Monday, December 31, 2007

NewYear's Eve Dining is delicious at DINO's with Samuel

Upon receiving an email last month for the $75 multi-course tasting (for seating prior to 630pm) we decided this would be the perfect place as Samuel always loves the pasta there and indeed was very happy with his SPAGHETTI with Tomato Sauce and ONE GIANT MEATBALL. He was able to slosh on as much parmesan as he liked and enjoyed his new addition, a ginger ale. At the same time, we got to pig-out and celebrate New Year's Eve, if a bit early.

The tasting offered a number of selections but all started with a glass of POSECCO CIMA de CONEGLIANO and a plate of TRIS di CAVIALE or three American caviars (Arctic Char, Hackleback and Smoked Steelhead) with garnish.

The atmosphere was one of a real neighborhood spot with a number of young kids and some older diners as well in the "early seating." Will chose to start with the TORTA di FUNGHI which was a crunchy tart of wild mushroom, burdock root & salsify with truffled potato and leek sauce; it was his least favorite part of the meal. My PICCIONE was a tasty chunk of Herb Roasted Breast of Squab with a superb Confit of LEEKS & Natural Pan Juices.

Each course came with a selection of wines for a surcharge. There was the "Really Good" option of 4-3 ounce pours for $40, or the "Incredible" which was $81. The former was quite good, while the latter was superb, but perhaps a bit high on the price range until we hit the Barolo. No matter --it was New Year's Eve and all the wine was beyond enjoyable. We shared one selection of each category so we could taste them all. This course came with a DE CONCILIIS AGLIANICO di PAESTUM 2005 and an ANTICO BROILO SCHIOPPETTINO 2004.

The next course was superb across the board with Will opting for the PAPPARDELLE all'ARAGOSTA, our favorite ribbon pasta with Lobster, Cauliflower and Tarragon Tomato Sauce. My BRASATO di MANZO "WAGYU" was an excellent Australian Braised Wagyu Short Rib Braised in a luscious PINOT NOIR Sauce on Creamy Polenta with Marrow Butter...sheer heaven and I mopped up every last drop of the sauce. The wines were a wonderful HOFSTATTER "Steinraffler" LAGREIN 1999 from Alto Adige that I adored and a DE CONCILIIS "Si Kube" CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2005.

We asked for a break and enjoyed twp extra tastes of wines: MESSAPICUS 2004 from COPERTINO in Puglia made from Negroamaro, Sangiovese, Montepulciano and Malvasia which had a slight Rhone blend flavor and a RONCODEL GNEMIZ "Jacopo" 2004 which is Cabernet, Merlot & Schippettino that we liked even more.

Sam was on his berries and vanilla gelato by now and we enjoyed the excellent entrees with Will have the COSTOLETTE di CINGHIALE, a rack of three wild boar ribs, cave-aged cheddar & potato gratin and juniper jus. My PETTO d'ANATRA was two huge slices of LAVENDER-HONEY Glazed DUCK Breast with a slightly too sweet for me SWEET POTATO MASCARPONE Puree. The wines were a DEFORVILLE "Vignetto Loreto" 2003 Barbaresco and that unreal GIUSEPPI MASCARELLO "Monprivato" 2000 BAROLO.

Desserts came from a choice of a long list and Will could not resist the TIRAMISU laced with Kahlua, Frangelico & Irish Cream. He asked Dean (the owner) if the recipe was new and indeed Chef STEPHAN BOILLON had made changes which improved on the previous recipe multi-fold. I opted for the trio of cheeses and basked in some real treats: CORA ROBIOLA "La Rosa" a cherry leaf wrapped cow,sheep & goat combo robiola from Cuneo) that was perfect to start.

GUFFANTI CASTELMAGNO was a raw milk that was super crumbly and went wonderfully with the dried berry mostardo on the side. The CORA BLU di BACCO was a very mild blue from Cuneo that was superb with the COLUTTA PICOLIT 2004 "sauternes-like" dessert wine from the "Incredible list" while the POPPIANO "Il Cortile" 1999 Vin Santo form the "really good" side may have been one of the best vin santos I have had in a long time!

We headed out after 2-1/2 hours during all of which Samuel was an angel and then went on to a wonderful (if only for an hour) New Year's Eve party near our home.

Another great dining night at Dino's!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Norman's novel cuisine raises the Ritz in Orlando, FL

We ended our two week vacation to Central America (cruise) and Florida at our hotel's signature restaurant, and one of the top rated restaurant's in the Orlando area, NORMAN's at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes ( Both Will and I had anticipated this evening as we have had so many wonderful dining experiences at Chef Norman Aiken's first signature spot in Coral Gables (Miami) and this was his second restaurant, now open almost 4 years. Indeed, he recently opened a third spot in Key West, where he is apparently spending the bulk of his time.

At the Ritz in Orlando, Chef Clay Miller is in charge, and as he made his rounds through the intimate, warm and exclusive restaurant, we discovered that he had worked for an old acquaintance of mine, Chef Gunther Seeger (who is now Atlanta based and quite well known), amongst many others such as stint under our friend Eric Zieboldt now at CityZen in DC, when they were at the French Laundry together. His credits are pedigree and his inventiveness shows, as you shall see if you read on.

