Thursday, December 29, 2011

Best Brunch: 2011

When any year comes to an end, we are bombarded with lists that recap everything from music and news to most annoying celebrities and phrases. I thought about what my top lists would be and food was among the first things that came to mind.

I love a good Sunday brunch. What makes brunch special is the food of course, but even more important is the company. The best brunches for me are more often than not, the ones on my lanai with friends and neighbors; sometimes still in PJ's late into the afternoon. They are just too numerous to list.

One of my top stay at home brunches was at a friends home in Ft. Lauderdale, looking out over the New River. My European host placed a polished silver carafe of coffee outside of my bedroom door; fuel for getting ready. A mimosa was put in my hand as soon as I stepped into the kitchen; I could get used to this. We grazed on smoked salmon, fluffy eggs, fresh bread, jams, fruit, puff pastries drizzled in gravy and more. Eventually pushing the food aside, we opened maps, looked at photos, shared stories of our world travels and dreams of more to come.

Mexican brunches may be less conventional but so yummy. How can you not like anything with beans, rice, cheese and eggs? This Sunday brunch at Maudie Milagro was a reunion with dear friends and a celebration of my brother's birthday in Austin, TX.

I have blogged about the BBQ in Austin, but what I want most in this city is Mexican food. There is great debate about where to find the best, and while Maudie's was not at the top of our list, it was on it for sure. The restaurant has been serving Tex-Mex in Austin since the 50's and now has six locations. We picked the one often refered to by Austinites as "Snotty Maudie's".

I couldn't wait to get a plate of Miga's (scrambled eggs with onions, serrano peppers, cheese and tortilla strips) and it was everything I had hoped for. Fried eggs came on top of burrito's and just about everything else. We ate pounds of  crisp tortilla chips, fresh guacamole and salsa with a good kick. Our table was not only full of glasses with sweet Sangria, Mimosa's and Tito's Margaritas ($3.50); but also lots of laughter.We sat back enjoying the breeze over the rolling hills of the West Lake area, rubbing our satisfied bellies.

But the "Best Brunch" was my first brunch of 2011, New Years Day at Gulf Drive Cafe on Bradenton Beach. Dining in beach communities along the west coast of Florida is always an adventure. We skipped the line for indoor seating, grabbed the last table beach-side, then proceeded to fill every inch with food and drink.

The Omlette's were generous ($7) and came with biscuits and potatoes. We ordered sides of tomatoes, fresh avocado, fruit and other delights. Thankfully there was a railing to put our coffee cups and spicy Bloody Mary's on. We offered to give up our table after what seemed like hours, but our server was entertained by us and asked us to stay. We obliged and ordered Gulf Drive's signature cheese blintze; filled with cottage, ricotta and cream cheeses then flavored with a touch of orange cream for $6.99. The clear sky and sparkling water inspired musing of goals and expectations for 2011. Looking back, most were met, some even exceeded.

Looking forward to 2012 and the opportunities that await us all. Thanks for reading my blog!

***COMMENTS: Thanks to all my Facebook friends for posting so many great comments. I would LOVE it if you could also post your comments here on this blog site. I've had dozens of people tell me they posted and it never showed up. Disappointing for us both. So click comment, type your comment, check the box that says "comment as" then hit post. If a word verification box does not appear next (a scrambled word to retype), your comment did not post. Thanks!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Great Gift

I don't understand why Rose' wines aren't wildly popular in Southwest Florida. It's a perfect warm weather wine and goes well with a wide variety of food. But so many people fear the "pink", perhaps relating it to that sweet, pink White Zin.

Over the weekend, I tried a bottle of Chateau D’Aqueria Tavel Rose’ with a salty cheese tray and some tuna tartare. It was beautiful; both in the glass and in my mouth. The wine had a vibrant salmon color, it smelled floral and a bit fruity; but it was bone dry and crisp, with flavors of raspberries and a hint of pepper.  

Tavel Rose’ is made mostly of Grenache grapes grown in the southern part of the Cotes-du-Rhone region of France. It’s a great food wine and the packaging is “tres cool”. If you're in need of a gift for a wine lover, a Francophile or someone who likes to try new things, this is a good one. And with a price tag under $20, it's affordable.  

If you’re in Southwest Florida, Bistro 41 has Tavel Rose’ by the bottle for around $60. In fact Bistro has four Rose's on their wine list now! Hurray for Rose'!!!

Friday, December 2, 2011


I recently stayed at a very hip, boutique hotel in a trendy neighborhood in Washington DC. A nice perk was the complimentary champagne and wine, in the lobby for happy hour.

I sashayed through the businessmen and foreign visitors to find a table adorned with linen, sparking glasses and (sound effect of a record scratch) rows of boxes. Boxes of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. "This can't be," whispered my inner wine snob, "boxed wine???" Thank God there was champagne.

