Monday, September 1, 2014

Woody's River Roo, Ellenton, FL

After seriously scouring the web the other day,  I can confidently report that there's a serious dearth of dog-friendly, waterfront restaurants east of I-75 in Hillsborough County.  In fact, they may well be nonexistent.

Sweet Molly Maguire, still despondent over the loss of her longtime companion, Gastropup, needed to get out of the house.  Needed some stimulation.  Needed something different to do.  An al fresco lunch seemed ideal, but overlooking a parking lot in the August heat did not.  Downtown Tampa might've worked, but her hips would not have.  At 14 years of age, she can only handle the shortest of walks from car to table.  I finally remembered Woody's River Roo, a cute tiki bar and casual dining spot situated right off of I-75 at the Hellenton Outlet Mall exit.

Okay, so Woody's River Roo is no Mise en Place...nor does it pretend to be.  The important thing on this occasion was that it has an expansive deck overlooking the sparkling Manatee River and that it welcomes furkids.  As it turned out, the food's actually pretty good, too.

Both two- and four-legged members of our party were warmly received by all staff members we encountered and a bowl of cool water was promptly deposited for Molly. There was plenty of shade on the patio which, coupled with the misting fans scattered throughout the venue, made for a pleasant outdoor experience despite the mid-nineties temps and one-hundred-and-eleventy percent humidity.  I cringed a little when I realized that live entertainment would be involved, since it often has a way of making me want to take an ice pick to my eardrums because it's either too loud, awful, or both.   I was pleasantly surprised when neither of the aforementioned adjectives were applicable.  The soloist was actually quite talented and had a nice, relaxing repertoire which he kept dialed down to a volume level conducive to conversation.  The scene:
















We ordered some cold beverages and started with a better-than-average basket of lightly breaded on the outside/tender on the inside onion rings, which disappeared in short order.















Since Sweet Molly loves crab meat almost more than life itself, she zeroed right in on the Blue Crab Cakes...which turned out to be pretty spectacular.  The two large and beautifully seared patties were bountifully stuffed with crab meat and nicely seasoned with spices and a little bell pepper.  Binder was kept to a minimum and we all enjoyed the cakes' crispy exterior crust and zippy, horseradish-y sidecar of dipping sauce.
















Molly was nice enough to share.  Good girl!





















Nachos fell into the "just okay" category.  The homemade chili topping the requisite tortilla chips was a spicily tasty rendition, but the decidedly "Cheez Whizzy" school bus yellow goo topper kept them from reaching their full potential.  But, again...we're talking about inexpensive pub fare here, most of which delivers pretty well for its price point.















My grouper bites were moist, not overly-breaded, fresh-tasting and fried to a golden brown.  Fries were the frozen battered variety, but were served hot and crunchy.  I thought the portion was generous for $12.99 and could not finish it all.
















Final word:  Woody's River Roo is a pleasant place to while away a Florida afternoon.  The food more than meets expectations.  It's clean enough for an outdoor establishment.  It boasts gorgeous views.  Staff is laid back and friendly.  It's not so much of a tiki-bar venue that anyone should fear bringing their family here...in fact, there were many families with children dining on our visit as well as senior citizens, boaters, young singles, dog parents and everything in-between.  Molly gives it her coveted "two paws up".





















Woody's River Roo

Woody's River Roo Pub & Grill on Urbanspoon

My blog entries contain the unmitigated, and sometimes unforgiving, dining truths and perceptions I experience as an ordinary restaurant patron. Every meal I post about has been fully paid for by one of the participating members of my personal dining party. I do not engage in the gratis blogger freebie dining events I'm constantly invited to attend and never will. If I ooze font-like love for a restaurant in my blog, it's because they totally earned it…not because they gave me free food or knew I was going to share the experience on the internet.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Catch Twenty-Three, Lithia, FL

