Thursday, July 31, 2014

What-A-Ripper!

Never in my wildest dreams could I have envisioned taking a 100 mile round trip car ride for a freakin' hot dog, but today my bride and I did just that. It wasn't just a hot dog, it was a New Jersey kind of ripper that lured us to Rippers Roadstand, 5967 Factory Shops Blvd. in Ellenton, Florida.

So, what is a ripper you might be wondering? If you have to wonder then you probably haven't really been to New Jersey, or you missed the Travel Channel program a few years ago. Well, a ripper is the term for a hot dog that is deep fried in oil until the casing bursts, or "rips".

I have ripped a few dogs in my home deep fryer and they turned out quite well, but I was curious to see what real live Jersey boys could do. Let me tell you right now that they do just fine.

The Belle and I bellied up to the order counter and perused the overhead menu board.


We ordered two beers, a side of really tasty fries, and two marvelous rippers. I chose the Barkin' Pig Ripper. This is the classic Jersey hot dog with the Rippers famous “Jersey bacon kraut”. The counter lady asked what I wanted on my Barkin' Pig. I asked what she recommended and she said the spicy mustard is the most popular, so that is what I got.

That dog was spectacular: crispy on the outside, juicy and tender on the inside with a perfect snap when bitten. That bacon kraut topping was worth a trip to Jersey, or Ellenton, in this case.



My beautiful bride went with the Texas Dog: spicy chili, mustard and freshly chopped onions. Judging from the chili that she had from ear to ear, I can only assume that the Belle was in ripper heaven.


If Rippers had a Roadstand in Tampa, I could see many repeat Oracle visits. Those rippers were worth the drive.


Two rippers, an order of fries, and a couple beers set us back a whole $16.20. We also dropped a handful of change in the tip jar.

Rippers Roadstand on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Toast Of South Tampa

This past Monday afternoon the Belle of Ballast Point and I attended a Tampa Bay Buccaneers football practice, where adult beverages are not served no matter how hot and dry the spectators get.


After a few hours, we spectators felt the need of a cold one, so we left the practice field and headed south to Toast Wine and Cafe on Manhattan. This was our first visit even though Toast had been on our radar for several months. We were warmly greeted by the delightful Tierney who invited us to sit where we pleased: outdoors on the deck, indoors at several high tops, or at the bar. We chose the bar, looking toward the beer tap wall.


"A couple of those Goose Island 312 drafts, please Tierney." 312 Urban Wheat is a American pale wheat ale style beer brewed by Goose Island Beer Co. in Chicago with a hazy straw color, light orange hop aroma, fruity ale flavor, creamy body. This 312 was a very refreshing brew.

To accompany our 312 drafts, we chose the Antipasto Pairing with a delicious sampling of cheese and meats. This platter was more than enough to dissuade our hunger pangs.


While enjoying our antipasto, we noticed a poster advertising a Halter Ranch Wine Dinner. We asked about this event and Tierney said it would take place the following evening and there was one table left. This dinner would feature four dinner courses with wine pairings from the Halter Ranch Vineyard. At $55 a person this sounded like a good deal, so we signed up.

My bride and I arrived at Toast a bit before seven this past Tuesday and were guided to our very own reserved table (reservation in our name, not the Oracle). Donna was our personable server for this event and promptly brought out our first food and wine tasting.

Without being hurried, our food and wine appeared in the following sequence:

Chilled watermelon gazpacho with sprinkles of dill and the Halter Ranch Rose
Sweet piquillo peppers, slow roasted and stuffed with goat cheese, herbs, spices, and drizzled with olive oil were teamed with a Cote De Passo Blanc
For our third course we had a choice of center cut ham steaks, cedar planked fillet of salmon, or grouper accompanied with mashed potatoes and oven roasted zucchini. The pairing was the Halter Ranch Cabernet.



Even though the dinner was listed as four courses we finished with a dessert and then a cheese plate to compliment several additional Halter Ranch wines.

Classic vanilla bean creme broulee with torched turbinado sugar

Our chef for this event was Hector who did a fantastic job with the foods and was a very gracious and charming host. Hector, by the way, is the chef at the Toast in New Tampa. He was brought in especially for this event. An additional tip-of-the-hat to manager Stone for ensuring the success of this grand evening.


The foods served at this dinner event are not on the usual Toast menu. They were prepared for this event, but the quality bodes well for the dishes on the regular menu. We will be back to Toast of South Tampa, and we are looking forward to their next dinner party.

