Saturday, August 26, 2017

5 Course Collaborative Dinner

What happens when you combine the efforts of two of Sanford's top, most creative and inventive chefs, and then add in the talents of one of our best craft cocktails bars? It's a veritable gastronomic explosion. That's what I experienced recently, along with nearly 50 others, equally as fortunate as I was to partake of this fabulous event.

Chef Josh Oakley of The Smiling Bison and Chef Nat Russell of The Tennessee Truffle combined their talents and efforts on a recent Tuesday night and pulled off one helluva great collaborative dinner. And to add to the food, Bitters & Brass paired each course with a low ABV craft cocktail. What a fabulous dinner it was.


We started with some hors d'oeuvres, in the bar area of The Smiling Bison, which hosted the event. There were a number of nom-nom thinks to gnosh on, and I tried them all. The perfideral with pickle was quite unusual. I had a homemade chip with what seemed to be a sort of salsa, perhaps tomatillo--but whatever it was, it was simply delicious. Some bruschetta was served, and also some pimento cheese sliders--messy but oh so yummy. Unfortunately, I devoured mine before I could snap a photo, but my tummy sure remembers the great flavors. 


If you've never had deep fried chicken skin, you do not know what you're missing. It's along the same lines a deep-fried pork rind, but with a nice chickeny flavor. They were ever-so-lightly seasoned, light, airy, crisp, and full of flavor. I could eat these all day, and I'm not a big chicken skin fan--or wasn't until I tried these. There was also a nice, refreshing, lemony type of cocktail to go along. What a great start.

About 7:30 we sat down (it was a full house at "The Bison") and began with our first course (pictured above), courtesy of Nat and The Tennessee Truffle:  Watermelon & Fish. But this isn't at all what you might suspect. Light, cold, flavorful, it was a snapper ceviche with avocado puree, watermelon radish, compressed watermelon, pickled watermelon rind, watermelon sorbet and mint & lime caviar. What a taste explosion in my mouth. First there was texture. From the cold crunch of the radish, to the smooth creaminess of the avocado puree, the flavors melded great with the soft texture and flavor of the ceviche. Each bite was wonderful and an explosion in my mouth. The dish was paired with an Airmail: jamaican rum, lime, honey, and topped with bubbles. It was a match made in heaven.



 The second course was from Josh and The Smiling Bison:  Country Pate (pictured above). There were so many great bites during the course of this evening that I can't pick out only one highlight, but certainly the terrine along with the mustard was one of my favorites. This dish was a pork & duck terrine with frisee, pickled egg, mustard, and a pistachio vinaigrette. Well done! As with the first course, each bite was wonderful. I especially enjoyed the rich, savory smoothness of the pate as accompanied by the acid of the mustard, a great pairing. The frisee gave a nice crunch and texture, and the egg was a great counterbalance. This course was paired with Old Tom Cat:  old tom gin, curacao, cappellitti sfumato, lime, and orgeat. While I'm not even sure what all those ingredients were, I know they were one thing in this combination, and that is tasty.  Another hit course. Two down, three to go.




The third course (pictured above) was the work of Nat from The Truffle:  Nashville Hot Quail, quite a nice play on chicken and waffles. Once again, a dish perfectly executed. Sitting on a buttermilk scallion waffle was a perfectly done, crispy yet tender portion of quail, served with a bit of golden raisin and onion chutney (providing a nice balance to the savor quail), garnished with some chives, and served along with some smoked maple syrup--for the waffle of course!  Once again, a well-executed, flavorful dish. The quail was quite good, nice and juicy, and the exterior nicely browned and crispy. The waffle was tender and about the best waffle I've ever had. This was paired with Missippii 1907:  cathead honeysuckle vodka, ransom's dry vermouth, lemon and sweet tea syrup--another hit and a great pairing. This course was another hit. Three in a row!



Josh from The Bison was the chef for course number four (pictured above): Sweet Potato Tortellini. Just to look at this dish, you have to know that (at least for me) the highlight was the huge BBQ shrimp. OMG, it was absolutely fantastic. I'm a huge shrimp fan and this baby was cooked perfectly, swimming in a nice smoked ham broth with some sweet potato greens--I never considered that you could eat the greens of a sweet potato, but they were a good compliment to the broth. And of course there were the tortellini. The sweet potato filling was excellent, sweet and yet not overly so. I did think the pasta was just a bit too al dente for me, and maybe a bit thick, but still, this was a great dish overall, with flavor and presentation top notch. I enjoyed each bit of the shrimp, and each sip of the broth. Course #4 was paired with Bamboo Cocktail: hidalgo fino sherry, dolin dry vermouth, and orange bitters. Again, a great pairing and nice compliment to the food. Another hit for the fourth course, four in a row. Can they keep it up?


