Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Bay House, Naples, Florida

Chef Andy Hunter's BBQ Catfish with Pickled Veg Slaw
When you decide to write a food blog, it becomes incumbent on you to find great eats and enjoy to your heart's content.  I'm always keeping my eyes and ears out for the next new thing to try or place to go.  But sometimes, great food finds its way directly to me and that's exactly how I found myself at the Bay House some weeks ago.

If you are in Naples for any length of time, you're likely to have heard about the Bay House, a fine dining waterfront restaurant tucked away on Walkerbilt Road.  With its large open windows and tranquil views of the Cocohatchee River, it's a favored spot for Sunday brunches and intimate dinners.  It's a favorite of Naples seasonal residents and the writers of the Lilly Pulitzer travel blog too.  The rave reviews are in large part due to the genius of the Bay House's Chef Andy Hunter and his creative menus.

I count myself lucky to have met Chef Andy's wife, Lyn, a few years ago when our girls joined the same Girl Scout troop.  In addition to a shared appreciation for literature, quick wit and female empowerment, we both know good food when we taste it.  Admittedly though, Lyn has the upper hand on me in that department.  Anna, whose spent a few nights over at the Hunters, tells me that Chef Andy makes the best breakfast bacon from scratch and now she's spoiled for life.  If only I could have my own professional chef!  But Lyn does.  So, when she texted me in mid-July and invited me to be her guest for a Chef's Dinner at the Bay House, I answered with an emphatic "Yes! Yes! Yes!"

The Chef's Dinner experience at the Bay House is no ordinary dining experience.  At 7 p.m. on Saturday nights, in the restaurant's intimate private dining room, Chef Andy hosts a lucky few who partake of a multi-course tasting menu that varies weekly.  Starting with appetizers, moving into entrees and ending with dessert, the Chef's Dinner presents each diner with sumptuous tasting bites that highlight Chef Andy's well honed and artistic culinary skill.  The service of each dish is accompanied by a short presentation from the Chef himself, giving insight into the composition and inspiration of each dish, a presentation that not only whets your appetite but sends your taste buds in search of those inspirational nuggets.  Not to be ignored, the wine connoisseurs amongst the diners also get a table side presentation from the Bay House's sommelier, Jon Roberson, and generous pours of the recommended wines.  Not simply a dinner, the Chef's Dinner experience is enlightening and a treat for anyone with a genuine appreciation for the art of food.

On the occasion of my invitation to the Bay House, I had the pleasure of enjoying a number of dishes.  Some familiar to me from past Bay House trips, and some brand new.  Among my old favorites is Chef Andy's "Yankee" cornbread, described by the Chef to be a northern version of the southern favorite sweetened with sugar to suit the yankee palate.  Served simply alongside house made pickles and deviled eggs, the sweet and tart tastes were perfect starters to the dinner, awakening the taste buds for the dishes to come, which included a fried oyster on cucumber sauce and a lovely smoked onion soup.

Fried Oyster with Cucumber Sauce

A surprising and welcome highlight to the meal was the watermelon granita.  Although an obvious palate cleanser, the granita stood on its own ground.  Refreshing and sweet, paying homage to the end of the summer with its cool taste of watermelon, it was a perfect precursor to Chef Andy's next dish.

If I had to vote on an absolute favorite, the BBQ catfish would have been my chosen winner of the Chef's Dinner tasting menu.  Like the granita, it too was a welcome salutation to a traditional summer taste.  Not appearing to be a barbecue dish, its flavors certainly harkened to barbecue's sweet and tangy tastes.  And since barbecue ribs are a perennial at my home, this dish spoke right to me.  What was so great about this dish, is that is didn't need to be "true" barbecue to taste like barbecue.  And it's that kind of creative attention to flavor that separates the cook from the Chef.

The catfish was followed by a country fried pork tenderloin, served over a bed of white cannellini beans, dotted with a sweet n' savory red pepper jelly, and surrounded by a swath of white country gravy.  And to cap off the night, a piece de resistance:  a banana pudding encased in a chocolate shell, melted by hot fudge poured table side to make for a decadent ending.  Both dishes were a delightful finish to a great southern-inspired meal.  

The Chef's Dinner is a "can't miss" experience and I count myself lucky to have been invited to share such a wonderful meal.  And although each plate came only with small tastes (it is after all a tasting menu), my belly was certainly full and my taste buds satisfied.  As I drove home, with my own mini-loaf of Chef Andy's Yankee cornbread to share with a rather jealous Anna, I knew that it wouldn't be long before I would be back to the Bay House.  In fact, I came back just two days there after with colleagues in tow.  That's how much I loved it, and I know you will too.

