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.

Eat a Duck Weekly Recap #6

It’s shaping up to be quite the epic contest of Noodle Wars 2015 between James and myself. While I have gotten more strict with my eating habits, there’s no chance I will ever deny myself the joy of eating great Vietnamese food. I may have temporarily dislocated pork shoulder from my daily intake, but that isn’t stopping me from enjoying the extensive menu over at Pho Cali in Sarasota. I opted for a bowl of lemongrass beef bun, with spicy chile and onions. It almost made me forget my fatty pork patties. Jimmy more than made up for my pork omissions. We both have a deep yearning to find that next great menu item that’s possibly hiding on the back page. In this case, it was Ha Noi noodles with pickled green papaya, grilled pork and pork meatballs. What a refreshing feeling it is for each of us to have a place in our respective towns with such high flavor and quality. It’s been a long time coming.

Speaking of a long time coming, a wood fired pizza insurgence is under way. Have you joined the republic? We are feverishly composing our thoughts on Polpo Pizza Co. to express our love for what they are producing. I know there are a lot of pizza people out there. You owe it to yourself to plan a nice beach day in the Sarasota area, with special attention paid to procuring a pizza pie produced particularly by Polpo at the precise period and place Polpo pre-determines to park.

Moving on, we found that going back to our well of old favorites resulted in great rewards. I haven’t been back to Beewon Korean restaurant in almost five years until last week. I found an old picture of my son noshing at the table back then. Poor guy didn’t even have a hair on his head. But he sure was happy taking on their bulgogi beef. While the sure things (Mahans & Oxford Exchange) triumphed, the new stumbled. Deciding after many contemplative passing glances at their storefront on Colonial Dr. in Orlando, I gave Mamak Asian Street Food a shot. While their rendition of Char Kway Teow (a wide rice noodle dish similar to chow fun) impressed, the beef curry meatballs left me wincing with confusion. The curry sauce itself tasted fine, yet the meatballs seemed like they were purchased at IKEA. Truthfully, I guess I should say that I quite enjoy their meatballs. But I expect them to stay at IKEA, in a pool of brown gravy, garnished with Lingonberry compote and not curiously found in an Asian hawker style restaurant. I cant say for a fact they bought them elsewhere or made them by hand, shaped to extremely perfect proportions. They were just very, very familiar to me.  I say maybe give Mamak a shot, but not before going to every single other jaw dropping place in a two block radius. With big guns like Ming’s Bistro, Anh Hong, Little Saigon, and Chuan Lu Garden, Mamak has a lot of competition. It’s by far the prettiest space on the block. So if they can get the entire menu hitting on all fronts, look out!

Finally, we finish at home. We try to eat what’s in season and tastes best, wherever we live. In Florida, we’re seeing a burst of peaches on the scene. They’re mainly smaller and thinner skinned than their relatives that hail from Georgia in my opinion, which results in a more concentrated flavor. We found some gems at Sweetwater Farms yet again. Large heads of broccoli, Japanese eggplant, and a slab of grass-fed sirloin from Providence Cattle proved to make a wonderful version of a New York style Chinese take out favorite; Beef and Broccoli. Another Stone Crab season has come to an end. I got my last chance to enjoy my favorite claw based foods. For one day last week, Whole Foods had them on special at their beer bar for 2$ a claw, so I took advantage of the situation. When you see that kind of deal, never pass it up! We’ll see you next week!

EAD Weekly #6

EAD Weekly Recap No. 3

As one of Eat a Duck’s main contributors celebrated an anniversary this week, there was cause for much rejoicing. The vacation got started at Tia’s, to sample what was voted 2015’s Best Cuban Sandwich in the Universe. I don’t think it stacked up to the best of the best in our #Apuercolypse competition, but it was a valiant effort with great roast pork and extra buttery, pressed La Segunda bread. Everything else inside didn’t seem to receive as much attention as far as detailed flavor profiles or “homemadeness” is concerned.