The answer is, yes. Course number five, dessert, was a real collaboration. First from Nat and The Tennessee Truffle we had Orange Scented Olive Oil cake. And along with that, from Josh and The Smiling Bison we had Banana Pudding. Neither of these was ordinary, and both were extraordinary. The Olive Oil cake was tender and buttery and moist--it smelled as great as it looked, and tasted amazing. With house made lemon ricotta, caramelized cara cara navel, olive oil dust and fennel pollen, it was an exquisite, tasty, sweet but not overly so dessert, quite a hit. And the Banana Pudding was anything but ordinary, served with some pickled blueberries and a vanilla cookie. It was so good I wanted to lick the bowl!  To go along with dessert, Bitters & Brass paired some alvear solera 1927 px sherry & Amaro lucarno. Not sure what all that is, but I am sure that it was good. Five courses, five hits. OMG, I felt like I died and went to heaven.

Of course the wonderful dining experience was made complete by excellent front of the house service, led by Ron Thomas of The Smiling Bison. Courses came and went, dishes cleared, drinks delivered and picked up, silverware refreshed as needed, all was taken care of efficiently and quickly.

This was really an excellent event, a great collaborative dinner with great food and a great pairing with some fine craft cocktails. When you add tax and tip to the $65 price tag, you might think it a bit expensive, but let me tell you this, you absolutely get what you pay for and this was by far perhaps the finest dinner overall that I've ever had. Everything--and I do mean everything--was top notch, from the first bite of an appetizer to the last licking of the banana pudding. The low ABV cocktails were great, and a great idea to keep them low ABV--that too made the dinner so much more enjoyable. All the folks we ate with agreed that it was great. Afterward we visited with a few more, and all we could do is marvel at the wonderful experience we had. It was about  3 1/2 hours well spent, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

I'm a huge fan of both chefs, Josh Oakley of The Smiling Bison and Nat Russell of The Tennessee Truffle. I eat at both their restaurant often, and have never, ever left disappointed. Some of the best stuff I've ever put into my mouth have been at those two establishments. I remember fondly the wonderful Beet Salad from The Bison, and the Pickled Shrimp from The Truffle. But the Collaborative dinner was a cornucopia of the most excellent food I've had, all in one dinner. Did I sort of like it? Hell, yes!  I hope they do it again, and soon. Sign me up, no doubt!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The District

The District is the newest addition to historic downtown Sanford's growing dining scene, and a welcome addition. They opened quietly in March 2017 and I've seen good crowds in there many times since. We ate there twice, first just a few days after they opened, and secondly a few weeks later.


The first bite I put into my mouth at The District was the Shrimp N Grits. It was a good choice. The shrimp were cooked just perfectly. The cheesy grits with bits of andouille sausage were really among the best cheesy grits I've had, and tomato demi glace gave a wonderful, slightly acidic balance to the grits. The shrimp themselves were very tasty, though I did think the portion a bit meager--there were only 5. I have since seen a Facebook post of this same dish showing 6 shrimp, so maybe they changed that since. However, the dish itself was outstanding, so good.


Tommy chose the Braised Short Ribs, and they, too, were a hit. Though the menu says "no substitutions," he asked if he could get potatoes instead of the mushroom risotto--the waiter checked with the chef and was told "no problem." That's great service. The beef itself was very tender, juicy, and full of flavor, served with a rich demi glace. The veggies were a nice mix of crisp-tender carrots, broccoli, and asparagus. The potatoes were really, really good, like top-10 best mashed potatoes ever. The plate was ready to be licked clean when done, it was all that good.


On our second visit, we decided to try some of the appetizers. We began with the Chicken Dip, which we'd heard lots of good things about. Everyone who raves about this was right, this was very good. The slightly warm chicken dip is a mixture of cream cheese, parmesan, red onions, sour cream, peppers, green chilies, grilled sweet corn, and green onions. It is cream, rich, and flavorful. Then when you put it on a homemade dorito, the flavors and textures explode in your mouth. Talk about good, this is really way up there in appetizer-land, we'd order it again in a heartbeat--and I'm sure we will next visit.


Tommy went for the Potato-Leek Soup and it was a good choice. The soup was a bit chunky, which was nice, but still rich and creamy. You definitely tasted the potato and the leek, they were the stars of the dish. You notice the two spoons in the picture? Yes, i had a few bites of this soup and agree, it was wonderful and I'd definitely order it again!


I chose the Tuna Tacos. The presentation, as you can see, was awesome. The sriracha sauce, in faux-asian lettering, was sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds and was a unique way to present the dish and add a user-controlled portion of sriracha. The ahi tuna itself was very good, and even with the accompanying coleslaw of napa cabbage, daikon radish, cucumbers, sesame oil, and wasabi ponzu, the flavor of the rare tuna came through loud and clear. The taste of all the components, as well as the various textures of crisply and creamy, all worked well together, and made this a wonderful taste explosion. I also thought the portion--three tacos--was perfect for the price. If I had one minor compliant, it was that the flour tortillas were just a bit hard and dry--I'm not sure that's a problem easily solved. But overall, it was a very good dish and I'd order it again. 


