Monday, July 13, 2015

Escape to Sonesta Maho Resort & Casino, Sint Maarten

From the moment we walked into the lobby we knew we’d picked the right hotel. We were greeted hospitably by the concierge offering cold towels and champagne while we waited online to register. The promise of good things to come was realized over the next few days as we enjoyed extremely good customer service. Our accommodations were as promised – a spacious room with a terrace overlooking the pool and ocean – great views.
Upon registering I happened to mention that we were there celebrating hubby’s birthday and our 25th wedding anniversary later this year. On day two the concierge knocked on our door and delivered to us a bottle of champagne, two bunches of balloons which he tied to our bedposts, and charming greeting cards prepared by the ladies at the front desk. How special we felt!
The grounds are beautifully landscaped with staff cleaning and tidying up all day long to keep it perfect. The resort’s beach is situated in a cove offering 150’ of beach and we didn’t miss the chance to dip in the crystal blue waters, jumping the waves like delighted children. The pool is massive and features a swim up bar, a quaint bridge and a waterfall, all very thoughtfully designed. The terrace runs the length of the property and is beautifully furnished and pristine. Grab a drink or a coffee and sit on a comfy lounge chair or in the gazebo that reaches out over the rocky shoreline. At night there was always a band playing – Latin or Reggae – and one night an acrobat. Canada Independence Day and Fourth of July meant lavish beach-side banquets with anthems sung and games aplenty. The atmosphere was alternately serene and festive.
And now about the food…..and by the way this was an All-Inclusive package that included not only the food but your drinks also! Both hubby and I gave it a big thumbs-up. It was plentiful and delicious as well as beautifully presented. We had the option of five dining spots to choose from but soon declared our favorite as the buffet Ocean Terrace with the fine dining Ocean Point as runner up.
On a few occasions I spotted someone who was surely the Executive Chef making rounds checking on the preparations. Chef Misja Ruijs is a handsome Dutchman who has been at the Sonesta for one year now. I managed to worm my way into a personal interview and Chef graciously agreed to meet with me. Some highlights of that interview:
MJ: Chef, as self-proclaimed foodies I have to tell you that my husband and I just loved the food and the presentation this week. We’re dining at the Ocean Point restaurant tonight…..can you recommend something marvelous for me to order? Chef Misja: If you like fish I would recommend the Red Snapper served with a Tomato, Caper and Olive sauce, mashed potatoes and grilled vegetables. Note: I had the Red Snapper and practically licked my plate clean it was so delicious – thank you Chef!
Chef Misja attended Culinary School in Holland, served his mandatory two years in the army during which time they wisely put him in the kitchen, and later worked six years for Crystal Cruise Lines. Before coming to the Sonesta Chef Misja worked for nearly fifteen years in Jamaica for Sandals. He is adept at feeding large numbers of people and doing it with style.
MJ: The Sonesta is a 500+ room hotel. How many people have you served at one sitting here? Chef Misja: In high season about 1200 guests.
I gave him high points for not only his food but the presentation and ambiance. Chef Misja likes the idea of providing a complete experience for the guest. We eat with our eyes first, and as we witnessed during our stay, each meal was presented in a way that would immerse all of your senses in the experience. I love food and sweets and confessed to Chef Misja that I’d shamefully eaten dessert 2-3 times a day because I couldn’t resist his beautiful creations. No surprise then when he shared that he had mastered his culinary training as a pastry chef.
Hubby and I braved the local busses three times to visit Phillipsburg on the Dutch side and Marigot on the French side, two lovely port towns that offered the typical touristy stores and tent markets. The upside to Marigot was a divine lunch we had at a Patisserie called Sarafina’s that offered delicious crepes and French breads and OMG the pear tart with cup of cappuccino was just to die for.
There's so much more I can say and all of it favorable. There is one curious traditional activity that everyone makes sure to take part it - plane spotting. Because Princess Julianna Airport is five minutes away and has a very short runway, planes come in extremely low over the public beach next to the Sonesta's beachfront. Several times a day you will see a couple of dozen people parked on that beach with cameras at the ready to grab a video of the underbelly of planes, including the jumbo ones which kind of terrified me - but on our last day there I finally said okay to hubby's daily request for us to join the nuts. It was kind of thrilling and has become a very popular activity. All in all we recommend the Sonesta Maho Resort wholeheartedly and the best endorsement I can give you is that we WILL be going back some day in the near future.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Bella BRAVA - St. Petersburgh