For the most part, we visited some great old favorites in Orlando in Siro’s and Little Saigon, as well as some Tampa joints with Chocolate Pi, Fodder & Shine, Pinky’s, Squeeze and Jet City Espresso. Then we ended our trip where I’m typing, with family, eating great food at home. This week spanned a pretty large radius. Time to get out there and go eat!

EAD Weekly spread #3

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.

Garde Manger spread 2

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.

Garde Manger spread 3

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.

Fodder & Shine – Tampa, FL

People sometimes don’t understand why we love food so much. It’s a great debate that I don’t usually have a well-constructed position on, save for one exception. Unlike anything people involve themselves in that isn’t a form of secular work or family time, things considered as hobbies, extra-curricular activity, even time wasters aren’t a basic human need the way eating is. We just choose to survive in a more taste conscious manner. Everyone in the world has to eat, but not all take it in as a possible existential experience. I will never share the philosophy that life, whether free or not, is just about three hots and a cot.

This leads me to my own personal heritage. I’ve lived smack dab in the center of Florida my entire life. According to our tree and the U.S. Census, my father’s side migrated to Polk County from Georgia in the early 1800’s. Before that was South Carolina for a stint. Before that we landed in Virginia around 1665. It’s safe to say I have deep seeded roots planted in the South. As any self-respecting son of a Florida cracker (my Dad actually worked much of his early life on different farms and cattle yards, raised his own livestock and studied veterinary medicine, so he was the real deal), the cuisine I love, the food I crave like a magnet are the things my mother fed me, the recipes she learned from my dad’s mom, who was taught by his grandmother, the person we affectionately referred to as little meemaw due to her slight stature. I think there’s only one photo I have of us together as she died shortly after my birth, yet I think of that photo every time I eat cornbread and black-eyed peas as she was the touchstone for the cooking history of the Crumpton family in the modern era.

I can’t speak for them, but I do know a bit about Greg and Michelle Baker. Not enough to be a stalker but almost enough to be a newspaper restaurant reviewer. They too are Florida natives and hold their history and that of each of their families history very dear to their hearts and stomachs. I don’t mean to speak out of turn regarding family matters I know nothing about, but I can’t help to think they might share a similar fondness for each of their Meemaws home cooking. If I had to wager a bet, I would guess much of it was done on well-seasoned cast iron skillets.

FS Logo

Obviously, Florida cracker cuisine is dear to them. They just opened a shrine to honor the cuisine that I feel has been recreated oh so poorly in our area over the course of my adult life.

I had to leave the Raschke brothers sitting at the table immediately after the inaugural meal on opening night at Fodder and Shine. They without question were probably still debating old school punk rock and hardcore, wondering if there were other punk rock foodies in the Bay area other than ourselves.

While they were still seated, I walked to my car and just sat there for a couple of minutes in silence, thinking mostly about my dad and how much I was still missing him after nearly 2 rough years without him. Wondering how much he might have liked eating all the food of his life encapsulated in this single restaurant, and how he definitely would not have written this place off his list. He introduced me to fried gizzards, smoked mullet roe, frog’s legs and many more things F&S have added to their repertoire. I began to drive away with tears in my eyes, moved by the thought of food and how it has been such a large part of what I hold near to remember all those loved ones who have passed away.

Fodder Spread

Our recipes are sometimes the only thing we have that helps keeps those memories alive. I’ll never be a wealthy person because I don’t come from money. I don’t plan on having some large inheritance somewhere down the line, yet I feel rich with recipes that have been passed down through my family. Now that I finally pried it from my mom’s hands after about a decade of begging, I sure as heck will never be without my meemaw’s chewy cake recipe or the way my Nana makes her neck bone spaghetti.

The Bakers have captured the feel of centuries old Florida cooking with every keystroke of that menu, and they’ve succeeded in executing the cooking process, even in things that might seem small to the untrained eye. Right down to the perfect coloring and doneness on a side of sautéed zucchini squash, it’s all as I remembered it. It’s not 100% old school though and it shouldn’t be. Greg is still a chef for goodness sakes, and for me, good cheffing is about three key things, which he possesses moreso than almost anyone I’ve met.

