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Fair Food Without the Guilt

How about some nice fair food without leaving Westchase?

Great beer specials, too?

Head on over to the Great Spiedini, the latest resident of the northwest corner of the Westchase Town Center. Born a Southern girl, I was not aware of this southern New York State specialty. One of the great parts of this gig is that I get to learn about regional and global cuisines.

A spiedie consists of cubes of chicken, pork, lamb, veal, venison or beef. The meat cubes are marinated overnight or longer in a special marinade, then grilled on spits over a charcoal pit. High protein, low fat? I’m in! No frozen Tyson Grilled & Ready chicken strips here!

Please, parents, your children deserve better.

One night, for an extended family dinner with Grandpa, we ambled over to check it out. We ordered a Classic Chicken Spiedie, which highlighted the savory marinade. While many people would like the simple meat and bread combination, I personally liked the Greek, Marsala, Parmesan and Mexican options, featuring different cheeses and sauces. The Open Face NY Strip Steak with hot cherry peppers, sautéed onions and mushrooms – served with melted cheese sauce over a slice of toasted Italian bread – was a delicious heart attack. It was Florida State Fair Food elevated to art form.

Coming back down to Earth, the thick ’shroom slice in the Portobello Sandwich was grilled after being marinated in the same sauce. It was an excellent vegetarian option and comes with roasted peppers, alfalfa sprouts and pesto sauce on a ciabatta roll.

The side dishes are all about comfort carbs. Grandma’s Macaroni and Cheese was creamy and cheesy in all the right places. The Salt Potatoes were baby-sized and dressed with butter and herbs. Kind of a conundrum – they were salty on the inside, but in a flavorful way. Meanwhile the Beer Battered Onion Rings with Boom-Boom dipping sauce were crunchy on the outside and sweet on the inside.

If you want to be really good, try the Strawberry Mango Kale Salad. It’s a little incongruous in it’s virtuosity, but the kale, strawberries, mango, sliced almond, avocado and feta cheese were all top-notch fresh. It was also absolutely beautiful in its presentation. The salad was dressed in a sweet-tart mango vinaigrette that was a little overwhelming, so it might be a good choice to order it on the side. An additional light option is ordering your chicken spiedie over a bed of romaine.

The restaurant’s atmosphere is not too exciting, however. While the outside has a pleasant patio, which will become quite lovely as the temperature drops a bit, the inside offers more of a git’r’done approach to eating. It is family friendly and very reasonably priced, however. The Great Spiedini features half-price beer specials every Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m., making it a no-brainer for a weekday meal.

After an exhausting day at work or with the kids, I look forward to walking on over and getting my fill.

The Great Spiedini
http://www.thegreatspiedini.com
9648 W. Linebaugh
Tampa, FL 33626
749-7522
Hours: Mon-Wed, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Thu, 11 a.m.-midnight; Fri-Sat, 11 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sun, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

By Jill Chesney

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Fresh Mediterranean Bites from Your Long Lost Family

“You’ve gotta try this place,” I heard over and over from a wide group of foodie friends and friendly restaurant owners.

It took me a while to buy into the hype. The name was not sexy and the location not super-hip. But as I’ve learned it’s not the groovy, foo-foo food that sustains us in life. It’s mama’s home cooking.

Walking in to Fresh Bites, I felt like I was greeted by my (imaginary) long-lost Mediterranean family. After a stressful week of starting high school, my kids, husband and I were looking for a place to kick back and share comfort food. We found the perfect place, just down the street from Westchase. We had a happy accident of massive amounts of food because we purchased Fresh Mezza for two, plus two dinners. I can’t say the owners didn’t try to warn us, but the Fresh Mezza is more designed for a big group of party snackers.

Fresh Bites is committed to using unprocessed ingredients – they use fresh herbs and natural, organic meats while avoiding canned products. While the menu leans towards vegetables, grains and beans, all their meat comes from Niman Ranch, an organic supplier that never adds hormones or antibiotics.

The Fresh Mezza had a wide variety of vegetarian dishes, which also made cameo appearances in a lot of the meals. The standout side was the Mudardara. Rice with lentils, it had a beautifully nuanced flavor and deeply caramelized onions. The Taboule was made the traditional Lebanese way, with lots of parsley, mint, tomatoes and onions, and a tiny bit of bulgur wheat. The Hummus was ten times smoother than anything you can find at Publix, and had a lot of Tahini flavor. The yogurt cucumber dip was tasty, but a little too thin to be scooped up with the pita triangles. Roasted beets and olives were some simple counterpoints to the dips and complex spices. But wait, there’s more! It also included solid renditions of Baba Ghanouj and Stuffed Grape Leaves.

As if all that weren’t enough, we tried the Kebbeh, which is minced meat with crushed wheat, onion, pine nuts and spices. To my gringo mouth, it tasted like a lighter, flat meatloaf with a lot of savory spices. We also tried the Shawarma – thin-sliced beef marinated in herbs and spices, then roasted and served on a pita. Both of these came with a side salad that had a lovely tart lemon dressing.

Before we rolled out of the restaurant, we all partook of the in-house Baklava, which was appropriately nutty and dense, but not as sticky sweet as found elsewhere. The restaurant uses raw, unbleached sugar and stevia for sweeteners. 

This is definitely more of a family restaurant than a date place. You can order at the counter or they’ll come over if you just plop yourself down at a table. The vibe with the cafeteria tables on one side and cute wine bar on the other was a little schizophrenic, but I imagine the owners are continually trying to warm up the space.

You can feel the love they have poured into Fresh Bites, and the respect they have for their customers, providing healthy delicious food that nourishes the soul.

Fresh Bites
http://www.freshbites.org
11665 Countryway Blvd.
Tampa, FL 33626
336-4936
Hours: Mon-Thu, 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Fri, 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Sat, noon-9:30 p.m.

By Jill Chesney

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Pacific Thai on the Eastern Gulf

When we arrived at Pacific Thai Cuisine, we were the only patrons.

The restaurant, however, did a steady takeout business.

One guy even came in for a bowl of their Panang sauce to take home. I can totally understand the urge to shotgun the mouthwatering, coconut, yellow curry sauce in the privacy of my own home, but I vow only to eat it in public to avoid that shame spiral.

Pacific Thai Cuisine, located in nearby Oldsmar, had the typical attractive yet simple décor associated with Thai restaurants: wood paneled walls and painted pictures. An elephant fountain near the front along with soft music lent a tranquil mood. The restaurant’s service was quiet and attentive and the food was prepared blisteringly fast. Every dish was beautifully presented and garnished with an orchid.

We tried to beat the heat with a Fresh Summer Roll, but it was not a great start. While the rice paper roll was soft, and the interior shrimp, basil and lettuce were fresh, the copious amount of iceberg lettuce made it too bland and only good as a vehicle for the savory peanut sauce.

The Yum section, literally and figuratively, contained a variety of hot and sour salads served over lettuce. They all had a different protein, strong aromatic components and a spicy edge. They’re perfect for a light, no-carb meal with massive flavor. We enjoyed the Nam Sod, well-cooked ground pork mixed with ginger, peanuts, onions, bell peppers and served over lettuce. The fiery dressing poured on top consisted of shallots, fish sauce and lime juice. After ordering it at medium spiciness, I’m glad sliced cucumbers and tomatoes were served on the side to cool down my mouth.

The accompanying side salad was small, sweet, and primarily a palate cleanser from the Yum. After hearing every other person order a version of Panang, my husband and I shared the Two Friends Panang, which included shrimp, chicken, asparagus, broccoli, fresh basil, coconut and crushed peanuts mixed into the sauce. The enthusiastic use of fresh herbs and spices created a balanced dish. The massive platter dwarfed the small bowl of rice that came with it, but the saucier the better!

Panang, by the way, is a type of Thai curry that is generally milder than other Thai curries. The complex interplay of spices traditionally includes dried chili peppers, ginger, lemongrass, coriander root, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, garlic, shrimp paste and salt, and sometimes also shallots and peanuts.

For dessert we munched on Pacific Thai’s Crunchy Banana Coins, which were wrapped in rice paper, deep fried and topped with honey, sesame seeds and homemade coconut ice cream. It was a yummy, sweet ending to a satisfying meal.

Pacific Thai Cuisine really isn’t the place to go for wine and beer, but they offer a nice selection of teas. The restaurant’s prices are slightly higher than comparable Thai restaurants, from $10 for a chicken dish to $19 for a combination seafood dish.

The restaurant is open for dinner every day and open for lunch weekdays.

Pacific Thai Cuisine
4058 Tampa Road, Suite 5
Oldsmar, FL 34677
(813) 855-6633
http://www.pacificthaioldsmar.com

By Jill Chesney

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Where Old School is So Cool

While Pizzaria Gregario’s name sounds like a red-sauce pizza joint with an old guy plopping ingredients out of large cans onto greasy crusts, check that notion at the door.

This little gem offers handcrafted, wood-fired pizzas using all natural, organic ingredients. On my way to a throwback 80’s Go-Go’s concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall, I needed a place that would satisfy a picky childhood friend as well as my Italian husband, Gregory, who takes his pie very seriously. Upon advice from friends, we ended up in a converted, small house in the middle of downtown Safety Harbor. We were also given a Hong Kong Phooey pose-able action figure to mark our table. Talk about throwback!

We started out with the Roasted Beet Salad, with warm golden beets tossed with a light vinaigrette on watercress. Delightful! Pizzaria Gregario also offers a variety of other salads, including Fattoush and Caesar. A definite Mediterranean influence is evident in their other offerings, which include Baba Ghanoush, Hummus, and Tabouleh.

Now on to the main attraction: pizza! First, the crust, which is made from a 140-year-old San Francisco sourdough starter that chef/owner Gregario proudly showed me. It comes out of the oven crisp and slightly charred at the edges. We tried three pizzas off the main menu: the Mushroom, the Sausage and the Lombardy. The Mushroom is a mellow and earthy pie, with roasted mushrooms, Fontina cheese and herb gremolata. The Sausage and banana peppers pie did not appear to have many toppings, but it was an instant hit because the house-made fennel sausage and pickled banana peppers were so flavorful. Finally, the Lombardy pizza with Fontina, garlic, savoy cabbage, house-made bresoala (air-dried salted beef) and pickled onion was light and refreshing.

Gregario, the affable owner, helms the kitchen while his brother and sister handle the orders and service. A niece or two were even thrown in for help. They proved a friendly and chatty bunch. Gregario is passionate about fresh and healthy food. He even talked up a few local restaurants that shared his philosophy about using unprocessed food. The menu is not large, and he has been purposefully reducing and refining it to concentrate on bringing out the best quality.

Only 32 seats exist in the restaurant, plus a few at the bar overlooking the pizza oven, so Pizzaria Gregario fills up quickly. The low-tech ordering system literally slides order tickets across the restaurant into the prep station. Once you order at the register, the food and drinks are brought out to you. Since it’s not really set up as a place to linger, the turnover is pretty quick and the wait isn’t too long, even on peak hours. Pizzaria Gregario is not fancy or slick – you won’t see any linen tablecloths, but it’s clear that a lot of thought was put into this place.

Beer and wine are available at reasonable prices along with Boylan’s soda, instead of mainstream fountain drinks. This time, a squash spice cake with homemade cinnamon ice cream was on the dessert menu. Others in rotation include Tiramisu, Zabaglione and Pot de Crème.

Part of Pizzaria Gregario’s ideology is to respect the craft of scratch cooking by sourcing quality ingredients, honoring them with traditional techniques, and finishing with love. That said, I can’t wait to go back and try their house-made fresh mozzarella and meatballs!

Old school is so cool.

Pizzaria Gregario
http://www.pizzeriagregario.com
400 2nd Street North
Safety Harbor, FL 34695
Tel: 727-386-4107
Hours: Tue-Sat, 5-10 p.m.

By Jill Chesney

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Discovering a Florida Pearl

Are you a native Floridian or Floridian at heart?

If so, Pearl in the Grove will delight you with the finest bounty of flora and fauna our state has to offer. If you are up for a relaxing drive in the country, take the Veterans Expressway north past wild turkeys, sandhill cranes and cow pastures. You’ll arrive at an unpretentious, old house converted into a restaurant featuring white tablecloths and rustic, concrete floors. This isn’t your Mama’s Po-Folks, though. A lively crowd of urbanites fills the restaurant.

Pearl in the Grove’s proprietors are extremely earnest with the farm-to-table concept. They explain where all the food came from, almost apologizing for any items they had to buy from out of state.

OK, I get it. My friend drives a Prius.

Our intrepid dinner mates, Pat and Maria, helped us through our Florida cracker first course. The BLT Pork Rinds were flash-fried with smoky tomato aioli. It was more substantial than anything from a bag, and the crispy/smoky/salty combination was delicious. The fried chicken livers with sausage gravy over rice were tasty, if that’s your bag, but I’m still scarred from eating them in my childhood. The Fried Green Tomato Caprese was more of a crowd pleaser, which included home-made mozzarella and fresh pesto.

For our main course, we ate rabbit, shrimp and catfish off the special menu and steak from the regular menu. They were all modern interpretations of Southern traditions. I have never heard of Yakamein, a classic New Orleans street food, but the rabbit confit was served in a delicious broth over perfectly al dente house pasta. The wild caught Gulf shrimp were served over bacon broth grits and topped with a fried duck egg. The Alabama-farmed Catfish Meuneiere was lightly fried with cornmeal and deliciously covered with a pecan, butter, white wine and shallot sauce. The Strip Steak with scalloped potatoes and sliced okra veggies was more traditional, but received great reviews as well.

Both of our deserts capitalized on blueberries, as they were in season. The buttermilk biscuit topped with blueberry compote, home-made vanilla ice cream and a nutty granola cluster was as down home as Little House on the Prairie. I preferred the warm and dense chocolate mousse, topped with the same ice cream and blueberry compote. But even with the ingredients going double-duty, they were very different and both satisfying.

