Sunday, September 14, 2014

Ulele: A Gastronomic Treasure

A recurring thought kept wandering through the caverns of my mind last night as I basked in Ulele's aura. If there were more innovative restaurants in Tampa, like Ulele, casting aside the hackneyed menus found all over the bay area, then maybe Tampa could wind up being a culinary destination.

From the moment we stepped inside Ulele's gastronomic chickee (Ulele was a Seminole Indian princess) to the moment we waddled out the door we were in awe of the charm of the restaurant and Ulele's staff. We had not made reservations since none were available. Ulele is pretty much booked solid for several weeks in advance, but our party of four decided to take our chances since we were told that the bar and patio seating was first come, first served.

My bride and I received a most friendly greeting at the door as we entered around four thirty. The hostess said we could leave a name and number and she would call us if a table became available. She also mentioned the Oyster Happy Hour. I almost fainted! Oysters on the half shell are a buck apiece between four thirty and five thirty. She pointed towards the oyster bar and I was there in a flash.

The Belle of Ballast Point and I seated ourselves as the best oyster shucker in the entire Tampa Bay area handed us menus. Sara took our drink orders, a glass of Chardonnay for milady and a Water Works Pale Ale for me. Sara then proceeded to shucking those salty Gulf Coast beauties from Louisiana. Let me say this about that. Until last night I have not experienced a venue in Central Florida that has a clue as to how an oyster should be shucked and presented. Sara is the High Priestess of Oyster Shuckin'.

As I was polishing off my baker's dozen, we were joined at the bar by our friends Sweet Polly and her Super Hero Underdog. Polly's Epicurean Perils of... is the best food blog in this part of Florida, in my professional opinion.

Since we hadn't been called to our table yet Polly and UD ordered some adult beverages and appetizers: a lobster claw cocktail with two claws, corn, avocado, and cocktail sauce that looked out-of-this-world good, and the Alligator Hush Puppies with ham and duck bacon. I can't comment on the lobster since Sweet Polly didn't look at me too sweetly as I eyed her claws. The hush puppies reminded me of conch fritters, but kicked up a notch or two.

Just as I ordered my second appetizer, we were notified that a table was awaiting our presence. We paid our bar bill and went to our table. My Pulpo Carpaccio soon followed and my taste buds went into swoon mode as I savored the shaved octopus with a tangy piri piri sauce and a mound of sea weed salad. The salad was good, but the octopus was spectacular.

While awaiting our entrees, the table shared an order of Jalapeno Corn Beer Quick Bread, or corn muffins to us who don't know no better. When asked by our server Jorge how they were, it was suggested that they were good but could have been better if they were warmed. In an instant a new, warm serving was presented. And, yes, they were better especially with the creamy butter.

For our entrees both Underdog and I went hog wild over the Crackling Pork Shank, a brontosaurus sized crispy on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside shank with firecracker apple craisin chutney. The slightly sweet and piquant chutney perfectly offset the richness of that shank.

After a few moments of indecision, my bride settled on the Florida Pompano. This light and flaky fillet was pan seared and served with a sun-dried tomato shallot cream, and fried carrot ribbons. While this dish was well prepared, said she, it lacked something in the way of flavor.

Oozing with creamy delight was Sweet Polly's Deconstructed Seafood Pot Pie. This was a succulent chowder brimming with seafood and a side of puff pastry. This was definitely not my Mama's pot pie.

I was about to nod off in a caloric coma as the table ordered two tasty treats from the dessert menu: the Fortune Taylors Guava Pie, and the Candied Duck Bacon Maple Fried Ice Cream. The guava pie was light and delicious. The Candied Duck Bacon Maple Fried Ice Cream was so good it is probably illegal in some parts of the country.

Ulele, next to the Water Works Park, at 1810 North Highland Avenue in Tampa Heights, is a gastronomic Tampa treasure. The concept, the location, the art work, and the food are without equal in Central Florida.

The bill for oysters, all food and adult beverages came to $155 for the two of us. We tacked on an additional 20% for our servers. We dine anonymously and pay full price for all that we consume, and we consume a lot.

Ulele on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Cajun-Creole In South Tampa

New Orleans, its culture, charm, and most of all cuisine, makes the Crescent City one of our favorite travel destinations. With that in mind, my bride and I were simply ecstatic when we discovered that the Datz folks were planning on opening a Cajun-Creole restaurant in the space formally occupied by Wimauma.

Roux finally opened their doors the last week in August. The Belle of Ballast Point and I decided to give them a few weeks to work out opening day jitters. We speculated that by September the ninth they should pretty well have de-jittered themselves, so we made reservations at Roux to celebrate my birthday and remind ourselves why we love New Orleans cuisine.

