back to the board to read the news.

I think I changed the roll of teletype paper at least once. I kept running, ripping, and reading. Not too long after President Kennedy's death was announced the UPI machine fell silent. The only sounds you could hear were the tears falling from the eyes of a heartbroken America.

Our station manager, Hal Cunningham, wrote a very moving eulogy honoring President Kennedy that I read on the air with The Battle Hymn Of The Republic by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir playing in the background.

Mr. Cunningham kept the eulogy, but we still have the choir.


Thursday, November 21, 2013

I'm Shocked...Simply Shocked

Urbanspoon has just published their list of Top New Restaurants of 2013 – US Edition. Two...just two Florida cities landed on that list, and just like last year, neither of those cities happen to be in Tampa Bay. Actually, that neither shocks nor surprises me. Many times I have suggested that this area lacks creativity and originality, or to put it in more polite terms, the Tampa area is the gastronomic armpit of the world.

So, who did make the list?

Florida
Miami
Orlando


Another interesting tidbit offered by Urbanspoon that will undoubtedly be ignored by many restaurateurs in this area is this: "Expensive, fine dining was not popular again this year, with over 70% of our list falling in the $ (>$10) and $ ($10-15) price ranges on Urbanspoon. Restaurateurs are tapping into their traditional culinary skills, but presenting them in a casual, approachable style. Foams, French Champagne (unfortunately!), and tasting menus are out and barbeque and bourbon are in."

To experience restaurants in that 70% range the Oracle has been obliged to leave town for cities like Atlanta and New Orleans. Both cities made the Urbanspoon list and both have a plethora of acclaimed restaurants.

So, where do we dine in this part of the world? Looking at Urbanspoon Tampa Bay it appears that we dine at every Burger King, McDonald's, hole-in-the-mall pizza joint and sandwich shop that we can find. We rave over wings, food trucks and Publix Deli's, and some local foodies seem to love posting mouth-watering pictures of empty parking lots. Many of the so-called high end restaurants are high only in price while serving sub-par food because, as everyone around these parts knows, high prices mean high quality.

There are a few really spectacular restaurants in the Tampa area...really way too few. I have high hopes that one day Tampa Bay will land on the Urbanspoon Top Restaurants list, but 2013 is not our year.

If it was up to me, these are a few local restaurants that should have made the list:


Editor's Update 11/21/2013 at 6 PM: I may have to lighten up on Tampa Bay just a bit and suggest that Urbanspoon needs to reevaluate their standards for restaurant ratings.

I went to the websites and/or Facebook pages for each of the Florida restaurants that were included in the Top Restaurants listings. After perusing the menus and the blogger/reviewer comments, I didn't see anything that came close to the uniqueness or quality of the Tampa Bay restaurants that I suggested should have been included.

If those restaurants in Miami and Orlando are the best that Urbanspoon can come up with, then I think Urbanspoon needs to be rethinking their process.

I still stand by my opinion that too many Tampa Bay restaurants are simply boring. When dozens of menus are carbon copies, then there is a problem. As a consumer, why should I go to your to-die-for venue when there are a slew of places, much closer, who are serving essentially the same thing?

Personally, I am real tired of ahi tuna, mussels, and calamari.


Saturday, November 9, 2013

Kebabing With Gengiz Khan

Our foodie friends, Sweet Polly and her Underdog, recently dined at Gengiz Khan Turkish Grill and Restaurant at 6102 South MacDill Avenue right here in SOG City (south of Gandy, Tampa). In her blog, Epicurean Perils of Sweet Polly, Polly and her Dawg raved, simply raved over their Turkish dining experience. My interest in this SOG City eatery was piqued.

Truth be told, I have never been particularly excited by Middle Eastern cuisine, but Sweet Polly has never led us astray. Her buds of taste are highly evolved, so if she says it's good, then we must go. Besides, this is a SOG City dining venue and we live in SOG City. It is our duty to support local businesses.

So, yesterday evening the Belle of Ballast Point and I fired up Rosie the family camel and made our way to the Khan. We arrived a little after five, so we had the place pretty much to ourselves. Alex greeted us at the door and guided us to a booth. She then presented us with water and menus, and since we were newbies she offered suggestions for adult beverages, appetizers and entrees.

