Thursday, January 30, 2014

Wahoo! Finally Exit 390

We are south of I-10 and heading home again on that ribbon of highway that leads straight to Tampa. Gus, my faithful gun-metal gray pick-up, has rolled along this stretch of I-75 many times, so we just sit back and enjoy the road signs advertising all that central Florida has to offer: Cheesy resorts and amusement parks, burger doodles, the containment compound for the Rick Scotties (The Villages, if you have to ask), the T&A cultural establishments, and...oh,wait! We just blew past a sign hawking a seafood grill.

My bride and I were on our way home after a pleasant, albeit frigid, couple of days on Tybee Island meeting friends and enjoying the island's Restaurant Week. We had been on the road for several hours and were getting just a tad hungry. We wanted something a little more substantial than a grease burger, so that seafood grill sounded good. But, where the heck is it? A few miles farther down the road we saw another sign, "Wahoo Seafood Grill Exit 390 to the left, Easy exit and return."

I told my navigator to keep her eyes peeled for exit 390. She told me not to get all lathered up, because we just passed exit 495. Damn! We're not even close. It turns out the 390 is one of the exits to Gainesville, and we had a way to go. So we cranked up the tunes and tried not to get killed in the madness that is south-bound I-75 traffic.

Finally exit 390! We took the off ramp and came to a stop light. My navigator hollered, "Don't turn left!" Pointing, she exclaimed, "There's the Wahoo, just ahead on the right." Traffic was light, so I was able to make a lane change without causing an accident, and I turned right, then across the roadway, and down an embankment to the Wahoo. I have no idea where a left turn would have taken us, but it wouldn't have been where we wanted to go. "Holy crap, we made it," I muttered as we pulled in to the parking lot.

The Wahoo, 3833 NW 97th Boulevard, appears to be either new or newly remodeled, with clean stylish decor exuding southern charm. But, enough with the decor, already. We needs a couple of medicinal beers. Upon entering, we were escorted to a booth by the hostess who said our server would be with us soon. Soon was a long time coming, and if my bride hadn't scouted around for one, we probably never would have gotten a beer, or anything else for that matter.

We did get our beers, a couple of Yuenglings, and our food orders were taken.

My bride, who doubles as the trip navigator, had the absolutely divine house-made, Zagat rated, 1/2 pound burger with cheddar cheese, and a side of fries. She wouldn't share that juicy burger, but the fries that I was able to purloin were really good.

One of my favorite foods from the swamps and bogs is crawfish, so I chose the 1 pound serving of the best mudbugs that I can remember since a stop at Billy Goat Hill, Louisiana some years ago. I decided I needed some vegetation to go along with these freshwater crustaceans, so I added a serving of cold kale salad. The crawfish were savory and delicious, and the kale was an interesting salad with a light sesame oil dressing. Very healthful, I am sure.

I can't say I would drive to Gainesville for a meal at the Wahoo, but since it was on our way, it wasn't bad. Some of their prices for seafood buckets seemed more than a little high, especially compared to some we had recently experienced in Savannah.

Our food and beers came to $36.95 and we added 20% for our server. I should clarify that the service we received was good after the hostess bothered telling anyone that they had a table.

 Wahoo Seafood Grill on Urbanspoon

Wahoo Seafood Grill on Foodio54 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A Tybee Blogger Convergence

A few weeks ago my blogger friend up in Statesboro, Georgia posted an article on her blog, Some Kinda Good, about the Restaurant Week taking place on Tybee Island. Rebekah wrote, "Seafood on the Georgia coast with good company gets me more excited than a child on Christmas morning. Moreover, restaurants that want to show off their menu offerings at affordable prices are that much more enticing."

Well, Rebekah sure got us excited. My bride and I had been to Savannah, but we somehow missed Tybee Island and after reading Rebekah's words we decided to take a road trip up to the island and see what culinary delights might be awaiting us. I emailed Rebekah that we weren't square, that we would be there, and she suggested we meet up on the island for what we'uns in Tampa refer to as a Blogger Convergence.

The Belle of Ballast Point and I secured reservations at the Ocean Plaza Beach Resort. We had requested a more economical room overlooking the parking lot since we weren't going for the beach, just for the food. When we arrived at the Ocean Plaza we were given a complimentary upgrade to a fourth floor room with a balcony overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. This was a much appreciated surprise, and even though it was colder than a, uh, it was way too cold to spend much time on that balcony.

I was able to stand the 27 degree cold long enough to capture this Atlantic Ocean sunrise:

There are a plethora of outstanding dining options on Tybee, and Rebekah suggested that she and Kurt meet the Belle and I at Coco's Sunset Grille.

