Buttermilk Bakery – Orlando, FL

It’s taken us over a year to try these off the wall, idiosyncratic or dare I say Craftsmen and Wolves-esque lineup of croissants, tarts, cakes, pies, financiers, cookies, and kouign ammans. As a self profressed food lover, it’s a travesty that I’ve waited so long. 

buttermilkbakeryI’m comfortable in my critiquing abilities and knowledge of the greater Orlando area, and so I it seems natural to see Buttermilk Bakery, aka I love Buttermilk as arguably the finest patisserie in Orlando. You can’t browse any of the reputable, nay popular blogger community figureheads without seeing top down shots of what I would consider their flagship flavor: The double baked matcha croissant. Of course, I followed suit, the lamb that I am. But let’s get serious. How many bakers in the area are performing at this level?  With a scope ranging from caramel cornflake crunch croissants to roasted sunchoke goat cheese & herb quiche, and about 100 other equally innovative creations, the answer is roughly 3-4. How many bakers in this area can actually deliver a quality product? I’m going to hold firm with 3-ish. We tried two items on our visit. The aforementioned double baked matcha croissant and a slow roasted strawberry pop tart for the kid.

Why the confidence in Buttermilk Bakery after just one first trip? They’re already firmly established pillars of the community. I mean, if they sucked, I’d have heard about it by now. So what I’m tasting on my first trip cant be a fluke. What I’ve been waiting a year to try has long been warmly accepted by the masses.

matchacroissantEven though I have strong ties to my dear friends (and partners to some extent) at Born + Bread Bakehouse  here in Lakeland, I was reminded by a t-shirt I saw at Urban Canning Co. stating, it’s about “community not competition.” It’s ok to show love to people doing great stuff similar to what you or your loved ones do. We can all learn from, and respect each other’s qualities and be better for it. Even though Buttermilk Bakery ain’t my kin, I still love what they’re providing to the people of Orlando and hope said people continue to sustain these craftsmen so that I can make a repeat visit on April 11, 2017.

The croissant was simply obese, the flaky crust moist with butter. Generously stuffed full and adorned with delicate, matcha tinged frangipane. The pop tart shell was akin to pie crust, flaking as easily as Talia Al Ghul in the Dark Knight Rises. The strawberry filling was extraordinary from the slow roasting which concentrated the berry to a paste. It was close to overwhelming how much strawberry came through, as they don’t skimp on anything.

To understand how highly I view Buttermilk Bakery, take note of my day. I went to Anh Hong, a staple in the Viet-centric neighborhood on Colonial Drive in Orlando for a delicious lunch with the family. This was followed by a trip to the bowling alley closer toward the attractions where my 7 year old son rolled a 92 on his first game ever. The intent was to quickly head back east after bowling around 4:30 pm to arrive at the Audubon Park Market right at 5 pm. Traffic dictated that I would arrive at 6 pm. The drive home normally from Winter Park area is 52 minutes. Traffic decided that 52 minutes wasn’t long enough. Traffic was thinking more like 1 hour 30 minutes. In conclusion, If you find yourself en-route to or from great pastry, your body will forgive 98 extra minutes on I-4.

 

Lakeland Barbecue Co.

I don’t remember exact flavors at Good Buddies, exempt them dirty fries. Why my phantom taste buds can recite this one menu item among all the others is beyond human comprehension. Yet, as an ode to the restaurant that once bustled then succumbed to a tragic fire a half dozen years or more in downtown Lakeland, my French fry cart The Root concocted our own version of dirty fries. Unfortunate or indifferent as it is, Good buddies isn’t back although the team that once brought some of the best BBQ around is. And what’s in a name really? For me, it happens to be nostalgia for  something I honestly can’t really remember too much of other than my brain verifies they was awesome. Lakeland BBQ Co. has risen out of the ashes of a burned down building and years worth of domination in local BBQ competitions. That is what their reputation of this new to you named BBQ Co is built upon.

LkldBBQ
This isn’t really a review, think of it more of an introduction to how I gauge my barbeque.
When you walk in, head toward the bar in the far reaches of the building where you might see someone waving a wooden stock pot spoon at you to control foot traffic in the right direction. If you don’t already know how to order BBQ from a new place here’s how you do it. Everyone’s got one or two favorite cuts of meat or preparations. From birth I’ve been a rib guy, mainly spare with the tips attached. If that’s not available, I wont always go for the back ribs as the next option. If not pork ribs, ill usually gravitate (if available) toward more rare white rabbit type forms such as Burnt Ends, In House Smoked sausage, Pig Belly and Mutton. If you don’t have a preference with BBQ I think you’re on the verge of being lost. I’m saying this because we have rules. Without rules, chaos reigns. When chaos reigns, you get your queues from a talking fox. On the first trip to a new BBQ restaurant or frankly one you’ve never been before, always order what you already love. This is your gauge. If you don’t think they do what you like very well, you probably aren’t going to like the rest. I would never order pulled or chopped pork over ribs, brisket, sausage, lamb, duck or even chicken, so why would I judge based on that? Chopped pork is way down my list, but this is  not at the behest of anyone that likes it. We all have our security blankets.

The ordering structure at Lakeland BBQ co. makes it easy to perform a second test because the subject is already at the table. Saucing. Take your less predominant index finger  out. Place a few dabs of whichever sauce you think you’ll enjoy. You want control, which is why I squeeze with my right and test with the left. Their spicy sauce is not overbearing on the heat index, but it’s cold inside to be honest. Usually shivering will cause you to feel the heat more than it’s meant to be felt, so sit near the window for maximum effort. It was very tolerable nonetheless. I detected a flavor combination with a subtle complexity right off the bat. I think I got some coffee and smoked chile, caramelized brown sugar in there somewhere.