BRAVA Bella Brava! This restaurant got a big thumbs up from all eight of us (yes, even hubby). Bella Brava is located on the very busy corner of Beach Drive and 2nd Avenue NE across from the yacht basin, a very colorful and bustling area of town.
The service here was very good with a charming and attentive waitress that saw to all our needs smoothly. The ambiance was lively and a bit noisy but not terribly so. The floor to ceiling windows afforded sweeping views of the street and we were entertained by the passersby. We love to people watch, especially young people. Back in the bubble of Kings Point where we live we are lost in a sea of gray hair and casual clothes primarily purchased at Beall's. How refreshing to see beautiful young people dressed to impress on a Saturday night. I must say we clean up pretty nicely ourselves and enjoy stepping out and feeling like we're still 'happening'!
We ordered a bottle of Malbec but frankly thought it paled in comparison to the bottle we enjoyed at Roast last month. I did appreciate that the waitress took the initiative to split the cost of the bottle between the three of us who were sharing it and this avoided any awkwardness at the end.
Several of us started off with the Misticanza Salad, a delightful blend of romaine, radicchio, spinach, cracked olives, tomatoes, and a honey basil vinaigrette - it was delicious.
Ken gets points for finding a restaurant that not only provided a gluten free menu for Hollie, but a burger option for Mike who threw us all a curve by ordering Spaghetti & Meatballs which he praised heartily.
Hubby caught a glimpse of pizza passing by and decided he had to have one. Keep in mind that he and I grew up in NYC and we know a little sumpin' sumpin' about pizza - this one got high marks and he enjoyed it very much. One surprising menu item was the Crostata - rigatoncini, pomodoro sauce, housemade sausage, house roasted peppers, ricotta, sage, fresh mozzarella, topped with an asiago cheese bread crust. Ken enjoyed it but we all had to laugh when it was placed in front of him as it looked like a giant pie, one you'd expect a few blackbirds to fly out of.
Three of us gals went for the Chicken Giardino - a wood-grilled chicken paillard, with tomato, basil, red onion, arugula, and very creamy mascarpone mashed potatoes. This was a delightful dish, a good sized serving, and one that you could feel virtuous about as it featured healthy ingredients.
Of course all that virtue was undone when we ended the evening at Ken & Cheryl's to celebrate Ang's birthday with an amazing coconut cake (from Publix), coffee and some laughs. But hey, I only had a little piece! I'll wrap up this post with an example of why I love this part of town - check out the sassy lizard relaxing on a bench along Beach Street. These whimsical bronze statues dot the area and make me smile.
204 BEACH DR. NE, ST. PETERSBURG, FL 33701 / 727.895.5515 / Click to add a blog post for BellaBrava on Zomato

Thursday, June 4, 2015

ROAST, Sarasota

In a word - delicious! The tantalizing aroma of roasting meats greeted us when we walked through the very charming outdoor patio into the restaurant. It made my mouth water in anticipation. The ambiance was lovely, a very European feel and I could imagine myself somewhere in the south of France (or what I imagine the south of France feels like-something for my bucket list). We were seated at a square table for eight and I have to say it was perfect for easy conversation and comfort. (Photo courtesy of Roast website)
I had the Cornish Game Hen with Madeira Creamed Mushrooms, Spinach and Fingerling Potatoes – ooh la la yummy. Hubby had the NY Strip and “he liked it!” (We all know he’s a tough food critic). The special of the day was Roast Beef served with Creamed Cauliflower and String Beans – a very generous portion. Kathy had the Salmon; Hollie had Seared Scallops and Boudain Noir (blood sausage!)on a bed of cauliflower puree with red wine. And of course Mike had their signature burger (I’m going to suggest Mike write a column solely on burgers since that is nearly always his choice when we dine out and by now he’s a connoisseur.)
Our waitress was attentive and knowledgeable about the menu. None of us had ever eaten Duck Fat Fries and she heartily recommended we try them. We’re so happy we did because they were quite amazing. We ordered them well done and they were crispy perfection! For anyone wondering about using duck fat you should know that it’s a very versatile fat with a high smoke point. It’s low in saturated fat (20% less than butter) and high in unsaturated fat, making it one of the healthiest animal fats you can eat. See below for Guy Fieri’s Recipe and try them yourself.
And what better way to wash down all that good food but to enjoy it with a glass of Malbec?
We chose the Trivento Amado Sur - a deep red wine with violet hues. Aromas of strawberries and red cherries intertwined with hints of clove and vanilla. The lush red berry flavor gives way to velvety tannins and a pleasant, persistent finish. Are you impressed with my knowledge of wine? Ha, I learned all that from where you can order a bottle for about $15. All I know is it went down real smooth and Cheryl and I left with a buzz on!
We’ll definitely return to try some of the other unique dishes they offer. And by the way, from June 1-14 this restaurant is participating in the Savor Sarasota Restaurant Week event so you can enjoy a 3-course meal for about $15/person for lunch & $29/person for dinner – a great value. Dessert was at Kathy’s place where she’d organized a luscious birthday cake to surprise our birthday girl Hollie. A very nice way to cap the evening, another successful Great Escape.
Guy Fieri’s Recipe for Duck Fat Fries
4 medium russet potatoes; 8 cups canola oil; 2 cups duck fat (you can purchase at gourmet stores $6-$11 for an 11 oz. container); Sea salt or truffle salt
Peel the sides of the potatoes but leave some skin on the ends. As you peel, place the potatoes in a bowl filled with cool water. Cut the potatoes into matchsticks (1/8-inch square) and place back into the bowl of clean cool water. Allow the potatoes to sit for 1 hour, changing the water as it becomes cloudy to remove the starch.
Heat the canola oil in a large, heavy Dutch oven or deep skillet to 325 degrees F.
Drain the potatoes and dry well with paper towels. Carefully add the potatoes to the oil, in batches if necessary, and cook until they just lose their opaque look and are starting to firm up, 5 to 6 minutes. Drain well on paper towels.
Heat the duck fat in a heavy saucepan to 375 degrees F; ideally you want the duck fat 3 to 4 inches deep.
Carefully add the fries to the duck fat and cook until crispy and evenly golden, about 8 minutes. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate and season with the sea salt or truffle salt.
Cook's Note: Strain the duck fat through a fine mesh strainer and transfer to a glass container. Keep refrigerated or frozen for up to 6 months. 1296 1st St, Sarasota, FL 34236 941.953.1971

