Thursday, October 22, 2015

Sweet Sage Breakfast At The Beach

As the Chef de Cuisine in our kitchen by the sea, I do most of the meal planning and cooking. The one meal that I rarely do is breakfast - breakfast American style. I prefer something akin to a Thailand Gwit Diao, a soup with rice noodles, garlic, pickled radish, chicken or pork, bamboo sprouts or pak boong (morning glory). It’s basically chicken soup.

Breakfast, to my darling bride, is eggs, bacon, potatoes or grits, and biscuits. That's what she grew up with in the nether-reaches of Ohio and that is what she expects here in our stately pleasure dome on Gulf Boulevard. As far as I am concerned, that's way too much mis en place and cooking first thing in the morning.

To assuage her morning hunger, we have to go out if we want more than breakfast bars and cereal. That brings me to the point of this gastronomic epistle. This morning, after coffee and paper in bed, we suited up and headed out to the Sweet Sage Cafe and Boutique at 16725 Gulf Boulevard, North Redington Beach.

We broke fast at the charming eatery a few weeks ago, and loved it. The cafe has indoor seating, but dining outdoors in their magical garden is spectacular. The garden, like the rest of the cafe, is decorated in touristy kitsch, which only adds to the enchantment of the place. While the parking lot in front was packed, we found street parking nearby. We also expected a wait, but we were surprised to immediately be seated in the garden.

Hardly had our tushies touched the chairs before Heather presented us with menus and took our beverage orders. Since we had already consumed our morning coffee, we decided on one of the cafe's healthful juice drinks. In a flash, Heather appeared with our perfectly seasoned and prepared beverages.

Bloody Marys first thing in the morning seems like a completely civilized way to start one's day, and reminded us of why we decided to eschew going to w-w-w-work. That was rather painful to say.

While allowing that nectar of the gods to work its mellowing magic, the Belle of the Boulevard and I decided on our solid food druthers. For the Gardenia of the Sage Garden, the choice was clearly the Eye Opener with two scrambled, bacon, grits, and one of the Sage heavenly biscuits. This dish was a delight and the eggs were as light and fluffy as clouds.

The last time I dined at Sage I had the simply divine Scrambled Crab Benedict, a tasty crab cake topped with creamy scrambled eggs and covered with hollandaise. That was a superb dish, but this time I made another wise decision and requested the West Virginia Benedict with biscuits topped with creamy scrambled eggs and sausage gravy. Oh, my gawd, was that ever good!

If my old country Grannie had been from West Virginia, that is what I imagine she would have cooked. Grannie was from Germany, so she never cooked stuff like that, but I bet she could-a if she tried, and would-a hollered, Wunderbar!, if she did.

Food and adult breakfast drinks came to a pleasing $31.96. We tacked on an additional 20%-plus gratuity for Heather. As we were leaving I saw a beautiful display calling attention to Breast Cancer Awareness.

Sweet Sage Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sunday, October 18, 2015

TJ's, You Can Live On It ...

My bride and I drove over to the Big Guava today to see The Martian playing at CineBistro. On the trip back to the beach after the movie, we came to the realization that we were hungry. The Pocahontas of Indian Shores and I tossed about some ideas for dining. I was kind of in the mood for Italian so my bride suggested TJ's Italian Cafe. Since we had never crossed their threshold before, we decided to give them a try. 

It was early evening when we arrived, so we had the place mostly to ourselves. Since winter has arrived (holy crap, it was 68 degrees this morning) we decided to sit outside. The setting was very pleasant with a dandy view of Gulf Boulevard while gossamer tarps shielded us from the afternoon sun.

Christine, our server, soon appeared to take our drink orders. An Argentine Conquista Malbec seemed like a good choice, and it was: bright and fruity with plum, spice and red fruit aromas. It is full-bodied with good acidity and layers of blackberries and blueberries, hints of mocha and spice on the lingering finish.