As the concierge poured my bubbles, he was enthusiastically telling another guest about the boxes of French Rabbit.

They come in Tetra Paks that reduce overall packaging by 90%.  It makes packing and shipping easier and less expensive than bottles, reducing the carbon footprint of the winery. And, he bragged, it's from the Burgundy region of FRANCE! "OK OK," I resigned, "I'll try a glass." I'm not sure if I bought into his enthusiasm or just had low expectations but I was pleasantly surprised. The wine had hints of raspberry and other red fruits. Not a bad happy hour wine after all.

Let's be honest, we've all joked about boxed wines but with wineries and consumers both wanting to cut costs, they're no laughing matter anymore. I have started paying attention to the wine sections of major grocery stores and warehouses like Total Wine, and continue to be surprised at the vineyards I'm seeing box their everyday, top selling juice.

Still not sold on the box, I decided to experiment.  I bought a box and a bottle of Fish Eye Pinot Grigio; put tape on the bottom of numerous glasses indicating which packaging the wine was poured from; shuffled the glasses around and handed them out to some friends. We inspected the color, sniffed, swirled, slurped and wrote down our observations. Initially the bottle flavors seemed brighter but as the wine opened, the difference was so negligible it's hardly worth mentioning. The box did not compromise the integrity of this wine. But boxes are for drinking not aging.

Because the wine is not exposed to air, it can last up to 6 weeks after opening. Most boxes hold the equivalent of four bottles for the cost of about two. Might not be so bad to serve at your holiday parties if you have people on the list who sling it back rather than savor it (wine).

I have written an article featuring boxed wines and alternative packaging for Times Of The Islands Magazine. It will be in the January/February issue so be sure to pick one up or look online for more observations and information.

Could it be time to embrace the box?

***COMMENTS: Thanks to all my Facebook friends for posting so many great comments. I would LOVE it if you could also post your comments here on this blog site. I've had dozens of people tell me they posted and it never showed up. Disappointing for us both. So click comment, type your comment, check the box that says "comment as" then hit post. If a word verification box does not appear next (a scrambled word to retype), your comment did not post. Thanks!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Brunch WithThe Queen

Next time you head to St Pete for a Rays game or concert at Tropicana Field, forget the over-priced stadium food and try the Queen's Head Restaurant and Eurobar on Central Avenue. It's a good 25 minute walk from the park, a 5 minute drive or a leisurely 50-cent Trolley ride. Pick up the west bound Trolley on Central Ave in front of the popular sports bar, Ferg's. (The Trolley also goes downtown for waterfront dining options.)

The Queen's Head is housed in an old gas station, made chic with South Beach style Cabana's on the front patio. Inside, the decor is a bit cheeky with busts, photos and bobble heads of the Queen Mum everywhere. The bathroom walls are plastered with bawdy headlines and clips from British Tabloids. The owners, British of course, are great hosts.

I'm a fan of Sunday Brunch at the Queen's Head and have been there several times.When we showed up a few weeks ago, DJ Craig Dirty was spinning cool tunes outside, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth.; looking a bit weary from the night before.

Sparing the server from multiple trips to our table, we bypassed the $6 Mimosa's and $7 Bloody Mary's in lieu of a bottle of delicious Cava (sparkling wine from Spain) for only $22. It was a great accompaniment to the myriad of flavors that followed.

My favorite brunch dish is the Bubble & Squeak ($10); a veggie stuffed mashed potato pancake full of flavor, topped with an egg and garnished with a spicy southwestern drizzle. A close second is the Chip Butty ($11); cherywood bacon with a fried egg, English chips and red cabbage slaw in a toasted ciabatta. I asked for extra slaw.

The brunch menu changes on occasion, I did not see the Bloody Mary Eggs Benedict  this time but I remember it being delicious, especially with a Bloody Mary to wash it down with. The Beans On Toast is a fabulously filling plate. The traditional British breakfast takes on a twist with the addition of white cheddar, English sausage and scrambled eggs ($12). I think the Queen would approve.
The Queens Head Restaurant and Eurobar on Urbanspoon            

 ***COMMENTS: Thanks to all my Facebook friends for posting so many great comments. I would LOVE it if you could also post your comments here on this blog site. I've had dozens of people tell me they posted and it never showed up. Disappointing for us both. So click comment, type your comment, check the box that says "comment as" then hit post. If a word verification box does not appear next (a scrambled word to retype), your comment did not post. Thanks!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Serengeti Safari

Last time I was at Busch Gardens in Tampa it was to preview and experience the new Cheetah Hunt, a high-speed, triple-launch roller coaster that has everyone talking.

The cheetah called for my return. So did the media office, to take a Serengeti Safari. A train goes around it, a sky-ride goes over it but the jeep Safari goes right through the 65-acre Serengeti Plain. We stood in the back of an open truck with our guide, checking out free the roaming ostrich, antelope, rhinos, zebras and other African animals.