As for the ribs:

The smoke ring was there as you see, but the smoky flavor wasn’t as bring you to your knees powerful as you’ll find at other joints.  Because of these factors, the texture made me think more of deeply roasted shoulder. I respect the restraint they exhibited as it caused me to actually taste pork. Kind of the reason we like the stuff in the first place.

lkldribs

The menu is brief with the main and sides at a minimum, so you don’t have a myriad of options. I’m fine with that. I’d rather have fresh tasty sides done very well, over a pliable sheet panned week old macaroni and cheese. Opting for what I perceive everyone will gravitate toward, Cheesy Hash brown casserole was my side of choice, although the following visit allowed me to put their Collards under the microscope. You see, in actuality making good Collard Greens isn’t tough. Just don’t serve them raw in a salad or turn ’em to mush. everything else within the spectrum is allowable. The problem is people who make really good Collard Greens don’t want to admit anyone else does them good.  I have to admit, they done did the Collards right. Tender, ham hocky, salty and tangy with some great pot likker broth to sip as an after meal digestif.

A fitting suprise was the wedge of cake like cornbread on my lunch tray. I wasn’t expecting it, probably didn’t need it from the generous amount of ribs they provided, however I was very happy to eat the entire brick. Restaurant cornbread can be as fickle as a newspaper editor, twice as crummy and three times, no four times as dry. Not here.

Since they’re only open for Lunch, this new place might not end up on everyone’s to do list. If you’re a fan of Good buddies, maybe you’ll try this and think it’s just like they used to do it. Maybe you’ll think they have grown from the years being on the circuit. Maybe you’ll be elbow deep in pork fat  and far too busy to pontificate over these trivialized matters.

Via Verdi Cucina Rustica – Miami, FL

Authenticity as it pertains to food, has become an increasingly important quality to bloggers, and even critics over the years. After all, as people become more adventurous in their taste, their quest becomes all about finding the “most authentic” version of the cuisine in question. This is in stark contrast to how we thought about ethnic cuisine 50 or 60 years ago, when immigrants had to tailor their dishes to suit our timid taste buds. The clearest example of this phenomenon is Chinese food, a cuisine that historically exudes bold flavor, vibrant color and generous use of spices. Sadly, here in America, our inexperienced palates have transformed it into a bland parody of itself.

No cuisine is immune to the changes that inevitably take place when a dish reaches our shores for the first time. Chef Ed Lee, in a recent “Mind of a Chef” episode, explained that this isn’t always a bad thing, and that we shouldn’t necessarily be chasing authenticity, but embracing the new cuisines that spawn from this metamorphosis. These are, after all, what make up “American food”, not only burgers, fries and apple pies.

While I agree with Chef Lee, I also feel that it’s possible to find truly authentic food here in the States if you care to look. It may use local ingredients, but that doesn’t make it any less genuine, as all the best food cultures adapt to new surroundings. The search for such food however, is important, as those who can’t afford to travel regularly, shouldn’t be deprived of the wonderful flavors from faraway lands. Even if you can pony up for a trip, you shouldn’t have to jump on a plane to get a taste of your favorite dish.

Via Verdi spread

Thankfully there are others who share my crazy Utopian ideals, and luckily for me, they’re Italian. A couple of years ago, the exuberant Carro brothers, Fabrizio and Nicola, along with mixologist wizard Cristiano Vezzoli, opened Via Verdi, with the simple goal of serving authentic Italian dishes, with quality ingredients and an exacting eye for quality. It’s a recipe touted by many, but executed by few. This trio however, succeeded, and has created a restaurant with the rare ability to transport its diners with a single bite.

I hesitated to write about Via Verdi after my first two visits, not because they were undeserving, quite the opposite in fact. The meals impressed me so much, that I feared this shining star would quickly burn itself out. So many times after having a great meal, I’ll return, only to find out the chef has left for greener pastures, or the owners, smelling success, have grown too quickly, leaving the quality lacking. This hasn’t been the case at Via Verdi. The team, experienced from their time at Miami mainstays, Quattro and Segafredo, have kept themselves focused on the original mission.

The menu is simple, no need for a paragraph when a handful of words will do, the ingredients speak for themselves. The polenta with truffle Parmesan sauce, in its tiny cup, commands attention as the wonderful aroma of truffles fills the air. Other fried dishes like the beautifully crisp arancini, or the sumptuous veal polpettine highlight Via Verdi’s mastery of tomato sauce. Take note other Italian restaurants, this is how you make tomato sauce. You can tell just by smelling that sauce is on point. Whether it’s their classic marinara, or fiery arrabiatta, the distinctive tang of San Marzano tomatoes is present and complemented with the perfect touch of sugar and spices.

Tonnato di vitello, a dish easily ruined by low quality ingredients and overpowering sauce, is a must. Via Verdi’s is a graceful rendition of the classic Northern Italian dish, light and refreshing, with hints of citrus and a briny pop from the capers.

Via Verdi pasta

Pasta of course, displays the same rigorous attention to detail as the rest of the menu. From herbaceous spinach gnudi covered in that wonderful sauce, to strozzapretti in rich and gamey braised osso buco, quality reigns. Even the vegetarian choices like a pecorino and beet ravioli in a zucchini sauce, are excellent. Naturally, all the pasta is made in house.

But it wouldn’t be a true Northern Italian restaurant without Piedmont truffles, the knobby little nodules that bring grown men to tears as they empty their wallets in the hope of just one fleeting taste.  People like to throw the word truffle on the menu, but few actually show you the goods, fewer still trust their diners enough to leave said goods on the table unattended. I was fortunate to pay a visit to Via Verdi on a night when white truffles were indeed on the menu. A delicious but simple risotto dutifully served to deliver the tasty tubers, as you wouldn’t want anything to overtake the delicate yet assertive flavors that every great truffle bestows.

White truffle spread

While dessert , sadly doesn’t come with white Alba truffles (although I didn’t ask), it’s absolutely worth saving room for. Panna cotta with passion fruit and strawberries should be on the table if it’s available. Another fantastic option is the Bunet, a chocolate amaretti flan with caramel sauce that doesn’t kill you with sweetness, but leaves you feeling cozy and warm.

