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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Click to add a blog post for é by José Andrés on Zomato

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

EAD Weekly Recap No. 2

Another week of eating has come and gone, and we’ve cobbled together the photos for you. It’s always a privilege to pony up to the Kappo bar and enjoy a feast of epic proportions. There you will find the highest quality sushi, executed with great imagination and precision at prices that would be 3x higher in any major city. If you’re a fan of pizza and dim sum we’ll likely have you covered every week, as both Eat a Duck majority contributors are big on the pizza and dim sum game. This week is no different as Jimmy hit up Yummy house for his fortnightly pilgrimage to the Sarasota dim sum haven, while Logan stumbled upon a legit pizzeria and spaghetteria called Tartini during a business trip to Orlando. Finally, we give you a glimpse of what we consume on a more regular basis at home. I love when my wife cooks. What she enjoys eating the most she cooks just as well, as you can see in this spicy yellow coconut curry stew and her fantastic salad of baby kale, roasted beet, soft boiled egg, avocado, radish, with a bacon drippings vinaigrette. Hope you all ate just as well!

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Garde Manger Revisited

After only two visits, Garde Manger has entrenched itself deep in my heart. It’s not simply because the food hits the mark with near perfect accuracy, or that they’ve achieved such a warm and inviting atmosphere, but because it has quickly become forever linked to happy times with friends and family. On my most recent visit, I was bestowed the honor of minting two new oyster lovers. Only Garde Manger, with a constant supply of the most pristine bivalves North America has to offer, has the power to turn people’s preferences around on a dime. I ordered a beginners pack of oysters, featuring a pair each of Cooke from PEI, Chipaganne from New Brunswick and Montreal’s own Trésor du Large (thanks to Meggie for the spelling!). I’ve said it before, but in my opinion the oysters here set the bar, no where else even comes close. As a tasty accompaniment, we chose a tidy bowl of buttery smoked salmon and pickled onion.

Garde Manger spread 1

With five people, we planned on sampling a majority of the menu if possible, starting with a crisp beet salad with apple radishes in a buttermilk dressing. As you’ll tend to do at Garde Manger, especially in the winter, we left the light dishes behind and dove headlong into a plate of pork and mushroom bread pudding topped with mizuna and a soft-boiled quail egg. Keeping the rich train rolling was a hot reisten brioche topped with foie gras and cranberry sauce. The thick lobes of buttery foie linked up perfectly with the tangy cranberries. The brioche standing by to soak up all the glorious drippings.

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Everyone at the table, all loved ones of mine, did me proud with their selections. As this was Montreal, the lobster poutine was an automatic choice. Fresh cheese curds, thick gravy and a sprinkling of chives were mounded over succulent chunks of lobster meat. Somehow the frites managed to sustain the moist barrage and kept things crisp and salty, flavoring the crustacean nicely. On the other side of the table, the walleye with quinoa, artichoke and rosemary crisps was a hit with the ladies.

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A handsome plate of seared scallops soon arrived joined by Romanesco broccoli, buttercup squash and bacon topped with healthy slices of black truffle. Scallops are a tricky protein to get right. The chefs at Garde Manger will take you to school in the art of scallop searing, achieving a perfect caramelized layer on the outside, while leaving the interior pearly and loose, sort of like a medium rare steak. Speaking of medium rare, a grouping of slice venison looked like little targets, their deep crimson centers indicating where the choicest bites would be found. The sometimes gamey nature of venison was noticeably absent here. A smooth Jerusalem artichoke purée and crispy bits of kale gave contrasting textures to the beautiful meat. I was leery of the last seafood dish, a seared fillet of cod surrounded by clams in a fennel purée. I’m a notorious fennel hater, but I have full trust in Chuck Hughes and company, and with good reason. The purée was delicious, maybe it was the mixture of saffron and butter that tamed the licorice tinge that I so abhor, or it could have been the sweet caramelized endives. Either way I found a preparation for fennel that I could swallow, and dare I say, enjoy.

Garde Manger spread 4

Nothing could have prepared me for the dish I chose. Whole Cornish game hen, swaddled with winter veggies, stuffed with foie gras, mushrooms and red cabbage topped with truffle butter. The smell coming off this bird was enough to induce a truffle aroma coma. I will admit, I was simultaneously excited and intimidated by the fowl. The prospect of an entire bird, with ribcage and all replaced with a foie gras, mushroom mixture was almost too much to resist. Needless to say, I dispatched the bird along with the truffle infused veggies.

Loyal readers, I feel that I’ve made this clear in last post on the subject, but if there’s one restaurant you visit while in Montreal, make sure it’s Garde Manger.

Orlando Food Crawl 2014: Part II

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We arrived early at East End Market just in time for Sangria Hour over at the adjoining Txokos. While most of the crew had to cure their shakes, I set out to explore the market while waiting for a couple of chumpy stragglers to vacate our spot at Kappo. Not that any of us are big tymers like Bird Man or Mannie Fresh, but we “still fresh” and because of that, reserved the entire restaurant…all eight seats. (For an introduction to Kappo, see our review)

For those who don’t know, East End Market is a food-centric co-op/incubator for small upstarts. The owner has provided a handful of spaces for small business owners to develop and demonstrate their concepts. It’s been a proven success as pretty much every booth is always buzzing with shoppers. I decided to do another mini cleanse with a small glass of lemongrass, starfruit Kombucha from Joybird Juicery.

Out of all the places on the crawl, the crew was most looking forward to Kappo. All eight members of said crew are live free or die harder with a vengeance sushi connoisseurs. If you want to experience the experience we experienced, you need to set it up through their email process. I’ve had a nice back and forth with the reservations department coordinating this and previous visits with excellent results. They have hospitality down on all fronts in a dynamic way, from planning to meal execution.

