Life’s a beach, and then you eat…

With the exception of a visit to Panama City Beach last fall, my impressions of beach cuisine through the years haven’t been great. Fried fish, fries, burgers, fries, fried cheese, maybe a taco, more fries… Now I like fries and fried food as much as the next person, but I can’t imagine eating this stuff on a regular basis and still trying to rock a bikini.

I’m just back from a week’s vacation eating and beaching my way through southwest Florida from Fort Myers Beach to St. Pete. Seafood was a given, of course, but I was happy to make a few other interesting (and delicious) discoveries along the way.

rum runner.jpgFirst up – beachy cocktails. I’m not a big rum drinker, but hey, when in Rome… Sweltering July in Florida can’t get much steamier, which makes frozen drinks my beverages of choice. My go-to during Sunshine State vacations is the rum runner, a boozy Hawaiian Punch of sorts with hints of banana and blackberry. Adults-only enjoyment for sure, I can suck down these babies like Kool Aid. And I did, until a brain freeze forced me to slow my roll and pace myself. I enjoyed rum runners at Cabana’s Beach Bar and Grille (the hotel bar at DiamondHead Beach Resort on Fort Myers Beach where I stayed) and at the kitschy little Hoosiers in Paradise sports bar across the street (although I felt sorta out of place since all the other visiting Indy residents were drinking cans of Miller Lite).

pina colada.jpgAlso at Cabana’s, I sampled the frozen pina colada, which I would never order anywhere but Florida. Ok, ok… Truth be told. I DO like pina coladas, but I can do without getting caught in the rain.

Cuban.jpgIn any case, this was the perfect way to wash down a damn fine Cuban sandwich grilled to cracker-crisp perfection around the edges and a pile of sweet potato fries.

sea bass.jpgFor a “splurge” dinner in Fort Myers Beach, I headed to Fresh Catch Bistro, a friendly upscale eatery that specializes in seafood — obviously — and stocks a stellar raw bar. The bartender took good care of me, steering me toward a lovely pinot grigio that went perfectly with my blackened sea bass, citrus rice and asparagus. I seriously could have tipped back the accompanying ramekin of luscious lemon butter and sipped it like a shot. In fact, I might have. So? No one saw me.

Sharkys grouper.jpgOther notable meals during my southern sojourn include a perfectly respectable blackened grouper sandwich (and ANOTHER rum runner) for lunch at Sharky’s on the Pier in Venice. I skipped the fries here in lieu of an unexpectedly good quinoa/edamame salad.

scone.jpgFor breakfast, the adorable antique-chic Upper Crust Café and Bakery in Venice bakes up a slew of incredible scones daily in half a dozen or so different flavors. My white chocolate cherry version (served warm – natch) was delectably light and tender, and the thick Devonshire cream served alongside took it over the top into decadent territory. The ham and cheese quiche we sampled, likewise, was light as air and laced with an intriguing flavor we couldn’t quite put our finger on. Blue cheese, perhaps?

sangria.jpgIn Englewood, my foodie friends in the know steered us toward dinner at Mango Bistro, and it was easy to see why. After a couple margaritas, two baskets of chips and some extremely disappointing guacamole down the street, Mango more than made up for our misstep with a carafe of mango and orange garnished white sangria. Ah, sweet salvation.

lobster dip.jpgThe lobster dip appetizer with pita wedges and pineapple bread — wait… what??? — was a fantastic way to get the meal rolling. We grilled the server about the crusty chewy pineapple/coconut rolls, but all she could tell us was that they were sourced from somewhere in Tampa. I think she may have been holding out on us, preferring to keep us coming back here for our next fix instead of seeking out another outlet. Anyway, imagine scooping the filling out of a New England-style lobster roll, putting it in a bowl and then spreading it on this bread. O.M.G. So. Good.

crepe.jpgAlso good — the spoonful of the lobster bisque I bogarted from my friend Kim’s cup, but I wanted to save some room for my entrée, and I was glad I did. The square black and bleu crepe arrived stuffed with just the right amount of shredded beef, bacon and onion; drizzled with a horseradish cream that woke up my sinuses in just the right way and topped with blue cheese crumbles, sitting pretty alongside a simple salad. Fantastic summery fare, although I only managed to eat half. I took the rest home, fully intending to polish off the leftovers for breakfast the following morning. Sadly, when I woke up at 6:30 a.m., I decided I couldn’t face horseradish before coffee and left it behind for my friends to enjoy at lunchtime. I hope they did.

Say cheese

If you live in central Indiana and you’re all about cheese — and come on, who isn’t? – you’re probably already familiar with Tulip Tree Creamery, owned and operated by local dairy king Fons Smits.