While not large, Pearl in the Grove’s craft beer list contained a good selection of Cigar City, Saint Somewhere and Abita brews. The wine list was also sharply edited, but contained just about every taste point at reasonable prices, ranging from $24-48 dollars a bottle. Almost everything is available by the glass. The 2011 La Follette Pinot Noir meshed well with many of the smoky and spicy dishes.

As you know from shopping at Publix, it’s not the cheapest to eat locally and organically. Small plates ranged in price from $5-15 and main entrees ranged from $19-40. But, really, this a quality over quantity kind of place. No country bumpkins are sitting in the kitchen here, and I’d stack this restaurant up to anything offered in Tampa Bay.

Pearl in the Grove
http://www.pearlinthegrove.com
31936 St. Joe Road
Dade City, FL 33525
(352)-588-0008
Dinner: Wed-Sun; Brunch, Sun, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

By Jill Chesney

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Seasons 52: Healthy, Tasty and Stylish

Normally I don’t review chain restaurants.

The food isn’t that great, and I’d rather help promote independent owners. But it’s the end of the school year, my kids are wearing me out, and I’m feeling a bit lazy. Enter Seasons 52, which makes it easy to have a healthful, tasty, and stylish night out.

The restaurant’s motto is “seasonally inspired cooking with every item less than 475 calories.” They do a nice job of balancing portion size and cooking methods to accomplish this. You’ll suffer through no boring, skinless, boneless chicken breasts, however. Everything is well seasoned and sauced. Who wants to be a food martyr anyway? But if you are one, you can still look up the entire nutritional information for each item online.

We started out with the nightly special: Lamb Meatball Flatbread. The crust was cracker thin and the lamb was balanced with some diced cucumber and mint slivers. This would be great to pair with a dry Rosé or light red wine like Pinot Noir. Moving on, we ate the Grilled Portobello Mushroom and Arugula Salad. It was very fresh, but it should have been named the Boatload of Arugula and Teaspoon of Grilled Portobello Mushroom Salad.

Each of our three entrees, however, was satisfying and well-presented. The Caramelized Grilled Sea Scallops came with a creamy lemon risotto, English peas and roasted asparagus. It tasted like the essence of spring, and paired perfectly with the Sauvignon Blanc.

Seasons 52’s food, however, is not all light and lady-like. The next two entrees were ones that even my meat-and-potatoes father would enjoy. The Wood Roasted Pork Tenderloin and Portobello Polenta was very tender and sauced with a delicious roasted onion jus. All of the entrees had plenty of vegetables, and this one included sweet spring broccolini. Despite the heft of the Oak Grilled Filet Mignon with cremini mushrooms, steamed spinach and mashed potatoes, it still clocked in under the calorie count. Both of these entrees could handle a heartier red wine, like Garnacha or Zinfandel.

Since you can only make good choices throughout your meal, you are entitled – obligated, in fact – to continue to enjoy yourself through dessert. The servers come by with a cornucopia tray of Mini Indulgences, and you can pick your favorite. It’s as much fun as picking out a new puppy from the litter. They come in shot glasses, and cover the gamut from chocoholic to berries with cream. We sampled the Chocolate Peanut Butter Torte, Carrot Cake with Cinnamon Honey, Pecan Pie with Vanilla Bean Mousse, and Belgian Chocolate S’more. Our favorite, however, was the supremely creamy Salted Caramel Crème.

The entire wine menu was available by the glass, so it’s easy to mix and match with each course. Normally, I’m not thrilled about this, because you can get stuck with something that’s been open for a few days. Each time I ordered a different glass, however, they opened a new bottle, so I think they get enough turnover that it should not be a problem. Either that, or I order the unpopular varieties!

Seasons 52’s ambiance is date-worthy, and the crowd picked up in size and coolness around 8:30 p.m. on Friday night. Located on the corner of Westshore and Kennedy in South Tampa, it’s a quick hop down Veterans Expressway. A piano player performs live music nightly.

Stop by amid your summer travels. There are no wrong-turns on this menu and you’ll still look good in your bikini!

By Jill Chesney

Seasons 52
http://www.seasons52.com
204 N Westshore Blvd
Tampa, FL 33609
(813) 286-1152

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Café Ponte: Elegant, Grown Up and Delicious

On an uninspiring stretch of Ulmerton Road in Pinellas County sits Café Ponte, a beacon of culinary civility.

Chef Christopher Ponte was the creative force behind the original burgers and unique condiments at Westchase’s beloved Burger 21. Diners can expect a different but equally well conceived experience at Café Ponte, open since 2002. The food and atmosphere are definitely more grown up, however. It’s a power lunch kind of place (for mid-Pinellas anyway) and an upscale locale for an elegant date night.

On a recent lunch visit, I sampled the Mediterranean Meat Loaf, which was a flavorful rendition with Kobe beef, Kalamata olives, parmesan cheese, fresh herbs, marsala sauce and mascarpone mashed potatoes. It was definitely comfort food, but artful and certainly not gluttonous. The Porchetta Dip, a savory sliced roasted bacon wrapped pork loin inside a ciabatta bun, was complemented with a parmesan-rosemary jus. The Chinese Chopped Chicken salad had a nice array of ingredients, like mango, avocado and jicama, but it was not very exciting on the palate.

At dinner Café Ponte’s mood is sophisticated, streamlined precision, like a delicious Swiss watch. The menu is broad, and focuses on fresh, trendy ingredients, all meticulously executed. My husband’s perennial favorite is the Espresso Rubbed Rib Eye with wild mushroom ragout and sherry shallot sauce – superb! At my last visit, I enjoyed the rich and flavorful Wild Mushroom Soup, followed by an expertly prepared Braised Chicken with creamy polenta and broccolini with smoked bacon au jus.

Café Ponte features a full bar with creative [vulgarity] and a large selection of premium scotches. Its desserts also aim to please. The super-dense Flourless Chocolate Cake was a decadent exclamation point to our meal. It was complemented and counterbalanced by some divine salted caramel gelato on top.

The restaurant’s service has always been very professional and reserved. The portions are just the right size. Too big is uncivilized anyway.

Café Ponte is a central Tampa Bay location, yet it’s not close to any other entertainment hubs. It’s a little tricky to make it the appetizer to your evening out.

Better yet, make it the main course!

Café Ponte
http://www.cafeponte.com
13505 Icot Blvd. Suite 214
Clearwater, FL 33760
(727) 538-5768
Hours: Mon-Fri, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. (lunch); Mon-Thu, 5:30-9 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 5:30-10 p.m.

By Jill Chesney

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Crowing About Rooster and the Till

Raw Clams and Pork Tartar – crazy or genius?

While a pretty adventurous eater, even I was a little intimidated by some of the menu items when I walked into the compact Rooster and the Till in Seminole Heights. Since both the clams and tartar tasted out of this world (and my stomach was fine), I’ll put Chef Ferrell Alvarez in the genius camp.

The beauty of this place is the exquisitely crafted, delicious and unusual food combinations served in a casual setting. Part and parcel with the name, this restaurant celebrates farm to table freshness. Yet they don’t get fussy with listing every place from which their food is sourced.

Seminole Heights, with its cheap rents and alternative vibe, has become a mecca for Tampa’s creative culinary class.  Joining longstanding residents like Ella’s Americana Folk Art Cafe and The Refinery, Rooster and the Till recently put its roots down in a humble plaza next to a barber shop, where you can get a real fade. I’m an insurance company middle manager by trade, and Ann Taylor is my middle name, so forearm tattoos and ironic floral dresses don’t impress me. But if you are an unabashed foodie, this place is nirvana.

The raw seafood preparations – deemed Crudo on the menu – are simple in flavor if not in preparation and the fresh seafood stands out. Both nights we visited included oysters and clams, but also fish. To give you an idea of the furious paddling going on underneath the calm water, a recent night’s Crudo was seasoned with fresh coconut water, tamarind pulp, toasted coconut and macadamia nuts, kimchee sprouts and sweet soy drizzle and then garnished with scallions.

On the small plates, the aforementioned Pork Tartar was seasoned with miso mustard, cashew puree and crisp shallots. It slid down unsqueamishly well. Other small plate standouts were the Roast Cauliflower with walnut bread crumbs, pickled raisins and browned butter, which tasted like The Sound of Music. The Smoked Mushrooms with burnt onions and green tomatoes were musky and earthy.  If you are looking for many very small bites to share, the Charcuterie and Cheese Slates highlight delicious house-made patés, head cheeses and many California cheeses, such as a pungent Point Reyes Blue.

Moving on to the “Slightly Larger” plates (and I do mean slightly), the Rabbit Ballotine, with chicken liver and kale over polenta, was comfort food for a cold night. The House Pasta, served with broccoli leaves and tomatoes, was more perfectly al dente than anything I ever enjoyed in Rome.  The Fish, a snapper with caraway cabbage, pork shoulder and pickled radish, had pure, simple flavor that was complemented by the unlikely accoutrements.

With the overachieving perfection of the savory menu, I was a little let down by the desserts. They were layered and pudding-esque, so I’ll stick with the main menu going forward.

Rooster and the Till’s atmosphere is cozy; while eating at the bar my husband and I shared food stories with an Edison waiter.   Our seriously mustachioed bartender, Miles, was friendly and very knowledgeable about the food, craft beer and wine menu.  The owners make a big deal about the furnishings being made by local craftsmen using reclaimed materials, but I think the place gets its energy from the people, not the old wood.

Don’t, however, expect large or even mildly filling plates of food.  My skinny 14-year-old son inhaled the pork belly plate, then demanded another of the same thing as his entrée. If it were chicken tenders, I would have said no. But I get weak when my kids go out on a limb for trying new things. Yet this place can be screamingly frustrating for many people. If you like filling plates of food at reasonable prices and a quick turnaround time, don’t visit.  They also do not accept reservations and cannot seat parties larger than five.

But the beauty of Rooster and the Till is going against the grain.

Rooster and the Till
6500 C N. Florida Ave
Tampa, FL 33604
roosterandthetill@gmail.com
Tel: 374-8940
Hours: Mon-Thu, 5-10 p.m.; Fri- Sat,  5-11 p.m.;  Closed Sun; Limited Menu daily from 3:30-5 p.m.

By Jill Chesney

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Perversely Pleasurable Peruvian Cuisine

Last month we ditched the kids and went out for an evening to ourselves. 

For the last nine years, tucked into a corner of Carrollwood, has sat a jewel box of a restaurant called Terra Sur Café. It features sensuous food, an extensive wine list and flattering lighting. Whenever we visited, it seemed almost everyone in the restaurant was on a date, and we took some perverse pleasure in watching a few really awkward ones unfold.

Terra Sur showcases Peruvian cuisine, which derives its exotic influence from Spanish, Chinese, Italian, German and Japanese immigrants. The three staples of Peruvian cuisine are corn, potatoes and chili peppers – utilizing the diversity of land and sea.

We started the evening with tapas at the Cepas Wine and Tapas bar, one storefront over from the main restaurant and under the same ownership.  Our Latina servers were charming and attentive. Eating off the Happy Hour menu, offered every day from 4-7 p.m., we devoured the Piquillos Rellenos, peppers stuffed with rice, beef and feta cheese.  I also liked the marinated fresh anchovies (Boquerones en Vinagreta), which had a nice citrusy acidity as a palate cleanser. The portions are small, the prices reasonable, and a wide variety is offered, including Gulf Oysters, Seafood Paella and traditional Spanish Omelets. I would have been happy as an almeja to stay here all night.    

Alas, we moved on to the restaurant, which provides the same warm atmosphere and unique menu.  From the appetizers, we had the Papa Rellena, two potatoes stuffed with caramelized onions, ground beef, olives, raisins and hard-boiled egg.  This savory combination is the original, before Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisine. The menu held seven (!) different types of Ceviche, a cold dish of raw fish or shellfish marinated in lime juice and including onions, cilantro and spices. While I didn’t have any this time around, I’m looking forward to this light, refreshing appetizer when the weather warms up a bit.

Every time I visit, I have to order Tacu Tacu with Lomo Saltado, a hearty stir fry dish with strips of sirloin, tomatoes, onions and french fries. It’s the love child of Chinese take-out and grilled steak.  I also tried the Pescado a la Chorrillana, a fried fillet of fish, topped with a piquant onion/tomato sauce.  They said it was snapper, and I say it was pretty good, but not a standout.

Terra Sur’s portions are large, so plan accordingly. Save room so you can sample the pretty desserts in the refrigerated case. We tried the Chocolate Cake, Strawberry Cheesecake and Tres Leches.  The standout of the three was the moist Tres Leches.

While the atmosphere is warm, if you’re wearing anything short of thermals, bring a sweater or coat. The temperature at both the restaurant and bar is chilly.  In keeping with its Latin heritage, this place really gets hopping later in the evening.  With a 7 p.m. reservation, (coincidentally starting when happy hour ended, no?) we were guided through dinner a little too firmly in order to free up the table for later patrons.

All together, Terra Sur Cafe is an enchanting place where you can have a family meal or an adventurous night out.  You can feel the owner’s love and pride in sharing this slice of South American heaven.

Terra Sur Café
http://www.terrasurcafe.com
5358 W. Village Dr. Tampa, FL 33624
(813)269-2694
Hours: Mon-Thu, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun, noon-8 p.m.

By Jill Chesney

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Seafood at the Beach and in the Town

“Be a simple kind of man. Eat something you love and understand.”

With apologies to Lynyrd Skynyrd, I’d like to talk about the bounty of fresh seafood in the Tampa Bay Area. We have the luxury of low-, middle- and highbrow restaurants where we can enjoy it.

Growing up, my cheapo parents brought me to the fish huts on the Gandy Causeway, where you could get a giant plate of smoked mullet for next to nothing. This traditional and tasty Florida specialty lives on at family-owned Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish. Located on St. Petersburg Beach, it’s been an institution since 1951. Salmon, mahi-mahi and mullet are still smoked over red oak, the same way Native Americans have been doing for centuries.

Make sure you start out with a Smoked Fish Spread Appetizer, which is as traditionally Floridian as Key Lime Pie (which they also serve). For those who don’t want to tackle the strong flavor, Ted Peters also provides a juicy, one-third pound hamburger. A standout is the warm German Potato Salad, with bacon, onion and celery, available as a side or part of the fish dinner.