Let me reiterate, if you’re looking for the girlfriend experience in a way that only food can provide, phrases such as, “money is no object”, “foie-forward”, “don’t hold back”, “bring the uni” and “its imperative you make it rain shaved truffles” need to be part of your conversation when you set up meal.

Just so we’re clear, you may or may not be able to have a meal in a similar scope to what we had. We ate omakase style. There are no menus. We have no say. The whole idea is to trust the chef. If you want to order off of their pretty incredible menu, I think your best bet is to go to the first come first served weekday hour where everything can be had a la carte. If you want a meal only a small group of people will ever have, do what we did. You’ll feel like Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones in the 1994 action thriller, “Blown Away.”

Starting with the first course, they were definitely “foie-forward” with a lavish preparation of cured duck liver torchon, hidden inside a caviar jar with dollop of beluga, and a small layer of preserved kumquat marmalade underneath to add some sweetness as well as acidity.

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And so began the debate of which course was best at Kappo. It would be hard to top to the silky foie, except maybe with the most luxurious chawan mushi ever assembled. The custard, flavored with dashi, had a deep mahogany layer of truffle demi-glace that was so heavily reduced it approached life-threatening levels of pungency and earthiness. I almost started believing in umami. The custard itself was nice and wobbly, not too dense, which played perfectly with a couple of tongues of Atlantic uni that hovered gently over the truffle sauce. We assumed that the dish set in front of us was complete as is. We were dead wrong. The chef started walking around with a handful of whole black Alba winter truffles, shaving them with a microplane in the general direction of our bowls, without fear of consequence. This might have been the moment where my, “It’s imperative you make it rain shaved truffles” comment came into play. James wasted no time positioning himself to have truffles shorn straight into his mouth. Chef obliged with some paper-thin wafers as he pulled out the industrial strength slicer. I felt like Kurt Russell in the 1992 fire related action-thriller motion picture, when I was surprised to find truffles floating in my sake due to the “Backdraft”. Studying shaved truffles up close is such a beautiful and mesmerizing thing, like the most delicious Catacomb you could ever traverse. You should try it sometime.

The chefs kept the pace with a warm and cold sunomuno style salad with a heaping pile of cured salmon roe and marinated then seared scallop as the base. More uni fulfilled the request to “bring the uni”, this one coming from the Pacific. You could really tasty the subtle nuances between the different regions the sea urchins hail from. The Atlantic was more buttery, almost without that sense of coming from the sea at all, which did pair well with the custard. The Pacific was briny, with a stronger presence which worked just as well with in the sunomuno preparation. No salad would be complete without roughage. Chef placed a single nasturtium leaf coated in spritzing of kaffir lime essence. It reminded me of the way morning dew sticks to a flower just before sunrise.

The next dish was a fried enigma. What was this? One bite of the milky interior and I knew immediately. Milk poached sweetbreads fried in coarse panko crumbs for maximum texture. They were served with small heap of pickled julienned Asian pear, and a pungent nutta sauce of hot mustard, vinegar and blanched baby bok choy to create perfect harmony.

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Next was the sushi course. We were treated with a sampling of Artic char, flounder and waqyu strip loin, all topping the most succulent nubs of tranquil rice at just the right lukewarm temperature. I imagine if I ever got a chance to try out a 3 Michelin star sushi joint, the rice would be similar. The fish and beef weren’t ice cold and neither was the rice. I think serving cold sushi masks the true flavor, thankfully they were both at a more resting temperature. It goes to show that if you’re working with a superior product, you don’t need to put it into a cryogenic sleep to keep it fresh.  I can confirm  our resident “rice” guy Thai was spotted shedding tears of joy.

Yes, you can go to Kappo and only eat sushi, and I know that you’d go home praising yourself for the amazing decisions you’ve made. With that said, if you don’t allow the chef to breathe in a way that promotes creativity, you’ll miss out on a rare experience. The meal was inherently Japanese, as this is technically a Japanese food stall. Though, the influence of French, Korean, Italian and American for that matter, all played out seamlessly during the course of the meal.

Finally, as part of the chefs tasting we were served dessert. The chef handling pastry is a master. She keeps the flow of the meal intact by not killing the senses with overly sweet morsels, and she presents the final treats like a goodbye kiss. Not with a lame handshake, but with two kisses on each cheek. Starfruit paté de fruit, green tea mochi, pistachio and cocoa-matcha truffles were all delightful in their own unique way. Together they formed a Voltron bonbon.

It was time to say goodbye to the four chef team of Kappo to hit our last stop.

With our bellies distended, we saddled up to a hightop at the ever-loving Cask & Larder. Fullness never stops a true eater from ordering something that sounds tasty. Pogo eyed a scrumptious tamale with roasted goat, buttermilk curds, and pickled sweet peppers, while me and James couldn’t resist the lamb ribs, with a sticky BBQ sauce, smoked collard greens and quick B&B pickles. The rest of the table was not going to let us down.

Cask & Larder goat tamale

They pooled together what room they had left in their tummies and ordered an impressive tower from the raw bar. Rock shrimp scampi, roasted oysters with slivers of uni, oysters on the half with mignonette, steamed cherrystone clams with tostones and an aji amarillo aioli, and slabs of raw tuna coated with tahini, chiles, Asian pear and crispy maitake mushroom threads.

Cask & Larder spread

We had a round a victory drinks to mark another successful conquest, one of which happened to be the best gin and tonic in town. It’s always sad saying goodbye, but then again we’ve already begun plans for the next adventure, so that softened the blow. We all miss Todd, and while we’re glad he’s living his dream with his dreamgirl, it doesn’t diminish the fact that a big part of what made the Tampa food scene so lively, isn’t in Tampa anymore.  We miss him so much, we miss his scent. When this all gets sorted out, I think we should all get an apartment together. Til’ next time, old friend.

