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.

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.
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?
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

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.
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

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
LocalEats featured blog
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.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Escape to New York City

Last week we had the pleasure of dining out with some dear old friends while we were in NYC. Our trip was hectic and filled with dates to see family and friends in a whirlwind visit. With a short window on Tuesday we headed over to have lunch with the Callahans at Manetta's on Jackson Avenue in Long Island City.
This is a favorite spot for our friends and we immediately understood why. Warm friendly greetings - a place where everyone knows your name - and some really good food to enjoy. I had an arugula salad that was perfectly dressed followed by grilled shrimp and asparagus. Yes, I was trying to eat light given all the road trip fast food we'd consumed on the grueling two day ride.
Hubby had a shrimp Parmesan sandwich and our friend had a customized salad - yes they'll make you anything you want - they are there to please. The Tuscan Red wine was the perfect accompaniment to my meal and of course I let them twist my arm and indulged in a cappuccino to wash down the awesome Biscotti that appeared with the check. Truly, the best part of the meal was the company - catching up with old friends over a good meal is delightful and we are so glad we made the time to spend with them. How lucky they are to be a short walk from this charming neighborhood eatery. Oh, and they bake all their own bread and desserts on premises!
Long Island City has exploded in the last 10-15 years and what was once an old industrial district has flourished with condos and restaurants and shops into the very lively neighborhood it is today. Just a couple of train stops and you're in Manhattan, and hey, on this side of the river LIC residents get the view of the Manhattan skyline!
Manetta's, 1076 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, NY 11101, Phone number (718) 786-6171

Monday, April 28, 2014

Carmel Cafe and Wine Bar

This is a story of what happens when Hi Tech meets a bunch of senior citizens out for a relaxing evening. This month we decided to steer clear of Tampa once we heard it was Bollywood weekend. So Carmel Cafe in Sarasota was our choice.
Let me start off by saying the food was wonderful - and that's really all that matters - or is it? What about the experience? And here is where we had a bit of a disconnect.
Ever seen one of these?
Brace yourself cause this is the wave of the future and I'm not quite ready for it. Our very charming waiter brought four iPads to our table and explained brightly we'd be ordering from them. He also gave us paper menus but did his best to dissuade us from using them. Now every one of us has an iPhone so its not as if we are technology deficient, but truthfully the order process wasn't made any smoother with these.
PRO: you can see actual photos of the food you are going to order (sort of like when you go to the Chinese take out place and they have them hung on the wall). One hopes the actual dish will come out looking just like the photo and at these prices they better!.
CON: the iPad is heavy; you have to wonder if it was disinfected since the last user; you have to share them since its not practical to put 8 iPads down on the table, so that takes longer; the waiter still had to make adjustments for separate checks and by the way, he lost out a bit since the iPad didn't automatically add 18%-20% gratuity which would be normal for parties of eight.
I did a little research on this new technology and most of the reviews echoed our own - that overall they weren't worth it. And there's a problem with theft - our waiter explained that each iPad had a GPS so the restaurant could track down wayward equipment. Many restaurants have ceased using them on their outdoor dining areas to limit the risk of theft. Again, is it all worth it? Don't we have enough people of all ages glued to their electronic devices in solitary trances? The purpose of our monthly Great Escape is to enjoy the company of our friends over a glass of wine and a satisfying meal. Now they're trying to take that away from us in the name of progress!
A note about the service - our waiter was perfectly sweet and accommodating. Drinks and appetizers appeared in short order and were quickly followed by the salads. But I was only half way through my salad when the entrees were laid before me. And I'm a fast eater! When we were settling up the check, hubby asked the waiter, "do you realize its less than an hour since we first sat down? Frankly, we feel rushed." And its not like they had a long line of people waiting to get in and needed our table - the place was empty. So did the technology speed things up to our disadvantage? It would seem so. The order went so fast from the table to the kitchen that was served at lightning speed. So for service the waiter gets an A but the iPad/Kitchen gets a C. As for the venue itself, it was very pretty as these photos will show and I especially like our table set up in front of a gigantic wall of wine.
We didn't stick around for dessert as we'd been invited back to one of our homes for good old fashioned ice cream sundaes and coffee. Hey, have you ever heard of 'wet walnuts'? They're a dessert topping made from walnuts and maple syrup. A nice way to end the evening!
Carmel Café & Wine Bar on Urbanspoon