Tori Tori

Tori Tori (http://www.toritoripub.com/) is an Izakaya-style pub — a laid-back Japanese neighborhood bar that happens to serve amazing food.  The menu has some surface-level similarities to Susuru, which I reviewed earlier this year.  But unlike Susuru, with its mid-20th Century Japanese kitsch decor, Tori Tori is sleek, sexy, ultra-modern in its design.  And unlike Susuru, which is every bit a restaurant, Tori Tori is a bar all the way.  That means you place your orders at the bar and then sit wherever you want — either at the long two-sided bar itself that forms the centerpiece of the attractive space on Mills Avenue just south of Pho 88, or at a number of U-shaped booths or smaller tables.  There is a nice outdoor patio that should be delightful to hang out on now that it’s finally getting cooler outside, with several tables out there.  The whole front of the bar is open, so you can walk in and out, to and from the patio.

They seem to have a large and well-stocked bar, with pages of beers, sake, and cocktails to choose from, but I did not partake in any of those.  Having missed out on the frenzy and hype of Tori Tori’s first two months, I finally made it out there this past Saturday night, with one agenda: TO EAT.  Preferably A LOT.

I should note that Tori Tori doesn’t open until 5:30 and doesn’t serve lunch.  I arrived about ten minutes early because I didn’t want to wait around for it to get too crowded and not even be able to park.  It filled up fast, but unlike so many Mills 50 establishments, I am thrilled to report Tori Tori has its own ample parking lot!  I sat right down at the bar, had the very friendly Sean (Shawn?) give me a menu and make some suggestions, and then I checked off what I wanted on a small paper menu, kind of like how many sushi restaurants take your order.  Shawn (Sean?) kept my credit card like many bars do, to run a tab in case I was going to order more.  I didn’t this time (due to over-ordering on my first go-around), but this is the kind of place where a group would probably order multiple rounds of food and beverages, so it’s an organized system for keeping track.

Once Shaun (Sian?) passed my selections to the kitchen, it seemed like my food flew out at top speeds — definitely faster service than I expected, especially since the restaurant bar filled up and got busy almost immediately.  This is all traditional Japanese bar food — small plates, designed to be cooked, served, and eaten quickly, and ideally shared with your party.  It was all fresh and delicious, and I appreciated that they staggered the appearance of my dishes.  By the time I finished something, the next dish was arriving.

I didn’t include the terrible photo I took of the “handie” roll stuffed with delicious otoro, or fatty tuna ($9).  It was similar to those cone-shaped sushi hand rolls wrapped in nori seaweed, but this one was more of a burrito shape.  It held a thin piece of paper my server instructed me to pull out, separating the rice from the outer layer of nori to keep the nori crisp.  (That’s a major design flaw with every other hand roll I’ve ever had — the nori gets really chewy and is often difficult to bite through.)  It was really tasty, but also really tiny for the price.

Everything else photographed well:

Tender chicken hearts ($2.50), pierced on a skewer.  I’m sure Charles Bukowski would have had something to say about that.dsc02622.jpg

Excellent pork belly gyoza dumplings ($6), served over creamy, tangy, lightly citrus-y yuzu remoulade:DSC02624

A perfect skewer of crispy, salty chicken skin ($2.50):DSC02626

Crispy tempura corn balls ($5), reflecting in a pool of spicy, garlicky mayo.  Hopefully nobody was burned by a Cornballer while making these.DSC02623

Skewers of chicken oysters ($3; top) and thighs ($3; bottom), both brushed with tare.  All the yakitori (chicken) and other skewers are grilled over binchotan charcoal, and they have that unmistakable grilled flavor I can’t duplicate at my grill-less home.DSC02627