The Belle and I were surprised to find a gem such as Coco's situated down a rutted gravel road in the middle of nowhere. It took us awhile to find the place, but once we did, we were thrilled. From Coco's web site, "Nestled in the marsh behind Tybee Island, on the shores of Lazaretto Creek, CoCo’s Sunset Grille is one of the very few restaurants located at an operating marina and is a jewel of the Georgia coast. With perfect views of the river and marina, from our large patio you can watch the shrimp boats returning with the day’s catch as the sun sinks slowly over the marshes."

This was like a slice of the old Florida I knew in my youth before the developers raped the land and blocked off the state's natural beauty with walls of condominiums.

We had barely parked before we spied Kurt and Rebekah heading over to greet us. Rebekah is just as charming in person as she is on her blog and on national TV (The Taste and The Doctor Oz Show).

The four of us walked through the door of this eclectic establishment and were immediately greeted by friendly folks who seemed glad to see us. We were promptly seated, presented with Restaurant Week prix fixe menus, and our drink orders taken.

We could order from the regular menu, which had some taste-tempting items that will have to wait for a subsequent visit, or we could order from the special prix fixe menu. The four of us chose the prix fixe, with a side appetizer of steamed shrimp for Kurt.

Megan was our server for the evening. She was charming in her own peculiar way. Beneath that somewhat brusque exterior lurked a warm soul with a sense of humor. I would ask for her again whenever we go back. I don't think I would give her any sass, though.

My bride began her meal with a bowl of French Onion Soup that disappeared rather quickly. I'll have to assume it was good since she didn't share.

Rebekah, Kurt and I each started with the Bacon Wrapped Scallops. These tasty treats from the sea were out-of-this-world good. Of course, everything is better with bacon, but the semi-sweet spicy glaze with hints of the Orient was superb.

For her entree, my bride chose the Sirloin Steak Marsala with scalloped potatoes and grilled asparagus. The Marsala sauce was divine, but that steak was so tender, juicy, and packed with flavor that it pert near brought tears to my eyes. Yes, I did sneak a bite.

Rebekah chose the Shrimp Cakes as her entree with mashed potatoes and sauteed veggies along with a cup of remoulade. The shrimp cakes were declared good and really didn't need any sauce for enhancement.

Kurt and I seemed to be of the same mind this evening. We both went with the Thai Tuna with wasabi mashed potatoes and sauteed veggies. I requested my tuna be quickly seared with a mostly raw middle. That is just what I got and it was perfect with the semi-sweet house Thai sauce.

For dessert, several of us could not resist the Fried Strawberries. Those berries were dipped in a pancake batter, deep-fried, and then rolled in cinnamon sugar with dollops of whipped cream. I have to try that at home. Those berries were...well, the berries.

The Belle chose to be different and went with the Praline Pecan Pie...another treat for the buds of taste.

Speaking for myself, the dining experience at Coco's was fantastic, and it was enhanced by meeting and dining with a friend and fellow food blogger.

Our prix fixe dinner for two with adult beverages came to a pittance of $65.81. We tacked on a 20% for Megan. She provided good service and put up with me.

I wish that a wad of Tampa Bay restaurateurs would come up to Tybee and dine at Coco's to discover that delicious, innovative food doesn't have to break the bank.

Coco's Sunset Grille on Urbanspoon

Coco's Sunset Grille on Foodio54

Our new friends from Statesboro:

Thanks for a delightful evening.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Ain't No Uncle Like Uncle Bubba

Editor's update 4/9/2014: Uncle Bubba has permanently shut the door to this restaurant. Apparently it had become a financial burden, so the waterfront property will now be redeveloped.

We had a long arduous drive from Tampa on our way to Tybee Island, Georgia courtesy of Google Maps, but we finally made it through Savannah. Just on the outskirts of the city we realized that we were within rock-tossing distance from Uncle Bubba's Oyster House at 104 Bryan Woods Road.

My bride and I were in need of food and a couple of medicinal beers, so Bubba's seemed like a good place to stop for a late lunch or early dinner. We pulled in to Bubba's forested parking lot and made our way to the door. We were immediately greeted by a most charming lady who guided us to our table. At three in the afternoon we had the place pretty much to ourselves and our server promptly appeared.

Joy was a true joy. She presented us with menus and took our drink orders, probably sensing that we were in dire need of a couple of adult beverages.

On our way to the table we passed by the oyster shucking station. I paused to watch the shucker shuck. The oysters looked good, but the shucking didn't. I asked if he could shuck the oysters without draining all of that delicious salty liquor. He said he could and if there was debris, he would wash it off. Oh, hell to the no! That is a sin against oyster lovers the world over. I politely asked him not to rinse the oysters.