The District is a beautiful space, a remodelled old building in Sanford's Commercial Business District. The are the second gastropub in downtown and feature a beautiful bar, craft cocktails, and nicely transformed setting. Their opening took a lot longer than planned, and I understand it took a lot of hard work, including removing/redoing the concrete floors and all-new plumbing. The are basically set up as two connected rooms. On the left is a dining area, and on the right is the bar area, with the kitchen presumably behind the bar. We sat in the bar area both times. Our service was good and for a newly opened place, I was surprised and pleased by the lack of any major issues. Both times one of the owners was around to check on us and chat, that was nice as well. I'm sure we'll be going back again and again--there are a few more items on the menu I want to try. They also have a different, lunch menu, which I've yet to try--that is on my "do it soon" list as well. I heartily recommend The District. Give it a try and let me know what you think!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Ricky's Chicken

It was a chilly Saturday afternoon in late January when we decided to give Ricky's Chicken a try. Only open a few weeks, I'd heard some good things on Facebook, and saw some pictures of food that made me want to try it. I'm glad we did. 


The lady behind the counter was very friendly and knowledgeable and quite helpful, since this was our first visit. Upon viewing some pictures of some of the dishes, and upon the recommendation of Ricky himself, we decided to share two things. First up was the Salchipapa, pictured to the right. As we later learned from Ricky, this is a traditional dish from Ecuador and Columbia. It is french fries topped with a mild smoked sausage, and then drizzled with both a fresh crema and some ketchup, which is also doctored up a bit. This was very, very good and we cleaned that plate. The fries were nice, thick cut, traditional skin-on fries, perfectly cooked. The sausage was very flavorful but also quite mild. What really pushed this over the top was the house made crema. I'm not sure what all was in it, but it had a very nice mild flavor, a bit of basil, maybe some buttermilk even, but it was oh, so tasty. And the ketchup added the little kick this needed.


Next we shared a half chicken. The chicken is rotisserie cooked, and it came out right out of the rotisserie. The skin was nice and crispy, and the chicken itself quite tender and juicy, full of flavor. I had the dark meat and a bit of the white, and it was very good--even the white meat was tender and juicy. It was served with white rice, black bean, and plantains. The plantains were nice and sweet and the black beans were pretty traditional black bean--put over the rice they were very tasty. 
We cleaned up the plate and got every last bit of tasty meat off those bones! And by the way, at $7.20, I thought this to be an excellent value. 


We were done eating when Ricky checked in on us and as we chatted just a bit (and before he knew I was a food blogger), he offered us a complimentary slice of his house-made Salted Caramel Cheesecake. Wow, we were surprised, first by the offer (it was his last piece, he said) and then by the taste. It was superb! Now, I am not a huge caramel fan, but this was way good. The slight hint of salt with the sweetness of caramel and cheesecake made an excellent combination, and those flavors did quite the happy dance on my tongue. 


I also managed to get a picture of ricky with his cheesecake. After we were done, we chatted a bit more and I gave him my blog card. I learned that Ricky immigrated to the US some years back. He started out in fast food and some chains, then went to culinary school. More recently he worked at several well known area restaurants. But his real passion is to do his own thing and when the opportunity to open in this Sanford location came his way, he jumped at it. It's a lot of work, he told me--long days, very long days. But he enjoys it tremendously. I'll say this, he sure had a lot of youthful enthusiasm and a passion for his food. If this first visit is any indication, the food he creates will certainly bring him success. 

By the way, I want to go back for his pulled pork. While we were waiting for our first dish, he brought us out a sample of his pulled pork. It was excellent, tender, juicy, and with a nice mouth-feel--this was the real deal pulled pork, pure and simple.  I can't wait to go back and try that as pulled pork is one of my favorite dishes.

Our experience at Ricky's Chicken was great. He is an outgoing and passionate young man and put out some very good food. I sure wish him continued success in this location. It's right in the heart of the Sanford nightlife area, and there is some competition, but it seems a great place to go for a bite or some quick take-out, even late at night. I highly recommend you give it a try, and leave me a comment below as well. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Souper Sanford

Sanford's second Thursday of every month Alive After 5 street party in November was themed "Souper Sanford" and featured a soup contest. Entrants in two categories, Home Cook and Restaurant, each made about 5 gallons of soup. For the price of a $7 spoon and card, AA5 attendees were able to sample some or all of teh 15 soups and vote on their favorites. 

Every month on the second Thursday, historic Sanford's First Street is blocked off from Oak Street to Sanford Avenue and merchants and vendors set up along the street for Central Florida's largest and best monthly street party. Some vendors hand out food samples, some trinkets and promotional material, some offer mini-massages. Often there's a bounce house for kids. The event is kid and dog friendly. There are usually several music venues. And of course, a beer tent. Thousands of knowing area residents gather from 5-8 PM and party in the streets. Each month has a theme, and in November it's Souper Sanford. At the end of the night, the votes were tabulated and winners announced. 