We arrived promptly at 5:30 and were energetically greeted at the door and swiftly guided to our table in a quaint dining room reminiscent of some we have visited in New Orleans's midtown, uptown, Carrollton, Marigny, and Central Business (CBD) districts.

Our very pleasant, but distracted server, inquired if we would like an adult beverage. "Mon dieu, jeune dame, mais naturellement!" said I. Remembering a quintessential New Orleans beverage prepared by Pam at the bar in Le Pavillon, we requested a Sazarac for monsieur et madame.

This rye whiskey beverage with bitters and a swirl of absinthe was the signature drink of the Sazerac Coffee House in New Orleans, where it received its name in 1859. It was originally made with Cognac and the reason for the change to rye has been lost in the mists of time.

My bride decided against an appetizer (she prefers to save room for dessert), but I just had to have some Roux oysters since these mollusks make up a major New Orleans food group. Roux offers four choices: raw on the half shell, smoked on hay (yes, real hay), char-grilled, and something called an oyster po'girl.

I have had the best char-grilled oysters known to man at Felix's in the Quarter, and the sandwich didn't entice, so I decided on a half dozen each of the raw and the hay smoked. I have been wanting to try the hay smoked ever since I saw the preparation on the television program, Unique Eats! I also judge the quality and competence of a restaurant on how well they shuck and present oysters on the half shell.

Roux should not be allowed by the State of Louisiana to serve their oysters! The first tray presented to me were, as I told our server, awful. They were not freshly shucked, the salty liquor had been drained off, and they had that disgusting sheen that oysters get when they have been sitting out for a long while. I sent them back. The server promised a freshly shucked replacement that wasn't much better than the first.

My tray of hay smoked oysters came next. This was an improvement over the raw. The hay gave the oysters a very subtle and pleasant smoky taste. Unfortunately, the shucker had failed to cut the oysters loose from the bottom shell so the extraction was difficult and a bit messy.

We had requested a bottle of French red to accompany our entrees. The bottle was opened and poured before we finished our cocktails, and we were not offered a taste for approval. Actually, our dinners were served before we finished our cocktails.

Thankfully, we fared better with our entrees. The Belle of Ballast Point surprised me by ordering the Praline Panéed Redfish served on a bed of brabant sweet potatoes and topped with bourbon pecan brown butter. Brabant potatoes are crispy tender potato cubes that frequent many breakfast, lunch and dinner menus throughout New Orleans. The butter, potatoes, and redfish elicited moans of gastronomic delight from my dining partner.

I was pleased to see that Roux had included a dish on their menu that I had not seen before in the Tampa Bay area, the Wood Grilled Lamb Belly Roulade. I simply go wild over pork belly so I knew that I had to try lamb belly. This dish included two strips of belly rolled up jelly-roll style, grilled, then served on a bed of the brabant sweet potatoes, and enhanced with a creole mustard vinaigrette.

This was a pleasant and innovative dish that could have been a little more rare. I like a little "baa" in my lamb, but that's just me. I probably could have requested medium-rare, so this one's on me.

For her dessert, my bride chose the sinfully good Bourbon Butterscotch Pecan Bread Pudding. I am not a dessert person, but that pudding could make me a convert. Just look at the picture and drool.

I noticed that Roux has an absinthe drink on their dessert menu so I asked our server if the bar could whip me up an absinthe prepared in the traditional manner with the sugar cube and dripping water. She came back in a few minutes and said that would be entirely doable. I expected a glass of absinthe to be brought to the table. Was I ever wrong!

The keeper of the bar brought over to our table the entire Green Fairy shootin' match: fine absinthe, a glass, an absinthe spoon, sugar, and a carafe full of ice-cold water. I love dancing with the Green Fairy, but haven't danced a step since New Orleans. This is something I never would have expected in Tampa.

Our evening at Roux could have been memorable if the service staff could just slow down a bit and not make the patrons feel rushed. It's not called the Big Easy because they are hyper. And, for the love of John Besh, find someone who has a clue how to handle oysters. What was served to me would never have made it out of a New Orleans kitchen.

Dinner for two with all food and adult beverages came to a very reasonable $166.88. The $7 dessert was comped because it was my birthday. Normally we pay full price for everything, but it was my birthday dammit!

Roux Tampa on Urbanspoon


Editor's Update -  I received an email this morning (9/23/2014) from Suzanne Perry:

Gahhhhh!!!! I just this second found your Roux blog. They screwed up the OYSTERS!?!?! Well ........ We will fix that POST HASTE!

We bring the oysters in from Louisiana. We even flew in "The Oyster Guy" from Drago's to spend 3 days with my crew.

Sheesh. Must've been a new guy. Thanks for letting me know and we will fix it!

I value your feedback as you obviously know what you're talking about unlike a lot of feedback that is offered by those whose only knowledge of NOLA cuisine is what they ate drunk on Bourbon Street 10 years ago at Mardi Gras or threw up at Jazz Fest.:-)

Lunch rolls out 10/8.


