Sunday, May 15, 2016

Selene Fresh Fare & Bar, St. Pete Beach, FL

Hold onto your hats, everyone...there’s a newish dining destination on the Pinellas beaches that is NOT a great place for grouper sandwiches, onion rings and Key lime pie (not that there’s anything wrong with any of that) or a mediocre tourist trap with Sysco offerings.

A former Village Inn location has morphed into a modern and serenely chillaxing adult oasis (I didn’t see any children or a kids’ menu – and a youngster would need to have seriously adventurous palate to find something to order and be happy with here). That’s okay because sometimes grownups need a break. The interior is sleek, somewhat minimalistic and awash in the soothing shades of Santorini blue and white.

My party of four toddled in at the embarrassingly early hour of 5:00 PM, as we AARP card carriers are wont to do, only to find that our iron-poor blood paid dividends when the happy hour menus were dispensed. If there is a finer happy hour menu with similar pricing in Pinellas county (and comparable food quality), I want to hear about it (my email address is at the end of this column). Generous pours of house wines and locally brewed craft beers are priced at $4 (domestic beers at $3) between 4:00 and 6:00, and a delectable selection of apps are also discounted. We were required to dine in the bar area to qualify for these discounts, but the environment is quite pleasing and the service received was knowledgeable, friendly and attentive.

Right off the bat, I must lavish kudos on the remarkable complimentary bread service. A Jenga-like stack of hot, crispy slabs of gluten-riche decadence showed up along with some sexy, curry-infused crunchy breadsticks. A luxe little trough of brightly fresh hummus for dipping rounded out this low-carber’s nightmare.

Because we could, we ordered a few of the discounted apps. The rock star of our sampling was a heaping $7 piled of grilled octopodi. Little char-grilled disks of cephalopod were almost lobster-like in consistency and accented with oregano, red wine vinegar, onion, capers. One of the best versions to be had in Tampa Bay for my money. A $6 selection of toasty pita wedges with a choice of three spreads was also snarfed in short order. Most selections afforded out-of-the-ordinary taste sensations and all elicited multiple dips and “mmmm”s and “ahhh”s– smoked eggplant, yellow split pea mousse (FAR more delightful than it sounds – sweet and delicate), and the adventure-seeker’s skordalia (a mild, silky mashed potato and garlic based spread spiked with garlic and pureed fish roe). The $5 stuffed mushrooms with bacon, roasted peppers and mozzarella were also winners, boasting a meaty, non-slimy texture that even the non-funghi lover in our party appreciated. Perhaps the only item on my “not to order next time” list would be the $7 roasted quail in white wine and lemon juice. It was flavorful, but a tad overdone…and I always feel a little like I’m eating someone’s parakeet when I’m nibbling the flesh from their tiny bones. Best that I avoid dishes that make me contemplate vegetarianism as a lifestyle.
Entrees were, for the most part, both healthy and filling. Fish dishes are done simply and extremely well at Selene. Hub’s entire deboned branzino was lightly grilled to moist perfection with olive oil and lemon…that’s it. Served with a warm slaw, a nutty $5 side of giant limas (don’t diss them ‘til you’ve tried them) was tacked on to share with the group. Steak lovers need not despair – NY strip, filet mignon and ribeye are all available at Selene and prepared with care based on the taste I had of the beautifully seared, juicy tenderloin with grilled veggies and a side of Béarnaise I snagged from the plate of a dining companion.

Never one to feign daintiness or pretend to count calories when dining out, I practically did a face plant into the depths of my pool of luxurious shrimp and grouper risotto (a special of the evening). I’m a huge advocate of moderation…especially as it applies to moderation.
The dessert menu is outré and might cause traditionalists a moment of hesitation…but one must keep an open mind. I’ll admit that I recoiled in horror at the very idea of a cheesecake lavished in tomato jam and sweet spoon olives. Really, what sounds more horrible than that? Maybe an old tire frosted with a can of cream of mushroom soup. Guess what? This works…I don’t know how, but it does. You will be unable to keep your fork out of it. The pear poached in white wine and saffron, stuffed with vanilla ice cream, is also a solid choice if you need to stay closer to your epicurean comfort zone. Baby steps.