Apocalypse Cow: Hamburgeddon: Judgement Day: Part II

Ladies and gentlemen, we respectfully present for your consideration, the top five finishers in our exhaustive competition to find the best burger in the bay area. It was a hard fight for these top spots, some places narrowly edging out others by mere fractions of a point, but we expected this burger race to be a tight one. While these five are clearly the cream of the crop in the burger game, they should be cautious not to rest on their chargrilled laurels, as any of the other burgers we sampled, with a few tweaks, could easily unseat their higher ranked peers. So stay on your toes boys, because you never know when The Four Coursemen will return for a rematch!

And now…on to the results!

5. Mermaid Tavern

J: I just want to mention how I was chastised harshly when I immediately started spreading healthy amounts of the delicious garlic harissa sauce on the wonderfully toasted bun. In any event, Mermaid Tavern delivered a solid burger, well composed with fresh ingredients and a perfectly cooked patty. I loved the choice of spinach instead of iceberg, Unfortunately the Welsh cheddar hiding beneath the egg was so salty I could hardly taste the locally sourced Providence Farms meat. A small nit but a nit nonetheless.

K: The Coup de Gras burger is pretty darn coup de great. Plus, I love fried egg and chorizo on a burger so it got a special place in my heart. This is another homer burger for me, but there is a reason for that. It’s a fantastic burger.

L: I think I may have scored this lower than my compatriots for a few reasons. First, it wasn’t the end all be all “deathblow” the title implies. It may have been if the chorizo element had been perfect and the sauce, which was supposed to shellac the inside of the bun, was more present. Speaking of the bun, it’s hard to see from the background, but on the menu it says pretzel bun and we didn’t get that. Maybe the score would have been higher if we got a sweet malty bun instead. One thing that should be noted is the use of local beef from Providence farm. Putting a perfectly grilled half pound puck of Providence cattle on top of anything is never a bad idea.

The Mermaid Tavern burger

4. Tampa Tap Room

J: I was surprised by this one. Tampa Tap Room is your typical sports bar type joint where you expect to get everyday bar fare, onion rings, curly fries etc. When this monster arrived I was smug in my confidence, thinking I’d seen this burger a million times before. TTR, I owe you my apologies, this tower of meat and veg was absolutely delicious. The bleu cheese sauce was tamed with a little sour cream or mayo or something because the normal salt overload was absent. It was a good thing too because the nice crisp strips of bacon filled that role nicely. A buttered, toasted bun wrangled this circus long enough to steal a messy bite into the tender beef, juicy and pink, just like we asked. That iceberg though… the flavors were great, but I just can’t abide the iceberg. The fact that these guys reached #4 despite that vile green is a testament to this sandwich.

K: Blackened Bleu burger. Not something I would ever order, but that is what they recommended. I was impressed. There were a ton of flavors covering the burger, but the burger still stood out in its own right. Nothing fancy here at all. Just a good tasty burger.

L: This might have been the only place on the list where no judge had any prior experience. All we knew was that it had won multiple awards from outside sources, which was enough to be curious about what was going on inside. Tucked inside an ancient strip mall, where my grandma used to take me to race slot cars as a kid, lies one of the best hamburger hubs in town. If El Cap does the classic diner style burger to perfection, I think the Tap Room has done the pub style burger fraternity proud with its blackening seasoning flavor profile encompassing the burger, counterbalanced with creamy, garlicky housemade blue cheese sauce. Not to be left out was the perfectly crisped bacon strips that made their way into the thick of things. I think Iceberg lettuce played an important supporting role here, unlike my crew who hate the stuff in any amount. Also, take a look at the rest of the menu. With fried boudin balls and blue crab beignets, it’s pretty enticing to say the least.

Tampa Tap Room burger

3. Cigar City Brewpub

J: They say to save the best for last. Well we had one of the best right off the bat as CCB delivered a top notch sandwich yet again. The chef had a blast creating this burger, and it shows. Sweet plantains and aromatic onion sofrito brought a tang that was sorely missing from many of these burgers. They cooked ours a tad on the rare side, but luckily for them, that gained them points in my book. The patty was slightly over salted for my taste, but the toppings and subtly sweet bun were enough to sway me.

K: The grass fed burger from CCB is one of my regular burgers. I eat it all the time, so that should tell you something. It’s the jam. Plantains and sofrito, roasted garlic aioli-oh yes. Plus, the only one that we ate that used purely local beef. That’s a big deal.

L: Yet another top 3 performance for CCB. They continue to care most about the product that they put out there, with food being no exception. With a wonderful 70/30 beef to fat ratio, the Providence beef is a brilliant opus to the composition of Cuban inspired condiments, being that of sofrito, sweet plantains and a garlicky aioli. The Brewpub’s grass fed Burger was our first of the tour, setting the lofty table for all other burgers to live up too. Almost everything was done just so. The only drawback was the meat was slightly over salted. Everything else was faultless. We didn’t even downgrade the score for lack of cheese. It was not necessary with the amount of quality condiments that were placed inside.

Cigar City Brewpub burger

2. Boca Kitchen Bar Market

J: Something went wrong here, because I scored this burger way lower than I feel I should have. Thankfully Logan and Kurt offset my mistake to keep this fantastic specimen on the podium. Thinking back, I didn’t have a single negative comment for Boca’s offering. Super juicy, smoky bacon, nice fresh lettuce and an awesome sweet relish aioli reminiscent of In n’ Out. If you asked me which burger I’d like to have on a regular basis, this is it.

K: I like Boca, but can’t say I had high hopes for this burger. Color me wrong. This is a burger that was cooked perfectly, seasoned just right, and oh that smokiness. Plus all of its accompaniments were so spot on. Best use of mushrooms in a burger in many a year and amazing bacon.

