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:
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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.

Start to Finish Time:
                                    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

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.



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'.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Gravitating Back To Timpano

We ran out of Gravity the other day and found ourselves being pulled towards Timpano Chophouse. Actually, we didn't run out of Gravity, we walked away from the CineBistro and crossed the street to enjoy some simply marvelous small plates at Timpano.

My bride and I started with a couple of glasses of a delightful 2011 Conundrum White Meritage from California. To accompany her Conundrum, the Belle of Ballast Point enjoyed The Wedge. This was one of the better wedgies we have ever tasted with crispy iceberg lettuce, crumbled bleu cheese, grape tomatoes, maple Cajun bacon and chives adorned with a house-made blue cheese.

We shared an exceptional Beef Tenderloin Carpaccio with arugula salad, whole grain mustard sauce, Parmesan crostini, and a sunny side up egg. This was so impressive as the yolk oozed its goodness over the tender beef.

One of the highlights of any visit to Timpano is the spectacular Black Skillet-Roasted Mussels tossed with extra virgin olive oil and sea salt served in a piping hot cast iron skillet. My bride, who normally eschews any shell fish, simply swooned over these delicacies accompanied by a tasty, toasty bread for sopping that heavenly broth.

We both savored one of the best Tuna Poke dishes ever - sushi grade ahi tuna in a ponzu soy marinade served with wonton crisps.

The plat de résistance was a new dish that Michael, our charming server, suggested we must try. It's a new addition that Timpano is planning to add to their menu - Black Skillet-Roasted Clams. The preparation and presentation was the same as the mussels, but with clams, and it was, in my opinion, as good if not better than the mussels. Oh, I do hope that dish is added to the menu.

The bill for all of this fabulous food and wine came to $115.56. We added 20% for Michael.The Oracle does not trade glowing reviews for free food. We pay full listed price.

The Oracle does not make a habit of reviewing and re-reviewing restaurants ad nauseam, but our last review of Timpano was over three years ago. This visit made a re-review necessary.

All photos were taken by the Belle of Ballast Point on her I-Phone.

Timpano Chophouse and Martini Bar on Urbanspoon

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Wicked Gravity

Gravity sucks! Of course it does, and that is why we don't all go floating off into space like Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in the movie Gravity that is showing in area theaters. My bride and I went to the Hyde Park CineBistro recently to view this movie, touted as the "cat's pajamas" (whatever the hell that means) of special effects flicks.

I can't report that gravity (the movie) sucks but if it weren't for the scenes of Bullock in those tiny, tight, black, short, shorts there would be little, other than special effects, to rave about. We viewed the movie in 2D as opposed to 3D. I personally find that 3D distracts from the story line. In the case of this movie, the story line was so thin I think the razzle-dazzle of 3D would have been the better choice. Additionally, I have to wonder about the title of this movie since there was damn little gravity except at the very end.

SPOILER ALERT: The ending of Gravity left me hanging out there in space. As Bullock's hijacked Chinese space capsule plummeted to Earth, voices were heard on the radio asking for identification of this "unidentified flying object". The capsule splashed down in a lake. Bullock almost drowned before pulling herself out and swimming to the surface.

She swan to shore and clawed her way from the water, through the mud, and emerged on dry land. We watched as she got to her feet and surveyed her surroundings, still clad in those cute little black shorts. As far as the eye could see, in all directions, was a desolate landscape with no signs of civilization. There was no rescue helicopter. There were no interceptor jets streaking through the skies.

There was nothing except for the strange notion that at any moment we would see apes on horseback cresting the hill and charging down to capture this alien being who landed on their planet - The Planet of Sandra and The Apes.