Unlike other Tampa Bay bloggers who trade "glowing" reviews for free food, the Oracle eschews that somewhat questionable practice. We dined anonymously, and paid $55 per person for this dinner event. We also added a 20% gratuity for Donna.

Toast Wine & Cafe on Urbanspoon 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Breakfast At The Bake

The Belle of Ballast Point and I stopped in for dinner the other night at Mario's Trattoria and Bar on Bayshore south of Gandy. This was the old Cellini's, but has now been reincarnated as Mario's, serving some original and outstanding Italian specialties.

We were delighted to discover that the long awaited bakery that Mario's has been promising is now open. There were some very interesting items being offered on the breakfast menu that demanded a return visit from us. So, this morning we headed for The Bake of Tampa, 5427 Bayshore, adjacent to Mario's restaurant.

The Bake is either order to go or sit pretty much wherever you choose. We considered the patio, but Tampa in July is a bit muggy, even at 10 in the morning. The Belle and I chose to sit on the inside at a bar looking to the outside.


The Bake has several choices to satisfy your caffeine craving: coffee Americana, cappuccino, latte, macchiato, and hot tea. Owner Michael poured us two cups of excellent coffee Americana.

My dazzling dining partner chose to break her fast with the Breakfast Plate with an egg, fruit, cheese, and a couple of slices of a light and airy Italian bread. She chose Nutella as her bread spread. This was a great pairing with hard and soft cheeses and the accompanying grapes. This breakfast plate would have been better if consumed on a balcony overlooking the Almalfi coast. Oh, well!


I was enticed by The Bake's Beansy. This was an intriguing dish with an egg, Italian sausage, melted provolone cheese, diced tomatoes, red peppers, and white beans topping a crispy bruschetta. I very much appreciated this very filling and original breakfast treat. I am not fond of the typical American breakfast foods, so the Beansy was a winner for me.


We can enthusiastically recommend The Bake for light breakfast and lunch fare along with some really good Italian baked goods. My bride and I took home a bag of zeppole (similar to a beignet) for breakfast tomorrow.


The menu board changes periodically, but this is what was available during our visit.  

Buon appetito, y'all!

The Bake of Tampa on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Voice Of The Lobster

'Twas the voice of the lobster I heard calling to me. The voice commanded, "Get thee hence to the haven of lobsters." Therefore, it came to pass that yesterday my bride and I saddled up our trusty steed and wended our way to near Oldsmar to enjoy the gifts from the sea offered by Lobster Haven, 12807 West Hillsborough, just a mile or two south of Maine.

We entered this quaint looking establishment in a nondescript strip mall through the "lobster" door and were immediately greeted by Holly who catered to our every whim during our late lunch dining adventure. The other door was the "oyster" door, but both doors get you to the same place.

I asked Holly about the oysters. On the menu were Blue Points and Holly said they are freshly shucked to order. Well, all right then, I'll have a dozen of these delights on the half shell.


These mollusks were fairly well shucked and had that delicious, salty taste of the sea. This was a welcome change from the tasteless, "out-of-season" Gulf oysters served at so many local establishments. The oysters were served with the usual cocktail sauce and loads of Saltines. As I mentioned to Holly, good oysters require nothing to muck up or mask their flavor. She seemed to agree.

My bride, as I have mentioned on numerous occasions, is not an aficionado of most seafood, so she picked through the menu and requested the Crab Cake Sandwich.



The crab cake is pan fried and served with the Haven's special crab cake sauce. This cake was crispy on the outside, moist and flavorful on the inside, with a lot of crab, and a honey-mustard sauce that was an excellent accompaniment. The potato salad was "fabulous," with a tangy base for the red potatoes and purple onions. The Belle was exceedingly pleased with her choice.

Holly presented my bride with a bib, not for her crab cake, but to protect her from the over-spray from my upcoming lobster orgy. I eschewed the bib. It is my belief that a little food slobbed on one's clothing does a successful meal make. It's a guy thing.

I, on the other hand, could not resist the Shanty Bake Bucket with a 1 1/2 pound whole Maine lobster joined by a boatload of clams and mussels, potatoes, and a steamed cob of corn.



This was a classic case of "my eyes were bigger than my stomach." That bucket, along with the oysters and a couple bottles of Abita Amber had me wishing for a bigger stomach, but it was all so good.

The lobster was steamed to perfection, and I was able to break it down piece by piece, so that I could enjoy all of its goodness, including that heavenly green tomalley and lobster fats.

Gracious goodness was that ever heaven for the buds of taste...and other body parts! (Studies have shown that zinc in lobster has been linked to a healthy male libido. Plus, its concentration of essential fatty acids may increase sensitivity in your sex organs.)