Beware if you order a luncheon platter. It is one ginormous piece of smoked fish, arriving with just a tomato, onion and pickle slice on the side. Unless you’re crazy about smoked fish, you might want to share with a friend and get something else as well.

Ted Peters is not a dress-to-impress or fancy microbrew place. They offer just Miller High Life on draft and their seats consist of old wooden picnic tables perched outside. Bring cash, as no credit cards are accepted. Ted Peters is nevertheless a great destination to experience Old Florida on weekend drive or after a day at the beach.

A few belt notches up on price point (but not many) is Salt Rock Tavern, located just around the corner in Oldsmar. Local chain Baystar Restaurant Group leverages their size by having their own local fishing boats provide fresh seafood.

We started with the Crab Stuffed Portabella, appropriately cheesy and creamy, but with only a hint of crab. The Truffle Parmesan Fries are a great starter or side; the truffle oil is implemented for flavor. Afterwards, you won’t feel like you’re in nutritional purgatory when eating the lovely Kale Salad, simply tossed with peanut vinaigrette. The house salad was fresh, but a pass.

Moving into entrees, Salt Rock’s grouper was the Just Caught Fish of the Day. It was well-seasoned and firm, nestled over creamy, smoked Gouda grits. My husband enjoyed the Mile High Meatloaf, with a savory red wine demi-glace and crispy onions on Texas toast. Rounding out the meal was an Oldsmar Blues Burger, with bacon and enough potent Maytag blue cheese to make your mouth water. Dessert brought the Mounds Jar, which contains Oreo crumbles, chocolate mousse, vanilla mousse, whipped cream and toasted coconut. It tastes completely like the real thing.

Salt Rock is a tavern, reflected in its smart but low-frills décor. Over 30 interesting beers are available on tap, plus some decent craft brews. While the wine offerings are fairly pedestrian, the [vulgarity] are innovative. Plenty of televisions help make it a fun place to catch up with friends while enjoying the game.

Ted Peters Smoked Fish, Inc.
1350 Pasadena Ave. S.
St. Petersburg, FL 33707
Mon, Wed-Sun, 11:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. (closed Tuesdays)
(727) 381-7931

Salt Rock Tavern
3689 Tampa Rd.
Oldsmar, FL 34677
Mon-Thu, 4-10 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 4-11 p.m.; Sun, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. (Brunch); 4-9 p.m. (Dinner)
(813) 336-4977

By Jill Chesney

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Anise Global Gastrobar: Sophisticated Small Plates

When I was growing up in Tampa, few options existed for a cool night out in downtown.

My, how times have changed. Ashley Drive has a number of cosmopolitan small plate restaurants and bars. The most innovative, charming and tasty of these is Anise Global Gastrobar. Its street cred comes from its food-truck based menu, but its décor is pan-Asian sophistication. Walking into the place with its black on black chandeliers, I felt like Bond girl Wai Lin. Even though it has only been open for a short time, it was just awarded a Best New Restaurant Golden Spoon from the Florida Trend Magazine.

I’ve had the delight of working my way through most of the menu in three visits over the last two weeks. Most of the food is Asian-inspired and adventurous but accessible. Standouts include Stinky Bunz, a light pancake filled with beer-battered shrimp, braised pork belly, red curried crispy chicken, fried zucchini or Chinese BBQ pork, lightened by fresh slaw and herb condiments. Although I was a bit put off by the name, they smell great and are perfect for sharing. Another option, the Roast Pork Stack, consists of succulent meat presented over a soft jalapeño and mozzarella arepa. Meanwhile the figurative cherry on top of my Roasted Vegetable Panini was the Sriracha candied bacon: sweet, spicy and yum!

Even though I love me some pig, plenty of other options exist, including a vegan [vulgarity] Chae dish. The Duck Confit Tacos and Grilled Shrimp Tacos are also succulent and have a great counter-balance of crunchy papaya slaw and pickled daikon radish. I suggest a mix and match. It’s even fun to share the treats with friends over [vulgarity]. To that end, the restaurant has a full bar that extends almost the restaurant’s entire length and it features a medium-sized wine and beer collection. As with their creative food, they have craft [vulgarity] that change weekly.

A dessert highlight was the deliciously moist Banana Cake with cream cheese frosting. The bunz also show up in the dessert menu, this time deep-fried and stuffed with either strawberries and Nutella or bananas and a cookie spread. While tasty, the dessert bunz could use more filling to balance out the pancake.

Grab your honey to take to Anise before or after going to an event at the Straz Center, a classic or indie movie at the spectacular Tampa Theatre, or first-rate live theatre at the Stageworks jewel. But if it’s a busy night in downtown, make sure you give yourself plenty of time. This kitchen is not Olive Garden supersized and can be slow.  It is, however, open late – until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights and 1 a.m. the rest of the week. So, if you’re looking for an exotic visual and culinary experience, get dressed and head downtown.

Anise Global Gastrobar
http://www.aniseglobalgastrobar.com
777 N. Ashley Dr.
Tampa, FL
(813) 225-4272
Hours: Sun-Thu: 11 a.m.-1 a.m.; Fri and Sat: 11 a.m.-2 a.m.

By Jill Chesney

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A New England Holiday Without All the Kennedys

I have never been to Nantucket.

I imagine everyone in Nantucket wears seersucker suits or polo shirts. I bet all the women have coordinating sweaters and shoes for their multiple pink and green plaid outfits. I do wonder if they still carry cute Bermuda bags and have multiple covers they can interchange to suit their mood for the day. I’ll probably never know because we’re more the Honeymoon Island set. Thanks to a relatively new restaurant in Safety Harbor, however, I can pretend I’m on a New England holiday (especially if you go now when my neighbor says the temperatures are similar to the hottest part of New England’s summer).

Located just off Main Street in Safety Harbor, Nantucket Bucket specializes in seafood boils, lobster rolls, and other seafood soups, sandwiches and plates. Their Web site claims they offer seafood items similar to New England but with a “Yankee Cracker Cuisine.” Having recently visited Cracker Country with a group of second graders, I’m still not exactly sure what Cracker Cuisine is, let alone what it would be if you throw Yankees into the mix, but I do now know that Ponce de Leon brought cows to Florida.

I might not be an expert on New England or Cracker cuisine but I do know that the lobster salad sliders, lobster roll and the lobster-based corn bisque that I had at Nantucket Bucket were scrumptious. The bisque was rich and creamy – perfect for a chilly Florida day when we weren’t sure if the temperature would reach 80. The lobster roll was good, replete with chunks of lobster, but I prefer the lobster salad sliders with their tangy seasoning. The hearty Portuguese fish stew – loaded with all kinds of seafood in a tomato base – was another favorite at our table. The peel ’n eat shrimp and fried clam strip sandwich were plentiful and perfectly seasoned.

As their name suggests, Nantucket Bucket has a variety of bucket entrees. If you’ve never had a seafood bucket before, be ready to work for your food. But don’t worry, it’s worth it. Typically buckets include vegetables and seafood that are boiled in a pot with seasonings. At Nantucket Bucket you have your choice of lobster, middleneck clams, mussels, opilio snow crab, smoked sausage, shrimp, Ipswich clams, green lipped mussels, dungeness crab or seasoned crawfish. In addition to your seafood (or sausage), you’ll get red potatoes, corn on the cob, celery, carrots, onion and chunks of garlic with a seasoned clam broth.

Nantucket Bucket has a huge patio in the back of the restaurant, making it a great place to go with a large group. The smaller patio in front and semi-private dining areas inside make it a great option for smaller parties as well. The décor throughout the restaurant is a clever combination of Florida beach and New England coastal, with weathered plaques extolling the virtue of beach life, plenty of shells outside for the kids to sort through and a crab trap into which they can stick their hands.

All in all it was a lovely substitute for a New England holiday.

Nantucket Bucket
519 2nd Street South
Safety Harbor, FL
(727) 724-2933
Hours: Tue-Thu, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.

By Marcy Sanford

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Funky, Eclectic and Hip

In an area of funky, hip restaurants and eclectic shops, Dunedin’s Casa Tina’s manages to out-funk them all – in a good way.

We have had many great meals at Casa Tina’s. The food is fresh and inventive. The margaritas and sangrias are tasty and refreshing. And the décor is colorfully over-the-top with every inch of wall space covered in crosses, mermaids, and skeletons with a few tributes to Mexican artist Frida Kahlo dispersed throughout.

We went to Casa Tina’s one Saturday night for dinner expecting a regular evening out. As we were contemplating our menus, the lights dimmed and suddenly two young ladies from a local circus arts class began entertaining the crowd with Cirque de Soleil-style acrobatic tricks much to our daughter’s delight. As they circled the tables overhead, we enjoyed our shrimp and mango quesadilla, perfectly seasoned with ginger and cilantro, and the Chalupas de Cangrejo – crispy corn tortillas layered with black beans, spinach, crab meat and cheese with a roasted chipotle sauce.

We’d been to Casa Tina’s so many times that we thought we were experts. So we headed to Dunedin one Sunday to have some lunch and see about purchasing some fresh fish from the market at the Dunedin marina. I knew I had lots of great experiences at Casa Tina’s to draw on and all I really needed was a good picture of food to accompany my article.

We didn’t realize we’d never been to Casa Tina’s on a Sunday or we would have known that they have a special brunch menu. Not being much of a brunch person, I was relieved that they had lobster tacos on the menu. Unfortunately when my plate arrived, it had some very unappetizing looking food on it. The lobster tacos looked good but the accompanying casa potatoes and papaya mojo looked – in the words of my 7-year old mini-critic (and even my open-minded husband): “Really gross.” So I ate the delicious tacos filled with big chunks of rich lobster, spinach, and jalapeno jack cheese with a slightly spicy creamy vodka chipotle sauce drizzled on top and I avoided the sides.

Yet, as my daughter sat next to me and talked about all the things she did not like food wise, I thought maybe I was not being the best role model. So I tried the very ugly looking potatoes (which were really just diced potatoes sautéed with spinach and lots of onions – not the best color combination) and the slightly scary looking papaya mojo (chunks of papaya with Mexican seasonings and herbs). And, you know what? They were pretty good. The portions were still overwhelming, but the potatoes were decent and the papaya mojo was interesting and different, definitely not like anything I’ve ever eaten before.

That night we grilled the fresh Wahoo we had purchased at the marina store. I told my daughter that instead of grilling something different just to please her red-meat loving appetite, she could eat the fish or just eat the side dishes I had made. While she was a little dubious at first (she doesn’t think fish looks or smells good), she was won over by the accompanying sauce and gave it a timid try.

I’m happy to report that her previous motto of the only good fish is a fried one has now been changed to the only good fish is a fried one or Wahoo with a ginger, soy, cilantro sauce.

Score one for mom – and for being a good food role model.

Casa Tina’s
http://www.casatinas.com
365 Main St.
Dunedin, FL
(727) 734-9226
Hours: Sun-Thu: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri and Sat: 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

By Marcy Sanford

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Changes in the Westchase Dining Scene

When you look at something every day, you may not notice when it undergoes changes.

You don’t really notice your child has grown until the weather gets cool enough to put on a long sleeve shirt. You don’t realize you’ve gained weight until you try to put on last year’s jeans. You don’t notice your sidewalk is dirty until you get a citation from the association.

You look around your neighborhood and everything seems the same. But changes have been happening on the Westchase restaurant scene – some noticeable, some subtle, but all worth looking into. You might even try them out again if you haven’t been there in a while.

Stone Chase has a new owner, Frank Mast. He has added many of his Italian family’s favorite recipes to the Stone Chase menu. The new menu became available mid-September and includes new appetizers, entrees, and desserts, including fra diavolo, lobster linguine, rigatoni al telefono, gelato, and zeppole. Stone Chase is also serving Neapolitan style pizza in addition to their popular flat breads. Mast has made changes to the interior of Stone Chase with new lighting, new colors, and a brighter interior. Stone Chase now has a lunch menu featuring smaller portions of many dinner entrees and a selection of paninis and calzones.

Around the corner from Westchase on Sheldon Road, General Manager Danny Rowan of Grille 54 said the restaurant revamps its menu several times a year. “Every six months we look to see what items are popular and which ones are not. We take the 10 least popular items off the menu and replace them with 10 new items – usually the specials that have been the most popular with our guests.”

Some of Grille 54’s new menu items include a pepperoni bread appetizer, lobster tacos, homemade gnocchi, a sea bass piccata tower, and pesto-encrusted grouper. Grille 54 will also be adding new sushi specials and 50 new bottles of wine to their list.

Just outside of Westchase at the corner of Race Track Road and Countryway Boulevard, San’s Pizza’s name has been changed to Westchase Pizza and Pasta Company. It also features several new menu items. Owner Ivan De La Guardia says that 90 percent of their delivery business comes from Westchase. “We changed the name because we wanted to reflect our area and begin building our brand,” said De La Guardia. “When we purchased San’s in 2008, we wanted to create a brand that we could franchise but the time was not right. We feel like now it is.”

The newly named restaurant has 14 new strombolis on its menu and it’s giving customers a choice of individual or family-sized portions for the pasta dishes. Over the next six months they will also be making some changes to the restaurant’s interior.

Several other restaurants also changed owners and names over the summer. In West Park Village, the Village Market has spruced up its interior and changed its name to Village Bagel and Subs. And just outside of Westchase on Race Track Road, Courtside Grill has become The Grill at Westchase.

Will it all work?

As Winston Churchill once muttered over his cigar, “There is nothing wrong in change, if it is in the right direction. To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”

By Marcy Sanford

Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at marcysanford@mail.com.

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Ten Reasons to Love Westchase Dining

The other night my neighbors told me a Westchase horror story. Thirteen creepy years ago, they observed, “There weren’t any restaurants in this area.”

I trembled in instant hunger at the dreary restaurant wasteland Westchase had once been. That night I had a nightmare that all my favorite neighborhood eateries were closed. So the next time you go out to dine, consider keeping it local. To help out, here is my list of the top 10 reasons I love Westchase restaurants.

