Friday, April 22, 2011

Pape Kibo's in Hudson, FL

Hudson, Florida is where I grew up. Actually, I lived in the next town over but I went to Hudson High School and all of my friends were there, so I claim it as my childhood home. Like many kids feel about the place they are from, I deplored Hudson. To the south were the mostly retirement communities of Port Richey and New Port Richey that I still affectionately consider to be “God’s waiting room”. Catering to mostly geriatric residents, teens were frowned upon in general. To the north and east of Hudson was mostly nothing. A few pockets of mainstream subdivisions existed but a short drive off any main road and you are in unattractive pine forests dotted with trailer homes with several broken down, dusty vehicles in each unkempt yard. There right smack dab in the middle of this Shangri La was the canvas for my youth –Hudson.

In the summer between my 7th and 8th grade years, I made some friends that would end up shaping my life forever. Without going into the boring details, Kristi, Rob, Ann, Toni, Laura, Kim, Jim and a few others were my very best friends. For a few years, we were an inseparable group. We went to movies, the mall, the beach, church, the bowling alley and many other places together. I’m not being overly dramatic when I say they changed my life forever. I would go on to be briefly married to one of the girls and we have a wonderful son together. Another remains my best friend to this day.

Laura and I met somewhere around 12 years old although I might be off by a year. Her dad owned an insurance agency and was deeply involved in the few positive parts of the community. Both of her parents treated me with a respect rarely given to bratty pre-teens especially knowing I was a young boy chasing after their daughter. Yes, Laura was my first REAL girlfriend – in the sense that 13 year olds can be boyfriend and girlfriend –but by our actual dating years she had long since dumped me (for a musician –go figure). What transcended though was a terrific friendship that has endured since and I’d have to say that while I’ve been closer to other people at different periods of my life, Laura has always been, and I suspect will always be, a major player in shaping my moral compass.

We don’t get to see each other very much. Our lives are both pretty busy. We both have our families and life commitments. Still, 4 or 5 times a year, we manage to make a few hours to grab a bite and catch up. I was the one who had to cancel our last dinner so I guess it’s my responsibility to reschedule. Recently, I was heading a couple hours north for a business appointment when I realized I’d be passing Laura’s office around lunch time. Knowing it was a long shot because Laura almost never answers her cell at work, I thought to try to call to see if she wanted to grab some lunch. I was surprised that she answered but even more surprised when she told me that we should try this great new restaurant in Hudson. HUDSON!!! To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a great restaurant in Hudson. Crappy take out Chinese, Applebee’s and Perkin’s has been the Hudson food genre. But Laura has a pretty honed palate so if she says “great”, I believe her. I met her at her office and off we went to Pape Kibo’s.

We pulled up to an unassuming building on Old Dixie Highway not far from Hudson Beach. Walking in, there is nothing too impressive: Key West pastel-colored walls, small tables, mismatched chairs. Immediately to the left, though, is the special’s board. This is where it get’s interesting. Specialty sausages of lamb and duck, kangaroo steak and crocodile are written out in unassuming fashion. I was not going to be disappointed. The regular menu has a few interesting twists but remains pretty standard. It’s the wild game specials and hard to find oddities, though, that are compelling to me. Depending on the day, you can find antelope, llama, iguana or python. With some advanced notice you might also order bear or lion (A lion steak will run you $350 but a lion burger is a mere $50). There wasn’t anything too special on the menu the day I showed up for lunch but I did try the crocodile which was cooked really well with welcoming, attractive topping of a creamy sauce with shrimp and tomatoes.

No, it doesn’t taste like chicken. A little chewy like many wild animals, the flavor was similar to alligator, frog or turtle (all of which I love). I also tried the sausages of duck and lamb which were sublime and exquisite. The duck was subtle and well spiced and the lamb was perfectly distinct as great lamb always is. There were also a few dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) that I adore. The Mediterranean flare was perfectly manipulated in this dish.

The appetizer of mussels rivaled the exquisite flavors that I remembered from my trips to Belgium where mussels reign supreme on any restaurant menu.

Prior to this day, my only reason to go to Hudson was to visit with Laura who owns a business there. Today, there is a second reason. Pape Kibo’s is a jewel in Tampa Bay and I would tell anyone that asked that a trip to Hudson has moved up on the scale from “are you out of your mind?” to “must go”. From Tampa, it’s about an hour’s drive and well worth it. Perhaps after a day of swimming with the manatees in Crystal River or a visit to the gardens and mermaids of Weeki Wachee, you could swing into Pape Kibo’s for dinner on the way back. There are steaks and seafood and salads for the unadventurous but for the inner Bizarre Foods lover, there will certainly be something to delight.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Hunting Wild Boar

I’m not much of an outdoorsman. Most people know this about me. A stroll on the beach or a short hike on a trail is the extent of it in my book. The human race moved from huts to solid structure buildings centuries ago and I moved right in with them. Add air conditioning and I see no need to be in a tent. With this in mind, it is quite surprising that when Lisa mentioned that I should go hog hunting with her dad, I was immediately interested. Lisa is constantly looking for things to keep her newly retired father busy. In sharp contrast to me, Smitty, as he likes to be called, is a Bass Pro Shop kinda guy. He grew up on a farm, loves to hunt and can fix anything. Even with our differences in interest, I really enjoy spending time with him. So a little internet searching and I found a hunting guide down in Okeechobee that guarantees a kill. Game on. We were off.