We arrived in the dining room having been told that shorts, jeans and sandals are not allowed, and jackets are requested (though not required). The gentleman in front of us was a "regular" of some sorts and insisted on a table for two even though he was in shorts, flip-flops and a polo shirt. When we got to the reception desk, I said that I hope he was being seated in the men's rooms with such an outifit! The hostess said that he had been there before (is this an excuse?) and he was seated on a banquette with tablecloth covering his exposed legs and feet. We, on the other hand, looking so elegant, were seated at a table with a view of the whole room, outside and a glance through to the open kitchen as well.

The dining room is a large octagonal shape with red and beige marble inlaid flooring (reeking of Ritz-Carlton, but quite nice I must say). The center of the room had a raised dark wood vaulted octagonal dome with four vertical wine cabinets setting off a table at the center. We were greeted by manager Pietro who spoke of Italy, the wine, and the food with great love. Speaking of wine, super kudos to the wine list with dozens of wines available by the glass, 250ml (1/3 bottle) and 500ml (2/3 bottle) as well as many half bottles and a wide variety of wines to boot.

We started with the NORMAN's Cuvee IRON HORSE BRUT 1998 from Sonoma Green Valley which was slightly yeasty and refreshing (it had been a sunny 83 degree day at the pool relaxing before our return home today). We were also glad to see Pellegrino on the water list as it had seemed that only that overly-gassy awful Perrier was available at so many Disney and central Florida spots!

We looked over the menu, but we both knew full well what we had come for - THE TASTING MENU, which our wonderful server Frank explained was available at 4 to 7 courses for approximately $20/course; guess what we chose? RIGHT- the whole 7-course shebang, and we left so full, we didn't need a bite today (even though we did eat). We mentioned to Frank that several items on the menu excited us and he had them all included in the tasting, which was really pretty fabulous save for one dish.

Course #1 was the CROQUETAS de BACALAO with MOJO MAYO dip which were rich, creamy and not amazingly more fantastic than those we had previously on this trip due to the chilis inside, the fab mayo, even if a bit salty (well, they are made from salted cod!). The wine was one we have always liked, but not had in some time as the WAIRAU RIVER SAUVIGNON BLANC from New Zealand has gone up a lot in price over the years, At Norman's it is a whopping $11/glass, but also available at $18 for 1/3 bottle, $36 for 2/3 bottle or $52 for the whole bottle (to give an example). It is an intense grapefruit citrus wine and worked perfectly with the salt, cod, richness and spice. Will liked dipping the excellent puffy and salty rolls (almost like sopapillas) in the mayo as well!

Course #2 was a highlight: CRISPY VANILLA BRAISED PORK BELLY with Fontina CHESTNUT Ravioli, Black Olive, SAFFRON pickled QUINCE & MANCHEGO FROTH. The meat was fabulous and I commented how nice it was to have pork belly with about 80% meat rather than 80% FAT! The wine pairing was Pietro's favorite rose, MAS DE LA DAME 2006 Les Baux de Provence, which while a nice wine, I felt was not quite right for this rich dish. Will thought the acidity of the wine was refreshing for the palate with the dish, while I would have liked a medium red a bit more.

At this point, as a father of a 4-1/2 year old I have to ask a question that might seem odd. While at Disneyworld the day before there were plenty of urinals for the kids (at low level) with often only one or NO sinks lower than the others. In the Ritz-Carlton restrooms, the same applied. In a place, where kids abound, why do bathrooms not have low sinks so we don't have to haul our kids up to wash their hands? Stepladders would be a nice alternative, and yesterday afternoon, I turned over a wastebasket, so I didn't have to hold Samuel up to wash his hands at the poolside men's rooms. Indeed, the decor of the Ritz bathroom closest to Norman's needs severe rethinking. It has the standard Ritz elegance with marbled floors and walls, but above this the wallpaper is so busy that it competes with the marble and honestly made me a bit queasy!

Back in the dining room, course number 3 was entitled "FIRE & ICE" New York State FOIE GRAS served cold (torchon), having been grilled and rolled and sprinkled with allspice and a bit to much (though I love it) salt. The opposite side of the dish was hot CARAMEL POACHED and was simply to die for--being the perfect piece of foie gras and so wonderfully prepared. On the side was KUMQUAT JAM and a slice of warm gingerbread as well as a slice of tasty duck prosciutto with a super smokey taste. The wine was a perfect CHATEAU RABAUD-PROMIS 2003 SAUTERNES Premiere Cru that I would be happy to drink with foie gras
any day.

Next came the ROASTED FLORIDA GULF POMPANO (we needed SOMETHING local) with Brussel Sprouts & Pork Cheek Hash, A "Ham Jam," Red Wine Bacon Jus & Bacon Tuille. This was another superb combination, if a bit overloaded with to many things and flavors. It sat on a Sweet Potato Puree with a piece of unneeded Pork Cheek as the fish was superb. A PRIORAT 2003 FONT DE LA FIGUERA was a big strong red wine that went well with the heavy flavors, but still needs a bit more time in the bottle.