Burgers Whether you want a veggie burger or the real deal, you can find great ones in West Park Village. As its name would imply, Burger 21 has some of the best burgers in town. Two that really stand out are the Tex-Mex Haystack, piled high with applewood-smoked bacon, Gouda, guacamole, onion strings, and chipotle-jalapeno sauce, or the Philly Cheese with grilled peppers and onions, provolone, white American cheese and Dijon chive mayo. The combination of yogurt sauce, cucumbers, and roasted red peppers on Burger 21’s Greek burger is messy but awesomely divine. Although not an Irish staple, Maloney’s veggie burger, topped with fresh avocado and spicy pepper jack cheese, is another favorite.

Pizza I love the fact that Pizza Fusion has a great selection of toppings to choose from and delivers tasty, fresh pizzas right to our door. Pizza Fusion also has some great specialty pizzas like the four cheese and sun-dried tomato or the sausage and tricolor peppers.

Tacos Both the bangin’ and tiger shrimp tacos at Surf Shack are delicious – a great combination of slightly spicy aiolis, fried shrimp and crispy veggies wrapped in a tortilla. As an extra bonus Surf Shack has the great honor of being the only place I’ve ever truly enjoyed cole slaw. 

Fries Burger 21 has the best shoestring fries I’ve ever had. The sweet potato fries dipped in the ragin’ cajun aioli are a wonderful treat. You can even pretend they’re healthy for you. Greek City Café has feta fries that you have to taste to believe. I’m usually skeptical of feta because it can overpower a dish, but the chefs at Greek City Café have the right touch and the feta fries have a uniquely addictive taste that isn’t overpowering at all.

Bread Stone Chase’s menu has a little something for all different appetites but I would go there just for their warm, crispy French bread with the herb olive oil. 

Specials Great restaurant deals can be found throughout the week in Westchase. Sunday: feed your kids for free at Surf Shack; Monday: grab an inexpensive burger at Catch 21; Tuesday: indulge in a $5 flatbread at Stone Chase; Wednesday: leave the kids at home and choose from one of the many “Wine down Wednesday” specials around town; and Thursday: bring the kids out again and feed them for free at Greek City Café. On Friday and Saturday eat the leftovers from all the restaurants you visited during the week.

Variety Just in West Park Village, you have a culinary United Nations with representatives from Ireland, Thailand, China, Japan, Mexico and Greece.

Patios There is nothing I like better than hanging out on a patio. Sure it’s not quite as relaxing as it used to be in my pre-child days, but it’s still lots of fun. We have some great patios in Westchase. Catch 23 and Tijuana Flats even make the summer heat bearable with misters and fans.

Community One of the things I like best about living in Westchase is seeing people I know when I’m out and about. While running into people at Publix makes me forget why I went there in the first place, I absolutely love seeing acquaintences when we’re eating out.

Walking When we lived in Memphis, we lived inside the city and yet we had to get in our car to go anywhere. Here we live in the suburbs but can walk to restaurants. I love being able to do it. When you know you’re going to have to walk home, it makes ordering a Burger 21 milkshake seem less decadent.

During this hot month of August, when it is too miserable to add extra heat to your home by turning on the stove, why not go out to eat and create your own top 10 Westchase list? Maybe it will be similar; perhaps it will be notably different.

Only your taste buds can decide.

By Marcy Sanford

Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at marcysanford@mail.com.

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A Vacation Close to Home

I was introduced to sushi during my college days.

Way back then sushi seemed like a very adventurous food and the restaurants we visited had a certain dive-bar mystique. Now, you can find sushi at gas stations and grocery stores. While the mystery around is definitely gone, the sushi, appetizers, and meals at Zen Bistro in West Park Village are creative, fresh, and delicious. With Zen so close, it would be a shame if you made a habit of grocery store sushi.
 
All the appetizers we’ve tried at Zen have been divine – from the curried crab dumplings stuffed with crab, cream cheese, minced raisins and cilantro to the BBQ Short Rib plate with sweet Korean barbeque sauce. I’m addicted to both the Asian guacamole and the sesame vinaigrette on the house salad.

I haven’t had a bad piece of sushi at Zen yet. As a bonus, the dishes’ names make you feel like you’re out there doing good in the world – Lobster Lotus, Art of Meditation, Good Karma, Infinity Within. They may sound like yoga poses, but these are some decadent pieces of sushi.

The Lobster Lotus is rich, delicious and filling with chunks of lobster tempura. Infinity Within is a light, refreshing roll wrapped in cucumber instead of rice; it even comes with its own scrumptious sauce. The Art of Meditation is topped with marinated tuna, fresh mint, basil and cilantro. The first bite was an incredible combination of flavors. Unfortunately, the herbs added were so minimal that I managed to eat them all in that first bite, so other bites, while good, did not live up to the first one.

One of the go-to vegetables my daughter will eat at restaurants is edamame. The best part is we usually order it as an appetizer. If she eats a diet of strictly fried food for the rest of the meal, I’m OK with it because at least she ate something green at the beginning. Kids’ meals at Zen, however, include fried rice with plenty of yummy vegetables like carrots, peas and –to my daughter’s delight – raisins and cashews. The kids’ wok-fried chicken has plenty of carrots and asparagus. The kids’ meals are delicious, they seem nutritious and they’re enough for several kids to split – definitely a win-win for us.

Zen also has plenty of fried rice, noodle, cooked seafood and stir-fry entrees for the non-sushi eating adults in your group.

I love the idea of sitting on the patio at Zen. The hip, ultra-cool, stainless steel seats, however, are not very comfortable. We therefore usually opt for the cooler than cool inside, where the see-through floor, bar lights and bamboo walls are great entertainment for young or, in my case, easily-entertained minds.
 
Only a few things keep us from going to Zen Bistro weekly. First, it seems a little pricey for sushi (I still have those semi-dive sushi bar prices from college dancing in my head). Second, their water is not filtered. (How can you not filter your water in Florida?)

Yet we’ve discovered a secret if you are a sushi loving, cost-conscious gourmand. Go to Zen before 6:30 p.m. They have some excellent happy hour deals on drinks and food. Our favorite is the half-priced appetizers on Friday and Saturday. Look for me there this summer. I’ll be the one sipping my two-for-one house wine, waiting for my enlightening sushi while mesmerized by the trance music and pretty lights.

Zen Bistro Grill + Sushi
http://www.zenbistrotampa.com
9620 W. Linebaugh Ave.
792-8665
Hours: Mon-Wed, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Thu, 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Fri-Sat, 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sun, 4:30-10 p.m.

By Marcy Sanford

Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at marcysanford@mail.com.

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A Vacation Close to Home

Before I’d heard the word staycation, we were combing Tampa Bay’s small towns in search of cute, quaint downtowns and fun festivals.

Dunedin, New Port Richey, Oldsmar, Safety Harbor, Tarpon Springs, Palm Harbor: we’ve visited them all. While its downtown can be explored in one visit and the Citrus Festival that we attended there was unimpressive, Palm Harbor does have a restaurant that we find ourselves returning to: Thirsty Marlin Grill & Bar.

Thirsty Marlin’s inside transports me back to the time when I was a child and we would come to Florida for vacation. The walls are covered with large stuffed fish (marlins, I’m guessing), vintage signs and photos of smiling people either holding up the large fish they’ve caught or posing with alligators. The place is perfect for games of I Spy or making up stories about the surrounding memorabilia. The wooden floors are smooth and polished and the sprawling restaurant is divided up into several dining rooms, bars and patios. The tree overlooking the front patio even has an eye watching over diners.

Thirsty Marlin has a mammoth menu that takes a few minutes to process, plus a sushi menu to consider. Plenty of delectable options exist. If you make the trip to Thirsty Marlin, however, would be remiss if you didn’t try one of their lobster dishes – the lobster wrap (delicious chunks of lobster salad in a garlic herb wrap), the lobster quesadillas or lobster bisque (both decadently rich). They also serve grouper, conch, and mahi mahi prepared several different ways.

Next to the bar in the middle of the restaurant is the sushi bar, where you can peruse the fish that will be used to make your sushi or even watch it being made. The sushi we’ve had at Thirsty Marlin was fresh and expertly prepared. The edamame we ordered, however, (it was our daughter’s green vegetable for the night) was cold and a little mushy. Fortunately, she was so hungry that she wolfed it down anyway without complaints. Good thing we withheld snacks that afternoon.

If you’re not a seafood lover, Thirsty Marlin offers plenty of burgers and sandwiches (even a vegetarian option) on the menu. The buffalo chicken sandwich is the perfect combination of crispy fried chicken, cheese and crisp greens.

Our last visit happened to be on a trivia night and both the manager and the DJ hosting the event came by to try to sign us up and assure us that it would be family friendly. Alas, it was a school night so we couldn’t stay. On the drive home, however, we discussed how cool it would be if one of the restaurants in “family-friendly” Westchase would host family trivia nights or other similar events. That would certainly make us feel like we were on vacation – without having to venture too far from home.

Thirsty Marlin
http://www.thirstymarlin.com
1023 Florida Ave.
Palm Harbor, FL
(727) 784-2469
Hours: Mon-Thu: 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Fri-Sat: 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sun: 11:30 a.m.-midnight

By Marcy Sanford

Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at marcysanford@mail.com.

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Dining in The Living Room

I love weekends. Saturday morning walks are the perfect time to contemplate philosophical, dining-inspired dilemmas.

Would downtown Dunedin be as cool if it was located in West Park Village? Would any of their hip restaurants make it in Westchase? How many texts did it take to plan a night out with three couples? Which dish was my favorite from all the ones I tried last night at The Living Room?

The Living Room, located in perpetually cool downtown Dunedin, has a fun, dog-friendly patio in front of the restaurant and a spacious, swanky bar and lounge – complete with comfortable couches and chairs – inside. The expansive dining area has plenty of room between tables but feels very cozy thanks to the wall hangings, curtains and decorations, which soften the large space and provide privacy between tables.

Our friendly and helpful waiter made a great first impression by bringing us a plate of crispy French bread with roasted garlic, balsamic vinegar and olive oil dipping sauce. He informed us that each plate was enough to share with the table and would arrive as soon as it was ready rather than waiting for all plates to be prepared.

The hefty menu was a lot to take in, but after some discussion, everyone chose a few tempting dishes and then waited for the copious amounts of food to arrive. And arrive it did. As soon as we passed around one plate and tried a bite, the empty dish was whisked away and replaced with another.

It would take many visits to The Living Room to taste everything on their menu, but we gave it a good shot. We successfully sampled something from each section. We started with a deliciously fresh salad of buffalo Mozzarella, grape tomatoes, artichokes and cucumbers in a lemon-basil vinaigrette and crispy nachos layered with blackened chicken, applewood smoked bacon, roasted corn and a gorgonzola fondue. The Living Room also featured several flatbreads on their menu. 

The other dishes were a delight. The Sesame Shrimp Tempura and the Garlic-Dusted Calamari Fritti were fried but not greasy and both came with savory dipping sauces. The New Orleans jambalaya skewers were definitely a favorite at the table with their perfectly grilled and seasoned pieces of Andouille sausage, shrimp, and chicken.  The mango and brie quesadilla was a nice and interesting combination of two things I love. While the seared tuna could have used more flavor, the flavors of the wild mushroom we ordered presented a perfect combination of earthy mushrooms, salty sundried tomatoes, and a tangy basil pesto.  My only complaint about the grilled grape leaf wrapped goat cheese was that there wasn’t enough to share. But with so many great plates, we definitely had our fill. Several days later, I’m still hard pressed to choose a favorite. 

All in all, it was a great night of food, drink and conversation in a Living Room that none of us had to clean up – making it that much sweeter. And it was all accomplished with a mere 39 texts to each other plus four more to the sitter.

The Living Room
487 Main Street
Dunedin, FL
(727) 736-5202
http://www.thelivingroomonmain.com

By Marcy Sanford; Photos by Carrie Garmendia

Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at marcysanford@mail.com.

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A Green Market Daydream

In my family, we are food daydreamers.

We watch cooking shows and discuss the meals we’ll make. We hear about new restaurants and plan a visit. We go to farmers’ markets or gourmet grocery stores and get sidetracked by exotic ingredients. We walk by empty restaurants in West Park Village and have lengthy discussions about what should go there.

Our current daydream features Oldsmar’s Green Market Café.

The Green Market Café has a huge selection of wraps and grilled flatbread sandwiches, soups, salads and rice bowls. There are so many selections that you would have to eat there many times before you’d tried everything on the menu. During our visit one of us enjoyed a delicious flatbread with roasted turkey and warm, melting, herb-crusted Brie cheese, topped with crunchy, mixed greens, tangy cranberry raisins and balsamic dressing. Another devoured a messy but yummy veggie flatbread, which came with garlicky hummus, feta cheese and crisp red peppers and cucumbers. A third enjoyed the chipotle Cuban, which had just the right amount of heat to give it a pleasantly spicy kick.  

The café’s homemade butternut squash and the spinach and feta soups were creamy and flavorful. Fortunately, the feta was not overpowering. It was blended perfectly with the soup’s other flavors. The hearty chicken and wild rice soup was full of chunks of chicken, vegetables, rice and savory herbs. During our February visit, the soup was perfect for the cold, windy days we were experiencing. Now, with warm days ahead, I’m hoping they will adjust their soups accordingly.

At Green Market Café, you receive a free cup of yogurt with your meal. They have the usual flavors and one I’d never heard of before − taro.  The young lady behind the counter said it was a type of fruit that was tangy and sweet and that people drove from all over the area to get taro yogurt. It’s definitely an acquired taste. As she suggested, it’s simultaneously tangy and sweet and unlike any yogurt I’ve ever tried. At first, I wasn’t sure if I liked taro, but the more I ate, the better I liked it - certainly enough to finish off my bowl. While I don’t think I would drive across the city just to get taro yogurt, there are very few things I would drive across the city to get. Further, a fruit it was not. An Internet search confirmed that taro is from a tropical plant whose root is used in cooking. As one site put it, taro is “the potato of the humid tropics.” 