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Jackson’s Bistro & Sushi Bar

Service so bad…..
Jackson’s Bistro is located right on the water near the Tampa Convention Center and boasts a huge wrap around patio with great views and a bar. It was a humid night and so our group had reserved a table for eight inside. Our table was across from the double door entry which blasted us with the setting sun so that one side of the table needed sunglasses while the other remained in silhouette. The very large dining room was so noisy it made conversation nearly impossible. The place was very lively, with quite a lot of teenagers enjoying prom night. We enjoyed seeing the kids all dressed up and marveled with awe that the stunning supermodels passing our table were actually in high-school. How grown up they looked! Ah yes, we remembered those days fondly and compared prom stories.
I ordered Jackson’s signature Kale Salad topped with Grilled Salmon and have to say it was delicious. Hubby and a couple others ordered the Mushroom Chicken Marsala and they loved it but alas hubby did not. Do you see a recurring theme here? The Sushi Nigiri was very good as was the Lobster Bisque. So we gave it pretty high marks for food. But the service was just terrible.
Our waiter claimed to have worked at Jackson’s for almost as long as it’s been open. It appears he’s still in training. He seemed overwhelmed by how busy the place was and eager to rush away from our table. He mumbled and seemed to resent having to repeat himself. Half the drink orders were taken, and he never asked the other side of the table so had to come back twice.
When the entrees were brought, he hadn’t first taken the time to buss the empty appetizer dishes out of the way so there was an awkward moment of him expecting you to move your salad plate to make room for your entrĂ©e plate….very bad form. Mike ordered a burger but received a steak sandwich. When he mentioned this error the waiter actually argued with him about it and asked several times “why don’t you just take it”, until Mike got tired of protesting and ate it. It turns out to have been a real good steak sandwich but that’s not the point is it? When he found my dish on his cart he actually handed it to me across the large round table forcing me to stand and reach for it. Really? It was hectic and strange. He had to be reminded to refill sodas and water, often times leaving the empty glass when he dropped off a fresh one.
At the end he messed up our checks charging us for two Chicken Marsala dinners while not charging someone else for theirs. He seemed annoyed at us for his mistake and for having to redo the checks. It was a very strange experience to say the least.
Would I go back?
Maybe for lunch sitting outside on the patio and certainly checking first to make sure we weren’t in this particular waiter’s section. It really is a beautiful spot. By the way parking is in the underground garage and Jackson’s will validate your ticket for up to two hours. After that you’re charged $1/half hour.
Dessert afterwards at Hollie’s was a yummy blueberry cobbler and a sinfully good lemon cake all washed down with some Mexican Coffee (add a spoonful each of cinnamon and cocoa powder to your coffee brew basket and Ole – good stuff.
Jackson’s Bistro & Sushi Bar, 601 S Harbour Island Blvd, Tampa, FL 33602 Jackson's Bistro on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 13, 2015