1. Constant progression

2.Teaching others what you know

3. Respect for tradition.

Fodder and shine is the perfect place to use as equilibrium.

Fodder Spread 2

The feel and size of the space is our main and only concern. It’s massive and feels like a modern restaurant and not a place my meemaw might be cooking back in the kitchen. I think this kind of restaurant really belongs in a more intimate setting, more like in a house turned into dining establishment. My idea is flip-flop The Refinery and Fodder.

If you are a Florida native, I hope you have your own wonderful food registry that’s been passed down from generation to generation. If not, take a trip over to Fodder and Shine to see what you’ve more than likely been missing. And if you are a transplant just putting down roots down here, or maybe you’re just passing by, I sincerely hope you get it, even if these traditional preparations are not in your taste memory bank.

Sushi Pop – Oviedo, FL

I’ve noticed a trend recently of small towns, that less than a decade ago offered nothing more than aging diners and fast food chains, are sprouting innovative restaurants serving stunning cuisine on par with the best in the country (i.e. Indigenous, Red Door and Rooster & the Till). It could be that these youngsters are tired of killing themselves trying to compete with the heavy hitters in the big cities, or maybe it’s a desire to bring their talent and creativity to a new and less obvious markets. Whatever it is, these little towns are not only benefitting, but reciprocating the trust shown by these restaurants with their patronage.

A great example of this trend is Sushi Pop, a high energy, day-glo wonderland of Japanese cuisine that’s more Omotesando than Oviedo. On an otherwise sleepy street, the bright pink signage serves as a beacon to the hungry masses…in a town of less than 50,000 people. Yet when you cross the threshold, it seems as if the whole town simultaneously had a hankering for hamachi.

Sushi Pop sign & interior

For the better part of two years, a certain sibling who will remain nameless (Lobe) had been pestering me to visit Sushi Pop.  Every month or so I’d get an email detailing their latest uni shipment or some other enticing menu creation by Chef Chau (can you think of a more perfect name for a chef?). However Oviedo is not exactly convenient to get to from Miami or Sarasota. I’ve been known to travel insane distances for great food, but I was having a hard time getting in the car for a multi-hour road trip for sushi.

After finally getting the chance to visit, I am humbled. The food being created at Sushi Pop is the real thing, this ain’t some Nobu knockoff, peddling the same “high-end” Japanese that has become so tiring. Even when you see similarities, like local rock shrimp tempura with tobanjan aioli, Chef Chau and his Chef de cuisine Cesar Cruz put their own spin on it. The crudos offer a glimpse into the Valhalla of fish that is Tsukiji market where Sushi Pop sources much of their seafood. Flavor packed scallops from Hokkaido give a nod to Korea with a punchy kimchee salsa that elevates the succulent bivalves. The ominous sounding hamachi hara kiri takes the bygone samurai tradition to heart with tender cuts of yellowtail belly, fresh from a jaunt through Southeast Asia with chili garlic sauce, Thai basil, shallot oil and toasted peanuts.

Sushi Pop small plates 1

The tour of Asia’s finest cuisine isn’t confined to seafood, as is demonstrated with Sushi Pop’s take on KFC (Korean fried chicken). Sweet and spicy gochujang lacquers the crispy wings which give way to the moist meat below, spiked with toasted white sesame and scallion. You want veg? Sushi Pop executes on that front with a beautiful plate of hibachi grilled asparagus, meaty garlic braised mushrooms and soy glazed pea shoots.

Sushi Pop small plates 2

Perhaps the miso braised short rib open faced ravioli is more your speed? And why not, what with a truffled brown butter quail egg under an avalanche of tome cheese. Of course pork belly is always an option. That night the dish was a superb trio of Kurobuta tacos with braised Berkshire pork belly, hoisin bbq sauce, scallions, micro cilantro and avocado.