Editor's note: Based upon those studies, I would suggest that when in public, you might want to eat lobster at your own risk. It's just a thought.


All food and adult beverages came to $95.16 and we added a 20% gratuity for Holly. To me, Lobster Haven is more akin to lobster heaven. This was a spectacular dining experience!

Lobster Haven on Urbanspoon

Lobster Haven

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Bitter And The Sweet

The sweet that I am referring to is my bride's retirement from gainful employment - I have my playmate back again!

Now that the Belle is no longer working we have no need of two vehicles, and this is where the bitter comes into play. Gus is my beloved pick-em up truck. This is the best and most versatile vehicle I have ever owned. I love Gus, but Gus has a manual transmission. My bride refuses to have anything to do with a manual transmission.

After careful thought and consideration I have arrived at a clear cut decision: I love my bride more than I love Gus, so Gus must go.

As of 7/26/2014, Gus is gone. I am in mourning.


Monday, July 7, 2014

Gulf Boulevard: A Culinary Destination

Ever on the lookout for cutting edge, innovative, culinary delights, my bride and I often wind up on Gulf Boulevard, that strip of road that parallels the Pinellas County beaches. We have grazed from Clearwater Beach down to Pass-a-Grille and back. We have enjoyed a myriad of memorable meals, the latest at Café Luna Bistro, 6700 Gulf Boulevard.

The Belle of Ballast Point (she who has retired) and I along with our dear friends Sweet Polly (she of the Epicurean Perils of…) and her mighty Underdog entered this delightful yet unassuming dining spot this past Saturday for what has come to be called our Blogger’s Convergence. This is an opportunity for four foodies with refined buds of taste to indulge in fine food and wine.

The Café Luna Bistro did not disappoint. We had the requisite reservations and were promptly seated and presented with menus. Beth, our charming and professional server then arrived to cater to our every gastronomic whim starting with a couple of bottles of wine for the table: a Chardonnay for the fair damsels and a manly red Petite Sirah/Petit Verdot for the…well, manly men.

While awaiting the arrival of our Thai Spring Rolls and Smoked Fish Spread appetizers the table received a basket of crispy, light, and airy breads with herb infused olive oil.


The spring rolls consisted of beef and Asian vegetables wrapped and fried a crispy, golden brown, and then presented with a sweet chili sauce for dipping.




As good as those spring rolls were, and they were good, the Smoked Fish spread with a combination of grouper and snapper mixed in a chipotle, onion and mayonnaise spread was the best I have ever had.

 
This is the benchmark for all future fish spreads. Warmed crostini accompanied the fish, and a couple of drops of Cholula chipotle hot sauce added just the right amount of heat.

Each in our party of four ordered a different entrée. I had a taste of everything and I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite. They all were perfectly prepared and presented, but I will start with my Filet Napoleon.


This was a medium rare, grilled filet, topped with a grilled crab cake, sliced Portobello mushroom with a honey Dijon horseradish cream sauce and sweet balsamic reduction served with loaded mash potatoes and steamed asparagus. The cream sauce with balsamic reduction complimented the Portobello, crab, and filet perfectly. All elements of this dish practically melted in the mouth.

I still find it difficult to believe a simple chicken breast could be as heavenly as the Belle’s Chicken Marsala. This tender sautéed chicken breast was coated with a rich, sweet Marsala sauce with creamy whipped potatoes and the ubiquitous asparagus. Though my bride isn’t a fan of mushrooms, she said even they were good.



Sweet Polly had one of the best red snapper dishes I can ever remember tasting. The Chili Snapper, panko coated and pan-fried to crispy goodness was then slathered in a sweet chili teriyaki glaze, and served with seasoned rice, and crisp stir-fry vegetables.


Underdog was probably fortunate to lose only a few bites of his Shrimp and Andouille Sausage entrée to his bride, a true Southeran gurl. The jumbo shrimp with Andouille sausage was sautéed with bell peppers, onions and celery in a port wine demi-glace, Cajun seasoning and chives served with…here it comes… three cheese grits. To quote Sweet Polly, “I love grits almost more than life itself.”


I am not a dessert person, but the table did order two dishes that apparently pleased the palates. The Apple Cinnamon Bread Pudding was probably the favorite followed closely by the Double Chocolate Brownie with berries and vanilla ice cream.
 

I would have to rate the dining experience at Café Luna Bistro as one of the best in the Tampa Bay area. The service was friendly and efficient; the wine selection left little to be desired, especially in pricing, and the food was exceptional.

