Main Street Diner – Lakeland, FL

For me to be impressed by you, there are certain criteria that need to be met. In life, as with food, one must be honest and straightforward, with substance always leading style. It’s extremely difficult to fill this need when the focus is on basic Americana diner type cuisine.

There has been a renaissance of diners in central Florida for the better part of the last 5 years. A handful of unique dining venues, that provide a special touch to the genre, have popped up throughout the greater Tampa and Orlando areas. Sadly though, these kinds of places have, for the most part, missed my off ramp.

This is where the Main Street Diner provides some much-needed solace.

As I turned down Main St. to take part in my routine work out, I decided that I just wasn’t feeling it. So what do you do when you’re either too lazy or too busy to exercise? Do the exact opposite of course. In my case that means feasting until I fall asleep. I phoned my boss and asked if he wanted anything. He knows me, and my ways. Therefore, his knee jerk response always sounds something like, “I could eat. Surprise me.” When someone gives you free rein on their meal, you can be certain they trust you with their life.

Not knowing where my next meal would come from, I zipped past the gym and began the hunt, which didn’t take long. Maybe 30 seconds and a few hundred yards away, I spotted a renovated drive-thru that has been home to at least 10 failures in the past 5 years. You always need to give every new local business at least one chance in my opinion, and this seemed as good of a day as any.

Walking in, not knowing anything about this place or the owners or the food, is a rush. I have no expectations. Actually, I honestly had low expectations. Being burned as many times as I have tends to do that to a man. When I first laid eyes on the menu, it felt like I was Nicholas Cage deciphering a riddle on the back of the Declaration of Independence, leading me to the secret location of the original Liberty Bell. Just like that, but substitute Liberty Bell for honey dipped fried chicken.

Fried Chicken. Something so simple, yet few know how to prepare it properly in this neck of the woods. I was not expecting the Main Street Diner to provide me with such an amazing rendition, but that’s exactly what they did. In my pantheon, it was among the best I’ve had, and it stands out far above any other restaurant that’s tried their hand. I didn’t bother asking how it was made, whether it had been brined or not. It doesn’t really matter to me since I have no plan to steal their technique. I simply plan on frequenting this establishment for my chicken fix. Just so you skeptics understand before passing judgement, the chicken isn’t overly sweet. The honey does not overpower the savory elements found in the batter, so concern yourselves with more pressing matters.

As for my boss, he was in for a real treat. Remember the restaurant chain Bennigans? Yeah me too, it sucked. The one thing that was half-way decent other than the Turkey O’Toole, was the Monte Cristo, Affectionately referred to as the Monte Crisco due to the coma inducing grease to sandwich ratio. Main Street does their version of it but they treat it more respectfully. They use challah bread and treat it more like a french toast sandwich than a deep-fried battered nap time meal.  Along side a cup of not too sweet berry dipping sauce and a basket of waffle fries, this dish may single-handedly put me in line for a promotion! Who am I kidding…

All in all, I truly can not wait to re-visit this place. Actually, I’ve been back 3 times since my first visit!

*Update. The Hot Honey Garlic Chicken Wings I ordered on my most recent visit have almost filled the void left when Natalie’s closed her doors.

You need to go if for nothing else than for the incredible fried chicken. But there are many other specialty items that makes their menu unique. I would venture to say that most residents of Lakeland have failed to discover The Main Street Diner. If you fall into this group, it’s time for change!

Main Street Diner on Urbanspoon

Sticky Toffee Pudding

For all the recipes we Americans steal from the Europeans, the one that hasn’t stuck is a good Sticky Toffee Pudding. Why, I mean, what’s not to like? Date cake, good, toffee, good, Devonshire Cream, good, meat, good! When called upon to provide a fabulous dessert for a small catering job, a few things came to mind. The dessert needed to hold up after being out all afternoon in the elements without a way to reheat it. It also needed to be easy to serve and translate to a proper fall/winter dish. After giving it some thought, I was struck with the idea of doing a sticky toffee pudding.

I was watching one of those, “best things I ever ate” type shows a long while back and recalled a chef doing a sticky toffee pudding. They used three different methods for soaking sponge cake in that salty, buttery, sweet toffee sauce. It seemed like a grand idea, one that fit my needs perfectly.