Country Fried Pork Tenderloin served over cannelli beans and accompanied by white gravy and pepper jelly

The Chef's Dinners at the Bay House are offered every Saturday evening at 7 p.m. at a price of $65 per person ($35 additional per person for wine pairings).  Seating is limited so reservations are highly recommended.  799 Walkerbilt Road, Naples, Florida, (239) 591-3837

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Osteria Tulia, Naples, Florida

Housemade burrito with heirloom tomatoes and pea tendrils
For the past couple of years, I've been a loyal customer of Collier Family Farms, a local organic produce farm situated east of Naples.  Last season they participated in my local farmers' market, bringing with them a bounty of tomatoes of all types.  Farmer Steve tells me that the best tomatoes on their farm are earmarked just for Osteria Tulia, the "it" restaurant on Naples' famed 5th Avenue opened by Chef Vincenzo Betulia.  With the help of local purveyors like Collier Family Farms and local butcher, Jimmy P's, Chef Vincenzo extends the farm-to-table concept to rustic Italian fare and creates savory masterpieces that will make you want to come back for more.  And I'm not the only one singing Tulia's praises.  This past season, Tulia saw the likes of Harry Connick, Jr. and famed chef Emeril Lagasse too.  With a following like that, you can bet that Tulia will be around for a long time to come.  

Tulia is charming with its rustic wood flooring and inlaid brick, sophisticated but casual with the feel of a European farm house.  It's romantic enough for that long-deserved date night and at the same time perfect for a leisurely night out with friends.  Whether you are a party of one, two or more, it's easy to relax and enjoy yourself in Tulia's dining room.

Chef Vincenzo's first course appetizers are a hit with its visitors.  The most surprising favorite is Tulia's crisp fried pigs ears.  As off putting as it may sound, this is not your ordinary pork rind.  Only slightly chewy in places, crisp in others, perfectly salted and served with an optional lime wedge, its just the right thing to wet your palate and get you ready for the main course to come.  Don't feel like being adventurous, then stick with Tulia's warm bread service and traditional Italian caponata (just like my husband's Sicilian grandmother used to make).  If you'd rather skip the apps and get started on the courses, Tulia offers a delightful selection of salads.  Among my favorites is the soft and creamy house made burrata with some of Collier Family Farm's supplied heirloom tomatoes, dressed with olive oil, cracked black pepper and pea tendrils.  The watermelon and raspberry salad with frisee and feta is also a nice summer option.  

Garganelli with braised lamb and sheep cheese
But the pasta dishes at Tulia are where it is at.  Made on site, these pasta dishes are to die for (and for a little bit extra can be made gluten free).  I'm a short rib fan so the tortellini is one of my go to options when dining at Tulia.  And if Anna isn't with me, the garganelli with braised lamb is a nice choice too.  The meats added to these dishes are both cooked nicely, appropriately sauced and properly highlighted by these well made pastas.  Having difficulty choosing?  Wednesday nights this summer, Tulia offers a pasta tasting flight with a trio of selections.   Have picky kids?  There's no reason that they too can't enjoy Tulia.  I've been told the kitchen will oblige a finicky eater with buttered versions of these pastas.

If you are not into pasta, my newest Tulia recommendation is the seafood risotto.  Anyone who has tried to make risotto at home knows that a well-cooked risotto is not easily done.  It takes a lot of patience and practice.  So when I have an opportunity to order this traditional Italian rice dish at a restaurant with a chef as skilled as Chef Vincenzo, I don't pass that up.  Billed to be made with "all the seafood in the house", this dish is indeed chock full of bits from the goodness of the waters punctuated with fresh cut scallion.  When the risotto appears again on Tulia's regularly changing menu, I will definitely order it again.  

My biggest recommendation though is to come to Tulia with an empty stomach.  Why?  Because, after dining through all of these amazing dishes, you really don't want to miss the dessert selections.  Just like their is savory courses, Tulia's sweet plates don't disappoint.  Visually inviting and equally tasty, these desserts make for a great capper to a great night.

The best thing about Tulia?  Enjoying its fare doesn't really have to break your budget.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm sure you could really blow through quite a bit of cash here if you really wanted to.  But, sans wine and with careful selections, you could really get out of this place on the cheap.  On our first trip to Tulia, the hubby and I skated away with a bill just under $100.  Not bad when you consider we'd ordered a salume app, a salad, two pasta dishes, one dessert, coffee and a glass of wine.  Just the other day, my party of four dined on apps, salads, entrees, dessert, coffee and several glasses of wine for a total, with tip, of $210.  Not bad, right?!  If that's still too rich for your pocket, then head next door to Chef Vincenzo's gastropub, Bar Tulia, for high quality plates at more casual prices.