Unfortunately, we have not had time to try Green Market Café’s many salads or rice bowls. From the menu descriptions, the café offers a multitude of unique and tasty sounding combinations. Judging from the tables nearby, they are large enough to feed several people.

Green Market Café also serves breakfast on Saturday and Sunday, including crepe bowls. Yet my dislike of early mornings is equal to my dislike of driving, so I may never make it there for breakfast.

Unless, of course, they rent that perfect, vacant spot with the nice patio in West Park Village. In that case, I could just roll out of bed and walk there one Saturday morning. And I could walk there this summer for lunch with my daughter and treat her to free yogurt. And I could try all the different salads, sandwiches and rice bowls while watching the traffic drive by on Montague.

A girl can always dream.

Green Market Cafe
3150 Tampa Rd., Unit 1A
Oldsmar, Florida
Hours: Sun-Thu, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Fri and Sat, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
(727) 787-5494
http://www.greenmarketcafe.com

By Marcy Sanford

Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at marcysanford@mail.com.

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Going Tapas

Years ago my aunt shocked me when she told me we were going to an Atlanta tapas bar.

I thought she said topless.

Apparently even Southerners can get tripped up by Southern accents. Fortunately, I went without a scuffle and was introduced to tapas – small or appetizer-sized dishes meant to be shared with your dining companions. This Spanish concept seemed to me like the best idea in the world because I love eating the food off other people’s plates. To this day my favorite meals are spent with people who enjoy sharing their food.

Ceviche Tapas Bar and Restaurant (whose Web site, in an odd and fateful twist, features a painting of a topless woman) claims to have over 100 Spanish tapas. That’s a lot of menu items and we’ve only been able to get to about 10 percent of them. But the ones we’ve tried have been delicious and definitely worth sharing.

With so many options the menu can be overwhelming. At times it seems like the only difference from one dish to the next is one ingredient. But order a pitcher of the tasty sangria, sit back, start reading the menu, and get ready to enjoy and share some delectable Spanish food.

We try to make ourselves pick at least one new thing each time we go, but we definitely have our favorites. If you want a quick-pick meal from the menu, I’d suggest the bonito a la parilla − fresh, melt-in-your-mouth, sushi-grade tuna grilled rare; patatas bravas − crispy fried potatoes in a spicy aioli sauce; and espinacas − a delightful combination of sautéed spinach, figs, honey and garlic. Ceviche serves warm, crusty French bread with a flavorful olive oil and herb dipping sauce.  The three dishes plus the bread are easily enough food for two.

If you have a larger appetite or more people with you, I’d also suggest trying one of their ceviches. We especially enjoyed the ceviche de gambas – fresh shrimp marinated in lime juice and garlic with cilantro, jalapeno and onions. Ceviche also has several earthy, rich mushroom dishes like the champinones del monte (four types of grilled and marinated mushrooms) and the portobello relleno (a portobello mushroom stuffed with spinach, shallots and Manchego cheese). Just be sure you aren’t the only person at the table who likes mushrooms because you get lots of them.

If you have room for dessert, Ceviche has homemade, traditional Spanish desserts like flan and tres leches. We devoured the trilogia de chocolate – three types of creamy, fluffy chocolate mousse with a chocolate rum sauce. It may not be Spanish, but it certainly was enjoyable.

When you go to Ceviche, take your time ordering. We knew we wanted to order our favorites and so put our order in right after our drinks came. Suddenly, our table was overflowing with food. There was little time for conversation or even contemplating what else we wanted.

We’ve also learned not to let them put us at a small table, even if there are only two of us. They’ve crammed as many tables as possible into the main dining room. If you are at a small table, not only do you get bumped into quite often, but there also isn’t enough room for the plates of food, a pitcher of sangria, a basket of bread and a dish of olive oil. So get a table big enough to hold all the tapas you can handle and then buen appetito!

Ceviche
2500 West Azeele St.
Phone (813) 250-0203
Open Mon-Sun; hours vary
http://ceviche.com

By Marcy Sanford

Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at marcysanford@mail.com.

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A Grille’s Night Out

When we moved here, I moved away from 15 years’ worth of friendships.

I was a bit dazed and confused my first year here. I missed having real conversations in person with treasured friends and acquaintances. Fast forward six years. While I may still be dazed and confused, I am pleased to report that I once again have friends living in the same city as I – friends from my daughter’s preschool, the YMCA, our neighborhood and Westchase Elementary School.

I am truly thankful for each one of them. So when one (or two) of them calls, texts or e-mails about a night out, it is my obligation and duty to maintain these new friendships. And so it becomes my obligation and duty to encourage my husband to remember the depressed and dazed woman I was during my first year here – and doggedly persist with it until he smiles and says, “Have fun.”

So in honor of BFFs everywhere, whether you’ve known them for one month or decades, this month’s column is dedicated to Girls’ Night Out.

Whether you bike to World of Beer, hang out on the patio at Catch 23, or meet up at Stonechase (where the house wine always seems to be two for one), Girls’ Nights Out are essential. They make you a happier person. They give you the opportunity to complain in a loving way about your family to fellow complainers who won’t take it the wrong way. And they recharge you in general. Recently a Girls’ Night Out on a Wednesday happened to coincide with Ladies’ Night at Grille 54. When serendipity strikes the cosmos like that, one must take advantage.

On their Ladies’ Night Grille 54 offers select wines, mojitos and martinis for $5. They also have a DJ spinning tunes and conducting a lively raffle in the bar area. If you want to have a conversation, it’s therefore best to opt for the dining area. During Ladies’ Night Grille 54 gives out raffle tickets to all the ladies, plus offers extra ones for drinks ordered and heel size. Our waitress, however, said we were nice and hooked us up with extra tickets despite our Toms and flip-flops.

Yay, Florida!

But on to the food.

The lobster Rangoon appetizer we started off with came with a wonderful sweet and spicy dipping sauce, but needed more lobster and cheese filling and less wonton. The sushi we ordered, however, was fresh and delicious. The volcano roll had a nice kick, thanks to the spicy, creamy dynamite sauce. It also had a rich flavor, thanks to the cream cheese inside the roll and the avocado and eel sauce on top of it. The flavor and texture of the Mexican roll –with its combination of shrimp tempura, avocado and rice – made it one of my favorites.

While you might not think of pairing sushi with mojitos and martinis, oddly enough, it worked.

As a bonus to the evening, a friend won movie theater passes during the raffle. Being the good friend she is, she tried to share them with us. We declined, but maybe she’ll use them to take us on a Girls’ Night Out to the movies.

I wonder if they are good for the CineBistro?

That seems like another place worthy of a good Girls’ Night Out.

Preferably soon.

Grille 54
11935 Sheldon Road
Hours: Daily, 4 p.m.-3 a.m.
http://www.grille54.com

By Marcy Sanford

Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at marcysanford@mail.com.

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A Treat for Your Taste Buds

I like going out eat for many reasons

I like to try new dishes. I like not having to leave my seat while someone brings me those new dishes. I particularly like having someone else clean up after those dishes once tried.
But mainly I like to go out to eat food that I would not normally cook myself. 

Thai food is top on the list of foods that I enjoy but don’t really want to cook at home. When I’ve attempted it, it required a whole lot of effort for something that turned out so-so. Then I’m left with a plethora of ingredients in my pantry that I probably won’t use again (Anybody need a jar of kefir leaves?) So it’s a relief to have a Thai restaurant so close to home and not have to worry about concocting my own curries.

When we’ve visited Siam Thai, we’ve had delicious appetizers, flavorful main dishes and mouthwatering soups. Located in West Park Village, Siam Thai offers standard Thai restaurant dishes such as curries, pad Thai, stir fries and soups – as well as a few unique, unusual dishes like tropical grouper.

Siam Thai’s egg rolls, fresh spring rolls, fried tofu or chicken satay are a great way to start your meal. Their fried foods are crisp but not too greasy. The fresh spring rolls wrapped in rice paper offer a cool, refreshing start to your meal. The sweet plum and peanut sauces served with the appetizers are a delightful combination of flavors and perfect for dipping. We love the peanut sauce so much that we usually end up asking for extra.

The restaurant’s Tom Yum soup is one of my favorite soups ever. It is spicy and has many different flavors like lemongrass and limejuice, cilantro and ginger that tingle your taste buds. Unfortunately, the first time I had the Tom Yum soup at Siam Thai it was so hot that my taste buds could barely taste any of the flavors. On later visits, the kitchen had toned down the heat and we’ve learned to ask for mild to low heat. Heed my warning and do not ask for hot and spicy unless you (like my neighbor who pops jalapeños into his mouth and eats them straight) know you can handle it.

Our two favorite dishes at Siam Thai include Drunken Noodles, which are savory stir-fried noodles with vegetables and herbs, and Panang Curry, a curry so good that it “even makes broccoli taste good.” You can have chicken, pork, beef, vegetable, tofu or seafood with any of the dishes, ensuring that everyone at the table can customize the dish to their liking.

Sometimes the waiters at Siam Thai are a little slow to get started, but once they do, they are always friendly and helpful. The restaurant is very pretty on the inside and offers lots of stuff to look at, perfect for a rousing game of I Spy. You can also opt to dine at curtained, semi-private tables.

Siam Thai is a great addition to our array of neighborhood restaurants. If you haven’t eaten there yet, be sure to give it a try. Your taste buds will be in for a treat – just be sure to protect them from the heat.

Siam Thai Restaurant
http://www.siamtampa.com
9546 W. Linebaugh Avenue
475-6999
Hours: Sun-Thu: 11:30 a.m. -10 p.m.; Fri-Sat: 11:30 a.m. -10:30 p.m.

By Marcy Sanford

Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at marcysanford@mail.com.

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Laid Back Foodie Fun at The Refinery

Creativity, local farm ingredients and unpretentious dining are king in our household.

Experiencing it only takes a 20 minute drive away from the restaurant chain vise grip that strangles many Westchase residents. The Refinery’s mantra is that good food, prepared by professionals who are passionate about their craft, should be available to everyone.

The Refinery sources as much as they can from local farmers, who are listed on the chalk board when you enter. In order to showcase what’s fresh and available, the menu is changed weekly.

Its food is so tasty, my kids were bummed that my husband and I recently went there with another couple instead of them. I almost shed a tear of joy the time my 12-year-old daughter, who not so long ago only consumed a white-on-white palette of bread, pasta and milk, ordered the lamb belly as her entree. I practically had to stop her from licking the plate.

The Refinery’s bar offers quite a few craft and classic brews, and the small vineyard wines are a true bang for the buck, all listed at $20 or less per bottle. During our most recent visit, we started with three small plates ranging from $8 to $10. The Foie Gras Buttercream Éclair was the most eccentric of the bunch, with a traditional dessert-style pastry, covered with a spicy ganache stripe down the top. The delicate flavor of the lightly fried Fritelle di Zucchine was enhanced by a sweet-tart relish with mojo aioli. The Pork Pie proved a savory-sweet tart with bits of smoked meat. It arrived with a nicely contrasting bitter endive and radicchio salad on the side.

The Refinery’s main courses are generally priced between $11 and $20. We chose the Potato-Zucchini Gratin, Pan Roasted Mahi Mahi and Stuffed Yellow Zucchini. The Mahi Mahi had a nice golden sear, and an inventive broth-type sauce that included salsa verde, cantaloupe and cilantro. It was a light and tropical entrée fit for summer. The Potato Zucchini Gratin was vegetarian and gluten-free (both are marked on the menu), and contained a pea puree with endive and sweetish vanilla saffron vinaigrette. The Stuffed Yellow Zucchini boats (it definitely must be zucchini season!) contained a hearty mix of black-eyed peas, kale, cheddar, bulgur and butternut squash-mascarpone puree.

While the variety of flavors can sound exhausting, salty and sweet or sweet and spicy represent some of the kitchen’s main themes. The Refinery’s offerings also aren’t items you have to overthink to enjoy. Different incarnations of the Hangar Steak and Burger appear every week and are consistently satisfying for red meat lovers.

We finished up with the Milk Chocolate Mousse and Apple Pave. The mousse was tarted up with some tarragon, orange and devil’s food cake. The apple pave was an unusually smooth tart that contained a few bits of red hot pecan brittle on the side.

The only drawbacks to The Refinery are that the restaurant is small, which can make getting a reservation challenging, and the inside room can get loud. The upstairs covered patio alleviates those issues a bit, although smokers there might irritate the tobacco-free crowd.

Regardless, the whole restaurant carries a wonderful non-conformist vibe and truly places the focus on the food. Compared to many restaurants that aim to fill your belly with cheap, thoughtless food, The Refinery will prove a welcome change. 

The Refinery
http://www.thetamparefinery.com
5137 N. Florida Ave.
Tampa 33603
(813) 237-2000
Hours: Bar: Mon-Thu, 5 p.m.-midnight; Fri – Sat p.m.-1 a.m.; Sun 11 a.m. -10 p.m.; Dinner: Sun-Thu, 5-10 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 5-11 p.m.; Brunch: Sun, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

By Jill Chesney

Jill Chesney, our guest Dishing It Out columnist, is a resident of The Bridges.

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Up South Flavor in Down South Cookin’

We moved to Tampa from Memphis, Tennessee, almost five years ago.

It seems just like yesterday that I got off a plane in January and remarked, “Wow, it’s really hot here.”

We’ve lived here long enough now that we’ve made some great friends, know our way around and enjoy living in Tampa. In fact, there are now only a few things I miss about Tennessee: family, friends with southern accents, fall, spring and southern cooking. 

A friend who appreciates our love of the South told us we should try the BBQ at Hank’s. Every since we moved here we have been on a quest to find BBQ comparable to that found in Memphis. We therefore decided to give it a try – and we’re glad we did. Hank’s well-seasoned BBQ was so tender and flavorful that when my father-in-law visited, we even took him there. He gave it the highest honor possible from a southerner, declaring it “almost as good as BBQ from Memphis.”