Catch Twenty-Three is a pleasant addition to the Valrico/Lithia food scene.  Oh, right...we don't have a "food scene" in East Hillsbilly County.  Still, it's a warm and welcoming eatery with better than average cuisine located smack dab in the center of Stepford Fish Hawk, so it's a quick drive for those of us stuck in right-wing-conservative-good-schools-everyone-goes-to-church-on-Sunday-white-bread-and-Velveeta-land...which doesn't doesn't always provide the best audience for dining establishments that think further out of the box than Chili's.  I was very impressed that shiznit like coconut curry and edamame were being tossed around on the menu.  Granted, we pretty much had the establishment to ourselves on an early Saturday evening.  I guess everyone was at Crapplebee's.

Service was fantastic from the moment we arrived.  Being more in a sampling and drinking mode than a pulling-out-the-stops gorging mode, we opted to eat at the bar where were treated like royalty by our sweet and saucy bartender, Sam.

We started with Queso Fundido (pepper jack, goat and white American cheeses, chorizo, roasted poblano peppers and tri-colored tortilla chips),  A super-fine rendition (Honey, I don't think we're at Chili's anymore)...and who doesn't love creamy, crunch, spice and heat?  Muy rico!

Coconut Curry Mussels were totally off the chain and their application was a refreshing divergence from the done-to-death pedestrian white wine or tomato broth versions that ubiquitously appear on menus around Tampa Bay.  Fresh-tasting and presented with thick and hearty slabs of garlic bread for dipping, these puppies were a winner.
















$15 seemed pricey for four Salt and Pepper Shrimp, but they totally delivered.  Again, sweet melded perfectly with heat and the massive crustaceans were beautifully presented, nestled on a toothsome bed of nutty, zippy edamame.
















Char-grilled Oysters Rockefeller were a tad light on the fat content for my personal taste, but beautiful and tasty nonetheless.  I prefer my O-Rocks with a serious slathering of Hollandaise...but then, that's why I'm wearing stretch pants.
















Thus far, everything was fabu.  I would be remiss if I failed to mention that a generous selection of wines by the glass are available here...most priced at $10 or less.

Desserts were okay, but failed to thrill.  While every hair on my body stood on end in anticipation of Banana Bread Pudding topped with Cherry Garcia ice cream, it did not deliver.  A dry, raisin-studded concoction that channeled leftover carrot cake to such a degree that we felt compelled to ask for clarification as to its origin was left virtually untouched. It was cold and hard, and the ice cream even colder and harder

The bite I took of the orgasmic-sounding Coconut Key Lime Crème Brûlée kind of left me with a "just kissed my brother" feeling.  Put the lime in the coconut, damnit! I tasted neither. I'm not really a fan of custardy desserts to begin with, but UD is...and he agreed that this one was a bit lame.
















While desserts could use some massaging in my opinion, Catch Twenty-Three is a culinary haven in the Brandon area and does a lot of things really well.  Worth a shot.

www.catchtwentythree.com

Catch Twenty-Three on Urbanspoon

My blog entries contain the unmitigated, and sometimes unforgiving, dining truths and perceptions I experience as an ordinary restaurant patron. Every meal I post about has been fully paid for by one of the participating members of my personal dining party. I do not engage in the gratis blogger freebie dining events I'm constantly invited to attend and never will. If I ooze font-like love for a restaurant in my blog, it's because they totally earned it…not because they gave me free food or knew I was going to share the experience on the internet.


Friday, August 22, 2014

Farewell, Gastropup

Sweet Polly's Hero (aka "Gastropup" and "Piggy", aptly earned monikers due to his passion for anything remotely edible...although his interest in any particular offering seemed to wane proportionately to its broader location on the food pyramid),  joined our family on Easter Sunday in 2003.  A little unsure of himself at first and obviously a bit intimidated by our older and more established black lab, Molly, I was initially concerned that he would not be able to negotiate a comfortable niche for himself in the hierarchy of our "pack".  However, he quickly (and seemingly cheerfully) settled into his role as omega II, fourth behind myself as Molly had claimed the beta spot to her Daddy-Dawg's alpha position long before I arrived on the scene (a pecking order I have allowed them both to believe has remained constant over the past thirteen years, while usually even managing to supress a giggle at the very idea).





