2 ½ hrs from my front door in civilization, we pulled up to the meeting place a little before noon. It was a store on a lonely road on Lake Okeechobee that also functioned as a little restaurant, bait shop and feed store. Saying I was out of my element is a slight understatement. I pulled my little hatchback into the lot next to the trucks and swamp buggies and headed in. I found the guide service owner, Ron, sitting in a booth on his cell phone booking other hunters for future adventure. I was shocked that he had cell phone reception out here. I did not. Allowing him to finishing his call, I then introduced myself and forked over the remaining balance due (cash only). Ron then jumped back on his magic flip phone and called his “boys”. After tossing down some hot boiled peanuts, I saw a once blue pick-up truck pull in and its 3 occupants emerged. It was a scene from Deliverance. A few salutations later and we were following the truck down the road to get the dogs and the shotgun. What was I thinking? Once the requisite animals and hardware were recovered, we again drove a short distance to a dirt turnoff. In the few hundred yards from the main road until we stopped, I began wondering how much of my credit card limits could be reached before my dead body was found. Still we pressed on. Once one of the guys handed me the shotgun, I felt more at ease. I took a few shots at a tree to make sure I had the right aim. Amazingly, I was dead on.

The dogs and 2 of the guys went in one direction and Smitty and I jumped in the pick-up truck with the other guide and went the other. The plan was to circle back to them and let the dogs do their job. Just a short 10 or 15 minutes passed before the walkie-talkie went off saying the dogs had a hit. 5 minutes after that and I was chasing the dogs through dry lake bed, shotgun in hand. I found the dogs chasing a pretty good sized boar. They were in and out of the thickets and I didn’t really have a good line of sight at first. In short order, however, the animal got into the clear but the dogs were circling her. I didn’t want to shoot a dog. Suddenly, from about 30 yards away, I had a great silhouette. With one dog in front and one dog behind and after checking to be sure all humans were clear, I aimed and shot. She never took another step. She dropped instantly. I did it. I officially shot dinner for the first time in my life (and most likely the last).

I was relieved to get back to the main road a short time later. Once again I was following our guides with my trophy clearly visible in the bed of the truck ahead of me. We were headed back to the house where my hog would be prepared to look more like something found in the grocery store. As the animal was cleaned it became clear as to why the hog dropped quickly. Call it luck, but my shot entered the left shoulder and traversed both lungs and its heart. The mangled slug ended up in the right shoulder just under the skin. I liked the humane nature of this. During the quartering process, I asked some questions of the young men who made my hunt a success. I wondered how they were able to guarantee a hog to every hunter. The answer was surprising. Apparently, there are a lot of hogs. So many, in fact, that there is no license required to hunt them. Wild hogs have 2 litters a year and since they are not indigenous, they are nuisance animals that destroy local agriculture. Next, I asked about people just being a bad shot. How do you guarantee a hog then? I got another surprising answer. If the hunter misses, then the guides tackle the hog by hand. They hold it down, count to 3 then jump away as the poor shot pulls the trigger at point blank range. That’s even lees sporting than my concierge hunt. Still, it serves a purpose. These guys get to make a living (albeit humble), the wild boar population is kept in check and I get to take home 80 lbs of meat.

Our entire experience took less than 2 hours and we were headed home with 2 full coolers loaded. Since that day several weeks ago, I have made lots of boar recipes:

Horseradish crusted tenderloin with a champagne, mustard, thyme sauce.

Slow roasted wild boar ham that yielded several great dishes like this ham steak with peppered brown gravy and sunny side up egg.

So what does wild boar taste like? Well, that’s a tough one. Like lamb or duck, it has its own signature. I don’t really like the word gamey because it implies unpalatable to me but there’s the slight hint of wild animal that you find in venison combined with a much more substantial pork flavor. With very little fat, the heartiness of the meat is present in every bite. In a word, it is delicious. That being said, slow cooking is the key. Only the tenderloin can be eaten from a sauté. The connective tissue in the meat has got to be broken down in low heat over a long time. This technique makes for perfectly tender, succulent boar meat.