But first, my take on the soups. I sampled all 15 soups and was stuffed by the end of the evening. Here is a list of the soup makers and what they offered: 

  1. Restaurant - Celery City Craft - Beer Cheese soup (of course!)
  2. Restaurant - Christo's - Broccoli Cheese soup
  3. Restaurant - The Breezeway - She-Crab Chowder (last year's winner, if I remember correctly!)
  4. Restaurant - Zorba's - Avgolemono Soup (Greek lemon and chicken flavor)
  5. Home Cook - Angela's African Braiding - Jamaican Chicken soup
  6. Restaurant - Mattie's Delectable Desserts - Seafood Chowder
  7. Home Cook - GCI Guys - Broccoli Cheese soup
  8. Restaurant - Fred's Market - Bell Pepper and Rice soup
  9. Home Cook - Sanford Barber Shop - Gumbo, Louisiana style
  10. Home Cook - Windshield Specialist - Chicken soup
  11. Home Cook - Doc Paper Scissors - Matzo Ball soup
  12. Restaurant - Smiling Bison - Zellwood Corn soup
  13. Home Cook - Magpie's Modern General - New Mexican Chili Chicken soup
  14. Restaurant - Hollerbach's Willow Tree Cafe - Lentil soup
  15. Restaurant - Wop's Hops - Italian Wedding soup
Before I write about my favorites--and I had some--a few general comments. First of all, in general, the competition this year was certainly stepped up. Last year there were a few soups that were just not good, this year, they were all good, some better than others, but none of them lacked seasoning. Second, I'd recommend that for next year the organizers and vendors consider using 1-ounce ladles. 15 soups at 1 ounce apiece is rather more than i can eat, and some gave out closer to 2 ounce portions. I think a one ounce portion is enough and would also level the playing field a bit. 

Now for my favorites in each category. My vote went for the first in each, but it was a hard decision, there were a number of great choices in each category.

Restaurant:

  • Corn soup from The Smiling Bison got my vote here, but only by a hair. The sweet corn flavor was outstanding and the creaminess made this a real standout for me
  • Lentil Soup from Hollerbach's Willow Tree Cafe was a close runner up. Hollerbach's has been making wonderful soups for a long time, and they do not skimp on the ingredients. You can tell this was homemade, nothing from a can or bottle.
  • She-crab soup from The Breezeway, last year's winner, was also pretty gosh darned good.
  • Bell Pepper and Rice soup from Fred's Market was a surprise to me because I am not a bell pepper fan, yet the pepper flavor was very subtle and so i actually enjoyed their soup
Home Cook:
  • New Mexican Chili Chicken soup by Magpie's Modern General was far and above my first choice, in large part due to the carefully roasted chili flavor--it did not overpower the soup, was not overly spicy and in my  mind  was actually the best of all the soups I sampled, and even more so because it was by a home cool. Outstanding and definitely restaurant-quality in my mind.
  • Mazto Ball soup from Doc Paper Scissors was also excellent. The chicken broth made this soup a real standout, it tasted fresh and homemade to me. And the addition of the matzo ball was perfect. 
  • The Gumbo by the Sanford Barber Shop was also a standout in my mind, in part because it seemed very authentic and contained all the flavors I'd expect in a good gumbo without being overly spicy. They did a nice job as well.
And the winners by popular vote were:

Home Cook: Magpie's Modern General's New Mexican Chili Chicken soup.
Restaurant: Fred's Market's Bell Pepper Rice soup.

But again, I have to admin that the competition this year was really stepped up a few notches. There were not soups that I did not enjoy, and I'd have eaten a bowl of any one of them for my dinner. I did sample all 15 and was stuffed at the end of the night. Alive After 5 is one of my favorite monthly events in Sanford and I rarely  miss it, every month on the second Thursday of the month, 5-8 PM. 

By the way, here is my ballot, before I marked my winners and turned it in. Yes, i tried all 15!



Sunday, October 30, 2016

Sanford Brewing Company

After an extensive renovation to an old building and months upon months of anticipation, Sanford Brewing Company (SBC) recently had their soft opening. So far, I'd say it was well worth the wait.

SBC is Sanford's second microbrewery, though they've just opened and have not yet finished a bath of their own beer, they have a number of craft beers on tap. The space is warm and friendly and inviting with some exquisite wood detail (give the custom made bar a look!). The brewing area is clearly visible behind some huge windows and two large garage doors were open on the mild afternoon/evening when we visited, a very welcoming space, for sure. 


