Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Soul Food Comes To South Tampa

The Oracle is just pleased as sweet iced tea to welcome a new restaurant to SOG City (South of Gandy). Mama's Soul Food Restaurant has opened their doors and we couldn't wait to go inside. And, inside was a good choice yesterday evening as the South Tampa skies opened up and dumped buckets of rain on the peninsula. This was definitely a "Holy crap Noah, hammer faster" kind of rain.

Mama's, at 5228 South Dale Mabry, is essentially a neighborhood restaurant for us and when we walked in we were greeted as neighbors. This is a friendly place with a friendly staff and manager. The mouth-watering aromas from the kitchen also assailed our senses and we were anxious to proceed with the proceedings.

Main dining room looking out toward the patio.
We started with a couple of cold brewskis that we brought with us. Mama's will not have their beer and wine license for another week or two, so in the meantime, it's BYOB. Kivonna was our most gracious server who brought menus and patiently answered any questions.

Why yes, I did have a question. I mentioned that in all of my many, many years living in Georgia and the Florida Panhandle, I had never experienced chitterlings. "Would it be possible to have one little chitlin for a trial run?" "Certainly, said Kivonna. After a short wait, she returned with a small plate of chitlins over rice.

If you have never had a chitlin you have no idea what you have been missing. Some people turn up their noses at the mention of chitlins, otherwise known as hog intestines. Chitterlings is the more formal name, but I've always heard them called chitlins. They are usually part of a larger meal that includes collard greens, fried chicken, and other traditional Southern foods. Chitlins are not for the faint of palate or smell, but my sample had a rather creamy texture with a good flavor and only a faint hint of barnyard. This will never be a favorite food of mine, but I am glad a I gave them a try.

Fried chicken gizzards are a favorite, although it has been years since I had a gizzard - not since Altman's Drive-in at Panama City Beach burned down. I had to try Mama's Chicken Gizzard appetizer. Those gizzards were perfect with a nice crunch on the outside and tender to the tooth on the inside.

My bride, the Belle of Ballast Point, had quietly sipped her beer while I enjoyed these two Southern delicacies. She is not an aficionado of guts or gizzards. Poor girl knows not what she was missing, or maybe she did. For her entree, though, she chose the Mama Q Pulled Pork, a very tender and flavorful choice. This dish came in the form of a sandwich, which wasn't identified as such on the menu. I think that was her only disappointment of the night.

The other half of the sandwich didn't wait around for the photo shoot.
For my main dish I chose Mama's Oxtails with two sides, lima beans and collards with cornbread. That was some good eatin' and was a very filling dinner.

Mama's Soul Food Restaurant certainly isn't what you would call haute cuisine, but Mama's does serve well prepared, filling, and honest food at affordable prices. Our total for the evening came to $30.87. We tacked on a nice tip for superior service provided by Kivonna.

The Belle and I are hoping to return to Mama's this weekend for breakfast. I've got my eyeballs and taste buds zeroed in on the Mama's Fish, Grits, and Eggs. Down in the Keys at the Hungry Tarpon, this dish is called Grits and Grunts, and I can't wait to try Mama's.

Editor's update 6/1/2014: Breakfast this morning didn't work out too well. Mama's owner/chef apparently is some sort of preacher who needed to tend to his flock instead of his new restaurant, so Sunday morning breakfast wasn't happening. Our party of five went farther south on Dale Mabry to the other Mama's Restaurant.

Breakfast on a subsequent visit (on a Saturday) left much to be desired: a really slow kitchen, runny eggs, shortage of bread and biscuits. Mama's Soul has great potential if they can get their act together. The hours have been changed on Urbanspoon, but the menu still shows 7 to 7 on Sunday.

Mama's Soul Food Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Mama's Soul Food Restaurant on Foodio54

The Oracle dines anonymously and we don't trade reviews, good or bad, for any type of compensation.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Datz: Dining Misadventure

The Belle of Ballast Point and I have dined at Datz on numerous occasions. We usually are very satisfied with the food and the service. Our last visit was yesterday evening to celebrate my bride’s birthday, and I am thinking that the emphasis for that experience should be on “last visit.”

I had made early evening reservations and when we arrived the gods of parking smiled down on us and we pulled into an empty space right in front. We were greeted at the hostess station and guided to an awaiting table. Our server for the evening, Maggie, presented us with menus and took our adult beverage orders. So far, everything was going swimmingly.

When asked if we desired appetizers we chose the intriguing sounding Skinny Dippin’ Chicken Skins, lightly battered chicken skins that had been deep-fried to crispy goodness and served with a sweet chili-curry dipping sauce. Each morsel resembled fried pork chicharones, and while lighter in taste than pork, these skins were so very…holy crap, raw! The batter was crispy and the first few we tried were good, but then we hit the raw skins that generated a severe gag reflex in my bride. The night came close to being very messy.