There was but one Turkish wine available that evening, the Turkish Yakut. This wine is a blend of Öküzgözü, and Boğazkere. The Oküzgözü grape is a native Turkish red grape prolific around the mountainous Elazig region in eastern Turkey. This was a very drinkable everyday table wine: medium bodied, with light tannins...and, reasonably priced at $27.

The Yakut paired very nicely with both our appetizers and entrees. Gengiz also features a few tantalizing Turkish beers that I look forward to trying on a subsequent visit.

Alex suggested that since we appeared to be unfamiliar with Turkish foods that we start with the Mixed Hot Appetizer platter. This was a mix of zucchini pancake, falafel, rolled cheese pies, humus, and fried calamari.


This was a grand introduction to savory Turkish delights with a basket of accompanying pita triangles. The calamari was the most tender and flavorful incarnation of this ubiquitous staple of Tampa cuisine that I can remember.

My bride and I could probably have stopped eating with this platter. There was a lot of delicious food, but before we could take a deep breath, there was Alex with even more food. Our entrees had arrived!

The Belle chose the Iskender with melt in the mouth, shaved lamb served over sauteed pita bread, fresh tomato sauce, and a side of homemade yogurt. To kick up the heat factor a tad or two, a couple jalapeño peppers were provided. This was a huge plate of superb Turkish vittles that required a take-home box.


One of my favorite recipes at home is a braised lamb shank dish that I prepare with those shanks from Publix, where shopping is an adventure. When I saw the Baby Lamb Shank with eggplant on the menu, my slobber glands sprang to life and I knew I had to have a shank.

When Alex presented that dish, my eyes got almost as big as that lamb shank. "Baby" lamb shank you say? That shank was huge. If that was a baby, then the ones from Publix come from some sort of pygmy species found only on the island nation of Lilliput.


The lamb was fall-off-the-bone tender with creamy eggplant slices gently blanketing the lamb. As a side, both my bride and I enjoyed that perfectly prepared rice Bulgar.

Rosie, Incirlik dreamin'
There were several dessert choices that will have to wait until another time.

Our total for the wine and all of that delightful food came to a pleasing $80.09. We added a deserved 20% for our charming server Alex.

Middle Eastern cuisine is still not one of my all-time favorites, but Sweet Polly was right, "Dayum, Turkish food...where have you been all my life?"


Gengiz Khan on Urbanspoon

Gengiz Khan Restaurant on Foodio54

The Oracle does not trade glowing reviews in exchange for free food. If something sucks, we feel free to say so. We review anonymously and pay listed price for all that we consume. We also believe in rewarding the under paid, under appreciated food service workers with gratuities commensurate with provided service.

Monday, October 28, 2013

It Seemed Like A Capital Idea

I received a coupon in the mail the other day from a credit card company stating that I would get $50 off if I used their card at a Capital Grille. Let me emphasize here that it was I and not the Oracle that received the coupon, and the credit card company has no knowledge of, or association with, the Oracle.

Whew, had to get that out of the way before some folks got a full froth on.

It has been several years since we crossed the threshold at the local incarnation of this steak house chain, The Capital Grille, 2223 North Westshore Boulevard in the International Plaza. In the past we have been pleased with the food and service, so my bride and I decided to avail ourselves of the discount coupon before it expired.

We had reservations for 5:45 this past Saturday evening - not 6:00 or 5:44, or 5:46, but 5:45. We actually arrived a few minutes early, but there was little delay in getting us seated. From the hostess station to the table one of the things that impressed us the most was being called by name and addressed as Mr. and Mrs. That is a nice touch. We were still in their computer system.

Sharon was our most efficient and professional server. We were presented with water, menus, and a really delightful basket of crusty breads with softened butter. I feel snarkily compelled here to mention the butter wasn't encased in a foil wrapper à la Booger's Grease Burgers or Malio's Prime.



To wash down the breads and to accompany my half dozen Blue Points on the half shell, the Belle and I started our evening with a couple of glasses of a Zonin Prosecco.







The oysters were fairly well shucked with minimal mangling, and most still were swimming in that luxurious, salty liqueur from the sea. These mollusks needed no enhancements, but just in case, they came with a ramekin of cocktail sauce, and a ramekin of a savory mignonette.





I will concede that it could be due to the passing of years, but as we pored over the menu there appeared to be fewer choices offered on this visit than were available on our last visit. We were able to find a couple of entrées that our taste sensors felt were appealing.

My bride chose the Filet Dinner Special. This was a 10 ounce filet adorned with a delightfully crusty, Parmesan and horseradish topping.


