Ring the Alarm! Cooper’s Hawk

My BFF (Best Food Friend) who is actually my lifelong best friend, has been recommending Cooper’s Hawk (https://chwinery.com/) to me for a while.  It’s an upscale chain restaurant, and he has raved about the location in Doral, Florida (near Miami) before.  I’ve been meaning to get back out to Waterford Lakes with my wife so we could try our local location, but between the heavy traffic and the sprawling, Fury Road-invoking parking lot, we typically avoid the east side of Orlando.

But my wife was hungry, and after going through the usual litany of all our regular restaurants, we decided to try something new and treat ourselves a little.  Cooper’s Hawk is a winery on top of being a restaurant, but even though we don’t drink, the menu was huge and intriguing.  If you do like wine (and going through my friends’ Facebook pages, it sure seems like most people love wine!), you should definitely check it out.  It looks like they offer a huge selection, all from their own label, so you wouldn’t find any familiar wine brands there.  But you enter through a wine retail store with a busy bar, and I’m sure oenophiles will find something to love on the way into the restaurant, or even while waiting for a movie at the Waterford Lakes Regal theater.

It was seriously hard to choose.  The menu is close to the legendary Cheesecake Factory with regard to choices.  There are steaks, seafood, chicken, and pork, Italian, Asian, and Mexican-inspired dishes, burgers and sandwiches, and more.  I strongly recommend studying the menu in advance, but I recommend that for most restaurants.

I’ve never been a pork chop fan.  Most of the ones I’ve had are relatively bland and dry, especially compared to all the other wondrous things you can do with pork: a world of sausage, salami, ham, prosciutto, capicola, pulled pork, al pastor, ribs, cochinita pibil, roast pork with crispy skin, pork belly, pancetta, bacon, osso bucco, German eisbein, chicharrones.

But my wife loves a good pork chop because her family used to eat them a lot, so I wasn’t surprised she selected one of the two different pork chop dishes on the menu: a maple-mustard-pretzel-crusted pork chop, served with Mary’s potatoes (whipped with butter and cream), an assortment of oven-roasted vegetables (including mushrooms, my old nemesis), and crispy onion strings I knew I would be eating, because she hates onions and I love them.

When it arrived, the plating was beautiful, and the pork chop was the thickest either of us had ever seen!  She thought it was the tastiest pork chop she had ever eaten, and even I, the pork chop skeptic, was absolutely blown away by the few bites she shared with me.  Pure perfection, dear readers.  She doesn’t even like mustard, but aside from a few bites that really startled her and cleared out her sinuses (she probably bit down on whole mustard seeds), she loved the flavor.  And it was so tender and juicy, despite not being a fatty piece of meat at all.  It was easily the best pork chop I’ve ever tasted, and I would totally order it myself on a future visit, as long as I could substitute the vegetables for another side.  (Our lovely server assured us the kitchen can usually substitute anything, since everything is made from scratch in-house.)ch1.jpg

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As much as my wife is drawn to hearty steaks and chops, my greatest meat loves are usually cured, smoked, braised, or stewed in a sauce until rich and tender.  I always love short ribs, even though I rarely cook them at home (although I should).  Cooper’s Hawk offered a braised short rib dish, as well as another dish with gnocchi pasta in a short rib bolognese sauce that also included pancetta (yes)! and San Marzano tomatoes, the best tomatoes.  When I make my own sauce at home, I use canned San Marzanos.  It makes a difference!  Anyway, they make everything from scratch here, even the pasta, so I was sold.  And even though I was experiencing major cognitive dissonance by choosing that over so many other tasty-sounding dishes I love, I’m so glad I did.  To paraphrase the old knight guarding the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I chose wisely.