We washed away that memory with a couple sips of a very good Shooting Star Pinot Noir, and then our entrees arrived. I am not going to ramble on about how simply amazing everything was, but just cut to the chase and say that the braised pork shank that my bride ordered was flavorful but dry. My rib eye steak was…holy crap, raw! I had requested medium-rare and there was nothing medium-rare or rare about that steak. It was flat out raw in the middle. Maggie was quick to return it to the kitchen and 20 or so minutes later, it came back as originally requested. That was a delicious steak, but I took most of it home since my dining partner had pretty much given up on her meal.

Besides which, she wanted to save room for dessert and for dessert it was suggested that the chocolate Oreo cupcake would be a perfect choice. What was presented was an unbelievably dense chocolate wad that was almost impossible to cut into. It was topped with a creamy looking glop with the texture of Play-Doh…a sweet Play-Doh, but still. The accompanying ice cream was the only edible part of that dessert.

I have no photos documenting our Datz misadventure. Since I had already reviewed Datz twice, I didn’t bring a camera. I had not intended to do a third review. This was just meant to be a pleasant and relaxing birthday dinner for my bride. Additionally, review after review after review of the same restaurant is more than slightly monotonous and might lead readers to question the credibility of that reviewer.

We are still shaking our heads in wonderment over how the most talked about and reviewed restaurant in Tampa could have such a poor showing. It can only be hoped that this was just a really off-night. We are in no hurry to return and test this theory.

Editor's update 7/18/2014: I was pleasantly surprised to get the following email from Deborah of Datz:

Deborah B. has left a new comment on your post "Datz: Dining Misadventure":

"TRIPLE YIKES. Sounds just awful. But we don't want you and your bride to go away angry with a "bad taste" in your mouths (pardon the pun), particularly when this was such a special night for the two of you.
Please email at [sic] me ****, and let's arrange for a do-over.
I look forward to hearing form [sic] you!!"

I consider a response of any kind from a restaurateur, like Deborah of Datz, as a sign that they really care how their restaurant is perceived, and that they are willing to do whatever to make sure their customers are happy.

From experience the Oracle is aware that there are far too many bay area dining venues that really don't give a rat's patoot whether their customers are happy or not. That Datz does seem to care sets them far above many others. Datz is to be commended.

Since it is the Oracle's policy to dine anonymously and not exchange reviews for free anything, we will not arrange for a do-over. The gesture is very much appreciated though, and has been frequently offered to other diners, not just us. My bride and I will probably wander in to Datz once again someday and dine incognito...with sunglasses, fedoras, and trench coats hiding our identities. 

Datz on Urbanspoon

 Datz on Foodio54

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Simply Mad About Mad Beach Fish House

“Writers fish for the right words like fishermen fish for, um, whatever those aquatic creatures with fins and gills are called. 
” ― Jarod Kintz, This is the best book I've ever written, and it still sucks

And here I sit fishing for words to describe the indescribably delicious seafood feast I was served today at the Mad Beach Fish House on, where else but Madeira Beach. This delightful eatery is located at 13205 Gulf Boulevard. Before I blather on any further, allow me to pause and suggest that if you like "Old Florida" style seafood at affordable prices you must visit Mad. You will leave happy...I did.

Just off Gulf Boulevard, you park in front or a convenient side lot and enter in front. You have a choice of using the stairs or the elevator to get to the third floor. We were promptly greeted at the door and invited to sit where we pleased. The Belle of Ballast Point and I had arrived just ahead of the lunch crowd, so we had a choice of seating options: inside at a picture window with a view or outside on the deck with an even more spectacular view.

Katherine, our most pleasant and efficient server, presented us with menus and took our beverage orders. After returning with our drinks, she inquired if we had any questions about the menu choices. Mad Beach has a Seafood Feast listed under Buckets, and I was curious about the two sizes after a disastrous "bucket" outing last weekend at a Gulfport venue. The bucket for one for $24.95, or the bucket for two for $36.95? Katherine assured me that the bucket for one would serve me well.

I could hardly believe my eyes. That bucket was filled to the brim with succulent, perfectly cooked seafood: a nice sized crab cluster, huge shrimp, mussels, and clams, a full ear of freshly cooked corn, red taters, and all seasoned just right with an Old Bay spice. The shrimp were so tender and juicy swimming in garlic butter that dribbled down my chin and arms. This might not have been a real appetizing sight, but I enjoyed the dickens out of that bucket. And just look at that shrimp!

My bride surprised me with her order since she is not known as an aficionado of seafood. Her choice for today's feast was the Crab Cake Sandwich that was loaded with lump crab meat and topped with tomato and onions on a Kaiser roll adorned with a savory Creole mustard sauce. She declared the crab cake to be an excellent choice with more crab than breading and the meat had been picked over to remove any cartilage. The side of French fries was prepared just the way she likes them: extra crispy, s'il vous plait.

The Mad Beach Fish House was an excellent choice for lunch and with frog legs on the dinner menu, I can envision a return trip. The only ever so slight negative for my bride was that we didn't arrive a little earlier so that she could chow down on the breakfast menu treats.