Even in the true South great BBQ alone does not make a great restaurant featuring southern cooking. You must have comforting side dishes, fried food that is crisp and not too greasy and delicious, homemade corn bread.  Fortunately Hank’s delivers on all counts.

For one, Hank’s catfish was breaded in a tasty cornmeal breading and had been fried perfectly, making it delicate and flaky. True to what you’ll find in restaurants all over the South, Hank’s doesn’t just fry the catfish. You can also order fried green beans, fried pickles, fried okra, and, of course, French fries.

In addition to true southern side dishes of collard greens, okra, tomatoes, slaw, corn on the cob and green beans, Hank’s has the other side dishes we consider vegetables in the South – cheese grits and mac ’n’ cheese. Both were homemade, super cheesy and deliciously comforting. Warm and tasty cornbread and hush puppies rounded out the meal.

Hank’s even uses Southern sensibility when decorating. Each table had a mason jar filled with a cotton boll – although they must have run out because a few jars were just filled with cotton balls. I can’t say that I was aware of a lot of decorating going on with cotton plants in Memphis, but I am certainly going to see if it is a new trend the next time we visit our family and friends “up South.”

As the food and decorating would suggest, Hank’s is not a fancy restaurant. But if you are in search of some good, comforting soul food, you can find it here. 

Hank’s
www.hanksplacetampa.com
8546 N. Dale Mabry Hwy.
932-5200
Hours: Mon-Thu, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun, noon-7 p.m.

By Marcy Sanford
 
Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at marcysanford@mail.com.

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TC Choy’s: A Collection of Unexpected Delights

If you never leave the Westchase bubble, you miss out on many opportunities.

For instance, we had the chance to give our daughter a lesson in politeness when we went to TC Choy’s Asian Bistro one recent Saturday night. It was prompted by the arrival of a group of middle-aged, leather- and chain-clad men and women from the fetish convention in town that weekend.

They plopped down at a table near us.

Always on the lookout for educational opportunities, we quickly dished up the “It’s not polite to stare or point or ask loud questions about people’s dress or look because everyone is different” lecture.

Then we ordered.

Fortunately, once our food arrived, the crazy attire was forgotten (except for the occasionally peek) and we focused on the food before us instead of the leather around us.

Located on South Howard Avenue, TC Choy’s offers dim sum, sushi and Chinese entrees. The restaurant offers more than 70 options of dim sum (bite-sized portions of food traditionally served in small steamer baskets). A favorite at our table was the plump pork dumplings filled with deliciously seasoned pork. We also enjoyed the shrimp and garlic rolls – succulent shrimp, garlic, cilantro and other sauces wrapped up in a crepe and lightly pan-fried. TC Choy’s offers so many dim sum options, they could easily be your meal. We, however, opted to try a bit of everything the Asian bistro has to offer.

TC Choy’s has a full sushi menu – also with enough options to make it your meal. We tried one of their many specialty rolls – the Hawaiian with tuna, avocado and macadamia nuts. The sushi proved fresh and delicious.

There are many dinner-sized and smaller salads and soups, including my favorite, Tom Yum soup. At every other restaurant where I’ve had Tom Yum soup it has consisted of mostly broth with very few vegetables. I figured this was the way it was supposed to be. At TC Choy’s, however, the broth was spicy and delicious and filled with carrots, mushrooms, tomatoes and broccoli. It made for a much more substantial and filling soup.

TC Choy’s has more than 100 Chinese dishes – many quite familiar and some less so. A whole section on the menu is dedicated to clay pot dishes – a method where food is cooked in clay pots that have been soaked in water. Steam is released inside the pot during cooking and the food inside does not lose moisture, creating tender, flavorful dishes. We experienced this delightful way of food preparation with the tofu and vegetable entree and the chicken, mushrooms and pork sausage dish we had.

If you enjoy delicious, authentic Chinese food, I would recommend giving TC Choy’s a try. There were so many interesting items on the menu that we’ll definitely go back to try out more dim sum, sushi and other entrees. On Sundays, they bring dim sum and soup carts around the restaurant, providing an excellent excuse to leave the bubble again.

We’ll just have to check what conventions are in town that weekend.

TC Choy’s Asian Bistro
www.tcchoysbistro.com
301 S. Howard Ave.
251-1191
Hours: Mon-Fri, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. (lunch); 5:30-10:30 p.m. (dinner)
Sat-Sun, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. (lunch); 5:30-10:30 p.m. (dinner)

By Marcy Sanford
 
Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at marcysanford@mail.com.

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Zerillo’s: Wonderful Italian Comfort Food

I’m hooked on the e-mail restaurant coupons.

Each day I can’t wait to see what Groupon, Living Social, Creative Loafing or Yum Yum America (the newest one I’ve signed up for) are going to offer me.

That is how I found out about Zerillo’s Italian Restaurant. I’ve driven through the intersection of Countryway Boulevard and Race Track Road many times, but I hadn’t noticed that there was an Italian restaurant in the small shopping center on the corner there. So on a very rainy weekend, we decided to head out and see what kind of Italian comfort food we could find

We were so glad we did – and even happier the next day enjoying our leftovers for lunch.

Zerillo’s Westchase location has been open about two years. It is a family venture for Dan and Roberta Demeo and their son, Keith, who serves as the head chef along with their family friend Stevie.

On the night of our visit we started with the Half Moon Mozzarella, tasty triangles of fresh mozzarella lightly breaded and fried. Yes, it was fried cheese, which seems to be a dining out staple when we have our 6-year-old with us. But, in our defense, it was really, really good fried cheese. Its accompanying sauce was tangy and also tasty. On a more adventurous night (one with other adults) we want to try the Mussels Mackenzie or Mussels Italiano.

All of Zerillo’s entries are served with your choice of soup of salad. The House Salad and the Caesar Salad we ordered were served on a chilled plate with a chilled fork. The crispy, fresh greens and the homemade dressings were delicious. At that point, I had to order garlic bread because really no meal, especially an Italian one, is complete without some good bread. Zerillo’s has their bread delivered fresh each day from a bakery in St. Petersburg and the garlic cheese bread we had was scrumptious. It had just enough garlic, butter and cheese to give it a great flavor, but not so much as to overpower the bread.

In addition to their pastas served with chicken or shrimp, Zerillo’s has steak, pork chop and veal dishes plus pizzas. My husband and daughter had the Penne Carbonara with Chicken –and they gushed over their selections. I had the Shrimp Scampi with fresh, perfectly cooked shrimp and a rich, savory sauce. 

As an extra bonus Zerillo’s delivers to all of Westchase. We ordered pizzas from them a week later and they too were delicious. I especially like that they have toppings like spinach and eggplant in addition to the usual meat and vegetable toppings you find on most pizza menus.

So the next time you’re craving comfort food, or just good Italian fare, a solution lies just around the corner.

Zerillo’s Italian Grill
http://www.zerillositaliangrill.com
1165 Countryway Blvd.
855-5178
Hours: Mon-Thu, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri, 11:30 – 10 p.m.; Sat,  4-10 p.m.; Sun, 4-9 (To Go available from 1-4 p.m., Sat. and Sun)

By Marcy Sanford

Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at marcysanford@mail.com.

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A Westchase Catch Revisited

After the first time we went to Catch 23 in West Park Village, I knew I’d found my kind of restaurant.

Catch is elegant on the dining side while a bit more casual and fun on the bar side. It also features a patio great for people watching. We’ve had fun visiting Catch on many occasions with friends and out-of-town guests.

Most Westchase residents have either been to or know about Catch 23. It’s been a staple of West Park Village since opening in 2002. I wasn’t sure if there would be anything newsworthy about a review of Catch 23 for WOW readers. Fortunately for me, at the end of May they introduced 20 new items to their menu, including new appetizers, sushi rolls, pasta dishes and sandwiches.

I’ve been able to go to Catch 23 three times over the past month with good friends – once a spur-of-the-moment Friday dinner, another time to celebrate a birthday and finally a weeknight dinner with friends and kids. Each time the food, service and ambience were great. 

On the dining side, we sat at tables covered with white table clothes and felt quite elegant as we sampled the macadamia encrusted Chilean sea bass, cooked perfectly with a delicious citrus buerre blanc sauce and a tangy island mango salsa. My friend enjoys trying different sauces as much as I do and we sampled the seared sea scallops with garlic cilantro butter, spinach Rockefeller and island mango sauces. All the sauces were good, but my favorite accompaniment to the scallops was the island mango salsa.  We also enjoyed a paella full of deliciously seasoned seafood, chicken, sausage and vegetables.

For a birthday celebration we sat at the bar side. I tried sushi (the village roll and the crunchy tuna roll). Both were a little on the spicy side, which I prefer. My friend had the St. Martin salad – a huge, fresh salad with chicken, goat cheese, island mango salsa and citrus vinaigrette dressing. We celebrated our friend’s birthday with the made-from-scratch chocolate mousse pie, which proved scrumptious.

On my last visit I went with several good friends and our children. It was one of those rare nights in June when the weather was still cool enough to sit outside. I had the new lobster and shrimp roll and it was great – full of lobster and shrimp and served on warm French bread. My daughter tried the new wings appetizer and gave it two thumbs up. Sitting on the patio with friends then walking home as the sun set and the sky turned pink was a perfect way to start off the week.

Catch 23 is open for dinner every night at 4:30 p.m. They are located at 10103 Montague Street in West Park Village. For reservations call 920-0045.

By Marcy Sanford

Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at marcysanford@mail.com.

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Miguel’s: Beating the Salsa Out of the Competition

My family and I simply love Mexican food.

When we first started going to restaurants with our daughter, Mexican establishments were the best choice. She loved their enchiladas, quesadillas, rice and beans. When we moved to Tampa, the first thing we knew we had to find was a great Mexican restaurant.

Miguel’s Mexican Seafood and Grill located in South Tampa fits the bill. During his childhood in Texas, owner Miguel Rodriguez learned from and was inspired by his Aunt Ninfa and her restaurant.

In keeping with family tradition, he opened his own restaurant here in 1992. The dishes at Miguel’s are familiar Mexican fare but feature unique and delicious twists that could only be found in Florida. These include the Ixtapa, a lobster tail and fajita combination, and Miguel’s seafood enchiladas and chimichanga – two dishes bursting with shrimp, scallops and crabmeat. Manager Angela Funk told me that much of their seafood, like grouper and shrimp, come from local suppliers.

All of the food at Miguel’s is freshly made and you can really tell from their sauces. I like the Monterrey jack cheese and cilantro sauce that covers the spinach enchiladas. My red sauce-fearing daughter not only has eaten the cheese and beef enchiladas with red sauce but has declared them delicious!

Miguel’s is a great restaurant for families with children. They have paper on tables but no crayons, however, so bring your own. The children’s meals are enough for several children to split. Additionally, you can order your own meal a la carte and have your child share their rice and beans with you. The food appeals to those who are difficult to please. On one visit a picky 3-year-old tried dipping his cheese quesadilla in the salsa and proclaimed it “yummy.”

Miguel’s meat dishes come in traditional offerings like enchiladas, tacos or burritos with ground beef. You can get a little fancier by choosing ribeye, filet or kobe skirt steak as your filling. My husband insists Miguel’s tamales are his favorite.

The dinner tacos put one in a bit of a quandary. Miguel’s offers a choice of chicken, beef, pork, red snapper, filet, lobster, skirt steak or shrimp for fillings – along with avocado, cilantro, onion and quesa cotija.

In my opinion the chips and salsa set the tone for the rest of the meal and help separate the good Mexican restaurants from the great ones. The chips and salsa at Miguel’s are definitely my favorite in all of Tampa. The salsa is freshly made – not too spicy but definitely flavorful. The chips are light, salty, crispy and warm and pair perfectly with a margarita. The hardest part is not eating too many and spoiling your appetite.

Miguel’s recently expanded and renovated their dining area. They added an adult-only courtyard lounge, a soundproof VIP room and new bathrooms that rival those found in upscale hotels.

Miguel’s is located at 3035 W. Kennedy Ave. It’s open for lunch and dinner Mon-Thu, 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri and Sat, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. and Sun, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. They also serve brunch Sat-Sun, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

By Marcy Sanford

Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at marcysanford@mail.com.

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Westchase’s Favorite Foodie Bids Farewell

There is a for sale sign in my yard.

I keep thinking it must have been put there by mistake. The reality sinks in once again and I realize we are moving – words I never thought I would say after living in Westchase.

Our move will be bittersweet. We are sad about leaving Westchase and Florida, yet excited to be moving to Atlanta, where our daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons live. Our son and daughter-in-law who live in south Tampa are also re-locating to Atlanta, which is icing on the cake for us. We will surely miss our friends and good neighbors. At the same time, we look forward to being near our grandbabies.

I have eaten my way through the Tampa Bay area trying to fulfill a promise to my Dishing It Out readers that I made in my first review in 2005. I really did strive to find good restaurants where you can find quality calories – good food for your hard-earned dollars. I hope you all feel that I have accomplished that in the seven years I have been writing my column for WOW.

Many people have asked me what my favorite restaurant is. That’s a very hard question to answer because many favorites come to mind.

Stonechase is certainly a jewel in the middle of Westchase; for many it is their go-to place to grab a fabulous flatbread pizza and run into friends and neighbors. Now we also have Surf Shack, which makes the most amazing margaritas and whose fish tacos reign supreme.

A long ride but worth the trip is Cantina Laredo, whose upscale Mexican fare can’t be beat. Since my review Philly Phlava has moved to another location close by but still has the best Philly cheese steaks you can buy.

The new Yummy House’s Salt and Pepper Shrimp will linger in my mind forever. I will also dream about Osteria Natalina’s pasta pillows, light as air and stuffed with three cheeses in a gorgonzola velvet cream sauce.

The Refinery’s farm-to-table menu is always filled with the most amazing creations to tempt every palate. Meanwhile the homemade ice cream sundaes at Cassis are always the sweet ending to every wonderful offering on their menu. Elegant Armani’s Antipasto Misto, with over 30 selections of Italian delicacies, will transport you to the Amalfi Coast.