The highlight of the Safari was the giraffes. The tall, beautiful creatures surrounded our truck and dropped their long necks down, looking for treats. Those big, dark eyes and long eyelashes made us fall in love instantly. As our guide educated us on the animals, we feed them lettuce and rubbed their necks. They in turn, drooled their appreciation all over us.

Busch Gardens also offers a Serengeti Night Safari. After the park closes you get to stay, observe the animals through night-vision monoculars and spend time around a fire pit . Appetizers and "adult beverages" are provided before the tour; dessert and coffee afterwards. This looks like a really cool experience.

Something to take advantage of  if you are a Florida resident; a free daytime Serengeti Safari with your park admission, now through December 15.

By the way, I DID ride the Cheetah Hunt again; front row. This time I was brave enough to let go of the harness and put my hands up like a TRUE coaster fanatic.

***COMMENTS: Thanks to all my Facebook friends for posting so many great comments. I would LOVE it if you could also post your comments here on this blog site. I've had dozens of people tell me they posted and it never showed up. Disappointing for us both. So click comment, type your comment, check the box that says "comment as" then hit post. If a word verification box does not appear next (a scrambled word to retype), your comment did not post. Thanks!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Fine Time at "209"

Last time I visited Punta Gorda (FL), I tried a new restaurant called Opus. An enthusiastic German lady named Ines, was instrumental in helping to get it off the ground, while at the same time running her own   downtown restaurant; Table 209. Her mission complete, Ines is back at 209 full time.

My co-worker had dined there for lunch and couldn't wait to try dinner. When it comes to checking out restaurants it doesn't take much to twist my arm. The outdoor patio looked inviting but the weather wasn't, so we sat at one of the three tables situated in a semi-private section indoors. Our server suggested we begin with a signature Cucumber Champagne Cocktail. It's hard to say no to the bubbles.

However, it was a rainy, dreary night and what I really wanted was a dirty martini. Table 209 only serves beer and wine. The cucumber seemed more suited for the patio, on a warm afternoon. It was good but it just wasn't doing the trick and our server could tell. She grabbed a wine list and removed the cucumber cocktails with a wink, assuring us they would not go to waste; it was her favorite libation.

Settling on a bottle of Mars Venus Cabernet from Chile, we next set our sites on the appetizer menu. The Tomato Soup was rich, with roasted bell pepper, basil pesto and small chunks of mozzarella; just what the doctor ordered.

Next up was the Shrimp Fraiche. It came in a delectable garlic, lemon, butter and sour cream sauce that required extra bread to sop up; so did the next two dishes. The tender Escargot was cooked in white wine, garlic and bacon. Just when I thought the sauces couldn't get any better, the Mussels showed up. They were plump and mild, cooked perfectly in a broth that many patrons ask to purchase for home; white chocolate, coconut milk, garlic and spices. I'm salivating just thinking about it.

The appetizers ranged in price from $6-$12. Next time I'll try to order only one so I can have a proper main course. On second thought, next time I'll try the Sunday Jazz Brunch on the patio, with a Cucumber Champagne Cocktail. The Brunch menu looked fabulous. I'll keep you posted!

Table 209 on Urbanspoon

***COMMENTS: Thanks to all my Facebook friends for posting so many great comments. I would LOVE it if you could also post your comments here on this blog site. I've had dozens of people tell me they posted and it never showed up. Disappointing for us both. So click comment, type your comment, check the box that says "comment as" then hit post. If a word verification box does not appear next (a scrambled word to retype), your comment did not post. Thanks!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Eat, Drink, Boogie. Repeat....

....thats the moniker of the Rum Boogie Cafe on Beale Street in Memphis

However when I visited recently I could only manage two of the three; drink and boogie. The eating was more than taken care of with BBQ at the Rendezvous. Too bad, because the menu at Rum Boogie was tempting, with everything from Cajun specialties to Southern cuisine and quirky items like the Fried Green Beans with Ranch Dressing and BBQ Baloney sandwiches.

The popular James Govan and The Boogie Blues Band was jammin' as we made our way to the bar. You  probably guessed by the name, the Rum Boogie had an ample selection of rum to sip or mix while listening to the legendary blues.

As we checked out the hundreds of guitars on the walls, a couple with empty seats at their table extended some Southern hospitality. We sat down and watched the show; not just the one on the stage. We were at the bottom of circular stairs that seemed to trip people up. Within 30 minutes two revelers had spilled their drinks and a third spilled his guts while trying to make it outside. Then there were the girls who forgot to gather their skirts close to their legs when on stairs above us.