The fifth course was the one that left us a bit confused: TAMARIND-SOY GLAZED SWEETBREADS were beautifully served with a paintbrush slash of tamarind across the plate and a magnificent CARAMELIZED CAULIFLOWER & CAULIFLOWER PUREE(really flan). The way to cloyingly sweet sweetbreads sat atop a crispy chickpea pancake that was not enough to tone done the tamarinds super sweetness; an accompanying almond tuille was almost rubbery. Luckily, we were getting quite full and di not mind skipping a bite here or there. The excellent LADERA 2004 NAPA CAB was a great pairing and along with the cauliflower did help a bit to tone
down the dish's sweetness.

CHEESE was a welcome sight as we had not had a good piece of cheese on this entire trip. It was served with a strawberry/ pepper jam (quite tasty), nuts and breads: The mildest were the TOMME de SAVOIE and the P'TITE BASQUE from France with the FLEUR de MAQUIS Sheep following close behind with its rosemary crust. MONTBRIAC was right in there making our choice seem very mild but the PONT L'EVEQUE was a dream, even if Will did say it had the stench of Old Victorian urine (does anyone know what that smells like?). The strongest was the almost blue COACH FARM PYRAMIDES Goat with Green Peppercorn.

We specifically asked for red wine and a DUORO Portuguese DUAS QUINTAS 2000 Ramos Pinto came made from Touriga Nacional and it was a great wine for the final glass before moving to sweet.

The sweet wines were two not too impressive ones. For me a sparkling red BRACHETTO d'ACQUA to accompany MADAGASCAR VANILLA BEAN PANNA COTTA with Wild Mountain HUCKLEBERRY Puree and ALLSPICE CRUMBLE (really a crumbly cake underneath the panna cotta) which was a sensational dessert. Will opted for a super RHUM Ice Cream and okay Cocount Sorbet with a MARCARINI 2003 Moscato d'Asti which also was not a big hit; as you know we prefer sweet thick dessert wines.

Needless to say, we left full and do hope to return to Norman's in Miami, Key West or Orlando again soon, even with the way too sweet sweetbreads!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Disney dining-the Crystal Palace with Winnie the Pooh/Terrific TAQUITOS JALISCO (Orlando,FL)

Today we took Samuel to the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World here in Orlando, FL and we pre-reserved the Winnie the Pooh & Friends Character lunch at the Crystal Palace which is a $24 buffet (1/2 price for kids) which was actually pretty good. While Sam adored being photographed and filmed with his friends Tigger & Pooh and eating the pizza, green beans, chicken nuggets, tomato salad and soft serve ice cream, we thought the meats and fish were excellent, especially the FLANK STEAK. The salads were superb and I thought the Zinfandel dressing was a treat.

Tonight we dined at TAQUITOS JALISCO (a real local spot at 2419 S Hiawassee Rd) which serves tradiitona Tex-Mex food and even had a xylophone player who was quite good. While Sam enjoyed soft chicken tacos, rice and tomato salad (he skipped the beans), we sipped our large superb $5 huge Margaritas and munched the yummy chips and medium mediocre salsa.

Will's entree was a PLATA de GUADALAJARA which had taco, enchilada and a great chile relleno and always with refried beans and rice; a side of guacamole was cilnaro intense and very nice, My PLATA MEXICANA was a bit smaller with a beef and chicken taco (the latter was much tastier) and a yummy fried chicken Flauta.

We headed home as it had been a long day and tomorrow look forward to dining here at the Ritz-Carlton at NORMAN'S!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

THAI THANI takes Thai food serious...Orlando

We opted to have dinner just down the block from our hotel (The Ritz-Carlton, of course) on International Drive across from SeaWorld at THAI THANI (Also with locations in Tampa & Clearwater) and were mildly surprised by the warm excellent (and not at all tacky) Thai decor...I loved the mini replica of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok that matched by bicentennial coin for the city of the same name that I purchased years ago. At 6pm, the place was pretty empty, when we left at 730pm, there were lines and folks seated at the entry.

Samuel enjoyed several appetizers as his main course: THAI THANI ANGLE WINGS (he said they were called so because they had an angle) stuffed with PORK, Water Chestnut, Clear Noodles, Black Mushrooms & Garlic and served with a Sweet Plum Sauce (which Sam omitted, but we loved).

EGG ROLLS- a veggie version with sweet and sour sauce He ate tons of these and we also enjoyed an order of TOD MUNN my beloved Thai FISH CAKES with Red Curry Paste and Chilie Sweet Sauce with Cucumber.

A bottle of PROSPER MAUFOUX 2003 Pouilly-Fuisse was a nice light and acidic foil to the spice, b ut was oddly served with chilled glasses.

Will and I decided to continue with an order of traditional PAD THAI and this was indeed the best I have ever had in a restaurant. Several plump shrinp mixed in with the rice noodles and sprouts, a pile of yummy peanut chunks, egg and a lime for perfection.

Our next and final entree was the excellent quality TIGER TEAR BEEF a Northern Thai specialty made from grilles top quality steak with vegetables (cabbage, carrots and broccoli) and a spicy dipping sauce (a milder version arrived on the spot when Will requested it) and rice. A glass of house Round Hill Merlot was nice, but wins nor prizes.

We departed happilY after chatting with an English family with a 2+year old at the next table (the Brits are EVERYWHERE here as the dollar is so cheap for them!).