Derek's Rustic, Coastal Cuisine, Bradenton

Our group headed south to Bradenton for our March Great Escape. This second location of Derek’s opened in 2009 to rave reviews from Zagat. The original is in Sarasota. Chef/owner Derek Barnes has some impressive culinary credentials including the title of Most Innovative Chef in the Best of SRQ Magazine, Florida Trend’s Golden Spoon award, and inclusion in Zagat America’s Top Restaurant listings. Derek went to culinary school in Denver then worked for Emeril Lagasse in New Orleans for four years where he learned to develop flavors and use spices. He gets all his unique and international spices from
With that many titles and accolades, we expected the menu to be a pricy one. But hey you only live once, and we budget for our monthly splurge. The exterior of the restaurant is lovely and looked brand new. The interior is tastefully decorated, sleek and homey at the same time with an assortment of lovely paintings of fish and other coastal themes all painted by local Sarasota artist Tim Jaeger who earned his BA from Ringling College of Art & Design and now works and paints there. Derek supports the local art community. For more information on Jaeger visit
Now about the food… was very good. Having said that, there were some flaws. Hubby ordered the short ribs dish and said it was delicious but alas the portion was too small for him and he left hungry. He might have filled up on some bread but the only thing our waiter brought us was one tiny cheddar biscuit each. We might have ordered an appetizer but as I said the menu was pricy and we decided to focus on the main course. I had a very tasty Red Snapper dish with a very small amount of roasted fingerling potatoes and a few thin string beans. That dish was $27 and I was fine with my portion size. The others in our group ordered Pork Shank, Flank Steak, Kale Salad, Flatbread, or Classic Burger and Fries. There were high marks all around our table for the food.
Cheryl and I opted to split a bottle of wine, and our waiter Zach brought us a bottle of Gouguenheim Malbec. It was so delicious that I snapped a photo of the bottle so I’d remember the name and buy it next chance I got. What would we do without our smart phones eh? We finished every last drop!
Derek's, 5516 Manatee Avenue West, Bradenton, FL 34209 Tel: 941-794-1100

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Pierogi Grille

We took an hour long drive this weekend to have dinner at the Pierogi Grill. Now some of you might balk at the drive, but I'm here to tell you it's worth every minute of the trip. The Pierogi Grill has been around for at least 10 years that I know of. We'd happened upon it years ago while driving around Gulf to Bay Blvd exploring our new town of Tampa. For whatever reason (too busy schedules) it fell off our restaurant radar for several years until this weekend when hubby recalled the fine food. My husband was born and raised in Little Italy NYC, and being the melting pot that the lower east side is he was exposed to a myriad of ethnic cuisines and Polish food was just one of them. Kapusta (sauerkraut) and Kielbasa (sausage) oy! I had the Pork Schnitzel with half a dozen Pierogi (dumplings). The four of us each selected a different flavor Pierogi and then we shared and tasted and licked our chops. Potato, Potato with Farmers Cheese, Mushroom, and Pork with Sauerkraut......I couldn't decide which was better - they were all fabulous. Hubby had a dish charmingly names The Polish Prince Platter which consisted of a Stuffed Cabbage, Kielbasa, and half a dozen Pierogi. We all licked our plates clean.
One of the charming eccentricities of this restaurant is the incongruous Egyptian decor. Yes you heard me right. There are sarcophagi, sanskrit writings and other oddities along with indoor trees. The wait staff is friendly and very efficient, happy to explain their Polish dishes to the novice. In fact as I walked around the restaurant I heard snippets of Polish conversation coming from several tables, a sure sign of the authenticity of the restaurant as it attracts the Polish people from far and wide.
As a bonus, you can visit the Delicatessen at the back of the restaurant and pick up some wonderful international groceries and best of all a butcher section that sells Kielbasa and other meats as well as frozen Pierogis. Of course we took some goodies home so we can replicate the meal at home without having to make the drive.
Pierogi Grill is one of those places you lament is kind of far away, and in the same breath you are grateful that it is because surely if was closer we'd be there every week over indulging the most delicious food we've ever tasted.
Pierogi Grill on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 29, 2014

There's No Escaping The Holidays

Recently someone asked me about how we run our dining out club "The Great Escape" and it got me to thinking how lucky I am to be blessed with good health, a wonderful family, and really true friends.
Our dining out club affords us the opportunity to reconnect on a regular basis with each other, something we might not do if it wasn't right there on our calendar the last Saturday of the month. Friendships need to be nurtured and its so easy to get caught up in day to day stuff. Make time for your friends and you'll be rewarded with a deepening connection while you build some wonderful memories.
Despite our taking November and December off we just had to get together anyway but did it at our home instead. A casual meal, a few drinks, and hours of conversation made the evening pass quickly and pleasantly. Time flies when you're having fun, eh?
Wishing you all a very Happy New Year filled with good food and good friends to enjoy it with.