What can I say, I love Osteria Tulia.  It's one of the places I bring anyone who is new to Naples.  It's a place I go to celebrate a holiday.  Because this place itself is something to celebrate.  

Dining cheque rating:  $$$
Dining spoons rating:  4 1/2 spoons

Osteri Tulia on Urbanspoon

Saturday, July 18, 2015

DeRomo's Gourmet Market and Restaurant, Bonita Springs, Florida

Assortment of my holiday cookies from DeRomo's Bakery

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to wander the NYC city streets on my own and found myself in the epicurean paradise called Eataly.  Its a one stop shop for all things food - grocery, bakery,  fromagerie, deli, restaurant, coffee bar.  It had me at "hello".  I never thought I'd find any place close enough to my own backyard that would come close.  I'm very happy to stand corrected!  In the upscale shopping enclave of the Promenade now stands DeRomo's Gourmet Market & Restaurant, a little slice of Italian heaven in Bonita Springs, Florida.    

Set in old world rustic decor, DeRomo's offers a multitude of offerings.  The grocery offers a wide selection of items including produce, fresh breads and bakery items, homemade and specialty pastas and gourmet snacks.  DeRomo's also has a well stocked meat counter boasting beef, veal, pork and poultry cuts alongside house made Italian sausages and ready-to-cook specialities like braciola.   The variety of available selections makes DeRomo's an ideal shopping location for party hosts and home chefs.

Among my favorite sections in the market is the bakery.  Each trip to DeRomo's guarantees that I will leave with a box full of homemade cookies and pastries.  The pastry case rivals any authentic Italian bakery in Little Italy.  My go to selections include the amaretti and pignoli cookies, both of which have a soft chewy and lightly sweet center prefect to pair with an after dinner cappuccino or espresso.  But if you prefer a sweet with a bit more crunch, DeRomo's bakers do not disappoint with its assortment of biscotti.

In addition to grocery offerings, DeRomo's also boasts prepared foods and ready to order items from its deli area.  Sandwiches, pizzas, flatbreads and hot soups are all available for the lunch diner on the go.  Comfort foods like meat stromboli and Italian wedding soup will not disappoint you.  Don't want to "take out"?  "Eat in" and enjoy your meal on the outside patio.  In the springtime, on a nice temperate day, the patio makes for a nice mid-day lunch date.
For those looking for a more elegant dining experience, head through the market's back door and right into DeRomo's restaurant.  The menu features many of the traditional offerings of fine Italian dining, including my perennial favorite, eggplant parmesan so nicely breaded and sauced.        Those dining alone can also enjoy the upscale experience and set themselves at the bar situated between DeRomo's indoor and outdoor dining areas.

DeRomo's is a unique experience in the Southwest Florida area, one that I have been enjoying many times over since its opening in just over a year ago.   Admittedly, the quality of the fare is reflected in its prices.  But it is quite true that you do get what you pay for.  And when you are looking for something comforting and delicious, DeRomo's is an ideal place to go.

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Sunday, January 4, 2015

Tilia, Minneapolis, Minnesota

The Kitchen at Tilia Restaurant in Linden Hills, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Dining alone can be a bit uncomfortable.  After all, when I'm alone I have no one to entertain me.  And reading or texting while waiting for the meal to come makes me seem antisocial.  But, on occasion, dining alone can also be fun.  At least, that was my experience at Tilia Restaurant in Minneapolis.  

It doesn't happen often but occasionally I travel alone for work.  When I go out of state, I multi-task my trips and combine my day job as a lawyer with my hobby as a food blogger.  If you follow my Pinterest pinboard, you'll see that I've pinned a list of buzz-worthy Minneapolis restaurants.  Tilia was listed as one of the 50 Best Restaurants for 2014 in Minneapolis St. Paul Magazine.  The list is compiled in part by celebrity chef and Minnesota native Andrew Zimmern, so Tilia's inclusion is a big honor.  Located in the cozy residential area of Linden Hills, this small eatery has been open for only three years and has developed a loyal following in that short time.  After dining there, I now know why.

