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Monday, July 28, 2014


This week's ESCAPE brought us to the Lakewood Ranch section in Bradenton. The Texas Roadhouse was doing a brisk business and the place was mobbed. That's always a good sign that they're doing something right. While they don't take reservations, you can call ahead and it will make your wait time a little shorter. There was one hiccup when they first seated us at an oddly shaped large booth that would have been a very tight squeeze. So it was worth the wait for a better table. When you're planning an outing to a new restaurant it's not always possible to know what seating will be like for a group of eight. We've already established that we don't want to sit at high top tables (several in our group have bad backs). And of course a round table is always preferred if possible. But now to that list we can say no to booths for such a large party. Live and learn, eh?
This is a fun place. It's LOUD and lively and everyone seems to be having a great time. If you've got a cowboy hat in your closet - now would be the time to dust it off and wear it proudly. Grab some peanuts while you're waiting and yeah, go ahead and toss the shells on the floor. The wait staff is is young and charming and eager to please. At any moment a bunch of them will line up and entertain you with a Texas style line dance. And if it's your birthday, don't mention it if you're the shy type cause they'll bring a saddle on a saw horse to your table and chant "Saddle up! Saddle up!" till you well......saddle up and become the center of attention for your birthday song. Hilarious!
The best part of it all was the food - cause atmosphere means nothing if the food ain't great. Hubby is a meat and potatoes kind of guy and he had the prime rib served with au jus gravy and mashed potatoes - and gave it high marks.
The burgers are gigantic and delicious - you might need a doggy bag. I had the steak dinner salad which included a generous portion of tender steak tips over a fresh garden salad, and although it was delicious and I ate every morsel, it wasn't perfect. I had asked for Ranch dressing but when I tucked into my meal I discovered that underneath, the salad had been dressed with vinaigrette.
I mentioned it as a comment, not a complaint, to a manager who stopped by to see how everything was and she said that they always dress the salad that way. I told her it didn't make any sense if I wanted Ranch to have two dressings competing on my plate and she agreed it was odd and said she'd advise the chef of my observations.
The service was excellent and although we'd forgotten a coupon for a free Blooming Onion appetizer, it didn't take much convincing before our waiter offered us one for free. It was plenty enough for the eight of us and we all agreed it was better than ones we'd had at Outback.
They've got a nice array of beers on tap to wash it all down with, but I opted for a bottle of Blue Moon, my once in a while indulgence. And given the generous portions, none of us could handle dessert then or even later on that evening as we sat around with coffee and recapped the evening. It's my pick next month so I've got to put on my thinking cap and find something interesting - but hey, this is Tampa and you can never run out of new and fun restaurants to try here.
Texas Roadhouse on Urbanspoon

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Escape to the Hospital Cafeteria?

There are all kinds of escapes and/or reasons to do so.  Yesterday I needed to escape from my thoughts and fears over hubby's back surgery....scary stuff as any of you who've been through this can attest to.  I sought solace first in the hospital's serene little chapel and then in the cafeteria, which was a pleasant surprise.
Hubby is doing fine thank God, and since I'm staying by his side for the duration I figured I would make some observations about the food here at Brandon Hospital.

Nobody likes hospital food right?  It always sucks, has no taste, who needs it...sneak me in a juicy burger or a big deli sandwich while the nurse isn't looking, eh? 

But i have to report that things have improved greatly.  Check out this restaurant quality menu!

For dinner hubby had beef pot roast, mashed potatoes and mixed veggies while I partook of the grilled salmon with mango salsa, rice pilaf and green beans. Both were quite delicious.  

Today for lunch I had a cheeseburger and fries that was superior to many I've had at neighborhood restaurants.

And here's the thing --- it's very reasonably priced.  Call me wacky but I know people who drive to Ikea for a bargain breakfast.  My tip to anyone with a limited dining out budget is to drop by the hospital and dream up some reason to be there (I guess you'd need a patient's or doctor's name?) and head over to the Tower B Cafeteria.

Mention that you're a senior for an additional discount and for example, you can get a very good burger with a ton of fries for under $3.00 - I'm not kidding!

There's a salad bar, soups, and a variety of hot and cold foods. You can take it to go and sit outside on a bench overlooking a lake - al fresco hospital food - who'd a thunk it? And oh yeah, don't forget there's free parking.