L: This was my stand alone favorite. It’s exactly what I want in a burger. I think the perfect balance of classic and current methods used to compose this work of art was what really grabbed my attention. Looking at the photo and reminiscing about the flavors my adoration is confirmed by the fantastic stacking of ingredients. I think with any sandwich as it is in life, the ratio between meat/toppings and bread can make or destroy ones destiny. The 5 keys were, toasty buttery bread, excellent mid-rare meat, an awesome In-n-Out style special sauce to accent the fresh veg, bacon that is cured in a way that makes it takes like ribs, and pan-roasted mushrooms to heighten ones sense of meatiness. I will now dream further about this masterpiece.

Boca KBM burger

1. Z Grille

J: If you go to Z Grille to order their foie gras steak burger, just pony up and get it Z Style alright? That means pork belly and a fried egg. If you’re a real pro, you’ll have them go heavy on the foie with two slabs. Zack doesn’t mess around, so you’re going to get an experience on a bun. It’s truly a truly decadent burger, the kind that makes the table shut their yaps for a second and enjoy the moment. Can you eat it everyday? No, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t treat yourself to one a few times a year. My only qualm is with the pork belly. It was a touch dry when it should be juicy like a saturated sponge. A line of meat and a line of nearly rendered fat, so tender you barely have to add any pressure, that’s what I’m looking for. Maybe it stayed on the flat top a touch too long, maybe the piece we got was a little lean. In any case, it was the tiniest chink in the immaculate armor that is Zack’s foie gras steak burger. The majestic victor of our Hamburgeddon!

K: Some people like their burgers pure and simple. I am one of those people…typically. I’d kick a simple burger out of bed in a heartbeat for this burger. I love the Z Grille foie burger. It is decadence at its finest. Ground rib-eye and brisket. Seared foie. Perfect bacon. Bliss.

L: Zack called his shot on this one and like the majesty of Babe Ruth himself, pointed to each of our tummies and knocked it right out of the park. To win this competition one would have to wow all four judges. Any indiscretion as proof in the results, would lead to an immediate downgrade. I think out of all the burgers we sampled on this fateful afternoon, Z Grille’s foie gras steak burger done Z Style with crispy pork belly, a fried egg and an additional lobe of foie gras is something that health wise, should only be consumed in ones dreams. This is not an everyday kind of burger. Unless of course you’re Albert Finney and use duck fat in place of Chapstick. One can dispute the fact that so many excessive things take away from the burger. I can’t really quarrel with that because in actuality every single person is entitled to regard any burger as their personal favorite. The four course men of the Apocalypse Cow just happen to be four guys that really love stuff like house ground ribeye/brisket blends, Neuske’s bacon, fried farm eggs, roasted tomatoes, grilled onions, crispy pork belly, brioche buns and a couple tenders of seared foie gras. If you don’t like all that stuff well maybe you’d rather hail seitan.

Z Grille Foie Gras Steak Burger

Apocalypse Cow: Hamburgeddon: Judgement Day: Part I

Eating nearly a dozen burgers at eleven different Tampa/St. Pete spots to find a champion may sound like a fun, gut busting task…and it is. The thought of us ingesting such a large amount of 80/20 blend was a concern for our loved ones, but we assure you, this piece has not been written posthumously. All four coursemen of the Apocalypse who participated in Hamburgeddon are alive and well. As you read this we’re all eating breakfast burgers with sausage patties and gravy aioli.

Food competitions are not like regular crawls. All we need is a taste. On the other hand, if you leave one solitary milligram of pan seared foie gras on your plate, you’ll be banished and exiled much like Corey Feldman and Christian Jacobs (aka MC Bat Commander of Aquabats fame) were in the 1990 made for Disney Sunday at the Movies on ABC cult classic, “Exile.”

The Four Coursemen 2014

Before we begin, allow us to give an overview of this competition.

We’re demanding folks, but we’re not out to bash anyone Pete Wells style. We respect any locally owned business trying to put out a superior product. Whether you’re out to be progressive with your fare, or just keeping an American classic relevant through perfect execution. However we get a little annoyed when you don’t live up to the high standards we know you’re capable of.

We chose each restaurant based on specific criteria. Either readers of Tasting Tampa and/or Eat a Duck gave it a strong recommendation, or they had won similar contests in the past which warranted a spot. The one requirement was that they had to be local, no chains. Keep in mind we are judging based on the burgers we sampled. Of course, as with any competition, for every Kristi Yamaguchi there are 11 Midori Ito’s. Even second and third place can be a bitter Cuban sandwich to swallow. Let’s not even start with all those “Honorable Mention” people out there. Yes, we know, you’re special too!!

This culling process made for stiff competition, as each spot had something special to offer. However they had to deliver an above average product to reach the top spots. For those who didn’t rank higher, it wasn’t from any glaring shortcoming, it was typically because we found your burger to be lacking slightly in certain areas compared to the top group. It’s important for us to mention this because there isn’t a single restaurant in the bunch we wouldn’t go back to. All of us want to improve the food in our community, so we’re not out simply to find the best, but also to lend some constructive criticism when we found missteps. We hope you take our comments with a grain of salt (something some of your burgers would have benefited from, hint, hint).

12. Council Oak Steakhouse

If you’ve been here before you know this place is good. It was strongly suggested by the spirit of Tasting Tampa old to put these guys on the list. However, for some reason, the good people at Council Oak decided not to sell burgers on Friday and Saturday nights. This fun fact isn’t mentioned anywhere on their website. I guess our $72 for a foie gras, shaved truffle and butter poached lobster tail topped burger will stay firmly in our pockets. We really wanted to try this excessively decadent creation, but it wasn’t meant to be. Unfortunately, without a last-minute replacement, that means an automatic last place. Please change your policy to receive a score.

11. Élevage –  Domonic’s Burger

J: With competition this tight, it’s the little things that can knock you out of contention. Conceptually, this burger is fantastic, a jalapeño bbq sauce was a standout component for me, bringing a tang that most places often overlook. Sadly the patty was woefully underseasoned and slightly overcooked which did nothing to highlight the high quality beef.