The restaurant admits its space is small, holding only 40 patrons at a time.  So, reservations are not taken.  That is often a problem for groups of any size.  But the solo or coupled diner has two good seating options:  the traditional bar or the chef's countertop.  As a very inquisitive foodie, you can take a guess where I chose to sit.  The chef's countertop offered a coveted front row seat of all the kitchen action.  From that vantage point, I eagerly watched the cooks prepare plates, toss pastas, sear filets and dress salads.  And the quick pace of the kitchen was highly palpable.  The cooks in front of me volleyed shorthand commands to each other while tracking orders and answering occasional questions from myself and other onlookers.  No one in the kitchen missed a beat.  It was a definitely quite the show ... followed then by a great meal.  

As a solo diner, the Tilia menu was a bit intimidating at first.  Apart from a few entrees, it appears that most of the menu contemplates sharing among friends.   But small plates shouldn't be a conundrum for the solo diner.  They are an invitation to taste a variety of dishes without overwhelming one's palate and gorging one's stomach.  And when asked politely enough, I don't turn down an invitation to enjoy good food.   That night at Tilia, I had three great small plates to enjoy.  All plates an homage to my princess Anna.  She must have been heavy on my mind.  

Raddichio salad with dolce gorgonzola, currants, radishes, chive blossoms and sunflower seeds

Chive blossoms
I like a good salad with an eclectic mix of textures and tastes, and the radicchio salad is one that I certainly enjoyed.  The mix of radicchio, currants, sunflower seeds, sweet gorgonzola and chive blossoms got my curiosity going ... my taste buds too.  Not only did it taste good - the crisp and blended flavors, sweet and slightly sharp - it looked good too.  It's just too bad Anna wasn't with me to take in these tiny, yet beautiful, chive blossoms.  She'd have loved it.

She'd have loved the cavatelli carbonara too.  A beautiful handrolled pasta tossed with local seasonal vegetables, cooked al dente and topped with a unique egg yolk custard.  Salty salume, subtle sharp parmesan, and tart scallion offset by the creamy yolk and buttered pasta.  This dish too would have been right up Anna's alley.  Just looking upon it I knew it would be perfect for my little Italian!

Housemade cavatelli with salume, zucchini, parmesan and scallion topped with an egg yolk custard

But what Anna would have loved most would have been the escargot.  She's been dying to try this French delicacy for a very long time.  She actually has yet to do so.  And while some might have considered my ordering this in her absence somewhat of a taunt, I will always believe I did it for her with love.  The truth is that I hadn't had escargot in years myself, not since I was in college.  I'd forgotten what it was like. And before I let Anna have her first taste, I needed to reacquaint myself.

I know the idea of eating snails is off-putting for some, but I don't quite understand why.  We eat a lot of other things that are equally strange without the same trepidation.  Don't we?  Oysters, clams, mussels are all equally odd, right?  And some of these we'll even eat raw!  Need I say sushi anyone?  So snails shouldn't be at all intimidating for even the most novice of food lovers.

Escargot with grilled bread

Prepared the best way, this dish came out all yummy and piping hot.  I'm glad I saved it for last.  Each little snail was nicely cooked, surrounded in buttery creamy cheesy goodness to complement their earthy flavor.  Some of you might be cringing imaging what it might be like biting into one of these little suckers (no pun intended).  But if you've ever bitten into a nice firm cremini mushroom (and many of you probably have), it's really not that different.  In fact, I find that these nice little gems have a knack of soaking up flavor just as nicely as our little fungi friends.  I'd long forgotten why escargot is such a delicacy and it was really nice to be reminded.  And now I can say with confidence that I know Anna will love it too.  It's just going to be a challenge finding a place that prepares this treat just as well.  Maybe one day I'll bring Anna to the Twin Cities so she can enjoy the Tilia experience too.

Tilia on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 2, 2015

Anna's Mini Review: Peace, Love and Little Donuts, Naples, Florida

Hey! Guess what? I went to Peace, Love, and Little Donuts!
Honestly this is the best donut place EVER!!!!
Here they have awesome donuts!

They have lemonade flavored donuts, chocolate flavored donuts, vanilla flavored donuts and more!
They even have maple bacon donuts!!!!!! Awesome, don't you think?

We decided to get the pumpkin, the samoa, the lemonade, the cookies and cream, the chocolate salted pretzel, and the coconut donut.
They were DELICIOUS!!!!!!

The people that worked there were very nice and even recommend some popular flavors that we LOVED (for an example the pumpkin one was suggested)!!!!

I loved Peace, Love, and Little Donuts and I hope you do too!!!

I rate this FIVE SPOONS!!!!!