I’m going to share a recipe but I realize that most people won’t be able to get the same meat. Still, pork shoulder would be a great substitute and you’ll be making your own sausage meat if you give it a go. You do need a food processor or meat grinder though. I prefer the food processor so that I can grind the coriander and fennel seeds before adding the meat. I basically made a sausage and let it rest overnight so the flavors would combine then I used it as the base for an amazing but fairly basic ragout. I used a few strips of bacon just to give the meat the small amount of fat it was missing. I then whipped out the pasta maker and made some robust, wide tagliatelle. The velvety pasta was the perfect vessel to stand up to the rich, spicy tomato and boar ragout. I’m posting this recipe because this is one of the top 4 or 5 dishes I’ve ever made. It got rave reviews from everyone I shared it with. If I had a restaurant, I’d order boar meat and feature this dish. It was just that delectable and aside from hand making the sausage and pasta, it was pretty simple as well.

Tagliatelle with Wild Boar Sausage Ragout

For the sausage

2 lbs wild boar shoulder, cubed (substitute pork shoulder if you must)
1 tbsp whole coriander seeds
1 tbsp fennel seeds
4 cloves garlic, peeled
¼ cup fresh Italian parsley
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper

In the food processor start by adding the coriander and fennel seeds. Once processed, add everything but the meat and again blend. Then add the boar or pork. Depending on the size of the food processor, this may need to be done in batches. I let the food processor run a good minute for each batch. This helps to make sure the meat is ground as fine as possible and prevents any chewy bits. Transfer to storage container and place in the refrigerator overnight.

The ragout

1 tbsp olive oil (not extra virgin)
4 strips of bacon
1 small onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, sliced or minced
Boar sausage from above
3 oz tomato paste
32 oz beef broth (only use as much as needed while reducing)
28 oz can of whole San Marzano tomatoes (better flavor but any can of tomatoes can be substituted)
8-10 large sprigs of thyme
1 tsp chili flakes (for some heat, optional)
Salt and pepper to taste (season in layers as you add the ingredients)

In a large pot over medium heat add the oil and bacon. Cook the bacon until it just begins to render its fat and add the onions and garlic. Sauté until onions are translucent and fragrant. About 1 minute. Add the boar and stir together. Brown the meat and break up into the smallest pieces possible with a wooden spoon. This takes about 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook another 2-3 minutes stirring constantly. You can use a few tablespoons of broth at a time if it becomes too dry and sticks to the pot. Add the tomatoes, thyme and chili flakes. Stir together. Turn the heat up and bring to a boil then reduce heat to simmer. Let simmer for 3 hrs checking frequently and add ½ cup of the broth at a time as needed as it reduces. The amount will vary based on how hot your stove is. The final consistency should be that of a thick stew or chili. Check for seasoning after reducing.

For the pasta

If you have the ability to make fresh pasta, this is the time for that. If not, a pound of linguini will do just fine. Follow the directions on the box. Do not overcook.

Put it all together on a large serving platter if you’re having guests. Freshly grate some parmesan cheese over the top and serve.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Florida Strawberry Festival a Must

Tampa Bay has little claim to fame. Yes, I love the community and I love living here but you don’t see us featured too often in the national media for anything. When I open issues of the cooking or travel magazines that I subscribe to, I long to see some local flavor but it’s just not there. One annual event, though, leads the nation into spring and shows off a vibrant agricultural gem that dots the landscape just east of greater Tampa Bay. The Florida Strawberry Festival is in Plant City; a little community not nearly prepared for the heavy traffic it receives for 2 weeks every March. I’ve been going on and off to this fair since I was a little boy but it wasn’t until I began travelling extensively that I realized what a unique prize we had here.

In the US, Strawberries are available year round. California provides most of the nation’s berries but Florida is second and produces 100% of the strawberries consumed in the South during the winter months. The biggest impact on Strawberry production is the weather. They like rain and sunshine in a harmonious balance and don’t care much for freezing temperatures. Every year our local news runs stories of how the growers are dealing with days that fall below freezing by coating the berries with ice from sprinklers mounted in the fields. This prevents the berry from falling below 32 degrees no matter how cold the outside air becomes. Complaints from growers about stunted crops don’t seem to have too much of an impact on the availability of brilliant, plump and sweet fruit when the March festival arrives.

I must admit, I’m generally not much of a “fair” person. People that know me will tell you, I like my concrete. Therefore, the whole agriculture scene is beyond me. Contests where cows and pigs are judged do not hold my interest. Unless you tell me bacon tastes better from a prize hog, I could care less. I’ve also always assumed that “fair” beauty queens were judged on numerous criteria including, but not limited to, a tooth count. Prejudices aside and as long as I stay at least a hundred yards from tents that house the yet-to-be-dead livestock, I think the Strawberry Festival in Plant City is an amazing way to spend a day.