All food and wine for the four of us came to $270.92. We split the bill down the middle so the bill for two came to a very reasonable $135.46. We tacked on an additional 20% for our server Beth.

Good food, good wine, good times, and it didn’t strip the family coffers. Another winner on Gulf Boulevard, the boulevard of gastronomic dreams.

Cafe Luna on Urbanspoon

Saturday, July 5, 2014

I See Sharks On Gandy



The Belle of Ballast Point and I have been frequenting I.C. Sharks Seafood Market for years. Sharks has the best variety of the freshest seafood we have ever come across in the Tampa Bay area. For the last several years we have been eagerly awaiting the opening of the I.C. Sharks Tiki Bar and Restaurant.

The tiki bar came first and on several occasions we have enjoyed ice-cold beer and tasty snacks at the bar overlooking the water. Finally the restaurant opened and Sharks posted a menu, and though limited, we decide to try them around noonish on the 4th. Sharks has done a spectacular job on the bar, restaurant, and outdoor dining nooks and crannies.





The Belle and I started at the indoor bar with a half dozen oysters on the half shell for me and a couple of cold brews for the two of us. These Texas oysters were well shucked, but lacked the delicious salty taste of the sea. That is not a negative for Sharks; it is just not the season for great Gulf Coast oysters. I would love to see some Northern oysters on the menu during the hot summer months.


After the oysters, we wandered out to the tiki bar for a couple more beers and some more food. The Belle had a hamburger cooked her way…hockey puck done.


I had an order of steamed shrimp. The shrimp were not shrimpy. They were a nice size and perfectly steamed, served with a mundane ketchup and horseradish cocktail sauce. Jess, our entertaining barmaid, said the shrimp were sprinkled with Old Bay, but it was an undetectable sprinkle.



While the shrimp were good, there just was not any wow-factor. Sad to say, that was my impression of the entire menu. With so much spectacular seafood in the market, I just do not understand why the kitchen is not whipping up spectacular dishes utilizing that large variety of seafood. A little innovation could put I.C. Sharks menu over the top. Another way to approach this is to look at a competitor’s menu, and do not copy it. Show some originality.

We will continue buying our seafood from I.C. Sharks. I am just hoping that the restaurant is a work in progress.

I. C. Sharks Seafood Market on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 4, 2014

A Sports Bar, Nothing More

I attended a farewell get-together last night celebrating my bride’s retirement from the work force. The Belle and I along with a bunch of people from her office met up at Lee Roy Selmon’s in Brandon for adult beverages and comestibles.

This was a bittersweet event. All in attendance were happy for my bride, but sad to see her go. My baby is obviously well liked by the people she has worked with, some going back ten or more years, from Intermedia, to MCI/ WorldCom, to Verizon, to Telovations, and finally BrightHouse.

The beer and wine flowed like…well, beer and wine. Service was prompt and accommodating, and the appetizers we ordered were well prepared and flavorful…thanks Pam.

The MVP PLATTER was a combination of Selmon Brothers’ Wings, Smokin’ Quesadillas and Fried Green Tomatoes. The wings were as good as we remembered, the quesadillas were the best of the three, and the green tomatoes weren’t bad.



From there the entrees went downhill. My PULLED PORK BOWL (Soul Good Pulled Pork, Selmon’s rice, fresh avocado, tomatoes, corn and lettuce mixed with hickory chipotle sauce and topped with fresh cilantro) was dry and tasteless…probably because there was no chipotle sauce. Even still, the pork was stringy and devoid of flavor.

The SOUL GOOD PULLED PORK (Slow smoked. Topped with Selmon’s house sauce. Served with baked beans and corn) that the newly retired person requested was “not bad.” Whatever entrée Pam had was judged to be really dry and over cooked.

The bowl on the left and the pork plate on the right.

We had been to a Selmon’s down in Ft. Myers some years ago for a blacked-out Bucs game and were not impressed with any of their offerings beyond appetizers…wings and such. After last night, the same can be said for the Selmon’s in Brandon. Go for a game, cold beer, and finger foods. This franchise is a sports bar, nothing more. Go elsewhere for dinner.

Our friend Pam picked up the check for four of us, so I have no idea how much the evening cost.

Lee Roy Selmon's on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Let's Git To Shuckin' The Corn

While navigating to a YouTube video posted on Jeff Tone's blog The Liberal Curmudgeon, I happened upon the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys. Whether or not you fancy bluegrass music, you need to watch and listen to this bedroom practice session, and then ask yourself, "What was I doing at age 9, or 14, or 15?" Well, these brothers from the bluegrass capital of the nation, New Jersey, are burning the proverbial house down.