Tampaversary Part 1: Bern’s Steak House

Trigger warning for extreme bougie content: WE DO NOT EAT LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME.

For years, my wife and I have been talking about going to the legendary Bern’s Steak House (https://bernssteakhouse.com/) in Tampa to celebrate a special occasion.  It’s a long way to travel for a meal, but from all accounts, Bern’s is THE meal,  the ultimate destination for foodie high-rollers or one-time wannabes like us.  It doesn’t help that my wife doesn’t fare well on long car rides, but Bern’s actually owns its own hotel right across the street, the Epicurean Hotel (https://epicureanhotel.com/), to help break up the trip and give weary, stuffed travelers a chance to rest and digest.

Neither restaurant nor hotel are cheap, but we’ve been putting this off for years, we both celebrated some milestones at work recently, we had our ninth wedding anniversary to celebrate, and best of all, neither of us ended up hospitalized this year, after we both did in the summer of 2017.  So for the first time ever, I was able to use some saved Marriott points and bought the rest of the points to cover a night at the Epicurean, for far less than it would have cost out of pocket.  (I think I can best describe the regular room rate as “far out of our price range” or “What the hell is this, midtown Manhattan?”)  And two months ago, I made a reservation at Bern’s, which gets booked up almost that far in advance.  I can’t speak for my wife, but I can say I looked forward to it for weeks, fastidiously studying Bern’s voluminous menu in the meantime.

The menu is pretty much a treatise on steaks, which are the house specialty.  Bern’s brags about serving dry-aged steaks, which I had never had before.  With all honesty, I’m not a big steak eater, and I’d always prefer a good burger to a good steak, for reasons of taste, customizability, and value.  But my wife LOVES a good steak, especially after I turned her onto ribeyes.  This menu has pages and pages of steak descriptions, describing cuts of meat, cooking temperatures, thickness, aging, and so forth.  I felt like I was researching engagement rings again!

But I’m jumping ahead.  When we first arrived at Bern’s, the nondescript white building looked like it could have been anything but a fancy steakhouse: maybe an industrial warehouse or a factory.  But stepping inside was like entering a different world, or at least a different century.  The lobby looked like a set from Moulin Rouge: all red walls, dark wood, gold, giant portraits, and dim lighting, giving it all an anachronistic and otherworldly feeling, like 19th Century French brothel meets David Lynch’s Black Lodge.  I was definitely feeling sensory overload, and my eyes had trouble adjusting to the low lights and everything there was to look at.

Our reservation was at 5:00, since we’re the youngest early bird diners you’ll ever meet.  We met our server, Erhan, who was the best guy ever.  He was our wise, patient, helpful guide through this extravagant evening, and we have never experienced better service anywhere.  If we had a question, Erhan was there to answer it like the best reference librarians I’ve ever worked with (and I would know, since I am one).  Apparently servers at Bern’s train for a year before they start out on the floor, and that painstaking training showed. You get the impression the man had seen and heard it all, and knew it all.

The appetizers beckoned.  I love oysters, and I heard Bern’s oysters were among the best you can have anywhere.  Unfortunately, my wife doesn’t care for oysters at all, and it would have felt wrong to order something she couldn’t enjoy too.  Now that our weather is FINALLY getting cool, some $1 oyster nights are going to be on my agenda.

However, there was something even fancier, even rarer, even more celebratory that intrigued us both: CAVIAR.  The menu has a whole page of caviar selections, ranging from semi-reasonable ($25) to ridiculous ($190).  Over a decade ago, we attended the wedding of dear friends we never get to see anymore, and they had a caviar bar at their reception.  I’m not sure how many of the other guests partook, but my wife and I went crazy, like cartoon cats at an all-you-can-eat bird buffet.  We still talk about their storybook-perfect wedding and that caviar bar to this day, and this was our first opportunity to recreate the experience.  Hey, this was a convergence of multiple special occasions, and I don’t think any Orlando restaurants even offer caviar.  None of the places we go, anyway! The closest we get is masago on our spicy poke bowls.

My wife chose the very moderate (for caviar) black hackleback sturgeon, and Bern’s serves it with so many accoutrements, which I love.  It came with the traditional Russian accompaniments of sour cream and the most finely-diced red onions, egg whites, and egg yolks I have ever seen, with the most perfect brioche toast points ever.  It also came with six flavored foams as additional condiments, each one adding its own dimensions to the buttery, briny black pearls.  I wish I could remember each one of the foams, dear Sabo-Squad, but there was definitely an avocado one (the green one), a potato and bacon foam (fourth one down), a curry foam (yellow), and a blue cheese foam (the one on the bottom, with blue cheese crumbles on top).  I’m forgetting the first and third ones.  Now, I am a sucker for any condiments and sauces, and they were neat, but the traditional sour cream, onions, and eggs went much better with the caviar.

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This was so good, our eyes were rolling back in our heads. “Like a sturgeon! Touched for the very first time!”

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What really completed the whole caviar ritual was a plate of six Yukon Gold potato blinis, perfectly soft potato pancakes that are nothing like the crispy, greasy, fried latkes I think of as potato pancakes.  These blinis were lighter than air, soft and creamy, the ideal little pillows to top with a dollop of sour cream and a smaller dollop of black pearls.  I am totally going to recreate them at home.  They were too good, and they’d be great in place of traditional breakfast pancakes too.  Imagine “silver dollar flappies” that just melt away in your mouth, and you have these blinis.

