Monday, February 29, 2016

Rococo In Downtown St. Pete

In the mood for a nice juicy steak accompanied by a bottle of Dionysus's finest, my bride and I met up with our friends Sweet Polly and Underdog at the premier, non-chain, downtown St. Petersburg steakhouse Rococo (the one with the backward 'c'). While Bacchus is the Roman god of wine, Dionysus is the god of the grape harvest, wine making, wine, and of ritual madness and ecstasy in Greek mythology. I think Dionysus and I could have been BFFs.

Now, where was I ... oh yeah, Rococo. The four of us wandered in right at the 5:30 opening of the doors. We were greeted and seated in a timely fashion by several smiling staffers who seemed pleased to see us. One of the first things that caught our eyes was a large red glass chandelier that looked as though it could have been created by glass-master Chihuly. Our surroundings were plush and comfortable.

Joshua, our server for the evening, took our beverage order - a Peachy Canyon Westside Zin for us manly men and a bottle of Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Chardonnay for the dainty damsels. Both wines were excellent, although two in our party didn't think Peachy Canyon sounded all that manly.

Up next were the tasty beginnings on our food journey. Each of us requested something different so that we could get a little taste of several offerings from the soup and appetizer part of the menu.

The Sweet Corn Lobster Bisque with a creamy letter 'R' was a winner for me. I am not a bisque aficionado, but this was rich, creamy, and blessed with small chunks of lobster.

The Charred Cuttlefish with heirloom tomato, hazelnuts, and dandelion pesto piqued my curiosity. I was intrigued to discover any taste difference between cuttlefish and squid. Both are from the same family and any discernible differences were subtle. The cuttlefish strips were tender to the tooth, maybe more so than squid, but I did not detect anything that appeared charred. I can now scratch cuttlefish from my gastronomic bucket list.

Holy mother of Edesia (Roman Goddess of Food - Edesia, not Mom), the Salmon Creek Brulee of Pork Belly with cauliflower, Granny Smith apples, lamb lettuce, and citrus maple jus was probably one of the best menu items of the evening. Rich, juicy, flavorful - I could have made a complete meal out of that pork belly. I might have had to ask for seconds.

And the ubiquitous Steak Tartare with pine nuts, chervil, radishes, horseradish, cucumber, and toast points. This tartare, as one at our table stated, met my expectations but failed to exceed expectations.

Moving on to our entrees, but in no particular order ... oh to heck with that! The very best of the four was the Duo of Lamb Porterhouse - medium rare, if you please.

This dish was roasted to lamby perfection - tender, juicy, and so full of flavor. After a tiny taste of that lamb, several at the table were wishing that they too had requested this dish, especially two who had ordered the 7-ounce grass fed Filet Mignon.

Both filets were prepared to the requested temperature, but both were dry and lacked flavor. The redeeming feature for one was the 'Enhancement' of an added Crispy Fried Lobster Tail for an additional $18. The Rococo on-line menu lists this tail at $12. I didn't pay attention to the in-house menu, so I don't know if the price went up or if this was a screw-up. Either way, the lobster tail was way better than the steak.

The final entree ordered was the Tagliatelle a rich but rather spicy tomato based pasta dish with trumpet 'shrooms and ox-tail that was good but again failed to exceed expectations.

Our table ordered three side dishes with each one large enough to share between two or three people: Cream Corn Mash, Artisanal Mac 'n' Cheese, and Mash Potatoes.

At this juncture I was too stuffed to even think about more food even though I did not finish my steak - it just wasn't worth the effort. The table did order a couple of desserts: the Bread Pudding and the Daily Crisp A la Mode.

Our table split the bill and the total for two with wine and food came in around $250 before gratuity. You could get out of there for less with cheaper wine or wine by the glass, but this was a party - a dinner party, but a party nonetheless.

A parting thought: Been there, done that! Consistently great steaks and more unpretentious bang for the buck at Texas Roadhouse or Longhorn.