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You can find Fons’ fresh mozzarella, funky Foxglove, herby Nettle, creamy fromage frais, dreamy cultured butter and more at Indy-area farmers markets, on restaurant menus and at select gourmet retail outlets all over town. What you may not know is that Fons and company are generously sharing their knowledge through cheesemaking classes held here in Indy at the Tulip Tree production facility.

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I attended one of these sessions last winter, and was thrilled with the whole experience. Class sizes are kept small — around 12 to 15 — to allow everyone a chance to participate.

Here’s how it all went down. Upon arrival, we were greeted with a festive array of Tulip Tree cheeses and accompaniments like crackers, cherry bomb peppers, baguette slices, dates, nuts and other yummy goodies. Besides TT’s greatest hits, we got the chance to sample the new Tiger Lily tomme offering, an earthy soft cheese with a gorgeous salmon-pink rind. So, so happy to dig in and meet my fellow students while noshing on all the cheese we could eat.

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For me, the whole spread easily stood in for dinner. If you were to order a much smaller cheese platter/plate of this caliber at a local mid-to-upscale restaurant, you’d be shelling out at least $15 or $20 easily.

After filling up, we took our seats to learn about the art and science of cheesemaking. Fons himself greeted us, and then we received a short primer before donning our aprons and hairnets to give it a shot ourselves.

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Cheesemaking is not easy. There’s so much nuance and mad science in the whole process — making sure you achieve the right temperatures, stirring fast or slow enough, monitoring the curds, and a whole bunch of other technical steps along the way.

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Thank goodness our two small groups had excellent coaching, and working as teams, we were able to turn out a tasty queso blanco and stretchy balls of fresh mozzarella. And, everyone got generous samples of both to take home – bonus!!! More than I could eat within a few days, I had to give some away to the neighbors.

A few notes to keep in mind. Classes are BYOB; I brought along a nice Malbec and found my fellow students happily willing to share pours from their bottles as well. The price to attend is $50. At first blush, this may sound a little steep, but when you factor in the amount and quality of cheese you receive and the awesome hands-on experience, it’s well worth the price tag. Also, classes fill up quickly. If you want to attend one, check the web site and sign up as early as you can.

All in all, a super fun — and tasty — way to spend a few hours. I couldn’t help but think this would make a great teambuilding activity, or even an interesting, educational thing to do with kids. I’m excited to see a parent-and-child mozzarella making class on the schedule roster for later in August. My kiddo would LOVE this.

To learn more, tuliptreecreamery.com.

TCB at PCB

Summer weather’s making me yearn for the beach… particularly, my visit to Panama City Beach, Fla. last October. I mean, hello… look at this view… I’m surprised we ever came home.

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The kiddo and I drove down during his fall break for the annual Pirates of the High Seas Festival, and had a blast. Gorgeous accommodations, perfect weather and, of course, tons of tasty fresh Gulf Coast seafood.

Here’s a sampling of what we ate:

Finn fish taco

First stop after rolling into town was Finns Island Style Grub, former food truck-turned-stationary stop on Thomas Drive next to a surf shop (there’s a second location in town as well according to the web site). This was the perfect intro to PCB cuisine — fresh, casual, tasty… the kind of food you can enjoy with your kids at a picnic table on your way to or from the beach. We enjoy red snapper fish tacos on special that day, and my little guy pronounced them yummy. Kid-tested and soundly approved.

With a gorgeous backdrop of white sand, jade green water and spectacular sunsets, beachfront dinners are all but required here, and there are plenty of eateries ready and willing to accommodate. Menus focus on local seafood, of course, as well as standard beach fare like burgers, fries, pizza, basic salads and the like.

Barefoot rum runner

I figured Barefoot Hideaway Grill would be a good spot to order up my favorite Florida cocktail — a rum runner, and I was right. Think fruity, boozy Hawaiian Punch,strictly for grownups. A great accompaniment to the blackened Mahi Mahi I had for dinner. And bring your camera; the giant ceramic feet at the entrance and the oversized Adironack chair on the beach present some fun photo ops.

Andy's french toast

For breakfast, you can’t go wrong with the signature French toast at Andy’s Flour Power Café and Bakery. I also loved the pistachio muffin, (which kids will probably think is cool simply because it’s green).