This fair is huge. I’m sure there are bigger but the midway isn’t just a strip in the center on the event. It wraps completely around the fairgrounds with more rides than Disney World. All involve a central theme of spinning in one direction or another and faster than humans should spin. I would imagine we could make a dent in the federal budget by simply sending pilots and astronauts to the fair for a few rides rather than building expensive centrifuges. Dotted along these nauseating, child-loving paths is the real reason I love the Strawberry Festival: the food. Booths and trailers fill the air with aromas that are as compelling to me as sirens to a sailor. Year after year, the boundaries of what can be fried or grilled are pushed anew. My only regret is that the portions, while not huge, are too big to try as many things as I’d like. Fried Wisconsin Cheddar nuggets, hand coated Chicken-on-a-stick, chocolate dipped bacon and, of course, the strawberry shortcake is all I could make room for in the 6 hours we were there. I really wanted to try the battered and deep fried Twinkie but I couldn’t bring myself to spend the money on something I knew I could only take one bite of because my stomach was already full. While there are plenty of grilled options that are slightly more calorie-friendly, to the best of my knowledge you won’t find a healthy-tree-hugging-organic-renewable option. This is a salad-free zone and, for one, I am glad.

The quintessential Strawberry Festival experience must end with the famous Strawberry Shortcake. While the line wraps around the outside of the exhibit hall, it moves quickly. We make our way to the back where the gentleman holding the sign that says “back of the line” tells us that, while long, we’ll be building our own strawberry shortcakes in about 10 minutes. Experiencing serious Déjà vu, this line and method of building your own dessert is exactly the same as it was when my parents first brought me to the Strawberry Festival as a little boy (with one exception –it was free then. Now it’s $3.50).

Not completely understanding the efficiency of this concept, we purchase our ticket for the shortcake then take 3 steps where we deposit out ticket for the shortcake. Seems like a step could be omitted but either way we were at the front. I ladle fresh cut strawberries and their accompanying sweet juice onto the cake and dollop on the fresh whipped cream (a constant stream of fresh whipped cream pours from the kitchen where 4 industrial mixers work non-stop to keep up with the demand).

At the end of the line, one of the country-clad strawberry maidens tops my creation with a final fresh berry.

Another thing you may or may not know about me is that I’m generally not a dessert person but I’d wait in a much longer line for a much longer time to enjoy this treat. The entire day, the entire distance from my home, the entire sunburn on my skin covered head was worth this moment. The strawberries, even in their own sweet juices, are so fresh that they still have a perfect texture. The Pound Cake soaks up the flavor like an exquisite sponge while the whipped cream is just sublime.

My kids had a spectacular day as did I, but for very different reasons. While they rode and spun, got nauseous and recovered, smiled and shot toward the sky –I stood next to the ride nibbling on many of the delicious offerings. Someday, I hope to go back with my kid’s kids and watch them smile as did mine. That, and the food, make a day like this precious.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Roasted red pepper linguini with red pepper sauce, tarragon and jumbo lump crab

Thank goodness for my DVR. I recently sat down to catch up on some programming dating back to November. On the list were 6 or 7 episodes of Iron Chef America. What a great show. They have been producing this program for 9 seasons and I think I’ve seen every episode. I don’t believe I’ve ever tried to reproduce a recipe from this show –until now. It was Battle Bell Pepper. Newest Iron Chef Marc Forgione was making his kitchen stadium debut. I’m afraid I don’t recall the challenger’s name but that’s not too important to the story. One of the dishes Forgione prepared caught my attention. He made a roasted red pepper pasta in a roasted pepper cream sauce that not only looked terrific but got accolades from the judges. It had the eye-catching color of sunset and I’m such a sucker for fresh pasta. Forgione went on to win the battle. Combine my intrigue with this dish as well as my recent enthusiasm for my new pasta maker and the die was cast. We’re making some red pasta.

If you use a pasta maker you know 3 things. It’s tricky. It’s messy. It’s worth it. Making the pasta dough is not as easy as the food network celebs make it look. While none of my early attempts were complete duds, it took me few tries to get the texture exactly perfect. In my recipe below, I’ll give some loose measurements but the consistency is paramount to success. I’ve learned that the liquid ingredients will generally accept only so much flour so, depending on your method for mixing, more flour is OK. Too little is disastrous. Early on I used the mixing method that I’ve seen on TV. On my counter top I used a couple of cups of flour and started with a mound. In the center I created a well. The final analysis looked like a little flour stadium or coliseum. In the center I cracked an egg. The tricky part here is to begin gently whisking the egg so that the flour falls into the egg without breaking down a wall of your little volcano allowing the egg to escape. This takes a little practice but it’s not too tough. Next is the kneading. The dough doesn’t come together at first but as the glutens in the flour begin to break down it will all converge under your palm. Unlike bread or pizza dough, pasta dough is never really all that sticky so as long as you continue to dust with flour, it’s much easier to handle than bread. As you can imagine, this process generously spreads flour around your kitchen. I have since taken to using my stand mixer which cuts down on the mess a bit until it comes time to roll out the pasta sheets.