She requested her filet to be prepared medium with a warm pink center, and it was. She was pleased.

I rarely have been tempted by a bone-in rib eye that I was able to refuse. This night was no exception, so I requested the Delmonico, medium rare, s'il vous plaît. I will now pick nits. A bone-in rib eye is usually referred to as a cowboy steak, while a bone-less rib eye traditionally carries the moniker of Delmonico. This is not a big deal in the over-all scheme, but I had to get a clarification from Sharon before I placed my order.


My rib eye was perfectly prepared to temperature, but the heart of the steak was devoid of the marbling that contributes to taste and tenderness. The closer I got to the bone, the better the steak. For $46 I would have expected something closer in taste and texture to the one that I swooned over at a Longhorn Steak House for half the price. Seriously!

The sides offered by the Grille are big enough for two or more, so thankfully the diner can order half size on most sides. My bride and I shared a small au gratin potatoes, and a small dish of overcooked French green beans (haricot vert) with a few chunks of "heirloom" tomato.

To enhance our dining experience we elected to go with Sharon's suggestion of a wine special, the Silver Oak, Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that normally sells for $135, but tonight a mere $80. Truth be told, this was an exceptional wine with a dark, ruby color and a vibrant nose of black cherry, wisteria and sweet baking spices.

That $80 price is what you would pay at your neighborhood liquor emporium, so the original $135 is a rather huge markup. Just a little FYI for the oenophiles amongst us.

The Capital Grille wine list is rather impressive, especially if you are impressed with high prices. There appear to be way more pretentiously priced wines than ones in a more reasonable price range, but if you are dining on an expense account, who cares? We weren't. Even still, my experience has proven that the high priced wines (or anything else for that matter) do not necessarily equate to higher quality.

I was content to just finish off my Silver Oak while the Belle chose an ice cream trio to round out her meal.


Our dining adventure at The Capital Grille wasn't really spectacular, nor was it horrible. What is the expression...meh? It was about the same as most other chain or independent steak houses in the Tampa Bay area. If you've seen one menu, you have pretty much seen them all. As I have stated before, the sameness in this part of the gastronomic world is stifling.

Our total for the evening came to $239.68. After the $50 discount, $189.68. We based our 20% gratuity on the higher amount. To do otherwise is tantamount to stiffing the server.

The Capital Grille on Urbanspoon 

Capital Grille on Foodio54

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Phineas And The Harpies

My bride, the Belle of Ballast Point, and I were dining at a local Tampa eatery the other day and the topic of "dining out" came up. I mentioned in that conversation that one way we decide on a dining venue is to look to Urbanspoon and click on a restaurant's website to see their menu. That menu not only has to tempt our taste buds, but it must display some originality.

When I say, "display some originality," what I am referring to is this: if the menu in question looks just like the menu at dozens of other restaurants around the Tampa area (and the sameness in the Bay area is stifling), then why bother. I can't see driving, let's say, across Gandy Bridge just to eat at a restaurant that serves essentially the same menu items I can get on this side of the bridge.

We also consider the reviews on Urbanspoon, both by the diners and the bloggers. Those reviews can be very helpful or a complete waste of Internet bandwidth. Take the reviewer (please) who wrote, "The chicken. 'nuff said." Well, no there wasn't anything said except the writer is functionally illiterate. Was the chicken good, bad, or indifferent? I mean, come on, give us something to work with here. And, why anyone would feel compelled to review a Publix Deli, WaWa, or a Burger King, with accompanying parking lot photos, is beyond me...but they do!

There are a few really good Tampa Bay food bloggers, and Sweet Polly is probably the best. She is witty, intelligent, and a great writer. Her reviews are grammatically correct, she is either a great speller or has heard of Spell-Check, and her reviews contain pertinent (i.e. useful) information: cuisine, menu items, prices, and whether the food and experience was good, bad, or indifferent. Other bloggers near and far would do well to try emulating The Epicurean Perils of Sweet Polly.

Then we have the bloggers at the other end of the spectrum. These are the ones that some have called the "food whores". These are the contributors to Urbanspoon who trade glowing food and restaurant reviews for free food. Local food joints mention free grub and hooch, and they descend like the harpies snatching food from poor Phineas (see Greek mythology).

