Sunday, November 15, 2015

La Septima Cafe, Brandon

It’s possible that I have a soft spot for this restaurant because it’s owned and operated by the Fernandez family and hey - my maiden name is Fernandez! Alas there’s no familial connection so I can’t claim the family discount. What I can do is enjoy food reminiscent of that prepared by my mother. Cuban food and Puerto Rican food are very much alike. So when I order the chicken and rice I can almost hear my mother calling me to the table. Foolish little girl that I was I never did partake in mama’s black beans. It wasn’t until I was 40 years old that my Italian husband convinced me to try his black beans and wowza I fell in love with them. These days I am in charge of black beans at our house as I have perfected them through the years, and every now and then I look up into the sky and say “sorry mama I should have eaten your beans when I had the chance”. La Septima’s black beans and yellow rice are great.
Salad is served on a vintage wrought aluminum plate – these are lovely and I’m reminded of similar serving pieces laid out on my family table. I still own three pieces inherited from a favorite aunt and employ them for special family dinners. They make me smile.
Although I usually order one of the traditional menu items, tonight we both decided to go for the special: Bacon wrapped sirloin with a skewer of four large shrimp served with La Septima’s awesome yellow rice. For $12.99 it was a terrific value and better yet, it was delicious. My one disappointment was that the bacon wasn’t crisp and we set it aside. However, it had served to impart its flavor into the meat and so I forgave the lack of crispness. I resisted the temptation to order flan for dessert but if you're so inclined do give it a try when you go. It's very good with a cup of café con leche. Of course its no where near as good as my beloved Tia Graciela's legendary flan. Thankfully her recipe lives on with her namesake daughter Grace and if the family asks/begs/pleads with her enough she will make it for us. La Septima's is a close second.
The service here is very good. Our waitress Desire was attentive and efficient, quick to refill hubby’s soda or my wine and even mama Dahlia swooped in to bus our table as soon as our last bite was taken. If I have one complaint it’s that we were sitting on the end aisle along the servers’ station and it felt a little obtrusive for the owner and six servers to be standing two feet behind hubby’s back having a mini meeting about how to lay out tables for a big party. I feel they should have moved to the back for that meeting.
We were treated to some beautiful Spanish guitar music by a talented young man sitting near the front bar and that just added to the atmosphere. All in all it was a great dining experience and we will definitely be back soon.
702 West Lumsden Road, Brandon FL 33511 Phone: (813) 685-0502
La Septima Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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Monday, November 9, 2015

Woody's River Roo, Ellenton

After a hectic day of shopping at Ellenton’s Prime Outlet Mall hubby and I escape the frenzied crowds and head over to Woody’s River Roo. It's a hidden gem on a small bay that runs adjacent to US301 and it affords a view of I75 as it crosses the Manatee River. It’s our favorite outdoor dining spot here in the Tampa Bay area perhaps because on our very first visit to Woody’s ten years ago we turned to each other and at the same time said “Rockaway”. To prove my point, the first is a photo of a waterside restaurant we frequented in Rockaway New York and the second is a photo of Woody’s Ellenton.
I have to say the food at Woody’s is hands down ten times better than the Rockaway restaurant whose name I can’t even remember. We went there for the view and a drink. Happily we go to Woody’s for the food AND the view – a win win.
The first thing you’ll notice is a jam packed parking lot and at least 20% are motorcycles. There’s a large patio with umbrella shaded tables, a narrow deck with some high tops, and a sand bar you see pictured with lots more seating and charming thatched umbrellas. The atmosphere is casual and tropical and lovely. Woody’s offers live music most every day of the week and while we’ve seen some terrific talent there it can get so loud you can’t talk and be heard. We prefer to go for lunch to enjoy the view and avoid the noise.
The food is always good. The Grouper Bites are delicious as is the Salmon BLT (Grilled Salmon Topped with Crisp Bacon, Lettuce & Tomato on Toasted Sourdough Bread – it is perfection. Their burgers are terrific too and I often get the salad topped with shrimp. And for heaven’s sake, do yourself a favor and order the home made potato chips – they’re to die for. Everything is always fresh and tasty and the service is friendly and attentive.
With the holidays just around the corner I'd strongly recommend you hit the Outlet Mall, shop till you drop and then relax and recover at Woody's River Roo.
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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Ava (AH-va) which roughly translates from Italian as "Breath of Life"