K: Bring back the Duck, Duck, Goose Burger. This burger came out more medium then medium rare. Needed way more flavor. Still better than most burgers out there.

L: I feel we all went in with really high expectations because of their association with the Bern’s name. When you’re using Bern’s trimmings for your burger, you’re already ahead of the curve. In all fairness they were closing down their lunch service for the day and probably didn’t expect any more orders to come in. I don’t fault that but I don’t give them a pass for our timing either. We asked for medium-rare and it came out pretty much medium with just a touch of pink in the center. For me, the more important issue was that I can no longer get the incredibly edible duck, duck, goose burger that used to be on the menu. That’s the real crime in all of this.

Élevage Domonic's burger

10. Burger Culture

J: This was a case of wrong place, wrong time. We had agreed to let each place tell us what they thought was their favorite burger, but as soon as we heard it was the Waffle Burger, we should have vetoed. It’s not that it’s a bad burger, it just faltered in a couple of areas. The blueberry compote was slightly out of place and the waffles were a bit too soft for the deluge of beef fat. The patty itself was delicious and perfectly cooked, which leads me to believe that one of their more savory choices would have been a real contender.

K: They sold themselves short by giving us the waffle burger. It’s interesting, but not what we wanted. The burger had great flavor, but the concept was off.

L: I felt bad that we happened to visit Burger Culture when they had employees out sick. It left one person to run the window and the grill. When asked what burger they think is the best, the grill master offered the “Waffle Burger.” So that’s what we ordered. I’ve had other things from B.C and they absolutely blew me away burgerwise, such as the “Mustard Burger.” No one else does what they do with the selection of varieties. We simply got a poor representation of what makes them good. The Waffle Burger didn’t work for this contest, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be seeking them out next time they’re in our neighborhood.

Burger Culture Waffle Burger

9. The Refinery

J: There’s an inherent risk involved with switching your burger up from week to week. Sometimes an idea needs some time to get fully developed, and seven days isn’t always enough. That’s exactly what happened at The Refinery. The idea sounds great, a creamy red bean hummus with tart pickled jalapeños, cotija cheese and sour cream and onion chips. Unfortunately the hummus turned out to be their undoing. I think a touch more oil would have kept it from drying out your mouth and hiding the other flavors. They can’t all be winners, but I applaud the courage it takes to come up with a new dish week in and week out.

K: I love the Refinery’s experimentation and weekly changes to the American classic. Unfortunately, this weeks burger left me wanting something different.

L: This is another burger that did not work conceptually. Our trepidations rang true as the red bean hummus dried out the entire thing. The sour cream chips, pickled jalapeño and cotija were all great condiments, but there really was no sauce to speak of, which didn’t help the lack of moisture. The Refinery changes their menu every single week, and with that the burger accoutrements. They were going for an ode to the torta, which is a fantastic idea if executed properly. We just hit them on a bad week, even though they cooked the burger perfectly. This makes me want to go back for a redo.

The Refinery burger

8. El Cap

J: El Cap is one of those places that’s been around so long they can do no wrong. They’re the best at what they do, taking people back to the burgers of their childhood, and I respect that, but for me, in this competition, you’ve got to do better. When I see Iceberg lettuce on a burger, I immediately temper my expectations. Just because something’s been done a certain way for 100 years doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. There’s nothing wrong with improving on a classic, maybe use some local beef, aged sharp cheddar and a nice fresh leaf of bibb lettuce. Take off your burger colored glasses people, because if you truly want the best burger in the Bay area, keep looking.

K: The most perfect simple burger. All taste, no flash. Wish we had gotten the double.

L: The burger at El Cap is a slice of St Petersburg’s rich food history. They do them darn well. I feel that they scored lower due to the inclusion of American cheese in the burger they chose to serve us. I find it to be an absolute dish destroyer. I’ve ordered many hamburgers from El Cap with the classic condiments of lettuce, tomato, white onion and mayo in between a squishy bun, and have gone home very happy. I just personally don’t like plasticky food by-product under the bun. That’s all.

El Cap world famous burger

7. Pané Rustica

J: Here’s where we start getting to the good stuff. The wood fired cooking, cured tomatoes and onion foccacia immediately made me think of pizza. It was an unexpected flavor but a welcome one. They kept the trend of perfectly cooked burgers going, however it also fell to the evils of blandness. A shame, because this was a real contender, but #7 is no slouch, this is definitely worth a visit.

K: One of the best looking burgers I’ve ever seen. Char-grilled, wood fired, just a little under seasoned today.

L: This is the third burger in the contest that cannot be faulted by the actual preparation, but only because of the choice in condiments. I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say it was the best cooked burger in the competition. Whatever they are doing to sling those burgers in that white-hot wood fired oven, worked like a charm. The condiments just didn’t add anything to the overall product. First of all, I love avocado on my burger. However, the aioli which was spiked with lots of avocado added richness sure, but it was a fairly bland offering. Just a touch more seasoning and this would have cracked the top 5.

Pané Rustica burger of the moment

6. Engine No. 9

J: Ah the first of our foie spiked burgers. Toppings of brie, foie and caramelized onions sounded odd at first. I was worried the brie would get lost, but they chose a nice ripe version that stood up to the other assertive flavors. The one piece that kept this burger out of the top five was the bun. Logan hit the nail on the head below.

K: This one would have been a killer if the bun hadn’t been so dried out.

L: This is where things get tough because we start having to nitpick the little things. Let me say I find no fault in the flavor of this burger. It had some of the best grilled onions I ever had, a nice funky slice of brie and a sliver of seared foie gras just to give your heart a little wake up call. The only issue and I mean only is that the bun was literally untouched save for it being sliced in half. I think it might have been saved with a schmear of butter and a quick trip to the flat top. It’s a lesson in treating every component with tender loving care. Even the bun.

