Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Outback Effect and Fleming's Steakhouse

I don’t recall exactly when it happened but it couldn’t have been that long ago. Do you remember when the words “chain restaurant” brought visions of 8 page menu’s full of flavorless fare? I do. Rubbery ribs, the lowest cut of beef available they called steak, frozen veggies barely heated on the side; you know what I’m talking about, right? Sure those chains still exist. Someone eats there because they are all still thriving but I’d sooner stick a needle in my eye. But something has changed. And it’s good. I call it the Outback effect.

Some folks here in Tampa got together and opened an Australian Steakhouse called Outback back in the late 80’s. Not exactly a Mecca for dining, Tampa quickly embraced this place and it was the talk of the town. Comfortable atmosphere, good quality meats and friendly staff were a recipe for success. I’m not sure if it was the plan all along, but their expansion was explosive, to say the least. Not only was the food good but it turns out that it was reproducible on a large scale. Their American success story is impressive. They even have their own Bowl game now. Along the way they managed to partner (or gobble up) with some other successful ventures to form the more sterile sounding OSI Restaurant Partnership (LLC). Carrabbas, Bonefish, Roy’s and Fleming’s are all under the same corporate management. What makes the Outback effect so impressive to me it that the food is really outstanding. That statement goes against every fiber of my being, but it’s true. I no longer immediately run from a chain restaurant and every once in a while, I actually have to deal with a craving for something from “down under”.

I recently had dinner at Fleming’s Steakhouse in Tampa and it was quite noteworthy. If Outback is on the “family dining” end of the spectrum, Fleming’s is on the opposite “fine dining” end. My colleague, Bruce, has had many a business dinner here and he knows the place well. Walking in, he is immediately greeted by many staff members including the Manager, Jorge, and the Operating Partner, Keith. Both spend time chatting with us and Keith offered me a tour. I was quite impressed with the restaurant. It is obvious they are creating an experience and not just a place to eat. Fleming’s is a bit refined. Impressive art, dark wood walls and private dining rooms gives this place an old style meeting place feel where high powered business deals are brokered. While I am most comfortable in shorts and flip flops, I was glad to be wearing a tie. Armed with my Maker’s Mark on the rocks, I began perusing the menu. My first impression was “safe”. The menu varies little from the standard steakhouse fare. All of the typical cuts with other poultry, pork or seafood options. Still, I could tell I was in for a treat because what a place like this does is trade variety for quality, meaning I guessed the food is over the top. I was completely correct but let me back up to the menu for a moment. I did notice the appetizers and side dishes had some really interesting choices. They served a tenderloin carpaccio as a starter. That gets an A+ in my book and I will have to try the sweet chili calamari on my next visit. The side dishes included sautéed sweet corn with shallots and chives and mashed potatoes made with blue cheese, parmesan-peppercorn or roasted garlic but I went for the mac and cheese with chipotle, cheddar and smoked Gouda. If I have ever had better mac and cheese, I can’t recall it. Creamy but with bits of toasted bread crumbs on top, this was smoky, cheesy and oh so decadent. Much like a goldfish, I think I could have eaten this until I exploded. It took all I had to ask the server to wrap it up to take home (it was next morning’s breakfast –heated in the oven with some more fresh breadcrumbs then broiled at the last minute to reproduce the previous evenings deliciousness).

As I sat trying to figure out my entrée, Bruce took the bull by the horns and told the server to bring us both a bone in filet, “the thickest you can find”, he said. Far be it from me to interject at this point. That sounded exquisite. This wasn’t even on the menu but I found out they occasionally carry it and this night we were in luck. The steak was 2 inches thick and the size of a medium ribeye. I can most certainly say, I have not had a cut of filet this large. The outer char was absolutely perfect with a browned sear that could grace the cover of any cooking periodical. Inside I found the beautiful red hew that I expect in a rare steak. The meat was succulent and buttery and each morsel eclipsed the one before. I cut small bites to overcome my desire to try to eat this like a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Overwhelmed by the quantity of food I just consumed, I was taken aback at Bruce’s dessert order. With the Mac and Cheese, the Fred Flintstone sized piece of steak and the creamed corn (also with cheese in it), I was confident I was not taking another bite. Plus I felt that my blood vessels were already struggling to cope with what I had ingested. Then it came out. I don’t know what the title of this volcano of chocolate is but it was decadent and delicious. Cutting in to the cake, this chocolate lava pours out commanding your fork to dip into it. With the berries atop and the pistachio topped vanilla ice cream on the side, I think every stomach starts making a bit of room.