It was a better pasta dish than most that I’ve ordered from Italian restaurants, rich and hearty and extremely well-seasoned, with nice tomato chunks (sometimes I get turned off by huge, slimy tomato chunks in sauce), fork-tender short rib pieces, a bit of additional salty richness from the pancetta (a secret weapon I use in so many good recipes), and wonderfully chewy gnocchi dumplings.  The white stuff on top is creamy burrata dolce, a fresh, buttery cheese made from mozzarella blended with cream.ch3

I saw that a few of the dishes come with buttermilk onion rings, even though they weren’t listed on the menu as a side dish.  I asked our server if I could order onion rings as a side, and she said yes, but they are big, so the order would only come with three of them.  But since I have a little recurring feature I like to call RING THE ALARM! (AIR HOOORRRRRRN!), I had to try them.  And guess what: they were magnificent onion rings.  She wasn’t kidding when she said they were big.  They were the size of sour cream glazed “old-fashioned” doughnuts!  If I’m lyin’, I’m flyin’.

The onion rings (more like onion bracelets!) were battered, not breaded (thank all that’s good in the universe), with a rich, thick, crispy golden crust that stayed in place, with the slightest hint of sweetness and not greasy at all.  I’ve never had such puffy, fluffy onion rings, but they were a marvel to behold.  They weren’t served with any dipping sauces (shame, because I’m sure Cooper’s Hawk has some good ones), just sprinkled with some kind of salty seasoning that I must admit made they way too salty.  I think they’d be damn near perfect if you ask them to hold the salty seasoning.  Normally I enjoy salty fried foods, but it was a little much and took away from how great they were, otherwise.  ch4

Well, we couldn’t go to such a nice new place and not order a dessert!  I was stuffed and didn’t even finish my gnocchi, but my wife loves chocolate and really wanted to try the chocolate cake.  It is made with Valrhona chocolate, with layers of hazelnut ganache and served with vanilla ice cream, all made fresh daily in-house.  I had one bite of ice cream and one bite of cake, and even though I’d probably never order chocolate cake as my dessert, both were great.  The cake was very moist and the ice cream was rich and creamy, not icy at all, and no greasy mouthfeel.  My wife seemed to love it, but she finished the ice cream and brought the majority of the cake home.ch5

A funny thing we do at every single restaurant we visit is for me to ask my wife, usually rhetorically, if her parents would like the place.  Most often, I could answer the question myself with a big fat “no.”  They don’t go out to eat as much as they used to, and her mom is a relatively picky eater.  Great lady, I love her to pieces, but she likes what she likes, and one thing she doesn’t like is trying new foods!  (My own parents and brother read The Saboscrivner, and they often comment on how they probably wouldn’t go where I go or order what I order, but I appreciate them along with all my other readers.  There are dozens of us!  DOZENS!)

But anyway, when I asked if her parents would like Cooper’s Hawk, we both agreed that they probably would.  So a week later, when we were celebrating my wife’s birthday, we were able to wrangle them out of the house for a celebratory dinner there — the first meal the four of us have had out at a restaurant since her birthday the previous year!

My wife doubled down on the masterful pork chop, getting it as one of the Build Your Own Surf and Turf options, pairing it with pistachio-crusted grouper (one of her favorite fish).  She loved both, devouring the grouper on the spot and saving most of the pork chop for the next day.  It came with the same Mary’s potatoes and vegetables as last time.DSC01836

My father in law ordered the same pistachio-crusted grouper and seemed to love his.DSC01834

My mother in law ordered crab cakes, one of her go-to dishes anywhere, and swapped the fries and Asian slaw for Mary’s potatoes and excellent macaroni and cheese.  She has high expectations for her crab cakes, and these did not seem to disappoint.  They were mostly lump crabmeat, with very little filler.  (She asked and they answered!)DSC01835

And after recently reading an article about Nashville hot chicken, which I enjoyed so much on a trip to the legendary Hattie B’s in Nashville last year, I decided to try Cooper’s Hawk’s version, served open-faced on a buttermilk biscuit with blue cheese slaw and a side of rich, creamy macaroni and cheese, which was one of the better mac and cheese dishes I’ve enjoyed anywhere in Orlando.  The slaw wasn’t creamy and intense with blue cheese like I was hoping; the multicolored shredded cabbage was mostly dry.