We decided to have an early dinner here recently. We started with drinks. Though I originally chose to jsut have some water, i quickly spied some special sodas on their drink menu and chose a homemade raspberry soda. I'm glad I did because it was wonderful, a nice red raspberry flavor was complimented with a bit of mint and some lime juice. Though it was happy hour, our server was not very clear on just what was on happy hour, so when the bill came and i saw that a glass of Moscato was $10, i was a bit surprise. Even in a fairly nice restaurant, $10 for a glass of wine seems excessive. I will say, we were here one time early for a few beers, and they seemed a bit pricey for the size of the pour, too. But time will tell if those prices will draw people. But this time we came for the food, as we've heard good things.

Tommy ordered the SBC burger, your standard burger, but much better than most. He ordered it medium (his preferred temp) but it came out a bit closer to medium rare (my preferred temp) which is probably why I thought it to be great. The bun was nice and soft, too. It was served with lettuce can tomato and came with a side of fries. Tommy thought the burger to be a bit overseasoned, too. The fries are big planks of potatoes. They could have stood about 30 seconds more in the frier to give them a better golden color, but they were indeed delicious and seasoned nicely. 

I ordered a Turkey Carver sandwich. The menu clearly states that this is a "shareable" sandwich and I would certainly agree--it was huge and I ended up taking half of it home. But it was oh-so-good, too. It's a cold sandwich but was very tasty. Served with lettuce, fried green tomato, bacon, and a sort of pimento cheese, it was a very good sandwich, i loved it!  And still am, as a matter of fact. I will say this about the pickles that garnished Tommy's burger and my Turkey Carver--they were pretty bland and not very "pickly." I'm sure they were house made, but they needed a bit more kick, a bit more vinegar, and a bit more time to pickle. They were not that good. I hope they can improve, as home-made pickles can be a real asset to a menu item--these were not. 

I also ordered a side of the onion rings. They were served with a side of a spicy cheese dip that i believe is served with a number of other items. I like the cheese dip, though Tommy thought it a bit too spicy. I did not. The onion rings could use a bit of improvement, though. They were just OK. First of all, they were a bit greasy. The tempura type batter had come off some and the onions themselves (red onions which I liked) were a bit thin, and so not enough onion for the batter, IMHO. I hope that as times goes on they'll use their own beer in the batter, and maybe let the onions sit a bit and dry out (flour would help) before battering them to get a better batter coverage. Mind you, we ate them all and they were tasty, i just thought they (along with the pickles) could use some improvement.

Sanford Brewing Company is very new, and it shows just a bit. But they are also working hard. They've been getting a lot of local attention from friends of ours, and rightly so. The night we were there, some friends came in to eat, and as we were leaving, more friends came by. I think they have a lot of promise, and once they are able to serve their own beers, I think this will be a great addition to the Sanford eating and drinking scene. Our second microbrewery (and a third is on the way) is a hit, and we'll be back, for sure. Give them a try, I recommend them.

El Zocalo

El Zocalo is a new Mexican restaurant in Sanford, opened in the space formerly occupied by Tony's Deli. I am not sure what happened to Tony's, but I never saw more than a person or two in it, any time of day, and was surprised it hung on as long as it did. Nonetheless, the space had gotten a fresh coat of paint and is now a Mexican restaurant. I'd heard some good things about it on Facebook and so we recently decided to give it a try for lunch.


We were quickly greeted and offered to sit wherever we wanted, and in no time at all some fresh salsa with chips appeared. This was pretty good salsa, too. It tasted very fresh, was a bit chunky as a good salsa should be, and had a nice fresh flavor. The cilantro was evident, the onions nice and crispy, and the tomatoes lent a nice, fresh flavor. This was a good start to our meal.

Tommy had a chicken quesadilla and it was very good. The chicken was nice and tender and there was a lot of cheese. There was some lettuce, sour cream, pico de gallo, and guacamole in the center. I had some of the quesadilla and it was very good. The guacamole also had a nice, fresh flavor. It's hard to ruin a quesadilla, and this one was as good as any I've had or made.


I had the three enchilada meal for my lunch. One was ground beef, one shredded beef, and one chicken. It was served with yellow rice and refried beans on the side and topped with the chosen red sauce (green is also available) and some sour cream, and had a small lettuce salad on the side. My least favorite was the ground beef, it was nothing special and i could taste a lot of green pepper in it--not my personal favorite taste. But the other two were very good, the chicken and beef were both tasty and tender. Overall, i really liked my enchilada dinner, and it filled me up. 

It's always a bit dicey to visit a new place while they are still working out the kinks, but I have heard a lot of good about El Zocalo and if my first experience holds true, they may have a good long life in downtown Sanford. My only complaint is the lack of an online presence, I could not find them on the Internet nor on Facebook, and these days, social media is the way to go. But aside from that, we had a nice experience and will return again to try something else. I can't wait!