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After we inhaled every single morsel of everything (my wife, to her credit, didn’t indulge in the condiments at all), Erhan returned to counsel us on steaks.  At Bern’s, a party of two can split a larger steak if they want the same cut, which they recommend over each person ordering their own.  We both wanted the Delmonico, which is their ribeye, and we chose a whopping 16-ounce steak to share, that is 1 3/4″ thick.  Luckily, we both like our steaks rare, after a lifetime of restaurants and parents overcooking them.  At Bern’s, they are so exacting that they have varying degrees of rare, but we opted for a warm red center and a slight outer crust.  Erhan said they would even trim the outer fat and serve it on two separate plates, which was nice.  These are all U.S.D.A. Prime steaks, by the way.  You can occasionally find this highest quality meat at Costco, but rarely at supermarkets.

Best of all, all of Bern’s steaks come with a plethora of side orders, which is a million times better than most upscale steakhouses that serve everything a la carte and nickel-and-dime you to death with expensive sides (another reason I’m not a steakhouse fan).  As pricey as Bern’s is (and it is), it is also a bargain if you just want a good steak dinner and some sides.  The included sides are French onion soup, a house salad with a choice of housemade dressings, a baked potato that can be dressed with any combination of butter, sour cream, crumbled bacon, and chives, thin and crispy fried onion straws, and fresh vegetables from Bern’s own farm.  What I didn’t realize was that ordering the larger steak for two meant we would get two of every side.  I honestly thought we’d get one of each side and have to split them or decide who got what.  Rube alert!

I already love French onion soup, and this was easily the best I’ve ever had.  It was so rich and beefy and decadent, and came with garlic toast and spelt toast, a kind of grain we were both unfamiliar with.  My wife really impressed me by digging into her soup.  I love onions (and caramelize them all the time at home), but she really, really doesn’t like them (and hates the smell when I cook them).  I thought it was cool that she not only took a risk by trying it, but that she ended up liking it.  How could you not?  Incredible French onion soup. My wife thought the spelt toast was like “teething biscuits,” and it was quite hard, but softened up nicely when dunked in the soup.

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Next came the colorful house salads, with vegetables from Bern’s farm.  I was very impressed that they peeled the tomatoes.  WHO DOES THAT!?! I am always on a quest for good salad dressings to liven up my own salads, and I was excited by the list of Bern’s housemade dressings.  My wife chose one of my top picks, a macadamia nut vanilla bean vinaigrette.  I asked the ever-patient Erhan if I could sample two different dressings, and he hooked me up.  Grateful, I chose maple dijon (I love mustards and anything mapley) and creamy white balsamic Italian.  The salad was fine, but those three dressings were without a doubt the best salad dressings I’ve ever had, with the creamy white balsamic Italian in first place, then the vanilla bean vinaigrette.  They each came in fancy little metal pitchers, and even when we were finished with our salads, I asked to keep the dressings to dip the forthcoming onion straws into.  I wish Bern’s sold these salad dressings in bottles.  Ken’s Steak House can do it, Bern’s! Why can’t you?

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Finally, the steaks arrived, accompanied by the baked potatoes, onion straws, and two vegetables of the day, the most delicious, rich, buttery green beans and shredded carrots served with almonds.  I’m not a baked potato guy, so I pretty much just ate the top part that was loaded with all the toppings.  The steaks were superb, though.  Cooked to absolute perfection, as you can see.  Like I said, I’ve never had a dry-aged steak before, so I’m not enough of a connoisseur to tell a major difference in taste or texture.  What I can say is that it was one of the finest steaks of my life.  Top two, maybe, with only Christner’s right here in Orlando coming close.

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I’ll also RING THE ALARM, even though the thin onion straws aren’t exactly onion rings.  They were well-seasoned, crispy, not greasy at all, not overly salty, and held up to dipping in the remaining maple dijon dressing.

Well, at this point, we were pretty stuffed, but part of the iconic Bern’s experience is to go upstairs to finish your meal in the Harry Waugh Dessert Room, “built in 1985 using redwood wine casks to create 48 private rooms.”  I get it — they want to clear tables in the main dining room, so ushering folks upstairs to a separate dessert room is genius.  I paid our check (holy crap!), and we thanked Erhan profusely before heading off.  Observant regular readers already know my wife and I don’t drink, but the bill could easily have been doubled if we did.  As a result, we opted to skip the tour of Bern’s vaunted wine cellar, housing one of the largest collections of wine in the United States. To oenophiles, “cellar tour” might be the most beautiful-sounding phrase in the English language.

That said, we accepted their invitation to take a tour of Bern’s busy, bustling kitchen.  (It’s not like we’re special people; they offer both tours to all diners.)  The kitchen was where my wife really felt sensory overload, but the short behind-the-scenes tour was fascinating to me.  I’ve never worked in restaurants even though so many of my friends did, but I’m fascinated by the process, of peering behind the curtain and seeing how the sausage is made (figuratively, in this case, as there is no sausage on the menu, nor even an awe-inspiring burger made from cuts of Bern’s fabulous steaks.  What’s up with that?).  The kitchen was HUGE — much larger than either of us could have ever imagined — with a gigantic, tireless staff.