As our evening ebbed away, I sat at the bar sipping a port. Eventually it was time to head back home and reflect on this dinner. This was a spectacular meal like one I haven’t had in a while in Tampa. While I wouldn’t classify Fleming’s as an everyday eatery, it is worth an evening out. Be advised the menu is all ala carte. There are no sides unless you order them but they are certainly large enough sides for two. The food and service are spot on. They are running a promotion (I think nationally) where you can get get reduced price drinks and appetizers from a special bar menu before 7PM. I looked at that menu and it does offer a very affordable option to try some high quality preparations. So whether it’s a business dinner, a special evening out, a celebration or a reasonable bar menu you’re looking for, I would say Fleming’s should be on your radar. I’ll go back.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Diner 437 and Chef Domenica

In a community ripe for good food at reasonable prices, there’s a new face on the scene that might just make a few foodies turn their heads. I had the pleasure of stopping in for lunch at the recently opened Diner 437 in St Petersburg and what a great time I had. While the preparations are simple, they are unique, delicious and reminiscent of meals found in far more sophisticated settings. The kitchen is open, the atmosphere is casual, the bar is half the length of the room and one might expect to get some really greasy spoon kind of fare here. One look at the menu though and you begin to notice this is no average diner. The sandwich offerings include filet mignon with roasted garlic sauce, braised short ribs with fontina cheese and a sirloin burger big enough to save your life if you landed on it from a high rise fall. They make French fries with duck fat. Need I say more? This town needed a menu like this.

The creator and overseer of this menu is Chef Domenica Macchia. Now I have to confess, Domenica and I hooked up as Facebook friends (because we’re foodies) a short time ago and I’ve been following her endeavors at trying to get up and running at a restaurant. She was looking forward to opening a place with a different owner elsewhere but as that deal soured, she became involved with Diner 437 and boy should downtown St Pete be grateful. If you want a quiet meal with little attention, do not sit at the bar. There are plenty of back corner tables to enjoy your lunch. Domenica works in her open kitchen and her passion for food pours out in conversation. This was our first face to face meeting and I had no idea what a treat I was in for. Calling her a colorful conversationalist would be a significant understatement. Our exchange began as lunch service was starting and even as tickets came in, we chatted for the entire hour plus I was there. Tiring from an engineering career at “30 Rock” (NBC Studios), she decided her calling was in the kitchen. Inspired by her mother and grandmother, Domenica attended culinary school and we are the lucky benefactors of this decision. Clearly it was the right one.

I asked her to make me whatever she liked and a short time later I was presented a bowl of potato soup with crispy leeks atop. Now I make a pretty good potato soup and I have to say it’s not as simple as one might think. It can easily be bland. This was thick and rich and seasoned just perfectly. The fried leeks were a great compliment. I have to admit, I am going to steal that idea.

The star of the show was the BLT that followed. Substitute lobster for lettuce as the “L” and you have this chef’s version (they actually call it a Lobster BT to avoid the letter confusion). I’ve had many a sandwich or salad with lobster on it. Usually there are scant traces of lobster flavors hidden by a gloppy mayo and vegetal mix. Even the coveted New England lobster roll is too often served like this. At Diner 437, however, the first things I see in my sandwich are big chunks of lobster meat unencumbered by the thick dressing. Served on toasted brioche, the flavors are clean and oceany. Lobster is one of those foods that says, “Don’t mess with me” and Domenica listened.

She also insisted I try a sample of another original dish of hers. Her twist on the Sloppy Joe (called a sloppy Jim) is infused with smokey chipotle and orange flavors. Sweet, savory and extremely spicy, this picks up where the original Sloppy Joe creator left off. As with all of the dishes I observed, simple ingredients put together thoughtfully and passionately is a great recipe in my book.

Domenica and I seemed to hit it off and she invited me back to cook with her. This is the first such invitation I’ve had and I do plan on taking her up on it. If you are part of the Downtown St. Pete lunch or dinner crowd, you must stop in and try the new little place at 437 Central Avenue (hence the name, Diner 437). Tell them Louis sent you.