Selene Fresh Fare and Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Drama Burger, Tampa, FL

Okay, drama-seekers…at long last you’ll be welcomed somewhere. Drama Burger, which opened in December of 2015, is a funky little Lithuanian (yes, you read correctly) boutique burger spot housed in a re-purposed Chinese drive-through restaurant. The venue has an offbeat charm with its minimalist, industrial Eastern Euro-chic décor, concrete floors, mix and match furniture and eclectic pendant lights – but don’t go in expecting fancy trappings despite the fact that it’s conceivable to pay $13 or more for a burger here.

If you’re a traditionalist (or don’t have at least a modicum of an adventurous eating streak), you probably shouldn’t even bother because you’ll need to be able to wrap your head around ingredients like ajika, pickled kohlrabi and harissa mayo at Drama Burger. But if you’re ever going to step out of your comfort zone, this would be the time and place to do so.

The craft Angus beef offerings are minced fresh daily, sold a la carte and range in price from $9 to $14 (quality in this case warranting the heftier price tag). Served on sweet brioche buns, they’re topped with escalated accoutrements like house made BBQ sauces and mayos, a variety of fresh greens, pickled veggies, assorted onions and unusual cheeses. All burgers are cooked to a juicy medium rare (just as God intended) unless otherwise specified and are ridiculously indulgent.

The $14 March burger of the month (Berlin Burger) left me bitterly wishing I could rent some extra stomach space and finish the entire thing. This masterpiece consisted of TWO beef patties layered with thick-cut bacon, BBQ sauce, chipotle mayo, a thick slab of fried Emmental cheese, pickled cucumber, white onion, iceberg lettuce, spinach and arugula. Truly a ground-breaking composition for the Tampa Bay area. Helpful hint: You’ll need a roll of Visqueen and fire hose to emerge from this battle unscathed.

My  beloved was intrigued by the Pastrami Burger – another fat burger topped with Drama Burger’s homemade pastrami (which involves nine days of brining, smoking and boiling to reach its fabulous fruition). Embellished with mustard mayo, red onion and pickles, not a morsel remained after he wrapped his Neanderpaws around it and tucked in. There’s also a dedicated pastrami sandwich dressed identically that easily stands on its own. Honey, I don't think that Fitbit on your wrist is going to save you.

Other strong contenders sampled were the Salmon Burger – a chopped salmon patty (definitely not your mom’s) with roasted leek mayo, spinach and pickled veggies – and a spicy Lamb Burger piled with eggplant, Greek yogurt with cumin and other goodies.

Salmon Burger:

Vegetarians needn’t sulk - you won’t be left sitting on your hands while watching the carnivores dig in. Portobello burgers are available along with a short list of salads and several flavorful animal protein-free sides and apps (from which one could easily build a tapas meal). Shatteringly crunchy onion rings are a solid choice, as are creamy avocado wedges deep fried in spicy tempura batter and served with zippy aioli for dipping. Trying to avoid fried foods? Consider the roasted baby carrots with maple syrup and harissa paste. While perhaps served a little too firm for my Southern palate, their sweet-meets-heat flavor profile and food stylist-esque presentation will make it easy for veggie lovers to gobble up their MDR of Vitamin A. Other options include green pea falafel, sautéed kale with butter and sesame seeds, and broccoli with cheddar.
I honestly wasn’t expecting desserts to be as memorable as they were. Red Velvet Cake is delightfully deconstructed and features moist, dense chunks of cake presented atop a schmear of cream cheese frosting, then crowned with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and fresh berries. Maybe one of the best Red Velvet Cake applications I’ve ever tasted.
 The ultimate charmer, however, is the Chocolate Rocky – a riff on a classic dessert popular in Lithuania, Portugal and Italy. For this diabolical taste sensation, chocolate ganache and biscotti bits are combined, formed into a log and dredged in powdered sugar. Then, the entire thing is wrapped in butcher paper and tied with twine to resemble an artisanal sausage. A serving is one half of the roll, which shows up looking for all the world like a little gift-wrapped package with more of the homemade vanilla ice cream thrown in for good measure.

Beverages include homemade lemonade, milkshakes and an eclectic assortment of local beers like Angry Chair, Cigar City and Cycle along with European classics such as Carslberg and Guiness. A short selection of Vinecraft organic wines is also available.