Via Verdi dolce

Is Via Verdi authentic? Absolutely. Does it matter? Heck yes it matters! That’s not to say that every restaurant serving ethnic cuisine needs to stick hard and fast to the rules of the homeland, but for those that do, and do it well, I applaud you. As I’ve said time and again, a meal, when done right, has the ability to transport you, and the boys at Via Verdi are offering flavor trips to Alba with every  dish.

Via Verdi Cucina Rustica Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

é by José Andrés – Las Vegas, NV

When all is said and done, the goal of a restaurant, whether it’s fast food or fine dining, is to seat you at their table. If we’re talking about the latter, besides the menu, there are a number of tactics available to a discerning restaurateur. Hiring that hot bearded chef from some hip locavore, farm-to-table joint perhaps, or landing the top floor in the latest Zaha Hadid building. Or maybe it’s touting a one night only tasting menu featuring sustainable heritage bacon.

All of these strategies have been executed in principal, or more likely verbatim, but in Las Vegas, the capital of distraction, attracting diners to your restaurant is an even greater task.  So how do you do it, how do you compete when almost every celebrity chef has a Vegas location vying for those dining dollars? Well for one diminutive dining room, it’s simple, you don’t.

This tactic of isolationism would be suicide for most restaurants, but é by José Andrés is not most restaurants. You won’t see any signs for it as you walk through The Cosmopolitan, it’s not listed on the website, and even if you were to walk by Jaleo, it’s parent restaurant, you’d probably miss it.

E spread 1

It all started with a call from my dad and a one word question, “Vegas”? The answer was an instant yes, and with that, the meal planning began. Well, I say planning, but it was really just jumping online the second I got home to see if é had two spots open during our trip. I had heard about José Andrés’ semi-secret restaurant within a restaurant a while back, and it had been on my wish list ever since.

A few days later a dainty envelope bearing a faux wax stamp arrived containing two gold admission tickets. I can hear the snickering, but for me, it showed that the staff at é sought not only to provide a meal, but an experience, starting with your own personal Charlie Bucket moment, and it totally worked.

We arrived at Jaleo with golden tickets in hand, and no clue as to what lay ahead. Soon after, our seven dinner companions slowly trickled in. Naturally small talk exposes occupations first, and we were a diverse bunch; two neuroscientists, a spinal surgeon, a PGA rules official, a “businessman” with two young “lady friends”, together with me, an architect in training and my aircraft trading father, formed a group like a strange food loving cast of Gilligan’s Island. Little did we know how important that group would prove to be to the experience. Each of us took our seat at the bronze, horseshoe-shaped bar, surrounded by full height walls of library card files meant to represent Chef Andrés’ mind, filled with flavor ideas. After a quick introduction to the friendly, and thankfully not too formal, staff, our meal of over 20 dishes began.

E spread 2

Smooth foie gras and crunchy corn nuts, wrapped in what looked like pressed dryer sheets, but turned out to be cotton candy, was a refreshingly playful way to start a meal of this caliber. José is a decidedly serious chef, as his many restaurants can attest, but you can tell he’s having fun at é. Take his “beet-kini” grilled cheese with its two slices of “bread” formed from pressed beet meringue, achieving a color that’d make Willy Wonka proud, sandwiching a thick cream of La Peral blue cheese. Yet the flavors are always the main attraction, concentrated sweetness from the beets against the grassy blue cheese.

At an Andrés restaurant, you’ll never be without seafood for long, so the coca de recapte featuring a pristine Murcia sardine and deconstructed escalivada (a traditional Catalan dish usually made with grilled red pepper and eggplant) piped in neat rows was a welcome sight. Three quick bites followed, mini brioche stuffed with goat cheese and Iberico ham, a smoked Kushi oyster, and one of Eat a Duck’s personal favorite delicacies, a seared chicken oyster set atop crispy skin.

E spread 3

How about some shark? Why, yes please! A little Cadiz style fried nugget of adobo marinated thresher shark was as impressive as it was simple. Think of a piece of perfectly fried pork belly, and then remove any trace of lean meat, that was the texture. The fish itself didn’t have a distinct flavor, but the combination of spices from the adobo and the sharp sherry vinegar on the crisp shell was intoxicating.

Apparently you can pickle mussels, and guess what, they’re delicious! The creamy little shellfish with their added sourness were paired with little pea-sized olive spheres and a squeeze of citrus that woke up the tongue. Which brings me to Cava sangria spheres! After downing these high-end jello shots, everyone at the table had a smile on their face.

Let me just state that by now, I had become fast friends with the two lovely ladies to my left, one of whom was already starting to get full, and I being ever the gentleman, graciously offered to assist her in dispatching whatever morsels remained from each course.

The next course was a true brought me back to earth as the preparation was explained. I take it there’s no fear on the staff’s part of divulging secrets here, because I was no clearer on how this dish was created after the explanation as I was before it. From what I gathered, (and José would probably cringe, or laugh if he read this) you take fava beans, purée them, mix them with some molecular something or other, and then reformed them into their former fava shape. The result is an impossible smooth “bean” creme floating in a comforting jamon consommé. Two schmears in the roasted and black garlic varieties packed an incredibly concentrated flavor, playing off the subtle ham tinged broth.

E spread 4

A return to the sea with two prawns from Palamós, barely cooked on the grill to keep their creamy texture. If you’ve ever had ama ebi nigiri, it was a similar mouth feel. The flesh was exceedingly sweet with just a hint of smoke. Sucking shrimp heads seems to have become the cool thing to do after years of Bourdain and the like preaching the gospel of guts. Seriously though, when the opportunity arises to wrap your lips around a crustacean of this quality, you’d better suck every last succulent drop out of that shell.

The grilled Txocoli style cod jowls that followed brought the dreaded “wall” within sight. It didn’t help that I had a double portion after sharing with my generous neighbor! The garlicky pil pil sauce mingling with swirls of squid ink was almost too luxurious. In keeping with the cream theme, we were then presented with a steaming package of champagne cork sized mushrooms in a creamy bagna cauda.