We dined anonymously and paid full price for all that we consumed. With adult beverages, our bill was a trifling $40.25. We also left a greater than 20% gratuity for Katherine.

Editor's Update 6/7/2014: We were back on the beach for a wedding and decided to visit Mad again for lunch. Those frog legs were still calling to me, so I asked our server if I could order them for lunch. "Why sure," she replied.

Those legs of frog were divine: lightly breaded and cooked to tender, juicy perfection. Again, the steamed corn was just right, not raw and not cooked to death. The red beans and rice were about the best I have ever tasted. Those beans were so savory and delicious I came close to a gastronomic swoon.

I saw that my friend Tina of Not Your Momma's Kitchen also tried those red beans and was similarly impressed, "Those beans were creamy, flavored heavily with a Cajun kick, full of peppers, onions, sausage chunks in a slightly thickened broth. Tender rice underneath, I could have eaten two cups."

Well said, Tina, well said.

My only negative on this visit was the size or quantity of those frog legs. They could have been bigger, or there could have been more of them. They are just so good!

Mad Beach Fish House on Urbanspoon

For your further enjoyment, the Oracle presents a few photo outtakes.

Indoor dining area and bar.

The next two were taken by my loving bride and posted on Facebook for the world to enjoy (ridicule).

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Beach Haus On The Bay

There's not much in the food world that gets my taste buds a-twittering as much as seafood. I truly adore Poseidon's gifts from his salty domain, especially if they are presented in a bucket fresh from the steamer and filled to the brim with tasty treats anxiously awaiting a dip in a bowl of clarified butter.

Not long ago I discovered a German restaurant on the Internet that not only serves dishes from the Vaterland, but also lists steamed buckets that loudly called my name:
  • Steam Beer Bucket

    $24.50 1 lb. of Sweet Snow Crab, 1/2 lb. of Clams, 1/2 lb. Peel and Eat Shrimp, White Wurst, Corn and Potatoes cooked in German Pilsner Beer
  • Steam Wine Bucket

    $27.50 1 lb. Whole Lobster, Scallops, Mussels, Knockwurst, Corn and Potatoes cooked in White Wine Citrusy Garlic Sauce
  • Steam Spicy Bucket

    $27.50 1 lb. Whole Lobster, Clams, Crawfish and Debreziner Wurst, Corn and Potatoes, Spicy and Smokey Cajun 

The Beach Haus German Restaurant, 3128 Beach Blvd. South in Gulfport, has been on my gastronomic radar screen ever since, and finally my bride and I made the trip across the bay yesterday to avail ourselves of the Haus's bill of fare.

The Belle of Ballast Point and I were greeted at the door, presented with menus, and promptly seated in a mostly empty restaurant. We had missed the lunch crowd and we were too early for the dinner and party folks.

The Beach Haus has an upstairs deck area, but we decided to sit inside due to a rather stiff breeze that was blowing in from Boca Ciega Bay.

The lunch menu doesn't feature the steamed buckets of seafood, but our charming server, Tammy, pointed out that the buckets were available off of the dinner menu even at this early hour.

To be perfectly correct, I should have written 'bucket' since the Haus now only has one. The wine bucket and the spicy bucket are no longer offered. The remaining bucket is sorta the Steam Beer Bucket. Tammy mentioned that the menu had recently changed.

The remaining bucket is described as a bucket built for two. I was hesitant to order so much seafood since my bride would not be sharing. Seafood with shells is not her stein of beer, so to speak. After mulling over my decision I decided to cowboy myself up and get that bucket.

What was served wasn't quite what I had imagined from the website descriptions. There was a whole lot of empty bucket. The shrimp were scattered about that scrawny looking snow crab. Under that was a mesh bag with a whole lot of mussels, some clams, a cob of corn, a few red potatoes, and a white wurst. The seafood and veggies were well prepared and probably would have been sufficient for two light eaters, but this was a bucket built for one. Also, it would have been a nice touch if someone had skimmed the crud from the clarified butter.

Another menu change that wasn't listed on the website is the cost of the bucket. It went from $24.50 to $36.50. I'm not complaining about the price, this is just an FYI. Seafood, like everything else we consume, is going up dramatically. The high cost of seafood is just something we will have to accept as a fact of life, though I do think the bucket should have been filled to match the two person price.

I'm not forgetting my lovely bride. She started with an order of potato pancakes with lingonberries and sour cream. The potatoes were crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. She was pleased with this selection.

Following the pancakes, she requested the Waldorf Salad Sandwich with chicken, apples, grapes, celery, walnuts, mayo, lettuce, and tomato on kaiser roll. Her side was a simple potato salad. Both salad and sandwich were good she said, just not spectacular. The salad was a little dry and could have used a bit more mayo.

With several beers apiece, our total came to a reasonable $63.39. We added 20% for Tammy. Except for the breeze coming from the bay, we were not blown away by our visit to the Beach Haus, but I am glad we gave it a try. I definitely would not return for the seafood.

Beach Haus on Urbanspoon