Some pasta recipes I’ve read call for the dough to rest in the fridge for an hour while others go straight to the roller. I find that resting the dough gives a slightly better pasta bite while going right to the roller is a touch more velvety. I don’t see much of a difference though and if you plan on drying it on a rack, it shouldn’t matter at all. Working with well flour-dusted tennis ball sized portions, it’s time to fire up the pasta maker. This is the fun part. Starting at the widest setting, I run the pasta through the rollers. I was a little discouraged at first because my pasta was coming out the bottom of the rollers with a few holes in it. These were not the pristine sheets that I’d seen on TV. I found that the key here is to simply make sure the dough remain floured and fold it in half and run it through again. You really need to run it through each setting a few times following the same folding and dusting. You’ll be amazed at how long these sheets become as you dial in the smaller settings. This also gets flour everywhere and I’ve found no real trick to avoiding it. It’s simply the cost for obtaining something unctuous and heavenly. The last step is attaching the cutter and making the linguine. I repeat these steps until all my little tennis balls are linguine. It takes some time. I’d say just rolling and cutting the pasta eats up about 20-30 minutes. Lastly, make sure to keep the freshly cut pasta floured or it will stick together.

For this dish I added a puree of roasted red peppers to get that bright red color. The sauce was also a puree of roasted pepper with garlic, tarragon, cream and butter. With the pasta and sauce combined on a serving platter, I topped the dish with jumbo lump crab and some more fresh tarragon. The final touch was, of course, some fresh grated parmesan-reggiano and we had dinner. Lisa’s dad and I mowed through this pasta in short order. The taste was bright and fresh with the silky pepper infused pasta and creamy sauce. Not too rich but still with luxurious notes of deep flavor from the cream, this is one of my best pasta-maker experiments thus far. Adding the crab is just such an elegant touch. Of note, jumbo lump crab is crazy expensive but if you figure the low cost of the other ingredients, this is a budget friendly family meal.

Note: If you don’t have a pasta maker, a pound of dried linguini will work or, even better, some grocery stores carry the fresh stuff too. The taste will still be terrific and making with dried will allow this entire dish to come together in about 15 minutes. Also, the amounts below are pretty loose. In the sauce, you can use some of the pasta cooking liquid if needed to beef up the quantity if I’m a little off or if your sauce reduces a bit too much. Never be afraid to add a ladle full of this cooking liquid to the final combination if the pasta looks sticky. This recipe is worth a go even if you need to use store bought pasta.

Roasted red pepper linguini with red pepper sauce, tarragon and jumbo lump crab

For the Pasta:

3 cups flour + a generous amount to keep the pasta dusted and workable
1-2 eggs depending on size
12 oz jar of roasted red peppers, pureed in a food processor or blender
Teaspoon salt

Make the pasta according to the directions on your pasta maker. Know that using the puree of peppers makes the dough a little too moist so be prepared to add a bit more flour if necessary as you knead the dough.

For the sauce:

12 oz jar of roasted red peppers, pureed in a food processor or blender
3 cloves garlic, chopped or put in the food processor with the pepper puree
½ cup chopped fresh tarragon + some fresh tarragon for garnish
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 tbsp unsalted butter
½ cup heavy cream
6 oz jumbo lump crab meat

In a large sauté pan over medium heat, add the red peppers, garlic, tarragon salt and pepper. Bring to slight boil then reduce heat to medium low for 5 minutes. Add the butter and cream and whisk in. Reduce on low just a few minutes and the sauce is ready.

Meanwhile in a large stock pot bring salted water to a boil for the linguini. Fresh pasta will cook in about 3-4 minutes while dried will take 8-9 minutes. Reserve the cooking liquid in either case.

Add the drained linguini to the pan with the sauce and turn to coat with tongs. Move this to a large platter and top with the crab and tarragon garnish.

After serving, offer some fresh parmesan-reggiano to grate over the dish.

Serves 4-6.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

3 at Bats, 3 Home Runs -In the Big Apple

I love the city. I love everything about it. From the people to the museums to the endless miles of concrete, I adore it. Interestingly enough, I’ve never lived in the heart of a major city before. I’ve always lived in the “burbs”, and while this is a much more conducive place to raise a family, there will always be a part of me that wishes I’d had a little apartment at some point right smack in the center of things. This is in sharp contrast to the views of many of my friends who enjoy the wide open spaces and huge distances between homes. First of all, if you’re going to live in the country you need to be somewhat handy. At least everyone I know that lives in a rural setting is. I can’t fix anything. I can barely hang a picture straight. I do own a toolbox. In it are the various requisites I’ve collected over the years but every time I open the lid, Lisa is immediately concerned. And while it has cost me a bit more money over the years than most, I happily pick up the phone for even some of the simpler house projects. Fueling my urban passions are the great cities I’ve visited over the years. On the streets of Hong Kong I thought to myself, “I could live here”. But I also thought that in Miami, San Francisco, London and Washington DC. While every city holds its own unique identity, there is a palpable bond that is common amongst them and I guess that’s the draw for me. Oh yeah… then there’s the food.