I think the hot chicken was perfectly good, but it didn’t have the intense crunch, flavor, or heat of Hattie B’s, so my quest continues.  It was barely spicy at all, but Hattie B’s hot chicken was practically too spicy for me, so I think it would be a little much for most unsuspecting Cooper’s Hawk diners.  It came with a lot of sliced pickles, and I ate them all.  I’ve traditionally never been a fan of pickles, but I’m trying to develop an appreciation for them by sampling all the different kinds of pickles I can.   I love almost all other pickled vegetables (peppers, onions, giardinera), so I figure it’s only a matter of time.  Readers, feel free to recommend pickles, whether they’re store-bought or from certain restaurants!

I am fully aware this is an awful picture, despite bringing my “good” camera.  Sorry.  Mea culpa.  I think my photography has been better in general lately, but pobody’s nerfect.
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My wife and her parents are big dessert people, so we were all psyched to see what Cooper’s Hawk might bring out in honor of my wife’s birthday.  This is what she got: a lovely chocolate-covered strawberry and a white chocolate truffle.  She wasn’t really into either, so I got to enjoy both:DSC01837

After that, they went to town and shared a few desserts:

The same good chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream:
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Very good, tart key lime pie in a graham cracker crust (my mother-in-law’s choice, and I only wish I had taken more than one bite):
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And banoffee pie, which is a rich pie made with bananas and a gooey toffee filling, all nestled into a graham cracker crust.  Very sweet, rich, and heavy.  I should note that the fresh whipped cream on all these desserts had vanilla bean specks in it, and it was delicious.  I could easily and happily just eat a big ol’ bowl of that whipped cream with a spoon and consider it a swell, satisfying dessert.DSC01840

Trust me, the fact that we got my wife’s parents out to dinner at a new restaurant, and that they liked it,  speaks volumes right there.  Dear readers, if your parents visit Orlando and they balk at anything too unfamiliar, this would be a fantastic place to bring them.  It would be a great date night restaurant, a happy hour spot with friends, or a place to kill time before or after a movie at Waterford Lakes.  It’s not cheap, but every single thing we tasted was remarkable, and the service was superb on both of our visits.  And if you like wine, then face it, Tiger, you just hit the jackpot!  If I had to compare it to anything, it would be the ambiance and upscale feeling of Hillstone with the expansive depth of the Cheesecake Factory menu (but better quality across the board).  My Best Food Friend has never steered me wrong, and he was completely on the money with Cooper’s Hawk.

Ring the Alarm! Boston’s Fish House

I crave seafood pretty much all the time.  I don’t think it’s a shellfish impulse, but I like to say I’m on a seafood diet — if I see food, I’ll eat it, especially if it’s seafood.

While Orlando isn’t swimming in an abundance of seafood restaurants like our neighboring cities on Florida’s two coasts, we have a few local favorites.  Shortly after we started dating back in 2006, my wife and her parents introduced me to Boston’s Fish House (http://www.bostonsfishhouse.com/Home).  Modeled after the coastal seafood establishments of New England rather than beachy, tropical Florida seafood shacks, Boston’s specializes in fried favorites: shrimp, scallops, fresh fish (usually cod and/or haddock, but also farm-raised catfish), oysters, and clams.  But if you don’t want your denizens of the deep deep-fried, they also offer broiled salmon, pan-seared mahi, and even a chilled Maine-style lobster salad sandwich, which you probably know better as a lobstah roll.

However, my in-laws always opt for the seafood combo platter, which comes with a mountain of fried shrimp, scallops, fish, onion rings, and a choice of oysters, clam strips, or whole belly clams, a rare treat that you rarely see at any Florida seafood restaurants.  Oh, and you get two sides with it too! This platter comes in two sizes, the smaller Mate’s Platter and the larger Captain’s Platter.  You get more than enough food for two hungry people to share if you order the Captain’s Platter, so it’s just a question of everybody being on the same page.  For example, my mother-in-law doesn’t like scallops so she asks them to substitute extra fish.  My wife and I agree that the fish is the blandest part, so I’ll usually ask if we could get clams AND oysters but no fish.  They are always really cool and patient regarding these substitutes.

Be warned in advance: Boston’s gets REALLY crowded in the evening, especially on Fridays and weekends, especially with the “early bird crowd.”  Most of the time, I’ll call in a takeout order and pick it up, bypassing the long lines that queue up.