Engine No. 9 The Chubby Duck

Beauty & Essex – New York City, NY

There’s something special about flying into New York City late in the evening, watching the skyline shimmer as you prepare to touch down, knowing that at the end of the journey lies a dinner reservation with tasty implications. You crane your neck to catch a glimpse of the neighborhood where, in minutes, you’ll be sharing a tartare or bone marrow of some sort with a loved one.

I miss New York, it felt like coming home, and one of my favorite things about returning to one of my old towns, is checking out all the new eats that have popped up in my absence. Beauty & Essex happens to be one of those, having opened mere months after I had flown south. After a delayed flight caused me to miss my much-anticipated table at Alder, I made some last-minute adjustments to my itinerary and somehow managed to land a table at  Beauty & Essex for 11:00 pm. “That’s a safe time”, I said to myself, “the crowds should be dying down by then.” I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Beauty & Essex spread photo: Jason Michael Lang

I met my little sister outside an unusually busy pawn shop storefront, complete with bouncer. We were pointed past the glass cases containing antique wristwatches, and through a door way surrounded by vintage guitars. The next room exploded with sound and energy as if the threshold we had just crossed was a time warp to Studio 54 circa 1977, only with more dubstep.

We were escorted through room after room like a Flintstones panning shot until we arrived at the dining area, plush and filled to the brim with hyper-hungry diners.  The noise level is substantial, it takes a mild scream to get anything across the table or even your server. This might be a negative to some, I found it energizing. The contrast of high energy dance club atmosphere in a decidedly high-end dining setting was an experience, but could the food sustain the same level of controlled chaos and still deliver the impeccable quality we’ve come to expect from this city?

Though we sampled eight dishes, it only took a couple to answer that question.

A soothing amuse bouche of warm pumpkin and mushroom soup arrived just in time to distract us from the adjacent table of posers doing their best Pauly D and Snookie impressions. The incredible din all but disappeared as we snacked on luxurious, bite sized toast with Hudson Valley foie gras terrine with smoked peach jam and homemade corn nuts. Steak tartare on chive and sticky rice cakes and crispy mustard was a refreshing take on an old classic.

Beauty & Essex apps

The tasty canapés ramped up our appetite for a succulent roasted bone marrow with a punchy rioja braised shallot marmalade. Six spoons filled to the brim with tangy tomato soup presented a floating dumpling of gooey cheese and smoked bacon. A creative presentation with flavors that were instantly familiar.

Beauty & Essex bone marrow and grilled cheese dumplings

Naturally I had to sample two of the pasta dishes. Basil pesto ravioli with blistered heirloom cherry tomato were outstanding. The tart broth and perfectly cooked pasta created the perfect foundation for a pesto which was clearly made that day with fresh picked basil as the grassy, citrus notes were front and center. I’ve sampled enough pestos to know how quickly the flavor can deteriorate. Equally impressive with a completely different personality was the garganelli with spicy veal bolognese and a mountain of whipped ricotta from Little Italy. The veal and cheese played good cop, bad cop with my taste buds, at once decadent and delicate. A subtle drizzle of balsamic balanced the dish with a touch of sweetness.

Beauty & Essex pasta

You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to dessert. For the PSL crowd, there’s a pumpkin pie bread pudding with cranberry compote. Chocolate fiends can sample the devil’s food layer cake with dark chocolate glaze and concord grape sauce. Haven’t had enough booze? Try the fireball hot chocolate shot with cinnamon whisky and vanilla marshmallow. For me, there was only one option, the box of doughnuts. Dueling trios of vanilla beignets stuffed with chocolate hazelnut creme and raspberry jam fought for my affection. It was like picking your favorite child, it just couldn’t be done.

Beauty & Essex box of doughnuts

I left Beauty & Essex in an even better mood than when I arrived. Some purists might rag on Chris Santos for appearing on Food Network shows from time to time, but my experience at his joint in the Lower East Side solidified my opinion. It was top shelf food in a city known for top shelf food. Eat here, now.

Beauty & Essex on Urbanspoon

Tasting Tampa’s 13th Step Dinner Feat. Rooster and the Till

Who is Tasting Tampa? It’s a question long pondered and seldom answered to anyone’s satisfaction. Some say they’re nocturnal beings with a penchant for strong cheeses and the gonads of sea creatures, and that they can smell foie drippings from over a mile away, all I know is, they invented the infamous “13th Step Dinner”, and a few days ago, I was able to secure a spot at the coveted event.

The 13th Step Dinners spawned years ago when the gastronomic power bromance of Todd Sturtz and Kurt Raschke met for a brainstorm session over lunch. A name was formed to accurately capture their willing addiction to all things edible, a sort of support group for foodies. Predictably, Todd’s Midas touch took this seed of an idea and turned it into one of the premier food events in the Tampa Bay area.

13th Step MCs

This 13th Step was unique, as Tasting Tampa had not only recruited one of the top restaurants in Tampa to host it, but also partnered with Cigar City Brewing’s own Chris Lovett to provide beer pairings with each dish.

I arrived early and was met by a dapper Mr. Raschke, overseeing the goings on with all the grace and decorum of a top-tier symphonic composer. I was handed a menu that up to this point had been a mystery to me. With one glance I highlighted the pertinent information quicker than Robert Langdon. Oyster, sweetbreads, porcini, foie gras, beef, cipollini…GERMAN CHOCOLATE CAKE. I tried to regain my composure as I’m well aware that the proof is in the proverbial pudding, and many restaurants use these ingredients as a crutch. But this was Rooster and the Till, and anyone who’s made the pilgrimage knows that any level of excitement is warranted, Chef Alvarez never disappoints.

