Monday, March 30, 2009

Rumba Island Bar and Grill

I wasn’t expecting to hit a new restaurant this weekend. I had a busy week at work and I wanted to do a little boating and enjoy my own kitchen. When our plans changed and we stumbled out for lunch, our thought was to hit the beach for one of our favorite places but again, plans were derailed. Spring break beach traffic became backed up before we got 5 miles from the beach. So with my oldest daughter following in her car with her boyfriend, we ducked into the parking lot of a restaurant on Gulf to Bay Blvd. in Clearwater that I’ve wanted to try for some time. The Rumba Island Bar and Grill just looks like a place I would like. From the bamboo and palm tree décor to the tiki style bar serving rum runner’s 2 for 1, this place seems more suited to be beachfront than on a busy intersection at Keene and Gulf to Bay. I might have enjoyed a cocktail at the outdoor bar but having 4 kids under 21 with us precluded that.

After being seated and ordering a round of drinks, we checked out the menu. Impressive, I thought. If these items were fresh, this place is sure to be a winner. The menu is mostly the standard Caribbean takes on delicious and fresh ingredients with an eye to crisp and clean flavor. There were so many great choices on the appetizer menu but I chose two conch preparations. The Conch Fritters and the Conch Ceviche were both pleasing. Notably, these fritters were as good as I’ve ever tasted. They were light and pillow-y with no resemblance to their southern US corn fritter cousin (which I think is much heavier). I loved their take on them and the jerk aioli for dipping was wonderfully tangy. Lisa, who boasts her dislike for most seafood, enjoyed these too. I wished I could have tried more from the appetizers because the list included some of my favorites like Coconut Prawns, Mussels in Saffron Infused Coconut Milk, Calamari and Fish Spread.

The rest of the menu was pretty exciting too, I thought. I wasn’t sure if it was their signature dish or not but they offered these rice bowls made with shrimp, coconut rice, fruit, vegetables then topped with your choice of other fish such as BBQ Salmon or blackened Mahi or jerk chicken. I almost went this direction but I saw one of my favorite selections so I chose that. I have a soft spot for soft shell crab, if you’ll pardon the pun.

It has a texture like none other and throughout the same whole crab, the flavor ranges from ultra mild to pretty fishy (and I happen to like that). In case you don’t know, soft shell crab is just crab that has molted and not grown into its new shell yet. Seems a bit unfair, really, to take these little guys in that vulnerable window of time but I love them nonetheless. I thought it was spectacular and I could have eaten a couple of more. If I have to pick on something, it would have to be the slaw. I was a bit put off by the pineapple. I love pineapple but it felt out of place to me.

Lisa ordered a salad. Jerk chicken to be exact. It looked just spectacular. I tasted it. The traditional flavor collideascope of allspice, pepper and clove shined in the jerk seasoning. The salad was marvelous and hearty. I was jealous. Again, Lisa was pleased and if you ever went out to dinner with her, you would know this was not a small feat. I usually leave NEW places off the list for her until I’ve scoped out the possibilities. This was a winner.

What was really nice about the whole affair was my oldest daughter, Brittany, was visiting for the day from Ft. Lauderdale with her boyfriend. It was a great opportunity for the family to just sit, relax and enjoy a good meal. I give Rumba Bar and Grill a thumbs up and recommend you find out for yourself.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Grilled Chicken, Bacon Baked Potato and Beer Braised Cabbage

I was watching the national weather the other day and I realized that spring has not sprung everywhere. CNN was reporting snow in the mountain states and many ski resorts are doing great business. My friends in New England and my family in Washington DC were reporting fairly cold temperatures still. Here in Florida though, the temperatures have been in the upper 70’s for weeks and our spring is in full swing. As a young man, this weather turns a man’s interest to the pursuit of young ladies but approaching middle age, my grill has become more appealing. Now I don’t want to sound cynical, because I tell Lisa how much hotter I find her each day, but my mental capacity has expanded to include more than one narrow range of thoughts in the spring.
I seem to go in phases with my grill but in the past few months, she has become ever more important to me. Recently, I grilled up some chicken that was out of this world and made a couple of sides that we must talk about. Now I want to take credit for the potatoes that we’re going to explore, but I must admit, it came from elsewhere. I don’t recall exactly where I saw this recipe but, no matter, it is not completely original. The bacon slats came from either a TV show or magazine, but the ricotta and horseradish were completely mine. I remembered seeing the potatoes cut with slats in them allowing slices of bacon to be slid between. Baking these off (wrapped in foil for 45 minutes) allows the bacon to flavor the whole potato and create a silky and luxurious texture. Broiling the potatoes (removed from foil) in the last 2-3 minutes of their cooking crisps up the bacon bits sticking out and using a Yukon Gold potato means that natural butteriness is present throughout. Then, I stepped things up a bit by adding a bit of horseradish to some ricotta and making a bed to sit the potato in. This worked. That mild ricotta cheese flavor infused with the horseradish goes just exquisitely with the bacon flavor. Aside from salt and pepper, 4 ingredients. YUM!!!!