On our most recent visit, I ordered two platters but decided to experiment a little, beyond the fried standards.  No matter what, the clams and oysters are served fried, along with the onion rings.  Here they are:DSC01785

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the onion rings, since this is a recurring Saboscrivner feature we like to call RING THE ALARM!  [Insert AIR HORN NOISE! here.]  A lot of people go ga-ga over Boston’s thin, crispy onion rings, sporting the same batter as their fried seafood.  I like them, I certainly enjoy eating them (usually dipped in their tartar sauce or ketchup), but I just can’t rank them among my favorite onion rings, which are generally more of a beer-battered style.DSC01790

But moving past the fried stuff, you have some options with the shrimp and scallops, beyond just getting them dipped in the same old batter and fried.  One of our favorites is to get them broiled in butter and topped with crushed Ritz crackers, which happen to be my favorite crackers and the not-so-secret ingredient in my favorite pie recipe.  Here are those beautiful, buttery, broiled mollusks from my wife’s order:dsc01788.jpg

I happened to be craving pasta this particular evening, so I thought I’d get the food home and make some fettuccine really quickly, then toss it with my shrimp and scallops that were broiled in garlic butter and white wine:DSC01789They came out great, needless to say.

Since we ordered two platters, we got four sides between them, and my wife and I both love the broccoli salad they make at Boston’s: crispy, fresh broccoli florets tossed in a sweet, creamy dressing with bacon, golden raisins, and pumpkin seeds.  It’s delicious and refreshing, and it makes us feel like we are eating slightly healthier, because broccoli.DSC01786

But who are we kidding?  Between the plethora of fried foods, rich shellfish, and all that butter, they also make really nice garlic bread, which I can never refuse when we indulge at Boston’s:dsc01787.jpg

So that’s pretty much it.  I don’t even remember the last time we ate at the actual restaurant, but we live just close enough to Boston’s that the food is still hot by the time I get it home.  Always hot, and always good.  Stop by, just for the halibut.

And now I feel like I’m floundering, so I will clam up.

LaSpada’s Original Philly Cheese Steaks and Hoagies

Sharp-eyed Saboscrivner readers (Saboscrivnerinos? Can I use that?) know there’s nothing I love as much as a good Italian sub. This year alone, I’ve reviewed two excellent new sub shops in Orlando: Stasio’s Italian Market & Deli (where I enjoyed the namesake Stasio sandwich) and Manzano’s Deli (where I raved about the Rocco). My Orlando Weekly list of the top five dishes I ate in 2017 included the Capone, the excellent Italian sub occasionally offered by Bad As’s Sandwich.

But my first love has always been LaSpada’s Original Philly Cheese Steaks and Hoagies (http://laspadas.com/), which I’ve been a devoted fan of ever since I first heard about it from a mechanic when I was getting my oil changed, two cars ago. Thank you, Tuffy mechanic, wherever you are! (Probably Tuffy.)

LaSpada’s is a little mom-and-pop establishment on Lee Road, just off I-4, and only ten minutes from Winter Park Village. The website lists other locations in Sanford and Orange City, which I have never been to, but people near them are lucky and should try their local ones. There are some completely unaffiliated LaSpada’s hoagie shops in South Florida, but they have their own website, different (smaller) menus, and are not connected in any way that I can tell.  I went to one in Davie once, and it was good, but not nearly as good as the LaSpada’s we are lucky to have here in Orlando.

Anyway, this might be heresy, but I think cheesesteaks are just okay — I’d rather order almost any other kind of sandwich. They can be tasty, but a lot of the time they’re greasy and boiling lava hot, to the point where your tongue and the inside of your mouth are blistered beyond belief so you don’t get to taste the meat and cheese. That said, if you want a cheesesteak in Orlando, I would be shocked if you could find a better one anywhere else. I know they offer provolone and American cheese as options; I’m not sure if you can get it with the regional favorite of Cheez Whiz.