This month’s pick for our dining out group began as an enigma to me but like any other ‘pick’ our group designates, the mandate is to give it a try and keep an open mind. My problem was in figuring out the online menu, the first thing we all do when an ‘escape’ is announced. The menu offered a challenge to my culinary vocabulary. But our waitress was not only adorably costumed in a skeleton leotard for Halloween, she was professional, attentive and very knowledgeable about the menu. So here’s what I learned. Nduja is a spicy pork sausage. Sugo is any type of tomato sauce. And fregola is pasta that is a close relative to couscous.
A few of us ordered the diet friendly special Grouper over seasonal vegetables and it was quite delicious. I paired mine with a lovely glass of Chianti. Cheryl indulged in a Veal Chop served over celery root puree and declared it to be top notch. It should be noted that the bone went home in a doggie bag with an eye toward making some fabulous soup. I loved that idea! Ray’s Pasta tasted as good as it looked. And Hollie’s Scallops were big and tender and perfect. Hubby opted for the Sirloin over seasonal vegetables and he quite enjoyed it. .
It figures that on a night when I was resolved not to eat any bread I was faced with this incredibly tempting sight. This custom made Acunto -brand wood burning pizza oven was imported from Italy to churn out the magnificent loaves you see here. It's a beautiful element in the dining room, a hearth that welcomes you into their home.
Principal owner Michael Stewart, who grew up in South Tampa also owns the restaurant 717 South directly across the street from Ava on S. Howard Avenue. One of his partners is former Tampa Bay Rays player Joe Maddon who has always had a passion for restaurants and wines, and had a hand in developing the wine list and some very interesting cocktails. While the interior is lovely, I must say we had a bit of a problem finding the restaurant because there is only a little sign above the corner entry that you could easily miss if you were traveling south from Swann. We were seated in a back room that featured an awesome barn door that could close it off for a private party.
And just for fun, check out these nifty one handed salt and pepper shakers. We gals were so taken by them that we immediately whipped out our iPhones to find where to buy them. I got mine via for about $26 and they’re due to arrive this week…can’t wait. We all left the restaurant satisfied with the total experience and headed over to Kathy & Ray's for dessert and coffee, the nicest way to end the evening with good friends.
Ava Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato View my food journey on Zomato!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Yummy House China Bistro, Tampa

One of the most delicious meals you’ll find in Tampa is at Yummy House, the aptly named China Bistro on Hillsborough Avenue a couple miles west of the Hard Rock. Coming from the melting pot of NYC I know a little bit about good Chinese food and this is the real deal. They are always crowded with lines out the door but you can make a reservation if you're a party of six or more.
The Yummy House menu includes some mouthwatering selections like our favorites: Salt & Pepper Calamari (nothing like the rings of Calamari you’ve had before) theirs is cut in long strips and coated in something like a tempura batter - the seasoning wakes up your pallet like not quite a house on fire.
The Hong Kong Style Wonton Soup is a wondrous thing – big enough to feed 4, the broth is goodness itself, the wontons are packed with shrimp and the Baby Bok Choy adds color, crunch and balance. By the way don’t embarrass yourself and ask for crispy noodles – Yummy House doesn’t carry this Chinese-Take-Out staple. The House Fried Rice is fluffy and flavorful. All the dishes are made to share. Go with four people, order one or two appetizers to share, and two or three entries to share. You’ll leave very satisfied.
Hubby particularly likes the Dim Sum menu which is served from 11am-2:30pm. It’s kind of neat to have the rolling cart stop at your table so you can pick out something well..….yummy.
Unlike the first Yummy House located on Waters, this one is quite lovely and modern. The décor is elegant and fresh with an eye towards ‘new’ China. Rich reds and deep dark woods, large photo posters of young fresh faced Chinese children lined up in their school uniforms, colorful posters of the Great Wall. I love the big round tables with the Lazy Susan, handy for spinning around the dishes to share with the other side of the table. With locations in Sarasota, Gainesville, Orlando and Ocala, Yummy House seems to be working on world domination and I can tell you they know what they’re doing.
2620 E Hillsborough Ave., Tampa, FL 33610 (813) 237-3838 Hours: Mon-Su 11am - 2:30pm Mon-Su 5pm - 9:30pm
Yummy House China Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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Monday, October 19, 2015