13th Step menu

After a quick introduction, the 13th Step hit the ground running with a gorgeous plate of fried riptide oysters, roasted brussels sprouts and smoked bacon on a shmear of miso caramel. A soft dusting of Korean chili powder left a lingering heat at the back of your throat. The oysters were crisp at first bite until your teeth hit the soft center. Their subtle ocean flavor was paired with a refreshing fermented cucumber for a little acidity. My favorite component was the miso caramel as it brought a sweet umami quality that served to heighten the flavor of its neighbors. The Hunahpu Imperial Stout had some clear soy and sesame notes that perfectly matched the miso sauce.

Fried Oyster

The winning dish of the night for me, came second. Veal sweetbreads with brown butter crumble, fried capers, preserved Meyer lemon and Rooster’s famous Parisian gnocchi. I might be crazy, but this dish initiated an Anton Ego style flashback to my mothers turkey dinner, albeit with far better ingredients and technique (sorry momma!). I’m hard pressed to remember a sweetbread prepared better than this. There was no stringy, chewy gristle to be found, it was perfectly tender throughout. Little explosions of salt from the capers only accentuated the flavor of the sweetbread while the preserved lemon lit up the palate with measured amounts concentrated acid. I didn’t speak a word during this dish as I was throughly enjoying my cozy little time travel session to my childhood. The paired Strong Ale that had been stored in cognac barrels was one of my favorite beers of the night. Whether it’s CCB’s brewing process, or just the nature of beer to absorb flavor, the 2012 Cheers was steeped in the buttery smooth flavor of cognac.

Sweetbreads

I’m not going to lie, when I read foie gras, I was hoping for a nice slice from a whole lobe. It was greedy of me and I feel terrible about it (sounded sincere no?), but this dish of porcini mushrooms topped with shaved foie, perfect sous vide egg yolk on a pine nut butter was no less luxurious. Dates and granola added a much-needed sweetness and crunch to this very savory affair. I didn’t even miss a protein (not counting the egg) as the porcinis were more than meaty.

Porcini

I have to start with the Bourbon Barrel Big Sound on this fourth course as it was truly impressive, even to my beginner beer palate. I swear I got a faint hint of bleu cheese on the nose (though it could have been the Calabrese wafting from the kitchen) and as off-putting as that sounds, it invited curiosity. The flavor was all bourbon. They could have said they had poured a shot in each glass and I would’ve believe it. The dual medallions of beef tenderloin were the perfect match for a full flavored beer like the Bourbon Barrel. The combo of beef, potato, onions and bleu cheese is classic, but Rooster elevated it with braised cipollinis and smoked potato confit. Dots of whipped Calabrese cheese asserted themselves with the perfect amount of tang. It was a dish that would have felt right at home in a smokey steakhouse circa 1962.

Tenderloin

Dessert arrived all too soon, but time truly does fly when you’re having fun. A broken down German chocolate cake was the subject of the fifth and final course. Like many of the dishes at Rooster, this was a reimagined version of the tired dessert we’ve all had since childhood. Broken segments of chiffon chocolate cake balanced precariously on chocolate crumbles like ruins of an ancient civilization. Sweet little dots laced with coconut framed the double stout infused ice cream against a pecan smear backdrop. I’ve been threatened on pain of death not to speak in specifics about the beer pairing for the dessert course, all I can say is that it made for one of the most amazingly flavorful ice creams I’ve ever tasted. The pecan smear brought the savory component to bring the consistent balance of flavor that Chef Alvarez achieves with each dish. Aside from the boozy ice cream, my favorite part may have been the little coconut milk custard blobs hidden between the cake shards. This was one of the most well composed desserts I’ve had in a long time.

Chocolate Cake

So that’s it, my first 13th Step Dinner all wrapped up. It goes fast I know, but I plan on becoming a regular attendee whenever the chance presents itself. If you live on the gulf coast, I’d advise you to keep a watchful eye on Tasting Tampa. I had a chance to speak with Kurt after the meal, and while I can’t reveal anything specific, I can say that tickets to the next 13th Step Dinner will go fast as soon as the chef and venue are announced, so keep on your toes!

St. Petersburg Food Bonanza

I’ve recently been tasked with some work that requires some traveling for the next 3 months or so. Sadly it’s meant that the lights at Eat a Duck world headquarters have been off for much of the past month. However, traveling means new restaurants, and as I’ve a moment to catch up on my latest food-ventures, I thought I’d share.

St. Logansburg

My first assignment was in St. Petersburg, a city I’ve come to love over the years due to constant trips back and forth from home to concerts. As food goes, ten years ago, downtown St. Petersburg could have been the inspirational backdrop for Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”, a desolate wasteland. You had bars and concert venues, the occasional jerk chicken shack and not much else. After I got married, my wife and I developed a mutual love of the local baseball team. We searched for places to eat before the game, but it was an ordeal to find those great local places back then, as we had only word of mouth from friends and associates to rely on.

Nowadays complete strangers are more than willing to give you insight into just about every dining room, hot dog-cart, or kitchen that exists. From those strangers I’ve conversed with over the most years, some of them have actually become great friends. I give my most heartfelt gesture of respect to these new friends I’ve met along my journey, with a goal to eat the best that I can, every single day. Of course there’s James (my bro and co-conspirator), always spit balling with me about anywhere either of us eat. It’s less a question of needing the approval of the other to eat at any place in particular, and more of a desire for that stamp or blessing from a trusted friend that good eats are ahead.

To Mr. Jeff Houck of Tampa Tribune fame, who is a walking Gastropedia, as well as Todd Sturtz, who proves every week, that he can out do any of us when it comes spending one’s per diem.  For me though, on this trip, I have to tip my pickled daikon filled hat to Ms. Marissa Nguyen, a true ambassador to the greater St. Pete food scene. I felt bad, but almost everyday she would get a message, asking where I’d be going for lunch? With her recommendations in hand, I ended up eating my way through her stomping grounds, 4 out of 5 days. That’s why we’re better for wear when it comes to technological advancement. I probably would never have discovered all the fantastic places in neighborhoods like as Pinellas Park and off everything off 4th st, as those areas have just never pinged on my radar.