He was a fun-loving clown from the very beginning who never wanted a THING to do with confrontation, although he did once seriously threaten to rip a small, dilapidated kettle grill to smithereens that had been left curbside for trash pickup by a neighbor on the evening prior to one of our many hundreds of pre-dawn "poop walks" (apparently mistaking it for an axe murderer).  As it turned out, "Hero" was a bit of a misnomer.  A lightning fast runner in his youth (who could seriously make a greyhound hang his head in shame), he loved to chase small woodland creatures.  On one occasion, he actually managed to overtake and momentarily wrap his jaws around a squirrel...but promptly panicked and almost soiled himself from sheer fear of the small, squirming form thrashing around his snout (not to mention The Mommy's shrill screams of horror) and dropped it.  Therefore a certain fortunate rodent miraculously lived to collect nuts another day.

He had hobbies...and lots of them.  He loved toys more than almost anything (except food) and had his own generously-filled toy box which was more frequently than not completely emptied of its squeaky, bouncy, round and trip-inducing denizens, which he remorselessly left randomly scattered throughout the house like little land mines for one of his dumb humans to stumble over in the dark.
















Swimming was also a passion, and there was nothing more fun than taking a quick dive in the pool before running back inside via the doggy door, shaking off all over the house then and scraping his soaking wet pelt along the sofa in a seeming (and successful) attempt to remove all of that nasty brown dye from the leather. Since his "parents" were incapable of looking at that face and administering any level of meaningful discipline, what did he have to lose?  He owned us, not the other way around.

















A nosy neighbor, he often channeled Gladys Kravitz and peered through the cat door whenever the garage door was open to see just what everyone else was up to.  It's a good thing he couldn't talk, because someone probably would've had to kill him.  Neighborhood Watch at its finest.
















R-I-D-E-S were also high on his list of faves. Yes, we always had to spell it so he wouldn't go batshitcrazy at the mere mention of the word.  As is clearly evident in this photo, he also taught Miley Cyrus everything she knows.
















Hero always got into the Christmas spirit (his favorite holiday).  I like to imagine he was grateful that I, who had a certain knack for innately discerning his every desire, assisted him with "getting his 'Jingle Bell' on" .  Okay, maybe not...but he tolerated it like a trooper because it made me laugh and earned him a "Good Boy!"





















At times, he enjoyed donning the dubious disguise of a dead palmetto bug...in what I can only assume was an attempt to lull the People of Earth into a false sense of security while he secretly plotted to achieve world power.  He was one inscrutable beast!  As an aside, he had a propensity for gnawing on his right front leg until it was bloody...which seemed super unnecessary since he was neutered at a young age.
















"Gastropup", more than anything, I believe...loved co-blogging.  While he never had the opportunity to grace Bern's with his presence, he did enjoy some memorable treats at the many dog-friendly dining establishments in the Tampa Bay area. Paella at Cafe Alma was particularly well received, even if he and Molly DID manage to totally trash the outdoor resto patio like a couple of drunken rock stars before our meal was over.  But, hey...these little moments of indiscretion happen to the best of us, right?
















The Fish and Corn Chowder at Cassis American Brasserie...well, I think it's safe to say that he never forgot that!  Not to mention the kindness of the management staff who made it clear that our "kids" were absolutely welcome on the alfresco dining patio and brought them bowls of cool water as soon as we sat down after an afternoon of playing in Vinoy Park.
















I think his favorite treat of all time was the Tres Leches Cake at Pincho y Pincho in downtown St. Pete (a former offshoot of Ceviche) following a day of frolicking at the Fort DeSoto Dog Beach.  So very cool, creamy, sweet and refreshing!




