Next, we took the elevator up to the Dessert Room, and they really aren’t kidding about the private rooms, except they’re more like booths.  You really feel like you’re eating dessert inside of a phone booth made out of a giant wooden barrel.  The quarters were tight, but intimate, and the dessert menu is also something to behold.  This is where I feel like we both chose poorly (of course, we were no longer under Erhan’s protection up there), and they were the only disappointments of the evening.  We heard so much hype about the housemade macadamia nut ice cream sundae, so that’s what my wife ordered.  It was fine, I guess.  I’m not into nuts or chocolate as much as she is, but I think even she thought it was just okay.

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I guess we had a bit of miscommunication, because I ordered the Taste of Bern’s, a sampler that includes five desserts, expecting my wife would want to try all of them.  It comes with Macadamia Decadence Cake, King Midas (a carrot nut cake topped with more freakin’ macadamia nut ice cream), banana cheese pie, chocolate cheese pie, and vanilla cheesecake.  Little did I know that the five desserts would be literally mouse-sized portions, or that my wife would be too full to care about sampling all of them at that late point in the evening, almost three hours after we arrived.  I liked the banana cheese pie morsel quite a bit (fourth one) and probably would have preferred a full serving of that.  None of the others did much for me, I must admit.  I love cheesecake like crazy, but I’ve had better.  Oh well, we still had the experience.

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Also, the Dessert Room barrel-booths all come equipped with a telephone and a series of buttons that play different music through a speaker: jazz, Broadway standards, pop, and live music from a piano player stationed somewhere on the premises.  The phone is to call the piano player with requests.  Well, most of the buttons didn’t work, and we didn’t want to try playing “stump the piano player” with contemporary requests, although I still wonder if he would have known any Tori Amos (for my wife), Tom Waits (for me), or St. Vincent (for both of us).

We practically rolled back to our hotel across the street, which was a godsend, and crashed for the night much earlier than usual.  Aside from dessert being underwhelming for both of us, we have absolutely no regrets about going, spending the money, and finally getting the full Bern’s Steak House experience.  But I asked my wife if she would ever want to go back, and she said no, it was fine, she had a great time, but she got it out of her system completely.  I have to agree.  I was, and am, content.

We were celebrating being married for nine years, being relatively healthy (especially compared to the last year), and feeling mostly stable and safe at our respective jobs, so it was worth a step out of our comfort zones for a night like this.  I’m so grateful I was in the financial position to treat my wife to this little weekend anniversary getaway, but leaving Bern’s and checking out of the Epicurean Hotel the next morning felt like a return to reality, snapping out of this swanky fantasy and back to real life.

For better and for worse, Bern’s is a real time capsule — a piece of luxurious mid-Century Americana, at once tacky (the decor) and classy (pretty much everything else).  I’m glad they have withstood the test of time and bravely doubled down on what they have always done, rather than submitting to trends, modernizing, and going more casual.  This is the kind of place the Rat Pack would go if they went to Tampa back in the day, or where Henry Hill would have taken his wife (or possibly his mistress) if Goodfellas had a little side story set in Tampa.  I’m imagining the interior monologues, sweeping Steadicam shots, and Scorsese’s swingin’ ’70s song choices even now.  Bern’s does everything with the utmost care and the highest quality, and you get what you pay for.  They certainly go out of their way to put you at ease (even though decadence and luxury make me uncontrollably uncomfortable every time) and give you an unforgettable evening.

But I promise you, fearless readers: my next restaurant review will feel more like classic Saboscrivner, with a trip to one of Tampa’s legendary bakeries that is over a century old.  Stay tuned for TAMPAVERSARY PART 2!

Manzano’s Deli

Anyone who knows me knows I love a few things: my wife, comic books, lounge acts with girl singers, cats, and Italian deli sandwiches.  Here in Orlando, LaSpada’s has always been my favorite spot for an Italian hoagie bursting at the seams with cured Italian meats, sharp provolone cheese, and crispy fresh vegetables and pickled peppers.  In 2017, Bad As’s Sandwich changed the game with their limited-time special, the Capone, which made my list of the year’s top five dishes.  (Yeah, I’m probably gonna be citing that forever.)  Then Stasio’s Italian Deli & Market opened this summer, and I reviewed it right here, on its opening day.

We are lucky to have one more great sub shop in town now: Manzano’s Deli (http://manzanowinterpark.com/), on Fairbanks Avenue in Winter Park, moments from Park Avenue and Rollins College, and directly next door to the Little Blue Donut Co.  Manzano’s already has two beloved locations in DeLand and New Smyrna Beach, which I’ve never been to, but you can bet I checked their menus as soon as I heard one was opening here.  Well, they finally opened for business in September, and my first visit lived up to all the expectations and hype.

You see, most sub shops will offer ONE Italian hoagie-type sandwich if you’re lucky, with salami, ham, and other cured, sliced deli meats, served cold.  (I’ve never been a fan of sandwiches like this served hot, with the meats crispy and greasy.)  Manzano’s has SEVERAL, and they’re all a little bit different.  Looking at their menu, you must choose between the Italian Stallion, the Balboa, the V, the Pauly, the Rocco, and the Goodfella, and their ingredients aren’t listed in any specific order, making it a little difficult to compare and contrast when you’re hungry and in a hurry.