How about some food?

The banh mi stands alone at the top of my sandwich pantheon. When you get a great baguette, fresh herbs and pickled vegetables with some sort of fabulous pork product, well, things don’t get much better. You’ll end up feeling like King Friday XIII or Queen Sara Saturday living in the magical world of make-believe.

Banh Mi Neighbor small

Here are three banh mi’s, so tasty they’d make Mr. Rogers slap his Viet-ma-knees! I ate four banh mi from three different places on my lunch breaks, each one having a distinct personality that made me love em all.

Banh Mi Trio

This first one is the special banh mi from Season’s Café & Bakery. Tightly packed and full of sliced pork, pork skin and a smear of paté.

Second,  the meatball sub from Saigon Sandwich. I was hesitant about this one since I hadn’t received much feedback and the place was empty. I’m happy to report that the meatballs had great texture and the generous amount of mayo was sweet and lemony which helped soften the interior of the bun.

I tried going to Thuy Café on Wednesday but they were closed. Timing was off until my last day when I got this lemongrass and grilled beef beauty. The bread here was superior. However, each banh mi offered distinct qualities worth going back for. On my way out of Thuy Café, I stopped in the market next door for a drink. What I found was a lesson in marketing with the most amazing impulse buys laid out for the taking. BBQ pork soft baked buns and shrimp sui mai sitting at the register as I made my purchase. At just a buck, I couldn’t pass up that deal son.

Impulse Dim Sum

Sandwiches are well represented in St. Petersburg. Although I didn’t photograph everything, it’s worth mentioning the many bread encapsulated lunches, from the imposing hunk of burger at El Cap, to the Bones Brigade meets haute cuisine manner Z Grille presents their unreal burger, to a possible top 5 best cuban sangwich ever had at Bodega on Central.

Everyone has that one place to get a classic burger, where they’ve been making it the same way for decades. It’ll never let you down and will always amaze. If you don’t have that, move. El Cap, St Petersburg’s version. Get it all the way for a perfect condiment conglomerate.

El Cap & Z Grille Burgers

Z Grille was my first dinner as it was highly recommended. My buddy Todd even decided to meet me for this one. I think he tried to kill me, because our choices were anything but light fare. We started with sweet and tender, leperous-like Dr. Pepper ribs. I say that because the meat was cooked so exquisitely, that it fell right off the bone. The name got me immediately as I’m a huge fan of any soda boasting 23 unique flavors. They were better than I could have dreamed. We followed that by a couple of entreés, that of sage and cornflake crusted chicken and waffles and Chef Zack’s attempt to kill a couple of Tampa food stalwarts in one fell swoop, by way of house ground steak burger. The chicken and waffles were great on their own, as they remained crispy throughout the meal, even after been drenched in a fantastic peppercorn infused maple syrup. The syrup initiated the most conversation, as it was thought provokingly floral as syrups go. The burger, on the other hand, hit us like a Peterbilt. It’s not enough that they make it using fresh ground ribeye and brisket, or that there’s a plank of Neuske’s bacon and house roasted garlicky tomatoes topping it off. Ordering it “Z style” will also afford you the opportunity to add a slab of pork belly, an over easy egg, as well as a nice seared piece of foie gras. Oh and they serve it with a side of truffle frites.

Z Grille Spread

The next meal was at Nitally’s. I’d heard this was a must try from multiple friends. If you love food with spice, I think you’ll meet your true love, as Nitally’s mashes up the cuisine of Mexico and Thailand in a way I’ve never seen before. The menu is vast and I was mentally exhausted after working extremely long hours. I put the decision in the hands of my waitress. You should only do this if you trust them implicitly…or if you’re just too wiped out to read the menu. A good measuring stick is to ask them what they like to eat. If the response is lightning quick, you’d do well to heed their recommendation. If you hear a lot of ums and uhs, it probably means that A. They don’t eat there much, or B. The food sucks. I was treated to a whirlwind of geographic cuisines as she brought me Mexican baos filled with grilled pork, with an abstract slathering of sweet and hot sauces. My main course was red curry pad Thai. More of an ode to Southeast Asian, however I didn’t care where the food came from at that point, just as long as it blew my mind. The heat from the chiles made me sweat and I was only halfway though the plate, but the flavor kept me coming back for more.

Nitally's Spread

My last dinner was at La V. It might have been the most modernized Vietnamese restaurant I’ve ever been to. It was a nice change of pace to what we’re used to, as I felt more relaxed in this setting. At least for me, Vietnamese food is set aside for a hurried day time meal with no fuss, it’s get in and get out!! With La V, I was more inclined take my time. The wife made the trip for this one, so we agreed this was going to be the place for us. She ordered the lemongrass bùn, and proceeded to devour it so quickly I failed to get a shot! We shared the garlic and sweet chili wings, which our host basically insisted we order. He was right, they ruled. Me and the little guy shared a fajita-like seared filet  with mushrooms and onions. This five year old is a definitely a steak snob, as nothing but filet will do. I wonder who he got that from? Couldn’t be his dad, as I will eat any part of the cow set aside for legal consumption in the state of Florida. These were fine dishes and a pleasant departure from the norm, with a touch of elegance. Looking back, dang I ate a ton of cilantro..

La V Spread

Honestly, almost every place I went last week deserves a full-blown slow clap review, picking all the finest points about why we should all be eating there now. Nitally’s is going to get that somewhere down the line, the same goes for Z grille. As always, every restaurant that graces the pages of Eat a Duck is approved for your future consideration. Be on the look out for more of my travels as I go all over the west coast this spring! If you’re interested, come out and meet me one night so I’m not so lonely. If you have a place in mind that I missed, let me know and I promise to hit it up!