Personally, I have nothing against free food and wine, but I will not trade a grand and glorious review for free stuff. To me, this takes away from the reviewer's credibility and that of Urbanspoon. Consider this: how can every morsel of free food that crosses your lips be sheer perfection? This begs a philosophical question. If everything is perfect, then is anything perfect? Without a comparison - up or down, good or bad - how can it be said everything is perfectly delicious?

Well, it can be said that everything is delicious because the restaurants are paying these people to say that. Write a bad review and I doubt that you would be invited back or be invited by any other restaurants that wanted to jack up their standings on Urbanspoon. And, yes that is the reason for tossing Phineas's food to the harpies.

Just recently, a hole-in-the-mall Pizza Hut wanna-be in Pinellas Park had a harpy event, and five of them showed up. All of a sudden this restaurant that few had ever heard of and many could care less about landed on the Urbanspoon top ten "Talk of the Town" list right up there with Datz, Datz Dough, Piquant, and Anise.

I'd like to say more power to them, because in the over-all scheme of life "it don't mean nothin". The harpies are stuffing their faces with free food, the restaurants are getting what essentially amounts to free advertising by feeding these moochers, so everyone wins. Right?

Not really. Urbanspoon is getting nada, zip, zilch, zero out of this. But the real losers are the people who look to Urbanspoon for honest, unbiased assessments of the restaurants they are considering; cuisine, quality, quantity, service, decor, dress code if any, and adult beverage availability. What about prices? It is rather difficult to list prices in your review if you ate for free or if what was served is not on the "food for the commoners" menu.

Speaking for myself, I could give a rat's patootie (i.e. buttocks) what the harpies are served because what is placed in front of them is not likely to be what is served the general public. 

Same salad...
...same restaurant.
Trust me on this! I have compared photos from other promotional events to what I have been served at the same restaurants.

As a "for instance": there is a glaring difference between the promo salad (on the left) and the mashed flat salad (on the right) that had been prepared earlier in the day and then stacked in the fridge for several hours, before being served to me at a high dollar restaurant in Tampa.




Unless you are one of the harpies, guess which salad you would have been served.  Still, there is nothing that I write or can say that will change anything. The food whores will still ply their trade and some restaurants will still exploit them. For the rest of us, the important thing to remember is this: it is just a game that we don't have to play, but it's nice to recognize the players.
____________________________

For full disclosure:

I, too, am a contributing reviewer for Urbanspoon. The Oracle has never accepted free anything in exchange for our reviews. We pay full listed menu prices for all food and drink. We dine anonymously and have only been recognized one time. This was on a subsequent visit and that visit did not warrant a re-review. We did get free beer, but so did all the other customers.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Dinner Last Night: My Creole Grannie's Catfish Gumbo

Here is a recipe that has been handed down from generation to generation in our Creole family. What makes this dish so unique is that there are no Creoles in our family tree. We are of German extraction, but what the hell! If Grannie had been Creole, I bet she would have embraced this recipe as her own.

Traditionally, this dish is served with a scoop of white rice. Make it really special. Skip the rice and top with a big scoop of cole slaw. Grannie may not have approved, but damn that was some good eatin'.

My Creole Grannie's Catfish Gumbo

Recipe By      : My Creole Grannie
Serving Size  : 4  

     1/4           cup  bacon drippings
     1/4           cup  all-purpose flour
     1/2           cup  onion -- diced
     1/2           cup  celery -- diced
     1/2           cup  green pepper -- diced
     3              cloves  garlic -- minced
     15            ounces  chicken broth
     14 1/2      ounces  diced tomatoes
     1/2           teaspoon  freshly ground black pepper
     1              teaspoon  sea salt
     1              teaspoon  oregano
     1/2           teaspoon  dried basil
     1/2           teaspoon  dried thyme
     1              bay leaf
     4              ounces  tomato paste
     8              ounces  frozen okra -- sliced 1/2" thick
     1              tablespoon  Tabasco sauce -- or to taste
     1              pound  catfish -- cut into chunks

In a large pot over medium heat, combine the bacon drippings and flour for the roux. Stir to incorporate into a slurry. Continue stirring to keep mixture from burning. You are looking for a roux with a rich copper color.

Add the trinity - onions, celery, and peppers. Stir and cook until tender, adding garlic about mid-way.

Pour in the broth and tomatoes, then stir.

Now, toss in everything else except for the catfish. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 30 minutes.

Add the catfish and stir to mix well. Cover the pot and simmer for 20 minutes.