We're home now and hubby is doing very well. We're grateful for how beautifully the staff at Brandon Hospital treated us - highly professional and also warm and friendly. His private room was spacious and sitting on the edge of his tray table when we arrived was an artfully folded towel shaped like an animal - just like they give you on cruise ships! Quite amazing that they go the extra mile to put a smile on your face.
I hope you never have reason to stay at any hospital, but if you do or are visiting a loved one, don't forget to grab a bite to eat while you're there.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Escape to St. Croix

Hubby and I just spent a glorious week in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands. It was our first time there and the purpose of the trip was to spend some quality bonding time with a sister my husband never knew he had and vice versa. Its a long story that reads like a Lifetime TV Novella but suffice it to say that sometimes life can deal you a twist of fate that turns out to be the most lovely surprise. We had a terrific time and I would like to share with you some of the restaurants and attractions we visited in case you have an opportunity to go there. Our new sister was a fabulous guide since she was raised there and could give us the perspective of a local.
La Reine Chicken Shack - 24-1 Estate Slob, Kingshill, USVI, St. Croix, +1 340-778-5717
This was probably our favorite meal of the week in an open air restaurant that started as a shack some years ago but has grown steadily in response to the hordes of people lining up for the most delicious chicken you'll ever eat. Order, take a number and then pick up your styrofoam box and head to one of the family style picnic benches. Reasonably priced large portions, all finger licking good. Don't forget the plantains, the perfect side dish that for me reads almost like a dessert. Que rico.
Coconuts On The Beach - 72 LaGrange, Frederiksted, St. Croix, USVI +1 340-719-6060
After a day at Dorsch Beach, Frederiksted with our new found family, we were tired and hungry and full of sand and grit and too much sun. I've discovered that I'm too old to lug beach chairs and tote bags around - where's a cabana boy when you need him?! We drove for miles looking for a place still serving food. It was a hot summer Sunday night and there were swarms of young clubbers milling around in front of the clubs and spilling out onto the road making it hard for us to pass. Did I mention that most of the island's roads are small and winding and they drive on the left (wrong) side of the street? A little stressful but sis was a great driver and got us through the week without incident. Finally we found a quiet spot called Coconuts and our party of 9 was greeted with some surprise by a very cute friendly bartender/manager named Jameison, originally from Philadelphia who had been living in St. Croix for a few years, just chillin' out. It was late and he was having a slow night till we dragged ourselves in. We ordered our food and settled in for a long wait - that's island life - take it slow. In fact here's the island motto.
We amused ourselves with the kitchy decor and the mysterious night view of the surf.
When dinner finally arrived it was all quite delicious. My fish tacos were tasty. Hubby got the ribs and they were tender and juicy. Of course by this time of night as tired as we were, probably anything would have tasted good to us. Tonight's rum concoction was called The Pain Killer, rich and coco-nutty with a sprinkle of nutmeg. Thanks Jameison!
The Palms at Pelican Cove - 4126 La Grande Princesse, Christiansted, VI 00820 800-548-4460
Since our rented condo was right next to the Pelican Cove resort, we took quite a few meals there including breakfast, lunch and one night their buffet dinner which included a show that featured Moko Jambi stilt walkers performing poolside in a reenactment of the folkloric Moko Jambi who used their height and masks to scare away evil spirits. They were delightful and I actually danced under the stilts of one of them. Then came Kiki and the Flaming Gypsies, a group of lovely young women practiced in the art of dancing with fire. Their act was a nod to the fabled Queen slave who led rebelling slaves to set their masters' plantations on fire.
The buffet included ribs, fried chicken, creole fish and a wide variety of sides. It was good but not great but made better by a couple of rum drinks. For $30 it was a great value and we actually enjoyed an additional discount once the waiter learned that he and sis had graduated from the same school. St. Croix is a very small island....only 22 miles long and about 7-8 miles wide...and everyone knows everyone it seems. We were delighted to see our Coconuts friend Jameison there and he greeted us like old friends.
Virgin Kayak Tours of Cane Bay Bryan Updyke, owner
My biggest adventure of the week was first time kayaking at night in the bioluminescent bay at Salt River Bay National Park. It's something I never fathomed doing and yet spurred on by my adventurous sis and bro-in-law I got swept along by their enthusiasm. And I'm so glad I did! Here in clockwise order is me looking over my shoulder as new cousin Medina snaps my photo....then me with Medina after the excursion looking tired but happy....then sis and bro in law Tara and Warren paddling alongside of us....and finally Tara and I listening closely as Owner/Guide Bryan gives us our instructions. Bryan has lived in St. Croix since 1989 and is passionate about its history and conservation and the Taino culture and art. Read more about this very interesting guy on his website.
Bryan led our small group through a winding bumpy road studded with tree roots to a small beach on one side of the lagoon. He was keen on introducing us to his colorful friends. Living in a camp with an elaborate tent system in a clearing under some trees was a group of authentic Taino Indians who welcomed us and shook our hands as we were introduced one by one. A mother and baby, a couple of preteen girls, and a few men with guitars and red stripe beer occupied the camp and they were friendly and easy going people.
Soon we were loaded into the kayaks and I took the front which made me "Captain" in charge of the rudder. Okay, I can do this I told myself. No turning back now. And the truth is I DID IT! It was exciting and thrilling and quite exhausting but I loved it all the same. Several of our group jumped in the water to swim about stirring up the tiny one celled organisms called Dinoflagellates that light up the water when agitated. They call it 'fairy dust' and its the most beautiful thing to see. I passed on the swimming, content to watch the others and swish my hand and foot through the water to make my own little magic fairy dust. We headed back after a couple of hours and seeing the Taino campfire finally appear in the distance like a beacon calling me home was a welcome site as I was pretty much running out of steam by now.
We are left with many fond memories of new discoveries and beautiful warm hearted people and of course our new sister and we look forward to building many more memories to make up for lost time.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Catch 23 Restaurant, Fishhawk Ranch