Mike's Smokehouse BQ & Grill in Tampa might be tops for BBQ

We headed east from St.Pete Beach this morning and decided to stop at Tampa's top spot for BBQ located just NE of the city (they have a location also to the west just across the and we were treated to a BBQ better than we have ever had in Texas and a real home warm feeling as well.

Samuel was happy with his chicken tenders and after much coaxing ate most of his superb HUSH PUPPIES.

Will and I went for the traditional sandwiches with his being solely the PULLED PORK and mine being the combo PULLED PORK & BEEF combo. The meat was supeb and gthere were about four or five BBQ sauces to try..we liked the housemade MILD BBQ with a bit of spice best. My side of COLE SLAW was dreamy and Will went for the Baked Beans loaded with pork.

This place has take-out, eat-in, deals and meals and if you are ever in the's a not miss!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas at COLUMBIA is cool Latin cuisine in St. Petersburg, FL

Tonight we returned across the peninsula to St. Petersburg (the city, as opposed to the beach where we are staying) to COLUMBIA RESTAURANT located atop the PIER with beautiful views of the downtown as well as the bay. Samuel joined us in the historic restaurant which has its roots over 100 years ago in Ybor City (the original is still there and now seats of 1700!) where it was founded by Cuban immigrants in 1905. We started with a pitcher of the SANGRIA de CAVA made tableside with Cristalino Cava and Torres brandy...YUM YUM and Samuel quickly got his STEAK & FRIES which was very akin to the French "steak/frites" in that it was a simple yet tasty hanger-like cut with fries....he devoured almost al of this large child portion (FOR $4.95 WITH DRINK!!).

We chose several tapas to start with and loved them all: CROQUETAS de POLLO were served with the very hot COLUMBIA HOT SAUCE on the side and were creamy tasty versions made with Cuban bread crumbs. The MEJILLONS y CHORIZO "Andres"was an almost entree sized portion of plump PEI MUSSELS with tomato (huge cooked chunks), basil, spinach, garlic, white wine and lemon with the homemade Columbia chorizo...this was a dream dish.

SHRIMP & CRAB ALCACHOFAS was more of a creamy dip from artichoke, shrimp & crab served with large oyster-like crackers.

Will and I decided to split an entree of POMPANO en PAPILLOT which is a dish that dates to the 1940's and has stayed on the menu for some time. Made with SHRIMP, CRAB, ARTICHOKE and White Wine Butter Sauce and baked in parchment paper the fish came completely burnt the first time. Our super server, Earl from Arkansas, was back within 2 minutes with a fresh and delicious portion, served with yellow rice and peas. We were impressed and very happy. A bottle of ANTU NINQUEN 2004 Syrah from Chile was a great and huge impressive wine. This is a joint venture in the Colchagua Valley by Paul Hobbs and Mont Gras Vineyards which would easily top anyone's super impressive wine list from Chile. Will loved the CREMA CATALANA which was burned tableside to his desire and Sam gave it a "two pats on his belly" rating, although he really like his STRAWBERRIES served in strawberry sauce with whipped cream. We all went happy and spent tons less than the previous night--surprise!

Monday, December 24, 2007

mediocre MARITANA doesn't make it on Xmas Eve-St. Petersburg Beach, FL

While the metro Tampa/St. Petersburg area has some fine restaurants, most of them tend to be closed on Christmas Eve, so we opted to dine 2 blocks down the road from our place (The Don Cesar Beach Suites) in the main dining room of the grande dame hotel of the area...MARITANA at the DON CESAR HOTEL (that big pink palace on the beach that Sam loves). Our expectations were high and were sometimes met, but not often enough to make the $300 tab really worth it.

We liked the huge fish tanks at the entrance with lion fish and more and those along the wall, but managed to get the one booth that faced a mirror.The light wood, big banquettes and ceiling fans give an airy and seafaring feeling, and our server Marc (from Quebec) seemed able enough as well.

We started with a DARIOUSH VIOGNIER 2006 which is super creamy with a citrus tang on the tong and immediately received our superb amuse of CREAM of TOMATO-BASIL soup with Basil Oil and Lump Crab Garnish which was really a rich bisque in a demitasse with nice chunks of tasty crabmeat. The bread came next and we got even more impressed with the beautifully presented herb grissini held up by slices of semolina and ended by two types of focaccia (potato and rosemary). A huge head of roasted garlic and carafes of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic were there for garnish. Where do I begin?

Will started with a GRAVLAX of SALMON, LUMP CRAB MEAT and TUNA TIMBALE which was atop MANGO Carpaccio with Citrus Vinaigrette, The description confused me as the timbale was mostly tuna topped with crab and a garnish of salmon and should have been ordered in reverse on the menu based on ingredients, even if it was very nice. My dreamy MAINE LOBSTER AGNOLOTTI were served atop wilted LEEKS, CORAL BUTTER with White TRUFFLE OIL and had the food stayed at this level, we would have been very happy.

We ordered a bottle of DOMAINE CARNEROS 2004 Chardonnay which was really very UNEXCITING for a Carneros Chard and then split a salad of MAINE LOBSTER & WHITE ASPARAGUS with Lemongrass Vinaigrette which was bland and unexciting save for the edible DINDROVOIUM orchid!