The other side dish was a bit of beer braised red cabbage and I have come to decide that this is going to be a serious staple in our house. I loved it and would eat it over and over. Slowly cooking this veggie produces a pleasantly sweet flavor that calls for remaking. I began by sautéing a bit of red cabbage with some butter. Once a bit soft, I added a good beer (Stella Artois), brought that to a boil then reduced the heat to low. After about 40 minutes, most of the liquid was gone leaving a great concentration of flavor. A last bit of butter then serve. It’s just that simple.
I have decided that there is really no way to sum up in a brief article how to perfectly grill a piece of chicken (or any meat for that matter). There e are a lot of factors to consider. How hot is the grill? How close is the meat to the heat? Do you want to smoke? Do you want to grill? Do you want to add a bit of barbeque sauce? … Do you see what I’m saying? Very tough. The only real grilling rule for chicken I can think to tell you is this: It takes a bit of practice to cook a whole chicken on a grill so that it is perfectly cooked through but not burned on the outside. For this bird, I cut it in two and grill each half separately. I think the key is to keep the bird over indirect heat for most of the cooking so that it gets cooked through. At the end, I give it a few more minutes over the direct coals to finish off the skin.
So here you have the final product. Now normally, I go through the motions to write out the steps of each recipe but in this case, I think the article along with the photos are self explanatory. Like the theme that runs through most of my writing, there are very few hard fast rules. If you want to use wine to braise the cabbage, that’d be delicious. Add a little garlic too. Try these potatoes though. They were really exceptional. You could melt a bit of your favorite cheese at the end, too.
I love spring.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Atlanta's Flip Burger Boutique

Signature burger, vodka battered onion rings and Greek slaw

Sorry if I’ve been away from this page for a little longer than usual. I have a good excuse. You see, it was bound to happen eventually and I simply had to go back to work. While I found my early and forced retirement to be a very pleasant (and conducive to writing), that nagging little problem of money would have eventually crept into the picture. Employed again, getting settled in and with newly arrived laptop in hand, I should be back to the blog.

My second week with the new company found me in Atlanta. Atlanta is a great town for a foodie. I don’t say this because I’ve explored many nooks and crannies of that city but because of the times I have visited, my dining experiences have been noteworthy. Last week was no different. Since I didn’t have my computer with me, I didn’t have the usual benefit of perusing the dining scene online. I used the old fashioned way of actually reading reviews in local magazines. One magazine (you know the one that’s published seasonally and put in every hotel room? -that one) had an article about the uprising of celebrity owned or inspired restaurants in the Atlanta area. The one that caught my eye was Richard Blais’ creation called Flip. Blais is a serious young chef with an unparalleled flare. He graduated from New York’s Culinary Institute of America and apprenticed under some prestigious names. Last year he was the runner up on Bravo’s Top Chef and, while he was the front runner most of the season, fell in the final round.

Now I’ve had problems with celebrity restaurants before. I’ll name names people. I have had less than great food at places owned by Gloria Estefan, Keyshawn Johnson (football player), Spike (another Top Chef celebrity) and a couple others I won’t mention. Name recognition might get them in the door but the food has to win them back. Still there was something special about Richard Blais. He was my favorite to win and I consistently wanted to try the creations he offered to the judges week after week. So off to Flip it is.

Flip pays homage to the burger. If you think you’ve eaten a burger just about every way possible, this place will open your eyes to a whole new way of doing it and you will be thrilled. For the beef burgers they grind their own combination of Hangar steak, Brisket and Short rib to get a perfect ratio of hearty taste and just enough fat. Then Blais carefully crafts the perfect and unique burger condiments. From smoked mayo to housemade pickles, these menu items are well thought out and difficult to decide amongst. If you really are in the mood to spend a small fortune on 5.5 oz of burger, you can order the Japanese Kobe beef burger with seared Fois Gras for $45. On the right side of the menu are the non beef choices. Things like ground pork or turkey, tuna or lamb made in different ethnic styles from Cuban to Vietnamese.

Personally I chose the Lamburger. It was topped with green olive relish, cucumber yogurt, homemade raisin catsup and mint. It was like visiting Istanbul on a bun. These traditional Mediterranean flavors married so well with the tender juicy burger that I almost forgot I was eating a burger. It really was more of a high end offering the like I’ve seen at places like Chef Andre’s Washington DC establishment, Zaytinyas. I was impressed, thrilled even. The sides on the menu are as equally creative as the burgers. You can enjoy vodka battered onion rings, tempura asparagus or sweet potato tots.