And this was okonomiyaki ($7), a very traditional dish I’ve never tried anywhere before.  It was described as a “pancake” served with several toppings, but it probably looks more like a flatbread or a pizza, and the base was much less firm than any of those.  It was a soft, almost sort of mushy base made of Japanese mountain yams, and topped with lots of sauteed cabbage (I love cabbage, but if you don’t, skip this dish).  On top of that, it is decorated beautifully with swirls of Kewpie mayo, Japanese barbecue sauce, tangy pickled ginger, and very strong, fishy-tasting, paper-thin bonito flakes.  It was a real melange of flavors and textures, but it probably tempered my enjoyment a bit that I ate it quickly while it was still burning hot — temperature-hot, not spicy-hot.  DSC02629

I’m glad I ordered the okonomiyaki, the tempura corn, and the handie roll, but I probably wouldn’t get any of those again.  They were perfectly good, but when (not if) I return, I would simply want to try other things.  The yakitori chicken, on the other hand, was amazing, and I would probably go back to those favorites on every subsequent visit.

Tori Tori is a very hip, cool place, and a great option in the Mills 50 area for people who don’t want to drive all the way out to the Disney area to go back to Susuru.  While some of their menu items are similar, the vibe was very different.  There were a lot of happening-looking young people here, lots of couples on dates.  It’s kind of a sexy place to bring in curious diners and drinkers seeking novelty and sophistication, but most people will try anything once, your Saboscrivner included.  In the end, the high quality of the food, the low prices and shareability factor (and also the drinks, from what I have been assured) will keep them coming back.  Just remember: it’s a bar, not a restaurant, so get used to ordering at the bar.  (And beat the inevitable crowds by being an early bird like me, but that’s my standard plan everywhere I go.)

Prohibition Kitchen (St. Augustine)

This past weekend, my wife and I ventured out to St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States, for my first time in almost 20 years and her first visit since elementary school.  We were going to a concert on Saturday night, but we decided to get a motel, stay the night, and use the day to explore a bit of the Historic District and grab a late lunch somewhere good.  Prohibition Kitchen (https://pkstaug.com/) came highly recommended, and it looked very much like our kind of place — a gastropub with an eclectic menu and a unique retro aesthetic.

Our motel was a real dump (I booked it online), and parking near the Historic District was a nightmare, but we were charmed by the beautiful old buildings and laid-back, touristy vibe of the Historic District once we finally got there and found a parking space.  Driving from Orlando, we had definitely built up an appetite, so we arrived at Prohibition Kitchen just in time, on our way to hangry.

It’s a long restaurant that goes pretty far back, with a long bar along the right side.  It was pretty busy when we go in, with a huge crowd gathered for the Florida Gators game.  We waited about half an hour for a table, but after how long it took us to park and find the place, we didn’t mind waiting.  Luckily, we arrived late in the fourth quarter, and the bar crowd cleared out when the UF game ended and the UCF game began.

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There is a stage to the right of the entrance for live music (which they feature many evenings).  This is a happening place!
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Stairs up to second floor loft section:
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We started out with a cup of beer cheese soup ($4), garnished with toasted pretzel crumbles.  It was excellent, with a nice texture that wasn’t too sticky or goopy, and not too smooth and uniform like most queso dips.  It even had the slightest bit of spice.  I would make this at home if I could find a similar recipe; it was that good.DSC02552

This was the German-style pretzel, served with beer cheese dip ($10).  It was light, fluffy, and buttery, with the slightest crispness to the outer crust.  I have nothing but love for Auntie Anne’s pretzels — in fact, they are the only thing that redeems my rare trips to malls — and this was similar to those, but on a much grander scale.  We have a hard time saying no to any kind of soft pretzels.DSC02553

However, the beer cheese dip, included in the price, was identical to the separate cup of beer cheese soup I ordered, and the same size, too.  Could our server have warned me that if I wanted to try the soup, I’d get a cup with the pretzel, to save me $4?  Sure, she could have, and it would have been appreciated.  And $4 isn’t going to break the bank for us, but it would have been a perfect opportunity to give me a heads-up.  Did I need two cups of beer cheese soup and/or dip?  Nope.  But did I slurp down two cups?  I sure as hell did, since I paid extra for one of them!