Schooners crab cake

And speaking of kids, the nightly sunset cannon blast at Schooners Last Local Beach Club is a must-do. Kicking myself for not getting a photo, but my son sucked down the garlic butter-drenched crab claws as quickly as he could get them into his mouth. (A major foodie mom win!) In an ironic twist, he then refused to even taste my crabcakes with tropical fruit salsa, even after I presented them as “crabby patties.” (What can I say, we’re Spongebob fans in my house…)

I was also sadly remiss in not getting a pic of Fatty’s Sandwich Shop, a divey rock-and-roll themed strip mall stop that serves up menus printed on old vinyl albums (sweet!) and a damn good muffuletta. P.S. they deliver. Good news if you’re staying at a hotel or condo in the immediate vicinity.

pirate pretzel

On our last night in town, we were walking toward Hook’d Pier Bar from the Pirate Festival activities at Pier Park for a final seafood supper when my kiddo spied the giant soft pretzels at the Hofbrau Beer Garden. There’s no passing that up. After all, man cannot live by fish alone. Between sharing one and a schnitzel bigger than my head (washed down with a nice big wheat beer for mom), we were happy stuffed. Arrrrrgh, matey.

Can’t wait to get back again.

 

 

 

 

Treat yo self

My son and I are nursing a shared seasonal addiction to Nicey Treat. If you’re not familiar, first of all, shame on you. Secondly, TREAT YO SELF.

For the uninitiated, Nicey Treat = gourmet popsicles made from mostly organic, locally sourced fruit and dairy ingredients. Although they are a little pricey at $3 a pop, I feel they’re healthier than ice cream and therefore worth it.

The flavor roster is always changing, so I’ve made it my summer mission to always try something new on every visit, i.e. never the same order twice. I admit, while I do groove on some flavors more than others, I’ve never been disappointed.

Here’s what we’ve sampled so far this summer:

My son’s go-to is always pink lemonade. On this visit, I tried the mojito… fresh, minty, tart and sweet with lime. We snagged a seat on the popsicle stick bench just outside the store and licked as quickly as we could to stave off drippage. Ideal summer refreshment.

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After a sweaty work out at the Y, I stopped by on my way home for a raspberry buttermilk pop. I figured I’d earned it. Fruity, creamy and delish.

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I spent a recent Saturday holed up working and at the end of the day, decided to break and reward myself with a cookie butter pop dipped in milk chocolate. Sort of like a frozen chocolate chip cookie dough creation. I took a pause to enjoy it behind the building while watching the water in the canal flow by and listening to a cover band tackle “Let My Love Open the Door” wafting up from Flatwater a block away. Total zen moment.

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After slurping down soft pretzels and lemon shake-ups at the Broad Ripple Farmers Market last Saturday, the kiddo and his buddy hit me up for Nicey Treats from the company’s mobile truck. How could I say no to these faces?!!? There were no pink lemonades in stock that day, so the son went with a lime pop instead. His friend got the Not-So-Hot-Chocolate. Both seemed happily satisfied with their selections.M and Nate.jpg

Pro tip: Don’t forget to hold onto your sticks… save 10 and you can redeem them for a free pop of your choice. Nice.

Amy’s Food Flights is now Breakfast, Lynch & Dinner!

I’m back, with a new name!!! Let’s get this party re-started….

Made my weekly pilgrimage to the Broad Ripple Farmers Market yesterday, and here’s what we ate… a soft pretzel with cheese for dipping washed down with a lemon shake-up has become the kiddo’s standard summer Saturday morning breakfast.

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Yesterday, we had a buddy along for the ride. After their breakfast of champions, I was able to shop long enough to purchase a few gorgeous heirloom tomatoes and a slab of Tulip Tree Creamery fresh mozzarella to fix myself a Caprese salad at home. Just look at these beauties… IMG_2194.jpgCan’t say enough good things about the Broad Ripple Farmers Market. Always friendly vendors, great products, tons of cute dogs, and we usually run into people we know. See you there next week!!!

A repast with a past

Last week, I got to spend a night at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill during my jaunt to Lexington. (Actually, Shaker Village is located in Harrodsburg, about 30 minutes south of Lexington, if you want to get technical about it. But why split hairs.)

Trustees Office

Shaker Village Trustee’s Office inn and restaurant

For those unfamiliar, Shaker Village is the largest restored Shaker community in the country, dating to 1805 and active for more than a century back in its heyday. Those Shakers were some busy peeps, noted for their innovative farming methods, communal living practices and religious fervor. Touring through this collection of refurbished buildings is really interesting, and costumed interpreters are on hand for craft demonstrations, Q&A sessions and general color. Think Conner Prairie, but bigger. And with hiking/biking nature trails running throughout the beautiful rolling countryside, production gardens, overnight accommodations and a well-reputed restaurant. The grounds are crisscrossed with rustic stacked stone walls built by Scottish/Irish immigrants.

Although kitted out with period furnishings and décor, my room was surprisingly up-to-date with a nice bathroom, Wi-Fi and a flatscreen TV. As part of my overnight I enjoyed a very pleasant dinner at the Trustee’s Office Dining Room with the Shaker Village communications manager.