Entrees were a PAN SEARED SEA SCALLOP with Lobster Risotto, Roasted Beets and a bare tad of Osetra Caviar with Citrus Vinaigrette (the chef seems to like citrus vinaigrette!) which Will did not rave about, while my ORANGE HABANERO cream sauced GROUPER with a WARM LOBSTER, PINEAPPLE & VANILLA BEAN STEW on the side became miraculous when the two were combined to foil the spiciness with the slight sweet. Glazed Banana and Rum Pepper Paint finished off this wonderful inventive and superb tasting dish.

Sadly, when our glasses were refilled a different waiter poured someone else's Pouilly Fuisse into our Chardonnay and had to dump the glasses (it DID taste AWFUL!). He said he would pay (an odd usage or term) for additional glasses for us.

We decided to split the RASPBERRY SOUFFLE and order just one glass of dessert wine between us (which the other waiter was "paying" for"). From here on in, everything went downhill. The OREMUS TOKAJI 1999 Aszu Puttonyos was really a boring dessert wine, with little sweetness and I could only help thinking the bottle had been open for days or the vintage just sucked. The souffle was fine for two bites, but the entire inside was uncooked. We told Marc to simply take it back and bring the check (minus the souffle, of course). It came fast enough with some superb chocolates, but HOW CHINCY CAN YOU BE when you bring two DIFFERENT chocolates for two people, so they have to split the CAPPUCCINO and PRALINE (which was GREAT) so they can each taste each type!

Like I said, highs and lows, but not worth the tab.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

St. Petersburg's (FL) CEVICHE is a super spot

Last night was a special evening for all of us as Samuel, Will and I joined our friend's Phyllis (yes, she is a Phyllis-teen too!) from Naples, Florida here in St. Petersburg, Florida for the afternoon and evening. We met them almost 8 years ago cruising in Costa Rica and have stayed in touch ever since. It was a great reunion (their first time meeting Sam) capped by a wonderful meal at CEVICHE Tapas Bar and Restaurant with other locations in Orlando & Tampa as well (

I called over a month ago and they said they don't take reservations except for parties of six or more, but upon arrival we realized they have no tables made for 5 people, so we could not get one for 6 as they were all reserved. They finally put two tables together and solved the problem; from here on in it was a treat

We got Samuel an order of ALBONDIGAS-veal, chorizo and pork meatballs in a piquant tomato sauce which he adored. His second tapas was the PAPAS FRITAS-housemade potato chips with crumbles Cabrales blue cheese which he also gobbled up along with the rest of us.

Meanwhile we were sipping a VINA SALCEDA RESERVA 2001 from Rioja region made from Tempranillom Maziano and Graciano grapes. This wine resembled a red zin as it had lots of spice in the finish and went with the varied tapas we ordered. We might have normally started with white, but the place had the a/c on so high (it was 70 outside and 65 inside!) we opted to head for a warm red right away. Our second wine was an amazing CONDESA de LEGANZA RESERVA 1996 Tempranilla from La Mancha that was so smooth it was amazing at $30! An aged Bordeaux of the same price range would not be able to compete.

Our first tapas were cold ceviche and we chose two: DE LA CASA which was a shrimp, squid, fish & scallop combo that could not compare in taste, size or price with the one we had in Guatemala last week, but the CEVICHE A LA RUSE was a plate of three superb plump oysters with an onion cilantro relish topped with caviar and a shot of Ice cold Russian vodka on the side!

BOQUERONES were top quality freshly marinated anchovies in a cilantro relish and the ESPINACAS was out of this world sauteed spinach with FIGS, HONEY & GARLIC!

ALCACHOFAS RELLENAS were artichoke bottoms filled with HAM & SHRIMP and served in a tasty SHERRY CREAM SAUCE that we wanted to mop up. Speaking of mopping up, Sam opted to do this with his meatball sauce and a chunk of bread, a major development in food eating skills in my book (mopping that is!).

CROQUETAS de BACALAO were super rich creamy cod croquettes with BECHAMEL both inside and to dip as well....way too rich, but YUM YUM. Our fab server Jessica (she recommended the 2nd wine) said we must try the PIQUILLOS RELLENOS-Roasted Red Peppers with Ground Veal and Chorizo in a Light Sherry Sauce that was another big winner. The one semi-dud on the menu was the PULPO ALA GALLEGA which was an herb marinated octopus served on potato on bread with paprika. Two of the pieces were quite chewy and did not impress, even though the preparation was excellent.

Sam opted for vanilla ice cream with berries for dessert and ended up eating just the berries because he was so full. We shared two other standard: FLAN LORENA, a very firm and fine version of the traditional dish and PUDIN DE PAIN which was excellent and made with dried fruit and Spanish Sherry.

We parted both the restaurant and our friends on a sad note, hoping that we will see Phyllis & Michael again soon, and hopefully find more wonderful dining spots like Ceviche again as well.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Livingston, Guatemala's HAPPY FISH will make you happy

The other day as we cruised the Caribbean coast of Central America we returned to Guatemala with Samuel the first time since he had come home 4 years ago.