I won’t lie, I was reaching my limit, but the sight of an enormous grilled Australian Wagyu ribeye was enough to generate a second wind. The color was unreal. Their grill must’ve been screaming hot because it had an amazing crust, but the deep crimson flesh beneath was still wobbly to the touch. Piquillo chips and white asparagus joined the perfect slice of beef, pairing with the grassy notes. A nice layer of fat lent its flavor to an already delicious cut.

E spread 5

With that exclamation point, the dessert parade began…with an egg, or what looked like an egg, but was in fact thickened cream whites with an orange yolk. A little chocolate drum shell containing a minty chocolate mousse atop cocoa nibs was a familiar flavor, like an intense Andes mint, or Andrés mint if you will.  José’s own take on a Ferrero Rocher was presented as a golden nugget in a ring box. The distinct hazelnut chocolate flavor combo was spot on, and even more pronounced than its namesake.

I’ve had very few dinners where I leave with more friends than I arrived with. I can confidently say that the group you draw at é can make or break the dinner. Without fail, the food will always be incredible, but the people make the experience special, and that goes for the staff as well. Our group was fantastic, the room felt alive, there was laughter and hugs and a common giddiness over this awesome moment we were all able to share. Even the chefs seemed to be having a great time. So if you visit é, befriend your neighbors, chat with the sommelier, joke with the chefs, chat with the assistants, because at the end of the day, it’s the people who make the meal.

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Chuan Lu Garden – Orlando, FL

Sometimes you self-advocate to an actuality which causes a questioning in your ability to tell good from great. There are far too few noodle shops in Central Florida. No debate there. Yet, there are fewer still who actually offer homemade versions of their namesake, and few do it at high levels of expertise. By few I mean one.

Chuan Lu Garden, a no frills, microscopic jewel, is perched directly at center stage of Orlando’s Asian food version of Main st. I had to ask myself, “Is it great on its own merits or is it great to me because there’s no other Northern Chinese noodle show in town?” Well, let’s look at the facts. They insist on making all of their hand pulled noodles in the back, just through the swinging doors leading to a furiously busy kitchen. This review may be short, but it doesn’t take long to highlight the value of a handmade product. I ordered just two things, hardly enough to form a complete picture of a restaurant in most cases. However, based on the high levels of craft found in each of these items, I feel confident enough to give it our stamp of approval. If you’re wondering how to tell if something is made by man or machine, I have an easy test. Look for imperfections. If you receive an order of six dumplings, and no two look the same, (except maybe at Din Tai Fung) you’re in good hands. If your siu mai are identical, you’ve got knockoff purses on your hands. Dumplings are like snowflakes. No two are alike.

Chuan Lu spread 1

As for the noodles, not only are they made in-house, they’re perfectly tender with just enough bounce, due to the reaction of sodium bicarbonate and flour. I ordered my noodles as one should in a place that specializes in Northern Chinese and Szechuan provincial delights; fermented black bean sauce mixed with minced pork, scallion, cilantro and cucumber. In most places you’ll find it called Zhajiangmian. It’s difficult for mt heart to praise a place so highly when I can literally look out the front window of Chuan Lu Garden and see the building that houses Ming’s Bistro, my favorite Chinese restaurant in Orlando. The good news is that these two don’t really compete head to head. Northern Chinese cuisine has very specific characteristics, stemming largely from the climate. This food was made to warm up your insides during the harsh winter. Luckily it has the added benefit of obliterating my debilitating pollen induced head congestion.

Chuan Lu spread 2

This proved to be the case in my second visit when I insisted we re-order the Zhajiangmian so my compadres could sample the springy noodles. We also asked our waitress for her favorite dish on the menu. After a little coaxing she graciously admitted her preference for cumin lamb, strips of tender lamb shoulder, wok seared with onions, leeks, lemongrass and a generous handful of chilies. The most powerful flavor was the potent Szechuan peppercorn. These berries aren’t used in many other cuisines that I’ve seen. They’re flavor is aggressive, asserting itself above all others the second it hits each of you 10 thousand or flavor rescepticles. The peppercorns cause a strange buzzing sensation in the mouth. They aren’t spicy hot per se. No, instead they enhanced the rest of the dish with the most welcome strangeness. The other dish that must be noted on the second visit was a different kind of dumpling called steamed juicy pork bun. They remind me of a cross between a soup dumpling and baked pork buns, with a layer of crispy crepe batter circulating on the bottom. Its the only place I’ve ever had them so they are a must!

Chuan Lu spread 3

Amidst the many quality restaurants in this area of Orlando, it can be a chore to stand out. I’ve seen so many good enough type restaurants in this corridor fold because they just weren’t good enough to cut the tight battle raging on Mills and Colonial. Chuan Lu Garden offers something truly special and easily warrants return visits. At the very least it should make it on your list for a multicultural Colonial Drive food crawl!

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Blackbrick – Miami, FL

I think it’s high time we got back to our roots here at Eat a Duck. I mean it’s been what, TWO posts since we featured dim sum around here! Well not to worry, we’d never let the dumplings disappear for long, and neither will Richard Hales, chef and owner of Blackbrick, Miami’s sorely needed dim sum mecca. Chef Hales, best known for the popular Korean joint, Sakaya Kitchen and its mobile counterpart, Dim Ssam a GoGo, clearly saw the gap in Miami’s dining landscape. Until now, finding truly great dim sum was a chore at best, and nearly impossible at worst.

Sure, you’ve got Mr. Chow on Miami Beach, but who wants to drop $13 on a plate of siu mai? Alternatively you could make the trek out to Tropical dim sum on Sundays for one of the only dim sum cart services I’m aware of, but neither of these options are ideal. What Miami needed was a centrally located spot, within a few minutes drive and preferably near other like-minded restaurants for obvious food crawl possibilities! Chef Hales found the perfect spot, nestled right in between the design district and Wynwood, two of the hottest neighborhoods in town.