Suzanne Perry

It is always a pleasure to hear from Suzanne since she and Roger obviously care what their customers think. I am sure that any glitches found at Roux or Datz would be fixed POST HASTE.

Speaking of absinthe, here is Roux's Absinthe Room decorated with absinthe posters.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Gitcher Mullet On At Ted's

Lydia (no, the other one) asked if we had ever been to Ted Peter's Famous Smoked Fish on Pasadena Avenue in St. Petersburg before. My bride, the Belle of Ballast Point, said no, but I responded that I had been to Ted's some forty years ago. Lydia (yes, that one) admonished me with, "I bet you're kicking yourself for waiting so long to come back." Unfortunately, I didn't have a snappy retort, but we got waited on anyway.

There is not much I can say about Ted's that hasn't already been said many times over the past 50 plus years. It used to be only the mullet was smoked and served at Ted's but over the years mackerel, mahi, and salmon have been introduced to the smoke house. Ted's also has chowders and sandwiches on the menu, but for me the only reason to go to Ted's is for the heavenly smoked mullet.So, my bride and I hitched up our nag to the old blue buggy and boogied over to St. Pete for lunch today.

In addition to the mullet, we had a couple of Miller's on draft along with sides of coleslaw and what is called German potato salad. While everything was good, that tater salad definitely didn't come from the fatherland. My Grandmother was a Deutschland hausfrau who was a whiz in the kitchen, so I know where of I sprechen.

The beer was cold, the service friendly and efficient, and the mullet was still out-of-this-world good. Lunch today at Ted's was worth the drive over to St. Pete and the $38 spent on food and drink. We also tacked on an additional $8 for our server, Lydia.

Oh, yeah, bring cash. They don't accept credit cards or checks. There is also a four beer limit per person to prevent rudeness from obnoxious tourists. Nobody from Tampa Bay would get drunk and disorderly at a family restaurant, now would they? Naw!

'twernt us, it musta been them others!
Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish on Urbanspoon

Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish Inc on Foodio54

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Superior Italian At Lauro's In South Tampa

Editor's update: Talk about "a day late and a dollar short." Today (10/29/2014) in the Tampa Times we read that Lauro's was permanently closed. That is horribly upsetting and very sad news. Tampa has lost another truly great, locally owned dining establishment.

Equally disheartening, in the same paper was the news that a new chain restaurant was opening up out on Chain Restaurant Boulevard (Boy Scout Road) that plans on serving pretty much the same, stuff as most every other upscale chain. Joy to the world ... just what Tampa needs, another same old, same old high dollar eating place.

Lauro's will be missed.

The Belle of Ballast Point and I have lived in South Tampa for decades. Last night we looked at each other in wonderment with a singular question on our lips, "Heavens to Murgatroid, why in the name of Snagglepuss have we not been to the fantastic Lauro's Ristorante Italiano before tonight?"

My bride and I attended a family birthday dinner last night at Lauro's and from the minute we entered to the moment we waddled out we were treated to the most friendly and professional service that either of us could recall.

Several in our party arrived about ten minutes prior to our 6:30 reservation and instead of being turned away until all of our party arrived, we were immediately escorted to our awaiting table. Slap my fanny and call me Spanky! That kind of gracious customer service is practically unheard of in Tampa Bay, and the evening just continued getting better.

Stefano, our server for the evening, was charming and gregarious as he catered to our every whim never once making us feel that we were an imposition. He was thoroughly versed in the food and preparation of the menu choices, and was able to offer pairing suggestions from the wine list.

Earlier in the day I had seen a mussel appetizer on the on-line menu. Stefano sadly pointed out that mussels were not available on this night. Sensing my disappointment he suggested I might be pleased with the steamed clams in a fra diavolo sauce. "...might be pleased..." was an understatement of monumental proportions.

Those were the most tender and succulent clams I have ever consumed, and that fra diavolo sauce was orgasmically good...seriously...with the perfect amount of piquancy to enhance the clams without overwhelming them with spice. My bride and I enjoyed a couple of glasses of Prosecco that paired well with my clams.

An additional appetizer ordered by our table was the Mozzarella Lucania, the homemade, deep fried mozzarella in a tangy tomato sauce. I wasn't offered a taste, but it must have been good because it disappeared in short order.

To accompany our entrees, the Belle and I shared a bottle of Chianti Classico, Peppoli, Antinori that was recommended by Stefano. This Chianti was lively and elegant, showing herb, black cherry and spice flavors backed by dusty tannins. This wine went perfectly with my indescribably delicious special of the evening, Veal Short Ribs braised in a white wine sauce atop a bed of Pappardelle.