So for the benefit of my Saboscrivner Squad, I have created the Manzano’s Matrix, to help you choose the best possible Italian sandwich at a glance:
manzanos_matrix As you can see, the Rocco is the sandwich with the most ingredients.  The Italian Stallion and the Goodfella are the same, except the Stallion has pepperoni, so I can’t imagine ordering the Goodfella unless you hate pepperoni.  The Balboa and the V are the two with fresh mozzarella, but no overlapping meats, so that presents a difficult choice.  But yeah, I like to maximize my sandwich experience, so I chose the Rocco… and I chose wisely.

Look at this thing!

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Look at it!

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That’s the whole sandwich (15″ for $16.99), and it is enormous.  I think most hungry people can easily make do with a half ($10.49).  Yes, it’s more expensive than Subway, Wawa, and even Jersey Mike’s, but you pay for quality, and this was an extremely high-quality sandwich.  On top of being huge, the crusty bread was very fresh (flown in from New York), and the meats and cheeses were all from Boar’s Head, so you know they’re good.  The Rocco comes with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, roasted red peppers (love ’em!), oil and vinegar, and two ingredients I asked them to hold, because I don’t think they belong on an Italian sub: black olives and mayo.  No thank you!  Mayo has its place, but not here.

I did ask them to add the sun-dried tomato spread that is a option on some of their other sandwiches, and they were kind enough to oblige.  The sun-dried tomatoes are marinated in oil, so by the time I got this sandwich back to our little break room at work, it was quite soggy and messy to eat, but probably even more delicious.  In fact, chilling it in the fridge for a few hours might have made it even better (and probably necessitated eating it with a fork and knife), but it was great as is.

If you aren’t into Italian deli meats, they still have plenty for you, don’t worry: turkey, chicken, roast beef, corned beef, pastrami, tuna salad, egg salad, etc.  Manzano’s also serves paninis in addition to their giant subs, as well as salads and breakfast sandwiches in the morning.  They can even craft you a custom sandwich with your choice of ingredients if their menu options aren’t tempting enough.

I look forward to returning, even though I think I’ve already figured out what their best sandwich is, and I’ll no doubt order it again.  It’s a rough location there on Fairbanks, with very limited parking nearby.  The location used to house Tatame Tea and Sake Lounge, one of the spots I took my wife on our first date back in 2006, but even someplace that cool couldn’t last.  That’s the only drawback I can see, but hopefully Manzano’s will stay busy with lots of walk-in traffic from Rollins students, faculty, and staff.  And if you ever feel like an amazing sandwich and a doughnut, you have this place and the Little Blue Donut Co. right next door.  How can you go wrong with that?  YOU CAN’T.

Tortilleria El Progreso

Orlando is full of hidden treasures, and my latest discovery is Tortilleria El Progreso (https://www.tortilleriaelprogreso.com/), nestled in a nondescript strip shopping center in the shadow of a Home Depot, along a busy, industrial stretch of East Colonial Drive, west of the 417 and east of Semoran Boulevard.  It is a bustling Mexican restaurant and a full Mexican grocery store with a butcher shop, a bakery, an ice cream counter, and more.  This is real Mexican food, authentic and pure — the kind of place that makes its own tortillas, chips, and everything else from scratch.  The menu is huge, the service is friendly, the prices are cheap, the portions are large, and the colorful, welcoming dining room with hand-painted chairs makes you feel transported away from Orlando, to a vacation destination south of the border.

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I went for lunch with a professional colleague who trusts my restaurant-choosing judgment and was kind enough to treat.  We started out with complimentary chips and salsa, and we could tell the chips were fresh, made from actual tortillas not long before our arrival:

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Whenever I see tortas on a menu, I go for it.  If there’s one thing I love more than a good taco, it’s a good sandwich, and tortas are the best of both worlds: Mexican ingredients on a soft bolillo or telera roll, with meat, a schmear of refried beans, avocado, shredded lettuce, tomato, onions, sometimes peppers, and a dab of mayo or sour cream.  I got a barbacoa torta, with tender, oven-braised beef.  It even came with unexpected fries, but the fries weren’t anything special, and I didn’t dare fill up on them.  20180927_124658_resized

But I couldn’t visit a new Mexican restaurant and not sample two of my favorite meats, so I got a chorizo (spicy crumbled sausage) taco on a flour tortilla and an al pastor (marinated pork) taco on a corn tortilla, so I could try both kinds of tortillas too.  All the tacos came simply garnished with diced raw onions and chopped cilantro, with lime wedges on the side.  I am pleased to say everything was delicious.  20180927_124836_resized

My colleague ordered three tacos: shredded chicken and sauteed beef, hold the onions.20180927_124704_resized

We were also offered a choice of red or green salsas for the table, so of course I asked for both.  The green tomatillo salsa was medium-spicy, and the red had quite a bit of heat.  These were homemade as well:
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We also decided to try a side order of the Mexican rice, which was soft, fluffy, even a little buttery.  I have a rice cooker at home because my rice never comes out right from a pot, but I still never get it as perfect as all the restaurant rice I enjoy.  I stirred a little of the salsas into the rice, to make a good thing even better.20180927_131138_resized

I was overjoyed to see aguas frescas on the menu, which is one of my tests for how authentic and good a Mexican restaurant is going to be.  These refreshing drinks are sweet, but not as sweet as high fructose corn syrup-laden sodas, they aren’t carbonated, and they’re ideal for cutting the heat of spicy Mexican food.  I ordered a piña agua fresca because I will always try anything pineappley, and I recommended another one of my favorites to my colleague: horchata, which is a sweet rice milk flavored with cinnamon and vanilla.  I didn’t snap photos of those, but they were both terrific.