Kaz's Seafood Dive, Apollo Beach, FL

Come here often? Yes we do! Every couple develops a ‘rotation’ of their favorite ‘go to’ restaurants and Kaz’s Seafood Dive is definitely on ours. When the Seafood Dive moved from Sun City Center to Apollo Beach a little more than a year ago they experienced somewhat of a rebirth. The new location has a lot going for it. Apollo Beach and its surrounding communities are comprised of a young and affluent demographic so this opened the restaurant up to a whole new customer base. Many of Kaz’s Sun City Center customers followed him and remain regulars, while new faces are showing up all the time from as far away as Tampa and Sarasota.
With renewed vigor Kaz set about expanding his menu to include Daily and Weekly specials designed to take advantage of the freshest options at the fish market. The canoe standing upright near the entry serves as the “Specials” board and customers need to know when he runs out, that’s it. He uses fresh fish and that’s why it’s called a “Special”.
One of the biggest misconceptions about Kaz’s Seafood Dive is that all they serve is fried food. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Except for the BOGOs (Tuesday its Fish N Chips, Wednesday its Fried Shrimp) mostly everything on the menu can be ordered broiled or blackened.
My favorite is the big salad topped with Broiled Tilapia. The salad is always fresh and crispy and the fish is seasoned perfectly. Hubby enjoys the Shrimp PoBoy sandwich and he prefers it with broiled shrimp. The bread is fantastic and is baked on premises daily. We’ve enjoyed some wonderful “Specials” too like the Grouper Dinner, the Fish or Shrimp Tacos, and the Crab Stuffed Flounder w/Shrimp. All of it deliciously prepared.
With football season here Kaz has created some Game Day Specials to enjoy while watching your favorite teams play on one of nine big televisions. And the staff is absolutely delightful – eager to please and well trained. The restaurant also has a lovely outdoor patio and at this time of year it’s a most pleasant spot to relax and enjoy a cold beer and an appetizer or two with friends. My favorite appetizer is the Coconut Shrimp - big juicy shrimp with a crispy crust and a spicy/sweet dipping sauce - I can't resist.
If you’re looking for excitement, try stopping in on the first Thursday of the month when Kaz’s surrounding parking lot is home to the Roamin’ Oldies Car Club. There’s music and very cool cars on display and of course you can end the evening with a meal at Kaz’s Seafood Dive. I urge you to put this restaurant on your 'rotation' and hey, maybe we'll see you there soon!
Kaz’s Seafood Dive, 6190 US 41N, Apollo Beach, FL 33572 T: 813-331-3915
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Sunday, October 18, 2015