The vibe here is definitely rustic, as you’d expect, yet the huge hurricane candles on each table created a warm, romantic glow. For me, this was a friendly business dinner, but I could see how folks of a certain age might come here for a special occasion meal or a date night.

Shaker Inn dining room

In keeping with the theme and setting, the menu features home-cooked “seed to table” fare, and many offerings are made using ingredients straight out of the gorgeous gardens you can see from the dining room windows. Most of the dishes feature traditional Shaker recipes, such as the tomato celery soup that’s always available. Among the half dozen or so dinner entrees ($15.95 to $22.95), you’ll find classic skillet-fried chicken, country ham steak, pot roast, fried catfish, and a quiche-like vegetable tart. Sauteed Gulf shrimp seemed the most modern option, but even it’s served on toasted croutons made with old-school salt-rising bread.

relish

relish tray

All dinners are served with charming retro touches like a relish plate to get things underway; a basket filled with warm rolls and cornbread sticks; and bowls of roasted potatoes, glazed carrots and corn pudding served family-style. All good stuff, just like grandma used to make. It’s a lot of food to take in. You may want to consider skipping lunch.

ham steak

country ham steak with red eye gravy

For my main, I went with the ham steak with red eye gravy. I know country ham is inherently salty by nature, but with the gravy, this was almost a little too much so. Still, the meat was tender and tasty, and the corn pudding on the side was rich and luscious.

fried chicken

skillet-fried chicken

My dining companion ordered the fried chicken, a ginormous three-piece serving, and after a valiant effort, ended up taking half of it home.

desserts

dessert selections

Don’t even think you’re getting out of here without dessert. Our server brought over a tray laden with four options to tempt us — chocolate pudding, pumpkin spice cake and two kinds of pie. I know, I know… you think you’re too full and don’t have room. Get over it.

lemon pie

Shaker lemon pie

I got the Shaker lemon pie, and it was unlike any other lemon pie I’ve ever had. Lest you think this is going to be some of sort of curdy, mile-high meringue, nope. It’s a double-crust pie with a thick fruit filling made from whole lemons, peel and all. It’s not sour, but it’s not overly sweet. The server had warned me that not everyone likes it. I did. Nothing fancy, but different and unusual. My friend ordered the pumpkin spice cake, just to taste. It was good, too, a sheet cake-style slice with a light whippy topping. Like something you’d get at a church dinner or bake sale, and I mean that in the best possible way.

To drink, there’s a small but nicely vetted selection of wine, beer and… bourbon. Of course. I washed things down with an expertly made Buffalo Trace Manhattan.

Shaker Village isn’t trendy or fancy by any stretch of the imagination, but if you’re looking for an interesting dining experience with historic flair and delicious, accessible comfort food (lots of it), it’s worth putting this place on your radar for a road trip.

The Trustee’s Office Dining Room serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. For more information, visit www.shakervillageky.org.

A dinner of Titanic proportions

Another adventure in my I-can’t-believe-this-is-really-what-I-get-to-do-for-a-living life… last week, I traveled south to Lexington, Kentucky and my beloved Bourbon Country. A professional contact and friend invited me down for a preview of the new Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition opening this weekend at the Lexington Center Museum.

Titanic sign

This exhibit came through Indianapolis several years ago for a stint at the Indiana State Museum, but I somehow managed to miss it, so I was glad for this second-chance opportunity. So worthwhile. We’ve all seen the movie and heard the tragic tale, but looking first-hand at dishes, still-partially-filled bottles of champagne, postcards and personal effects collected from the actual shipwreck two and a half miles down in the north Atlantic is both chilling and amazing. Kids will love the chance to touch an iceberg, a self-regenerating block of ice that will stand throughout the exhibition’s run.

Displays put a face on the Titanic story with lots of details about the folks who sailed on the ship that fateful night in April 1912. Visitors are given a “boarding pass” when they enter, detailing the name and background of one of the actual passengers; at the end, you consult a wall that contains the names of everyone who survived or perished to find out if you made it. Sadly, I was the only one of our group who didn’t.

place setting

Following our sneak preview, we enjoyed an elaborate Titanic-themed dinner in the attached Hyatt Regency. This was so cool — the chef and his staff recreated a four-course meal of period recipes that might have been served aboard the Titanic. We kicked off the repast with era-appropriate cocktails like Sidecars and Planter’s Punch, garnished with ice cubes shaped like the ship itself. Appetizers included mini beef Wellingtons and crab-stuffed deviled eggs that our small group couldn’t stop raving about.

soup

potage of winter vegetables

After we took our seats, the chef came out to give us a quick primer on the menu as servers came around pouring wine and offering herb biscuits. First up, a delicious potage/soup made of winter vegetables like carrot and parsnip and garnished with two toasted bread croutons. Maybe not as visually appealing as what was still to come, but delicious with a spicy kick I wasn’t expecting. This is just the kind of thing I’d love to eat a big bowl of on a rainy autumn night with some cheese, some nice bread and red wine.