We began our gastronomic journey with the Antipasto platter that was adorned with plebeian cold cuts, cheeses, some other stuff, and iceberg lettuce. On the plus side, it kept us alive until our entrees arrived.

Speaking of which, the love of my life chose the "famous" 4 layer Meat Lasagna. This was a mighty pile of meat and pasta that the Belle said was good, but nothing that elevated it to Mount Vesuvius heights. There was a big wad of it though, so we shall be enjoying the leftovers for several days.

Editor's update 10/19/2015: Re-heated the lasagna, took a couple of bites and tossed the rest in the garbage. It didn't improve with age.

After mulling over my options for several minutes, I finally decided to try the Frutti Dimarie with shrimp, clams, calamari, and tiny baby octopuses over spaghetti pasta. The seafood was well prepared, the pasta was al dente, but the "light plum tomato sauce" was really light ... in quantity and flavor.

With the appetizer, entrees, and Malbec, our bill came to $77.95. With hesitation, we added 20% for Christine. The entrees came before the appetizer was finished. The appetizer dishes were not removed before or after the arrival of the entrees. We had to rearrange the table ourselves, and the final check was presented before the end of the meal. No dessert was offered. 

This whole adventure reminded me of a quote from a movie, Michael J. "Crocodile" Dundee: "Well, you can live on it, but it tastes like ... ."

TJ's Italian Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Southern Fried Shut My Mouth

I've been cravin' some serious Southern fried chicken of late, and today those cravin's got the best of me. To my bride I said, "Why don't we mosey over to Sylvia's for a late lunch or early dinner?" That question had barely passed my lips before she had her hair curled, her face made, and was waiting for me at the door.

We fired up Gus, our Chevy by the levy, and headed off to Sylvia's Queen of Soul Food Restaurant on 22nd in the revived Manhattan Casino building near downtown St. Pete. From 22nd this is a rather nondescript building. We drove around back to a large parking area and walked up to Sylvia's. There are two entrances. One is for takeout and the other for sit down dining.

The Belle of the Boulevard and I wandered in through the "sit down" doors and just past a full bar where we were greeted by the charming and affable, Elroy. We were guided to a window table in a large, but mostly deserted dining room around 3:30 or so.

I can see Sylvia's coming alive later in the evening or on Saturday at the jazz brunch, or Sunday for the gospel music brunch. On this weekday afternoon, we had the place, and the service of Elroy, pretty much to ourselves.

To accompany her entree, my bride chose a glass of sweet Southern, never empty ice tea. I requested a not-too-bad bottle of a Belgian-Brazilian beer. Budweiser be its name.

The Belle surprised me by ordering the Carolina Style Fried Catfish since she isn't much of a fish eating person. Over the years, she acquired a tolerance for catfish once I explained to her that catfish isn't really fish, it's exactly the same as white meat chicken, only different. She still poofs and rolls her eyes at that one.

That catfish was coated with a down-home corn meal breading and perfectly fried to golden goodness. Her two sides were the baked mac 'n' cheese and potato salad. The mac 'n' cheese got a thumb up, but the potato salad was a little bland for her.

It was a foregone conclusion that I was having Sylvia's Down Home Fried Chicken, all dark meat if you please.

That leg and thigh was cooked to perfection: crispy crunchy breading, seasoned just right, and not even a hint of grease. The meat was tender and juicy with little driblets of chicken fat coating my face and fingers as I ripped into those two morsels with gusto. My two sides were from the south side of gastronomic heaven: traditional collard greens with hints of smoky, meaty flavor, and creamy lima beans.

Whether you dine at Sylvia's for the fantastic fried chicken or some of their daily specials like oxtails or chitterlings or chicken and dumplings, I think your taste buds and tummy will be thanking you for treating them so well. You wallet will be having spasms of joy when you get the check. For all of that tasty food and a couple of Buds, our bill came to just $33.18. We have paid a lot more for a lot less.

We tacked on a $10 gratuity because a 20% tip seemed chintzy for the professional and attentive service we received.