Just barely recovered from a week in St. Croix, we were travel weary but wouldn't dream of missing Great Escape. Hey, a girl's gotta eat anyway, right? There were only six of us this time. The Great Escape was built on the formula of a perfect table of eight but travel, schedules and sicknesses sometime force us to go with less. If only four of us are available we move the date, but six works just fine and makes for a cozy table.
I'd never been to FishHawk Ranch and was delighted to discover this beautiful planned community located in Lithia, FL. Catch 23 is situated in their town square along with a salon, grocer and a few casual eateries. The restaurant is elegant and stylish and the service was very good.
Their chef specializes in Latin and Caribbean cuisine and boasts a menu with enough variety to please everyone. Seafood, steaks, sushi and more, deliciously prepared and presented. Hubby had a very tasty pork chop, and someone had Steak Diane, something you don't often see on a menu - it was great. The Caribbean chicken was quite spicy but every crumb on the plate was eaten. Since I'd overindulged while on vacation, I opted for the Fish Salad - skewers of shrimp, scallops and whitefish served over a delicate arugula salad with a citrus vinaigrette and it was delicious.
Hubby typically likes a piece of bread with his salad but was told they didn't have any bread.....really? The waitress did say we could order a side of garlic bread but that's not what he wanted. My only complaint is I have a problem with a restaurant that charges hefty prices and won't give you a darn slice of bread that would cost them barely a nickel.
I'd definitely come back and try something else. I make it a practice to take the long way back from the washroom so I can surreptitiously glance at what the other diners are eating, taking mental notes for next time. Catch 23 also offers weekly dining specials like Monday Burger Night for $4.99 or Wine Lover's Wednesday where ladies can enjoy all the wine they care to drink for $15 (men pay $20).
We skipped dessert as usual and headed over to one of our homes for cheesecake, coffee and some great Cupcake Vineyards Malbec, a rich red from the town of Mendoza, Argentina. It had a soft velvety texture that went down real smooth. I'd been drinking rum all week in St. Croix (don't judge me) so it was great to switch back to my preferred once a week glass of red wine.
16132 Churchview Drive, Lithia, FL 33547 813-681-4989
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Catch Twenty-Three on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Lucky Dill, Palm Harbor, FL

My hubby is a real foodie. On our very first date we got to know each other over a sumptuous lunch as we gazed across the table into each other's eyes. I blurted out that the way to my heart is through my stomach. He took me at my word and proceeded to wine and dine me right down the aisle just two years later. To this day we make a big deal about food. So when I suggested a very long ride to The Lucky Dill for his Fathers Day treat he happily agreed. We rounded up our day tripper gang and off we went. This was my third visit and it was just as satisfying as the first. In fact it just keeps getting better. Forty minute wait? No problem - we'll visit their awesome bakery and stock up on rugalah, linzer tarts and that old classic - black and white. (Here I have to say was my one disappointment. I thought the b/w was too dense and too thick so after one bite I tossed it.)
Dining at the Lucky Dill evokes very nostalgic memories of NYC for us - of Katz' Deli on Houston Street where hubby cut his baby teeth on the 4" high pastrami on rye sandwiches with a big half sour pickle on the side. So when we found Lucky Dill a couple of years ago it was like a homecoming for him.
Can you see how happy he looks as he's feeding me? Its sweet and a little twisted don't you think? I blame him for every extra pound I carry yet he thinks I look just adorable. Go figure.
Just take a gander at this massive corned beef sandwich! Here's a tip - share one and get a couple of sides, like these delicious potato pancakes (yum!)crispy, not greasy, and served with apple sauce and sour cream.
I'm glad it's an hour and twenty minute drive for us. If we lived nearby I'd go too often and lose all self control. Being so far away makes going a special event once or twice in a year. I need to chow down on less rugalah and more arugula.....its all about balance, right?
Lucky Dill Deli on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Escape to Pennsylvania - Elk Creek Cafe, Millheim