Our $5 cover also gave us access to Mr Handy's Blues Hall, commonly referred to as the last real juke joint on Beale Street. We entered through what looked like a secret door from the bar in Rum Boogie. It was tight, loud, rockin' and I didn't want to leave.

I was asked by friends in New Orleans how Beale compared to Bourbon. They both sell "Big Ass Beer", the historic streets are packed with party people and there's a great music vibe but the overall vibe is totally different. At 10:00 Memphis police put up barricades, checked ID's and waved metal detectors over everyone before allowing passage. I politely questioned the cops and they assured me this was for my safety, which I hadn't really questioned, until that moment.

If you are a music lover, Beale Street should be on your bucket list. One of my favorites; Marc Cohen sings about it here......

***COMMENTS: Thanks to all my Facebook friends for posting so many great comments. I would LOVE it if you could also post your comments here on this blog site. I've had dozens of people tell me they posted and it never showed up. Disappointing for us both. So click comment, type your comment, check the box that says "comment as" then hit post. If a word verification box does not appear next (a scrambled word to retype), your comment did not post. Thanks!

Friday, October 21, 2011

A "Rendezvous"....With Ribs

Before I went to Memphis last weekend, I was told by two different people to to check out Rendezvous. This wasn't my first time to the River City but I can't recall anyone ever suggesting the Vous.

I was also told it would be hard to find, in some random alley off of Union Street. I had to laugh because when I looked out of my hotel room of The Peabody, guess what greeted me? See that sign on the right with yellow print? The Rendezvous! I could also see smoke wafting through the alley from the coal grill; and when I walked through it, it was intoxicating.

As small of a dive as it appears to be, Rendezvous is enormous inside. The main seating area and bar is down a half flight of stairs, the rest is up. The sign on the hostess stand reads, "Not since Adam has a rib been this famous."

We started our feast with the signature appetizer of cheese sticks, sausage and pickles. The three are apparently meant to be stacked on a Saltine cracker, sprinkled with Rendezvous seasoning and BBQ sauce, then shoved down the hatch. The side of Coleslaw was not creamy; the dressing was more like vinegar with lots of seasonings. The baked beans were full of pork, spices and totally addicting.

But the star of the night was the dry rubbed ribs; basted in diluted vinegar and Rendezvous's famous rub. I tried them on their own and also drenched with BBQ sauce. The rub had a distinct taste of Coriander and when I went back the next day (to purchase some seasoning), a bartender confirmed it. He actually sprinkled some spice on a paper plate for me to sniff, taste and guess the other ingredients; since very few are listed on the bottle. I tasted celery seed, garlic, salt, paprika and I could see mustard seed. While I was studying the plate I was told there were a number of sites on the internet with people devoted to the same thing, unraveling the mystery of the Rendezvous Famous Spice. For some reason I think there may be a slightly different version used on the ribs, conspiracy!

Final observation on the Rendezvous Famous Seasoning; Bloody Mary's.....'nuff said.

Our night of dining also included the pulled pork and pulled chicken. I was in a BBQ induced coma when we stumbled back into the alley and meandered three blocks to Beale Street for some Blues.

If you're a wine lover like me, you might be disappointed by the cheap house brand offered at the Vous. Bring your own bottle and pay the modest $6 corkage or just get a pitcher of  Michelob. More beer selections are available by the bottle.

When in Memphis you gotta do blues and BBQ, you gotta do the Vous.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Wait Is Over

Fort Myers (FL) residents who drive McGregor Blvd on a regular basis have been watching the progress of a new restaurant on the corner of Royal Palm, just across from the Alliance of the Arts. I can report it is finally open and officially sanctioned; by me! I can't wait to write more about the history of this structure, crazy parking, it's owner and chef; but for now lets start with this....

Christof's has the look and feel of an old, Southern home or tea room; surrounded by lots of trees, green landscaping, and a beautiful wrap around porch for seating. A brick paved patio offers even more outdoor seating. With this look I was expecting some form of Southern food and I wasn't disappointed. I was even happier to see the menu had lots of Italian dishes and some French cuisine as well. The fusion works.

I arrived after working late and shared a few appetizers with a friend. We started with a fresh Cesar Salad and homemade dressing. All of the dressings at Christof's are made with Grape Seed Oil. The salad was consumed, it seemed, in seconds. Next we enjoyed Fried Green Tomatoes stacked with Mozzarella, bacon and corn salsa ($6.95). I predict it will be the most popular appetizer on the menu with just the right balance of flavors and textures. Don't share this, get your own.

The Stuffed Portobella Mushroom ($8.50) was as big as my hand; stuffed with fresh vegetables on top of a tomato coulis that I wanted to drink. We ended with a Tuna Carpaccio ($8.50) that was dressed with onions and thinly sliced celery for a fresh, light treat. Right now there are only three red wines by the glass but the bottle selection looks to be more well rounded; more glass selections are available for whites.