Despite his highbrow epicurean proclivities, "Piggy" was not too proud to revel in the gastronomic delights of a good food truck (let's face it...we're talking about someone whose idea of a "party" was a serious roll in a pile of another dog's droppings).  A pureed frozen banana treat from Gone Bananas was snorted in veryshortorder a couple of years ago.  High praise from a canine who was generally disdainful of fruit. It was, however, prepared in a way that was reminiscent of ice cream, which was his all-time favorite food.

















The world and I lost a most precious, gentle, affectionate, humorous and empathetic soul this past Monday, August 18th to the bitch that is cancer.  Death, be not proud...because (and I hate to be the one to break it to you) you have somewhat of a POS reputation.

And something is just not right with the universe when "Man's Best Friend" has such a disproportionate lifespan to our own.  The silence in our home is deafening without the relentless beat of my perpetual puppy's "tail drum".  Hero, you brought me unbelievable joy, and I'll love and remember you for as long as I live.  I'll try harder to be good so that I might again one day press my kisses atop your snowy head.  Godspeed, sweet pup.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Cesare's Fine Italian Cuisine, Clearwater Beach, FL

So, I was a little bummed right off the bat when I phoned Cesare's for a rezzie and the voice on the other end of the line thanked me for calling "Caesar's".  Am I the only one who watched Showtime's "The Borgias"?  It's "CHAYZ-uh-ray" for gawd's sake.  Our server was dreamily handsome, olive-skinned, Italian-accented and attentive, however, so this minor transgression was quickly forgotten once we were seated.

I thought the interior was a tad spartan for a $30-per-entree kinda place, but I did appreciate the softly piped-in "Rat Pack" era tunes from the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and others of their ilk, so I guess I'm officially "old" (albeit one of the youngest diners in the place at 6:00 PM on a Saturday).  We got our party started with a chilled bottle of Prosecco.





















Warm, crusty Italian bread was deposited while we perused the menu.  It was quite good, as was its herbaceous and garlic-riffic dipping oil (which would probably put a damper on any post-dining seduction plans, so first-daters in particular should bear this in mind).  I think it'll be Monday before the fumes stop
emanating from my pores.















Lobster bisque was decadently rich and heavily laden with sweet crustacean chunks, sherry and cream.  This was a damned fine soup.















UD ordered the Carpaccio, which was fresh-tasting and nicely presented.














Entree time!  I wanted to snort some serious pasta on the heartbreaking eve of my Atkin's diet re-induction, but had a difficult time making a decision (I can be a woman like that).  I wanted noodles.  I wanted cheese.  I wanted prosciutto.  I wanted peas.  I wanted mushrooms.  I wanted pink sauce.  My bitchy demands were met without so much as the batting of an eye.  Cesare's will mix and match pasta ingredients to your specifications.  As it happened, there was a sacchettini special du jour available which consisted of little cheese-filled pasta purses swimming in a creamy-yet-tangy pink vodka sauce with all of the accoutrements on my wish-list. Yesssss.
















My beloved selected a veal chop special which was slathered in a mushroom-laden cognac sauce. Served with some lovely, tender-on-the-inside/caramelized-on-the-outside potato chunks and flanked by a completely forgettable mound of previously frozen bag-o-veggies, this may have been the low point of the evening. Requested to be cooked medium rare, there was some serious "gray" going on in this steak. An individual who seemed to be "in charge" stopped by to inquire about our meal satisfaction, at which point the temp discrepancy was brought to his attention. The reply was that "these chops are thin so it's hard to really do 'medium rare'".  Ummm, might be worth mentioning at the time this dish is ordered. The convo eventually culminated in a decidedly reluctant offer to replace the veal chop, but we passed.  The meat that was closer to the bone proved to be pinker and less dry, so it wasn't disastrous by any means.
















At the end of the day, I must say that while most of what we tried was well above average, we will likely never return.  At an average cost of $30 per entrée, the cuisine and ambiance should've been amazing...but both fell a tad short of that adjective. Cesare's, while good, is no Armani's and shouldn't carry the same weighty price tag.