Waldorf

Waldorf salad

The salad course was a duo of traditional Waldorf salad and a few leaves of Bibb lettuce with candied pecans. Pretty as a picture, and very tasty. I remember my mom making a basic Waldorf salad on occasion way back when with chopped apples, celery and walnuts mixed with Miracle Whip. Chef’s dish elevated the recipe, of course. His Waldorf was more like a creamy apple slaw with halved grapes. So good, especially when I sprinkled the candied nuts over the top.

steak

Filet Mignon Lili

For the main event, we got to choose from three entrees — Ballotine of chicken supreme, filet mignon Lili, and poached salmon mousseline. Everyone at our table ordered the filet, except for one brave gal who broke the mold and got the chicken.

chicken

Ballotine of chicken supreme

The tender, flavorful filet was cooked to order and served with a rich demi-glace, thinly sliced potatoes, a few spears of asparagus, and a tiny marrow bone filled with carrot hash. The woman who ordered the chicken sat next to me; her dish consisted of a chicken breast wrapped around a forcemeat filling and then poached, I believe? It looked good and she liked it.

dessert

“The Iceberg”

Dessert… ah, dessert. The menu described it simply as “the Iceberg,” and the chef was mysterious avoiding further description, so we were all immediately charmed when the plates arrived. We each got a sugar cookie decorated to resemble the Titanic herself, plated beside a scoop of bourbon ice cream that had been covered in toasted meringue to look like an iceberg. Both items sat in a small pool of coconut-ish blue curacao in lieu of the ocean. A little disturbing if you think about it too much, I suppose, but sooooo creative. And even though I was completely stuffed by that point, I could not stop eating that bourbon ice cream.

Titanic: the Artifact Exhibition is on now and running through Jan. 26, 2014 at the Lexington Center Museum right next to Rupp Arena. For more information, visit www.lexingtoncenter.com.

I believe the Hyatt Regency (where I stayed) might be offering package deals in conjunction with the exhibit. The hotel is first-rate, located in the heart of lovely downtown Lexington and connects directly to the Center. If you’re looking for a great weekend away, definitely check it out — www.lexington.hyatt.com.

Shades of blue

Indy’s twice-yearly Devour Downtown promotion always provides a great reason to test drive new local eateries, or pay overdue visits to old favorites at reduced prices. For two weeks or so, you can score $30 prix-fixe menus at a couple dozen of the best restaurants in town.

Last night, I grabbed some gal pals and we ventured down from the north side to check out Cerulean. This place has been on my hit list for some time now, and I was eager to get a peek at the Alexander Hotel that houses it.

The hotel itself is sleek and gorgeous. The lobby feels very European (Scandinavian, perhaps?) with modern furniture and lots of clean lines. If we’d had more time, I would have loved to wander for an hour or two and take in all the art, which starts in the parking garage and carries through the common spaces, conference rooms and guest rooms. Pretty neat stuff. If you go, make sure to take a gander at the flying birds installation created from vinyl record cut-outs. And the colorful glass lantern lights that hang throughout the Plat 99 bar on the 2nd level are nothing short of magical.

Plat 99

Plat 99 on the second level, Alexander Hotel

Our first hiccup was finding the restaurant. The entrance is on the first floor of the hotel. We’d parked on the second floor of the garage, then taken the pedestrian bridge over. We came across Plat 99 first and wondered at first glance if that was it? Nope. It’s not. The guy manning the desk in the hotel lobby (also on the second floor) must have thought we were asking how to get to the restroom, not restaurant, and directed us to the facilities in a quiet corner. Uh uh. Don’t think so. Third time’s the charm, right? We finally managed to take the elevator down a floor and find the rather unassuming Cerulean door in the corner.

Cerulean entrance

Once inside, there’s no mistaking that you’ve definitely arrived at one of the trendiest eateries in town. In keeping with the hotel’s artsy vibe, Cerulean boasts retro-mod light fixtures, tiny bowls of succulent plants on the tables instead of flowers, dark wood and creamy leather seating. The real conversation piece is… what to call this thing?… an igloo structure near the entrance composed of pieces of lumber. If you can imagine, it’s like a giant beaver dam. And if such a thing can be considered trendy, this is. You can even sit at one of a handful of tables inside it. Strange. Yet intriguing. The girls and I occupied a more standard banquette out of the main fray.

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the view from my seat

The wine list here is pretty extensive (in addition to cocktails and craft beer) and required a little time to consider. In the end, I took our server’s suggestion for a sparkling rose, served in a pretty stemless flute. My friends seemed satisfied with their chardonnay and zin.