I can’t wait to return to Tortilleria El Progreso and try some more menu items, including some of those other aguas frescas, and some of the paletas (popsicles) and helados (ice creams) in the big case at the front of the restaurant.  It looked like the market side had bolillo rolls in the bakery section for tortas, fresh tortillas, sodas, snacks, and other groceries worth exploring.  I love grocery shopping at new places almost as much as I love trying new restaurants, so I will definitely be back to this newly-discovered hidden treasure that plenty of other people surely already knew about.

Poke Hana

It could be said that poke is having a moment.  The Hawaiian dish consists of cubes of fresh raw fish, marinated with sauces and seasonings and served over rice with a variety of toppings.  If you like sushi, there’s no reason you wouldn’t love poke too.   Plus, poke bowls are infinitely customizable, and these days, diners crave quick, healthy meals they can get made to their specifications.

Orlando already has several poke options, including several locations of the excellent Da Kine Poke, the related Big Kahuna and Island Fin Poke, Bento Cafe (which was serving poke-style don bowls for several years), and even Costco offers high-quality, authentically Hawaiian ahi tuna poke every once in a while.  Most of these poke joints (aside from Costco) follow the assembly line model popularized by Chipotle and several Greek and Middle Eastern restaurants, in which you choose your base (white or brown rice, sometimes salad greens), your protein (ahi tuna, other fish, or tofu), and your toppings and sauces.

Orlando’s newest poke place is my current favorite, Poke Hana (https://www.poke-hana.com/), located on East Colonial Drive right at the Mills Avenue intersection, one of our greatest foodie neighborhoods in the city.  I believe they opened in late August or early September.  They have a large, bright restaurant space with a lot of natural light and an easy-to-miss parking lot in the back, to avoid the hassle and danger of trying to parallel-park in one of the few spots along busy Colonial Drive.  I’ve been there twice now, and I’m a little obsessed with it at the moment.

At Poke Hana, you can choose from white or brown rice or mixed greens for your base, and ahi tuna, salmon, hamachi (yellowtail), and tako (octopus) for your seafood proteins.  I’ve been twice now, and I’ve asked for half-ahi and half-salmon both times.  These bowls are a reasonable $13 each.  They also have non-seafood protein options: Hawaiian-style kalua pulled pork, hula chicken, garlic shrimp (shell-on), and fried tofu.  I haven’t tried any of these yet, although I can’t wait to try the kalua pork.  They also have Spam musubi, another Hawaiian specialty with a rectangular slice of fried Spam served over a pillow of chilled, seasoned sticky rice, like a larger piece of nigiri sushi.

Now you have to choose a sauce: shoyu (soy sauce with ginger), Maui (traditional Hawaiian-style, with some finely-chopped macadamia nuts and chili flakes for a bit of heat), spicy (my favorite, a sriracha aioli with tiny orange masago fish eggs, like the spicy mayo that often accompanies sushi rolls), and a Korean-style kimchi.  Some of the poke places serve the sauce on the side or squirt it on top, but Poke Hana mixes it together with your protein of choice before serving it to you, which I appreciate, because I would just do that anyway.

And while other poke restaurants usually have a long list of toppings, Poke Hana keeps it simple and traditional.  As much as I’ve loved having the option of diced mango, sliced avocado, or crispy fried onions over my poke elsewhere, you only get three toppings at Poke Hana: thin-sliced pickled cucumbers (which I love, despite not being a huge pickle fan, although I’m trying to learn to appreciate pickles more), edamame (those green soybeans), and seaweed salad.  I must admit, I’ve never been into edamame or seaweed salad, so after trying them on my first visit, I asked to hold those but to get extra pickled cucumbers on my second visit.

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The poke bowl isn’t the largest, but it is very satisfying and filling.  Everything is fresh, and the flavors and textures work perfectly together.  I could easily have eaten two, or a portion twice its size, but who needs that?  Then again, that isn’t all I ate!

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I also tried a side order of macaroni salad.  My constant readers know how much I love onion rings, to the point where I feel obligated to sample them anywhere they’re on the menu.  I have a few other foods I’m like that with: chili (WHY?  Because everyone’s chili is a little bit different!), root beer (same), and pasta and/or macaroni salads.  Hawaiian-style macaroni salad is mayo-based (usually Best Foods, which is sold as Hellman’s in the eastern U.S.), and there is a slight sweetness to it.  My lifelong gold standard for a mayo-based macaroni salad is from Publix supermarket, but the macaroni salad at Poke Hana is my new favorite.  It’s pretty simple, but it does have some nice orange accents from finely-shredded carrot, and the elbow noodles were surprisingly al dente.  It was a damn fine macaroni salad, and I’m sure it would go great with the kalua pork sliders, served on pillowy-soft, sweet Hawaiian rolls  (my favorites for making bison sliders at home).