My lamburger

Then there are the shakes. On Top Chef, Blais was known for his use of liquid nitrogen to get that smoky effect and his shakes bear this trademark. While the Krispy Kreme doughnut and Nutella and Marshmallow shakes seem to be the most popular, I decided I had to try the Fois Gras shake. C’mon. That’s creative. Ingredients: Ice Cream, milk, amaretto and Fois Gras. No self respecting foodie would turn down the opportunity to try this. Taste? Well… like a milk shake. Since I knew Fois Gras was in there, I could taste it but if I hadn’t known, I wouldn’t have guessed. OK then, I’m glad I tasted it and while I liked it, I don’t think I’ll spend another $9 on a milkshake any time soon.

Fois Gras milkshake

If you want to visit Flip, you’ll need a bit of patience. There is always a wait. The good news is that the place turns over quickly, you can gawk at the burgers passing by and they have a full bar. The crowd on the night I was there was young and hip and the atmosphere is really conducive to having a good time. The layout and décor are exactly as I might have expected; modern straight lines, polished steel and dotted with a few bright colors. It very much has the feel of one of those Hollywood techniques where the film is black and white but the apple is red. Probably my favorite feature of the room are the framed TV’s behind the bar. It was just a hot touch.

Atlanta should be very proud to have this place. It is a stand out amongst restaurants and most towns don’t have anything close.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Bacon Wrapped Monkfish with Spicy Horseradish Aioli

Have you ever had Monkfish? It’s not horribly common and I’ve never seen it in the grocery store. The only offerings I’ve had have been in restaurants and I’ve found the flavor just remarkable. The other day I stumbled across a fish market that was a bit off the beaten path in Ozona, Florida and I was pleasantly surprised to see the fillets in the case. I asked the fishmonger about it and he told me they had just gotten this in fresh within the hour. Sold. Monkfish in hand, I headed home and began my little mental menu.

So many people are intimidated by fish but I find it cooks easier that almost anything else I create. From prep to finished meal is usually less than 30 minutes and Monkfish is no different. This exceedingly ugly animal is often compared to lobster for its firm texture and sweet taste. While I see that analogy, I think of Monkfish as a delicacy all its own and I frequently order it when I see it on a restaurant menu. I prepared 2 separate meals from this and both were delicious. The first one was so simple, it doesn’t really deserve too much discussion. I butter poached the fish then served it over some homemade potato chips. It was quite lovely. If you want to impress a crowd, make your own potato chips sometime and serve them with an elegant meal.

The next day I took a bit more time and made a seasoning of Cayenne, paprika, salt, garlic powder, onion powder and cumin. I lightly dusted cut up chunks of the raw fish then wrapped each in bacon and skewered them. They were then grilled over coals just to get a crust on the bacon. While the monkfish rested, I put together a super quick aioli with mayo, horseradish, Dijon mustard, and a dash of the spice rub. For the bottom of the plate I simply blanched then quick sautéed some sugar snap peas in butter. They perfectly retained their color and crunch but gave up a more tender bite. Biting into this fish produces a myriad of wonderful flavors and all perfectly accompanying to the delicate and succulent center of the fish. Sweet and rich and akin to a scallop, the monkfish does have its own flavor that is pure, clean and remarkably fresh. You could easily pay 25 bucks for this entrée at any decent seafood restaurant but you will rock a dinner party with this and it takes about 30 minutes top to bottom.

If you want to give Monkfish a go, I suggest finding a good seafood market and asking the fishmonger about it. I have been told that it is fished in Florida but all of my online research tells me that it comes from the Northeast. Since it is quite popular in parts of Asia too, it must have a broad ocean range so I suspect it can be fished in most places.

Please enjoy.

Bacon Wrapped Monkfish with Spicy Horseradish Aioli and Crispy Sugar Snap Peas

1 tsp Cayenne pepper
1 tsp paprika
2 tsp salt
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp cumin
(This the spice mix I make but you could easily substitute your own or even a store bought like Old Bay)
16 oz Monkfish fillets cut into about 20 “scallop sized” pieces
10 strips of bacon, cut in half
2 tbsp Mayo
2 tsp prepared horseradish
1 tsp Dijon Mustard
2 tbsp butter
2 cups sugar snap peas

Soak wooden skewers for 30 minutes beforehand. Mix the first 6 spices up in a small bowl. Lightly dust the fish with this. It should enhance the flavor but too much will overwhelm the delicate Monkfish. Wrap each piece of fish with bacon and circle the piece only once. Overlap just a bit. Trim excess bacon. Skewer through the overlapped portion and do not have too much extra.

Place on a hot grill and sear each side, depending on the temperature 2 minutes per side should do it. Can be done on the stove top or even the oven for that matter.

Mix the mayo, horseradish, mustard and about a tsp of the spice mix together in a small bowl.

For the peas, blanch in boiling water for about 30-60 seconds then remove them to a bowl of ice water. In a sauté pan melt the butter over medium heat and add the well drained peas. Warm through but do not brown.

Divide peas to 4 plates. Top each with bacon wrapped monkfish and place a small amount of the Aioli on each piece of fish.

Serves 4.