While not inexpensive (it’s easy to spend $60+ for two sandwiches and sides, a couple of drafts apiece and a dessert to share), it’s a worthwhile destination for burger lovers seeking something out of the ordinary. Expect the unexpected and be prepared to be delighted.

Drama Burger Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Kings Street Food Counter, St. Petersburg, FL

Open for less than six months, I have a serious crush on this Central Avenue newbie. First of all, it’s so adorably kitschy with its mint-toned 1950s diner theme that you might get a cavity even BEFORE you get to the decadent milkshake menu – but let’s not put the cart ahead of the horse.

The interior so well captures the of a look and feel of classic soda fountain that one almost expects a Lucy and Ethel sighting, but the menu’s modern twist on comfort classics quickly reminds you that it is, indeed, 2016. With a dozen or so local craft beers on tap, a short selection of house wines and $3 mimosas (which are clear enough to read the menu through…just the way mommy likes them), plenty of non-alcoholic beverages are also available including local MADE Coffee Company coffee, freshly brewed teas and classically bottled sodas.

Getting down to business, all day breakfast offerings intrigue - like Sweet Chick (crispy fried chicken with honey-jalapeño marmalade and funnel fries) and French Toast Churros, which will make you quickly disavow every other French toast stick you’ve ever eaten. The hand-cut slabs of sourdough are saturated in custard, deep fried, rolled in cinnamon sugar and presented hot and crispy.
The holy grail for grilled cheese lovers, Kings’ patrons have a Sophie’s choice decision to make. What will it be? The Pear-Fect combines caramelized onions, oozing gorgonzola, sweet pear slices and bacon, pressed inside of buttery, shatteringly crunchy slices of thick sourdough bread which is delivered fresh daily from DF Bakery in Orlando. A house favorite, the Muenster Melt couples Muenster and white cheddar cheeses with ham and beer mustard. Purists will find their nirvana in the Triple Cheese – aged Vermont cheddar and chipotle smoked Gouda sandwiched between the same exceptionally fine bread with a Parmesan crusted exterior. My top rec, however, is a healthy alternative – the Blue Pig. Aged Vermont cheddar and peppered bacon are married with blueberry jam bursting with juicy orbs of whole fruit and, if I’m not mistaken, blueberries are liberally packed with antioxidants. I also think I read somewhere that there’s calcium in cheese. Rationalize it however you must…but you want one of these and you can't wrong with any of them.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I love a good hot dog and there’s a tantalizing variety to be had here. Because of its “Frito Pie” inspiration, Southerners will truly appreciate the fat, all-beef Chili Cheese Dog with meaty, house made beer chili (which is also offered as a side dish), shredded cheddar, chopped onion and corn chips all piled atop a pillowy bun.  It was SO good and its sidecar macaroni salad was off the chain.  Creamy and not soupy in the least, the pasta elbows were lightly dressed and studded with bacon bits and gorgonzola crumbles – definitely not your granny’s macaroni salad.

A short selection of poutines are also on the menu, none of which were sampled on any of my three visits. There’s a traditional version with beef gravy and cheese curds, along with a few riffs like the ‘Merica (which features crinkle-cut fries loaded with beer chili, cheese, sour cream and bacon) and the El Jefé topped with fire roasted tomatoes, roasted jalapenos and queso blanco.

Sandwiches and hot dogs, almost all of which are priced at $10 or less, are served on aluminum trays with plastic cutlery. One side dish comes with each, and diners may select from tangy tomato bisque, beer chili, fries, or macaroni salad. 

As difficult as it was to shoehorn down another morsel after my recent lunches at Kings Street Food Counter, I took one (or two) for the team in the interest of journalistic research. The $5 hand-spun milkshakes are delightful and come in creative flavors like Whopper, strawberry shortcake and Mean Mocha. Ice cream is not my Kryptonite and seldom tempts me, but I couldn’t stop slurping my peanut butter shake with Cap’n Crunch cereal crumbles until the glass was empty. Not as sweet as I was expecting. Boasting a rather adult flavor, the vanilla ice cream was nicely balanced by the saltiness of the peanut butter.