Wondermade

Though known for their home made marshmallows, Wondermade has recently expanded into ice cream--homemade of course! We've had their ice cream a few times and I decided it's time to write about it, especially since I learned the other night that you can mix and match flavors in a cup! Wow! Eureka! The best of several worlds, nestled in one luscious cup. 


A recent evening "sanfording" (hanging out in downtown Sanford, one of America's best kept secrets, found us wanting a bit of dessert after a great dinner at another local place. Walking off our dinner in downtown Sanford, we found ourselves outside of Wondermade. Now, during the peak of summer heat, they are open late weekend evenings, and often packed. They were busy the night we visited as well. As we perused the selections and taste-tested a few offerings (the cornbread ice cream is very good!), we learned that we could mix and match. So I had the Mint Chocolate Chip topped by Mocha Chip (right) and Tommy had the Salted Caramel topped with Triple Chocolate (should be called Death by Chocolate, it is soooo chocolaty!). We sat outside, watching the world go by, enjoying the night air and enjoying this wonderful ice cream. This is so much better than anything else you can get, in part because it's homemade right there. They have really perfected the art of ice cream and take great care with the flavor. No washed out flavors here, they are all very intense and oh, so good. We ate every last drop and left satisfied. 

Wondermade started out making homemade marshmallows, and they still do a great business with them, many sold on the Internet. But if you're in the neighborhood, do stop by and try the ice cream. I guarantee, you will not be disappointed, and will not leave hungry. By the way, the cup pictured was filled way over the top and for only a mere $4 was a real bargain--it is that good!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Peach's -- Holmes Beach

There are a number of Peach's location in the Sarasota/Bradenton, and I can see why they are so popular, good food, served well, at a reasonable price. This makes them "top notch" in my book.

 I ordered the Ranch Hand Omelet, bacon, ham, sausage, turkey, and a blend of cheeses. It was excellent. The eggs were nicely cooked and not overcooked. The filings were a decent portion and quite tasty. It was served with the requested toasted whole wheat bread and a side of fresh fruit. Everything about this omelet was spot-on, the way it should be. They know how to cook.

I could not pass up a half side-order of sausage gravy and biscuits. It was pretty good, better than a lot of places, but of course not as good as I can make. Still, I'd order it again. I think that it was home made. It could have used a bit more sausage and a bit less gravy, but still, I finished it up, with a bit of help.

Tom had a "real" breakfast, sausage, eggs over medium, sausage links, home fries, and white toast. They eggs were perfectly done, over-medium. Everything was just like it should be. 

Peach's is a very nice place. It's open and airy and light in side. The service was very good, friendly and fast. Our food came out very quick. Our coffee cups were kept full. There was absolutely nothing not to like about this place, and I'd be happy to return, again and again and again! Well done!

Skinny's Place

A hole in the wall, dive place with great food, steps from the beach. Can it get any better than this? Skinny's Place is very popular "fast food"--burgers and brews for the most part. You can get a cold frosty mug of Bud/Bud-light for $1.50, and they have other beers. Sides include fries and onion rings. And there are a number of variations on their 1/4 pound burger, up to and including the Mid Island Pounder--4 patties, if you dare. Make sure to say "mayo" or "no mayo" and the LTOP will be on the side (lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles). There is a small bar and some other eclectic seating, inside and out. Order at the window, give your name, and they'll yell when your order is ready. But oh my, it is so worth it. Cash only, by the way.

There were four of us and we had quite a great lunch here, as you can see from the picture. We all enjoyed our burgers and cheeseburgers immensely. The tater tots were nice, but the onion rings were really very good, nice and thick, a good breading, and came out very hot, yet not too greasy. The burgers? Well, they may not be gourmet, but they sure tasted great. Add the side dressings and I for one, needed no additional condiments such as my normal mustard and ketchup--this burger was just too good to ruin with that.

We were there just before noon on a Sunday in early October, definitely after the "season" is over in Anna Maria Island. Still they were fairly busy, but I'm told that when it's peak season, the place is an absolute madhouse!  I can see why locals and tourists alike would flock to this place. A good burger, an ice cold beer, and only a few steps from the gulf beaches. This is island life. I highly recommend Skinny's. You won't go for the decor or atmosphere, you'll go for the food and be thoroughly satisfied, I am sure of it!


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Anna Maria Oyster Bar

Anna Maria Oyster Bar has, I believe, 3 locations in the Bradenton, FL area. I can see why. The only thing that surprised any locals when we visited is that there was not a wait, but we were there after the "season" ended. Everything about our visit was top notch, we'd go again, for sure.

We were a group of six and were promptly seated, greeted, and told about their specials, drink and food--we arrived during happy hour, luck for us! My cold Jai Alai and all the other drinks arrived promptly. For my dinner I ordered the Salmon Oscar, a nice portion of properly cooked salmon topped with crabmeat stuffing, hollandaise sauce, and asparagus. It was excellent, absolutely fabulous. The salmon was moist and tender, and the crabmeat and hollandaise added to the richness. I had coleslaw for a side and I've never met a coleslaw I didn't like, this was no exception. The fresh green beans, wax beans, and carrots were also very good, nice and crisp. This was a very fine meal in every respect.