Cesare At The Beach

Cesare's on the Beach on Urbanspoon

My blog entries contain the unmitigated, and sometimes unforgiving, dining truths and perceptions I experience as an ordinary restaurant patron. Every meal I post about has been fully paid for by one of the participating members of my personal dining party. I do not engage in the gratis blogger freebie dining events I'm constantly invited to attend and never will. If I ooze font-like love for a restaurant in my blog, it's because they totally earned it…not because they gave me free food or knew I was going to share the experience on the internet.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Kafe Kokopelli, Dade City, FL

I never hesitate to cast a wide net over the Greater Tampa Bay area in search of hidden (and not-so-hidden) gems and today was one of those high-mileage days.  Putting 100 miles on the odometer and spending two hours or more in the car is well worth the reward imparted by satiated taste buds...and after my lunch at Kafe Kokopelli in Dade City, my taste buds need a cigarette (and they're not even smokers).  UD, of course, has simply rolled over and fallen asleep.  That's right...uber yumminess has been identified in PASCO County!  Someone alert the press.

I've always found Dade City to be cavity-inducingly adorable and have trekked northward on multiple occasions to dine at Lunch on Limoges.  While the historic little burg seemed to falter a bit during the Great Recession, I was delighted to see that the lights were once again burning in most of the quaint storefronts, boutiques and gift shops in the heart of town.  But let's get to the food.

After being advised by our friend Joanie (who lives in the vicinity of the resto) that there was a new chef at Kafe Kokopelli who had ratcheted the already tasty cuisine up a few notches, the hook was set.  Up I-75 we went to meet her for lunch and find out if she was lying.  She wasn't.

I was enchanted upon entry by the warm vibe and eclectic decor of this 100 year old former Model T showroom. While there is a lot taxidermy intermingled with the whimsical stars and twinkling lights (which could be a tad off-putting to certain diners, like myself, who may immediately jump to the conclusion that someone had been on a wildlife thrill-killing spree), I understand that all of the animals formerly resided at a nearby wildlife sanctuary and were only stuffed after they died of natural causes.  The creatures (mostly big cats) are meant to represent those sacred to the Indian culture and native to Florida.  Crisis averted...you may proceed to strap on my feedbag, now.














Our server was warm and accommodating.  Food did not come out at lightning speed, but at a respectable pace conducive to conversation which also confirmed that our culinary creations were being prepared to order.  First up: Joanie's Cream of Carrot Soup.  Sounds exciting....right? Okay, maybe not so much...but what appeared was a delightful, sweet and creamy concoction that was somewhat reminiscent of butternut squash soup in taste and consistency.  After sampling it, I can honestly say that I would hit this again in a heartbeat...and I generally tend to favor soups that contain animal pieces (sorry, PETA) despite my aversion to sport hunting.
















Underdog also started with a meatless app (really, there are a number of offerings at Kafe Kokopelli for those who eschew animal protein) - Fried Green Tomato Napoleon. This pulchritudinous plate consisted of lightly breaded and fried green tomatoes layered with goat cheese, kumquat marmalade, thin bread and butter pickle slices, basil oil and aged balsamic.  As anyone who ever reads my posts knows, tomatoes and I have a love-hate relationship. They're desirable as long as they're cooked and pureed into a sauce, but I have a strange aversion to said fruit in its unadulterated form.  The spousal unit, however, proclaimed the dish to be "AH-MAAAAA-ZING" and bolted it down to the last bite in short order. I will say that, titillated by his moans of ecstasy, I reticently accepted a small bite of the stack and found the flavor melange to be a uniquely delicious twist on a southern classic (tomatoes notwithstanding).
