Butcher and the Boar, Minneapolis, Minnesota

This past summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Minneapolis for business, an exciting prospect given the fact that Minneapolis is home to Chef Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods fame.  Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to catch up to the Chef's traveling food truck, AZ Canteen.  But I still took in some really good eats at an eatery I'm sure Chef Zimmern would give his stamp of approval.  (In fact, according to Food & Wine, he already has.)  

The Butcher and the Boar earned its honors as a James Beard award semi-finalist.  This popular downtown Minneapolis gastropub boasts a menu of unique house-made sausages, charcuterie and a variety of other meat selections that would drive any carnivore crazy (think vampire at a blood bath).  If you are a meat lover looking for something other than the ubiquitous steak, this is most definitely the place to be.  The Twin Cities must be full of meat-eaters because seats at this restaurant are hard to come by, so reservations are a must.  But walk-in diners shouldn't fret.  The full dinner menu can be ordered at the restaurant's lengthy bar.  And the casual open beer garden offers its own shorter, but equally interesting menu.  

As a lone diner, I had the good fortune to find myself a seat at the bar.   Turns out the bar is a great place to be when you are dining alone, probably because it isn't so obvious that you are dining alone.  You also get a good vantage point of what everyone else is partaking in and you don't have to feel awkward about asking your neighbor what's on their plate.  That night, I found myself between two fellow business travelers.  The diner to my right travels regularly to Minneapolis and frequents the Butcher and the Boar just as often.  The diner to my left is a fellow food junkie who made a pit stop in Minneapolis on her way to Wisconsin.  She too had heard the buzz about the place and, like me, wanted to check it out for herself.  That was good to know.  If anything, it confirmed that I was in the right place.  

Now, Anna NEVER lets me order lamb when I am in her presence.  You know that she guests on my blog quite often and we dine together nearly all the time.  I have very few opportunities to enjoy lamb as a meal.  So, when I dine sans Anna, I often give undue consideration to any lamb on the menu.  I'm sure there were other equally good options on the menu but that day, I was on a lamb mission.  And lucky for me, the Boar had a rather tasty sounding lamb merguez sausage on its menu that I just couldn't turn down.  Yes, lucky for me.  

Lamb merguez sausage

This sausage was everything I wanted it to be.  Juicy and spicy through and through.  Paired with butter toasted pita points and vinaigrette-dressed cucumber and red onion, this dish brought to mind an elevated, rustic and deconstructed version of the pitas my mother allowed me in my youth.  An interesting kind of ethnic comfort food for me, who often doesn't travel alone.  I savored every bite of this lamb, free of all the guilt that Anna would have otherwise heaped upon me.  Knowing that it would be a very long while until I would have lamb again, I was sad to see the last bit go.  The diner to my right ordered the same after I did and I couldn't help catching glances at his newly served lamb sausage as I carefully rationed the last bits of my own.

Fortunately for me, the diner to my left was about to come to my aid.  She had a hankering for the short rib which, come to think of it, was not at all short.  In fact, it was huge.  It was so large that I had to ask my new friend exactly what she had ordered.  It was big enough that my fellow foodie was practically begging me to take some off her hands.  I tried to graciously decline, but who am I to turn down food ...

Short rib and fried green tomato

So, of course, I had to help myself to some of her rib ... and to her fried green tomatoes too.  Thank goodness I did because that rib was tender and flavorful, as it ought to be.  And the tomato, so crisp on the outside but sweet and juicy in the inside.  I'm so jealous because I can never get my fried green tomatoes to be so good.  I think I'm spoiled on fried green tomatoes forever.  Definitely will put those tomatoes on my "must have again" list if I am ever to go back to the Twin Cities.  I suggest you do too.  Because the Butcher and the Boar definitely lives up to its hype.

Butcher & The Boar on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Anna's Mini Review: Cafe Lurcat, Naples, Florida

Hello! Anna here.  
Guess what? I went to ...... CafĂ© Lurcat !!! 
My review is going to be an interesting one.

For dinner, I had chicken and gnocchi.  The gnocchi was delicious.  It was tender and soft.  There was also a mushroom sauce which was delish!  I loved it.  The chicken was thick but awesome.  I also tried some of my Daddy's pot roast.  It tasted just like my Momma's short ribs and my Momma's short ribs are the best!  

Now for the service.  Terrible.  The service was terrible.  The waiter forgot my dad's appetizer and one waitress thought that we were someone else and almost gave us the wrong food!  They also forgot the second basket of bread we asked for.  My Dad now never wants to go there again.  This is the first restaurant I ever rated one spoon!