I've been to dozens of restaurant openings and have experienced all kinds of problems with service, long waits for food, food that wasn't right or just wasn't good; thankfully this was NOT one of those experiences. Everything came with ease (from my perspective) and was delectable. The servers were attentive, excited and that excitement was passed on to me as a diner.  That being said, it's only day three and I missed the dinner rush. If you go in this weekend at prime time and don't have the same experience, be understanding that things are still being worked out and be sure to return for a second chance. I think Christof's on McGregor will quickly become a new Southwest Florida favorite.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Screamin' Good Time

I was among the first in the nation to get to ride the  Cheetah Hunt, when it opened in May at Busch Gardens Tampa. A nice perk for being a part of the 'media', I got to take a test drive before it opened to the public. I never finished blogging about it because I was having trouble uploading the video below. And it really tells the story best. Some of my friends and colleagues are going to Hallo-Scream this weekend and will be riding it in the dark. So, I thought now is as good a time as any to share my experience.

The Cheetah Hunt is the only triple-launch roller coaster in Florida and it is FAST. It's also fun, not one of those rides that brings you to your knees when you disembark.

The staff at Busch Gardens rigged the front seat of the coaster with an elaborate camera set up. Zip ties, straps and all manner of things were used to keep the camera secure for the drops and loops while recording our reactions.

The launches were exhilarating and surprising. In between the twists and turns we were treated to great views of the park. This video is not of my first ride. I had to take on the Cheetah Hunt twice, back to back, because of a technical problem with the initial recording. The audio guy said I blew the mic screaming. I choose to believe it was something else; that is just way too easy of an excuse. The first time was a blast, the second time I was definitely ready for some fresh air.  For sure, I'll return to Busch Gardens for more of the Cheetah! Great coaster.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Food and Fashion for Women with a Passion

It's hard to believe tomorrow is October 1st. Where did the year go? Of course October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and I helped kick it off this week at a Women's Wine Club dinner at Saks Fifth Avenue in Fort Myers, FL. Brilliant move to hold women captive in the cocktail dress department, with cocktails in hand.

Its was quite an effort with Saks moving out racks of dresses to make room for dinner tables draped in pink; the staff from Cru rolling in racks of appetizers; the staff from Bistro 41 bringing in the main course, dessert and cases of wine for each course. We dined on delicious cheeses, Spicy Tuna with basil watermelon relish, Jumbo Blue Crab with hearts of palm salad, spice rubbed smoked Lamb Top Round with smashed purple potatoes and wilted field green, flaky apple turnovers with vanilla bean ice cream and a lime infused honey drizzle, all beautifully plated and paired expertly with wines from around the world. (Spanish bubbly, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Chardonnay, Chilean Carmenere and Santa Barbara Riesling)

Saks provided a short fashion show, we learned what the Susan G Komen Foundation is up to locally, were given encouraging statistics about the breast cancer battle and raised some money to kick off the month long awareness campaign. There are so many events to benefit Komen and products being sold in the name of this campaign. It's easy to get blinded by the PINK this time of year. Do your due diligence and make sure the events you support and products you buy really do give back to Komen and give back in a substantial way.

This event was a perfect storm: a location with a passion for fashion, chefs with a passion for food, an organization with a passion for saving lives and women with a passion for all of it.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Down 'n Dirty in The Big Easy

I've blogged several times about the great food in New Orleans but have been negligent when it comes to other 'fun' the city offers; like music. Second Line Brass Bands to be more specific. You'll find these bands in both bars and on random street corners. They play  current music, only in the tradition of brass jazz bands, and of course good 'ole Nawlin's jazz. Their energy always draws a crowd and inspires lots of crazy dancing. It's AWESOME to watch.

To quote my friend Chris, "It's cool to be in the marching band in New Orleans".

Wanting to hear more, we went to Les Bon Temps Roule on Magazine Street, where the popular Soul Rebels Brass Band plays (every Thursday). It looks like a bit of a dive outside so I knew it was gonna be great inside; pool tables in the front bar, live music in the back. Uneven flooring and a narrow hallway connect the two. Thank God I left the stilettos in the car. We successfully navigated the passage and entered a fabulous, gritty party. People were jumping, dancing, sweating, packed in tight and up close to the band. There's something about brass, makes people wanna move that ass. When the band took a break, so did everyone else. The drinks were cold and cheap and there was no cover. Love this place.

NOLA is obviously a great city for music, so it's no wonder Lenny Kravitz has a place in the French Quarter. As luck would have it, we found parking on his street after leaving Les Bon Temps Roule. I pressed my ear to his doors but could only hear the hum of nearby Bourbon Street.