What I was presented with did not look too bad except for the ice cubes piled on top and the oysters not being cut loose from the bottom shell. At least these mollusks weren't mangled and, but for the melted ice cubes, most were pleasantly salty.

It never ceases to amaze me to find venues serving oysters that do not properly train their shuckers. From personal experience shucking hundreds of oysters, I know it isn't that hard.

Both my bride and I had better luck with our entrees. She requested the perfectly breaded and cooked Aunt Peggy's Fried Catfish with a side of "the best coleslaw I have ever tasted." The catfish was prepared with a light corn meal breading. The coleslaw was the first we had ever tried that didn't have mayonnaise. It didn't need mayo! It was savory and delicious with finely chopped onion and what tasted like a splash of rice vinegar. Her other side dish was creamy grits, and who don't like Southern grits?

Whilst my bride was ordering her catfish, I was eyeing Paula's Bucket. It was hard to tell from the pictures as to the size of Paula's Bucket, so I had to ask, "How big is Paula's Bucket?" Joy kept a straight face through this exchange and suggested I would be pleased with that bucket crammed with shrimp, steamed oysters, clams and mussels, and topped with Old Bay. If this bucket had red taters and cobs of corn, I don't remember them. Paula's Bucket was a big'un and I was stuffed!

The only other negative about Bubba's is that you need to carefully review your check. We were billed for two additional beers that we were never served.

Our total for food and beverages: $107.87 and that included a 20% gratuity. And we can now say, "Been there, done that!"

Uncle Bubba's Oyster House on Urbanspoon

Uncle Bubba's Oyster House on Foodio54

Outdoor seating at Bubba's (when it isn't 32 degrees):

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Taste Of Tarpon Springs

Whenever we are in the mood for a short road trip in search of food, my bride and I usually head for Tarpon Springs. We love Greek food and in lieu of a long plane ride, Tarpon Springs, home to some truly great Greek cuisine, is a convenient culinary destination.

The Belle of Ballast Point and I have dined at a number of local eateries at or near the sponge docks, and yesterday (MLK birthday) we decided to try one we had never been to before, Costas Restaurant at 521 Athens Street. Costas bills itself as the restaurant where the Greeks go to eat.

We arrived a little after the noon hour and since we obviously had beaten the hordes of tourists clogging Dodecanese, we had our choice of a booth or table. We chose a booth with a window looking out on Athens. Menus were promptly presented and our drink orders taken.

During a trip to Greece some years ago, we acquired a taste for what my bride calls Janitor in a Drum. Personally, I think that retsina more closely resembles Pine-Sol, but that's just me. Retsina, to non-Greeks, is definitely an acquired taste with its distinctive sappy and turpentine like flavor.

Retsina is produced in almost all parts of Greece, but the best is considered that of Attica and should be served cold, as was our bottle of Kourtaki.

Retsina is ideal as an accompaniment for all types of Greek cuisine. Like most Greek beverages, it is undeniably at its best when combined with Greek foods. This is especially true if you are sitting out on a balcony over-looking the caldera on the island of Thíra while feasting on salty and delicious Greek olives.

Our server asked if we would like an appetizer. My bride who is a dainty diner said no, but I was intrigued by the Whole Salted Sardines in Olive Oil.

A couple of points here: first off, there was no olive oil except for what I added after the dish was served. And second, to identify this dish as "salted sardines," was a gross understatement.

I am aware that the Greeks pack sardines in salt as a preservative, but normally the sardines are washed before service. These were not! They were salty to the point of being inedible. I did manage to gag them down after trying to brush off the coarse salt, but they were still awful. Olive oil and retsina could not save them.

An unremarkable house salad that came with my entree helped clear away some of the salty taste, but just barely.

Speaking of salad, my bride decided on the Tarpon Springs version of a Greek salad, the one with a glob of potato salad that we never experienced while in Greece.

The Belle commented later that this was not a particularly memorable salad. Actually, said she, "Your home-made Greek salad recipe with potato salad from Publix is much better." Not a glowing endorsement for Costas, but certainly a culinary atta-boy for me.

In addition to the Greek salad, the Belle had a delightful Gyro Sandwich - slices of lamb and beef wrapped in pita bread with onions, tomatoes, and tzatziki sauce. This gyro was huge and delicious. She couldn't finish it, so it came home with us and I am enjoying it now as I type.