By the way. I came late to this party. This restaurant has already been given great reviews by all of our local print media. Try it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

New Orleans and Restaurant August

I am busting at the seams to tell you that I have a new favorite restaurant but first there is always a back story:

So much has been written about the city of New Orleans that I can offer no new pearls of wisdom. It is a city of immense contrast, perhaps the greatest on our planet. Wealth and poverty are illustrated on every corner. Young and old, party goers and families, homeless and affluent all patrol the same streets. And while New Orleans is known for its decadence and high crime rate, the mix seems mostly harmonious, even if a touch uncomfortable. My first venture into the city was some 24 years ago as a young soldier. As with most 18 year olds, I was immediately swept up into the all night street parties and mild debauchery. As the years have progressed, I have traveled back to this city many times for various reasons and while I no longer participate in the all night events, I am very reminiscent of them. It should go without saying that one of my earliest impressions of the city was its unparalleled commitment to great cuisine.

To know the food, you have to know the city. Settled by the French, briefly owned by the Spanish then returned to the French, the city’s culture and architecture reflects both unique styles. This eclectic stew continued to be flavored as Creole French (folks of French descent born in the Americas) and immigrants fleeing Haitian civil war poured in during the early part of the 19th century. The uniqueness that is today’s New Orleans was born of these events and the food is like no other anywhere in the world. Perhaps that makes the cuisine the most American cuisine in the US. Fresh local ingredients in simple French preparations and spices reminiscent of both Caribbean and Spanish heritages. I love the food in this city and many other “foodies” I know will tell you it is their favorite place to eat, period.

New Orleans has produced one famous Chef after another. The most notable is, of course, Emeril Lagasse. A young upstart from New England, he settled in New Orleans and was given a shot as head chef at one of the most prestigious haunts in the city, Commander’s Palace. He then skyrocketed to success with the launch of the Food Network. A few years back, Lisa and I had the opportunity to eat at Commander’s Palace (Emeril had long since moved on) and the meal was quite memorable. Specifically, I will always remember their bread pudding dessert. It defined sweet and decadent yumminess. On this trip, there was a different well known chef I was interested in. Chef John Besh has been seen in print and on TV and was runner up to be “The Next Iron Chef” a few years ago. He has been recognized by every food award possible and perhaps a few new ones should be invented for him. His New Orleans jewel is simply called “August”. Voted best of the best in so many categories for so many reasons, this is a must stop for any trip to New Orleans. Make no mistake, this will set you back a few bills (my meal and tip was $167 for one guy) but as you will rarely hear me say, this was worth every nickel. I did not scrimp on my order either. Every entrée looked so fabulous and unique, I just couldn’t bring myself to choose one thing. I ended up with the tasting menu and the wine pairings. Unfortunately, I have no acumen for fine wines other than I can gently understand the flavors being presented to me. I appreciate good wine but I am no expert.

Before the 1st of 5 courses even came out, I was brought a truffled zabayon served in an eggshell topped with caviar. Zabayon is a custard made with white wine and in this case, infused with truffle oil. The aroma was earthy, heady. Rich and silky, I could have eaten a dozen of these. Course 1 was a crispy sweetbread and heart of palm salad.

Lightly fried till just crispy, this was not even remotely heavy. The richness of the sweetbread morsels (sweetbreads are the thymus gland of veal) was present but not over the top and mixed with a few greens and the sweet pickled hearts of palm, the blend was spectacular. The mark of a great chef is finding those ingredients that are rarely if ever paired and blending them into something special. This was just a taste of the memorable courses that were about to be set before me. The next dish was topped with beautiful squash blossoms that were crisp and tender. Beneath I found a small bit of calamari that was stuffed with an aged chorizo.

Again, marvelous and over the top. Course 3 was roulade of roasted rabbit with an herbed dumpling (they used a fancier word but it was a dumpling).

Number four was a Waygu beef shortrib with artichokes and for dessert a nougatine with chocolate and salted toffee ice cream.

Every course was more sensual than the previous and I cannot pinpoint one thing that I would have preferred differently. August is not an everyday place to eat. Not to say that I couldn’t enjoy the food daily, but with the cost, it is a real treat. While many of my posts bypass fine dining in lieu of more accessible meals, if you visit New Orleans without stopping for at least an appetizer, you are missing a terrific gastronomic opportunity.

Leaving the crescent city is always bitter sweet since I love heading home but there is no other food city I enjoy visiting more. Fortunately, New Orleans is a mere hour away from Tampa by plane and I always seem to end up back there for one reason or another. I have many great food recommendations in this city if you are paying a visit and don’t forget to check for the latest hotspots.