The day before the gig, it was requested that I make the cake in a cast iron skillet to add some whimsy to the presentation. Although the recipes that I had researched to make one of my own only used baking dishes, I obliged because I thought that if I buttered the pan real good and then coated the pan with sugar, it would make a nice crisp edge for the moist dessert. It worked very well indeed I must say. It was pretty nerve-wracking to prepare this thing. It was like walking a tightrope without a net, or even an umbrella for that matter. To cook something you’ve never made before, and to have to do it perfectly the first and only time without reference is ridiculous. Through it all though, it turned out as the Brits say “Advantage-Agassi”.

Fans of clotted cream or Devonshire cream will appreciate this easy interpretation I made to the dollop on the side. Usually making the stuff is an all day process. But I’ve extracted the spirit of what a good cream is, while only taking 10 minutes of your time.

To complete this dessert properly might take a little time. However, the results are grand and it’s really not hard.  Just crank up some good Brit rock and go to town. Enjoy your bloody pudding mate.

Sticky Toffee Pudding

 Cake:

1 c pitted dates
1/3 c golden raisins
12 oz brewed hot tea
1 1/3 c butter
1 1/2 cups self rising flour. (To make self rising out of AP, sift in 2 tsp of baking powder and 1/2 tsp salt)
4 eggs
1 1/2 c sugar
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp vanilla
 
Sauce:
 
12 oz heavy cream
2/3 c dark brown sugar
1/4 c butter
2 tbsp Karo syrup
pinch of salt
 
Cream:
 
1 cup cold heavy whipping cream
4 oz room temp cream cheese
1/8 cup sugar
dash of salt
 
 
Brew Tea
Pour over dates and raisins while tea is hot and let steep for at least 2 hours
Heat Oven to 325
Make toffee sauce by combining all ingredients in the sauce list into a medium saucepan on low temp until everything has melted. Then turn up heat to medium until the liquid begins to begins to bubble. Then let cool.
Grease and coat 10 inch cast iron skillet with sugar
Cream butter and sugar for about 3 minutes
Add eggs 1 at a time mixing well after each egg
Slowly add flour a little at a time, then set batter aside
Puree dates, raisins and tea in blender
Add baking soda and vanilla to dates and let sit 5 minutes, then fold gently into batter. Set aside.
Add half of batter to skillet, then add a quarter of toffee sauce on top. Add the remainder of batter, then place in oven for about 45 minutes or until the top has browned and a toothpick comes out clean from the middle.
Make “Devonshire”  by creaming room temp  cream cheese with sugar and salt. Whip heavy cream to stiff peaks and then fold cream cheese mixture very gently so as to not deflate cream.
After cake has cooled a bit, (15 minutes) poke holes all over with a knife and add a quarter more toffee sauce to let it all soak in.
When you’re ready to serve, pour more toffee sauce atop individual servings of the cake. and dollop cream on the side. Eat.

Sardinia Ristorante – Miami Beach, FL

Ah, the anniversary dinner. The one time of year I can be sure of having an amazing meal, since my wife always manages to sniff out something tasty as a present for me. This year, while a bit belated, was no different. It seems we’re in a different city for every anniversary, which increases the level of suspense, because I have no frame of reference to even make a guess at where we’ll be going. I’m a known addict of Italian food, so Ashley figured she’d scratch that itch this year and take me to Sardinia Ristorante on Miami Beach.

Now I won’t try to wax poetic about how Sardinia Ristorante captures the essence of the local cuisine from the island just south of Corsica, because frankly, I haven’t been there. Not even watching No Reservations Sardinia will help. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, all that matters, is that Sardinia Ristorante is pumping out some damn tasty Italian food. So let’s get to what everyone wants to see, the food.

We started out with a bevy of antipasti which arrived all at once, just the way I like it. Sfoglia di burrata hit the table first, accompanied by prosciutto di Parma and fresh asparagus. Ladies and gentlemen, I believe this may have been the best asparagus I have ever had. Bet you thought I was going to say something about the cheese. Well that was good too, but I have to say, the two sides may have overshadowed the main event. While the cheese was extremely fresh, I probably should’ve ordered the straight burrata and done without the cured meat rolled up with it. Next was a classic carpaccio of filet mignon, arugula, shaved parm, olive oil and lemon juice. The steak was pounded so thin that we didn’t even have to cut it, just place your fork down and pull. Perfectly executed, fresh and delicious.