Sushi Pop small plates 3

It’s easy to get caught up in the early stages of the menu and forget all about Sushi Pop’s namesake. Naturally there’s an extensive list of maki rolls, many with touches of Korea, France and Porkbellistan, but the initiated will know to sample the nigiri and sashimi section first. All of the usual suspects are here, fresh from Tsukiji and priced to move, even the Otoro and Uni remained attainable. However the nigiri specials beckoned.

It’s one thing to fly in high-end fish from Japan and call it a day, it’s an entirely different thing to take said fish and start riffing. It’s a bold move, one that could easily lead to over sauced, sickeningly sweet concoctions that waste the beautiful protein. Thankfully these Oviedo otaku display incredible reverence for the seafaring treasures they serve, bestowing each with complimentary flavors that only elevate the fish. A belly duo seemed appropriate, in both salmon and yellowtail varieties. The former, adorned with Chinese ginger, shallot salsa, white soy and radish sprouts was revelation. The fat striped salmon, with it’s subdued, buttery flavor was countered with the fantastic acid from the ginger and shallot. The yellowtail, took a page out of Mr. Matsuhisa’s Peruvian inspired book with jalepeño, lime zest sauce and cilantro sprouts, fantastic.

Sushi Pop sushi

Ah it’s the end of the post, you all know what that means, dessert. Granted, Japanese restaurants aren’t typically known for their desserts, but I think we’ve established that this isn’t a normal Japanese restaurant. This is the kind that takes Japanese sweet potatoes and makes bread pudding out of it. Toasted marshmallows and a reflecting pool of Saigon crème anglaise join a nice scoop of praline ice cream, complete with a bacon hat. Not to be outdone is the P.M.S., the diabetus (sic) inducing combination of peanut butter crumbles, molten chocolate cake and salted caramel ice cream.

Sushi Pop desserts

It’s rare for a restaurant to deliver dish after stunning dish with such consistency, especially with a packed house on a Saturday night. I just hate that Sushi Pop is so far from me, or anything else for that matter! Hey Chef, keep us gulf coasters in mind when you open up your next outpost. I know a bunch of serious sushi savants who’d love a chance to savor your Tsukiji fare…just saying.

Sushi Pop on Urbanspoon

Indigenous – Sarasota, FL

Sarasota, Florida. It’s not exactly at the top of my list of food-centric cities, but it is the place where I happen to call home at the moment. So as always, before I made the move, I did my research to see what kind of eats my new town had to offer. My wife has joined me in this task the last two times we had to move, and I’m proud to say she’s growing quite adept at sniffing out the good stuff. After three months, her discovery of Indigenous, a rustic little place just south of Main St. in Sarasota, has taken the proverbial cake.

Like me, chef and owner of Indigenous, Steve Phelps, can’t seem to sit still. After paying his dues at a family run restaurant in Ohio and making his way through the food scene in Cleveland, he found himself in Sarasota. In a few years he saw his shot to open his own place and took it. Seven years later, I arrived and booked a table at Indigenous before my last box was unpacked. My urgency was rewarded with a meal that could stand up against some of the best restaurants in the country. I get the feeling Chef Phelps would be too humble to say this himself so I’ll say it for him, Indigenous is single-handedly raising the bar for quality eats in Sarasota and the town is better for it.

Indigenous sign

The menu is at once worldly, taking cues from New Orleans to Southeast Asia, and distinctly regional with ingredients sourced from nearby Providence Cattle Co. and Open Blue Sea Farms in Miami. A cozy wild mushroom bisque spiked with truffle croutons was enticing despite the balmy weather. Chef Phelps’ take on a BLT, an attractive composition of pork belly, tomato marmalade and jus aioli, is a clear display of his love for Sarasota. Chefs often make the false assumption that small town demographics are less sophisticated than in the city. It’s nice to see him flex his culinary muscles a little!