Tommy started with the Lobster Bisque, and I had a taste: awesome. The bisque was velvety, smooth and creamy and boasted of a nice rich lobster flavor. It was also served with crackers, and if you knew Tommy, you'd know how important crackers are with his soup!  

A number of the friends we were with had a number of various dishes, including fish chowder which they said was good. As a matter of fact, everyone enjoyed their meals, without a doubt.

Tommy, lucky for me, ordered the AYCE (All You Can Eat) fried shrimp. I say lucky for me because i may have speared on or two of them--or maybe a dozen or two! These shrimp were perfectly, perfectly deep fried, tender, crisp, buttery, and not at all greasy. I don't know how the do it, but I've never seen deep fried shrimp this perfect. A number of our friend had the same and the orders kept coming, promptly. I'd go there again just to order this. I'm telling you, these were truly outstanding. 

We all had a great time at Anna Maria Oyster Bar. They have a few locations and are very popular, we are told. I can see why! 

Star Fish Company

There are two parts to Star Fish Company, the market and a restaurant. Though this review is primarily about the restaurant, we also shopped the market a different day, and I'll comment on that as well, because fresh can't be beat, and their seafood is certainly fresh!


I decided to give the Fried Gulf Shrimp a try, as perfectly cooked shrimp are hard to come by. First off, the shrimp were cooked right, not overly cooked. I had them breaded and deep fried, but they were just a bit greasy, unfortunately. Tasty, but the breading was greasy. The cheesy grits and coleslaw I had to go-with, as well as the hush puppies, were both good.


Tommy started with a bowl of the Seafood Chowder. However, it was a bit on the spicy side, too spicy for him, and I ended up eating most of it. The seafood was mostly fish of some sort, and the chowder was certainly very chili-like, with some corn, onions and a few other veggies. While it was good, it was not great, unless you really like a spicy chowder.

However, Tommy's Grouper Sandwich did not disappoint at all. It was a nicely breaded and fried piece of fish, and not at all greasy. Served with the normal LTO (lettuce, tomato, and onion) on a bun, it was just a delicious sandwich. The fries were good as well. 
This is a real dive sort of place, a hole in the wall, but right on the fishing docks. You order at the counter and give your name, and the dinners come out in waxed cardboard boxes. Find yourself a table or belly up to the small counter area. It's a hard to find place and very popular with the locals.  

Now for the market. We were on Anna Maria Island visiting with my cousins, and on a subsequent day, they were cooking dinner for us. There were six of us all told. Debbie went to Star Fish market for 3# of shrimp and 2# of ahi tuna. OMG. It was all so very good. She lightly seared the tuna and it was among the best tuna i've ever had. Wow. And the shrimp? She prepared them two ways, boiled for peel 'n eat, and scampi, sauteed in butter and garlic--both excellent. I'd say if you're looking for good, fresh, local seafood, check out the Star Fish Seafood Market, you will not be disappointed. 

Sage Biscuit Cafe

I can see now why this place is a highly rated breakfast/lunch spot. We decide to have breakfast/lunch at Sage Biscuit Cafe and I'm so glad we did. We were here on a Friday in late September, definitely after the peak tourist season. Sage Biscuit Cafe is in Bradenton along busy Cortez Avenue, but not at all hard to find and had plenty of parking. They were plenty busy, but not packed, and we were quickly seated and taken well care of. 

I ordered the Fried Green Tomato BLT, and was not disappointed, it was all I hoped it would be. There was a lot of bacon on this sandwich, nice and crispy. The fried green tomato gave it a nice zing and a regular tomato slice added to the tomato taste. The lettuce was very fresh and crunch. And the whole wheat bread was just perfect for this sandwich. I loved it, a lot. It was accompanied by a dish of cottage cheese. A very good sandwich, i'd order this again, no doubt.


Tommy had the Eggs Benedict Capicola and said it was excellent--and the bite I had confirms that. He ordered it on a sage biscuit, though said next time he'd stick with tradition and have it on an English muffin. The sage biscuit was, however, quite tasty. The home fried that accompanied it were very good and not at all greasy. The hollandaise was just what it should be, and along with the creamy poached egg, made a nice counterpoint for the slightly spicy capicola. 


Tommy loves his pancakes, and since we rarely--if ever--have them at home, ordered a single buttermilk pancake to go with his breakfast. It was a very good pancake, tender, flavorful, all that it should be. 

We thoroughly enjoyed our meal here and I'd certainly go back. I can see why it's such a popular place. I encourage you to go and find out for yourself! We loved it.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Don Julio Mexican Kitchen & Tequila Bar

We had dinner last night at Don Julio Mexican Kitchen & Tequila Bar. I'm glad we got there when we did, because our wait was only a few minutes, but there were a number of people waiting when we left--a testament to the popularity of this place on a Friday evening. 