I'm a fan of Lenny's music and have been strung out on his new joint "Black and White America". It's a positive fusion of  funk, rock, hip hop and even some jazz. Get it! I wonder if Lenny got any inspiration from the Second Line scene. I found this video of him checking out the popular Rebirth Band Brass Band in a club that looks similar to Les Bon Temps Roule. If Lenny does it, you know it's cool! Be sure to scout out these kinds of bars next time you party in NOLA.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Po'Boy, Happy Girl

I typically don't order Po'boys because I am blinded by all that bread. However, on my most recent visit to New Orleans, the birthplace of the Po'boy, I discovered why these sandwiches are sought out.

Seems every restaurant in the Big Easy serves them and everyone has an opinion on where to find the best. The Parkway Bakery and Tavern is on the top of many lists so I set out with a friend to discover why. Parkway is in an area of town known as Mid City, and at the step-off for the Endymion Mardi Gras Parade. We were having some difficulty finding it so we called from the car and were told "its just across the bayou." Now looking for a big body of water we had to do a double take at the site of Bayou St John; it's at best, a small canal by Southwest Florida standards. Never-the-less we crossed it and found the unassuming Parkway on the corner of Hagan and Toulouse.

A chef taking a smoke break told us the pastrami and corn beef were delicious and made in house. He then guessed that I would order the shrimp since I was a girl. I rebelled and ordered the ham. The meat was sweet and salty; the bread crispy and delicate on the outside, soft and pillowy in the middle; incredible. We also tried the Surf and Turf; slow cooked roast beef, fried shrimp and gravy. It was a delicious mess.  There were 25 Po'boys on the menu with everything from BBQ to Alligator Sausage.

I stared blankly at our server when she asked in her southern accent, "do you want it dressed?" The Parkway didn't seem like one of those kind of places. Turns out a "dressed" Po'boy comes with lettuce, tomoato, pickles and mayo. Yes please.

A tasty, seasonal Abita Beer (Louisiana brewed) was just the right accompaniment to lunch. My Po'Boy fascination didn't stop at the Parkway. I savored one with oysters at the famous Acme Oyster House and it was spot on. So were the char-grilled oysters. More on that stop later. So much good eatin' in New Orleans.

New Yorkers say the key to their outstanding pizza is the water used to make the crust; you can only get it in New York. The people of N'awlins have a similar claim when it comes to Po'boys; the key is the bread and you can only find the good stuff in NOLA.

Parkway Bakery & Tavern on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"Pure" Entertainment

Pure has one of the hottest night sceens at The Mercato Shops in Naples. What many people don't know is the chef is pretty hot also. Yes, Pure has a chef, a full kitchen and a menu that will leave you wanting more.

My parents were in town and wanted to take me out to celebrate some recent accomplishments so I suggested giving Pure a try, especially since managers are trying to get the "dining" word out.  We were escorted to a VIP booth in a prime location by the bar. It was plush, with over-sized pillows and enough room to more than double our small party. I wish I knew who to thank for the entertainment that night. Mom and Dad were treated to quite a fun show; a birthday party of beautiful girls with martini's, tugging their low tops up and their short skirts down; while striking silly duck faces for the camera.

We wanted to try a little of everything so asked for the Chef's Tasting Menu. We surrendered all control to the chef, Josh Mitchell, and he began sending out course after course of goodness. Starting with a trio of shrimp, we moved to salads (the Spinach was great but the Summer Salad rocked). Next up was beef in a veal reduction, then chicken with goat cheese and spinach, and finally a sweet apple fritter for dessert.

At 9:45 the music level started to rise, the ropes were up at the doors and we were feeling like dinner was definantly over. The once navigable bar had become packed. We weaved our way to the exit, leaving behind a coveted VIP table, now reserved for bottle service. Until next time.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

First Is Fun, Especially With Rum

When I think of rum I remember my first booze cruise in Key West, then that awesome one in Mexico, ooooooo and sampling rum punch at every bar in the Abacos, looking for the best and then there was….well, you get the idea. Rum to me has always been just a fun party drink, until now.

I was among the first in the world (literally) to try Panama Red, an over proof rum from the makers of Panamonte. The first tasting outside of the distillery in Panama, was held last night at Hemingway's Island Grill in Coconut Point (Estero, FL). It was such a big deal that Master Distiller, Francisco "Don Pancho" Fernandez flew in from Panama for a rare appearance.

Upon arrival we were handed a delicious Cachaca Caipirinha then escorted to tables set with three glasses of rum. I had never even considered the possibility of a rum dinner until I was in the middle of one. We started with the Pyrat rum and a plate of crostini, salty Gouda and sweet honey comb; Salt and sugar is always an enjoyable combination. The second course of tropical fruits didn’t excite me much, however, the vanilla rum sauce was excellent with the Zaya rum. Next up, a jerk snapper with a yogurt thyme sauce, served with a Red Sky rum punch. Cooked perfectly, a big hit!  There's more. A dessert I could've drowned in; white chocolate bread pudding and a Bourbon caramel sauce, served with the star of the night; Panama Red rum

So why was is Panama Red such a big deal? Because of it's higher alcohol content, overproof rum is typically used for mixing not sipping; it was a challenge to pull off. Panama Red is made from sugar cane, aged in used Bourbon casks in small batches and then blended together. The rum was very complex with sweet vanilla, hot cinnamon and comforting spice.