Bonefish Grill, Brandon

It must be a special occasion because here I am sitting at Bonefish Grill enjoying a scrumptious meal. I’ve lived in the Tampa Bay area for eleven years during which time hubby and I have visited a myriad of restaurants. My dear husband is a bit of a food snob probably because he’s such a good cook…no, I’ll use the word chef. What’s the difference? I’m a cook. I can follow a recipe and put together a balanced meal and all the parts will be done at the same time; efficient but not very exciting. My husband is a Chef – he approaches mealtime with a lot of thought, creativity and preparation. I can never understand why when I’m just barely finishing my morning coffee he is asking me “what do you want for dinner tonight?” I DON’T CARE. But he does and really I am grateful. There have been nights when we’ve enjoyed a new dish at a restaurant and he will sit back and ruminate over how this dish is composed. Usually within a week and to my utter amazement he’ll surprise me with a faithful recreation of the dish.
So is it a special occasion? Yes indeed. Our neighbors are treating us as a thank you for watching their house while they flew north for the summer. Every year they ask us the same question - where would you like to go? And we ALWAYS say Bonefish Grill. We started with Bang Bang Shrimp and Calamari. Our waitress Wendy was delightful and regaled us with stories about her New England/Italian roots. You know that thin line that separates how much banter you want with your waiter before it becomes annoying? That did not happen – she was awesome.
I had the grilled salmon with lemon butter sauce and a side of jasmine rice and spinach – delicious. Hubby had the Sea Scallops and Shrimp in a Pan Asian sauce. And our Bostonians both selected the Rainbow Trout and declared it amazing. And these guys know their seafood.
Dessert was decadent but hey, as I said it was a special occasion. Hubby and I shared the cinnamon/sugar donuts with caramel and chocolate infusions. Our friends shared the flourless chocolate brownie with ice cream, raspberry sauce and macadamia nuts. Of course we washed it all down with a couple of glasses of vino and a cappuccino or espresso and by the end of the night you had to roll me out of there. What diet?! I’ve been to the gym every day since, trying to do penance.
We were pleased to meet the restaurant’s Guest Service Associate Robert Hayman who checked in at our table to make sure we were happy. He shared with us the exciting news that Bonefish is making some big changes. They’ve already put in new flooring, but future plans include removing the wall between the dining room and the bar, and bumping out an exterior wall to create some outdoor seating. I have a lot of respect for restaurants that don't simply rest on their laurels and keep the status quo. I’m all for evolving and following the trends as long as the food and service don’t suffer for it. I trust Bonefish will get this right as they really seem to care. Robert gave me a short tour of their newly installed kitchen and managing partner Chris Gaskin graciously showed me their new state of the art POS system that tracks your food from start to finish with great efficiency.
Whether it’s a special occasion or not, treat yourself to a dinner at the always pleasing Bonefish Grill in Brandon.
1015 Providence Rd, Brandon, FL 33511 T: 813-571-5553
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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Ford's Garage, Brandon