A cheese trio of my choosing followed. My selections were: 18 month Grana Padano, Pecorino Tartufato del Mugello and Taleggio d.o.p. from Valtaleggio paired with a bowl of what we assumed was preserved persimmon as a palate cleanser. My wife and I are cheese hounds, and these three are some of our favorites. The gooey Taleggio will always be a staple on my top cheese board of my mind and anything containing truffles is on the list as well. The 18 month Grana Padano was also a must have because you just don’t find genuine aged Grana Padano in the States outside of specialty food purveyors and high-end Italian joints.

The fourth dish was cipolline al forno con funghi trifolati. The “al forno” part lead me to believe we’d be enjoying some piping hot, caramelized onions with a trio of mushrooms simmering in their own juices. So I was surprised when I bit into one to find it was actually on the chilly side. Not a bad thing though. They were sweet and refreshing and probably the best partner for the heavy, tongue engulfing cheeses. A bite of cipollini, a bite of cheese, heaven!

The fifth and final antipasto was a heavyweight. Animelle, veal sweetbreads with brown butter, aged pancetta, sage and brussels sprouts. Not the prettiest of plates I’ll admit, but dear lord did it pack in the flavor. I was a little worried that the mellow flavor of the sweetbreads might be overpowered by the ultra-salty pancetta, but it held up nicely. The sweetbreads were tender and juicy thanks to the nice glaze of brown butter. The big surprise of the dish, for me at least were the brussels sprouts. Never in my life have I tasted sprouts like these. No bitterness to speak of, savory and salty, almost meaty. They joined the other proteins and matched them note for note. There’s nothing I love more than having one of my preconceptions turned on its head. If all brussels sprouts could taste like this, you could call me a fan.

Honestly, that could’ve been a meal in itself, but this was an anniversary dinner, so we had to do it right. So we placed our entreé order, Colorado lamb shanks with porcini and Cannonau wine reduction for Ashley, and two half orders of pasta for me. The first, malloreddos, Sardinian teardrop pasta with ragu of braised Colorado baby lamb, followed by the orecchiette, with wild boar sausage, rapini pesto and roasted pinenuts.

The meat dish was akin to an osso buco, except with lamb. There was even a tiny morsel of buttery marrow at the end of the bone. It was more than fork tender, if you looked at it hard enough it would fall off the bone. The tender meat was flanked with just enough succulent fat to really drive home the flavor. Luckily my wife isn’t a big fan of straight animal fat, so I stepped in to take care of it for her. She was a little disappointed in the accompanying veg, as it seemed like an afterthought with very little seasoning, a little surprising given the amazing asparagus and sprouts we enjoyed earlier.

Now that I think back, these pastas are very similar to what I ordered at Perla up in New York City a few months ago. The malloreddos, which looked like little maggots, was tossed with the same Colorado lamb that Ashley was enjoying. They might have even just stripped the meat off the bone with some of the tomato sauce they used for her dish and mixed it in with the pasta. In any case, it was delicious, perfectly al dente and very comforting.
 The orecchiette with wild boar sausage, rapini pesto and pinenuts was also a winner. I’m really digging this pairing of pesto and gamey sausage. Maybe I’m late to the party, but I’ve just started to notice this combination appearing on Italian menus. In any case, the duo of sausage and bitter rapini is a great one. The bitterness isn’t overwhelming, but it’s just enough to counter the fat of the sausage, although boar is naturally pretty lean. I had to hold off and save the rest of this dish for lunch the next day.

For dessert, a chocolate almond cake with chocolate sauce and strawberries. The cake was a bit dry and fluffy for my taste. The frosting was delicious, but it made me feel like a dog who just got fed peanut butter.

It was another successful anniversary meal and while it’s going to be hard to ever beat our meal at Uni, it definitely made an impression. So if you’ve got a hankering for some serious Italian cuisine, Sardinia Ristorante is the real deal.

