Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Ravenous Pig, Winter Park, Florida

My kids are on spring break this week and we are enjoying a long-deserved Disney vacation.  But that does not mean that I take a break from my search for gastronomic delights.  Lucky for us, four Central Florida chefs recently earned honors as James Beard Foundation Award semifinalists.  Two such chefs, James and Julie Petrakis, have made their culinary mark in the upscale Orlando suburb of Winter Park with their restaurants, the Ravenous Pig and Cask & Larder.  Both feature seasonal fare from local farms, fishermen and purveyors, following the current farm-to-table trend.  Today, the Ravenous Pig was the ideal location for a reunion with a friend.

The one-page one-sided dinner menu features seasonal items.  I ordered Gruyere biscuits to start.  My  love of cheese and biscuits made me curious and I'm thankful for my curiosity.  The buttery flaky squares come served in a basket with generous pots of butter.  Hints of Gruyere were definitely there but not obvious or overwhelming.   That was a good thing because I love to slather butter on my biscuits and the mix of butter with Gruyere is a good one.

For dinner, I order Florida pompano paired with black lentils and rigatoni.  The pompano was nicely browned and properly cooked.  But I didn't find the fish to be a standout on the plate.  I was much more satisfied by the lentils, generously mounded atop what is billed as a romesco sauce.  I tend to be attracted to high flavor profiles and the romesco sauce satisfied that part of my palate, making it a nice compliment to the otherwise delicately flavored fish.  For me, the only miss on my plate was the rigatoni.  Others may not mind it, but the bite of this pasta was just too toothy for me.   I would have been just as happy without it on my plate.

Now usually I don't comment on what others at the table have for dinner, but I'm making an exception today for the steak frites.  Because I was on vacation I ordered dessert and while waiting I took the opportunity to finish off the last bit of this flat-iron steak straggling on my husband's plate.  I don't typically order steak for myself but, if I ever come back to the Ravenous Pig, I will certainly order this plate for my own enjoyment.  The porcini mushroom rub that coated this steak is really very good.  But more than that, there was a tender texture to this meat that I still have trouble describing.  I swear it has something to do with the way that it must have been cooked although the method is evading me.  The look and texture of the steak was not what I would expect of something cooked on a grill.   And if I wasn't concerned about embarrassing myself with my novice appreciation of the science of cooking, I might say this was made sous vide.  I suppose it will just remain a mystery to me, at least until next time.

And the next time, I am most likely to order the cannoli for dessert again.  This is no traditional cannoli so true die-hard fans of the Italian treat might think twice about this dessert.  All others, however, may enjoy this reinvention.  This cannoli is much more delicate than its traditional inspiration, much more like a tuile.  Good for me, because I happen to love tuiles (which are so reminiscent of the Filipino barquillos I grew up with).  These sweet thin cookies were still filled with mascarpone although in a consistency of a whipped cream rather than a soft cheese.  Dusted with pistachio powder, set atop minced strawberry and honey (another one of my loves) and accompanied with a tart spoonful of strawberry sorbet, this sweet treat was an ideal capper to my dinner.  It's that kind of dessert that sates my sweet tooth without overwhelming it.  Perfect.

How much we spent:  With tip, we spent about $200 for our party of five, about $40 per person.  Our check did include, however, a glass of chardonnay for myself (yes I took my antihistamine), a couple of pints for our friend and three desserts.  A more dollar conscious diner could spend less.

My overall rating:  3 1/2 spoons.  I liked this restaurant.  I definitely loved the dessert.

When you have a minute, check out Anna's mini review.

The Ravenous Pig on Urbanspoon

Anna's Mini Review: The Ravenous Pig, Winter Park, Florida

Hi every one!! Its me, Anna, and I'm reviewing The Ravenous Pig !!!!

So, I had the sea bass (it is so clear that it's fish).  It had a spread of what I think was some sort of pesto all over the plate and it also had a baby onion on my plate.  It had 3 slices of radish on my plate too. Since I don't like radishes I decided to not eat them.  But if you like them you could eat them.

Oh! And I had yellow tomatoes too!!!! I also had what think was a little bit of quinoa and romanesco, too. Now for the sea bass. My fish had a little bit of pepper and a nice amount of salt. It was very tender too. 

I also had a lemonade. It was a little sour. I had to put two packets of sugar.

Now the service. The service was quick and very good. No spills and no messes.  I had a really really good time.                

I give the Ravenous Pig 4 spoons!
Now go read my Mommy's Review!