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I love tropical fruit.  I could take or leave boring apples (including apple juice), but I have a hard time saying no to anything involving pineapple, mango, or guava.  Maybe it’s because I was raised in Miami.  Now that I’m an altacocker and acid reflux is a recurring concern, I must be careful, but I wasn’t going to turn down the Hawaiian Sun tropical fruit drinks that Poke Hana offers.  I couldn’t decide between guava nectar and lilikoi (passion fruit) juice, so I got a can of each, drank one with my meal, and drank the other one in my car on the way back to work.  The guava nectar was fine, with a little bit of grittiness you should expect from guava nectar, but the passion fruit drink was so sweet and tart and refreshing and awesome.  I’ve never had it before, but it quickly became a favorite.  I don’t drink, but I have to imagine it would be amazing mixed with rum, vodka, or maybe even tequila.

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Finally, since this was my first visit and I planned to review it, I had to try one of the desserts: haupia pie.  It consists of three freshly-fried spring rolls stuffed with creamy coconut custard and drizzled with sweetened condensed milk and coconut shavings.  Um, YES, PLEASE!  I also love anything coconutty, even though coconut sometimes disagrees with me.  TMI, I realize that, but this felt like a risk worth taking, for the sake of journalism.

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I had no complaints, neither as I ate the delicious haupia pie nor in the hours that followed.  Crispy and soft, crunchy and sticky, and extremely rich and decadent, I definitely recommend it.

When I returned two days later with my wife, she tried Poke Hana’s other dessert called butter mochi, which was also rich and decadent.  It was a square of cake, already sliced and wrapped in plastic wrap, similar to pound cake or sponge cake, but better.  It was also chewier, perhaps due to the presence of glutinous rice paste, also known as mochi.  We both liked it a lot.

I don’t mind saying that I could eat a poke bowl and a side of macaroni salad at Poke Hana every day and never tire of it.  I don’t think I could give higher praise than that.  I wish them the best of luck, and I hope they last forever in this location.  I’m definitely going to become a regular here!

Pizza Bruno

Okay, it has been far too long.  I had a big work project to complete in September, with my continued employment and entire career at stake, but I got that done.  I promise I’ll never leave you again!

This morning my wife and I returned to one of our favorite new discoveries of 2018, Pizza Bruno, a small, hip restaurant out on Curry Ford Road.  (http://www.pizzabrunofl.com/)  I have been a fan of the chef/owner, Bruno Zacchini, for years — ever since he used to set up a food cart, Big Bruno’s Bites, in front of the old Redlight Redlight bar on Bennett and Colonial, where one of my other favorite newer restaurants, Blue Jacket Grille (see my review here), is now.  After a stint as chef at the lost and lamented Oblivion Taproom on Colonial, Chef Bruno opened his own pizzeria, and it is one of Orlando’s best.

In addition to dinner, they open at 11 AM on weekends to serve their regular menu plus some brunch specialties, and starting TOMORROW, October 8th, they will start serving LUNCH!  That will be a game changer for me, since Pizza Bruno is a lot closer to work than it is to home.  I can’t wait.

But today, my wife and I treated ourselves.  We arrived shortly after they opened at 11 AM, and we HAD to order the garlic knots, which are the absolute best garlic knots ever.  With all the work stress I’ve been dealing with over the last two months, I’ve been craving garlic bread constantly, as a comfort food.  I won’t tell you how many frozen loaves of garlic bread I’ve baked at home, or how many of them have been disappointing and made me feel a lot worse about myself afterwards.  (Spoiler alert: almost all of them.)

Bruno’s “Too Much Garlic” knots are on a whole other level.  They’re not soaked through with oil, but they are the absolute perfect consistency — appropriately soft, with the slightest crispy exterior.  The garlic topping needs to be bottled and sold in supermarkets, and the cup of marinara sauce is an underrated complement.  A word of warning to the Saboscrivner Squad: Pizza Bruno often runs out of garlic knots in the evening, so if you go, go early so you don’t run the risk of missing out one of Orlando’s finest carbs.

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As if that wasn’t enough, the brunch menu offered us a new option: the best knots in town, sans garlic, but covered with sticky cinnamon-sugar glaze and served with a thick, rich mascarpone cheese spread infused with orange.  Kind of like cinnamon rolls, only far better than Cinnabon.  Of course my wife and I accepted the challenge to compare these cinnamon-sugar knots to our favorite garlic knots.  Needless to say, they were great, and the citrusy mascarpone amazed and astonished.

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Believe it or not, I eat salads quite often at home, and I pack them in my work lunches quite frequently.  But my wife NEVER wants a salad when I offer to make her one.  Who here knows the Steely Dan song “FM (No Static At All),” in which Donald Fagen sings “No static at all”?  Well, we sing “No salad at all” to the same tune, knowing that she will never ask me for one.  But at Pizza Bruno, they serve a kale salad she absolutely loves, with golden raisins, candied pecans, pecorino romano cheese, and emperor dressing (their version of Caesar dressing), so she got another one of those today.  I’m not the biggest kale fan in the world, but it’s a very good salad.  It just comes in a tiny wooden bowl despite being quite large, so some spillage is unavoidable.