What I go to LaSpada’s for is a particular Italian hoagie called the LaSpada’s Famous, a gargantuan architectural marvel featuring genoa salami, pepper ham, capicola, sopressata, prosciutto, and sharp provolone on an overstuffed soft roll. It smells like heaven and tastes even better than it smells. Lettuce, tomato, and onion come standard, and if I had one tiny complaint, it’s that the onion is chopped rather than sliced paper-thin. You can add hot or sweet peppers for a slight upcharge, which I usually do, but I forgot to ask for them on my latest visit, when I ordered my LaSpada’s Famous hoagie to go.  Since I took it home, I added my own hot pepper relish, sliced cherry peppers, and a drizzle of balsamic glaze to make a great thing even better.

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This is the large, which costs $12.50 — a bargain at twice the price, given how staggeringly large it is.

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I have a regular feature on The Saboscrivner called Ring the Alarm! whenever I review onion rings. I am always on a quest for good onion rings, as well as Italian subs, and LaSpada’s onion rings are among my favorites anywhere. They have a crispy beer batter coating that imparts a good flavor, doesn’t get soggy with grease, and doesn’t crumble or fall off. Remember I ordered these to go, and even though grease soaked through the bag a bit, they were still crispy and perfect by the time I got them home, 20 minutes later. These are the gold(en brown) standard of onion rings, as far as I’m concerned.

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Because LaSpada’s doesn’t have dinner hours and is far from where I work, I only make it over there two or three times a year.  My little tradition is to go see a movie by myself at the Winter Park Regal theater and then treat myself to a LaSpada’s Famous afterwards (although I only eat half at a time because it’s so huge).  I’m so glad it’s there, and as good as it is.  It’s a real treasure, and definitely one of Orlando’s hidden gems that not enough people know about.

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!

Ring the Alarm! Theo’s Kitchen

It feels like a while since I wrote my last review here, and I have a few more in the pipeline.  But this one is about a hidden gem here in Orlando, on Curry Ford Road: Theo’s Kitchen (https://www.theoskitchen.com/).  It’s in an older, nondescript shopping strip near a Winn-Dixie supermarket, and you might not know it’s there at all unless you’ve been hipped to its existence.  Consider yourselves hipped.

Have you ever craved really good, crispy, tender, juicy fried chicken, but also been dying for Greek food?  Has that ever happened to you too?  Well, you’re in luck, because Theo’s serves what has to be my favorite fried chicken in the Orlando area (The Coop is very good, don’t get me wrong, but not quite as consistent as it used to be), plus they have a whole menu of Greek specialties, when you can’t decide or when you just want to treat yo’self and have it all.

I’ve been to Theo’s twice this summer since discovering it, once again thanks to the local gourmands, connoisseurs, and aficionados on the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook.  On my first visit, I met a fellow Foodie Forumite there, a really good guy who is always visiting and recommending restaurants around town.  I’ll name him if he’s okay with that, but for now, better safe than sorry.  GREAT guy with good taste and a never-ending thirst for adventure, culinary and otherwise.

On that visit, I ordered a gyro (because there’s no such thing as a bad gyro, am I right, you guys?), a chicken thigh so I could sample the legendary fried chicken, and an order of onion rings, because THAT’S RIGHT, THIS IS ANOTHER INSTALLMENT OF RING THE ALARM!  (AIR HORN!)  My friend ordered the gyro king (same thing but with feta cheese added), a Greek salad, and chicken and rice soup.  The gyro was very good, and the onion rings were the kind I love, with a nice beer batter coating, the ideal thickness and consistency.

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My friend seemed to love all of his food, and the salad was definitely beautiful.

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I don’t mean to downplay any of that, but the chicken thigh was excellent.  The crispness was so perfect, but it was almost all in the skin, rather than a heavy, greasy layer of breading or batter.  It was very moist and juicy.  There wasn’t a lot of seasoning on the chicken — The Coop and even Popeye’s season their fried chicken more — but it didn’t need it, seriously.  Theo’s website says “Our Special method of broasted pressure frying in peanut oil makes your Fried Chicken light, evenly cooked and full of naturally delicious flavors.”  (See https://www.theoskitchen.com/menu.)

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Wait a minute, Mr. Saboscrivner, Sir, you might be thinking.  “BROASTED”?  Is that a typo?  How unlike you!  Is that even a THING?  No, I promise, I copied and pasted that directly from the Theo’s Kitchen website and cited my source (always cite your sources, folks), but it is a thing.  It’s essentially fried chicken that is also pressure-cooked while it’s fried, prepared in special equipment made by the Wisconsin-based Broaster Company.