It was an odd experience pulling into Santo Tomas de Castillo and Will telling Sam what a beautiful country it was as he replied, "Thank you, Daddy."

Our day tour was a long an fulfilling boat trip on the Rio Dulce and we ended up in the town of LIVINGSTON where there are many wonderful simple local dining options. We headed for the HAPPY FISH as it was owned by the tour company that provided our arrangements.

While Samuel kept things simple with a SPAGHETTI with Salsa Rojo (aka tomato) we started with one of the best CEVICHES ever loaded with tomato and every fish from the area (shrimp, scallop, fish, conch, etc).

The fruit smoothies were a treat--mine was papaya, Daddy had a mango and Sam opted for the fizzy lemonade.

The main course was TAPADO a local Garifuna soup well bouillabaisse with coconut and whole crabs an entire Palometto Fish, shrimp and more.

We were so full after this $10 bowl of magnificence that we just skipped dessert (well, Sam had icecream) and went shopping.

Friday, December 14, 2007

NY's VONG is very much worth the visit

Friday night I headed over to the East Side for an early dinner at VONG (200 E 54th St at 3rd Ave) the Asian home of the world famous Jean-Georges V. which has managed to ear itself one Michelin star in the newest incarnation the NY Michelin Red Guide. We have indeed avoided Jean-George's establishments as years ago we had an awful runin with the staff at his #1 Manhattan spot and vowed not to return.

I am glad I gave VONG a chance as the staff was beyond superb, indeed PERFECT. The food was pretty good as well.

The wooden floors, bright red chairs and cozy banquettes are splattered with tons of Asian influenced art and hangings along with fans on vertical poles that are the same as ceiling fans, but on the floor. The tables are dark slate and have small blond woven mats with legant stainless and chopsticks. A wet towel (not hot) is brought as soon as you are seated; thick crispy sesame rice crackers follow with an irresistible crunchy spicy peanut sauce.

The menu is not too big and I was very happy for the selection of five appetizers (which rings in at $24 per person!!, but is REALLY worth it):
CRAB SPRING ROLL is crunchy and filled with excellent ingredients and served with a yummy tamarind dipping sauce.
PRAWN SATAY belies its name as these are yummy medium size shrimp on a skewer yet breaded unlike the traditional satay and then served a spicy red chili dipping sauce.
RAW TUNA ROLL is wrapped with Avocado & Vegetable in a Rice Paper and served with the traditional Asian fish (nampla) sauce.
LOBSTER & DAIKON ROLL is another yummy treat with a light ROSEMARY GINGER DIP
The CRUNCHY CRESS Salad is topped with a large portion of SPICED QUAIL.

It was hard to pick a favorite as they were all super tasty and I am glad I did not pick just one appetizer, as this was perfect. A glass of DOMAINE TRIENNES Saint Fleur 2006 Viognier from Nans-les-Pins was perfect with all the sauces and spices, although a Pinot Blanc or Riesling would work equally well.

I switched to red and a tasty 2005 BARREL 27 SYRAH from the California Central Coast. I never needed to ask for anything and the entire very handsome staff was simply excellent.

For an entree I chose the RABBIT CURRY with Giant BRAISED CARROT and GALANGAL (Ginger) that was recommended by my server; he suggested well. It was three huge pieces of rabbit in a medium weight curry with Jasmine Rice on the side. The loin was prepared breaded on a skewer like the prawn satay appetizer. The meat was a but dry on the loin, but once dipped in the curry was perfect. I loved it all.

Dessert was less successful as I ordered a CINNAMON ROASTED PEAR with SABLEUSE CAKE which came with Licorice Ice Cream (for which I substituted vanilla). The pear was superb, the sableuse was simply a dry pound cake and I barely touched the ice cream as I was so full. A wonderful mint ice cream bonbon wrapped in chocolate came after this and made me happier.

For Asian food, the prices are high, but the quality and service truly make this worth the expense once every now and then.

Friday, December 07, 2007

PS 7's still pretty stunning

Having loved our visit to PS 7's (777 I St, NW) earlier this summer, we felt a return for heavier fare in the wintertime was due. Friday night, four of us headed over in the cold rain and were as pleased as we were before. Chef Peter Smith is doing an outstanding job, and while he has lost his pastry chef Naomi Gallagher(now at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, Texas), many of her dishes still remain (although I did sorely miss the amazing biscuits!).

The wines are still wonderfully eclectic and we started with a 2006 ULACIA HONDARRUBI Txakolina Basque wine from Spain that has a limey effervescence and is reminiscent of a sauvignon blanc. It made a very nice aperitif, and we moved on to a bigger and creamier FAR NIENTE 20005 Chardonnay and then with our entrees another eclectic wine: 2005 COTURRI "Albarello" from Sonoma which is 60% Zinfandel and also has Petite Sirah, Carignane, Barbera and Alicante-Bousquet--how's that for off-the-wall? It was a medium bodied wine and we really wanted more by the time we had our meat, so we returned to the wonderful 2003 SARAH's VINYARD Zinfandel from Gilroy, California that has a huge cherry nose and taste and is wonderfully warm and intense in the mouth.