Indigenous apps

The workout continued with a glistening plate of cobia crudo. Crisp sea beans and sesame quinoa played it crispy opposite the supple fish, while sweet soy and ginger crème fraîche seamlessly wove Asia into the dish. (Something about supremely fresh raw fish makes me rhyme, who knew)

Cooked fish on the other hand, is rarely an area of the menu I spend much time on. Strangely though, as our waiter explained the Hook to Fork special that night, I was caught…well you know. Red grouper was the star, perched (I’m sorry about the fish puns and clichés, I’m not sure what’s come over me today) atop a corn cake with a luxurious pea tendril remoulade. The depth of flavor in the grouper was unparalleled. As strange as it sounds it had the unctuous mouth feel reminiscent of pork belly at times. This dish has joined hamachi kama and miso glazed black cod in the rarefied air that is my cooked fish pantheon.

Red Grouper

 Dessert was no less impressive than the savory dishes. Lavender is a fickle ingredient in my opinion. Incorporating it into a cupcake and cream can be a tight wire act as the line between floral and hand soap is razor-thin. Thankfully the chef knew exactly where that line was, deftly navigating the flavor with the same confidence he displayed throughout the meal. The cupcake had the consistency of a fresh, buttery madeleine, one of my childhood favorites.

Indigenous Lavender Cupcake

I never truly feel at home in a new city until I’ve found the great spots to get a meal, after all, that’s where some of life’s greatest comfort is found. I have Chef Phelps and Indigenous to thank for much of the comfort I feel now, so early on. Indigenous isn’t just a great restaurant for Sarasota, it’s a great restaurant in general. So if you want a break from the Tampa food scene but don’t want to skimp on quality, get down here and give Indigenous a shot.

Indigenous on Urbanspoon

Painter’s Palate – Sarasota, FL

The following is an excerpt from a conversation I had with a newly acquainted food friend.

JP: Hey do you want to go to lunch?

JT: Sure, where are we going?

JP: This place called Painter’s Palate.

JT: What kind of a name is that? What kind of food do they serve?

JP: Thai-Italian fusion…

JT:…oh dear god.

Admittedly, fusion cuisine doesn’t have a great reputation here Eat a Duck HQ, so I kept my hopes in check as I made my way to the newborn restaurant from the folks behind Sarasota’s Thai outpost, Drunken Poet. I was the first to arrive, so I had a moment to study the menu, hoping to glean some information on the upcoming meal. I was happy to see that most of the menu was rooted firmly in Southeast Asia with a few exceptions, like the pizza and tartine sections. Thai pizza sounds enticing…but with marinara sauce? Brie and curry tartine? Suffice it to say I was concerned about Painter’s Palate. Thai-Italian fusion, a name that gives no clue about what kind of food you might find, an empty dining room, things were looking grim.

My concern didn’t have time to change to worry before my compatriots arrived. Since we were the only diners, we asked to see the dinner menu as the lunch version was missing a couple of items we had heard good things about. The first glimmer of hope came as we read through the appetizer section…and then proceeded to order every item, along with a spicy basil pizza for good measure.

Any worries I had were immediately assuaged when an order of duck rolls arrived. An intriguing tartar-like sauce bound the crispy, golden rolls to the plate. I was knocked out by the succulent duck meat, juicy and full of spices. The Thaicos followed and were another early hit. Healthy slabs of lightly seared ahi tuna topped with fresh seaweed salad laid in a crisp shrimp chip were delicious. In my opinion it could have done without the imitation crab underneath, but it didn’t take away from the dish.

Painter's Palate apps 1

The crispy wings were a small misstep as they seemed to have been left in the fryer a touch too long and the accompanying jar seemed to contain straight duck sauce. I can’t blame the chef too much since we did bombard him with a large order, at the same time as I said, we were the only ones there. At the time, Painter’s Palate had been open less than a week, so I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The appetizers continued to arrive at machine gun pace. Crispy shrimp in a creamy sriracha sauce were a unanimous winner. Perfectly cooked with tender meat and a nice crisp fried shell. I found this sauce to be much tastier than the one that came with the wings.