Cronuts are simply ridiculous. Imagine deep-fried croissant donuts lavished in chocolate ganache and showered with bacon bits if you can. It’s like deep-fried butter topped with pork fat. And chocolate. I recommend dipping them into your peanut butter milkshake. These absolutely must be tried, but be forewarned…there’s no sadder sight than an empty cronut tray, so you might have to place a second order.
Kings is an all-around good time that pleases all generations, palates and wallet thicknesses. Fun deals are featured during the week like buy one, get one half off grilled cheeses on Mondays and hot dogs on Tuesdays. New menu items are currently being rolled out which include a cheese steak sandwich, quesadillas and a diner burger. Outdoor ping-pong is available in the beer garden and movies (as well as local sporting events) are projected onto the wall of an adjacent building after dark.

Kings Street Food Counter Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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.

Doc B's Fresh Kitchen, Tampa, FL

I’m not ordinarily a chain restaurant proponent which, coupled with the fact that I invariably (and promptly) lose the will the live the moment I pull into a shopping mall parking lot, make Doc B’s Fresh Kitchen and me a bit of an odd match – proving once again that sometimes opposites attract.

I comfort myself with the fact that this is still more of multi-location restaurant than a bona fide national franchise at this point, currently consisting of two original outposts in Chicago, its first out-of-state expansion effort which launched at International Plaza’s Bay Street last November, and a fourth location scheduled to open in Ft. Lauderdale later this year.

The ambiance at Doc B’s is somewhat minimalistic and industrial-chic, with high ceilings, flat screens throughout and loudish piped-in music. Throw in a lengthy open kitchen, a bar, a bustling staff, plus 4,200 square feet packed with convivial diners and the noise level can become more than a tad raucous. You should be aware of this going in and embrace the fun vibe for what it is, remembering that you’re probably not going to want to propose marriage or even initiate a heartfelt conversation here.

What you ARE here for is the food. High quality, creative and fresh (it’s not a misnomer – menu items rotate quarterly to make the most of seasonably available ingredients), most selections pack a nutritional punch that will make you feel good about yourself even if you didn’t go in with the best of intentions. Doc B’s managed to sneakily gavage kale into my body on both visits without ever making me feel bitterly resentful – no small feat. Beef, chicken and fish are carefully sourced to ensure that they are all-natural and hormone and antibiotic-free.

Starters range in price from $7 for Soup of the Day to $15 for Bang Bang Oysters, which is a generous enough appetizer to be a meal for most individuals. In this application, colossal oysters encased in barely-there breading are coated in sweet Thai chili and Sriracha hot sauces, layered in Asian slaw and accented with julienned mango and roasted peanuts. Cool and crunchy lettuce cups are provided for wrapping. I could eat this every day for the rest of my life.

Likewise, the generously portioned $11 Oven Roasted Chicken Wings should not be overlooked. Roasted until falling of the bone and tossed in garlic, Parmesan cheese and chimichurri sauce, they pack a flavorful punch. Atkins dieters rejoice!

Guacamole was sturdy in texture, dreamily creamy and uniquely accented with thick, admirably engineered house-made sweet potato chips as carriers. I found the guac a tad innocuous for my personal taste, feeling it could’ve been elevated by a kick of onion, pico de gallo, or the ultimate “makes everything better” ingredient - BACON. Still, it’s superior to most I’ve tried in Tampa Bay. 

My new salad crush is Doc B’s Lobster Louie Cobb. Bright greens are topped with a veritable mountain of crustacean chunks, bacon crumbles and chopped boiled egg; embellished with bright tomato halves; velvety avocado wedges; and sweet and crunchy cornbread croutons. The made-from-scratch Louie dressing (a somewhat zippier West Coast version of Thousand Island) is applied with a gentle hand, yet still manages to nicely coat all of the elements. Just when you thought “salad” and “decadence” couldn’t be used in the same sentence, here’s your muse. 

The Black Tiger Shrimp Salad is a similarly pulchritudinous specimen containing a generous portion of the large shellfish. Accented with avocado, peppadew, red onion, jicama matchsticks and feta, it’s served dressed in a refreshing avocado vinaigrette

Main courses sampled were equally impressive. My better half constantly rages because his restaurant pork chops are almost always overcooked. Not so in this case. His beautifully seared Berkshire chop was presented at a perfect and juicy medium. The accompanying loaded baked potato was fat and stuffed with all of the usual accoutrements one could ask for. If you’re trying to cut back on the kind of goodies that turn a 150 calorie baked potato a 450 calorie baked potato, let your server know when ordering because it will otherwise be assumed that you want them (a mentality I’m personally a fan of).
If you want to go lighter, the Wok Out Bowl is a more righteous option. Served with market veggies and chopped cashews, you may create your own bountiful bowl from a selection of protein elements, sauces and starch beds (sticky brown rice, lo mein or quinoa).