Our recent road trip took us far into central Pennsylvania where my daughter lives in peaceful serenity surrounded by Amish farms, rolling hills and mountains. Around those parts there’s not a lot of dining out options which is why whenever I call her she’s either off to a dinner party or having one. Besides the rare local small diner or farmstand there are no options. Just down the road apiece (ha!) and over a couple of mountains (ha!) into Milheim however, is a jewel of a restaurant venue called the Elk Creek Café, the cornerstone of this charming one-stoplight-town. The Café takes its name from one of the three great creeks in the area, all well known for the best fly-fishing in the area. When it comes to the food and ales, owner Tim Bowser is committed to community, health and sustainability.
Head Brewer Tim Yarrington makes a variety of excellent award winning beers and ales, all brewed in-house.
Chef Andy Rose offers fresh baked pastries, breads and buns and sources as many ingredients as possible from local and sustainable farms, using only the freshest vegetables from a local Community Harvest cooperative.
I had their popular Alaskan Salmon (caught by local fishermen) grilled over a salad of delicious greens (harvested locally). You don’t get much fresher than that. It was absolutely wonderful. We also had one of their Pretzels, crafted by Chef Andy and served with a yummy mustard dip, the perfect accompaniment to a pint of ale. The burgers are made from local pasture-raised beef. And they also serve a Valley Ham and Cheddar sandwich, again locally sourced, that’s a crowd favorite.
Of course the highlight of my evening was the after dinner show – my daughter Christine Smith & Dave Bielanko who as the band Marah ( delighted us and the sold out crowd with music from Marah and Mountain Minstrelsy. This stage mother was grinning ear to ear. Elk Creek Café offers an impressive lineup of bands and performers from near and afar. If you ever find yourself in this part of the world you’ll have to stop in and enjoy a meal, a brew, and some awesome music in a small town relaxed atmosphere. We’ll be back for sure.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Renzo's - Tampa

Renzo's - For Meat Lovers!
Our group headed over to Kennedy Blvd. in Tampa last Saturday night to try out Renzo's, an Argentinian restaurant that boasts of having "A Passion for Meat & Wines". I can relate since I love both (sometimes a little too passionately).
At first glance the place doesn't look like much more than a cafeteria so we were a little hesitant when we arrived. But we were pleasantly surprised at how good the food was. From our table I could see on the back wall a small doorway that led to their wine room. Bottles stretched from floor to ceiling in a beautiful display. I saw it by chance and that seems a pity. I think they should have made that a feature wall to highlight the extensive wine offerings they're so passionate about. If they turned this storefront over to a trendy designer I'm sure they could transform this eatery into a classy looking bistro - but I realize that in doing so I'd probably be paying a lot more for this awesome food, so shhhhh, forget I said that.
They offer a table-side grill sampler that serves two and there were a few to pick from. We chose the Parilla Solo Carne (where's the beef?!) that included short ribs, flank steak, skirt steak, sirloin and also came with two sides - but the meat was the star of the show. It was more than enough for the two of us and we ate every scrap. I felt carnivorous,primitive and quite satisfied.
The prices were good, the server was friendly and welcoming and happy to explain about the meats and wines. I employed my fair to middling Spanish to assist in some of the order taking and all the food came out on time. I do have a couple of minor complaints - the little grills made the table crowded, I hate being charged a dollar for a slice of bread, and on that very extensive wine list although there was a large selection of reds by the bottle, by the glass there was only one available. Happily it was a delicious Malbec that perfectly paired with the beef. Everyone knows a little red wine aids in the digestion of beef, right? (waiter can I have another?)
There's lots more on the menu including empanadas but nearly everyone in our group is dieting so we stuck with the Atkins friendly meat courses. We skipped dessert and headed back to one of our homes to sample a gluten free blueberry something that was surprisingly good but I secretly pined for a little flan with a cafe con leche. Maybe next time when I'm done with this dieting thing.