Blackbrick spread 1

At first glance, the large Target shopping center where Blackbrick is located may seem like another bland, prefabricated Florida “village”. Clearly though, someone did their homework. Instead of bringing in the typical corporate restaurants like Brio, P.F. Changs and Cheesecake Factory, they opted for independent, local talent. Granted, there’s still a Five Guys and a World of Beer, but for the most part, the dining options in Midtown are something to be excited about.

Blackbrick is one of the places warranting the most excitement, not only for the crew of Eat a Duck, but for food lovers around the country, even being nominated for Bon Appetit’s 50 Best New Restaurants in America. The reason behind the buzz is no secret, as Blackbrick combines tradition and creativity seamlessly.

Blackbrick dim sum

Their dim sum selection, while not exhaustive, is of a quality you won’t find anywhere else. Each item is cooked to order, so while the wait may be more than some veteran dim sum-o-philes are used to, the resulting flavor makes it all worth it. The wrappers of the har gow and pork siu mai are perfectly cooked, tender and toothsome. The fillings are equally well executed. The shrimp and scallop dumplings are fresh, leaving none of the low-tide aftertaste some lesser establishments might offer.

A couple of instant favorites are the fried pork cheek dumplings (pictured in the first spread) with its succulent filling and drizzle of slightly sweet sauce, and the jade Peking duck dumpling, an idea which I’m upset I haven’t found until now. Both of these manage to find their way to my table during each visit. Do we have any bao fans? Blackbrick makes a mean steamed bbq pork char siu bao with that wonderfully sweet meat filling. A couple of these for breakfast would start any day off right.

Blackbrick spread 2

But Blackbrick isn’t simply a dumpling house. Looking for some comfort food, why not take a look at their selection of fantastic fried rice that will expand your opinion of what the dish can be. Not content to match your neighborhood Chinese take out joint, Chef Hales spikes his rice with things like rock shrimp, lobster tail and duck. Another exciting option pairs bacon with kim chi made by sister restaurant Sakaya Kitchen.

The Chinese brunch, once dominated by dim sum alone is now joined by a bevy of options including a breakfast fried rice of sausage, eggs and country potato, shrimp and grits made with cornmeal congee, bacon and a poached egg, and my personal favorite Chinese fried chicken and fortune cookie waffle with a scallion, ginger maple syrup. Don’t forget the salt and pepper tots! Here they’re prepared simply with peppers and onion, achieving a level of spice that gets your brow moist but keeps you coming back for more.

My favorite dish however, might be Blackbrick’s take on Dandan Mian, a Sichuan dish usually consisting of a spicy, chili oil tinged sauce, minced pork and scallions. Here it resembles a Chinese version of ragu alla bolognese. This is one of those dishes I could eat for the rest of my life and be a happy man. Chef Hales chose bucatini, a stout noodle that can stand up to the mountain of fiery pork and scallions.

Blackbrick spread

After a half-dozen visits to Blackbrick, it’s solidified itself in my pantheon of go-to Miami restaurants. Over the past few years, the food scene in there has grown by leaps and bounds, leaving behind the tired, stodgy cuisine of the late 1990s and early 2000’s in favor of a vibrant blend of traditional fare, executed well and bold new creations destined to become classics. Blackbrick is indicative of this trend and stands among the leaders of great dining establishments in South Florida.

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Polpo Pizza Co. – Sarasota, FL

It seems there’s a pizza renaissance brewing in Florida these days. Recently, Proof Pizza & Pasta reignited my excitement for the almighty pie in this state. Also in Miami, the as yet untested Stanzione 87 stands poised to join the hallowed pizza hall of fame with the likes of Antico. However the pizza revival in the sunshine state isn’t exclusive to the big cities. Heck it’s not even exclusive to having an actual restaurant. That’s because right here in Sarasota, two passionate people and their fire-breathing, mid-century Ford F5 are cranking out some of the best pizza in the south. 

Polpo spread 1

Polpo Pizza Co. was among the first names mentioned when I began asking for eats from my circle of gulf coast food friends. I quickly found that if you didn’t plan ahead, you’d end up on a Nick and Norah type excursion in pursuit of the fabled pies. Polpo doesn’t have a storefront, so there’s no calling in for takeout or delivery, and that’s fine, because Danni and Tom have crafted such an amazing product that you won’t mind driving 20-30 minutes to sink your teeth into that perfect dough.

The team at Polpo manage this feat by keeping things simple. Working with local growers to procure the freshest produce, staying away from the processed nonsense peddled by lesser pizzerias and paying a close attention to quality has made for a pizza that transcends the dish.

All of those steps are crucial to the creation of an amazing pie, but quality ingredients can only take you so far, especially since so many other restaurants are upping the bar in that respect. You have to be creative to really set yourself apart, a lesson that Polpo actively displays in their ever-changing menu.

Of course this includes the ubiquitous Margherita, both in a traditional and spicy variant, but from there, things get interesting. Their signature pie, The Bee Sting, is an eye-opening spicy/sweet concoction with Calabrese, shaved raw garlic, chili pepper infused olive oil and a liberal drizzle of hot pepper infused honey. The Pig & Goat on the other hand is a smooth and smokey affair with Niman Ranch bacon, rosemary infused olive oil, fresh thyme, peppadew peppers and a Pollack-like application of goat cheese cream

Polpo spread 2

Another unique pie hailed from the opposite side of the Mediterranean. The Smokin’ Moroccan involves a spiced chickpea purée, smoked baby eggplant, Scamorza cheese, feta-lemon cream and a pistachio gremolata.

During one of Logan’s visits, a couple of breakfast time pizzas were on offer. A savory option of tomato, green onion, provolone, house made mozzarella, bacon and a runny egg and a sweeter one with banana creme, Scamorza cheese, banana, bacon and more house made mozzarella.