I was torn between having a couple of appetizers or the Costas Seafood Feast. The feast was a combination of broiled octopus, fried smelts, and fried squid served with rice, fries or vegetable. I chose the feast because it came with the octopus and smelts and squid. There was a ton of food on that platter, but way more smelts and squid than my favorite, octopus.

I am not sure that Costas is the place where Greeks go to eat. There were way more tourists and many that we saw had simply ordered a hamburger with fries, but the experience wasn't bad and the prices were very reasonable. All of our food and wine came to $52.38. We added 20% for our server.

I do not envision a return visit.

Costa's on Urbanspoon

Costas Restaurant on Foodio54 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Farm To Table In Seminole Heights

Could the food culture of Tampa Bay be on the verge of casting aside the hackneyed menus that are so ubiquitous in restaurants on both sides of the bay? I think that we may have to answer yes to that question. The Oracle has experienced a few cutting edge restaurants on the Pinellas side of Tampa Bay that have impressed us with their originality and creativity. We have experienced less of that culinary innovation on the Tampa side, but the times, "...they are a-changin'."

Yesterday evening my bride and I journeyed from downtown Tampa north on Florida Avenue in search of a new dining spot I had read about and was anxious to try, the Rooster & the Till at 6500 C, North Florida. The Rooster is on the left as we drove north, and if you don't have a good navigator on board it is an easy place to miss. The building is in a small strip mall structure and the Rooster is nestled between a couple of other businesses.

We were to meet our dear friends Under Dog and Sweet Polly at the Rooster for our occasional blogger convergence. We arrived a little earlier than the 5 o'clock opening time, but to our surprise the door was unlocked and when we stepped inside we were greeted by our friends and welcoming staff members. While the restaurant was not quite ready to start dinner service we were invited to make ourselves at home and enjoy an adult beverage. That in itself is a refreshing change from gruff greetings we have received at other venues.

Since we were the first guests to arrive at this intimate 37 seat restaurant, we were invited to sit where we pleased. Megan, our delightful server for the evening, suggested we sit under the rooster...actually, a picture of the rooster, not the real bird. So, we did!

The dining area consists of table seating as well as bar seating. The interior of the Rooster has a charming rusticity and, according to the web site, "...was built by local craftsmen using reclaimed materials whenever possible."

Once seated, the next order of business was to order wines to accompany dinner. The ladies chose a refreshing Talley Vineyards Bishop's Peak Chardonnay with the subtle flavors of sweet tangerine leading to delicate notes of melon and minerals.

For us manly men only a 2010 Napa Valley Petite Sirah would do. This T-Vine Cellars wine is nearly black in color, with extracted flavors of blueberry cheesecake, cocoa powder and blackberry cobbler. This wine is mellowed for 11 months in about 35% New American oak and 65% once used French oak barrels. After barrel aging the wine is allowed to mature for an additional year in the bottle. Megan said we would not be disappointed, and she was correct. This was a spectacular wine.

Our menus suggested for raw and cured oysters, clams, crudos and such that we should take a gander at the chalk board toward the back of the dining room. Raw oysters you say? Why, heavens to Murgatroyd, I believe I will.

The Barnstable, Massachusetts oysters are farmed by a small family run operation harvesting briny, firm fleshed oysters with a sweetness at the center. The Wallace Bay oysters are harvested off the coast of Nova Scotia, they are plump for Canadian oysters with a medium brine and a mellow finish.

The prices seemed reasonable for oysters of this quality, and these were quality oysters. I requested 3 of each, and I can't remember the last time I tasted oysters this good. Normally I eschew garnishes on my mollusks, but the kumquat mint vinegar with the pickled chili peppers was sublime.

For the next stop on our culinary journey, the table shared the Charcuterie and Cheese Tasting with the Point Reyes blue cheese with honeycomb, Piccolo Crontonese cheese with golden raisin chutney, Flat Creek cheddar with pepper jelly, the delicious Chicken liver pate with candied walnut crumble, and finally the pork shoulder tasso with apple coffee butter. While each portion was a little small, it was apparent that much thought went into the preparation and presentation. I don't believe any in our party was disappointed in this tasting.

With recommendations from Megan, we continued sampling small plates. One of my favorites was the crispy pork belly with cornbread, dainty little pickled apples and peppercorn honey.

Next up were the smokey portobello mushrooms with savory burnt onions, green tomato, and Point Reyes blue cheese. Even my bride, the Belle of Ballast Point, who doesn't normally eat fungus, said these mushrooms were really good. I thought so, too.

The next dish served was the duck confit with smoked eggplant, acidic fennel and warm foie gras emulsion. This was one of only two only dishes of the evening that was not well received. It looked good, but for some at our table it was too vinegary, too acidic. The shaved black radish was a nice touch, though.