On a side note, there was a small negative that I want to address. I brought a bottle of 2011 Conundrum white table wine to have with dinner. Now I’m accustomed to restaurants adding a corkage fee, usually around $15 or so. Here’s what happened, I had my bottle put on ice to chill, a few minutes later, the manager comes to our table to let us know that they usually don’t allow people to bring bottles in that are already on their wine list, but that this one time would be alright. That was the key phrase for me, “this one time will be alright”. No mention of a corkage fee, nothing. We had mentioned prior to making our reservation that we were celebrating our 6th anniversary, so I figured she was waiving it for that reason. As the bill arrived at the end of the meal, I come to find she had a $30 corkage fee added to my bill. Now I’m not an unreasonable person, had I been made aware of this when she came to the table, at least I could’ve prepared. I would’ve been able to tailor the meal to cover that added cost, but no. It wasn’t like I cheaped out on dinner either, I went all out, the least she could do was waive a silly corkage fee. It was the one breakdown in service for the night, as the rest of the staff was very friendly, attentive and polite.

If you’re reading this ma’am, I want you to know that on my way home I actually considered never returning to Sardinia based on your performance, it came off as rude and sneaky. A customer should never be made to feel swindled, especially from the manager, and when a restaurant serves such amazing food, one would expect the service to be just as palatable.

Sardinia Enoteca Ristorante on Urbanspoon

Sakaya Kitchen – Miami, FL

If you know me, you know my food habits. One of those being my obsessive need to sniff out the best eateries in town, particularly when I’ve just moved to a new one. Part of this quirk is innate, it’s something I’ve done for years, and part of it was encouraged by Logan,  a legendary food detective in his own right. When the two of us get together, very few restaurants worth visiting elude our noses, and this past visit was no exception.

The gang was all together, Logan, Lobe (my sister, a.k.a. Sara) and myself. We embarked on a late night wander around downtown Miami with the intention of finding some tasty, yet-to-be-discovered places to get a great plate of food.

After hitting up a sleepy conveyor belt sushi joint, we turned a corner and there it was, Sakaya Kitchen, an Asian brasserie/gastropub of sorts, just the thing we were searching for. The enormous neon pig in the window was enough to motivate a brisk walk across the street. Upon entering, we were faced with a gargantuan floor to ceiling menu containing countless dishes, all of which seemed to involve pork, duck, beef, shrimp or some combination of those.

Now for those of you who have had the pleasure of eating out with Mr. Crumpton, you know that there are times when everyone orders for themselves, and there are times when you put yourself in his capable hands to take care of the ordering. Even a knowledgeable food-lover such as myself knows the proper time to cede control of the meal, and I can honestly say that I have never been disappointed when Logan takes the helm. This was one of those times, so my sister and I took our places at the table and let the man go to work, not quite knowing what we’d be enjoying.

He joined us moments later with a smile on his face as if to say, “mission accomplished”. Moments later our number was called and it was chow time. Logan plopped the tray in front of us as we got our first glimpse of the feast. A cracklin’ duck herb sandwich with black plum, quick pickles and scallions was first to catch my attention. The succulent duck had an awesome char on the tips but was moist and tender at the center. Pair that with the crisp quick pickles, scallions and savory plum sauce, I could’ve told you this would be a winner without even tasting it.

Bahn Mi Buns. Nothing more really needs to be said, but I can’t help myself. The boys and girls at Sakaya Kitchen did these right and stuffed them full of pork belly, paté de tete, kimchi carrots, spicy mayo and cilantro. If I were a big wig executive putting on a presentation for my investors, a platter of these is all I’d need to impress. The flavors were spot on, sumptuous pork belly, refreshing veg, and an electric mayo to tie it all together. I’m no prognosticator, but I see more Bahn Mi Buns in my future.

Next was the Bo Ssam bowl with grilled shrimp, spicy sticky rice banchan. Bo Ssam for those who don’t know, is slow-roasted Korean pork wrapped with a leaf vegetable. This was more of a deconstructed presentation as the verdant leaf was stuffed next to the pork like a garnish. This was definitely the main event. I wish this shot showed the scale better, because this was a monstrous bowl of pork. So monstrous in fact that I could’ve worn it like a Stormtrooper helmet, and I have an enormous head. I digress. The pork was fork tender, it fell apart faster than the New York Jets playoff bid, and it was smothered with a spicy herbed sauce. The shrimp on the other hand were perfectly cooked and fresh as can be. In my experience, shrimp can be a very problematic protein. So many times I’ve received tough, nearly inedible, fishy pieces of crap. Sakaya Kitchen did not dishonor this animal in the slightest. It was a fantastic take on surf n’ turf. The stash of quick pickles under the mound of rice was a nice surprise, and that coming from a known pickle hater.