On my official top 5 restaurant list (that I keep mentally), August has edged Providence, Rhode Island’s Al Forno for the #1 spot (Al Forno enjoyed a 2 year run). Now I have to figure out which one to fall off the list.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Schnitzel, thanks mom

As a child, I didn’t appreciate my mother’s cooking like I should have. A first generation American born to Austrian immigrants, my mother learned her skills in my grandmother’s kitchen. Mom didn’t have a huge repertoire of recipes. Most of our meals were casseroles, sausages, braised meats and cabbages. Her crock pot was her instrument. Unfortunately, seasoning was not en vogue and most of the cooking was pretty bland. I often opted for McDonalds which was delicious. With age comes wisdom, however, and by my teens I knew there was something quite special going on in our very modest home. None of my friend’s ovens produced homemade scalloped potatoes, or pork chops and cabbage braised slowly for hours laden with caraway seeds. At their houses we ate foods like steaks or shrimp. For me, those foods were reserved for the ever special dinner out.

Fortunately, as time passed, I was able to let my mom know how great I thought her skill in the kitchen was. In the weeks before she passed away, she could still gather a couple of bowls to the kitchen table where she could shuck peas or de-stem fresh green beans. Dad would have to take over the part that required standing at the stove. The last meal she prepared for me was some time earlier when I asked her to teach me how to make her stuffed peppers. Aside from the love that went in to them, there were no special ingredients. Hollowed out bell peppers stuffed with ground beef and pork, rice and a few spices that went into the crock pot with a simple tomato sauce. It was the only time I ever set foot into the kitchen with my mother.

One of mom’s rare stovetop preparations was schnitzel. Weiner Schnitzel is traditionally a veal cutlet that is tenderized with a mallet then breaded and fried. Since veal was expensive, mom used pork. That still classifies as Schnitzel. I’ve taken a few liberties with mom’s version but the concept is there. I use fresh breadcrumbs and buttermilk for the binder and I cook them on a flat top instead a pan full of grease.

Instead of the lemon wedges and lingonberry jam (not easy to find outside of our old Austrian neighborhood), I serve these with a simple but hearty onion gravy. A few roasted potatoes with smoked paprika later and my version of this dish is something mom would be proud of. She liked my cooking.

We all pay our respects in different ways but for me, I pay homage to my mother through the gift of my cooking. While we didn’t cook together, she passed on her taste for foods that I might not appreciate otherwise. I cannot get the crock pot out without thinking of her. As we fast approach the 5th anniversary of her passing, this meal was very reminiscent of a typical dinner from when I was a little boy, with a little twist of course.

Note: For anyone that actually reads my blog posts, you might notice I talk of a mother that’s alive and one that is not. I was adopted. My natural mother and I reunited years ago and are very close. She is in many, many posts. My mother that raised me passed away but endures in my heart and spirit.

Schnitzel with Roasted Potatoes and Onion Gravy

4 boneless pork cutlets (pounded thin)
½ cup flour+ 3 tbsp (divided)
1 egg
¼ cup buttermilk
½ cup bread crumbs (I prefer making my own but store bought would be OK)
5 tbsp canola oil (divided)
5 medium sized Yukon gold potatoes sliced into thick disks.
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp granulated garlic
2 medium Vidalia onions, sliced thinly
4 cups chicken broth

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a mixing bowl combine the potatoes, 2 tbsp oil, smoked paprika and garlic. Toss to coat. Lay out on greased cookie sheet or baking pan and place in the preheated oven for 40 minutes or until golden brown.

Mix the egg and buttermilk. Season pork with salt and pepper before dredging. Dredge the pork cutlets in ½ cup flour. Shake excess then dredge in buttermilk and egg and finally dredge in bread crumbs. Set breaded cutlets aside to rest on a wire rack.

In a large sauté pan over medium high heat, add 3 tbsp oil and onions. Season with salt and pepper. Cook until translucent and beginning to brown. Add 3 tbsp flour and combine. Cook for another minute. Bottom of the pan will brown a bit. Add chicken broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer until reduced by a third (about ½ hour).

In a sauté pan over medium high heat add two tablespoons of oil and fry the cutlets 2 at a time. Cook about 3-4 minutes per side depending on thickness. Add a bit more oil before doing the second 2 cutlets.

To serve, arrange fried cutlets and roasted potatoes on a platter and pour onion gravy over top.

Serves 4.