I recently arrived in Manhattan on business and aside from the work tasks at hand, all I could think about was where we were going to dine. New York is sensory overload for foodies. It is what Rome is to Catholics, Las Vegas is to gamblers and Amsterdam is to party goers. A simple slice of pizza for lunch is better than any pizza you’ve ever tasted. A quick stop in a coffee shop for a bagel is spiritual. Yet for New Yorkers, it’s just another day. Well I was not about to take one single morsel for granted. My first choice for dinner was born as much out of convenience as it was out of culinary adventure. Unless you live under a rock, you probably know that this has been a pretty brutal winter for New York City and this week was no different. A foot of snow arrived during my visit but that was no deterrent for me. The good news is that New York has great food on every block so I knew I didn’t need to travel far. A quick conversation with the front desk at the hotel and I knew The Bridge Café was a must.

A few steps from my front door and just beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, this is the oldest continuous drinking establishment in NYC. The doors opened in 1794 in the previously dicey Seaport district. Credited with once being a brothel as well as a saloon, the early clientele had more sinister motives; but today this landmark is charming, cozy and above all else, warm. In the bustle that is Manhattan, this small room almost seems out of place. Only about twice the size of an average living room and décor preserved from a hundred years ago, The Bridge Café is in contrast to the modern dining experience one thinks of when thinking of New York City. To me it was more reminiscent of the seaside village cafés of the New England coastline. On the lower east side, there was something quaint. My appetizer was mussels in a ridiculously delicious spicy tomato and andouille sausage broth. This just begged to be sopped up with the warm house made bread that was served. Next came a perfect medium rare hanger steak. There were no frills to this; just a well made cut that I adored. A great first-night-in-the-city meal was in the books and there was more to come.

On the second night, we hit Katz’s Deli. If you told me you had one hour in Manhattan and needed to get something to eat, I’d suggest one of the Jewish Deli’s in the city. There are at least 5 famous ones that I can think of off the top of my head and Katz’s is my personal favorite. They take making corned beef and pastrami very seriously in these places and it pays off. Although table service is available, part of the quintessential deli experience is stepping up to the counter and watching you sandwich be made. Large slabs of beef are hand carved with a knife and portioned onto rye bread with spicy mustard. There is other delectable fare to be had as well. Famous for their salami and with the smell of the sausages on the grill, there are plenty of choices but for me the pastrami is the only way to go. I must offer word of caution. If you like pastrami and try this, you may never be able to eat pastrami outside of New York again.

This gigantic mass of juicy meat between 2 slices of bread is so perfect, so delicious that it’s sinful. I could have lunch at this deli every day for the rest of my life and be amazingly content.

I reserved the last night for the classic New York experience, dinner and a Broadway show. With close to twenty thousand restaurants to choose from in the city, I went back to my tried and true website,, to narrow the options. Once again I was not let down. From their top-ten list in the “Talk of the town” section, I made reservations at the up-and-comer, Osteria Morini. There are no less than 7 restaurants that Chef Michael White has his thumbprint on in and around New York. This latest venture in SoHo is remarkable. White pays homage to the style of the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna.

In a setting of imported block tables and wooden beams imported from an Italian farmhouse, White’s attention to detail is second only to his food. Cured meats and cheese appetizers are served on sturdy butcher blocks. House made pasta is silky and flawlessly cloaked in various sauces, butters and broths. Ravioli filled with truffled Mascarpone in brown butter with ribbons of Prosciutto is simple, elegant, decedent and genius. We started with 2 appetizers. First was 2 Prosciuttos. The traditional Prosciutto de Parma that is prized and coveted as one of the best meats to ever come out of Italy was served on one side of the wooden block. On the other side was Lardo, or white Prosciutto (yes just the fat). Set atop toasted rounds of bread, both were equally as delicious but the lardo in particular was like eating a surprisingly light pillow of butter with a hint of salty pork flavor. It was mesmerizing. Also we sampled grilled sardines over white beans with olive oil. I’ve had this dish before but this was on another level. These bear no resemblance to the salty pizza topping we’re familiar with. These fish are rich, briny and especially tasty. Next I chose small hand shaped tortellini of pork and beef in a duck liver cream sauce for my entrée.