Dessert selections of the day vary. If you’re fortunate enough to hit Doc B’s on an ice cream sandwich day, do not fail to strike. A chewy, oatmeal raisin cookie variety lavished with a salted caramel gelato center being featured on one of my visits was Just. Crazy. Good. It was so indulgent that it even managed to overshadow the really fine Tres Leches cake with fresh berries we also taste-tested. Barely.

A Westshore crowd-pleaser, Doc B’s eclectic menu offers a wide range of salads, burgers, sandwiches and entrees that easily cater to all tastes and dietary restrictions.

Doc B's Fresh Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Rococo Steak, St. Petersburg, FL

Classic American steakhouses aren’t at the top of my dining to-do list, which may have something to do with why I’m so late to the Rococo Steak party. To me, many of them seem somewhat unimaginative and a tad stodgy (both in atmosphere and menu offerings) although I realize that they do have a broad fan base so I’ll own up to the “it’s not them, it’s me” factor. Still, my recent experience at Rococo forced me to reevaluate this position.

Located in the historic 1920s building that formerly housed the YWCA in St. Petersburg, the interior boasts a cool elegance that sets it apart from its dark-wood-and-red-velvet old school counterparts as well as the nondescript cookie-cutter ambiance of the national chains. Padded, high backed booths afford diners privacy while grey-toned walls adorned with classic painting reproductions soothe the senses, offset by the occasional pop of color from a vermilion chandelier. Service on my visit was both knowledgeable and attentive, while refraining from stuffiness or pretension (thank you, Joshua).

While carnivores will find all of their favorite traditional beef offerings on the menu (ranging in price from $34 for a 7 oz. corn fed filet mignon to $44 for a 16 oz. grass fed ribeye – and everything in between), many other selections have a more contemporary feel. Before I walk you down that path, please make this note to yourself. When the bread service is presented, make a nosedive for the raisin nut variety before your dining companions catch wind of its fabulousness and leave you bitterly weeping into your slice of respectable (if not particularly memorable by comparison) sourdough.

Starters sampled were all stellar. The $10 lobster cognac bisque is worth the investment of both dollars and calories. Silken in texture, generously portioned, boozy and crustacean-riche, Rococo’s version is a study in decadence.  I think there was originally an "R" written on top with creme fraiche, but the bowl shifted.  Now, it's hieroglyphics.

Charred cuttlefish (a cousin to squid and octopus) coupled a pleasing smoky richness with the sweetness and slight chew factor one can expect when eating cephalopod. Would I order it again?  Probably not.  It's a little too much like calamari (not unexpectedly) for my personal taste, although I welcomed the opportunity to sample it.

Steak tartare was where things started to get a little out of control on the richness barometer. The brightly fresh, soft and creamy raw beef served with horseradish sauce and toast points was beautifully offset by the crunch of pine nuts and cornichons.

At the end of the day, however, Salmon Creek brulee of pork belly stole the show. A fat slab of fork-tender bacon capped with a thin veneer of fat left our party of four all fighting for the last bite.

Steak entrees were excellently prepared and cooked to order with sizzling, caramelized exteriors. A plethora of enhancements were available, including bleu cheese butter brulee, Béarnaise, black truffle butter, au poivre, chimichurri and an Oscar-style application. I’m now a big fan of whomever decided that tempura-battering and deep-frying a lobster tail was a good idea, because I agree that it makes a truly worthy crown for a 7 oz. filet.

Who in the hell orders pasta in a steak house? I’m afraid that would be me. In the biggest misstep of the evening, I went rogue and opted for the house made tagliatelle with short rib, boar bacon, veggies, tomato ragù, Parmigiano Reggiano and salsa verde. A full-bodied dish made with fresh pasta, there was an odd juxtaposition of Italian and Latin flavors in this entrée that I didn’t find particularly appealing.

My beloved’s $38 duo of 8 oz. Colorado lamb porterhouses left him (as well as the rest of the table) swooning. Fat, fresh and pleasingly pink on the inside, he deemed these chops “the best I’ve ever had”....just when I thought those five little words were reserved just for me.