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Bricktops, Naples, Florida

Bricktops Restaurant in the Waterside Shops.  Photo taken from

I don't typically write reviews about chain restaurants but today I make an exception for Bricktops.  Why?  Well, because I ate something exceptional yesterday and now I am in love with the Palm Beach salad.  Maybe it was just because I was in the mood for a good salad, but I think this is one darn good salad.  And, let's face it, it is very hard to find a truly good salad.  Many underestimate the salad as a dish.  I've come to the realization that we put in too little effort in preparing salads.  But now that I've committed myself to cleaner eating, salads are quickly becoming a staple in my diet.  The unimaginative mix of lettuce, tomato, cucumbers and lettuce is just not going to suffice anymore.  Not when I'm in need of a flavorful, filling salad entree option.   The Palm Beach salad definitely fits the bill.

Bricktops' Palm Beach Salad.  Photo taken from the Dish by M.M. Cloutier for the Palm Beach Post.

This beautifully prepared deconstructed stack of avocado, lump crab meat, tomato, shrimp and chopped egg surrounded by micro greens and cherry tomatoes had me at hello.   I admit that my initial infatuation was ignited first by the micro greens.  I don't know what it is about micro greens but I can't help but love them.  Maybe it's because I myself am petite.  It's like they were made for me.  But the true stars of this plate?  The avocado and the shrimp.   The wonderful thing about avocado is that it soaks up the flavor of whatever it's paired and seasoned with.  In this salad, that allows the avocado to serve as a healthy, substantive and flavorful alternative to dressing.  That's a good thing because the shrimp on this plate does not need to be overwhelmed by anything else.  This shrimp is perfectly dressed, not drowned as so often can be the case.  And the methodical stacking of this salad makes it easy for one to compose each and every ideal bite.

I love the fresh clean taste of this plate.  You may too.  I guarantee that I will be making a return trip to Bricktops so that I can order this again soon.   Perhaps I may see you there.

BrickTop's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Food & Thought, Naples, Florida

If you've been following along with my blog, you know that I have a penchant for farm to table restaurants.  And now that I've made a resolution to cut out processed foods, I'm in greater need to find good all natural/organic purveyors.  This Presidents' Day, the kids and I took a trip to the Naples Botanical Garden to enjoy the installation of the Lego sculpture exhibit.  But before we could take in the sights, lunch was definitely on the agenda.  In a world dominated by fast food options, finding a fresh and healthy lunch option pleasing to younger palates is a daunting challenge.  I think I could count on one hand the available options in our town.  But lucky for me today, our local Panera Bread is in the same shopping plaza as a local gem, Food & Thought.  I was introduced to this organic market and eatery by a friend but had not been back in quite a long time.  I had intended to bring the kids to the well-known chain restaurant but was pleasantly reminded of Food & Thought as soon as I drove into the plaza.  So, today was the day for a return trip.

Fronted by a full organic market, Food & Thought serves breakfast, lunch and dinner from a kitchen counter in the back.  There are some seating options indoors but the best spot to dine is outdoors, especially in pleasantly cool and sunny weather.   Outdoor seating is plentiful and includes wooden tables and benches built around grown trees that provide plenty of shade on a hot day.  Fruits and vegetables in carts along the windows and trees and plants for sale provide natural decoration.

Food & Thought offers various healthy sandwich options, including chicken salad, egg salad and tuna salad.  Hummus is also available for those looking for a vegetarian/vegan option.  Salads and soups are also available.  Those looking for more substance can order entrees such as rotisserie chicken and salmon, each for $6.95.  Entree sides, like red potatoes, brown rice and baked plantains, are also available for $1.95 each.  Today, the kids and I split a rotisserie chicken quarter, red potatoes and a "cup" of vegetable soup.  The chicken was generously seasoned and moist.  My clear favorite, the red potatoes, were slightly mashed and properly salted.  The vegetable soup, although more mildly spiced, was generously stocked with green beans, corn, carrots, onions and potatoes.   The kids and I finished every bite, providing that healthy and flavorful can exist in the same realm.

How much I spent:  $  Our lunch, along with three bottled teas, cost $18 with tax included.  Not bad!

My rating:  3 1/2 spoons.  If you are looking for a good healthy lunch that you can eat without guilt, Food & Thought definitely meets the grade.  Certainly a good post-New Year option if you are sticking to your resolutions!

Food & Thought Organic Market & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Anna Rose's Mini Review: Bricktops, Naples, Florida

Hello.  It's me, Anna Rose!  I am here today to tell you all about Bricktops.

First I ordered this really good grilled salmon.  It was very warm and a little salty, and I loved it.  It also had a little bit of a sweet taste to it.  There was no sauce on it but it was delicious.  They cooked it so good that it was tender.

I also had a side of fruit with it.  It had blueberries, strawberries, mandarin oranges and cantaloupe.  It was really exciting to have blueberries because I never get to have them.