After dinner, the force behind Panama Red and Hemingway's, owner Jim Wasson, treated those of us who were still there to a rare, 25 year-old, Panamonte Reserva. This rum had notes of a fine Cognac and we sipped it like one.

I have a new appreciation for rum after learning about the distilling and bottling process. I was amazed that unlike wine, heat is good for rum in the barrel. That’s why the best rums typically come from tropical climates. The shape of the glass and how you breathe into it increases your ability to enjoy rum on it’s own. I was told that white rum will entice vodka drinkers and that there is an actual Rum University.

Hemingway's will be the first restaurant in the US to serve this special rum. A few bottles were purchased last night ($25) but were quickly stashed in bags and whisked off to unknown destinations. The existence of the only bottle in Southwest Florida, that I can confirm at this moment, is the one in my in my personal bar; signed by Don Pancho himself. YES!

Monday, August 8, 2011

The "Cooooolest" Cocktail Ever

Just a couple of weeks ago I was sitting at the harbor in Copenhagen, Denmark; listening to live music, drinking champagne and enjoying a sunny, 70-degree afternoon. My friend Michelle and I included the duo next to us in a toast and struck up a conversation about sites to see and resturaunts and bars to hit while in town. Our faces lit up at the mention of the ICEBAR. Not just any ICEBAR but one from the original Icehotel in neighboring Sweden.

The first Ice hotel opened 22 years ago in the small village of Jukkasjärvi, Sweden. The story goes: In 1989 Japenese ice artists came to town to visit a cylinder-shaped igloo that had been created by a French artist. There were no hotel rooms available so they got permission to spend the night in the iced exhibition hall, in sleeping bags, on top of reindeer skin. Voila, the Icehotel was born. It is recreated every year from snow and ice blocks from the Torne River.

Spreading "coolness" the Icehotel began opening ICEBAR's around the world; Oslo, Tokyo and this one in Copenhagen. It cost about $30 for admittance and one drink, we paid a few dollars more and got two. That is about all one can stand, even with the heavy poncho's. The number of people allowed in at one time is strictly monitored.

 Booties are also provided for visitors without appropriate, cold weather foot-wear. Thick gloves are attached to the ponchos so you can handle your ice glasses. Yes, the glasses are literally blocks of ice that to me, had a slight "freezer" taste to them. The bar menu had numerous fruity concoctions, that tasted good and made a pretty picture. The bar  served other libations including champagne, my favorite. 
Copycat Ice Bars are popping up everywhere now, including Orlando, on tourist laden International Drive. The owners call it the largest permanent icebar in the world. It's not the original but for most of us, it's alot less expensive to fly or drive to Orlando than Scandinavia.

By the way: No, my tongue did not stick to the ice.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Pizza On Top Of The World

I am back from my Arctic Adventure! I can't wait to share more about my trip to Greenland but I am still digesting it. That being said:

In previous blogs I've shared my love of pizza with you and couldn't wait to write about the pie I ate in Kangerlussuaq. Kangerlussuaq is the hub for international flights into Greenland because of it's large runway and decent weather. Even though it's home to an International Airport, Kangerlussuaq only has a population of about 600 in the winter, 1000 in the summer. Dining options are fairly limited so when I was told about the small, take-away pizzeria just across the street from the airport, my expectations were fairly low.

The pizzeria was only open a couple of hours for lunch, and a couple of more hours for dinner. At least there was outdoor seating; two weathered picnic tables on the narrow porch. The Turkish/Danish owner was very hospital and offered a long list of pizza possibilities.

Wanting to try food from the region, we asked about the Muskox. The chef wasn't a fan saying it tasted like sheep. Not recalling having ever eaten sheep we inquired more, finally asking, "is it gamey". Response with arms flailing: "sheep, sheep; you know, baaaahhhh baaaahhh". Does the guy to the right look like any 'sheep' you've ever seen? We gave up and with a baaaahhhh baaaaaahhhh, and ordered the majestic Muskox.

Since the pizza joint only sold pizza and the neighboring grocery store had been closed since 2:00, our only option for wine or beer was the airport bar; we wandered over, ordered a couple of Tuborgs (Danish beers), asked for glasses and took them back to the pizzeria. It was obviously a laid back place.

We shared a picnic table with a couple from Switzerland, traded travel stories and inspected the Muskox Pizza. It was delicious! I was surprised by the nice thin crust; delighted by the flavorful cheese and enjoyed the heavy dusting of oregano. Oh, and the Muskox was amazingly mild and tender.