Served on a small, elegantly painted farmhouse plate, the fresh pasta and smooth cream sauce were in harmony. I loved this dish for its unique, sophisticated essence. Finally desert. Zabaglione with cappuccino and a scoop of vanilla gelato again did not disappoint. This restaurant hit the mark on so many levels, it is almost indescribable. After sampling all of the aforementioned delectibles, one might be left with a feeling of over indulgence. Nothing could be further from the truth in this case. These portions are not “Americanized”. Smaller plates allow for more tasting options and always leave you wanting a bit more. That’s a much better feeling than gorging on a huge plate of pasta and needing to undo the top button of your pants to sit and enjoy the show. Noteworthy was that every pasta creation was under $20 and appetizers were less than $15. Not bad for New York.

Three delicious meals in the Big Apple down and I was ready to get back home. Wicked, the show we saw was also terrific and I have since bought tickets to take the family when it comes to Orlando in March. The best thing about New York is that my meals there are reproducible at restaurants all over the city. A bad restaurant in Gotham will not stand long. Whether you use word-of-mouth or the internet you will find food that suits you. The only error you can make is to never go there.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Lenny's in Clearwater, FL

OK, it’s time to talk about the home scene. After recently paying homage to pretentious meals in Phoenix for which my wallet was left much lighter, it’s refreshing to talk about a little breakfast joint around here that has been attracting quite a following for years. If there’s a better little place in Tampa Bay for breakfast than Lenny’s in Clearwater, I haven’t been there. In the shadow of Bright House Field, spring training home to the Philadelphia Phillies, Lenny’s will fill your belly with more than standard breakfast fare as long as you’re willing to stand in line for a table. Lenny’s vast menu is based on the Jewish delis that New York is famous for. Along with your standard bacon and eggs you’ll find fresh bagels with lox, knishes, cheese filled pastries, polish sausage along with other eastern European comfort food.

The Jewish Deli became a New York institution in the late 1800’s as waves of eastern European immigrants flooded in to New York harbor in an attempt to escape the volatile and dynamic political climates back home. Homesickness was combated by congregating in familiar surroundings and sharing common food. Never fancy or ornate, these establishments were as much a social distraction as they were restaurants. As time has passed, though, these restaurants have become some of the most coveted and visited restaurants New York City has to offer. Katz’s Deli, Stage Deli, Carnegie Deli, 2nd Ave Deli are just a few of the must try places the city has to offer. Sadly, outside of Gotham, there are few –and I mean few –truly great delis of this genre. Also sad is that Tampa Bay is no exception.

The good news is that Lenny’s does a pretty good job with the breakfast component. I used to frequent Lenny’s some years ago when I worked in the Clearwater area. Unfortunately, I just hadn’t been back there in quite some time. Mostly, it was the distance. There are at least 5 decent places to get breakfast closer than the 30 minute drive to Lenny’s and combined with the fact we only go out to breakfast once a month or so, my absence from this great little spot grew. For the past few weeks my 6 year old daughter, Olivia, has been attending a basketball camp on Saturday mornings in Clearwater so I decided to introduce her to Lenny’s and reacquaint myself.

I’d forgotten how long the wait is to get a table. The line at 10AM on Saturday mornings looks painful. If you’re willing to have counter service though, there’s pretty much no wait. So Olivia and I bellied up to the bar ready to eat. She’d been practicing her dribbling, passing and shooting skills for the past hour and had worked up a good little appetite. Me? Well, I’m always hungry –much like a goldfish. The menu is 3 substantial pages long full of specialty omelets, special egg dishes, various breakfast combos and, of course, the aforementioned deli breakfast fare. I ordered a special for the day –Lobster Benedict –while Olivia stuck with her tried and true pancakes. While sipping our coffee and chocolate milk, respectively, we caught the attention of a wandering minstrel of sorts. On Saturday mornings, a gentleman meanders from table to table making the most elaborate balloon sculptures that I’ve ever seen. At our counter spot he stopped and made Olivia a pretty cool looking dolphin.

He also performed a magic trick where he changed the length of three strands of rope and then changed them back. We liked him. It turns out, he is a professional entertainer and has performed at venues both big and small. He shared with me his vision for a new restaurant where guests are entertained in small groups before dinner in a similar fashion to Hibachi chefs at those Japanese joints like Benihana’s. Seems viable to me.

Shortly thereafter we were presented with our food. Knowing I wouldn’t finish, I also ordered a potato knish. Frankly, I hadn’t had one in a while and I just wanted a few bites. These pillowy potato pastries are perfectly savory and especially good with some spicy mustard. Mine was no exception. The benedict was also delicious. Rich hollandaise with sumptuous warm egg yolk over the sweet lobster meat was breakfast nirvana. Judging by the clean plate in front of Olivia, she enjoyed her breakfast as well.