I also had a lemonade.  At first, the lemonade was barely sweet and very sour.  I had to put in three packets of sugar to make it taste good.  Well, that is just my opinion.  My mom thought it made it very sweet.

The service was good.  Nobody spilled anything on me.  I'm grateful for that because I was wearing a very special dress.  They did things quite quick and I was glad about that.

My opinion of the restaurant was actually really good.  You should try it too.

This is the end of my mini-review.  Hope you come back to read more.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Local, Naples, Florida

Gulfcoast Chowder with Snapper and Grouper
Today, my husband had the very good fortune to be invited to play a round of golf with Coach Brian Craig and the men of the University of Kentucky Golf Team.  So, that meant that the kids and I were off to figure out lunch plans for ourselves.  Now, some might be feeling sorry for me right now, having to conjure up lunch plans to satisfy the likes of a 13 year-old boy and an 8-going-on-20 year-old girl.  But, lucky for me, my kids are smart and savvy eaters.  We enjoy lunch dates, even without Dad around, because that means that we can eat seafood to our hearts' content.  My hubby grew up right on the Indian River and apparently years of eating seafood as a youth have turned him off for the rest of his life.  Sad for the kids and I because we LOVE seafood.  So, today, while Dad was away having fun, we turned our bad luck into a stroke of good luck and headed toward one of our staple seafood restaurants in town.

We had intended to spend the early afternoon lunching outdoors at Steamers ... that was until I pulled into my parking space and remembered the new farm-to-table restaurant just next door.  For some months now, I've heard a simmering buzz about the newly opened The Local, a restaurant focused on sourcing their ingredients entirely from local sources.  Apart from featuring locally grown vegetables, The Local also prides itself on being a "Sea-to-Table" restaurant by buying seafood from the local fishermen who pull in their catch from our Gulfcoast waters.  As much as I enjoy nice fried oysters at Steamers, this new place I had to try.  With seafood on my mind, I couldn't resist convincing the kids to give it a try.

Because today was a rather cool but sunny day, we chose to sit outside.  But even as nice as the weather was, the warmth of the Gulfcoast Chowder was calling to me.  I ordered a cup for myself, knowing of course that I would be prompted to share.  The Chowder came out promptly in a clean white cup, piping hot and subtlety scented with the aroma of seafood.  Surprise #1:  This cream-based chowder featured a nice seafood broth.  Often, I find chowders so chock full of potatoes and starchy that classifying them in the soup category seems rather blasphemous.  Not so here.  This chowder is broth and fish, with hints of corn, celery and possibly yellow pepper.  Perhaps even a touch of white wine.  If there was potato in there, it was certainly not obvious - and for me that is fine.  Because what I want most from a chowder is the fish which brings me to ... Surprise #2:  Fish, fish and more fish.  Gulfcoast Chowder is made with snapper and grouper, and a lot of it.  In every single bite.  And I LOVE that, especially because I shared the chowder with the children who would otherwise have monopolized the seafood in my soup.  Nothing annoys me more than doling out spoonfuls to the kids hungry mouths to find me left with nothing but potatoes and celery.  But I had no need to fear at the Local today.  Not one of us was gypped of a bite of delicate fish!  When lunching with the kids sans Dad, I will definitely order this again!

Gulfcoast Shrimp & Grits.  Can you spot the bacon in this dish?

For lunch, I ordered something unusual for me, Gulfcoast Shrimp & Grits.  And now those who know me are bewildered about the grits.  Yep, I'm not a fan of grits.  Polenta I can do but grits, not so much. Why order it then?  Well, I had to think fast on my feet; the kids hadn't given me a lot of time to peruse the menu.  It was right there on the special board and frankly, I like to give the new restaurants I try a bit of an uphill climb when it comes to challenging my discerning palate.  I know, it's not fair, but as my husband likes to say "Life isn't fair."  Thankfully, I do a lot of homework about the new places I try so that I am not too often sorely disappointed.  Not everyone makes the mark, but not everyone crashes in flames.  And happily I can say that I enjoyed my grits today.   Not overly grainy, today's grits were texturally more smooth than I'd had before.   A plus for someone like me.  There was a little more on my plate that I would have wanted, but that was fine.  I ate all but a couple of spoonfuls.

The buttery smooth grits were a good complement to the Gulfcoast shrimp.  If my taste buds are qualified to do so, I can say that these shrimp were indeed very fresh.  It's either that or my mind thinks that they just came from the open waters.  Either way, they were nicely done, sautéed with halved cherry tomatoes.  Nestled nicely in the grits, dotting the spaces between the shrimp, were nice bits of diced fresh bacon hidden in sautéed tomato and chopped green onion.  So well diced and not visually obvious to the eye, biting into the bits of bacon in a spoonful was like opening a surprise gift, one so good that I had find and save the next one for my final bite.  My only want at the end of the dish was just for a touch of acid to freshen my palate.  If I could drink wine, a nice white zinfandel would have done just nicely.  (Gotta remember to bring the antihistamines next time, darn wine allergy!)