Because I am a serious food blogger and a researcher by trade, I dug a little deeper to investigate broasted chicken, since now I’m invested, and I’m sure you are too.  Here’s a 2004 Washington Post article all about broasted chicken:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/food/2004/04/21/this-chickens-not-roasted-broiled-or-fried-its-broasted-good-luck-finding-it-though/63ba6fe5-6af4-45bc-b0c3-8a8b26d8ea87/?utm_term=.b0f7e26c53b9

And a shorter Atlas Obscura article, for the “TL,DR” crowd (although I can’t imagine any of them would still be sticking around my blog!):
https://www.atlasobscura.com/foods/broasted-chicken

So anyway, it was awesome.  I’ve never had fried chicken quite like it before, but I think it cracked the code for the perfect blend of flavor, freshness, texture, and lack of heavy, nasty, slimy greasiness.

I went back to Theo’s Kitchen more recently with one of my co-workers, who was kind enough to treat me to lunch, even though I had every intention of treating him that day.  What a blessing it is to have good co-workers, since that can make or break so many jobs.  He ordered a two-piece meal with a breast and a thigh, with some nice, crispy, crinkle-cut fries, and an order of fried mushrooms, which I cannot eat (but I was nice enough to take a picture of them for you).20180807_125052_resized

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I had another spot-on perfect broasted chicken thigh:

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Also, because I was craving pasta and haven’t had this in years (not since my beloved Patsio’s Diner in Casselberry closed), I ordered pastitsio, which is like a Greek version of lasagna.  It is a casserole of uncut ziti noodles and a rich, tomatoey sauce with ground beef and what had to be a fair bit of cinnamon.  (This makes sense, because I love Cincinnati-style chili, originally a recipe of Greek immigrants that is made with cinnamon and served over spaghetti.)

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The pastitsio even came with one of their beautiful Greek salads, and they were very generous with the feta:

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So Theo’s Kitchen is a casual little place in a strip shopping center that looks like hundreds of others, the kind of restaurant you could drive by every day and never notice, or live your whole life in a city and never know about.  It is an open room with lots of little tables and natural light from a big glass storefront window overlooking the parking lot.  Maybe not anyone’s idea of a “sexy date night” restaurant, but a fine choice for any occasion.  It has it all!  Greek food?  Check.  Greek food is good, and often healthy, and there aren’t a ton of Greek restaurants.  Fried chicken is good, and not healthy at all, but it’s dry and disappointing too often when you get it from fast food chains and supermarkets.  Not so at Theo’s Kitchen, where you get the best of both worlds.

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!

Baltimore, Part 3: A Tale of Two Crabcakes (Phillips and Faidley’s)

Well, I’m already home from my trip to Baltimore, back at work, back in the real world.  It was a nice second visit to Charm City.  I learned a lot, saw some old friends, made some new ones, and had a few really terrific meals (plus some not so blog-worthy ones, including a trip to Subway).

Baltimore is really known for its famous crabs: blue crabs steamed in Old Bay seasoning and served in the shell, which you smash with mallets and pick apart, and the classier, less-messy alternative, crabcakes.  Crabcakes should be soft and fork-tender, with their outer surfaces only slightly crispy from being pan-seared or broiled.  They aren’t batter-dipped or deep-fried.  It’s a croquette of shredded crabmeat, probably some bread crumbs, possibly onions, peppers, garlic, celery, herbs and spices, and maybe an egg to bind it together.  Obviously the best crabcakes are heavy on the crab and light on the fillers.

Now, you’ve probably tried a crabcake at some point in your life, but the ones in Baltimore are unmatched.  I was lucky enough to try two of the city’s iconic crabcakes at two very different restaurants.  You could say I was on a seafood diet on this trip: when I would see food, I’d eat it, as long as it was seafood.

This past Friday evening (7.13.18), I walked to Phillips, a giant seafood restaurant in the touristy Inner Harbor area, to meet two friends for dinner.  (https://www.phillipsseafood.com/)  Phillips is a pretty nice place, and their crabcakes were no exception.

