Thursday, February 20, 2014

Ramen Mania Hits Tampa

Editor's update: I really hate to report this, but Nakaya has apparently closed for good, and that is not good. Sad to say, sayonara.

I remember it well. There on the menu in this little neighborhood eatery in San Pedro Sula, Honduras I spied Huevos del Toro. Did I have to try this grilled delicacy? Eggs of the bull? You betcha, I did. Ever since, I have been an aficionado of those tantalizingly tasty testicular treats.

It was with great anticipation that my bride and I entered the Nakaya Japanese Bistro at 301 West Platt Street in Hyde Park last night, for I had seen that the appetizer menu featured huevos del pulpo. Actually, it didn't and I was just a tad disappointed. What was listed was Takoyaki, otherwise known as octopus balls, a ball-shaped Japanese snack made of a wheat flour-based batter and cooked in a special takoyaki pan, but still I had to have them.

My balls, well the ones in my order, were filled with diced octopus (tako), tempura scraps, pickled ginger, and green onion, and then brushed with takoyaki sauce, similar to Worcestershire sauce, and mayonnaise. These were some really delightful balls, and probably one of the best dishes of the evening.

While octopus do have testicles (literally in their heads, not figuratively as in human males), there were no 'nads in this dish. Fun fact: Octopuses are extremely intelligent but live only 3-5 years, so they have limited time for accumulating information. Some researchers say that if octopuses lived longer, they, and not humans, would have been the dominant intelligence on Earth. 

Well, that should give us all the warm fuzzies. Were it not for a short life span we could be replaced by an octopus. Now, back to the food.

The Belle of Ballast Point decided to keep to dry land for her appetizer, Karaage, otherwise known as Japanese fried chicken. These tender morsels of juicy chicken are first marinated in ginger, garlic and soy sauce, then coated in potato starch and fried to crispy, mouth watering goodness, and then coated with a light dusting of curry powder. The chicken was accompanied by a savory dollop of wasabi aioli that was zesty, but not particularly beneficial to this dish.

Ramen seems to be the latest "foodie" craze sweeping the nation, and ramen mania has arrived here in Tampa with the appearance of Nakaya. This is a welcome addition to the food scene here in the land of ubiquitous sushi joints that seem to spring up on every street corner not unlike a new Walgreen's across from a CVS.

The Belle and I were curious to see what all the fuss was about. We have both experienced ramen in a cellophane bag from Publix. This is a quick and easy dish that is satisfying, especially if there is no other food in the house. But, what about a restaurant specializing in noodle-based soups?

I had read some good reviews of the Chashu Ramen bowl with sliced pork. Chashu is usually made with pork flank, which is also called pork belly or side pork. This cut is often used to make bacon.

My ramen bowl had several slices of a dry and tasteless pork loin. There were no traces of fat and as a consequence, no trace of flavor. The broth was savory and delicious with a sliced quail egg and hints of star anise. The noodles were, well, noodles.

For her ramen bowl, my bride chose the Wonton Ramen. Again, a very flavorful broth. The wontons seemed to have a somewhat mushy texture, either that or it was the filling. Either way, this wasn't one of her favorites.

As I mentioned earlier, it is great to see an alternative to the faux-sushi joints that seem to be sprouting like a mutant virus across our city, but it is difficult for us to get overly excited about ramen noodles. We brought some of ours home last night (we were too full to finish), along with some of that delicious broth.

I cooked up a package of the ramen from Publix this morning and then added some of the broth from last night. Comparing my two ramen bowls side by side, the differences in taste and texture were negligible. I can only conclude that it is the broth that makes a stand-out bowl of ramen, and this broth was superb.

Our bill for the evening came to an unbelievably (after all, this is Tampa) low $33.71. We felt a little guilty leaving a measly $7 tip for Angela, so we rounded up to $10. She was great.

Editor's update 5/18/2014: Nakaya finally received their beverage license and now serves beer and wine.

I would definitely encourage you to visit Nakaya. There is much more than just ramen bowls on their menu.

Nakaya Japanese Bistro on Urbanspoon

Nakaya Japanese Bistro on Foodio54

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Arirang My Bell

The Oracle is pleased as bokbunja to welcome a new dining option to SOG City. South of Gandy at 5232 MacDill Avenue sits Arirang Korean Restaurant, a venue serving exciting and flavorful Korean delicacies. Arirang is a Korean folk song, often considered the unofficial national anthem of Korea.

My bride, the Belle of Ballast Point, and I had fortuitously made reservations for dinner at Arirang for Valentine's Day which happened to be Arirang's grand opening with seating by reservation only. We were immediately greeted at the door and guided to our awaiting table. Erin was the server tending to our every whim and answering a myriad of questions.

Airang is still waiting for the city of Tampa adult beverage people to get their butts in gear and approve the sale of beer and wine (probably toward the end of February). In the interim, patrons are allowed to bring their own beverages. We enjoyed a crispy Chardonnay that we purchased just down the road at the SOG City ABC liquor emporium.

To start our evening, the Belle and I chose a couple of savory delights, the Yaki Mandu for her and the Kimchi Pancakes for me.

The Yaki Mandu are fried dumplings filled with chopped pork, beef, chives, onions, and green onions, and are available in six or ten piece servings. The Belle chose six, and they provided a light, flavorful start to our dining experience.