We ended things with what sounded like a sure-fire star, a bacon Nutella shake. While it was delicious, we noted a distinct lack of bacon flavor. That may just be because we’re hog hounds, but I think next time we’ll order it with extra bacon, and maybe a side of pork belly for good measure.

I have to say I was very impressed with Sakaya Kitchen overall. In a town like Miami that can leave you wanting when it comes to certain food cultures, Sakaya Kitchen fills a void with an eatery not unlike something you’d find in downtown Manhattan. It’s a welcome addition to the South Florida food scene and I sincerely hope to see more like it. My next goal is to check out their wandering food truck Dim Ssam A Go-Go. Supposedly they use all-natural proteins, organic dairy and even support local farmers! You look me in the eye and tell me that doesn’t have Eat a Duck written all over it! Look out for the review soon!

Sakaya Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Brown Butter Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

If there’s one piece of wisdom I can impart to you for a full and happy life, it is this: Do not skimp on the butter. That is my gift to you. You’re welcome.

Say you’re making a batch of Brown Butter Oatmeal Raisin Cookies for the second time in a week because your family devoured them like Shai Hulud seeking to eat an Ornithopter. You attempt to recreate the magic that was your first experiment, only to find yourself without butter, catastrophe! The options are, drive 0.3 miles to the nearest grocery, call it a day and chalk this one up to laziness, or push through with the remaining ingredients, thus creating a “healthier” option. For me it’s a no-brainer but I’ll say it anyway, don’t skimp on that fat! Put on your flip-flops and get in the car. Use whatever animal fat you can find, whether it be butter, lard, tallow, ghee or an amalgamation of them all…do not do without.

If life is a song, butter is the melody. It adds flavor, richness, color and texture to our pathetic existence. Butter is the new bacon. We have to give it the proper respect for being everything to everyone.

Therefore these cookies are the perfect vehicle for such an illustrious ingredient. Without the correct amount of butter you won’t get the perfect cookie, believe me. Batches one and two were worlds apart. There was only one slight difference between the two, and not coincidentally, it was butter or lack thereof. Go figure. When you make the brown butter for this recipe, don’t be ashamed to make just a bit more than the recipe allows. Once you complete the browning process, take a spoon and dip it in. Get a nice taste of the transformation that butter has made. It’s about as drastic as when Soundwave transforms from a Decepticon into a boom box!

This should make about a dozen cookies depending on your personal size preference. I didn’t want to make a ton at a time because I believe they should be eaten within a day or two. Oh and I like extra raisins! And guess what? There’s a cheat. See if you can figure it out. You’ll need:

Brown Butter Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

1/2 Cup Butter or more

1/3 Cup Dark Brown Muscavado Sugar

1/3 Cup Cane Sugar

1 egg

1 tsp Vanilla extract

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp sea salt

1 Packet instant organic oatmeal. (I used one with flax seeds, but be creative and use what you like or happen to have on hand. It will more than likely change the flavor if you go with something like maple or apple cinnamon)

A lot of Golden Raisins. I’ve never measured them, you’ll know when you have enough.

To make the cookie, turn your oven to 350°. In a saucepan, heat the butter over a medium flame. After a few minutes the butter will start to bubble and probably pop at you. It’s ok. No big deal. Then it’ll begin to change to a caramel hue. Get on top of it and stir until you see it actually turn brown. There will be little bits on the bottom of the pan. That’s ok. Let the pan cool until it’s safe to put in the fridge for a complete cooling. Then put in fridge. Duh. Let it set about 15 minutes. I usually will take this time to get the rest of my mise prepared.

Sift the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt in a separate bowl.

When the butter has cooled, add the sugars, egg and vanilla and combine with a hand mixer for about 2 minutes until it looks kind of like frosting.

Then take the flour mixture and fold into the butter mixture. After everything is evenly incorporated mix in the packet of oats (the cheat) and then the raisins.

Roll into little 2 inch balls and then flatten them on an ungreased cookie sheet. You want those bottoms crispy. Smash them real good. You’re looking for a thinner cookie, not puffy. Don’t overcrowd them. Just make 6 at a time.

Bake for 10-12 minutes or until the look is golden brown enough for you.

In conclusion, let me reiterate that I believe butter to be the most important ingredient for a happy life. Too little, and your life will be flavorless, lacking texture and slightly cake-like. Too much…? Well I don’t think that’s possible.