Joanie selected the Beer-Battered Catfish Sandwich (which may be ordered grilled or blackened for you more health-conscious folks) with house pickled peppers, house tartar sauce, fresh tomato, bibb lettuce and sweet bun for her lunch entree.  What a gorgeous thing it was!  Flanked by hot and crunchy homemade pub chips, our petite friend did her best to wrangle this massive beast, but was forced to leave a substantial portion on her plate due solely to the sheer size of it.
















My better half could not resist the lure of the Braised Short Rib and Beer Cheese Nacho starter, so he ordered it as an entree and was not disappointed.  A generous portion of more of the thick and crunchy pub chips were presented, liberally blanketed in tender, smoky short rib meat, beer cheese, pickled red onions, scallions and red wine demi-glace.  Heart attack on a plate, perhaps...but what a way to go!













Being madly tormented by the plethora of tasty-sounding menu offerings, making a final decision was a challenge for yours truly.  When I saw the combo meal options, the light at the end of the tunnel was revealed.  Kafe Kokopelli offers an assortment of appetizer/soup/salad/sandwich options from which diners can make selections to form their own combo meals ($9 for two selections, $13 for three).  While I felt that two would more than satisfy my bird-like appetite, I made the sacrifice and went with three...sheerly for journalistic purposes.  That's the ticket.

My delectable combo (personalized to perfectly suit moi) consisted of  Almond Crusted Fried Brie with grilled Florida peach and local honeycomb; an herbaceous, sherry-and-crab-chunk-laden She Crab Soup (which did require a well-deserved $2 upcharge); and a half Cuban Sandwich.  Everything on the plate was thoughtfully prepared and really, nothing could've been improved upon as far as I'm concerned.  I loved the crunchy on the outside/melty on the inside wedge of brie and the grilled peach was the perfect accompaniment.  I've been disappointed with a few she crab soups I've tried lately (I. C. Sharks' and Rumfish's versions to name a couple) because of the heavy use of oregano, Old Bay and other strong seasonings which detracted from the delicacy of the crab. This crab soup was worlds away from the aforementioned wannabes.  Lightly creamy, refraining from being overly-rouxed, boasting a subtle hint of sherry and chock-full of sweet crustacean morsels...I may have a new favorite (sorry, Keegan's).  Oh, and my Cuban was divine.  Lots of warm, tender, slow-roasted pork, better than average ham and salami, Swiss cheese, mayo, mustard and pickles were pressed firmly between two slabs of crispy Cuban bread. Move over, Tampa...there's a new kid just north of town who also knows how a proper Cuban is made.  I defy anyone to find a finer $15 lunch deal than this...anywhere.
















Dogboy still needed his "happy ending", so he ordered Strawberry Rhubarb Cobbler with homemade vanilla ice cream on the side.  Decadent...and I loved its little strawberry rhubarb gelée sidecar.


Final word:  Lurve!  Cuisine is both creative and approachable.  Ambiance is cozy and charming.  Happy hour starts at 1:00 PM (which, serendipitously coincided with our arrival time).  After lunch, you can stroll the downtown area, peruse the shops and historic architecture, and digest before you head back to Hillsborough.  Well worth the drive.

www.kafekokopelli.com

KAFE Kokopelli on Urbanspoon

My blog entries contain the unmitigated, and sometimes unforgiving, dining truths and perceptions I experience as an ordinary restaurant patron. Every meal I post about has been fully paid for by one of the participating members of my personal dining party. I do not engage in the gratis blogger freebie dining events I'm constantly invited to attend and never will. If I ooze font-like love for a restaurant in my blog, it's because they totally earned it…not because they gave me free food or knew I was going to share the experience on the internet.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

PJ's Oyster Bar, Indian Rocks Beach, FL

Well, the word of the day is "meh".  Until yesterday, I hadn't been to PJ's in 15 years...and it didn't take me long to remember why.

Crusty walls laden with remnants of 30-year-old dollar bills, snarky signs reminding patrons that THEY are the fortunate ones and dangling paper towel rolls are all the ambiance you'll be getting here.  Couple that with a dated, pedestrian menu and you'll be wondering why you didn't drive the extra mile to Keegan's or Guppy's.  The beer was cold and our server sweet, which were the only real saving graces.
