For several months I drove past the former site of Bucca de Peppe and noticed signs for a Ford’s Garage coming soon. I figured it was just an auto maintenance place. I was wrong. Ford’s Garage is a restaurant franchise that boasts Prime Burgers & Craft Beers. Who doesn’t love a burger and a beer? I figured we’d try it out sooner or later. Last week our Great Escape group headed over there (it was Mike’s pick and Mike does love him some burgers). The restaurant has been open now for about 2-3 months and while I attributed the early crowds to curiosity, there’s been no waning of attention. The parking lot is always full. Kudos to them.
They get high marks for decor – they’ve pulled out all the stops when it comes to decorative touches that evoke an old time garage (a very clean one). Model T replicas both inside and out. There are cute touches like using blue rags clasped with an O ring napkin holder. The wait staff is outfitted like garage attendants. Very nice black and white prints of old timey cars and people and colorful tin signs like Val Vo Line and such - It all works. And whether you need to or not, go visit the rest room and check out their unique sink formed from an auto tire - adorable. Fords Garage doesn’t take reservations unless you’re a party of 12 or more, so our party of eight used the call ahead system which promises no more than a 45 minute wait. (Imagine if we hadn’t called ahead?!) The place is extremely noisy, not very conducive to conversation. So we were happy when they offered us the patio, but unfortunately they wanted to seat us at a high top table and that didn’t suit some of the group due to back problems. When we refused that seating it resulted in another 20 minute wait and some confusion with the staff. But finally we were seated. It was a beautiful cool evening and the patio was perfect. We enjoyed the quieter atmosphere.
As for the food, it’s a burger place so really that’s what you should order. I will say that hubby and I had been to Fords once for lunch soon after it opened and we very much enjoyed their burger. This time I chose sliders from the menu and I wasn’t so happy with them. Because they’re small they were over cooked. Oh well, lesson learned. Everyone else seemed to enjoy their burgers. Kathy ordered a Bison Burger (that’s an exotic pick) and said it was quite good.
We partook of some beers as well and Cheryl tried one called Oberon that our waitress said would be a good substitute for Blue Moon. It was close and Cheryl did like it. The list of beers they carry, both bottled and draft, is staggering. One wonders how knowledgeable the wait staff can possibly be in assisting diners with selections. Do they have to go to Beer School? Fun!
It was a Saturday night and the place was slammed. Our waitress seemed overwhelmed and frankly could have been much more attentive than she was. So what is our final lesson learned? Go for lunch during the week in a party of no more than four so you can hear each other speak. Have a burger and a beer – that’s what they specialize in after all. And you’ll enjoy it no doubt. Hubby and I met 27 years ago at a dance club in NYC called "Chevy's" that was decorated with '57 Chevy cars. So maybe I have a soft spot for automobile themed restaurants, who knows?
For the true burger lover with a taste for adventure, they offer a 10 pound ginormous burger called “Henry Ford’s Hub Cap” for $125.00. Comes with 5 pounds of fries. This serves up to 15 guests HOWEVER, if you’re a maniac and eat it all yourself within 2 hours it will be free (although you may need to spend that savings on medical bills!) Hey who’s that guy from Man Versus Food? This would be right up his alley. Located at: 11105 Causeway Blvd. Brandon, FL 33511 813-661-FORD (3673)(Don't forget to call ahead!)
Ford's Garage Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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Monday, September 7, 2015

BRIO Tuscan Grille, Int'l Mall, Tampa

The immediate benefit of selecting this restaurant was its location within the charming promenade of the International Mall, a lively spot. The gals in our group conspired to arrive about an hour early so that we could do a quick run through and shop a little. Why not? The hubbies indulged us. When I made the reservation I had requested a round table, always our preference for good conversation in a party of eight. Brio went out of their way to accommodate us – we were treated to their private room in the back of the restaurant, a beautifully decorated room whose greatest feature was a door that served to drown out the noise from the main restaurant. Brio is a beautiful restaurant and the only negative I can say is that it is noisy. But along with the noise comes an energy and excitement that many will enjoy.
Our waiter was charming, efficient, and very helpful. He even laughed at our corny jokes – and we were in rare form. We started out with some appetizers and frankly could have died and gone to heaven right there after feasting on the Spicy Shrimp & Eggplant (Pan seared shrimp, Romano crusted eggplant, black pepper cream sauce). And yes I put that in bold letters on purpose. You HAVE to try this. The waiter said next time we come (and we will) we can order this as an entrée served with some pasta….check! We also ordered the Bruschetta Quattro, a sampling of four house-made Bruschetta – another home run.
Hubby and Mike had the Tuscan Grilled Pork Chops with Mashed Potatoes and Roasted Vegetables (just look at those perfect sear marks on that chop!). Hubby even ate all his vegetables. I had the Pan Seared Halibut served over a Risotto Cake with Julienned Veggies (yum). Everything was cooked to perfection and the servings were more than generous. Of course there were cocktails. Pictured here is Hollie's Raspberry Mojito and my Mango Grigio, a lovely concoction of Mango flavored Rum, Pinot Grigio wine and Ginger Beer. Absolutely delicious and refreshing.
High marks for service and food and presentation and ambiance. My normally picky hubby is sure we'll come back and being the chef that he is has already bought the ingredients he'll need to recreate that Shrimp/Eggplant dish. I have every faith that he'll come very close.
Brio Tuscan Grille Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Monday, July 13, 2015

Escape to Sonesta Maho Resort & Casino, Sint Maarten

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