We are so lucky to have so many wonderful restaurants in our area.

If I had to name just one favorite, however, Café Ponte would always be at the top of my list. Chris Ponte has consistently worked his magic, day after day, in his award-winning restaurant. I have never been disappointed in a meal there.

Ever.

I will be sure to make it my last stop before moving and I will miss it.

Thank you, WOW readers, for making Dishing It Out your “where should we go to dinner” column. It has been my pleasure to find the good restaurants to recommend to you, my friends and neighbors. I offer a special thank you to Chris Barrett for editing my column to make me look good and for being a good friend.

The Carnivore and I will miss all of you.

WOW wishes Gail and Mick Gundersen (a.k.a., The Carnivore) the absolute best as they relocate their taste buds to Atlanta. You will be greatly missed! Gail’s final review appears below:

An Electric Irish Pub


Recently looking for a fun venue to celebrate the Irish in us, The Carnivore and I grabbed our foodie friends and headed to The Pub at International Plaza.

The restaurant’s huge crowd and live Irish music were electric. The live Irish band was riotous as well as talented and had everyone’s toes tapping under the table. The Pub’s drink menu is huge, with some of the most amazing beers you’ll find on any restaurant menu. (The Carnivore, a.k.a., The Beer Snob, had to wipe away tears of joy.) Equally impressive was The Pub’s list of scotches, bourbons and cognacs.

We started our meal with the Pub Spring Rolls – over-stuffed with chicken, black beans, green chilies, jalapenos, cilantro and white cheddar cheese. These were so crispy, flaky and delicious that I could have ordered two plates and made them my dinner. They were served with a spicy dill dressing that was equally fabulous.

For my entrée I ordered the Smoked Gouda and Chicken Rigatoni. The huge bowl was filled with blackened chicken, bacon, red peppers, broccoli and green onions with a house-made smoked Gouda cheese sauce. While I would have preferred a little more sauce, the flavors melded beautifully.

The Carnivore ordered the Corn Beef Reuben Panini. The extra lean corned beef, cooked in-house, was piled high with house-made sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing on grilled rye bread with a side of house-made potato chips. It was authentic and mouth-watering.

Our friend had the Fish and Chips. The humongous piece of fish was battered then fried to a light golden brown. It flaked at the touch of the fork and tasted like it had been caught that day. The house-made tartar sauce accompanying it was wonderful.

Our order of Fish Sliders was a mini version of the same fish on wonderfully fresh, brioche-like mini buns. This dish was perfect for the small eater.

The Pub’s menu offers everything from Gastropub plates to classic pub fare like Bangers and Mash and Shepherd’s Pie. The weekend brunch menu looked awesome and we will definitely go back and give that a try.

The Pub’s wait staff all wore kilts and I will confess to wondering if there was any truth to the tradition of the Scottish military wearing no underwear under the kilts. I finally worked up the nerve to ask my server, but I can’t tell you what he said (blush!).

Here’s the naked truth: be sure to visit. The Pub lives up to the definition of “a public house serving high-quality food and drink.”

I will also add: providing a great time!

The Pub
International Plaza
2223 N.Westshore Blvd.,
Tampa, FL 33607
Hours: Mon-Wed, 11 a.m.-midnight; Thu, 11 a.m.-1 a.m.; Fri and Sat, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sun, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

By Gail Gundersen

Gundersen, a resident of Woodbay and lifelong foodie, can be reached at gailgund@hotmail.com.

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Island Influence with a Comfortable, Casual Atmosphere

Welcome to da Islands, mon!

Rumba Island Bar & Grill opened in Oldsmar several months ago. It’s the fourth restaurant to open on the same site. Judging by the crowds, it may be the last.

Rumba opened to packed crowds, particularly on the weekends. The Friday night we were there, they were slammed. Arriving without a reservation, we waited 40 minutes to be seated.

Part of the Baystar Group – which includes the Island Way Grill, Salt Rock Grill and Marlin Darlin, Rumba is the first restaurant on the site to re-model the inside. Its amazing new bar is massive and wide open to the outside eating area. Rumba’s inside booths and tables, moreover, are tasteful, attractive and comfortable.

Rumba invites diners to taste the flavors of the island, which is exactly what we set out to do.
The restaurant’s Island Shrimp and Rice bowls proved interesting combinations of small shrimp, fresh fruit, veggies and pecans served over coconut rice. Diners also have the option of adding several seafood choices and jerk chicken. I chose to add blackened grouper to make it a dinner entrée. While the fish was wonderful and spicy, the surprise was the delicious combination of ingredients with the rice. The dish was excellent!

The Carnivore ordered the Fried Okra With Jerk Aioli as an appetizer. Okra is of his favorites and difficult to find on most menus. It did not disappoint. His entrée of Barbados Style Ribs was slow smoked and smothered in a sweet and tangy mango sauce. The ribs were meaty, lean and fall-off-the-bone delicious. He is a sucker for mac n cheese and Rumba’s was full of crab and oozing with cheddar.

One of Rumba’s specials was a Rum Glazed Mahi Mahi with a side of the restaurant’s comforting Crab Mac N Cheese. The mahi was moist and the sweetness of the rum glaze proved a perfect complement. The dish was accompanied with a sautéed fresh vegetable mix of snow peas, red pepper, carrots, broccoli and onions.

Another entrée, Rumba’s Island Seafood Platter, proved a beautiful presentation of grilled mahi, crab cake, coconut prawns and fried shrimp. We were pleasantly surprised to see that the crab cake was heavy on the crab and light on the fillers. All of the seafood was flavorful and fresh – a seafood lover’s delight.

Served with most entrees are Mama Maria’s Muffins, small, two-bite muffins with mildly flavored scotch bonnet peppers and cheddar cheese. They are served hot out of the oven and are scrumptious.
Open seven days a week, Rumba has an early menu from 11:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. when prices are reduced on an array of choices. They also offer two-for-one margaritas, sangrias, and Island Rumba Signature Libations all day.

Rumba is another quality restaurant to add to our ever growing list of local places to dine. It offers interesting food for reasonable prices in an electric party atmosphere of fun. Once inside and enjoying its Caribbean-influenced food, you just might imagine you are in the islands. You are only limited by your imagination.

Welcome to da islands, mon!

Rumba Island Bar & Grill
http://www.rumbagrill.com
3687 Tampa Road, Oldsmar
475-5975

By Gail Gundersen

Gundersen, a resident of Woodbay and lifelong foodie, can be reached at gailgund@hotmail.com.

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A Newcomer of Note

After I’ve lived in Florida for 14 years, strip mall restaurants don’t even raise an eyebrow.

It’s all about the food and not the façade. Yet a newcomer on the restaurant scene, Wimauma, just opened at the end of December. Run by chef and owner Gary Moran and his wife Amy, Wimauma already has people taking notice. That’s no small feat in the restaurant business.

Wimauma is a work in progress with ambitious plans to add a bar and a private room with a chef’s table. Gary’s concept of local and fresh is not new to our area. His menu, however, stays true to what is in season and changes daily based upon local availability. It’s very impressive.

On the night we visited with two of our children, we discovered several interesting menu choices. We shared a small plate of Cracker Meal Crusted Fried Green Tomatoes with a superb tasting country ham with watercress and buttermilk-ranch vinaigrette. Its light breading was crispy and the ham proved like bacon but better. The dish appropriately perked up our taste buds and we were excited to order our entrees.

My choice was the Pan Roasted Local Black Grouper, which was served with an amazing roasted corn with Cuban chorizo, grilled red onion ragout and smoked paprika aioli. The grouper was freshly caught and the accompaniments were excellent.

Another dish, the Shrimp and Grits, featured large Florida shrimp with a tomato, basil, white wine and pork bark (the crunchy exterior of a pork butt). This was all about additional flavor and was served with Old School Grits. With its addition of tomato basil and white wine, the dish proved wonderful and different.

Wimauma does its own smoking using Florida oak, so the Carnivore’s choice was an easy one. The Texas Style Smoked Brisket platter, served with Old School Grits and Braised Collard Greens, jumped off the menu. The brisket was New York-deli style, shaved thin with a Carolina Barbeque sauce. It was unique and mouth-watering. The collard greens were a combination of mustard greens, collards, ham and bacon, braised with sugar and vinegar. They were awesome!

The Southern Style Fried Chicken Bucket is another must-have on their menu. After one bite you will know why. It is served with incredible, melt-in-your-mouth hush puppies. They were moist and light as air – the best I have ever eaten.

But the chicken? Oh my! It was can’t-stop-eating good. The Carnivore was the happiest I have seen him in a long time. With a beautiful crust on each piece of crunchy, juicy goodness, the chicken was truly extraordinary.

Another exciting dish was the Beef Two Ways-Grilled New York Strip and Red Wine-Chocolate Braised Beef Shoulder served over Orzo with Fresh Ricotta and Rosemary. The medium rare slices of the steak proved a lovely contrast to the braised beef shoulder. The red wine and chocolate sauce was sublime – it went perfectly with the beef. The simple orzo was further enhanced by the creamy ricotta cheese. Each bite left you wanting more.

Chef Gary Moran’s talents in the kitchen are notable and impressive. With his ever changing menu, you will have many delicious reasons to return to taste his endlessly creative culinary possibilities.

Wimauma
4205 S. MacDill (in the St. Croix Shopping Center)
Tampa, FL 33611
793-1687
Lunch: Tue-Sun, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner: Tue-Sun, 5-10 p.m.
Brunch: Sat and Sun, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

By Gail Gundersen

Gundersen, a resident of Woodbay and lifelong foodie, can be reached at gailgund@hotmail.com.

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Barbecue Ponte Style

Chef Chris Ponte is at it again.

This time he has consulted on the menu for the new CJ’s Bar-B-Skew. When Ponte is involved, you know it won’t be just any barbecue joint. Lucky us!

CJ’s, which opened in September, is funky and very casual. Its rock ’n roll theme features classic rock stars adorning the walls. While diners still walk up to the counter to order, CJ’s is saved by its very interesting menu. The “groupies” (servers) will bring your order to your table.

The menu offers Skewers, which are Greek inspired – a surprising find on a barbecue menu. We tried the Mediterranean Chicken Skewer filled with roasted red peppers, grilled onions and chicken. It’s accompanied by basil pesto and served on a warm pita with shredded lettuce, onion and tomato salad. It was a healthy option for a barbecue joint. Our only complaint was there could have been more chicken.

The Greek Vegetable Skewer was a vegetarian’s dream. Chunks of roasted portabella mushrooms, peppers, grilled onions, hummus, marinated tomato and cucumbers were topped with a creamy feta sauce and served on a warm pita. It was a delicious and healthy choice.

I tried the half slab of St. Louis Ribs and pulled-pork combo. Lots of finger-lickin’ good sauce accompanied the meaty, fall-off-the-bone ribs while the chunks of pulled pork were lean, moist and delicious. The Green Apple Slaw proved another cool accompaniment to the tangy ribs. I also couldn’t pass on the Smoked Mac Attack – mac and cheese with smoked gouda. It didn’t disappoint. The gouda cheese was a nice change from cheddar.

Our order of Chicken Corn Chowder arrived thick and creamy and full of chicken chunks, carrots, fresh corn and mushrooms. Umm umm good!

The Carnivore ordered the Half BBQ Chicken and Pulled Pork combo with a side of Red Bliss Potato Salad and the Cast Iron BBQ Beans with pecan-wood smoked bacon. He devoured the moist chicken and pork. The potato salad, one of his favorites, tasted homemade – another unexpected find. He gave it a thumbs up.

Another interesting side was CJ’s Ancho Chili Deviled Eggs. They proved a creamy, kicked-up version with cheddar cheese and bacon. And let’s not forget CJ’s hot jalapeno corn muffins that accompany most barbecue orders. They are great for sopping up that tangy sauce!

You will smell the smoky aromas coming from CJ’s before you even see the restaurant. You will be salivating before you park your car.

Attention to details like brioche buns and tobacco onions – and the addition of healthy, interesting sides and skewers – will have you returning to CJ’s again and again.

CJ’s Bar-B-Skew
10047 N. Dale Mabry
963-1110
http://cjsbarbskew.com
Hours: are Sun-Thu, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.,; Fri-Sat, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

By Gail Gundersen

Gundersen, a resident of Woodbay and lifelong foodie, can be reached at gailgund@hotmail.com.

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California Fare Surfs into Westchase

You’re not Californ-I-A Dreamin! Everybody’s gone surfin’!

Surfin’ Westchase, U.S.A., that is, so wax down those longboards and head over to our new Surf Shack!

The owners of Stonechase have opened the Surf Shack Coastal Kitchen in the old Chico’s location. The décor is California cool. Surfboards hang from the ceiling, sleek tables feature tops filled with Clearwater Beach sand and cement floors look like the surf just rolled in. The bar mosaics are gorgeous. There is even a monster TV screen featuring surfers showing off their skills.

Chef Eben Chriss brings his culinary talents to the Surf Shack from Mekenita Mexican Grille in Lutz. You are going to love his menu, which emphasizes fresh ingredients. We started with the AhiTuna Poke’, a mound of diced freshly caught Ahi tuna mixed with diced red peppers and cucumbers then tossed in a poke’ sauce (sesame, soy and scallions). It was served over the house surf slaw of cabbage and red onion in a citrus dressing. A side of hot, deep-fried (but not greasy), won-tons accompanied the tuna.

The dish was healthy, fresh and delightful.

I live to find the perfect fish tacos. At Surf Shack, I found not one but two! The Longboard Fish Tacos were amazing. A huge piece of beer-battered, lightly fried cod was tucked inside a flour tortilla with a great chipotle sour cream drizzle, surf slaw and fresh pico de gallo.

Served in corn tortillas, the Pipeline Fish Tacos were grilled, fresh cod, thinly sliced cabbage and the most amazing chile-tomatillo salsa you will ever taste. It completely changed the taste of these tacos! The other creative addition was pickled red onions, which tamed the strong onion beautifully. Both tacos had minimal ingredients but maximum impact.

