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Sunday, August 16, 2015

Cask Social Kitchen, Tampa, FL

UD and I hauled ourselves from our phlegmy deathbed last Sunday afternoon after a week of tandem (and futile) crud-battling, desperate for sustenance that didn't involve a can of Campbell's.  Our intrepid pal, Debbie Delight, joined us teeming, human petri dishes for what turned out to be a better-than-average brunch served up by this south Tampa newcomer.  And guess who got to spend THIS weekend battling for her own life?  Sorry, Deb.

We gurlz reveled in our Black Bubbles - little boozy Mason jars filled to the brim with Ketel One vodka, fresh blackberries, raspberry liqueur and sparkling wine. This is how mommy nurses a scratchy throat.
Our trio began with fat strips of candied bacon and saucer-sized, tender cheesy biscuits. Biscuits only failed to reach expectations due to fact that no butter was presented with them.















I selected the $11 "Sweet Belgian Bird" appetizer.  Warm, airy sweet potato waffle triangles were presented with juicy, crispy buttermilk fried breast halves perched atop them. Spicy bourbon syrup rounded out this waistband-expanding indulgence (of which I could only shoehorn down 1/4). Lumberjacks may order a more substantial version (The Big Bird) for a few dollars more.















The comfort-seeking spousal unit loved his Cask Skillet, a big platter of homey goodness piled high with fried sweet and Idaho potatoes, cheese, eggs and sausage.















Non-conformist DD noshed on nasal-passage-opening "Duck Wings", which are really tender duck legs prepared confit-style, then coated in sticky orange Siracha glaze, scallions and toasted sesame (wet-naps required).  Many restaurants have a tendency to overcook duck legs, so everyone appreciated the moist meatiness of these gorgeous gams.













While service failed to amaze, it was friendly and adequate.  The space has that industrial urban chic vibe that seems to be all the rage right now and is pleasing, albeit a tad sterile.   Overall, Cask seems like a good mid-priced option in South Tampa for casual dining.  Looking forward to trying it again for lunch or dinner.

www.casksocial.com

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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, August 5, 2015

Stillwaters Tavern, St. Petersburg, FL

St. Petersburg’s Beach Drive “restaurant row” has a new jewel in its crown. The eagerly awaited Stillwaters Tavern opened in mid-June under the direction of Executive Chef Jeffrey Jew, a former Top Chef contender. Here, escalated classic American tavern dishes are being dispensed in a relaxing, industrial-chic and vaguely nautically-themed environ (sans portholes and fishing nets).












My two visits during Stillwaters’ first three weeks in business provided me a lot to be excited about. The service staff was already poised, knowledgeable and attentive on both occasions and management personnel were highly visible and diner-engaged.

Now to hit the high notes of dishes sampled:

The hearty, creamy Cedar Key Clam Chowder is some of the best New England style clam chowder that has ever passed my lips. Clams are freshly steamed in-shell (no “rubber bands” in this chowder). And it’s topped with shards of house-made saltines! To whom does the idea of making their own crackers even occur? My hero, that’s who. The $9.99 bowlful is practically a meal in itself, so order a mug if an entrée is also in your future.












Fried oyster nirvana was achieved via Chicken Fried Oysters with tangy whole grain mustard aioli for dipping. Served in a generous, piping hot mound, their golden, crunchy coats shattered on the tooth to reveal the succulent, briny treasures within. But wait…there’s more! Here and there, special guest appearances of deep-fried, house pickled veggies were interspersed to add interest.













My decision to order the Airline Chicken was based more upon the lure of the accompanying jalapeno and cheddar bread pudding than any thrill I expected a breast quarter to impart. Brined and pan-seared to perfection, the juicy and flavorful meat forced me to rethink every preconceived notion I had about chicken breast. All but separating into ribbons at the touch of my fork, it was stunningly presented propped alongside triangles of dense, cheesy bread pudding and accented with baby grilled veggies. 













Shrimp and grits is a dish I can seldom resist, so ordering Stillwaters' Key West Pinks with cheddar grits, “mustard q” wine butter and scallions was a no-brainer. The coarse, stone-ground cheese grits were off the chain, but I found the Carolina barbecue-esque sauce to be bit overpowering (an opinion that was vehemently contested by different dining companions on separate occasions), so let your palate be your guide. Purists may request the sauce served on the side - everybody wins.