Polpo spread 3

But not everything needs hunks of cheese to deliver a tasty slice. The Mother Earth (pictured at the top of the page) stays grounded with porcini cream, fresh sliced porcinis, fresh picked arugula, shaved parmesan and a lemon vinaigrette. I swear I detected a hint of truffle in there as well.

The flavors from all of Polpo’s pizzas are at once familiar and unique. They don’t try to get too cute with the combinations, as you can tell each pie is thoughtfully constructed from a taste, visual and even structural standpoint. The more I eat at this pizza truck, the more I understand why they haven’t built a brick and mortar shop yet, as they’d likely need eight arms to keep up with the demand. The temporal nature of mobile eatery, especially one that achieves this level of quality, adds an unquantifiable characteristic the experience.

I think I speak for all of us here at Eat a Duck headquarters when I urge you to check the calendar and get yourself one of Polpo’s gorgeous pizza’s while you can.

Pho Tan – Lakeland, FL

A Rooster and the Till outpost could have arrived in town and it would have taken second fiddle to the new Vietnamese place, Pho Tan, that just opened over in no man’s land USA, aka the Combee settlement in Southeast Lakeland, Florida. You have to understand my plight, my yearning, and my overall displeasure pho my local food scene be-pho you understand why a legitimate Vietnamese restaurant means so much more to me.

Here’s a little back story to prove my love.

I preface this by apologizing pho bashing the only other Vietnamese place in town, but it helps tell the story. When the other “Viet” restaurant in town opened about two or three years ago, how excited I was! The cuisine of Vietnam has gradually caused to become one of my favorites. From bánh mi to com dia, and all the delicious bánh bao. At long last I wouldn’t have to drive over an hour to sample these delicious dishes. Oh how wrong I was. The food was as sad as a fatherless child, yet disreputable sources continue to bestow either 4 ½ stars or a 95% approval rating, which means people are still giving them their business.

Pho Tan spread 3

It’s my hypothesis that the general population in town doesn’t know what authentic Vietnamese food tastes like if this place does it pho them. To be fair, I’ve never been anywhere close to the Mekong River, so my comparative knowledge spans from the ethnic crossroads found in neighborhoods I’m very familiar with in Manhattan, Orlando and Tampa. All of which are offer much greater quality than this terrible incarnation we had.

About two months ago, I drove into an old dingy parking lot by accident after needing to make a U-turn to get out of Combee as fast as humanly possible, and noticed the sign pho Pho Tan. At first I thought I was mistakenly seeing a sign pho a salon, the letters spelling ‘Phoenix Tan’, having long fallen off. I imagined a glowing bird ascending through the flames, sporting a pair of Wayfarers pho retinal protection. It couldn’t possibly be a restaurant could it? Fast forward to this past Sunday, my phone starts blowing up around 11:30 am with close friends who know my hatred pho the Viet restaurant that shall not be named, telling me that I have to check out Pho Tan! All day I was bombarded with pho-tos of pho, bun, bánh mi and rice paper rolls. So I went, that very night with ZERO expectations.

My wife wants to hate Pho Tan. She doesn’t think it’s possible to have even a handful of decent places to eat in town. I don’t disagree with her based on what’s around, yet my hope never dies. It’s a general theme between us lately; the impression of pre-conceived hatred. I just want it to be good. Good enough to where I can say “ Hey, I don’t want to drive out-of-town pho dinner tonight, you want Pho Tan?” That’s all I ask. Sadly, that’s how bad it is here sometimes. The bargaining chip pho me were the gushing reviews from my friends. I think pho the most part, I surround myself with people who have great taste and true discernment. If they like it, I should too.

Pho Tan spread 2

We ordered a plate of steamed chicken dumplings; a rare starter at most Vietnamese places. They came with an out of character dipping broth. Pho the most part we got them pho the kid; he likes stabbing them and making dim sum lollipops. It was mildly pleasing, yet I considered it somewhat a precarious start as they were highly fragile. I like the flavor but wasn’t ready to give up on Anh Hong. The brothy sauce was so noteworthy, we held on to it pho the duration of our meal, no matter how many times our sweet waitress tried to pull it from the booth.

We loved the Com dia, with grilled beef & shrimp, a perfect fried egg and the best stuffed shrimp paste in fried bean curd I’ve honestly ever had. It was light and crispy with a mousseline of herbaceous shrimp paste stuffed inside. I can’t imagine finding a better version anywhere else. It was a shame that my wife’s lemongrass chicken and spring roll bun, didn’t hit a ground rule double with her. She didn’t like the cold noodles intertwined with the hot chicken. Whatever they do to the lemongrass chicken is impressive, yet the dish itself was let biggest let down. They also need to give us a holy trinity of herbs (cilantro, Thai basil and mint), as only a few are co-mingled, with only sprouts and nước chấm on the side. If they could tweak that slightly, I think it would be passable in her eyes.

We also ordered a grilled chicken bánh mi, not realizing it would come with the same lemongrass marinade. I may have opted pho the grilled pork had I known, as I was suffering from lemongrass overload. Nevertheless, there were wonderful flavors on the inside from the jalapeño, cilantro, mint, pickled vegetables and lemony mayo. However they used a large segment from a whole baguette which caused an uneven bread to filling ratio, unfortunately favoring the bread. This could easily be fixed by buying mini baguettes over whole loaves. Get them at Publix! That’s how Saigon Deli does it!

Pho Tan spread 1

I knew Lakeland had a small Vietnamese community somewhere out there, as a large group showed up as we were just finishing our meal. By the time we left, the place was packed full of happy eaters. I wonder how those who migrated from Vietnam feel about a place that undoubtedly reminds them of home? Imagine moving to the opposite side of the world without access to your favorite Cuban joint, and then one day, Arco Iris opens down the street. I would cry. We need to support this place so it sticks around.