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These Hooper’s Island crabcakes came with roasted, seasoned potatoes and a nice blend of seasonal vegetables.  Those are two sides I would rarely choose myself, but I enjoyed both more than I expected to.  They also came with a tangy remoulade sauce, a great accompaniment for almost any seafood that is a good alternative to tartar sauce.  I liked them, don’t get me wrong.  They were delicious, and the company at dinner was unparalleled.  But I already knew there were better crabcakes to be found in Baltimore, from my previous visit back in 2011.  Would I make it back there in time?

Well, of course I did, hence the title of this post.  Baltimore’s hottest spot for crabcakes is Faidley Seafood, a legendary restaurant and seafood market inside the Lexington Market.  (http://www.faidleyscrabcakes.com/ and http://lexingtonmarket.com/)  I’m a huge fan of food markets, and they have been some of my favorite travel destinations in cities over the years: the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, Pike Place Market in Seattle, the Ferry Building in San Francisco, the North Market in Columbus, Ohio, and the granddaddy of them all, the Lexington Market, founded in 1782.  There’s a lot of history at this place — you can feel it.  It’s nestled in the middle of a historic part of downtown Baltimore, walkable from the Inner Harbor, but not in a direction most tourists would automatically head in.  The indoor market shows its age, and it definitely isn’t fancy, but it’s totally worth visiting and checking out the 88 vendors — especially Faidley.

Founded in 1886 and a Lexington Market resident from the beginning, Faidley Seafood feels like a time capsule in the best way.  It’s a little intimidating at first, since there’s a lot going on at multiple counters throughout the restaurant: a fresh fish counter on your left when you walk in off Paca Street, an oyster bar right in the middle, and the counter where you order crabcakes and other food on the right.  They will prepare any fresh fish you choose, in addition to their regular menu items, which is pretty cool.

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They sell a few different crabcake varieties, as well as seafood platters, where you can try multiple things.  When I went yesterday (7.17.18), I opted for a seafood platter with a backfin crabcake, fried oysters, and fried clams, which also came with two sides.  I got macaroni salad and potato salad, since I like trying everyone’s different versions.  And they had onion rings, so this is also a stealth RING THE ALARM! feature!

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The fried oysters and clams were great.  Sometimes you can order those and taste nothing but breading and grease and wonder if there were any mollusks in there, but these were so fresh, and not at all greasy.  The potato salad and macaroni salad were thick (I hate it when the mayo is runny), creamy, cool, refreshing, and incredibly well-seasoned.  They gave me cocktail sauce and tartar sauce, which were nice for some dipping, but not necessary, given how flavorful everything was.

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The crabcake was the best I’ve ever had, and I felt that way after my earlier trip to Faidley Seafood back in 2011.  It was seasoned better than the one at Phillips, and I greatly preferred Faidley’s much more casual and historic atmosphere.  A classy sit-down restaurant versus a bustling, historic seafood market where you order at a counter and stand up to eat at long tables — you’d think the better one would be obvious, but I prefer casual and historic anyway, and Faidley’s crabcake was just superior.  (And I often eat over my kitchen counter at home, so I’m used to standing up while I eat!)  It was my favorite meal of the entire trip to Baltimore, and I’m so glad I fit it in before a long and frustrating afternoon at the airport.

Crabcake close-up:

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I wasn’t sure what to expect from the onion rings, since we have a local seafood restaurant that makes onion rings that I don’t care for at all, but these were terrific.  Some of the better ones I’ve had — the perfect thickness, the perfect batter, the perfect texture and taste.  They were perfect in every way, not that I should have been surprised.

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If you’ve ever watched The Wire (which I mentioned is my favorite show of all time), two different characters refer to Faidley’s in two different scenes: Omar mentions it to his partner, and McNulty brings a bag of crabcakes to two excited cops as a favor.  David Simon, the showrunner, was a long-time journalist for the Baltimore Sun and more recently, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, so if you don’t believe me, believe him.  Not many people know their way around Baltimore better.  If you visit Baltimore and can only go one place for its legendary crabcakes, eschew the touristy Phillips and soak up the local culture at Faidley Seafood in the Lexington Market.  Just go for lunch, since they aren’t open for dinner!