After tasting the small plates, our table decided to try the "slightly larger" plates starting with the rabbit ballotine with chicken liver, raisins, and unbelievably good porky kale on soft polenta. Even those in our party who were hesitant at the thought of rabbit seemed pleased with this innovative delight.

Another tentative plate was the squash orecchiette with braised goat, stewed tomatoes, hazelnuts and smoked butter. I think goat might be a little foreign to American taste buds, but this was some pretty good goat. It wasn't strong or gamey like some that I have consumed in the islands.

For me, one of the very best plates of the evening, besides the oysters, was the duck breast with charred carrots, spiced granola, black lentils, and duck demi-glace. The duck was cooked to perfection, and the lentils were tender and loaded with flavor. I don't remember other comments, but I was in water fowl heaven.

Dessert? You have to be kidding! I was stuffed, but when Megan described the parfait: orange spice custard with salted caramel, hazelnut granola, and rosemary creme fraiche I knew I had to at least have a taste. I was glad that I did.

I was totally impressed with Rooster & the Till - delightful, innovative food, great service, and reasonable prices. Our party of four split the bill, so dinner and wine for two, including gratuity came to $167.24.

The Rooster menu changes based upon availability from nearby farms and gardens. This is a "must do" dining venue.

Rooster & the Till on Urbanspoon

Rooster and the Till on Foodio54

Friday, January 10, 2014

Breakfast From The Garden

While strolling through the SOG City garden this morning, I spied little splashes of red peeping out from under the greenery. My, my, spaketh I, bon jour my little radis petit déjeuner. The first of my fall crop of French breakfast radishes appeared ready for harvest, so I plucked a dozen or so from the ground.

These crunchy, earthy, slightly spicy little delights are often served in classic French style - uncooked, trimmed top and bottom and halved lengthwise with a little salt and a generous dollop of butter alongside. That is how I consumed them this morning.

How nice it is to be able to harvest breakfast instead of having to cook it; although, when I harvest again I think I will saute these little beauties in some butter - another classic preparation.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Eggs, Like Beer, Not Just For Breakfast Any Longer

One of the great joys in my life, besides the Belle of Ballast Point, is food...most all food, except German. I can handle a few Deutsch dishes, but it isn't one of my favorites, which has probably caused my German ancestors to roll over in their graves. Italian is a biggie for me though. I think there might have been a Luigi rumpy-pumpen in der Holzstoß, und er seine pumphosen auf dem boden hinterlassen in the distant past.

Anyhoosen, this brings me to my point which is my desire to get in touch with my Italian heritage by way of food. I love eating it and I have been inspired to cook authentic Italian dishes by Cooking Channel host, David Rocco. From David's Dolce Vita and Amalfi Getaway programs I have discovered that much of what we Americans think of as real Italian...isn't.

What I have learned from watching David's programs is that really great Italian food doesn't have to be complicated or expensive. As a for instance, last night I prepared a recipe that aired recently, the super simple and tasty Eggs in Tomato Sauce. You may click on the link to pull up David's version of this dish.

His recipe looked easy enough, but down deep inside, I am a lazy cook. I should add that I am a lazy cook who loves pasta, so with that thought in mind I felt uncontrollably compelled to muck around with David's recipe. What I came up with is, what I call:

Eggs in Italian Gravy over Pasta

Instead of making my sauce from scratch, I decided to use a prepared marinara. What I chose was a 26 ounce bottle of DelGrosso Sunday Marinara from the local Publix. I don't usually recommend any particular brand of anything, but this was the best marinara from a jar that I have ever had.

You will want two or three eggs per person, four ounces of thinly sliced mozzarella, 8 ounces of pasta (angel hair, linguini, your choice), and a small bunch of torn fresh basil leaves.

Liberally season a pot of water with salt and bring to the boil. Cook the pasta al dente, drain and set aside.

Pour the sauce in a 12 inch skillet and heat to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Add the eggs, one at a time, to different spots on the sauce. Place mozzarella slices between the eggs, cover and simmer until whites are done. The yokes must remain runny for the best flavor and presentation.

Plate the pasta and gently scoop the eggs with sauce on each plate, sprinkle with the basil, then serve with a crusty Italian bread.

Cook's note: I sliced the cheese very thinly and it just melted down in the sauce. I think next time I will use thicker slices, maybe 1/4 inch, so that the cheese doesn't disappear.

Breaking the yokes allows the eggs to add a delicious golden sauce to this dish.

Buon appetito, y'all.