The Shack Wrap is as California as it gets. Its flour tortilla contained moist chunks of chicken grilled with a spicy house rub with Applewood bacon, mixed greens, tomatoes, avocado and shredded cheddar and Jack cheeses. Its attention-grabbing mango-passion fruit vinaigrette will wake up your taste buds. The combination of flavors were mouth-watering.

From the Shack Stack offerings (their signature dishes), we chose the Tenderloin Stack. There was no way was The Carnivore was going to pass this up. This dish was beautifully presented with layers of grilled tenderloin steak chunks, black beans, grilled onions, fresh corn, guacamole, chipotle sour cream, pico de gallo, shredded cheese, citrus rice and garlic-tomato salsa – all sandwiched between two crunchy, lightly fried flour tortillas. He was dazzled by the dish’s many fresh and satisfying tastes. He will forever have a hard time ordering anything else on his many trips back to Surf Shack. They may as well name it The Carnivore Tenderloin Stack!

Ahem, a word about dessert. The California Cannoli is a not-to-be missed creative concoction, guaranteed to conquer your sweet tooth cravings forever. Chef Eben puts macadamia-nut, white chocolate cookie dough into won-ton wrappers, then lightly fries them to a golden brown. Four arrived nestled in a bowl with whipped cream drizzled with a caramel sauce.

The Surf Shack plans a new covered patio for dining al fresco. At opening they were serving the freshest and most creative sangrias you will ever taste. Several interesting beers and wines by the glass were also available. Their expanded liquor license is expected mid to late January. Afterward they promise the most delicious and freshest tasting margaritas. No mix, ever. (Be still, my beating heart!)

I must also mention the selection of non-alcoholic, hand-shaken teas and juices. These are all made with fresh fruits pureed or muddled into memorable beverages.

Surf Shack Coastal Kitchen is a wonderful addition to Westchase. I haven’t been this excited about a restaurant in a long time. The food is creative, unique, healthy and scrumptious. Put down this review right now, grab the kids and drive over and check it out.

Hang ten, dudes! See you at Surf Shack with my bushy-bushy blonde hairdo!

Surf Shack Coastal Kitchen
12217 W. Linebaugh Ave
475-5916
Hours: Sun-Wed, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Thu, Fri and Sat, 11:30 a.m.-midnight
Happy Hour: 3-6 p.m. daily.
Sundays kids eat free (one kid’s meal per adult entrée)

By Gail Gundersen

Gundersen, a resident of Woodbay and lifelong foodie, can be reached at gailgund@hotmail.com.

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A Modern, Upscale Twist to Traditional Mexican Fare

Our area is in desperate need of a quality Mexican restaurant and I’ve found one that may just be a good start.

Opened by the owners of Flamestone American Grill, Besa Grill’s menu features your favorite Mexican dishes with a modern twist.

While we waited a few minutes for our table, we sat at Besa’s bar and asked the bartender to prepare traditional Margaritas without the standard mix. He did a great job – with fresh squeezed limes, Grand Marnier and quality tequila.

The traditional pre-dinner chips arrived with our choice of three of five different guacamole options. (You can even add lump crab for an additional charge.) We chose the creamy goat cheese and aged bleu cheese, the traditional with cilantro, onion, jalapeno, tomato, garlic, lime and cotija cheese, and the roasted corn and black bean. All three choices were scrumptious. The tortilla chips were house-made, hot and salty. They made for a mouth-watering beginning.

Arriving before the entrees, Besa’s chicken tortilla soup was more like a puree than a traditional, broth-based soup. Its roasted tomatoes lent a smoky flavor and it arrived thick with corn, onions and chicken. We thoroughly enjoyed their version.

For his meal the Carnivore ordered the three street tacos. He could choose from among steak, chicken, fish and duck. He could not, however, order three different ones, which was disappointing. He chose the fish tacos with grilled, seasonal white fish, cilantro, Napa cabbage, jicama, queso anejo and avocado crema. They were a little bland and could have been so much better with some good seasonings.

I ordered the Ahi Tuna Tower – three layers of fresh, marinated Ahi tuna tataki, tossed in cumin, mandarin and soy sauce. It arrived stacked with a layer of guacamole and Besa rice and topped with crispy fried carrot ribbons. A lovely presentation, its flavors complemented the tuna.

On another trip for lunch we tried the Tres Salsas, consisting of black bean and roasted corn, mango ginger, and diced yellow tomato. These were all quite good, made with fresh ingredients and were accompanied with a basket of Besa’s wonderful, house-made tortilla chips.

For our lunch entrees we ordered Besa’s flatbreads. The flatbreads were presented on a long, narrow, wooden serving board. Both were full of flavor and delectable and lived up to the menu’s modern Mexican promise. Besa’s Lobster and Grilled Pineapple Flatbread featured tons of melted manchego cheese and toppings of grilled pineapple, red onion relish, caramelized poblano peppers, tomatillo sauce and queso anejo – all on a thin and crispy lavash cracker crust. The Pulled Chicken Flatbread was topped with moist, shredded chicken, diced avocado, roasted corn, cilantro, black bean puree and gooey manchego cheese.

Besa Grill has several appealing seafood and meat entrees as well as beautiful salads. A children’s menu for kids 10 and under is also available.

Make reservations at Besa Grill. You too will discover it is a quantum leap from the usual, tired Mexican restaurant to a new, sleek and chic fun place.

You’ll find all your Mexican favorites there – with a new, modern, upscale twist.

Buen provecho!

Besa Grill
http://www.besagrill.com
2542 N. McMullen Booth Rd.
Clearwater, FL 33761.
(727) 400-6900
Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. and dinner 4 p.m.-Close

By Gail Gundersen

Gundersen, a resident of Woodbay and lifelong foodie, can be reached at gailgund@hotmail.com.

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A Yummy Chinese Favorite

It has been four years since I reviewed Yummy House on Waters Avenue and it still remains one of my all time favorite restaurants.

In June a new, swanky Yummy House location opened on East Hillsborough Avenue. After a recent enjoyable visit featured great food and a chic atmosphere, I’ve decided to revisit Yummy House in review. I must sing their praises again.

Along with four friends, The Carnivore and I went to check out their new venue, which features a family-style dining option. (A wonderful lazy Susan on each table allows visitors to share all of the dishes ordered.) More important, the new site represents a quantum leap in décor from the Waters location. A lovely bar welcomes visitors and announces that beer and wine are served at Yummy House’s new addition.

We started with the Salt and Pepper Calamari. Yummy House fried lightly battered strips of calamari to a light, golden brown and served it with their novel “salt and pepper” seasoning. Consisting of caramelized garlic with sliced jalapenos, onions, cilantro and scallions, the “salt and pepper” mix made this dish fabulous. As my favorite dish from the Yummy House menu, it will truly be one of the best things you’ll have ever eaten.

Our second favorite was the Hot and Sour Seafood Soup. Its thick and tasty broth included shrimp, mushrooms, noodles, tofu, fish, crab and red chili peppers. (We never leave the restaurant without ordering another quart to take home.)

We ordered four entrees for the six of us, which proved more than enough food. Two choices were from the list of restaurant specials that evening. Darren’s Basil Chicken (Darren was the restaurant’s decorator) featured the familiar poultry with fresh asparagus, basil leaves and fresh mushrooms in a garlic and black bean sauce. This stand-out dish was full of flavor; its chicken was tender and moist and the vegetables were crisp yet tender. The other special, the Flaming Dragon and Phoenix, was a mix of shrimp and chicken with fresh mushrooms and asparagus in their famous spicy and sublime XO sauce.

Yummy House’s Fried Rice is some of the best I have ever eaten. The rice is always moist, never dry. It was served with chunks of shrimp, chicken and pork with egg, parsley and scallions.

The best entrée of the evening, however, was the intensely flavored Szechuan Style Pork – tender strips of succulent pork plated with onions and scallion tops. Our last entrée, The Honey Pepper Beef, featured quality beef in a Honey Pepper sauce with scallion and snow peas. It proved another enjoyable winner.

Every dish we ordered at the newest Yummy House proved remarkable as well as memorable. Consistently excellent, Yummy House offers the best Chinese food that I have eaten anywhere. Run to Yummy House China Bistro and be sure to take some friends for a not-to-be missed dining experience.

Bon appé[vulgarity]!

Yummy House China Bistro
620 E. Hillsborough Ave.,
Tampa 33610.
(813) 237-3838
Hours: Mon-Sun, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9:30 p.m.

By Gail Gundersen

Gundersen, a resident of Woodbay and lifelong foodie, can be reached at gailgund@hotmail.com.

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Sublime and Impressive Dining

Occasionally you need to treat yourself and someone special to an impressive, sublime meal.

It can be accomplished with a reservation at Massimo’s in Palm Harbor. Massimo Patano, a veteran chef from Armani’s, opened his wonderful restaurant several years ago. As chef and owner, Massimo strives to present “an artful blend of Italian, French, Mediterranean and Asian cuisines in a casually elegant atmosphere.”

Massimo  has surpassed his goal. His food is creatively prepared and beautifully presented. Accolades abound, including being named “Best Chef” for several years running by Tampa Bay Magazine.

While his restaurant sits in a strip mall, its gleaming white tablecloths against the restaurant’s dark wood are as welcoming as the aromas wafting from the kitchen. On a recent visit we started with salads. The classic crisp, cold romaine of Massimo’s Caesar Salad appeared with delicious homemade bread croutons and Parmesan cheese. Its perfect, homemade dressing suggested just a hint of anchovies. In contrast, Massimo’s Garden Baby Spring Mix teased the palate with tender baby arugula, Gorgonzola cheese and tomato in a wonderful honey-balsamic dressing. Both choices were wonderful.

For my entrée, I ordered the Battuta di Vitello, a beautifully seared veal tenderloin, pounded thin and topped with crab and lobster meat au gratin in a red wine demi-glace and mascarpone cheese fondue. Baby carrots and asparagus accompanied this amazing entrée.

Ordering one of his favorites, The Carnivore was delighted by his Chicken Parmigiana. Its lightly breaded chicken breasts were pounded very thin and topped with lots of mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. It was served with a quality, fresh-tasting tomato sauce over a generous side of angel hair pasta. The dish proved both delicate and delicious.

Massimo’s veal special was a huge veal chop in a mouth-watering brandy cream sauce. The chop was rosy rare and succulent. Accompanying it were baby vegetables and a side of mashed, roasted potatoes.

For dessert we chose the Amaretto Mascarpone-Ricotta Cheesecake. The dessert was a gorgeous presentation featuring Amaretto liquor and vincotto, a red-wine reduction. Sharing the plate was a velvety scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. Every bite proved decadent.

I would be remiss if I didn’t add a word about Massimo’s magnificent wine list. The restaurant has received the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence from 2006-2010 – no small task for any restaurant. Massimo’s offers countless bottles from the sublime to the ridiculous and priced accordingly.

If you are looking for eclectic fine dining with luscious, beautifully presented food, make that reservation at Massimo’s. You won’t be disappointed.

Buon Appetito!

Massimo’s Eclectic Fine Dining
http://www.massimosrestaurant.com
31876 U.S. Highway 19 N.
Palm Harbor, FL 34684.
(727) 784-1881.
Hours: Lunch, Tue-Fri, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; Dinner,
Tue-Thu, 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri and Sat, 5:30-11 p.m.

By Gail Gundersen

Gundersen, a resident of Woodbay and lifelong foodie, can be reached at gailgund@hotmail.com.

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A Restaurant Worth Celebrating

For her birthday, a friend suggested we celebrate with lunch at Ozona Blue in Palm Harbor.

I had not heard of Ozona Blue, so I was eager to check it out. Ozona Blue Grilling Company turned out to be a very nice surprise.

In addition to several areas of inside seating, several outside covered decks featured ceiling fans and even open areas with umbrellas.

Ozona Blue’s menu was pretty extensive. It ranged from gorgeous, hand-cut beef choices displayed in a large, covered case as you entered the restaurant to hand-rolled flatbreads. Hearty salads and several interesting chef specials rounded out the fare.

I love fish tacos so I was excited to try their Baja Fish Tacos. These tacos were some of the best I have ever eaten. They were so stuffed full of fresh fish (diners are given the choice of fried, Cajun or grilled) I needed both hands to pick them up in order to eat them. In addition to the fish, the tacos were overflowing with lettuce, tomatoes, aged cheddar and jack cheeses and a fabulous, spicy remoulade sauce that was delicious. Pico de gallo was spooned over all before the tacos were wrapped in a flour tortilla. The dish proved wonderful. I also had a choice of sides so I ordered the black beans over yellow rice, which was surprisingly tasty.

My friend ordered the fresh blackened grouper sandwich. The fish was firm and moist. The large bun was loaded with lettuce, tomatoes and that same spicy remoulade sauce. It once again elevated the sandwich from the usual to the wonderful. The sandwich had just the perfect amount of heat to make it more interesting. Accompanying it was one of the best slaws I have tasted – delicious with just the right amount of vinegar to make it tangy and not too sweet.

Of course, we made room for birthday dessert. Neither of us, however, was prepared when the waiter brought the carrot cake. It arrived in a gigantic bowl with three large squares of carrot cake and mountains of whipped cream drizzled with butterscotch and toasted coconut. If that weren’t enough, its center held a very large scoop of praline ice cream. We just sat and stared. The cake proved extremely moist with lots of nuts and cream-cheese filling. It was both monstrous and decadent.

Ozona Blue is a great, casual restaurant with better than average food for a good price. It’s a fun place to take the kids where they can swim (yes, they have a great pool for customers) while you enjoy a [vulgarity] at the outdoor tiki bar. You can also make it a lovely night out with great water views and live music on Tuesdays through Sundays. Ozona Blue is also accessible by boat.

Ozona Blue Grilling Company
125 Orange St.
Palm Harbor, FL 34683.
(727) 789-4540.
Hours: Mon-Thu, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri and Sat, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun, 9 a.m.-10 p.m.

By Gail Gundersen

Gundersen, a resident of Woodbay and lifelong foodie, can be reached at gailgund@hotmail.com.

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