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Bruno’s pizzas are twelve inches in diameter, cut into six slices, and are a relatively thin-crust, Neapolitan style.  They aren’t as crispy or large as New York-style pizzas, but the crust is much softer than you’d get at a place like Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza, which is served with burnt spots.  In the past, I’ve ordered the New Haven-style clam pizza, but they didn’t have it as an option today due to a clam shortage.  This is a picture of the clam pizza from a previous visit:

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Today I got the “Tight Socks” pizza, with red sauce, mozzarella, good quality pepperoni, emperor dressing (very subtle), and fresh Thai basil leaves on top.  It was great, as always.

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My wife ordered a newer pizza off the brunch menu, although it is apparently available for dinner as well.  The G&B is a white pizza (which is great for my wife, who doesn’t love tomato-based sauces the way I do), with fresh mozzarella,  guanciale (one of my favorite cured meats, made from the jowl of a pig, then fried up crispy like very posh bacon), blueberries, and a drizzle of real maple syrup across the top.  It might sound like a desserty thing, but it is much more savory than sweet due to the rich, crunchy saltiness of the guanciale and the tartness of the juicy blueberries.  She loved it.  I had a piece too, and it was terrific.

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As you might expect, we ended up with a lot of leftovers, which is totally fine with us.  I cannot recommend Pizza Bruno highly enough.  As much as New York-style and Sicilian-style pizzas are close to my heart, since that’s what I grew up eating in Miami with my Brooklyn-raised dad, I don’t think it’s a controversial statement to call Pizza Bruno the best pizzeria in Orlando, with its creative Neapolitan-style pies, incredible knots, and wonderful service.  I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to our server Frankie, who was a delight — enthusiastic, knowledgeable, friendly, patient, and an overall good time.  Thank you, Frankie, for making our day!

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Trevi Pasta

This was a stressful week, but it ended well.  I was able to pick up my wife from her job on Thursday evening (after an unexpected emergency that ended up working out).  That was nice, because I almost never get to do that.  As usual, I suggested going out to dinner to decompress, and as usual, I offered her a bunch of options.  She is a much pickier eater than I, and too often, her catch phrase when trying to choose a restaurant or even a type of food to eat is “Nothing sounds good.”

But that night, she was craving fresh pasta, ideally squid ink pasta.  I’m not typically the biggest fan of going out for pasta because let’s face it — restaurant pasta dishes are expensive, and I buy good-quality DeCecco pasta, cook it perfectly al dente at home in well-salted water (with no oil, ever!), and either make my own sauces or doctor up a good commercial sauce like Mezzetta or Rao’s.  But I’m not hardcore enough to make fresh pasta from scratch, so it’s a rare and worthwhile indulgence.  There was only one possible place to go: Trevi Pasta in Orlando’s hip College Park neighborhood near downtown.  https://www.trevipasta.com/

Trevi Pasta is a very small, family-owned operation famous for fresh, homemade pastas and sauces.  They also have delicious gelato and other Italian desserts, and some Italian groceries.

Get this — they didn’t have squid ink pasta that night, but they told me they would have it this weekend.  But the chef had a very small amount in the kitchen, and he brought it out for us to try, just to be a cool and good guy!  It was served simply, with olive oil and herbs, and it was black as the night, briny, and al dente AF:20180906_190157_resized

Trevi Pasta regularly changes their offerings, so don’t be like us and ask what they have, since they post a huge menu right near the entrance:
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Here’s another version of the menu:
https://www.facebook.com/TreviPasta/app/1637598386514901/

My wife chose the potato gnocchi, usually a favorite of both of ours, but this gnocchi blew away the starchy store-bought kinds we usually get.  She got hers with alfredo sauce and a huge, soft looking blob of burrata, that smooth, soft blend of fresh mozzarella cheese and cream.

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I went with the spicy “inferno” pasta, and I chose tagliatelle — wider than fettuccine, not as wide as papardelle.  I paired it with amatriciana sauce, my favorite pasta sauce, which I often make at home from scratch with San Marzano tomatoes, pancetta, onions, and lots of crushed red pepper flakes.  I opted to get mine with meatballs too, and I ended up with four delicious little meatballs with a dense, spongy consistency and lots of flavor.

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We both agreed they were the best bowls of pasta we’ve had in a very long time.

The only thing that didn’t blow us away were the rolls, which were on the hard side:

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Then for dessert, we went back to look at some of those beautiful gelato flavors, and the nice lady at Trevi Pasta allowed us to sample a few.

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My wife chose two scoops: panna cotta and cookies and cream (sorry about not having a photo), and I went with pineapple (I’ll always try anything pineappley) and passion fruit.  Both were rich and intensely-flavored and refreshing.  Passion fruit is not a fruit or a flavor I usually try, but it was so good — maybe even better than the pineapple!

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Each gelato came with a tasty wafer cookie stamped with “Buon Appetito,” which was a nice touch.

I can’t say this was a cheap meal, but it was one of the more delicious restaurant meals either of us have had in a long time, and I don’t mind paying for very high quality.  Trevi Pasta’s pasta, sauce, meatballs, and gelato were all masterful, and I have zero regrets.  They will also sell any of their fresh pastas by the pound so you can prepare them at home.