Foodwise, I’d perused the Devour Downtown menu online and figured that’s what I’d order from, but the regular menu was tempting as well. It’s small enough to be manageable, conveniently divvied into a page each of small, medium and large plates. I’ve heard good things about Cerulean’s bento box-style lunches (note to self, must return to try.) I believe the menu changes seasonally, if not more often, and chef Caleb France gives a nice shout out to all his local food producers and suppliers on the last page of the menu. Although the buffalo chicken skins, chilled corn soup and duck breast with lemon fettuccini all sounded mighty good, I stuck to my original plan and went with the Devour menu. Two of my friends had the same idea, but one ventured out on her own to try the striped bass instead.

peach soup

chilled peach soup

The first course on the Devour menu offered a choice of soup or salad. The chilled peach soup was much more savory than I’d expected, topped with a little garnish of diced fruit, several thin slices of cucumber and a drizzle of cream. I loved this. A refreshing starter for a hot summer night, and really delicious.

salad

Bibb salad

The salad looked good, too, a fresh mound of Bibb lettuce topped with black-eyed peas, tomato and a light buttermilk dressing.

veggie risotto

summer veggies with risotto

The three of us who ordered the Devour offerings all got the same entrée — a flavorful mélange of summer veggies over risotto with a smear each of dandelion and blueberry purees. This, too, was an excellent summer dish. The veggies were nicely cooked, and the risotto was creamy without being heavy. On paper, it didn’t sound like blueberries should work with this, but they did, adding just a touch of sweetness. (The other second course option was a chicken thigh over the same risotto and purees).

sea bass

striped bass

My renegade friend loved her fish dish, especially the small tangle of lemon verbena pesto-dressed linguine that came with it.

Last up, the Devour desserts were a choice of chocolate bourbon cream or cherry clafoutis. Tough call. You all know how I feel about bourbon, but I was very curious about the whipped cherry beer on the clafoutis as well. Bourbon won out in the end.

chocolate

chocolate bourbon cream

This plate had a lot going on — a luscious quenelle of chocolate bourbon mousse/pudding/ice cream sitting atop a small spoonful of yuzu-poached pears and spiked with a tiny wafer cookie containing, of all things, Pop Rocks. (!) Three tiny dollops of Brie studded with chocolate brioche croutons surrounded the cream (and were basically unnecessary, I thought). The cream was rich and yummy, but I couldn’t really taste any bourbon in it. Overall, good, but won’t go down as one of the best desserts I’ve ever eaten.

cherry

cherry clafoutis

My friend who ordered the clafoutis generously let me have a little taste. The cherry cake was beautiful to look at and very moist. The whipped cherry beer foam was interesting, but I’m still trying to decide if I liked it.

Serving sizes throughout the meal were pretty much spot-on. We all cleaned our plates and left feeling full, but not stuffed. Without the Devour deal, prices can get up there when you tack on a drink or two.

We all agreed that we liked the food, but our service left something to be desired. Our waiter was enthusiastic, fun and friendly, but we waited an awfully long time to place our orders, and he dropped the ball when one of my gals ordered a cup of coffee to go with her dessert. Plus, my bill had a major discrepancy — it included an extra $35 charge for an entire bottle of wine I never had. Our guy was apologetic, of course, and fixed the error, but I think we all felt that a little more focused attention would have made a big difference in our overall experience. On the upside, our water glasses never ran low.

Cerulean was cool, maybe a little too trendy for my tastes, but I’m glad I finally got here. Will come back again to sample one of those bento-box lunches, or to have a drink at Plat 99.

For more info: Cerulean.

Cerulean Restaurant on Urbanspoon

California dreaming

Bakersfield moseyed into the trendy Mass Ave dining scene several months ago, setting up shop in the space formerly known as Bazbeaux. To be honest, I totally forgot this used to be Bazbeaux at all until I just typed that. That’s how different it looks now.

I went there for a Saturday night dinner-and-drinks girls’ night out, and it proved to be a good choice. The shine definitely isn’t off the Bakersfield penny – the place was packed with a crowd that overflowed onto the sidewalk out front. Three of my friends were already there when I arrived, holding down a set of bar stools in prime corner real estate. The décor is industrial-chic with brick walls, nifty caged hanging light fixtures and clever little nods to the rockabilly-ish “Bakersfield sound” musical era. Case in point, the women’s restroom is indicated by a picture of Loretta Lynn on the door. All in all, a young hipster’s see-and-be-seen sorta digs.