Comparing Pho Tan to the other place is like comparing Tartine Bakery to Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s really a great spot pho Lakeland, with better ingredients and way more authenticity than any other spot in the area. Just look in the kitchen. You’ll likely see a sweet looking old man painstakingly stirring a 20 gallon pot of pho with what appears to be a canoe oar. While It doesn’t beat my favorite places in every category, as you know, I wasn’t really expecting it to. Even the best Vietnamese I’ve eaten in other parts of the country have their particular strengths and weaknesses. Pho the price and overall experience, I think I speak pho everyone who desires good Vietnamese food; “Welcome to Lakeland, please stay!”

Proof Pizza & Pasta – Miami, FL

I’d been in this situation before. It’s a Friday night, I’d just arrived at MIA for a weekend visit with my parents, and we needed to find a place for dinner. A quick check on OpenTable is worrying, as many of the choice spots are jam-packed. After some hurried discussion, we make a bee line for the design district, an area that, in the last two years, has experienced a flood of great restaurants moving in. They can’t all be full right? Right?! These types of frenzied searches usually end in disappointment, but in an area so well stocked with top-notch restaurants, for once, the odds were in our favor.

Proof spread 1

Proof Pizza & Pasta had been on my radar for a while. Seeing those double zeros while driving up and down Miami Avenue was enough to make my list. They were speaking food code, and I was listening. Just to give you some context, Proof is right in the middle of a mealtime maelstrom with heavy hitters like Blackbrick, Sakaya Kitchen, Sugarcane and Salumeria 104 within a stones throw. That means there’s no room to slack when it comes to the food, if you’re not on your game, you’ll be out within a year. The brisk, but informative introduction we received from our server piqued my interest. All of their pizza and pasta dough is made fresh, in-house every morning and is cooked to order. They also support local produce whenever possible. OK great, but I’ve been burned before by restaurants that think they can fool their patrons with clearly store-bought ingredients, so the “prØØf” as they say, is in the pudding, or in this case the gemelli beef bolognese.

But before this pasta hound could get his mitts on his favorite food, mom insisted we get some vegetables. Fine. I spied a tasty looking duck confit gnudi, and hey, it comes with a porcini pureé and fresh herbs, that counts right? Or what about the burrata with sorrel pesto and pea shoots? While both would have been automatic for me, my mother had other ideas, the dreaded sprouts. At Proof they serve their Brussels sprouts raw, shaved and dressed with apple cider, gorgonzola, pecans and dried cranberry. I was devastated by how delicious this salad was. My entire childhood had been a lie, and to find out at 30 that this tiny cabbage, which had caused me so much angst, had the potential to be so tasty, absolutely crushed me. Why doesn’t every mother make the sprouts this way?! Well they’re on my personal menu now, better late than never I suppose.

Proof Pastas

Chefs Justin Flit and Matt DePante, both Miami natives, gained valuable experience in big league Manhattan kitchens DBGB and Gramercy Tavern, which they brought back to their hometown when they decided to open Proof. The attention to detail and quality control that is expected of any top shelf New York restaurants, is clearly seen in this menu. The aforementioned gemelli beef bolognese pairs the deep meat sauce with delicate whipped ricotta and shreds of fresh basil, and was just as good if not better than the version I tried at Beauty & Essex. An equally impressive angel hair with succulent chunks of fresh crab, spiked with Calabrian chili and lemony breadcrumbs displayed the seaward side of the pasta spectrum. Each dish showcased the incredibly fresh noodles which held an elasticity that you only get from a homemade product.

Proof Pizza

The pizza at Proof delivers (excuse the pun) on all fronts. Slightly charred crust, fresh toppings and solid structural stability are three basic traits every great pizza should embody. At Proof, they’re doing their bags of double zero flour justice. We chose two pies, the Salumi and the Oxtail, which like the pastas we selected, highlighted two very different sides of the pizza game. The former could be thought of as simply a vulgar “meat lover’s”, but it has so much more to offer. Joining the pepperoni and sausage are paper-thin slices of prosciutto, added after it’s been fired so as not to ruin the delicate meat by crisping it up. All this protein manages to coexist with Proof’s fantastic red sauce, here spiked with chili oil and a hint of cumin which added an interesting twist on an otherwise familiar flavor profile.

The latter satisfies with a generous spread of braised oxtail infused with thyme, dollops of mozzarella, copious amounts of black garlic and gelatinous caramelized onions. I suggest eating your fill of one pizza and then moving to the other to fully appreciate the depth of flavor achieved by each. As I sit here thinking about them both, it’s difficult to recall a better pizza in Florida.

Proof Jep

When you happen to land in a place like Proof on the spur of the moment, with little planning and double zero expectations, you kind of have to order dessert. That night there was a chocolate sponge-type cake, filled and topped with chocolate hazelnut mousse and crispy chopped hazelnuts. It was a nocciola kind of night, and for this Nutella fiend, the perfect ending to the meal. Chef’s Flit and DePante have crafted a real gem in the design district, a worthy addition to the pantheon of great restaurants that have recently sprung up there. I’m feeling less and less inclined to make the trek to the beach for meals when I’m in Miami. With restaurants like Proof on the mainland, it’s no wonder.

Proof Pizza & Pasta on Urbanspoon

Haven – Tampa, FL

I don’t care how well curated your whiskey cellar is, or that you’ve got a list of pre-prohibition inspired cocktails on draught. I cringe upon finding my cloth napkin folded up like the Sydney Opera House as I return to the table from the restroom. Now don’t get me wrong, yeah I think it’s alright, but a 2,500 bottle wine cellar won’t keep me warm in the middle of the night. This isn’t the opening rant of a one star Yelp review, I just don’t care for that stuff. I just want to eat well. I’m not low-class and I’m not wealthy, and it’s great to be a discerning eater, but you don’t need a thesaurus to communicate your magnificent dining experience.