Dark Chocolate Crémeux layered with Peanut Butter Pretzel and topped with Chocolate "Caviar” is a study in textural decadence that would probably cheer up even the saddest person you know. This little jar of heaven is not a dessert you want to approach with dainty dips and nibbles. Rather, you want to plunge your spoon to the bottom of its depths so you can dredge out a sample of every strata of its luxurious chocolaty, nutty, crunchy and salty layers in each bite. 
Chocolate cherry brioche bread pudding is also no slouch in the "happy endings" department, acting to effectively channel those cordial cherry candies we all loved as kids, only with a decidedly grownup, boozy bourbon vanilla ice cream topper.














With its eclectic menu and wide selection of beers (many regionally crafted) wine and cocktails, Stillwaters’ menu offers something for everyone – vegans, burger mongers, late night nibblers, sippers, lunchers and fine diners alike.


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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 26, 2015

Verducci's Pizzeria & Trattoria, St. Pete Beach, FL

I finally got around to trying this 40-year-old delight (founded in New Jersey in 1976; migrated to St. Pete Beach in 2010) via an increased sense of urgency precipitated by establishing their new Italian Market offshoot as my latest crush. To be fair, classic, old-school Italian cuisine is not typically at the forefront of my little pea brain when I ponder my dining options.  But that's probably because at other traditional Italian restos, everything (from bread, to pasta, to sauces) isn't created from scratch in-house as it is here.  Remarkable.

The venue has a nice, comforting "Sunday supper" kinda vibe that appeals to all types of clientele...families, seniors, couples. In general, it’s a real crowd-pleaser. An exceptional basket of warm bread with olive oil for dipping was deposited right off the bat.


















The fried calamari app was a particularly delightful little jewel box, yielding unexpected treasures of butterflied shrimp and razor-thin, deep-fried zucchini rounds as the excavation of its charming, individual fry-basket commenced.


















Antipasto Italianio was a generous portion of cured meats, cheeses and roasted veggies with balsamic drizzle. A stunningly beautiful (and bountiful) plethora of delights:

















Our cephalopod-loving dining companion nearly swooned over his Maruzella (shrimp, calamari and Spanish octopus simmering in a tomato-based sauce with toasted Italian bread slices for sopping).


















Entrees were quite hearty. I think the best thing ordered was the pork osso buco. The glossy, caramelized exterior looked like it had been shellacked, and then the entire shank collapsed into juicy little porcine ribbons at the touch of a fork.















I usually can't shoehorn down truffled anything fast enough, but my veal osso bucco ravioli with porcini mushrooms and truffle sauce almost sent me into sensory overload. You've got to use a light hand with truffle because it can be so overpowering.














The ravioli ultimately proved to be a tad too rich and heady for me, so I swapped it for my hubs' little veal roulades stuffed with cheese and prosciutto.  Served nestled atop a creamy bed of polenta, this dish was a savory delight.   UD seemed to feel that that he got the better end of the deal and had no problem cheerfully snorting the remainder of the truffled pasta. Win-win!
















Our other companion selected chicken parmigiana. I'm not the best critic of this dish since it's not something I would ever order (just not a big fan of chicken breast meat), but it was quite nice. The meat was moist, the breading light and crispy and the sauce bright and tangy (bonus points for lots of cheese!).

Good times, good prices and good service. We all finished with a divine chocolate cannoli.
















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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, July 20, 2015

Verducci's Italian Market, St. Pete Beach, FL

At the insistence of my younger brother, UD and I visited Verducci's Italian Market (7800 Blind Pass Rd., St. Pete Beach) last weekend to meet him for lunch.  The brainchild of the owners of the adjacent Verducci's Pizzaria Trattoria, the market has only been open for two weeks...but everything is already off-the-chain fabulous! First, the interior is gorgeous and relaxing (thanks in part, I was told, to the implementation of feng shui in its design); and commitment to quality was evident in every bite we consumed.  I'm sure word will get out swiftly and this gem will soon be overrun with a manic crush of humanity in a giant fight for food (similar to Mazzaro's, which I can't bear to enter for that reason), so I intend to enjoy the tranquil "soft opening" vibe while I can.