My wife made the best choice at this lunch, ordering the Maine lobster roll ($21), which actually came out as a pair of lobster rolls, both on grilled, buttered, New England-style split-top buns.  The lobstah meat was in big chunks, cool and refreshing, dressed with mayo, diced celery, chervil leaves, and Old Bay seasoning.  She gave me a delicious bite, and because she doesn’t dig on sandwiches, I ended up eating most of both buns, fan of buttered toast that I am.  DSC02554dsc02555.jpg

Having studied the menu in advance, I figured I would go with the Prohibition Kitchen signature burger ($16): a half-pound blend of sirloin, short rib, and brisket, served medium-rare with red onion bacon jam, a fried egg, and Red Dragon cheese, along with the typical lettuce, tomato, red onion, and pickles.  Red Dragon isn’t just a Hannibal Lecter novel anymore, but a Welsh cheddar made with whole grain mustard seeds and Welsh brown ale.  I’ve only ever had it once or twice ever, but as a fan of cheeses with stuff in them, and especially as a mustard aficionado, I figured I was choosing wisely.  I love onion jam and/or bacon jam as burger toppings, too.  I even ate all my pickles, and they weren’t bad!  DSC02556

Like BurgerFi, they brand the buns — in this case a fluffy brioche bun, which you can never go wrong with.DSC02557

The burger was perfectly fine.  Greasy, juicy, lots of flavors going on.  But on a humid day of walking around pushing my wife in her wheelchair over the cobblestone streets of St. Augustine’s Historic District, and especially with a concert to look forward to that night, I would have preferred the cool, refreshing lobster rolls she ordered to a heavy burger.  But I always say she’s the smart one, and that was one more example of why.

For the record, the fries were very forgettable, and neither of us ate very many of them.  I could have gotten a cup of beer cheese soup instead of the fries for a $2 upcharge, which would have at least saved me $2 (or gotten me a third cup of beer cheese soup), but I really need to let this go.

Anyway, that was the one meal we got to eat in St. Augustine, although after lunch, my wife bought two kinds of fudge and a big bag of different flavors of saltwater taffy at one of the many ubiquitous candy shops along St. George Street, one of the main drags.  We were both charmed by the touristy Historic District and swore to return together, when we didn’t have a concert to take up our evening.  We might even stay there next time to explore the history, culture, architecture, and food more, since we sure as hell are never going back to that dingy, decrepit, desolate dive of a motel, and it would be nice not to fight for a parking space every time we wanted to come and go.  And while we’d probably seek out other local eateries on a future visit, I’d still recommend Prohibition Kitchen to any St. Augustine newcomers.  The lobstah rolls, giant pretzel, and beer cheese soup were all well worth it.

Ring the Alarm! Raglan Road

This past weekend, my wife and I journeyed to Disney Springs to see the ridiculously talented singer/songwriter/rapper/dancer/actress Janelle Monae perform at the House of Blues.  Needless to say, she was incredible.  I’ve been a fan of her Afro-futuristic feminist funk-soul-pop-hip hop-R&B for almost a decade, and this was our first opportunity to see her live.  If you ever get the chance to see her, DO IT.  You won’t regret it.  She might be the most talented and culturally relevant female musician out there right now, and yes, I did consider your favorite artist.  I would be thrilled to introduce my readers to her best material, but here’s her song “Americans” off her new album Dirty Computer, which I think serves as an anthem and rallying cry for the progressive, inclusive, empathetic resistance in 2018: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POZNheF-KdY

Anyway, we’ve had good, bad, and plenty of so-so experiences dining at Disney Springs, so we opted to return to an old favorite, the boisterous Irish pub Raglan Road.  Sprawling, loud, and crowded, you can always count on a festive atmosphere, solid food, and friendly service.  This evening, they had a three-piece Irish band playing Celtic folk music, along with winsome Irish dancers clogging away on a central stage. Sometimes it can be too loud to have a conversation, but we were seated a decent distance from the stage, ironically in the “Music Room,” where we could hear and enjoy the music perfectly without it drowning out each other’s voices.