Give the gumbo a taste and adjust seasonings if needed.

Start to Finish Time:
  "1:30"
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Per Serving: 355 Calories; 18g Fat (44.2% calories from fat); 25g Protein; 25g Carbohydrate; 5g Dietary Fiber; 79mg Cholesterol; 1195mg Sodium. The nutritional data is from MasterCook and may not be entirely accurate.

NOTES : If topping with cole slaw, save some time and energy by using a prepared slaw from the grocery, but get the good stuff.


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Meatless Monday

As a hard core carnivore it is a stretch for me to contemplate any day without meat. A nice fat, juicy, bone-in rib eye can add sunshine to a dreary day, but Doctor Poopyhead (my PCP) says I need to eat fruit and veg. I totally agree with Dr. P, and I always include a veggie serving with every meal I prepare.

Not good enough says Dr. P the Philistine of good eats. "Try eschewing meat at least one day a week," he admonishes. He goes on to mention Meatless Monday. "Say what?" says I. He went on to explain that Meatless Monday is an international campaign that encourages people to not eat meat on Mondays to improve their health and the health of the planet.

Meatless Monday is a non-profit initiative of The Monday Campaigns Inc. in association with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for a Livable Future.

Well, who knew! I am all about the health of our planet. Someone has to be since there are so many in this country and elsewhere who could give a crap whether future generations live or die. With that in mind I decided to give Meatless Monday a try. Thanks to the Goddess of French cooking, Laura Calder, I prepared this for dinner last night:

Tomato and Aubergine Gratin

Serving Size  : 4

1/2           cup  olive oil
1              large  onion -- sliced
2              cloves  garlic -- chopped
1              bay leaf
1/4           teaspoon  cayenne pepper -- smashed, optional
2              pounds  fresh tomatoes -- roughly chopped
                sea salt -- to taste
                freshly ground black pepper -- to taste
A handful of fresh herb leaves -- such as basil, parsley and rosemary
2              pounds  eggplant -- sliced about 1/2 inch thick
1              cup  bread crumbs
1              teaspoon  chili powder -- to taste
4              tablespoons  Parmesan cheese -- grated

Heat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a saute pan and cook the onions until soft, about 5 minutes.


Add the garlic, bay leaf, and pepper, and cook 1 minute. Then add the tomatoes and cook to a thick, chunky sauce, about 30 minutes. Remove the bay leaf, season with salt and pepper and stir in the fresh herbs.



While the sauce cooks, brush the eggplant slices on both sides with olive oil and lay in a single layer on a baking sheet (you'll need to work in batches). Bake until golden and soft, about 15 minutes; if need be, turn and bake the other side, about 10 minutes. I cooked the eggplant for 15 minutes and they were done - any longer and they would have fallen apart. I suppose it depends on your oven. Remove and set aside.



Turn the oven down to 375 degrees F. Mix together the breadcrumbs with the chili powder.

In a large gratin dish, starting with just the thinnest smear of tomato sauce over the bottom, layer in the eggplant, then sauce, then breadcrumbs. Repeat until the dish is full. Scatter the Parmesan over top. Bake until the gratin is heated through, and the top golden, about 30 minutes.



Cuisine:
  "French"
Start to Finish Time:
  "1:40"
                                    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

This dish will never take the place of a bone-in rib eye, but it was savory, filling, and inexpensive. It will be even more cost effective in a few months when the tomato plants and eggplants in the garden start producing. As a side note: both plants are ideally suited for container gardening.

The bottom line: we did our part for a healthy planet. Ain't we special?
 

Monday, October 14, 2013

My Gastronomic Fetish With Fetishes

There is something sensuous about food. I mean really good food, luxurious food, and this past Saturday evening I experienced a near orgasmic culinary adventure at Fetishes Dining and Wine Bar, 6305 Gulf Boulevard at St. Pete Beach.

I was tasked by my dear friend, Sweet Polly (Epicurean Perils of...), to seek out a dining venue that would send our taste receptors into spasms of delight for our periodic food bloggy convergence. I chose Fetishes and so on a warm, star lit October night, Sweet Polly, her mighty Underdog, the Belle of Ballast Point and I journeyed to this pleasure dome of fine dining.

You have read Sweet Polly's review haven't you? If not, then shame on you. To her review I can only add, ditto. 

Thanks and good night. 