We decided to dine in and grabbed some stools at the coffee bar. Bottles of wine and beer are available for purchase and may be opened and enjoyed on the premises. The spousal unit and I shared a $15.95 bottle of light Italian table wine and baby bro nursed a $3 Peroni. My astonishingly-priced $6.95 Antipasto Salad (which will be known going forward as "God's Own Salad") was basically a shallow bed of crisp lettuce that acted as a carrier for what must've been a pound of assorted cheeses, meats, marinated veggies, jumbo olives and roasted peppers. Drizzled in Italian dressing, GOS was one of best and most beautiful/bountiful salads I've ever eaten.
















Hub's Stromboli was similarly generous, meat-laden and oozing melted cheese...a real bargain at $3.95.















My sibling, who has never had a problem successfully shoehorning down food portions of any size, almost had to unhinge his jaw to wrap it around his Meatball Hero. Tender meatballs almost the size of baseballs were nestled in freshly baked, crusty bread and slathered in tangy marinara and melted cheese ($7.95 including chips).














The spousal unit and I shared a fat, chocolate-dipped cannoli from the pastry case for dessert and rolled out of there for around $45 (for the three of us) before adding a gratuity for the sweet barista who walked us through the ordering process.














This beautiful store offers a plethora of prepared foods, cured meats, cheeses, pizzas/calzones/stromboli, gelato/spumoni, pastries, olives, house baked breads, freshly made pasta sauces, wines and cappuccino with a pleasant little cafe area for dining onsite. You will eat out of plastic containers with plastic utensils, but you won't care because it's all so amazing.  A great destination for a casual lunch, it will also be virtually impossible NOT to pick up something tantalizing for dinner from the gleaming display cases while you're there. Verducci's Italian Market is destined to be my new home away from home.

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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, July 18, 2015

Cocina Aqui & Tequila Bar, Redington Shores, FL

Remember the old Lobster Pot restaurant?  Its long overdue gutting-and-refurbishing is almost complete and you're not even going to recognize it anymore.  A multi-hued butterfly has emerged from the cocoon of moldy fishing nets and crab traps in the form of the trendy, Tex-Mexy Cocina Aqui. 

They were still in "soft opening" mode during my visit, so a bit of "wobble" was expected.  Our server was caring, albeit very slow and tentative.  But again, we got it...we were aware that she was still learning and we weren't in any hurry.  The owner was highly present and engaged, checking on or table personally more than once.  My biggest complaint of the evening was that, by around 8:00 PM, the noise level had escalated to the point at which conversation was almost impossible.  Aqui's interior would definitely be enhanced by some sound dampening treatments (no one likes to scream across the dinner table).

There's a nice margarita selection, but all we tried (traditional, mango and strawberry) were toothachingly sweet.  I could only drink one (I KNOW...I don't even know me anymore).  While I think this was a personal taste issue, I had to switch to beer after downing my mango marg.

There's seldom much not to love about tater tots, and the ones at Aqui are no exception.  Everyone in my party fell upon the Tachos - crispy fried tots lavished with chorizo, pico de gallo, scallions, queso blanco and jalapenos - like dingoes on a baby.  Check with your cardiologist prior to ordering.













Corn chowder was quite remarkable. This thick, creamy concoction tasted like liquid, buttered popcorn and was laden with bright kernels of corn and gooey cheese.  A couple more levels of density would've made it a corn pudding.  So. Freaking. Good.















Grouper and Shrimp Vera Cruz was a tender mountain of perfectly cooked seafood topped with tomato, onion, capers, garlic, cilantro, white wine and queso perched atop a bed of rice.














The gurlz ordered quesadillas...lobster for me, chicken for my lovely counterpart.  They were meaty and met all of the basic requirements of a quesadilla. Nothing groundbreaking going on, but respectable applications.  For a restaurant of this price point (most entrees hover in the $20-$25 range), I didn't really expect little plastic condiment cups, but that's what we got (quesadillas were selected from the appetizer menu, FYI).














The lone dish that everyone cast a hairy eyeball upon was the somewhat unhappily married concoction of an uber-soupy crock of poblano peppers stuffed with chorizo, shrimp, raisins and almonds and topped with pomegranate cream sauce.  The accompanying beans and rice were nutty, spicy and better than average, however...and it's always relief not to be served those ubiquitous, canned refried beans that look and taste like dog yak (or at least what I imagine dog yak would taste like).