While the wine is good, the food is superb and our amuse was a MAYTAG BLUE Cheese FONDANT with TOMATO CONFITURE. The blue is medium level intensity and the amuse did its assigned job of tantalizing the palate for more. Our wonderful server Nick guided us in choices and we opted to share a portion of the TUNA SLIDER's to start which was another brilliant amuse and amusing idea. The very SPICY TUNA (a Sararcha Aoili is the secret spicy ingredient)TARTARE is on Naomi's Parker House mini rolls with cilantro and cucumber salad on the side with a sesame, tuna, cilantro vinaigrette--it's a great taste option for 2 or
4 to share.

Will returned to the BABY BEET MOSAIC and I wandered to a new salad called CARPACCIO of ROYAL TRUMPET MUSHROOMS which had Tempura Battered and Fried HARICOTS VERTS drizzled with LOBSTER AIOLI, Frisee and Candied Shallots. It was a wonderful, exciting and different salad (not really a salad at all!) and a big hit with the whole table, as it was large enough for everyone to taste.

The PETITE HOME MADE HOT DOGS are really thick juicy wieners on buns with condiments of ketchup, mustard and relish on the side and a paper cone of thinly julienne fries.

Entrees included a tasty Pan Seared KING SALMON with Sherry Vinaigrette, the same excellent VEAL BREAST with SWEETBREADS that Will had in July which has got to be one of the star dishes here and the PAN ROASTED STRIP LOIN Pave with Wild Mushroom Mac & Cheese Ravioli, Spinach and Cabernet-Mushroom Jus.

My OAT & BROWN BUTTER CRUSTED PORK LOIN was delish and served with super sides of Glazed Apples, Butternut Squash Parisienne & Braised Mustard Greens, all with a Brown-Sugar Rosemary Gastrique. Some though the sweetness too much for the dish, but I liked the crunchy slightly sweet topping that was like pork loin brown betty crumble! Of course, you could always remove the crust if you think it too sweet, but I loved it.

You can't skip dessert at PS 7's, but two of us opted for the cheese which is always a treat: THOMASVILLE TOMME, HUMBOLDT FOG Goat and MONA's (cow & sheep) from VIRGINIA were American treats. Will went for the CHOCOLATE PRALINE BOMBE with Milk Chocolate Mousse, Flourless Chocolate Cake and Wattleseed Ice Cream with Mango Foam (WOW) and I adored my "Meyer Lemon" SIN which included Lemon Yogurt, Candied Meyer Lemon Ouzo Almond Cake, and was a ll so yummy.

After dinner, the treats are just as fun. Chocolate seems to be the theme this winter and there were four each of four types of bonbons:
Mocha Milk Chocolate
Dark Chocolate Cognac
Milk Chocolate Peanut Clusters
and the truly tantalizing WHITE CHOCOLATE PASSION FRUIT

Needless to say, we were full and went home VERY happy.

A small note of kindness goes to Chef Smith, who, upon hearing that we adored the veal breast, wrote down the entire recipe and sent it out for us to take home and try (with a phone number in case of technical assistance!).

still cuckoo about KINKEAD's

As you Phyllis-teens know, I am not much of a lunch person, but this past Friday, a dear friend was in town and the only time we could meet up was at lunch, so we opted to head to Kinkead's where my absence has been known for way too long.

The courteous staff, good service and excellent food make it easy to see that it is Washington's NUMBER# 1 Zagat rated restaurant in the "Most Popular" category.

Our cozy corner table gave us a view of the kitchen as we settled in with a tasty glass of PALLISER ESTATE 2006 Sauvignon Blanc from Martinborough in New Zealand which works great with almost any seafood.

Our truly wonderful server Stephen gave us ample time to schmooze and catch up and brought our appetizer (which we split) of TUNA TARTARE JALISCO which has been a long time standard. The large chunky tuna is superb and tasty with lots of spice, avocado and lime and has radish and jicama in the adjoining small salad. We also enjoyed the always excellent FRIED IPSWICH CLAMS which seemed to be even better this time. The batter seemed a bit lighter and crispier and tastier (has there been a change?) and the clams are moist and tender; and who can refuse the excellent dipping sauce!

More wine and more talk and our entrees arrived and the portions were larger than we expected. The LOBSTER ROLL has a peppery jolt and the meat is firm, fleshy and moist (I just tasted) and my MAINE SEAFOOD CHOWDER was a dream. The "chowder" was actually not the New England style thick soup I had expected, but somewhere between this and a rich bouillabaisse that was just perfect. Loaded with bay scallops, Blue Hill Bay Mussels, Finnan Haddie and moist tasty Stone Crab claws it was an amazing and filling treat.

So filling we could not even ponder thoughts of dessert and made our way out thanking everyone for a super lunch.

Monday, December 03, 2007

sublime Caesar at PRIMEHOUSE David Burke in Chicago

One of the biggest problems I have dining in Chicago are the opera curtain times, which this week are at 630pm since both operas I am seeing are 4 hours (normal curtains are at 730pm for 3-3-1/2 hour operas). Well, you can't really eat at fine dining sports at 430pm, and 11pm isn't much better.

Since I am staying at one of Chicago's newest boutique luxury hotels The James, I was thrilled to return here at 11pm and find the hotel's restaurant open until midnight on Friday and Saturday (I might just have to return again tonight).