Hold thy horses! As many can attest, I have never been accused of being a man of few words, so allow me to expand and expound.

We had the recommended reservation for 7 p.m. and though we were a tad late, we were promptly greeted and seated. In addition to Bruce Caplan, the owner, periodically checking to ensure our happiness, we were expertly served by the ever so charming Jennifer. Jen helped us with our food and wine choices, and was just the perfect hostess.

Our party began the evening with two bottles of wine from the Fetishes cellar, a bottle of white for the ladies and a red for the manly men. The recommended wines perfectly complimented our appetizer and entree choices.

For starters, a plate of hot-from-the-oven bread with creamery butter, a welcome change from the hard-as-a-rock foil wrapped pats we were served at Malio's in Tampa.






Sweet Polly started with a super creamy and savory Corn and Crab Bisque with a shot of sherry on the side. Polly insisted that the sherry shot was meant for the bisque, but us guys knew better.

She allowed only the tiniest of sips before she poured it into the soup bowl.


Wimmins!


 

I had planned on having a really ducky dinner at Fetishes, so it made perfect sense to order the Duck Liver Paté with fruit chutney garnish, and sesame flat breads.



That paté was superb, light and creamy without a heavy liver taste. Even my bride, who is not a liver lover, enjoyed her taste.



 


Speaking of the Belle, her appetizer choice was the mouth-watering, tender and delicious Mini Steak Au Poivre, a grilled beef tenderloin, pepper encrusted and served with a peppery Madagascar demi-glace.








For his first course, Underdog chose the traditional Lobster Newburg with mushrooms, asiago and cream topped with broiled gratin. To quote Sweet Polly, this dish was,"Swoonworthy."







Before our entrees arrived we were presented with refreshing raspberry ice palate cleansers. Wouldst that some of the high priced, pretentious fooderies in Tampa take note. This was a welcome touch seldom seen.




Dear Reader, I would suggest having a couple of towelettes handy, because - here come the entrees:

Sweet Polly's Red Snapper special, a sauteed red snapper filet with lump crab meat in a pesto cream sauce that consistently receives rave reviews. This night was no exception.



Underdog visited the Big Easy with this NOLA treat, Shrimp New Orleans: large Gulf shrimp, grilled and served Cajun style with fresh tomatoes, onion, celery and mild andouille. My taste brought back pleasant memories of the Snug Harbor Bistro version in the Faubourg Marigny.


I mentioned before that my buds of taste were thinking, "Aquatic fowl." I seemed to have duck on the brain, but when Bruce said the duck was not cooked to my preferred medium rare, I almost changed my mind. Bruce went on to say that this de-boned duck half was cooked more like a braised chicken. Jen said I would not be disappointed. She was right!

Here is my superlative Roast Duck Al’orange. A Long Island Duckling, boned, roasted and served with a subtly sweet jus orange.




While my duck was sinfully good, I think my bride's choice of Roasted New Zealand Lamb Chops might, just might, have been the over-all winner for me. These oven roasted chops, herb encrusted and topped with fresh mint infused Gorgonzola crumbles were sheer delights.




All entrees were served with sides of sugar snap peas, and whipped potatoes in a phyllo cup. We were also treated to a delicious garden salad  with star fruit and sunflower seeds with a house made honey Dijon dressing.

For dessert, the table enjoyed a Key Lime Parfait, and a Chocolate Chip Cake with orange sauce.



It is rare that I can dine at a restaurant and not find at least one tiny little nit-picking thing to rag on. Fetishes is that unique venue where perfection seems to reign supreme. There were no misses and the prices were reasonable - $180 or so for two with a restaurant added 17% gratuity. We tacked on an additional 3% for excellent service.

I know there are those who will complain about that mandatory 17%, but those are probably the ones who think 10% is the standard, or those who don't tip at all. It is only reasonable and proper to reward superior service.

Fetishes Dining & Wine Bar on Urbanspoon


Fetishes Fine Dining on Foodio54

As a final note: lately I have been seeing more and more local food(?) reviews that feature photos of, among other places, a Publix parking lot with a critique of their deli, and a Burger King parking lot extolling the virtues of a Whopper. Is it any wonder why Tampa Bay has a reputation as the armpit of the gastronomic universe? Fetishes is excluded from that observation.

Anyway, here is my contribution:


You could have seen more of the parking lot if those people had gotten out of the way. I'm just sayin'.