Salted caramel dessert nachos were the stuff of hormonal women's dreams. Cinnamon-sugar-coated, fried flour tortillas were presented beneath a cavalcade of melted chocolate, marshmallow and raspberry sauce. Then, the entire beautiful hot mess was crowned with a massive scoop of ice cream. Ridonkulous!














Cocina Aqui is a welcome addition to the mid-Pinellas beaches.  The menu is still being refined, so what was here today may not be there tomorrow at this early stage in the game. Considering the fact that they haven't even had their Grand Opening yet, there's a lot of potential here assuming they find their groove and get the minor kinks worked out.

Cocina Aqui & Tequila Bar Facebook Page

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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, July 11, 2015

Spanglish Bistro, Valrico, FL

Since Spanish and Latin American cuisines are my hands-down favorite diet-busters, I seriously perked when Spanglish Bistro popped up on the barren, culinary wasteland of Valrico a couple of months ago. There's not a lot to get excited about here in Far Eastern Hellsborough county unless your taste receptors live for the offerings of the likes of Applebee's and Golden Corral.  Everyone, please join me in a "Hallelujah!" for the blessing that has been deposited practically in the heart of Stepford - Spanglish Bistro.

Located in a strip mall (because pretty much  every restaurant east of I-75 is located in a strip mall), the ambiance is a tad sterile but I sensed that it may still be a work in progress.   UD and I arrived mid-afternoon and virtually owned the place, but there was still a flurry of activity going on as the staff prepared for the evening crowd.  Apparently, there's some pretty fine live entertainment offered on Friday and Saturday nights that keeps the place rocking until 2:00 AM, so the dance floor (yes...there's a dance floor in this relatively small venue) was being cleared and tables were being reconfigured to accommodate several larger groups who had made reservations for the evening.

As a 5'10", Sasquatch-footed, uptight white girl, the sight of me dancing is enough send anyone scrambling for a bottle brush and some Clorox with which to scrub their optic nerves.  But, never fear...Underdog has been trained to spirit me home the minute I decide it's a good idea (which usually happens after copious amounts of wine have been consumed).  Still, I'm intrigued and will return soon one evening to check out the dinner and dancing scene (don't panic, people...only to observe).

We began with the Lobster Arepa starter, which was a precious little dish.  A tender on the inside/crusty on the outside grilled corn cake was presented topped with wilted spinach and poached Maine lobster, garnished with some cherry tomatoes and garlic cream sauce to add interest.
















An empanada freak to the highest power, I was desperately torn by my options - chicken, shrimp, Angus beef, jalapeno beef or devil crab.  Beef picadillo is ever the filling I long for but, because it wasn't specified on the menu, we opted to try the devil crab variety.  These were a well-done riff on the classic Ybor staple.  Pastry was flaky, hot and crispy.  The spicily-seasoned crab meat interior was moist and plentiful.  Carmine's could definitely learn something here.
















About this time, the owner/chef came out to personally check on us.  Both engaged and engaging, he was happy to answer our questions about both the resto and the menu (and, no...he did not know us from Adam).  When I inquired about the absence of picadillo empanadas, he was quick to clarify that the Angus beef version was done picadillo-style.  Apparently noticing the "WTF-how-did-I-miss-this-boat?" look on my face, he offered to comp us a couple to sample.  They were amazing.  Super meaty and chunkier in texture than some, they still had all of the zesty tomato, onion and potato accents I longed for along with the unexpected delight of melted cheese.

We both ordered sandwiches, which came with a choice of plantain chips or really phenomenal fat, lightly batter-dipped fries.  My classic Cuban was quite good.  If I have to find something to bitch about (which I often do), I would probably have preferred a little more roasted pork and a little less ham, but now I'm just being nitpicky.  It was quite a feast for eight bucks, most of which is residing in my fridge as I type.
















UD's $12 Ribeye Steak Sandwich with sauteed mushrooms, onions and peppers, oozing with Manchego cheese, however, was a sandwich to be reckoned with.  Dubbed "the best sandwich I've ever had", that's high steak sandwich praise coming from a Philly boy.
