Bkfld interior

Bakersfield’s hopping Saturday night scene

So Bakersfield is part of a franchise with additional locations in Cincinnati, Columbus and elsewhere. The claim to fame is Mexican street tacos and an eye-crossing list of tequilas, although the joint carries a perfectly respectable selection of bourbons and whiskeys as well. The girls were already well into a pitcher of margaritas by the time I got there, so I grabbed a glass and joined in before I’d gotten a good look at the drinks menu. Otherwise I might have sipped and sampled a bourbon or two, or ordered up a Chester Ave that sounds suspiciously like a Sazerac. Three of the signature craft cocktails feature Buffalo Trace bourbon. These are my kind of people. I don’t often drink margaritas, but when I do, this is just the way I like ‘em. Fresh, sweet and tart with lots of salt on the glass.

marg and guac

an extra salty margarita with chips and guacamole

The food menu’s not huge, but as our server said, they’d rather do a few things and do them well rather than offer a ton of stuff and do a half-assed job. Ok, maybe the half-assed part wasn’t his exact wording, but that’s what I imagined he said. Here’s what you’ve got to choose from – chips and salsa, chips and guacamole, chips and queso (get the idea??), a couple of salads, a couple of tortas and eight soft taco variations.

The guacamole and tray of chips were enough for all four of us to share, and these were some darn good chips. Freshly made from white corn (and even gluten-free, which we discovered after the dietary-challenged member of our group made an inquiry). The guacamole was top-shelf, too, a very basic recipe with big chunks of fresh avocado, a little squeeze of citrus and a few pieces of radish (!), an unusual addition, but a good one. Yummy stuff. We also gave the red and green squeeze bottles of salsa a good workout; I preferred the green.

tacos beans

tacos and a side of black beans

I think we managed to sample six different tacos. They’re small enough to order two or three per person (although we stuck to a dainty two each). The most fun tacos to say also seemed to be the tastiest — the cochinita pibil with kicky achiote braised pork, pickled onion and cilantro; and the huitlacoche, a vegetarian option with corn truffles, roasted poblano and cotija cheese. A little crema on top, a squirt of green salsa, and we were cooking on gas, baby.

IMG_0313

fish taco on the left, short rib taco on the right

My chicken mole taco was also good, but not quite as good as the cochinita pibil. I hadn’t realized I’d ordered two braised meat tacos until they arrived. The mahi fish taco and the rajas (another veggie option) that my friends got both looked good, but I didn’t get the skinny on whether they liked ’em or not. Everything we ordered disappeared in short order, so I’m assuming they did. Best of all, each taco only costs $3 or $4, making Bakersfield surprisingly affordable for lunch or dinner. Even when you tack on some chips for a few more bucks and a drink or two, you can still get in and out of here for $15 to $20. A very refreshing surprise for a downtown night out.

After hanging out here for about two hours total, the bill was paid, we rolled out and girls’ night out raged on. I’d come back to Bakersfield again in a second. The food was great (and cheap!), and I’d love to sniff around that bourbon list a little more…

For more info:
www.bakersfieldmassave.com.
Bakersfield Mass Ave. on Urbanspoon

24 hours of eating and drinking in N’Awlins

A fortuitous journey is just seeing me home from 24 hours in the Big Easy (well, more like 22 hours to be exact, but who’s counting).

NO

How do I even begin to describe New Orleans? She’s a grand old dame of a city, showy and decadent and seductive. Historic and storied. Mysterious. Dangerous. Excessive in everything from the lacy ironwork that adorns the endless balconies to the rivers of booze that flow through the French Quarter to the ungodly sticky weather. The thick, honeyed Acadian patois of the local residents is as mellifluous and musical as the jazz and blues and zydeco that waft from the street corners. There’s a stink to the streets, distinctive and not entirely unpleasant. A survivor, like the mighty river that flows along, as it always has and always will. There’s nowhere else like it.

I’d been to NoLa twice before, and had a few ideas about how best to spend this short amount of time in the city. My traveling companion had never been here, so a quick tour of the main highlights was in order. We pulled into town on the train around 3 p.m. and were out and exploring by 4.

hurricane

Pat O’Brien’s hurricane – a New Orleans tradition

Our first priority was a stroll down Bourbon Street, stopping in the fern-filled courtyard at Pat O’Brien’s for a signature cocktail. That means one thing. A hurricane. This is where the near-lethal rum concoction originated (4 oz. of rum in each serving – ouch!), cleverly disguised to taste like punch. So you don’t realize exactly how quickly you’re getting drunk. A couple of these babies will take you from “Hm, this tastes good.” to “Hello. I’m wasted.” before you even get around to nibbling the maraschino cherry. I’m proud to say, my friend did an admirable job of drinking hers down without any ill effects.

sazerac

my Sazerac

I ordered a Sazerac, a retro cocktail made with rye, bitters, licorice-y anise-flavored liqueur and a lemon twist. Icy cold and heavenly on a hot day.

