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Monday, September 29, 2014

Plan B Doesn't Have to Suck

This month's Great Escape proved to be a real challenge. Here in the Tampa Bay area we've been deluged with rain....monsoon type rain. Frankly I'm sick of it. So we were all looking forward to our escape and the restaurant we were headed to was Joe's Crab Shack in Clearwater. Alas we never made it. Our four couples headed out in two cars around the same time and it soon became apparent that the weather was against us. Seasoned Floridian drivers, we're not cowed by a little rain....but this was ridiculous. So about twenty minutes into our trip with only ten feet of visibility in front of us I called it "Abort" "Abort" "Abort" - we're not going to Clearwater in this mess. We texted the others and let them know we were getting off in Brandon and would head to Leroy Selmons on the Causeway if they wanted to find us. They were farther ahead and ended up near the Int'l Mall at a place called Lime Fresh Mexican Grill.
LEROY SELMON'S, 11310 Causeway Blvd, Brandon, FL 33511
This is one of our favorite Go To places when we're shopping in Brandon. We can always rely on good service and good food. I had my usual Grilled Chicken over Caesar Salad. What I like about it is that it has a little heat to it and makes my taste buds dance. Shaken by the rainy ride I ordered a Shock Top on draft with a slice of orange and it was delicious but I could barely finish it. I'm a light weight drinker (cheap date). Hubby had the meatloaf and critic that he is I was waiting for some negative remarks but lo and behold he liked it! The portion was generous and he ate every morsel. Our friends had brisket and it was as good as ever.
We are members of the Leroy Selmon's Victory Club and enjoy racking up points from our dining that earn us free appetizers or $5 off next time we come. Excellent value. http://www.leeroyselmons.com/
LIME FRESH MEXICAN GRILL, 1824 N. West Shore Blvd., Tampa, FL 33607
Under the premise of 'any port in a storm' our second group washed ashore at a restaurant near Westshore and Spruce (right across from the Container Store which they managed to avoid visiting despite the come hither lights that sparkled midst the beating rain). It was more upscale than a Moe's, but you ordered at a counter like Moe's. The fajitas were great as was the Cantina Steak Salad. The fajita sides were served in these cute tin trays.
Oh, and they had a salsa bar with several different kinds, including a delicious pineapple salsa. All in all, very enjoyable - but we were sorry our original plans were thwarted by the weather. (as reported by Hollie!) We'll have to check out this place next time we shop at the Westshore Mall since we definitely need to go back and shop at the Container Store, right? http://www.limefreshmexicangrill.com/menu/
What really saved the night was the after party - we eventually all made it back to our house for coffee and darts! With levels of dart experience ranging from nil to champion, we set out in couple teams to play a rollicking game of Cricket and it proved the perfect activity to get us moving and laughing and competing. Lots of fun followed by coffee and cheesecake. As I said, Plan B didn't suck at all. I like a group that's able to be spontaneous!

Dining Out On A Diet

WHEN DIETARY RESTRICTIONS GET IN THE WAY
Our dining out group gets together for the company as much as the food. We enjoy taking turns selecting the restaurant and discovering one that the group will enjoy. Through the years we haven't had too many bad experiences. How do we pick them? There are quite a few sites devoted to restaurants. Urbanspoon, Yelp, Trip Adviser, etc. Sometimes we search by type of food. Sometimes by neighborhood. We read the reviews and make a judgement call and take a leap of faith that it will be a good experience. We're rarely disappointed but if we are we take it with a sense of humor and a more satisfying dessert. Live and learn, eh?
This past year it seemed that more than half of us were on some kind of diet or another and while that posed a challenge at first, we somehow managed to find restaurants that accommodated everyone's dietary restrictions. There's lo fat, lo carb, gluten free, paleo, weight watchers, etc. So how do you pick a restaurant that can satisfy the dietary needs of eight people? Here are some tips for selecting one that everyone will enjoy.
First of all, know your group and understand their particular dietary restrictions and tastes. I wouldn't select a restaurant that sold only fish if I knew there was someone in the group that hated fish.
Second, search by the particular diet name. For example, a search for "gluten free" served up over 300 options in Tampa Bay, an astonishing number I thought. We're seeing that more and more restaurants are featuring special diet offerings on their menus in an effort to attract more people.
Libby's in Sarasota for example, had a section on their menu called "Simply Grilled Gluten Free" much to the delight of our gluten challenged friend.
Of course, it you're the one with the dietary restriction, you have to do your part as well by researching the menu, calling ahead to ask questions on how food is prepared. There's always something you can find on a menu that will work for you. I've been on Weight Watchers for a couple of months now and the program has given me some good tools and tips for navigating the temptations of a good restaurant. I've learned not to be embarrassed about asking to have my meal prepared a certain way (sans butter). I've enlisted the help of my hubby by asking him to keep the bread basket at his side of the table out of sight. And if I'm really worried, I will eat a big juicy apple just before we leave the house to make sure I'm not starving and more susceptible to temptation. It works.
Lastly, if I'm hosting the after dinner coffee I try to make sure to serve one sumptuous dessert for those who can happily indulge, and a big fruit salad for those who are watching their waistline. If I'm not hosting, I toss a little weight watchers snack bar in my purse so I'll have something sweet to nibble on with my coffee and not feel deprived. So don't let your diet stand in the way of having a fun night out dining with friends. Eat (less), Drink (more) and be Merry - you can't chew if you're talking so keep the conversation going!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