Sylvia's Queen of Soul Food Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Down Home Dining On Central

Last night our friends Sweet Polly and her Dawg, my bride, and I discovered a dandy dining venue in the ever growing Grand Central District of St. Petersburg. Urban Comfort Restaurant and Brewery has repurposed an old gas station at 2601 Central and turned it into a mecca for down home dining, like Sunday dinner at Grandma's house ... not my Grandma since she was German, but still, Urban Comfort is Southern dining at its finest.

The decor isn't grand or luxurious. There is a lot of bare concrete, wood, metal, and tile. There is outdoor seating at long picnic tables right next to the soon-to-be-finished shuffleboard courts. It was so easy to overlook the somewhat Spartan surroundings when greeted by the warm and charming staff. Our delightful server this evening was the sparkling Kate who catered to our every whim.

After presenting menus, Kate said that she would be right back with our waters; to which we responded, "... hold the water and bring the alcohol," for it's a long dry drive from the Gulf beaches. In a flash, Kate appeared with wine, brews, and a signature cocktail that we enjoyed while considering the choices for appetizers.

The table wisely chose the Fish Spread with cucumbers, carrots, crackers, and the delightfully zesty Urban Hot Sauce. We also shared the simply named House Cured Bacon with Savory Grits.

While the fish spread by itself was good, it was definitely enhanced by the peppery hot sauce made from a secret recipe (aren't they all) that included two varieties of peppers.

The House Cured Bacon came as a big surprise. It was not at all what I was expecting. It far surpassed anything I had imagined with that perfectly prepared pork belly sitting on top of the creamiest, most delicious grits I have ever consumed. With a larger serving I could have made a complete meal out of that bacon and grits masterpiece.

Looking at the Entrees section of the menu, I was not blown away by the understated descriptions of the listed offerings. It was another matter when the dishes were served. The portions were huge and a feast for the eyes even before a morsel touched our lips.

My bride had the simply described but astounding Fried Pork Chops with a savory bacon gravy accompanied with the side special of creamy lima beans with bits of pork.

What was served to my Beach Baby was definitely not from the children's menu. Those two crispy fried chops with a hint of spice extended beyond the edge of the plate. Even though my entree of fried chicken was one of the best renditions I can remember, those chops were my favorite of the evening, and again as a reheated leftover the next day.

The Urban Comfort fried chicken is cured in a herb and buttermilk brine, then fried to crispy perfection. This half chicken was moist and flavorful from wing, to leg, to thigh, and breast. I also had a side of those amazing lima beans.

For her main dish, Sweet Polly had the Fresh Catch Fried Fish with Hush Puppies, and Mashed Potatoes with Bacon Gravy. I don't remember being offered a taste of this Southern fried treat because I was lost in my own little fried chicken world. The only suggestion I heard was the fish could have used a little more time to brown up.

Sweet Polly was also presented with a skillet of understated goodness, a Squash Casserole side dish that was shared by the table.

The final entree delivered by Kate was Underdog's Sunday supper staple, Chicken 'n' Dumplings, that was described as, "... so _______ (insert adjective of choice here) good!"

All entrees are served with a flaky biscuit with creamy butter and one side.

The final plate brought to our table was a not-too-sweet seasonal dessert, the Pumpkin and Applesauce Pie with a superb glob of whipped cream crowning this end of the meal treat.

Looking at the somewhat limited Urban Comfort on-line menu I was prepared to be underwhelmed. What I experienced was totally opposite. The food, beverages, prices, and service were outstanding. Our total with all food and beverages came to $154.08. We split the bill down the middle, so each couple paid a measly $77. Kate was very deserving of the optional gratuities that we left.

If you are in the mood for Southern comfort food, you will be as happy as a paleontologist perusing a prodigious pile of petrified pterodactyl poop if you dine at Urban Comfort.

Urban Comfort Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

All photos taken by the official Piglet Parade photographer, The Belle of Gulf Boulevard.