Rococo Steak Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Spam-a-licious Deep Fried Musubi

The Belle of Gulf Boulevard and I decided to do lunch in our stately pleasure dome by the frothy sea today. While the winds were whipping and the raindrops beat a staccato rhythm against the window panes, I donned my Sir Spam-a-lot chef's cap and began a noon time masterpiece.

I shall begin my missive by paraphrasing a Monty Python skit.

Upon entering a cafe:
Man: You sit here, dear.
Wife: All right.
Man: Morning!
Waitress: Morning!
Man: Well, what've you got?
Waitress: Well, there's egg and bacon; egg sausage and bacon; egg and spam; egg bacon and spam; egg bacon sausage and spam; spam bacon sausage and spam; spam egg spam spam bacon and spam; spam sausage spam spam bacon spam tomato and spam; spam spam spam egg and spam; spam spam spam spam spam spam baked beans spam spam spam; or Lobster Thermidor a Crevette with a mornay sauce served in a Provencale manner with shallots and aubergines garnished with truffle pate, brandy and with a fried egg on top and spam.
Wife: Have you got anything without spam?
Waitress: Well, there's spam egg sausage and spam, that's not got much spam in it.
Wife: I don't like spam!
Man: Sshh, dear, don't cause a fuss. I'll have your spam. I love it. I'm having spam spam spam spam spam spam spam baked beans spam spam spam and spam!
Waitress: Baked beans are off.
Man: Never mind, I'll just have the Spam-a-licious Deep Fried Musubi.

2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 slices Spam -- sliced 1/2" thick
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
8 tablespoons rice -- cooked ahead of time
1 sheet Japanese Nori -- cut in half
1 cup flour
1 each egg -- beaten
1 cup Japanese Panko

Pour soy sauce on a platter, then add sliced Spam.

Flip slices over a time or two in the soy sauce to thoroughly coat. Set aside and let Spam absorb the flavor.

In the meantime, heat the deep fryer to 350 F.

When fryer comes to temperature, pat the Spam slices dry and gently slide into hot oil. Fry for 2-3 minutes, then place on a paper towel to drain excess oil.

Next, sprinkle rice vinegar over cooked rice and gently mix.

Lay the two half sheets of nori out on a clean dry surface. Center the musubi rice press on the nori. The nori sheets and the rice press should be close to the same width.

Add two tablespoons of rice and gently compress, lay a Spam slice on top, then add two more tablespoons of rice and again compress. Remove the press and wrap rice and Spam with the nori sheet. Moisten the edge of the nori so that it sticks together.

At this point you could just slice, sushi style, and serve as they do in Hawaii, or you could kick it up a notch and go through the basic breading procedure: flour, egg, then panko to finish.

Deep fry at 350 degrees for 2-3 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from fryer, allow to drain on a paper towel, then slice and serve.

Serving Ideas : Serve with a soy - wasabi dipping sauce or a Japanese aioli. I used a prepared aioli.

Serving Size : 2

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Road Trip To Lakeland: Nineteen61

On the surface it may seem odd to drive from the Gulf beaches all the way over to Lakeland, Florida in search of gastronomic goodness. That is exactly what my bride and I did earlier in the week. I had read a review of Nineteen61 by our dear friend Sweet Polly of Epicurean Perils and Tampa Tribune fame. After drooling over the Latin themed on-line menu choices at Nineteen61, I knew I had to go.

The Iris of Indian Shores and I pulled in to the parking lot in time for our 5:30 reservations. We walked along the brick pathway to a quiet courtyard with a gurgling fountain.

A hostess greeted us and guided us to our awaiting table in the main dining area resplendent with white table cloths and fresh petals from the adjacent flower shop.

Nick promptly appeared with menus and a desire to ply us with alcohol. Really, it was we who were in need of being plied after an hour and a half drive through three counties. "Two Spanish cavas, por favor," and in a tiny minute our sparkling wine arrived along with an amuse-bouche of salmon tartar for each of us. Our mouths were pleasantly amused.