Painter's Palate apps 2

Simple inari pockets stuffed with more seaweed salad were a welcome, and very tasty reprieve from the fried assault…which was continued by two fantastic Thai “corn dogs”. The now familiar creamy sauce was present to brighten up the panko breading and was helped along by a refreshing hit of kaffir lime in the dog itself.

We heard the chef hails from Belgium, so it was only right to sample his frites. They cut them thick at Painter’s Palate, leaving a soft interior , a good fry and were paired, as is the custom, with a clearly homemade mayo. It was a touch salty, but a strong citrus note helped offset.

The aforementioned red curry and brie tartine arrived to three pairs of raised eyebrows. Unfortunately this dish fell flat due to the clunky ingredient combinations. Three pieces of toasted bread topped with melted brie and bacon weren’t bad in and of themselves. However they sat on a warm bed of spinach, peppers, tomatoes and walnuts all in a red curry sauce which was noticeably missing any curry flavor.

Tartine, frites, spicy basil pizza

The spicy basil pizza arrived to settle our debate about marinara sauce at a Thai joint. This did not suck. Far from it in fact. It was a beautiful pie, with a crisp crust, not underdone despite the copious amounts of ground beef and sweet caramelized onions riding on the dough. A fried egg was a nice touch but didn’t add much to the flavor. I actually think the pizzas could take to Thai flavors quite well. Get rid of the cheese and marinara sauce and throw in some spicy red curry, shrimp paste pizza and pickled lemongrass. I’m no chef but I can see the possibilities! I’d like to see the chef get creative here, they’ve got that pizza oven, so why not stray from Italy in lieu of Thailand?

In restaurant terms, Painter’s Palate is still in its infancy, only a couple of weeks old, but they’re already off to a great start with some truly impressive dishes. If they can tighten up some small mistakes, rework that tartine section and really commit to exploring what’s possible when Giuseppe and Pravat put their heads together, they could have a real hit on their hands. This place deserves to be packed, so beat the hipsters and get to Painter’s Palate before it gets too cool!

Rooster and the Till – Tampa, FL

What makes a restaurant truly great? It’s obviously a subjective question as preferences in taste, service, ambiance and price vary widely from person to person. In my opinion, the overarching quality that I look for in a great restaurant, is consistency. The places that can provide, not only delicious, but creative food, along with knowledgable, friendly service and comfortable atmosphere, all at a reasonable price, are few and far between. That’s why I chose to wait a while before I sat down to write about Rooster and the Till in Tampa. It’s easy to get caught up in a one-off meal that blows you away, only to find out it was a fluke. The real test of quality is whether or not the restaurant in question can deliver equally impressive meals over multiple visits. It’s been a long time coming, but after a half-dozen trips to Rooster over the last few months, I can happily report that they’ve passed the test, wowing me each time with their inventive flavor combinations and constantly changing menu.roos_logo_colorNow I would expect a high level of performance from a place with access to vast amounts of financial backing, top of the line equipment and the hottest PR team to generate buzz. In that case, there are no excuses, you’d better deliver, every single night, without fail. Rooster is not that place, and yet they are capable of producing legitimately high level cuisine with nothing but four hot plates, an impeccable mise and a small crew of exceedingly talented cooks led by two no-nonsense dudes in Ferrell Alvarez and Ty Rodriguez, no excuses necessary.

Recently, Logan and I joined the boys from Tasting Tampa to put Rooster through its paces. I like to think four voracious eaters like ourselves, posed at least a small challenge to the kitchen as we ordered at least 80% of the menu. Keeping with tradition, we began with the raw items from the chalkboard, a scallop crudo and a smattering of oysters. The source and flavor profile of these items changes with the wind, so don’t be disappointed if you don’t see these specific items, I’ve never been let down by their raw offerings.

Oysters & Scallop Crudo

This crudo only reinforced my belief that scallops are, first and foremost, meant to be eaten raw. These were so supple they were nearly a mousse. Pickled onion with corn and red pepper offset the sweet and malleable scallops in both texture and flavor, as a smooth avocado schmear joined the creamy party.