In fact, I went back earlier today and picked up some freshly-cut squid ink fettuccine pasta, since we only got a tiny taste the other night.  It was beautiful, delicious, and the same perfect texture after cooking for three and a half minutes in boiling water as salty as the sea.

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Arby’s

Wait a minute!  Is he really reviewing ARBY’S?  (https://arbys.com/)  He’s only had a food blog for two months and he’s talking about a fast food chain, and a critically-derided, notably un-hip fast food chain?

I try to be good.  I try to support local restaurants AND avoid fast food as much as possible, but I’m only human.  I’m a sucker for Krystal sliders, I have a nostalgic fondness for McDonald’s breakfasts (and was thrilled when they started offering all-day breakfast, even though I rarely partake), and Arby’s hits the spot more often than not (although I almost never go).  Sure, I think of obnoxious little Sherri from The Simpsons (or was it her twin Terri?) whining “I’m so hungry, I could eat at Arby’s!”, which I think ruined it for a whole generation.  But the truth is, Arby’s is cool.  It’s always trying new things, taking risks, adding crazy new menu items, and killing it with social media marketing — and these gambles are working!  Arby’s is the quirky, likable guy in a rom-com who might not end up with the girl, but he has a full and rich life with friends, hobbies, a good job, and you rooted for him and know he’s going to be okay.

I went twice in 2017, which was twice as often as I had gone in the previous decade.  Once was to try their porchetta sandwich while it lasted (surprisingly good), and the other time was to try their venison steak sandwich the one special day they offered it (incredibly good).  Yes, this is a fast food chain people regularly crack on, but they’re rolling out porchetta, a pretty classy Italian pork preparation that you rarely even see on menus at Italian restaurants and takes some real talent and patience to make at home, and venison, which is almost impossible to get unless you’re friends with hunters.  They’re not just adding bacon or chips or (eurgh) sriracha (sorry, it’s nasty!) to the same tired old offerings.  They’re introducing people to entirely new meats, which is a noble and ambitious undertaking!  

So yesterday, my best friend sent me this entertaining and insightful essay about the new golden age of Arby’s, and I was impressed by the writer’s obvious passion and enthusiasm, something I always try for here on The Saboscrivner.

He touched on all my thoughts more eloquently and at greater length than I would, so I’m not even going to try to top it.  But I am extremely suggestible when it comes to food, so of course that means I had to try Arby’s again.  I went today for lunch, and I have no regrets.

Their current limited-time special is the Smokehouse beef short rib sandwich, served with melty cheddar cheese, crispy onions, and barbecue sauce on Texas toast.  I’m always happy to find Texas toast, whether it’s made into garlic bread, served as a sandwich, or just lightly toasted and buttered and served with some Zaxby’s chicken tenders.  This sandwich was a real winner.  I have to admit, it was better than some sandwiches I’ve had from barbecue restaurants.  It was a decent size, with lots of flavors and textures going on, and the shredded, smoked short rib was very tender and tasty.  The Texas toast held everything together well.  I’m always disappointed when some barbecue places serve their wondrous, lovingly-prepared, low-and-slow-smoked meats on the cheapest buns or white bread, but not so here.

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I had also recently been advised to try Arby’s gyro and their onion rings, a combo I enjoyed at Theo’s Kitchen earlier this summer (see my recent review here).  I knew they had a gyro, but it never occurred to me to try it until a few people vouched for it.  And like I said, there’s no such thing as a bad gyro, right?  Well, this one was better than some I’ve had from dedicated Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants.  It certainly wasn’t the best gyro I’ve ever had, but it was far from the worst, and only $3.99.  This was the good kind of pita bread — nice and soft, like you get from actual gyro shops but never find at the supermarket.  They included a generous portion of thin-sliced, processed gyro meat, which is usually a salty, garlicky beef and lamb combo, plus tzatziki sauce, shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and thin slices of onion.

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I can’t say the same for the onion rings, which had that craggy, crumby breading that mostly fell off.  I can’t Ring the Alarm! in good conscience for these rings.  At least Arby’s has some good dipping sauces in pumps: their legendary Horsey sauce (creamy horseradish), very decent three-pepper sauce that is more like a spicy-sweet barbecue sauce than an actual hot sauce (which is more than fine with me), and a creamy Dijon mustard sauce.

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Finally, because this was a hectic week and we’re heading into our busiest and most stressful time of the year at work, I treated myself to an orange cream shake, because orange shakes are hard to find, and I freakin’ love them.

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I also brought back a Jamocha shake for one beloved co-worker and two cherry turnovers for another one.  Food gifts are some of the best gifts, if you ask me.

So yeah, Arby’s.  If you haven’t had it since you were a teenager, or if pop culture has conditioned you to think it can’t possibly be any good, think again, and try it again.  Even if you don’t love their old-school roast beef sandwiches (tasty, but super-salty), they have a ton of newer menu options including the limited-time Smokehouse beef short rib, and I definitely vouch for that.  Their seasoned curly fries might be the best in the game, and I wish I had gotten those instead of the onion rings.  Nowadays they have Italian subs, Reubens, smoked brisket sandwiches, and even some healthy-looking options!  Seriously, try it, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.