While relaxing with my bella dama and a refreshing beverage, I could not help eyeing a leg of ham resting on the wine bar. This was no simple ham, it was the ultimate long, thin leg of ham with a deep golden hue to its fat with meat that is dark red and marbled with veins of fat. This was a $900, and then some, Jamón Ibérico.

Owner and chef Marcos Fernandez watched me drooling over this leg of ham. He inquired if I knew what I was lusting over. Yes, of course I knew and he asked if I would like a taste. Silly question!

That little sliver of Jamón Ibérico was worth the drive from Indian Shores even if I had nothing else to eat. The meat was indescribably good and the fat simply melted on my tongue. I think I moaned with pleasure.

The Jamón Ibérico is included in the Charcuterie Plate along with chorizo and a variety of Spanish cheeses with mixed olives, but I had my taste receptors set on the Pulpo appetizer, octopus with olive caramel, olive aioli, chorizo chimichurri and fingerling potatoes.

This octopus appetizer was rich and savory with just the right amount of al dente ... it wasn't tough or over cooked. The potato slices were an interesting, yet unnecessary, addition. I ate all of the pulpo with gusto and left most of the potato.

For her appetizer, my bride chose the Croquetas, four delightful balls of Serrano ham, Manchego cheese, quinoa flour, yuca flour, and guava glacé - a common tapa on bar counters and in homes across Spain.

The Belle of Gulf Boulevard seemed to enjoy her ham balls so much that I was not even afforded a bite. She mentioned that the crust had a very pleasant crunch and the cheese and ham interior was moist and pleasing to her palate.

To accompany our entrees, Nick brought us a bowl of freshly baked dinner rolls made with gluten free yuca flour and Manchega cheese - light, creamy and perfect for soaking up sauces from our dinner plates.

It was difficult narrowing down our choices from the dinner menu. There were several that seemed to have been included just for us. I am always excited to see paella on local menus, so I could not pass on the Paella Mariscos - Calasparra rice, chorizo, lobster, shrimp, clams, mussels and fish.

This paella was a beautifully presented dish. The seafood was excellent - fresh, juicy and cooked to perfection. Paella is basically a rice dish and Calasparra rice is a super absorbent short-grain rice grown in the mountains of Spain. It is said to be the only rice fit for paella. For a perfect paella you're striving for a tender, but not creamy result. Unfortunately, this rice was prepared like a risotto, creamy and flavorful but lacking the brown, crisp layer that forms on the bottom of a well-cooked paella, the socarrat.

I have cooked "old clothes" at home on numerous occasions so my dining partner decided to try a different version of the classic Ropa Vieja with slow braised flank steak, espagnole, sherry wine, peppers, onions and green olives, with jasmine rice and plantains.

The shredded flank steak was cooked to tender, juicy perfection and bathed in the espagnole sauce, one of the five "mother" sauces that are the basis of sauce-making in classic French cookery. The rice was prepared in a creamy risotto style. The Belle of the Boulevard said this ropa vieja probably one of the best ever.

I think my version of ropa vieja now sits in second place. And, that is a good thing. If you can cook it better at home, then why go out? Allow me to answer my own question. Sometimes I can do better, but it is still a treat to get out of the kitchen and have someone else do it. That being said, my "old clothes" still sits in the number two spot.

Personally, I was stuffed but Nick came along and tempted my bride with a cheese cake - a chocolate cheese cake that Nick described as being lighter than a New York cheese cake. The Belle said, "Bring 'er on!"

The cheese cake served was more a deconstructed cake and definitely not light, but definitely good. We were both pleased.

To accompany our main dishes and to sip while tasting the cheese cake, I had requested a bottle of a delightful Spanish red similar to a Pino. Nick said it would pare well with both of our entrees - and it did.

 Dinner and beverages came to a reasonable $172.27. We added an optional 20% for Nick's great service.

I can't say I would drive from the Gulf beaches to Lakeland just for dinner again, but if I was there anyway I would certainly be making reservations at Nineteen61. The ox-tails are waiting for me.

Nineteen61 Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato