Tuesday, December 3, 2013

NO GREAT ESCAPES FOR THE HOLIDAY SEASON

With the holiday season upon us our group is taking a break for November and December as Escape seems impossible. We'll spend these months doing more entertaining at home as family and friends come from near and far.
I'm flexing my long dormant 'chef' muscles and find that when I have enough liesure time to spare I actually enjoy doing some cooking. Hold on hubby I'm not ready to take back my apron full time - you're still the master of the kitchen. But I've been preparing one meal a week and enjoying it.
I make killer black beans, wicked good hot dog onions, GREAT pizza, yummy quesadillas. I'm not fool enough to try my hand at one of Jolly's specialties. I focus on things he doesn't cook and am so pleased when he likes them. Validation.
Recently we invited a friend over who wanted to learn how to make hubby's Eggplant Rollatini - a dish that has earned him high praise through the years. I filmed it for our kids to enjoy but its too long to share here. I will say that looking at him perform his culinary magic through a camera lens helped me focus squarely on his incredible precision. His style is so regimented that he does it almost on auto pilot with culinary muscle memory. Viewing it back on film even he was struck by how calmly he went about his process. I think that's the mark of a genius cook. I'm more likely to get distracted and forget that somethings on the stove.
I've made my mother's bread pudding recipe twice in the last two weeks but haven't been happy with the results. I had asked her for years to please give me her recipe and she couldn't do it. So I set about ammassing all the ingredients and invited her over to make it for me. As she put it all together I followed her around with pen and paper and wrote it down for posterity. I lost mom just a couple of years after this and so I treasure this recipe in her memory. Bread pudding is one of those things that changes each time you make it depending on the ingredients at hand. I'm ashamed to say these two efforts didn't cut it and its because I took liberties with her recipe thinking that's what I was supposed to do - make it my own. So this weekend I will try again and this time stick to her recipe. That's what hubby does and why his dishes always come out exactly the same - delicious. Lesson learned.
Merry Christmas and Happy Hannukah and Happy New Year to all!

Monday, October 28, 2013

The 4th Street Shrimp Store

It was my turn to pick the restaurant and the 4th Street Shrimp Store was a last minute spontaneous choice for me. You’d think with the hundreds of restaurants in the Tampa Bay area I shouldn’t have a problem choosing one for my Great Escape. But I was having diner’s block I think. A couple of weeks ago the universe had me stopped at a light right in front of this charming bungalow on 4th Street in St. Petersburg and so I decided to give it a try. Sometimes you have to be daring and take a chance, right?
The atmosphere is Kitchy Key West fun with seaside memorabilia scattered all around. I laughed out loud at a seafaring bloke peering into the painted on window – so realistic it gave me a start (it was either Trompe L’Oeil or maybe I’d had too much to drink ;) We eight were a little crammed into a table more suited for six but we settled in and ordered a round of drinks.
Some tips for dining out in groups – if possible, stop by the restaurant before you book it and see where you’ll be seated. When you make your reservation for eight people, ideally you want a round table so conversation flows evenly. Do specify that you don’t want a high top table (unless you do). Most restaurants will try to accommodate you especially if you mention that you’re a dining out group. We have some in our group with bad backs or knees and being cramped at a table can put a damper on the whole experience. (Alas we boomers are holding on by a thread but putting up a brave front). For those times when we are seated at a long table we ladies have contrived a seating plan that allows us to put our heads together and chat in the middle while our husbands each take a corner. Our chatty communication requires close proximity - our hubbies indulge us.
The gal who seated us recommended the Clam Chowder – and she was right – it was delicious. Just the right amount of creamy and lots of clams and potatoes. I had shrimp over a salad of field greens and wasn’t wowed with the shrimp which were steamed then chilled and had lost some of their taste. Hubby had a shrimp hoagie and complained the shrimp was frozen and tasteless. Some of the others fared better with blackened scallops or shrimp – perhaps the seasoning helped revive the taste. I must say the service was impeccable. Very friendly and attentive. I could be persuaded to give it another try and order something different, maybe the crab cakes. But hey, there are so many restaurants to choose from that it’s not likely we’ll be back any time soon.
LocalEats featured blog
LocalEats featured blog

Monday, September 30, 2013

Yachtsea Grille, River Walk, Bradenton

Another Great Escape with our good friends. This time we headed south to Bradenton River Walk’s Yachtsee Grille. I’m guessing the name infers that you can dine and watch yacht’s go by but that’s not the case. Situated within a short walk to the River Walk, the outdoor dining room affords no view at all. It’s more of a hideaway albeit a pleasant one. Canvas panels keep the sun out while allowing the breeze in. What you hear is an awful lot of traffic noise from the access road just beyond the property line. Happily, a singer with his guitar arrived soon after we got there and provided soothing, not-too-loud sounds ranging from Billy Joel to Jimmy Buffet that very effectively drowned out the traffic noise.
We sat at a large granite table with a built in fire pit for a centerpiece and as soon as the night sky approached we got the owner to ‘light our fire’. He obliged and regaled us with stories of how he and his dad had built these special tables. He told us that Yachtsee Grille is the only restaurant in the River Walk complex which certainly credits him with some foresight in procuring the location when the project was still on the drawing board.
If you haven’t yet visited River Walk you must put it on your To Do List. It’s a beautiful planned recreational area that debuted in October 2012. On a previous visit we’d stopped by to observe some daring youngsters at the architecturally awesome Skateboard Park risk broken bones to outdo each other. (not for the squeamish) Check out the park’s event calendar for concerts and other fun stuff they offer http://www.realizebradenton.com/index.php/calendar/week.listevents/2013/09/29/-
As for the food, I was very pleased with my grilled salmon over yogurt dill sauce with fresh veggies and a salad. Hubby had a large chopped salad and an appetizer of lightly breaded, tender calamari. Everything was fresh and tasty and all eight of us were pleased with the food and service.
Have you ever gone to a restaurant and filled up on appetizers so that you end up taking your expensive Entree home in a doggie bag? It seems like such a waste since it never tastes the same reheated. There are times when I’ve finished my meal and SO wanted a dessert but - not yet – better to wait an hour. So what we do now and then is just order a couple of appetizers, a salad and then share a dessert. It all equals out to around the same cost and the best part is you get to try all those Appies and Desserts that look so tempting.
http://www.yachtseagrille.com/ LocalEats featured blog YachtSea Grille on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Cooper's Hawk Winery & Restaurant

You can never run out of restaurants in Tampa. The choices are as plentiful and varied as your imagination, palette and wallet can handle. The challenge for our dining out group is to pick from hundreds. We put a lot of thought into our choices, trying to find a restaurant that will appeal to various dietary concerns and culinary sensibilities. Remember the mission statement of The Great Escape is to ‘escape’ from Sun City Center while we’re still able to!
This weekend we visited Cooper's Hawk Winery. Not the actual vineyard, but one of their many restaurants that feature the Cooper's Hawk wines and offer a ‘Scratch” kitchen. I asked our waitress Barbara what that meant and as the word implies, everything on the menu is made from scratch. Our waitress graciously served us all a tasting of their special cask wine blended from five grapes. It was delicious. She happily granted requests for a few other tastings before we all settled on our picks for the evening. One couple in our group ordered a “Flight” of wine – something we’d never heard of before. It consisted of four samplings of wine thoughtfully selected to offer the guest a progression of tastes - it’s hard to pick one when they were all great so this was a delightful way to get the full wine tasting experience.
Here you see the Restaurant Manager Joseph Busicchia demonstrating how they draw their featured wine from the cask into a glass tube and then dispense it into our wineglass. He graciously posed for my photo as recognizing a kindred spirit he swapped NYC memories with my husband.
But let’s get to the food now – enough about the wine – or can there ever be enough wine? My husband and I shared the Ahi Tuna appetizer and an iceberg wedge salad – absolutely delicious. I chose the chopped salad with blackened tenderloin, he chose the Jambalaya which was prepared beautifully with flavors rivaling those we sampled during our recent vacation in New Orleans.
All eight of us were very pleased with our choices. The menu offers a wide range of options so you can choose wisely to meet your budget. Hubby and I are of the mindset to “go big or go home” so maybe we’ll be tightening our dining out budget for the coming month. But once in while you gotta splurge, and you don’t mind doing that when you’re getting a quality meal and excellent service. https://coopershawkwinery.com/menus/restaurant-menu

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Bella's Italian Restaurant

There’s a lot to like about Bella’s – the d├ęcor and ambiance are bistro chic, the food was really quite good. Ours is a judgmental group headed by my cheftastic husband whose opinions are coming from a place of great food knowledge and experience. How do you take a fabulous Italian who cooks fabulous Italian food to an Italian restaurant and expect not to hear his opinion? So I’m taking him out of the mix entirely because for the remaining seven in our group there was definite thumbs up approval.
I love dining in this trendy SoHo area of Florida – if I squint I can almost imagine myself back in New York City (and yes in this dream sequence I’m about 30 years younger and absolutely fabulous). There’s a lively energy to this part of town and we see it mostly as we’re leaving for home around 8 and the young’uns are just arriving decked out for a night of fun. Kudos to them.
I enjoyed Lasagna with Bolognese sauce that was cooked perfectly. Others in our group tried the standard Spaghetti and Meatballs, or the Salmon and the approvals were high. Of course the Eggplant Parm was tasty but those who ate it paid considerable homage to my honey exclaiming that his was definitely better. (Yes they want to be invited back to our house someday).
We skipped dessert and settled for capuccinos which were considerately served with a little biscuit - just enough of a sweet bite after such a heavy meal. Would I come back for another meal? Most definitely - or maybe just to sample their gorgeous desserts!
Bella's Italian Cafe on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Arts And Eats, Bradenton

The Art of Escaping often includes a tie in activity before or after we dine that adds to the pleasure of our outing. This was one of those occasions. Our latest "Escape" included a pre-dinner walking tour of Bradenton's Art Village - a quaint collection of restored 20's and 30's cottages that are home to one of the largest groups of artisans in Florida. There are over 30 art galleries, working art studios, cafes, jewelry, fashion, healing arts and folk art - it was wonderful to get a glimpse into an artist's studio and see where it all happens and have an opportunity to purchase that one unique piece you were looking for. Check out this link to learn more about a lovely (and free) way to spend an afternoon. http://www.villageofthearts.com/
Arts And Eats is located right in the midst of this community, itself a restored cottage charmingly converted into a restaurant and studio. Great atmosphere - the owners were friendly and welcoming and tried very hard to please us. Live music created a soothing background without drowning out dinner conversation. They definitely have some service kinks to work out - seemed a bit overwhelmed when diners kept arriving. I heard more than one apology for the long waits. There's one Chef cooking to order one dish at a time which meant that our group of eight was served over a rather too long period of time leaving some at our table watching the others eat - awkward but not the end of the world. And as I said most of our group found the food delicious. I especially liked the Chicken Tagine (but I wanted MORE - the portions were small and pricy). I think they'll get better so I'm willing to give this one another chance sometime. http://www.artsandeatsfl.com Arts & Eats Restaurant and Gallery on Urbanspoon