220 EAST Restaurant, Davis Islands

For our August escape we headed out to a restaurant on Davis Islands called 220 EAST which was located at…....220 East Davis Islands Boulevard….hence the name. As a sometimes directionally challenged person I think its nifty to make finding your establishment so easy to plug into the GPS.
Just down the street from 220 EAST is a wonderful little Thai restaurant called…..Thai Island Restaurant. (Another example of how to make finding a particular cuisine a little easier for customers) We visited Thai Island a couple of years ago and enjoyed it very much (especially the Sake). As we were leaving I had walked down the block and peeked into 220 EAST and put it on my mental list for future escapes.
So I have no one to blame but myself for this month’s escape as it was my pick. Now to be fair it wasn't all bad, but it wasn't all good either.
I was eating light and opted for an appetizer of Satay Chicken with Teriyaki sauce. It was very good and the portion was more than generous. To round out my meal I had Field Greens with oil & vinegar. When you’re eating light like this it’s a great option to order an appetizer and a salad and have them served together.
Two in our group had the Chicken Thai Cobb salad and gave it very high marks – it was a generously portioned dinner salad.
It went downhill from there. Two others ordered the Beef Stir Fry with Oriental Sauce and both of them were very disappointed. The sauce was overly sweet and the beef was tough. Two strikes against it. One of the specials that evening was Rainbow Trout and unfortunately it wasn’t special at all. And we were bothered by the add-on charges like $1.50 more for Almondine and another charge for a side, things that should have been explained when she ordered.
As for ambiance, it strives to combine a hint of elegance with a rustic pub like atmosphere but I'm not so sure they pulled it off. The outside of the restaurant doesn't match the inside at all except for a large wine cellar displayed in the entry. Once inside its like any other pub. The restaurant was busy including young families probably drawn by the pizza menu. With an evenly split thumbs up and thumbs down vote from our group, we won't return. But I could be tempted to head back to Thai Island down the street some time to have a little more of that Sake along with some delicious Thai food.
Fun Facts: Davis Islands (plural) is an archipelago made up of two islands (a third island was filled in to make room for a landing strip when they built Peter O. Knight Airport). With a population of about 6,000 it has a charming small town neighborhood feel. I look forward to exploring more restaurants and points of interest in this somewhat out of the way section of Tampa.
http://www.220east.com/
220 East on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Cine Bistro - Dinner IN a Movie

As self proclaimed FOODIES we were dying to see the new Steven Spielberg/Oprah Winfrey movie - The Hundred Foot Journey. When I scanned the internet to find out where it was playing I chanced upon CineBistro in Hyde Park. My curiosity piqued, I delved further into their website and decided if ever we were to try out this movie going concept, this particular film was the perfect pairing for it.
The concept of Dinner and a Movie is an old one, but we found this new twist of Dinner IN a Movie to be extremely pleasant. I'm sure not all Movie/Dining venues are created equal, but CineBistro in Hyde Park excels in every way I can imagine. With an extensive upscale menu that includes Wagyu Beef Sliders, Brie and Pear Flatbreads, Kale Salad, a variety of artisan sandwiches served on delicious brioche breads, and a lovely assortment of desserts, this is surely not the kind of movie food we've all come to expect. No more do you have to settle for hideous microwaved hot dogs and cheeze whiz nachos-ugh! There's a new chef in town. And what a pleasure to be served on real china with cloth napkins - it was like dining in a 5 star restaurant albeit in semi-darkness - but then again don't we all look better in dim light? The food was very good and even the popcorn was served in a large trendy looking ceramic bowl.
Here's how it works. You must arrive at the theater 30 minutes before the movie starts. Once seated your waiter or waitress will smoothly greet you and welcome you to CineBistro. You order your food and beverages and pay right away. There's a 17.5% tip automatically added. They return within 5-10 minutes with your food and check back with you several times until the movie is about to start so if you eat quickly enough they can clear the plates for you. If you care to have anything more after the movie has started, you may walk down to the lobby cafe and get it.
The seating is marvelous. Rich, comfy leather recliner rockers with side trays that slide out or away for your meal. And while there are no bad sight lines, clearly the best seats in the house are in the back row where they provide leather ottomans so you can really lean back, put your feet up, sip your wine or espresso, and settle in for a relaxing movie experience. It's awesome.
Reservations can be made online and there is a $5 service charge added. You can also purchase your tickets in the lobby. No one under 21 is admitted to the theater - something else that adds to the elegant experience. And here's a seating tip - as I mentioned, the last row of every theater has the uber comfy ottomans so take note of that when you select your seating. Also, the schedule changes on Tuesday of each week so to ensure your good seat reserve a few days in advance.
Hyde Park is known for its trendy upscale eateries and I noticed some people coming in to enjoy a relaxing meal in the beautiful lobby cafe even if they weren't staying for the movie.
Another nice touch in the lobby was free strawberry and mint infused chilled water. And keep in mind that you don't have to dine at all - just come for the comfy movie watching experience. I think next time we'll do dessert and coffee. Because yes, there will definitely be a next time.
CineBistro on Urbanspoon
http://cobbcinebistro.com/hyde/

Monday, July 28, 2014

TEXAS ROADHOUSE - YEEEEHA!

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.
http://www.texasroadhouse.com
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.
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Coconuts On The Beach - 72 LaGrange, Frederiksted, St. Croix, USVI +1 340-719-6060 info@coconutsonthebeach-stx.com
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!
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The Palms at Pelican Cove - 4126 La Grande Princesse, Christiansted, VI 00820 800-548-4460 info@palmspelicancove.com
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.
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Virgin Kayak Tours of Cane Bay www.virginkayaktours.com 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.