At Eat a Duck, the food is the single most important part our reviews. The entire system of stars, spoons, plates or whatever gold plated flatware you choose, is inherently flawed, as it’s too broad a brush to paint an accurate picture. We do it by writing words of jubilation, while disappointment bears silence in our approach. So the fact that I’ve already typed 228 words before even mentioning the restaurant in question means that I love Haven, the successor to the much-loved and sorely missed SideBerns. Back when I dined there for the first time almost a decade ago, I was impressed to see such a modern and experimental approach to cuisine in my area. Until then, I felt that this kind of attention to detail was only available in the big cities. I remember lusting over their happy hour menu, featuring delicious pork terrines and fantastic moules frites. On a good day you could get a nice pre-dinner snack with a glass of wine and get out of there for no more than $20. To this day, the best dessert I’ve ever had, came out of the Sideburns kitchen. A domed lemon cheesecake with an amoretti and candied pine nut crust, drizzled with basil simple syrup. Little did I know, our 13th wedding anniversary dinner, last April, would be our last chance to dine at SideBerns.

Haven logo

One of the reasons the community was in shock, was because they aren’t used to successful restaurants closing without facing some sort of tragedy. When a building owner or majority investor says they’re taking things in a “different direction”, the public reads that as failure. Yet, this kind of thing happens all the time, just not here. My all-around favorite place to eat, Abattoir in Atlanta, just closed after nearly a decade of consistently being one of the most popular places in town. The owner simply felt that the concept had run its course and wanted to try something new with their available resources. Of course it hurt to see both of these places go as I obviously have fond memories of each. I’ll never forget that Korean bulgogi poutine Anne Quatrano.

Haven though, is a chance to make some new memories, and it’s a really great concept for the neighborhood that it’s in. Whoever planned the build out pretty much measured every detail to a tee. Each department head seems to have designed their area of responsibility with precision. The problem is, I don’t care about anything but the food. I’m the guy who walks up to the bar and asks for the food menu before the cocktail menu. I don’t even care if Pappy Van Winkle himself was reincarnated in holographic form to be my master mixologist for the evening. I’m still just going to order an unsweet tea with lemon almost every time.

Haven spread 1

My first visit to Haven was shared with nine other people; an ideal number when you want to explore the full breadth of a menu. It was obvious to all in attendance that the large cured and encased meat sampler platter, as well as a cheese board boasting eighteen different selections, were automatic orders. As far as criticisms on their meat and cheese selections, there really is nothing to discuss. They’ve simply put to shame any cheesemonger or charcuterist in the area. Haven is now the gold standard on both fronts, as was to be expected since the two are the main vein of the food menu. A couple of my meaty favorites, both made in-house of course, were the foie gras and beef tongue terrine, which balanced between subtle and brash by putting together something so luxurious (foie) next to what some still deem to be food waste (tongue). I also really fancied the duck summer sausage which gave a humble nod to the traditional Polish kielbasa. Nice snappy casing served with sauerkraut, grain mustard, horseradish and some crusty bread. If you don’t have any friends who want to sample, I suggest you start with those and maybe an order of wild boar and cherry country paté, oh and a small ration of lardo. Fortunately, the wait staff padded their tip by placing all the meat right in front of me. Unfortunately, that meant my cheese intake took a hit as my table mates hoarded that board at the other end of the table. Sure, they passed me a couple of pity slivers of something aged and nutty, but I wasn’t privy to what I was actually consuming.

Haven spread 2

As far as appetizers and mains, there really aren’t any except an exorbitantly priced cold smoked Delmonico steak. I fear many, including myself will pass, never giving a second thought to ordering it. I’m not wealthy and I’m not low-class. I’m a discerning eater that likes variety. The entire menu is wide open, which means that for around $40-$50, you can order 2-3 meats and/or cheeses and a couple of their “nontreé” sized, yet adequately proportioned for sharing offerings, ranging from $7-$24. My favorites included the cobia carbonara, veal loin with salami puttanesca, and General Tso’s duck tongues which quenched my ongoing desire for kitschy food done by expert hands.

Haven spread 3

Please, when you go, don’t forget the vegetables. One thing that has been passed seamlessly between SideBurns and Haven is the way they treat vegetables. For a place that is admittedly meat-centric, a few of the more memorable menu items were the whole roasted cauliflower, a study of corn prepared about ten different ways on a single plate, and the wild roasted mushrooms which swam in a buttery wading pool of Worcestershire, thyme and okra pickle juice. Once the mushrooms exited the bowl, we placed crostini in said bowl to soak up the liquid. They floated for a moment like Jack Dawson, struggling to hang on for dear life after the sinking of Titanic. Only, this time I play the role of Rose DeWitt Bukater in the scenario, and I actually had the strength to save my love (the mushroom juice logged crostini) from drowning if only to eat them up once the life boat arrived.

Haven spread 4

Truthfully, I didn’t want to like this place when I walked in. I’m not really looking for such tender care when I’m chomping down on fried gouda fritters. The menu is fantastic, actually it’s close to perfect for my needs. The service is too good for the gastropub fare, but honestly I don’t care. I don’t care about that my iced tea was refilled every time I took a sip. I don’t care that the simple syrup that goes into their cocktails is barrel aged behind the bar. If you want really, really good service, probably the most efficient in town and need pampering to positively impact your dining experience, you’ll have an even better time than me. All I want is great food. My arms were crossed, ready to pick apart every detail that didn’t work, because the emptiness of losing SideBurns still hurts. I mean no disrespect to the Haven people, I simply have a different view of what’s important in a restaurant and you have what I need, magnificent food. Nonetheless, they softened the blow and did justice to the space that once was a favorite of mine. The hurt will never go away but the soothing sensation of multiple choices involving foie gras always helps!

Still wondering if Haven is for you? See if you fall into these demographics. Even if only one falls into your wheelhouse I think you need to go.

Haven is for:
A. Those who appreciate sleek design and attention to detail.
B. The serious drinker (There’s a broad highway between a fan of spirits and an alcoholic.)
C. People who like being pampered to excess.
D. Food lovers of all sorts.

Haven delivers top-notch service, and even though I’ve said I don’t care over and over, I also say, more power to them! As long as it doesn’t impede Haven’s wonderful food from reaching the starting point of my digestive system!

Haven on Urbanspoon