The veal melted in my mouth and the pasta was swimming in a rich, swoon-inducing gravy. This was probably one of the very best restaurant dishes I have ever been served. My taste buds are still quivering in gastronomic excitement.

Before I immersed myself in that plate of veal goodness, I was able to get a snap-shot of the other culinary treasures ordered by our party:

Petto di Pollo Ligure

Carre D'Agnello Fornarino
Petto di Pollo Sassi

Scaloppini Valdostana
I did not taste these other dishes, but no one at our table had anything but praise for the foods we were served.

And, finally, the dessert tray:

Personally, I was too stuffed to care.

The total bill for my bride and I came to a very reasonable $175.97. Stefano more than deserved the 20% plus gratuity we added.

With the growing plethora of Italian restaurants in the Bay area, the one we read and hear little about, Lauro's, is simply the very best.

Lauro's Ristorante Italiano on Urbanspoon

Lauro Ristorante on Foodio54

Friday, September 5, 2014

Mouthwatering Q At The Hollow

One of the joys of being blissfully unemployed is the freedom to just pack our tushies into the family roadster and take a trip whenever the spirit moves us. Yesterday the spirit moved us to go back south to Ellenton, Florida to enjoy some more of what that burg has to offer.

On our last trip, we drove down yonder to feast on a ripper at Ripper's Roadstand. This time we decided to visit the Gamble Plantation and soak up some mid-19th century Florida history. According the Florida State Park Service website, "This antebellum mansion was home to Major Robert Gamble and headquarters of an extensive sugar plantation. It is the only surviving plantation house in South Florida."

We got a somewhat late start on our journey yesterday because we were busy gagging lollies. Consequently, by the time we found the plantation it was getting ready to close for lunch (11:45 to 12:45). No problemo! For we had a plan B, and that plan called for a lunch break of our own at the Hickory Hollow Carolina & Virginia Cookin' emporium at 4705 US Hwy 301 N. This turned out to be a first-rate plan B.

The parking lot was nearly empty as we parked our chariot around 11:30. We had our choice of tables and we were seated at a two-top with a large picture window. Carrie was our ever-so-charming server who catered to our every whim; no matter how ridiculous...well, mostly. We were presented with menus and our drink orders, from the extensive and eclectic beer menu, were taken.

My bride had a plebeian Miller Lite while I, with the more adventurous buds of taste, had a Colorado brewed Billy's Chilies, a light-bodied ale infused with Serrano, habanero, jalapeno, Anaheim, and Fresno chili peppers. That was a tasty, but muy caliente ale. I wimped out and toned it down for my second beer, a Cigar City Puppy's Breath porter.

After perusing the Hickory Hollow menu, it was obvious that this was not one of those ubiquitous BBQ joints serving the same stuff as every other joint. The Hollow displayed some serious originality in putting together their lunch and dinner menus. The diner may also choose from the dinner menu at lunchtime. How refreshing! Another thing that became obvious while we were waiting for our food was the fact that we beat the teeming lunch crowds that quickly packed the place.

At the Hollow you may order the fried soft shell crabs as an appetizer or as a platter with two sides. I chose the appetizer of three crabs and they were fried to perfection.

For her entree, the Belle of Ballast Point requested the Pork Barbeque Platter with two sides and two corn fritters. The pulled pork was tender, juicy, and the diner had a choice of sauces: either the tomato based or the savory North Carolina vinegar based. My bride was practically in a swoon over her side of corn pudding. She also had the black eyed peas, and while good, they were eclipsed by the corn pudding.

I should mention that the vegetable menu was a thing apart from the ordinary. It consisted of a wooden cut-out of a pig with veggie choices attached with Velcro, and the whole shebang encased in a plastic envelope. Carrie explained the reasoning: the veggie choices change on a daily basis depending on what is farm fresh that day. So, now we know.

On to my entree the crispy on the outside and so juicy and tender on the inside Char-grilled Garlic Pork Shanks. There were two of these porcine delights on my platter and I am still in porky awe at the goodness of these two shanks. They alone were worth the trip from Tampa. As my two sides, I had the black eyed peas and a bowl of some of the best collards found anywhere in Florida.

We have enjoyed barbeque at several joints in Tampa, but nothing compares with our dining experience at the Hickory Hollow. The delicious food and four beers came to a little over $38. We rounded up to $40 and gave Carrie a 20% gratuity based on that amount. Also, cash only - no checks or credit cards.

I would be remiss if I didn't gush over those fan-freakin'-tastic corn fritters: crispy on the outside, moist on the inside with kernels of corn and a hint of sweetness. With a sprinkling of powdered sugar these fritters would have made an excellent dessert. Unfortunately, we were too full and we also had a plantation to tour. Maybe next time.

Hickory Hollow Barbecue on Urbanspoon

Hickory Hollow Barbeque on Foodio54