Everything is a la carte at Rococo, but side dishes are worth the extra coin. All are generous, priced in the $10 range and easily shareable by four. The artisanal mac & cheese and airy whipped potatoes are solid choices, but don’t overlook the buttery creamed corn mash (this isn’t Del Monte’s creamed corn).

Desserts are good and made in-house. Banana Bourbon Bread Pudding with brown butter anglaise and brandy caramel put a modern spin on a classic, featuring thick slices of banana bread dipped in custard and baked (as opposed to a conglomeration of bread chunks piled into a casserole dish). An apple crisp variation served cool with Szechuan cinnamon ice cream rounded out the evening.

Final word: Rococo Steak is a fresh alternative for high-end steakhouse lovers.

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

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.

Nineteen61, Lakeland, FL

There’s a new “cool kid” in town – or more accurately, it’s a “spicy kid” just outside of town. Nineteen61, the brainchild of chef/owner Marcos Fernandez and named for the year his parents fled Cuba, is the hottest ticket in Lakeland’s burgeoning restaurant scene right now.

Latin cuisine is my favorite, so it’s possible that my review will be a little biased. I visited once for lunch and once for dinner, and left feeling starry-eyed and fat on both occasions. The venue is small and casually elegant, with a charming outdoor dining area under a pergola strung with twinkling lights and surrounded by lush landscaping. If you don’t have reservations (which can be hard to get on weekend nights) your only option may be al fresco. It’s tough to be thrown into the briar patch like that.

The restaurant is not inexpensive, nor should it be considering the quality of the cuisine. Appetizers range in price from $7 for serrano ham croquetas to $27 for a charcuterie platter piled with melt-on-the-tongue, jamón ibérico, chorizo, assorted Spanish cheeses and olives. Entrees will set you back anywhere from $13 for the Hamburguesa to $39 for Paella Mariscos. There’s also free-range Guinea hog on the menu (which wasn’t available on either of my trips) locally sourced from Florida’s own Mt. Citra Farm. Not to be confused with Guinea pig - don’t even go there.

Charcuterie at Nineteen61 bears a remarkable similarity to the platters UD and I tried in Barcelona.

Starters sampled included empanadas with picadillo filling, a dusting of powdered sugar and spicy pepper aoli for dipping. Petite and flaky, they had an addictive quality that made us toy with the idea of placing a second order. 

My favorite, however, had to be the Pato – moist duck confit served with mini buttermilk biscuits, mascarpone, and sweet and spicy rocoto jam.

It's a rare day when I order a hamburger in a sit-down restaurant, but I couldn't resist it here. The deal of the century, the hamburguesa is a fat, juicy beef patty embellished with prosciutto, manchego cheese and Romesco (a Catalan roasted red pepper and almond spread) ketchup served on house made, toasted ciabatta. The accompanying yucca chips failed to thrill, but my expectations weren’t high to begin with. Besides, I couldn’t even begin to wrangle this Gaudi-esque burger masterpiece and had to take half of it home.

Ropa vieja was the best I've ever tasted, having a depth of flavor and tenderness that can only be derived from long, slow braising with pungent veggies and spices. Easily separating into tender ribbons, it was served with creamy, coarsely-ground polenta and fried plantains.

Desserts are thoughtful and elegantly presented. Deconstructed dishes make some purists roll their eyes, and I agree that they can be overly contrived at times. But the Key lime pie and coconut, with its mounds of tangy custard spiked with shards of house-made graham cracker cookie, made it all the better to wallow in. 

Likewise, my intensely-flavored, individual guava cheesecake presented atop a brushstroke of guava glacé was worth the extra elliptical penance. 

I don’t find crema Catalana to be a particularly sexy sweet finish, but my better half bestowed kudos on Nineteen61’s version, commenting on the uniqueness of its intensely cinnamon-y, shattering sugar crust and chocolate ganache accompaniment. 

This is a worthy date-night destination for residents of Polk County, East Hillsborough and others who don’t mind driving for a unique fine dining experience. Chef Fernandez is readily apparent and bustles about the restaurant, checking on each individual table to ensure that his offerings are meeting expectations. A must-try for Latin food junkies.

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

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.