Smoked fish spread was the same standard-issue variety served up and down the Pinellas beaches (scraped from a distributor's tub) and presented with stale Saltines.  I. WANT. CAPTAIN'S. WAFERS. DAMMIT!!  Gloppy, homogeneous and mayo-heavy. Somebody, please...dial up Waltz' Fish Shak to find out how this should be done.
















The Clam Chowder was so thick with roux that it was like eating a soggy biscuit.  I couldn't even gag down a spoonful. To her credit, our server noticed that it was left virtually untouched and removed it from our bill without being asked to do so.
















Grouper sandwiches were okay...fish tasted fresh, portions were generous and the cornmeal-dusted roll was a nice touch.  I'm not a big fan of tartar sauce sitting out on the table at room temp all day, which it was.  I ordered mine lightly breaded with a side of slaw...
















...and UD ordered the beer-battered rendition with grocery store freezer aisle french fries.
















Apparently, something has kept the lights burning at PJ's for three decades, although I'm not sure what that is. Perhaps it's the tourons, or maybe a it's a case of habit triumphing over hate.  I didn't cry too hard after receiving my $44 check, but I won't be back. EVER. A combination of mediocre quality and environment plus too many better choices for the price on the beach left me unimpressed.

www.pjsoysterbar.com

PJ's Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

My blog entries contain the unmitigated, and sometimes unforgiving, dining truths and perceptions I experience as an ordinary restaurant patron. Every meal I post about has been fully paid for by one of the participating members of my personal dining party. I do not engage in the gratis blogger freebie dining events I'm constantly invited to attend and never will. If I ooze font-like love for a restaurant in my blog, it's because they totally earned it…not because they gave me free food or knew I was going to share the experience on the internet.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Cafe Luna Bistro, St. Pete Beach, FL

It's official, y'all.  I've suspected it for some time now and after last night's exquisite meal at Cafe Luna Bistro, I must announce that (for the most part) the independent restaurant cuisine of Pinellas County trumps that of Hillsborough County.  So what if it doesn't have a Bern's or an Edison Food + Drink Lab?  There are a plethora of often unsung culinary rawkstars on the left coast...Cafe Ponte, Middle Grounds Grill, Black Pearl of Dunedin, Black Palm, Pearl, Fetishes, and now, Cafe Luna Bistro...just to name a few.

Cafe Luna is a small, romantic bistro tucked away in a strip mall on St. Pete Beach.  You won't find a phone book-sized menu here, but you will still have a difficult time making your selection from its short list of delectable-sounding offerings.  The well-rounded wine list offers something to please every palate and many of the bottles are priced at $30 or less.  Indeed, entrees also pack quite a punch for their price tag (about half of them cost under $25) and are generous enough that you really don't need to order appetizers or dessert...but you'll want to anyway.

On this fine occasion, UD and I converged with another local restaurant blogger, JR of the SOG City Oracle and his charming spouse, The Belle of Ballast Point (who is recently retired in case you haven't yet heard her singing it from the rooftops...all the reason we needed to indulge in a celebratory meal).

Our warm and professional server promptly dispensed some crispy and airily-light fresh bread and better-than-average olive oil with herbs for dipping.















Our group started with an order of Smoked Fish Spread (fresh smoked grouper and snapper mixed in a chipotle, onion and mayonnaise spread served with warmed crostinis), which was the second best I've ever eaten in Florida.  It was close, but Waltz' Fish Shak's smoked fish spread has an almost addictive quality that I can't ever seem to get off of my mind (I'm pretty sure it's laced with crack).  I digress, however; this was ONE FINE smoked fish spread...chunky, smoky and mayo-light.  The accompanying Cholula Chipotle Hot Sauce and warm toast points only served to enhance the delightful, just-pulled-from-the-Gulf flavor profile of this combo of two of  the best locally caught fish in Florida.



