For the carnivores, I suggest you add the charcuterie slate to your order. On any given night you’re likely to find a pâté, a couple of cured offerings and maybe even duck rillettes if you’re lucky. At the moment the slate is sporting a beef heart bresaola with bread and butter pickles and hibiscus all-spice mustard.

Charcuterie slate

Rooster goes to great lengths to use what’s fresh, keeping it seasonal and local when possible. For us that meant heirloom tomatoes marinated in aged sherry vinegar, cucumber, smoked goats milk yogurt, charred lemon arugula emulsion and flax-seed pumpernickel crackers. Dishes like this are often the most impressive as they’re so simple, yet most of us would never think to combine the flavors just so. The short rib gnocchi is an auto-order item for me. Ferrell prepares his gnocchi in the Parisienne style, resulting in a far lighter and less dense pillow than their heavier set cousins. The clincher for me is the duo of smoked ricotta and pickled peperonata. Creamy and rich, tangy and electric, it’s a great response to the unctuous short rib as it relaxes in its San Marzano coating. The star of course are the dainty gnocchi that almost dissipate on your tongue instead of adhering to the roof of your mouth like a barnacle.

Heirloom tomatoes & short rib gnocchi

I’ve been called a pole bean my whole life. Until I had them at Rooster, I’d considered it an insult. When you add in potato confit, garlic chips and duck cracklings, it becomes a compliment of the highest order. If you are what you eat, then I’m a tasty fellow. Another small plate selection that keeps with the earthen theme is the roasted mushrooms. Thankfully Ferrell didn’t go crazy with the bleu cheese, a known flavor bully, by piping small dots around the plate. Savory mushrooms are showcased front and center with a bacon and roasted bone marrow backup band to rival the Spiders from Mars.

Pole beans with potato confit & roasted mushroom with bacon and bone marrow

Ferrell presented us with a surprise care package of sous vide face bacon. That’s right, bacon of the face. A protein like this calls for some headstrong accompaniments, able to make themselves known. These came by way of chili flake broccolini, more of their amazing house ricotta, pine nut bread crumbs and tomato gravy. Dishes like this give me pause, if they can come up with plates of this calibre on the fly, out of leftovers no less, what else are they capable of?

Facebacon

Veggies, specifically beets. Normally I’m not a fan of this root, but the preparation here sold me. The healthy dollops of rich ricotta didn’t hurt either. Beets two ways, roasted and shaved raw, with cherry tomatoes was a light and refreshing departure from the previous dish, but no less enjoyable. Vegetarian friendly isn’t a phrase that rears its head on Eat a Duck often, but Rooster has a way of showcasing ground treasures so even this hardened protein protagonist can sing their praises.

House ricotta, beets

I write about this next dish with a heavy heart. After a good long run, the orecchiette with uni butter and bottarga has finally been retired. Bitter broccoli leaves and chili spiked confit tomatoes proved to be winning combination. If it was available, I ordered it every time without fail. It really was one of the most memorable dishes I’ve had, but I know all good things must come to an end. I take comfort in the fact that Rooster always comes up with something new and exciting to replace classic veterans. As I write this, the menu is already reflecting the hot new rookie, garlic chive cavatelli with charred tomato, pancetta, arugula, shave crontonese and gremolata breadcrumbs.

Uni butter orecchiette

At Rooster and the Till, for me at least, dessert consists of more savory dishes, or perhaps another half-dozen oysters. But their sweet dishes are as delicious and well designed as anything else on the menu. They’re typically on the refreshing end of the spectrum, a welcome palate cleanser after hearty meal. On this occasion they featured passion fruit, coconut and berries. The beautiful presentation is matched only by the depth of flavor.

Rooster dessert

Rooster and the Till are often maligned for serving small plates with high prices. I’m not sure what planet these commenters are from, but you won’t find a better value in Tampa. There are hardly any other restaurants in town serving up this calibre of food with such consistency. Even fewer establishments earn a spot in my “where to eat dinner tonight” list, but Rooster and the Till have landed a permanent reservation, as one of my favorite restaurants of all time.

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