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It’s hard to not get caught up in the welcoming old-country vibe and party atmosphere of the place, and I’ve never been to Ireland and don’t think I have any Irish in me. But when I listen to the Pogues, I feel a strong kinship with Irish culture, and when I set foot in a good pub, I feel the same.  Not bad for a guy who doesn’t even drink!

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Of course, every meal at Raglan Road starts with slices of rich, brown Irish soda bread, served with a masterful dipping sauce that is Guinness stout ale reduced with sugar and mixed with olive oil.  It is so good, and it sets the tone for everything to follow.  Sorry I didn’t get a picture this time.

On previous visits, we have defaulted to Irish pub classics like fish and chips, bangers and mash, or bacon loin and cabbage (much more traditional than the 19th Century New York City substitution of corned beef and cabbage).  Once we arrived early enough on a Sunday for them to offer a full Irish breakfast option, which I had to go for (much to the chagrin of my body).  My favorite part is always the black pudding (AKA blood sausage), and I’m 100% serious.  It is delicious, and I wish it was a regular menu item.

This time, the menu had several new options since the last time we were there (maybe two years ago), so we decided to split two entrees that were new to us.  My wife loves sea scallops, pork belly, and gnocchi, those chewy, potatoey dumplings, so she had a hard time saying no to the “Gnocchi See, Gnocchi Do,” with handmade potato gnocchi, seared Georges bank scallops, crispy pork belly, tomatoes, and kale in a white wine butter sauce.  She was kind enough to share some of it with me, although she gave me one whole scallop and the dish only came with three!  That’s true love, folks.

They were really big scallops, perfectly seared, sweet and buttery.  But I almost hate ordering scallops at restaurants because you can usually end up counting them on one hand.  The tomatoes were halved grape tomatoes.  She’s not a tomato fan and I got too full to finish them.  I would have preferred regular diced tomatoes, or better yet, sun-dried tomatoes, which would have added another nice texture and a little sweetness.

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I asked what her second choice was, so I could order that and share it with her.  We both love game meats, or any gamier meat, so we were both tempted by the Boaring Burger, a grilled wild boar burger with Cashel blue cheese, crispy onion strings, arugula, port and pear chutney, and herb aioli, served on a floury potato bun.  We both thought the wild boar was a little dry, but at least it had a nice flavor (much more interesting than most pork, which I find almost as bland as boneless, skinless chicken breasts).  There was nothing “boaring” about it!

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The burger had a lot of contrasting tastes and textures that worked well together, and the bun held it all in place well.  It even came with a nice little side salad, and a crunchy sweet pickle garnish.  Believe it or not, I’m not generally a fan of pickles, but I am working on developing more of an appreciation for them.

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And since I had a choice of side and the fries/chips walking out of the kitchen looked a little light and unappealing, I opted for onion rings.  That’s right, folks, this ended up being a RING THE ALARM! feature!  (Cue the air horns!)

I must admit, these are not my favorite kinds of onion rings.  They were huge, and the batter was thick, heavy, and crunchy, but at least not overly greasy.  I suspect it may be the same kind of batter they use for their fried fish, but despite being referred to as “beer battered onion rings” on the menu, they aren’t the golden-brown beer battered rings I’m on a never-ending quest for.  But for a change, my wife actually liked them — or at least the crunchy batter.  She peeled a few of them and left the onions behind for me!

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Raglan Road has one of my all-time favorite desserts, a rich bread and butter pudding that almost defies explanation, especially because I haven’t had it in a few years.  But we were both very full, she had already had mini-cupcakes from the nearby Sprinkles bakery, and we had a concert to go to at a sold-out venue with limited restrooms, so I figured “Why tempt fate?”  Get to be my age, you Millennials, and you’ll start enjoying the same interior monologues with every meal YOU eat.

Sláinte!