How much I spent:  $$.  Today's lunch for 3, with soft drinks and iced tea, cost $67 with tip.  Per person it doesn't soon too bad but it is rather pricey for lunch when you realize that the other diners beside myself were two kids.  The Local has a kids menu but with entrees like shrimp and fresh catch of the day, the prices are bound to be higher than that for typical kids fare.

My overall rating:  4 spoons.  That chowder had me with the fish.  And I'm a sucker for any farm/sea to table/fork restaurant.  You all should know that by now.

The Local on Urbanspoon

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Sauce it Up Recipe #1: Red Wine Cranberry Sauce

I don't drink alcohol (thank you allergies!) but I do seem to get a lot of bottles of wine for Christmas.   Either I'm that good at feigning "happily tipsy" or I have a lot of friends that like to partake of good wine.  But just because I can't drink wine doesn't mean that I can't enjoy it.  Leave it to me to find a way to eat it.  One of my favorite things to do with wine (apart from braising with it) is turning it into a beautiful sauce.

A few years ago, when my husband and I began to brave the task of cooking our own pork belly, we decided to dress up our dish with a cherry red wine sauce.  I have a cooking reputation to protect and, if all goes bad, an unsuccessful belly can be camouflaged with a pretty sauce.  The fact that a nice tart wine sauce does a great job of cutting the fattiness of a belly is just a bonus.  Back then, both pork belly and red wine sauce were new to our repertoire, so a lot of Internet research ensued until I cobbled a recipe that I could confidently serve.  But fresh cherries are not available year round; peak season is during the summer. And that jarred maraschino variety is not a viable substitute.  Trust me on that one.  So, what's a sauce starved gal to do during the holidays?

That's when Thanksgiving came to the rescue.  Every Thanksgiving, I make a to-die-for cornbread stuffing that mandatorily incorporates that ever ubiquitous holiday fruit - cranberry.  This means that come mid-November my pantry is well stocked with a supply of dried organic cranberries.  As I stood before the pantry this past Christmas Eve contemplating a dinner with a cherry-less sauce, my eyes led me straight to the answer.  I don't know why I hadn't thought about it before, but this Christmas the pairing of cranberries and red wine just seemed so obvious ... and perfect, since I had forgotten to buy fresh cranberries for my traditional cranberry sauce.   This result was so good that I am tempted to shelve the cherry version of the recipe permanently ... or at least for a good long while.

Not being one to keep a good thing to myself, I'm now sharing my sauce with you for your epicurean enjoyment ... and in time for me to pair it with a nicely seared piece of flank steak for dinner.  Enjoy it, because I know I will!

Red Wine Cranberry Sauce

2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 large carrot, rough diced
1/2 large sweet or Vidalia onion, rough diced
2-3 ribs of celery, rough diced
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
3 c. red wine
1/2 tsp black peppercorn
1 lg bay leaf 
1 1/2 c dried cranberries
1 tbsp flour or cornstarch

Add 1 tbsp butter and olive oil to a sauce pan over medium heat.  (Keep the other tbsp of butter out at room temperature so it can soften.)  When butter is just melted, stir briefly and add your mire poix (which is just the fancy French way of saying "carrots, onions and celery") and garlic.  (Sorry for the Fancy Nancy reference but I just couldn't help myself.)  Stir the vegetables occasionally and allow them to sweat.  When your veggies soft and onions translucent, add the red wine, peppercorns and bay leaf.  Stir occasionally.  Once the liquid comes to a boil, turn the heat down to medium-low and allow to simmer for 20 minutes.   When simmered through, strain solids out of the sauce being sure to catch the liquid in a second saucepan.   Place the second saucepan of reserved liquid over medium-low heat.   Add dried cranberries to saucepan and simmer for 10 minutes.  Separately mix your reserved tbsp of butter with flour.  When flour and butter are well incorporated, add the butter mixture to the saucepan and stir to incorporate.  Allow the sauce to reduce and thicken until you reach your desired consistency.  Keep warm for service.

Now I typically make my red wine sauces with Cabernet Sauvignon; that's just the variety of red wine I prefer to cook with.  But, I've also made this sauce with Merlot and Pinot Noir (not mixed together of course).  Each version has been satisfactorily pleasing.  But if you are adventurous enough to try this with a Syrah, then by all means let me know how it turns out and comment below!