In addition to casual lunch fare, Spanglish Bistro also offers a short-but-enticing tapas menu along with dinner entrees like  Spanglish Paella, Pork Tomahawk Chop and Red Snapper.  There are also a few familiar Italian items on the menu to provide comfort for less-adventurous palates.

Brandonites...we don't want to let this one go down the drain as we have so many others.  Please check out this little gem and support local.

Spanglish Bistro Facebook

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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.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Bacco and Venere, Temple Terrace, FL

I had a premonition that I was going to become a little enamored of Bacco and Venere.  Named for the Roman deities “bad boy” Bacchus (God of wine and debauchery) and Venus (Goddess of beauty and seduction), I was all in before I ever darkened the door of this 14-month-old Temple Terrace eatery.  Some fairly lofty expectations were conjured up by these images in my hedonistic little brain, which I am delighted to report were not unmet.

Despite its strip mall location, the atmosphere at Bacco and Venere is warm, convivial and romance-conducive.  There’s also a comfy outdoor patio with cooling fans for al fresco dining.  Relaxing, live music is featured on some weekend nights at a pleasing volume that keeps things conversation-friendly. 

You’ll find all of the usual suspects offered as starters, like scarlet, razor thin slices of carpaccio, steamed mussels, fennel crusted fried calamari and addictive Bacco chips with gorgonzola fondue, crispy pancetta and slivers of dried mission figs.

Beef tenderloin carpaccio with shaved aged parmesan reggiano, lemon Dijon vinaigrette and baby arugula:
















Bacco Chips:
















The Italian Clam Chowder (blistered corn mire poix, pancetta corn crème bay and crispy leaks) is on my top five list of favorite menu items tasted this year.  Not really a soup at all, a pile of freshly steamed baby clams is served atop a shallow, silken pool of cream, corn and pancetta with grilled ciabatta alongside for sopping and carrying all of the magnificently sweet and salty goodness from bowl to lips.  It truly opens up a whole new world of clam chowder enlightenment.

While billing itself as an “Italian” restaurant, menu is separated into two categories – “Old Country” and “New World”, making it an easy compromise for parties with members of diverse palates.   Most Old Country selections are priced at around $15 with the option to add a better than average Caesar or side salad for $2.50.  Traditional, soul-warming favorites can be found here, like classic lasagna, eggplant Parmesan, chicken Alfredo and veal saltimbocca – all delivered in portion sizes that will have you packing to-go boxes for your lunch the next day. 

The only thing more difficult than devouring an entire order of $14.90 Salciccia Alforno from the Old Country menu is not devouring the entire order.  This baked pasta dish is a hearty, cheesily-gooey troth of house ground, spicy Italian sausage; caramelized onions; roasted red peppers; sautéed mushrooms; red wine and Pomodoro sauce that kept me digging my fork around in UD's plate with annoying frequency.  Only annoying to him, not to me.  
















On the splurgier end of that menu, seafood lovers can’t go wrong with the $23.90 Seafood Cioppino – a cornucopia of extra-large wild caught Gulf shrimp, clams, mussels, jumbo Nantucket sea scallops, and a salmon filet in fennel tomato shrimp broth, swirling around a center island of angel hair pasta. 
New World offerings include the likes of black pepper crusted grilled tenderloin of beef, fennel crusted tuna and garlic Parmesan airline chicken breast.  Porcini dusted red snapper with pancetta and Parmesan risotto is one of the best snapper dishes I've ever tasted…anywhere.  Scored to prevent curling, the exterior is seared to perfection and yields to a sweet and flaky center. The plate is painted with a candy-like cinnamon pear gastrique that serves as the icing on the cake of this exquisite entrée. Sorry, no photo...you'll just have to trust me.

Dessert options stick to the traditional side at B&V.  New York style cheesecake, tiramisu and chocolate lava cake are available as well as gelato.  Since the waistband of your pants will already be your worst enemy by the end of your meal here, consider sharing a four-bite, fat little cannoli piped with citrus-zesty ricotta and dipped in chocolate and crushed pistachios with your beloved and call it a night.















Bacco and Venere brings desperately-needed upscale dining to northeast Hillsborough county and is a worthy date-night destination from anywhere in the Tampa Bay area.  Service had a few unsteady moments on my visit (but remained friendly and was neither inattentive nor uncaring), which I attributed to the newness of the restaurant. Recommended.


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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.