Restauranteur David Burke has many spots all over the USA, but PRIMEHOUSE DAVID BURKE was recently rated the best steakhouse in Chicago (no small feat) and offers a varied and exciting menu and wine list that is great for steak or anything. At midnight on my body clock, I was not in the mood for a 20-30 ounce steak, even if it did come from a specially bred organic-siring bull and was aged in-house using Himalayan rock salt (maybe tonight!). I figured a meat dish was in order and asked my server about the KOBE BEEF SASHIMI. She said the carpaccio style dish included about 2 ounces of superb meat, and then recommended the table-side prepared CAESAR SALAD as one of the larger appetizer/salad options.

The wine list is superb and varied and rather than glasses offers small carafes of about a glass and a half. I asked about the Petite Syrah 2005 from TEN MILES in California and she immediately suggested the SIERRA CANTABRIA 2005 Tempranillo from Rioja in Spain instead and proffered two small tasting glasses for me to choose. Natasha was spot on with this suggestion, as the Petite Syrah was nice but not exciting. With temperatures outside near 20, and wind chills much worse, the Tempranillo was warm, full-bodied and a bit racy, simply tantalizing to the tongue.

I sipped and looked around the almost empty quiet room, which I am sure was heaving earlier on, with its low lighting, brown leather tables and chairs and huge roomy booths (they offered me one for six and I opted for the smaller table for four). My KOBE BEEF SASHIMI arrived in round circles gorgeously layered on a huge 6 inch by 3 inch by 2 inch high block of Himalayan Rock Salt and scattered with MUSHROOM CHIPS and a superb TRUFFLE MAYO dip on the side. The meat was about the best carpaccio ever and the chips made for fun, taste and a bit of crunch (think bacon bits made of mushroom). The CEASAR Salad (the opera I see tonight is Julius Caesar!) was professionally prepared in front of me and I chose to have it topped with FRESH MARIANTED WHITE ANCHOVIES that were clearly and deliciously lemon-infused, the salad itself very traditional and just the right dish for just before midnight and bed.

A yummy popover came as well right from the oven with a pat of tasty butter sprinkled with that super Himalayan Rock Salt (I just might have to indulge in the steak tonight, no matter how late it is!).

I was off to bed in my wonderful and luckily quiet room and today am looking forward to more fun dining and opera in the snow/sleet and ice that is expected soon!

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Chicago cuisine-SHAW's super seafood and late night at QUARTINO

Lunch was late and at SHAW's OYSTER BAY which has been around since forever. I was in an OYSTER MOOD and went for the selection of six with a glass of SALNEVAL ALBARINO from Rias Baixas 2006 Spain which was crisp and fruity and fine for oysters even though it was not on the "Oyster Friendly wine selection list!"

FISHERS ISLAND came from Block Island Sound, NY
JUDD COVE from Orcas Island, Washington is a deep shelled plump rich oyster and is now on my list of faves
COTUIT from the same named bay in Mass
MILL POINT from PrinceEdward Island
QUILCENE from Quilcene Bay in Washington is always a treat
and the DEEP BAY FLAT is a huge shell with plump briny oyster from Deep Bay, BC that is also a new treat

My fish choice was the PARMESAN CRUSTED GEORGE'S BANK HADDOCK with Sauteed Spinach Capers & Lemon Butter which was a very nice dish, well prepared and tasty, but doesn't come close to the preparation and flavor in Bob Kinkead's crusted creations. The SAUTEED FLORIDA RED GROUP with Pumpkin Seed Crust was a bit more interesting, and I never met a grouper I didn't like.

My second wine was a tasty almost oak free McWILLIAMS SE Australia 2005 Chardonnay. It was a yummy meal and then time for a nap before the opera.

The opera ended after 11pm and sadly my steak place in the hotel was closed when I got back, so I headed around the corner to QUARTINO ( where the wines are poured by the 1/4 (hence the name), 1/2 or full liter with many wonderful selections. I opted for the 1/4 of house VALPOLICELLA, a wonderful wine with the RAVIOLI stuffed with pork in MUSHROOM SAUCE and crunchy SPECK. My appetizer arrived after the ravioli (that was weird) but it was fine as I had ordered a $2 VEAL MEATBALL SLIDER which is a small mini-Italian roll with one yummy veal meatball on it (think three-four bite Italian meatball sub!). On the side was a spicy pickled giardiniere of fennel, peppers, cauliflower and other veggies.

Still hungry I moved to the cheese and meat selections which one can make a meal of as well. I chose the LONZINO (each selection is $4 and is about 2 ounces) which is an air dried pork loin that would have benefited from better cutting rather than coming out as shredded as it did. On the side is more giardiniere, a small sweet & sour cucumber salad and a yummy candied fried mostarda for the meat.

I also chose the small dish of PECORINO TOSCANO (also $4 and 5 huge chunks) which is a tasty nutty one and is served with fruit bread and 3 sides as well: Grape salad, fennel salad (which I didn't like--surprise) and a yummy apricot rosemary puree which worked well with the cheese.

I gathered up my final two chunks of cheese which I am munching as I write this and head to bed....

Good night Chicago.