I love kimchi and these pancakes, made with a flour and egg based batter, were liberally mixed with this spicy Korean delicacy. This platter could easily serve two people.

For her main dish, my sweet Valentine chose the Pork Bulgogi, a grilled pork dish served with rice, and lettuce leaves for wrapping. Of course, there were condiments for adjusting the heat to each diner's liking. The table was also served several small plates or bowls of food for sharing, like the spicy radish cubes in the photo.

I had never tried Bibimbap before, and have long been curious about this steamed rice dish with mushrooms, carrots, daikon, bean sprouts, spinach, lettuce, beef, fried egg, and a spicy pepper sauce on the side. This was an interesting dish that was enhanced with the egg yoke mingling with the meat and vegetables.

One of the truly unique side dishes was the steamed egg in a cup. This provided a light and airy addition to our meal.

Erin was kind enough to record our dining adventure for posterity. The rose and spray was presented to each lady. The men didn't get diddly or squat...except for the bill. I added the heart in the digital dark room.

We sat at a two-top, but there are several dining areas that have family sized tables.

The menu choices we made were good and very filling. Arirang has a number of other dishes that I look forward to sampling, especially after they get their beverage license. I am anxious to taste Makgeo Bokbunja wine, Soju wine, Baeksaeju wine, and Makgeolli Korean rice wine. These are beverages I have never heard of, much less tried.

Dinner for two with a 20% gratuity for Erin came to a very pleasing $64 and some change.

Arirang Korean Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Arirang Korean Restaurant on Foodio54

The Oracle dines anonymously and we pay full price for all that we consume. We don't trade glowing reviews for free food, and the restaurants do not provide remuneration for our reviews.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

I Got My Bucket In Nantucket

Editor's update. Darn it all to heck! The Bucket has closed for good. From their Facebook page: "We have closed the Nantucket Bucket and plan to reopen as Harborita Cantina, a Mexican theme, serving great food from our trailer and super drinks from our Tequila bar."

Crap and triple crap! Just what the bay area needs - another Mexican restaurant. We need one of those like we need another Italian place or another pizza joint.

To bay area restaurateurs: There are other cuisines.

The northeastern coast of the United States has been calling out to me for years. Lobster shacks up and down the New England coast have been torturing me with their promises of a never ending parade of meaty, fresh whole lobsters, plump steamed clams, and succulent oysters from the gods of Olympus. I have watched cooking and travel channel TV hosts stuffing their faces with heavenly gifts from the northern seas, swimming in melted butter. I have grown to hate those people! That should be me with a greasy chin and buttery fingers.

One day I will make that trip to the frozen north to scarf down those fresh seafood delicacies that, up until today, I could only dream about here in Florida. Today my urge to venture any farther north than Kennedy Boulevard was tempered when my bride, the Belle of Ballast Point, and I walked across the threshold of Nantucket Bucket, 519 2nd Street South in Safety Harbor. My quivering buds of taste were practically orgasmic with the promise of New England seafood enhanced with a touch of Florida cracker gastronomy.

We arrived at the Bucket around 11:30 and stepped into an empty restaurant. We beat the lunch crowd that started pouring in around noon, so in the meantime the Bucket was ours. Mindy, our delightful server, invited us to sit where we pleased. There were 130 seats to choose from: inside, outside, at the bar, or in several dining areas scattered about the property. We plopped ourselves down near the bar after a self-guided tour of the property.

The Bucket building is a Sears Catalog home built back in the 1920s. It is quaint and comfortable, and could be described as homey. Everyone that we encountered was friendly and accommodating. The service was excellent. The food was even better.

My gorgeous dining partner, who is not a true seafood aficionado, chose a "small plate" of Sausage 'n Grits, which is just like the southern staple, shrimp and grits, but without the shrimp. The sausage was spicy, but the heat was mellowed by the dreamy, creamy grits. She was satisfied with her choice. The sausage was savory and cooked to perfection and, "I have never met a grit I didn't like." Well, there you have it.

For her side, the Belle had the Bacon 'n Bleu Cheese Slaw. This was an innovative take on another southern favorite with chunks of bleu cheese in an aioli base with crispy bacon. As everyone knows, everything is better with bacon.

Now, let's talk about my bucket. Aw, c'mon people, I mean my Maine Bucket of seafood. This was a whole Maine lobster with mussels, Ipswich clams, taters (cracker for potatoes if you have to ask), perfectly steamed corn, and other assorted veggies. Every morsel was cooked by someone who knows how to cook. There was nothing that was cooked to mush. If Safety Harbor was closer, I would go back for dinner tonight.

In addition to catering to our every whim, Mindy was also the house photographer.

To sum up our visit to the Bucket: the food was fantastic, the service was excellent, and the prices were more reasonable than anything we usually experience on the Tampa side of the bay: $81.86 and that included our 20% gratuity for Mindy.

Nantucket Bucket on Urbanspoon

Nantucket Bucket on Foodio54

As a side note: What annoys the dickens out of me as a resident of Tampa, is having to regularly cross the bay into Pinellas County to find innovative restaurants with reasonable prices. I will now step off my soap-box.

The Oracle dines anonymously and we pay full listed price for all that we consume.