After more wandering and explorations that included a quick pop into Marie Laveau’s Voodoo Shop and photo ops of the majestic St. Louis Cathedral, Jackson Square and the riverfront, we started searching for food. For me, New Orleans means Cajun food and seafood, often simultaneously. The sheer number of restaurants in this town makes deciding where to eat a downright dizzying task. In spite of soliciting a dozen or so suggestions before we’d arrived (which we forgot and left back in the hotel room), we ended up just picking a place in the French Quarter near the pub where our ghost tour was due to kick off shortly after. Pere Antoine’s. Not bad. Not great. I figure this is a typical example of the Cajun Creole fare most places in the city serve, some better than others.

BBQ shrimp

barbecued shrimp at Pere Antoine’s

I ordered barbecued shrimp, and if I’d known ahead of time how much work they were going to be, I’d have gotten something else. I knew I’d have to peel them myself, but naively, I figured they’d already have the heads removed. Nope. This was a whole plateful of huge full-bodied prawns atop a scoop of white rice with a couple pieces of greasy garlic bread to sop up the broth. The shrimp were overcooked and although the broth was spicy, it didn’t have the depth of flavor I’d hoped for. Sticky up to my elbows with shrimp juice running down my chin, I gave up wrestling with the whole thing halfway through and called it quits.

jambalaya

Pere Antoine’s jambalaya

Janet got the jambalaya, the better of our two entrees. My fork kept sneaking into her dish to snag bites of her sweet small shrimp and kicky tomato sauce.

Another round of drinks in the hotel bar after our ghost tour entailed a hurricane for me (much more fruity and sweet with pineapple juice flavor than Pat O’Brien’s version), and a strawberry margarita for Janet. It had been a long day and night, and these nightcaps ensured we’d sleep well.

Breakfast was a no-brainer. When in New Orleans, you HAVE to come to Café du Monde for coffee and beignets. If not for breakfast, then any old time; the place stays open 24-7. Beignets are insanely simple but addictively delicious squares of puffy fried dough buried under an avalanche of powdered sugar. You can get them elsewhere in town, but really, why would you?

cafe du monde

beignets and a cafe au lait

Part of New Orleans’ original French Market, Cafe du Monde has been continuously operating since the 1860s. They serve coffee (black or au lait) and beignets. That’s it. And they do an excellent job. They churn plates out like an assembly line – I actually got a peek at the deep-fry station when I went to the restroom, and they are just popping these things out of the grease non-stop so that every order is served fresh and still-warm. When you add in the historical factor, quick service and the fact that an order of three plus coffee will only set you back about $5… well, you’ve just got to come here. That’s all there is to it.

staircase

Palace Cafe staircase

We lunched today at the Palace Café, a New Orleans dining institution from what I understand. Situated in a former department store in the warehouse district and part of the Brennan’s fine-dining empire, this place cuts a dashing figure with a gorgeous staircase that winds through the main-floor dining room up to more seating on the second level. This seems to be a popular destination for business lunches and jazz brunches, and I can see why. The food was outstanding. Classic old-style New Orleans dishes like shrimp remoulade, gumbo and pan-roasted oysters made it hard to decide what to order.

oyster salad

the Werlein salad with fried oysters at Palace Cafe

Janet got the Werlein salad, a house specialty that looks and sounds for all the world like a Caesar, with big chunky croutons and fried oysters scattered around the edges. She enjoyed it, and the oyster I tasted was piping hot and delish.

crawfish

Caprese salad with popcorn crawfish tails

I went with a special appetizer composed of popcorn-fried crawfish tails atop an heirloom tomato Caprese salad. Yum. The crawfish tails weren’t at all greasy or overpowered by spice and breading, just sweet little bites of meat. If you didn’t know it was crawfish, you might think it was tiny tender shrimp. The tomatoes and mozzarella underneath were fresh and flavorful. There was so much crawfish, I’m sad to say I couldn’t even finish it all.

crab

a “side” of crab

Palace Café also lets diners order “sides of seafood.” I LOVE this idea. Let’s say you really want to order a shrimp entrée, but the jumbo lump crabmeat sounds tempting, too. The seafood sides are basically a small bonus dish of whatever seafood you want to taste without having to order another full entrée of it. Like seafood a la carte. Janet and I split a side of sautéed jumbo lump crabmeat, and it was fabulous.

And with that, my whirlwind trip to New Orleans came to an end and now I’m heading back home. I certainly won’t miss the 95-degree/75-percent-humidity weather, and I could never imagine myself living here (and wouldn’t even dream of bringing my son). But I’m sure at some point, that sweet temptress of a city will once again start singing her siren song, and I’ll find her impossible to resist. Until then, au revoir, ma chere.