I can't imagine you would ever find yourself on a layover in Kangerlussuaq but if so, the pizza is worth a walk across the street....if you are lucky enough to land while it's open.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Other Opus

When I hear the word "Opus" the first thing that comes to mind is wine; Opus One, a high-end Bordeaux style blend by Baron Philippe de Rothschild and Robert Mondavi. The name alone conjours various adjectives from wine-lovers; perfection, over-rated, pretentious, delicious, status symbol, but almost always quality. So naturally my expectations were high when I visited a new restaurant in Punta Gorda, FL by the name of Opus.

The word "Opus" actually means an artistic composition, especially music. I'll say the food at Opus was  music all to my mouth.

We started with the Opus Pate' (bacon-onion marmalade, pear conserve, marinated olives, cibatta toasts) and a glass of sparkling wine. The pate' was creamy, the olives fresh and salty and bacon makes everything better! So does bubbly! Great way to kick things off.

I ordered the Grilled Endive salad, expecting it to be sliced lengthwise then grilled. Instead it was cut into chunks, mixed with: pancetta, fresh pears, dried cherries, blue cheese and tossed with a lemon and basil vinaigrette. It was a great balance of flavor and texture.

The entrees we tried included a delicious, fatty but meaty, Roast Duck Breast (mango chili glaze, sweet corn griddle cakes, grilled asparagus, soy basil caramel). And a fresh, flavorful Pan Roasted Grouper with a mango butter sauce. Both dishes were keepers, but the art hanging on the walls was not. It's a new place so of course we gave it the once over while waiting for our food. The decor was on the trendy side but the paintings were of Florida sunsets and landscapes; perhaps more suited for the walls of a seafood joint. The art was beautiful, it just didn't seem to fit. That being said, we went to Opus for good food, not artwork.

Our night out at Opus was the same night as the June "Gallery Walk", so the otherwise sleepy downtown was full of energy. Gallery Walk is an evening of music, art and food; held the third Thursday of every month by the Punta Gorda Downtown Merchants Association. Try something new this month. Make dinner reservations at Opus and check out the next Gallery Walk (July 21st)!

Opus on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 20, 2011

My Arctic Adventure

I’m so excited about my summer vacation….sounds like a title of children’s book doesn’t it? I originally thought I would be wine tasting in Oregon. While that is still on my radar, my plans have taken a huge turn.

In three weeks I am embarking on an Arctic Adventure to Greenland. I will be spending five days with a small group of people from around the world in a spiritual walk with an Shaman named Angaangaq or "Uncle". I’m a Florida native whose outdoor activities typically involve sitting at a shaded cafe or walking on the beach; not camping 400 miles from the North Pole. I will be sleeping at the base of these Ice Caps and have been told that as they melt and fall into the water, I will be able to feel the earth shake. WOW!

I met Angaangaq last year at a workshop in Southwest Florida. He is an amazing teacher and healer. He consults world leaders and teaches individuals, like us, about the environment; improving the condition of man; and personal, spiritual growth. When he talked about his homeland and the event this summer, I had a vision of being there. However, as time passed my inspiration waned. Then I talked to a friend who was celebrating his 50th birthday. As he mused about his life, he stared into the distance and said "all the times I wish I would've said yes". At that moment I decided I could not let this opportunity pass.

Greenland is not a major tourist destination so it's not easy to get to. Between tuition, flights and renting cold weather camping gear; I'm looking at $6000. One morning in the shower I was trying to think of ways to cover the cost of the trip. I heard a voice in my head (don't laugh, I know the voices speak to you too) saying, "get a sponsor".

I was telling a mentor this story over coffee and she told me to start with friends and family. It immediately made me uncomfortable; therefore I knew I had to do it, ask for help. We give so much of our time, talents and money that I think we forget how to receive. We need that balance. I guess I’m trying to find that balance. My friend then pushed a $100 bill across the table saying, "I'll start the sponsorship, Ben is your friend."  

So I took a deep breath and began sending out emails to friends and family; asking if they knew of any individuals or organizations that would sponsor such an adventure (civic, environmental, holistic, spiritual, personal, themselves, etc). I offered to make presentations before or after my trip, give first copies of the book I write about the experience, etc

I was updating a friend this weekend on the modest amount of success I have had so far and she challenged me to blog about it. Once again, I immediately felt anxious to put this plea out there. So I’m doing it. I appreciate any support that comes my way: encouragement, prayers for a safe journey and of course Ben (as in Franklin $$).

Thanks so much for taking the time to read this unusual blog entry and feel free to contact me with any questions or suggestions for my Arctic Adventure!

Much Love,

Gina Birch
PO Box 6
Fort Myers, Fl 33902 (trip details)