Most neighborhoods have a good little breakfast spot but I think Lenny’s is a cut above. I suggest venturing out from your favorite place and give them a try. Personally, I have 6 more weeks of Saturday mornings to reacquaint myself before Olivia’s basketball commitment ends. I plan on taking full advantage of both that one on one time with my little girl and a thoroughly scrumptious breakfast. Win win.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Phoenix High Life -Elements

As a food lover, there is nothing better than going to a restaurant that leaves an indelible impression on the soul. Great food, all by itself, is impressive enough but combine great service in a terrific venue with a rock star celebrity chef and you might find yourself at Elements in Phoenix, Arizona. Elegant, sharp and inspiring are just a few words that can describe the sense that you get as you drive into the Sanctuary Resort and Spa nestled gently into the foothills of Camelback Mountain. Set off any main road yet only 20 minutes from downtown, this place feels secluded. The Frank Lloyd Write inspired design looks more like art than architecture. A cascade of buildings blends seamlessly into the hillside and I’m targeting just one.

Elements is the creation of Chef Beau MacMillan. Recognized for his work in other noteworthy kitchens around the country, MacMillan was recruited to Arizona in the late 90’s to reinvent the offerings at this transitional property. After a major renovation, Sanctuary and Elements were born and MacMillan would soon be recognized as a major player on the national food stage. His offerings are seasonal, clean and above all else, creative. A few years ago, MacMillan defeated Bobby Flay in Food Network’s Kitchen Stadium in Battle Kobe Beef. Since then he has appeared on numerous programs including the first season of Worst Cooks in America opposite Ann Burrell as the cooking mentor for ridiculously bad cooks. As his face becomes more known to the foodie community, his food remains constant and delicious.

A few years ago my mother and I dropped into Elements to simply have a cocktail and appreciate the views. We sat and relaxed sipping Martinis while chatting and taking in the dessert sun. I recall thinking that I’d really like to get back for a meal. Now my time had come. Visiting on business, we planned this dinner night a week or so in advance. After picking me up from the hotel, Mom and I met my brother, David, and his girlfriend, Brianne at the Sanctuary. The first thing you appreciate when walking into Elements is the expansive appearance of the room perpetuated by the all glass walls. The desert views are breathtaking as the sun sets beyond the looming rock formations above and valley below. This is just the beginning of a spectacular dining experience. The only disappointment I can claim was that Chef MacMillan had just left for the day. I was hoping to meet him but I guess I would have to settle for his food.

Seated against the desert backdrop along the wall, I perused the menu with great excitement. The menu design is exquisitely simple with the focus on clean fresh preparation. Things like butter seared scallops and bacon wrapped filet are dishes that can be found in plenty of restaurants but the preparation and attention to detail are the hallmarks that Elements is known for. My appetizer was Foie Gras 2 ways.

A creamy Foie Gras custard was topped with a perfectly seared Foie Gras slice. Atop that was a vanilla quince compote and dotting the surrounding plate were a few pink peppercorn caramels. In 2 sentences, I described every ingredient in this dish yet this preparation was beyond elegant and most delicious. Brianne’s beef carpaccio looked perfect too, albeit a bit smaller of a carpaccio than I’m used to seeing. The entrée I chose was Hawaiian Opah.

This large Pacific fish is much like tuna with a slightly milder flavor. My first and only other experience with this fish was in Hawaii some years ago and I’m glad to have found it on a mainland menu. Seared on the outside with a light pink flesh on the inside, this buttery Opah was akin to fatty tuna belly. I immediately thought that I need to get back to Hawaii. Served with the fish was a crispy sushi rice cake topped with some rock shrimp and pickled cucumber. I thought the dish was perfectly prepared and I was able to successfully reproduce the rice dish at home. It was amazingly simple but delicious. Even Lisa liked it. The dessert menu, which I typically shy away from, was also an eclectic treat. Dessert wines, teas and the remerging dessert cheese course are available. I went with the pumpkin and cream cheese mouse while David did the Bananas Foster.

Again, perfection. A cinnamon, white hot chocolate was served alongside my beautiful piece of cake that was unlike any hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted. I loved the spice with flavors that reminded me of hot spiced cider, only in chocolate. What a wonderful way to round out a great dining experience.

I have to say, this restaurant is a destination unto itself. Nowhere else that I’ve eaten in Phoenix combines such scenery with great culinary acumen. You will, however, be set back a bit by a visit to Elements. The average appetizer or salad averages around $15 and the entrée is about $32. Dinner for 4 with a great bottle of wine and a few cocktails was just over $500 but our wine was $100. While there are plenty of places in this city to get a great meal at a fraction of the price, Elements is a rare gem that should be savored. Popping into the bar for a cocktail and an appetizer or salad would be a very affordable way to soak in the ambience. There was plenty of the dressed up stuffy crowd but there were also people like me wearing jeans and just enjoying the night. It is a resort after all. I did love this place and this night. There is no better way to enjoy the company of family than over a great meal and Elements helped us fit that bill.