Thai Spring Rolls were crispy, golden brown and stuffed with beef and Asian veggies.  SO good, and everyone loved the sweet chili dipping sauce that came with.  Not a morsel remained of either app.
















Are you noticing a pattern yet as it applies to plating?  I believe the best dining experiences are the ones that provide a feast for all of the senses (not just the taste buds) and have a huge appreciation of visual stimuli when I dine. Everything we ordered at Cafe Luna Bistro was as gorgeous as it was delicious.

JR's $29.90 Filet Mignon Napoleon was almost obscene in its off-the-chain decadence factor.  The buttery slab of beef tenderloin was perfectly cooked and  topped with a grilled colossal crab cake, sliced portobello mushroom, a honey dijon horseradish cream sauce and sweet balsamic reduction.  Ummm...*thud*.  The included side of Loaded Mashed Potatoes with sour cream, green onion and Applewood smoked bacon were almost rich and heinous enough to double as dessert.  Unfortunately, we were on our way to seriously trashing the table in the throes of our feeding frenzy by the time the entrees came out.  Try to ignore the spots on the butcher paper and focus on what's important.












My $22.50 panko-crusted crispy snapper in a Thai red coconut sauce with mixed vegetables and jasmine rice was perfection on a plate.  Everything was hot, the fish tasted like it had been swimming earlier in the day and THAT SAUCE walked the perfect line between sweet and heat. I've eaten at Thai restaurants that didn't nail it so perfectly.  I haz a new drug.
















BOBP took our lovely server's advice and ordered the Chicken Marsala.  While I'll admit that next-to-never will I order chicken in a restaurant  (especially not breast meat) because I generally don't think it's all that special, I may have to change my mind after tasting this dish.  Anytime a chef manages to keep white meat moist and juicy, they earn my respect...and this was all of that and more.  The generous slabs yielded easily to the fork, the sweet and creamy Marsala sauce was almost candy-like and I loved the thick, earthy slices of fresh mushrooms.  At $14.50 with well-above-average sides of  mashed potatoes and a veggie, this may be the deal of the century on St. Pete Beach.













I was only able to NOT order the $19.90 Shrimp and Andouille with Grits (jumbo shrimp and andouille sausage sautéed with bell peppers, onions and celery in a port wine demi-glace, Cajun seasoning and chives, served with three cheese grits) because my better half pledged to.  OMG...I love grits almost more than life itself and these did not disappoint.
















It would be so fun to have something to bitch about...but since that plate never came, I am forced to be uncharacteristically syrupy.  I love Cafe Luna Bistro.  I'm ever-so-impressed by the quality of their cuisine and service, the aforementioned beauty and care of their plating, and also the fact that while the menu offerings encompass a broad swath of both regional and multi-national favorites, everything is so wonderfully executed.

While we really didn't have room for dessert, that's never stopped us from ordering it so we forged ahead. Bread Pudding is my Achilles Heel, so once I heard "Apple Cinnamon Bread Pudding" it was a foregone conclusion that I would have it.  This proved to be an excellent rendition...dense, moist, crusty around the edges and chock-full of cinnamon spice and apples.















Most chocolate desserts fail to thrill me, but the BOBP's double chocolate brownie with berries and vanilla ice cream had me double-dipping my spoon into it.
















Café Luna Bistro is an excellent (and affordable) fine dining destination on the Pinellas Beaches.  Can't wait to return!

www.cafelunabistro.com

Cafe Luna on Urbanspoon

My blog entries contain the unmitigated, and sometimes unforgiving, dining truths and perceptions I experience as an ordinary restaurant patron. Every meal I post about has been fully paid for by one of the participating members of my personal dining party. I do not engage in the gratis blogger freebie dining events I'm constantly invited to attend and never will. If I ooze font-like love for a restaurant in my blog, it's because they totally earned it…not because they gave me free food or knew I was going to share the experience on the internet.