After our very short wait--only a few minutes--we were seated and quickly given some chips and salsa to start. Our waitress was there in what seemed like seconds to take our drink order. We learned that margarita's were on special for $3 so we opted for those. They were in fact very good, nice and refreshing on a summer evening. They appeared quickly and we were ready to order as well. 

The salsa was a bit of a disappointment. It was not bad, but was also not over-the-top good, either. It seemed to me that perhaps canned tomatoes were used? I could see/taste some onion and cilantro, and it had a bit of heat which I enjoyed. I'd have liked it to have been much chunkier and fresher tasting, that's all. It was just OK. But the "OK" with our meal did stop there, as everything else was very good.

I chose to have the Quesadilla Don Julio, and requested a mix of carnitas and chicken for the filling. I was not disappointed. First of all, presentation is everything, and this was a nice presentation, as you can see. There was a side of yellow rice that was good, and also a side "salad" of lettuce, pico de gallo, sour cream and guacamole that was very fresh and refreshing. I loved the balance that it gave to the savory, gooey, cheesy, meaty quesadillas. The quesadillas were excellent. Both the chicken and the carnitas were way over the top tender and good, and it was a nice and cheesy quesadilla. I loved it and had one piece to take home for another day, along with some rice. 

Tommy had the signature Chimichanga with the shredded beef. And again, presentation is the first impression, and the presentation again was marvelous. Take a look at that picture to the right. The deep-fried chimichanga was uniquely shaped--not a traditional rolled up, burrito-sytle, but was filled and gathered at the top, like a sack of sorts--it really was unique and tasty. The chimichanga was sitting on a pond of queso and salsa. It was accompanied by the same sides I had. The flavor was very, very good as well. This was a good dish and Tommy had some to take home for another day as well. We both agreed, we'd eat here again.

The place when we visited was packed, with people usually waiting a bit for tables. But it was also a bit loud. I think because of the noise level, everyone had to shout to make themselves heard. I'd certainly go back for the food, but would probably try for a quieter time, later at night or a weekday, or perhaps lunch or very early dinner. But again, the food was very good. Hopefully we got their on a "bad salsa" day because the salsa is the first impression. Luckily, great food overcame that. Give it a try, let me know what you think....


Wop's Hops Brewing

Don't let the "brewing" in the name fool you, because a few months back, Wop's Hops Brewing expanded into the space next door and now server some gourmet Italian bar food--and more. Wop's Hops Brewing is Sanford's first (and as of this writing, only) local micro brewery. Wop's Hops Brewing crafts English-style ales and does not use fillers, HFCS, GMOs, or other additives--the brew real beer and that is where they got their start. A popular local place, when the next door restaurant closed, Wop's Hops Brewing took the chance and moved into that space and started serving pub food, but good pub food, along with the beer. We recently gave them a try and did not leave disappointed.

After selecting a beer, I ordered the Chicken Pesto Flatbread. I'd been by before during an outdoor event and saw a few of their flatbreads flying out the door. They looked so good and seemed so popular that I already knew I wanted a flatbread--and I was not disappointed. I was surprised, first of all, by the abundance of chicken, and a nice tender chicken here. Usually flatbreads are a bit lean in the meat department, but this was really loaded. I'd say for my taste, perhaps a bit high on the garlic in the pesto, but it was a great and filling dish--I even had some to take home to enjoy another day. I'd get this again, though there are a few other items on the menu I want to try next time--and I know for certain there will be a next time, soon!

Tommy chose the Meatball Sub, served with a pasta side. The pasta side, first of all, was very good, nice and tasty. He also got a side of "gravy" (tomato sauce) for the sub. Overall the sub was good--the meatballs nice and tender and tasty. I thought it would have been better had some of the sauce been served on the sub itself, but that's a personal preference. There was one misstep here, and that's what I consider a procedural step in the kitchen--the bun was slightly burned when they toasted it. Not terribly, horribly burned, but definitely charred a bit too much, I imagine the cheese burned, so that was just a bit off-putting. Not enough to ruin it or send it back, but it showed a bit of lack of attention to detail--if I were chef, I'd have redone it. Perhaps it was because the chef appeared to have friends in the dining room and spent time with them. But it was a bit of a misstep.

Nonetheless and overall, we enjoyed our meal, and both took some portions home, the food was a healthy, full serving. And of course the beer and cider was also very good. Greg and his staff do a great job, and we felt very well taken care of. We'll be back, for sure. And, by the way, I spied someone having nachos. Not Italian, maybe, but definitely bar food, and they looked way good, too. I'll be back for them sooner rather than later.

Oh, and about being Sanford's first and only micro-brewery so far--well, Sanford Brewing Company is getting set up about a block away and will be opening within a month or two with a full kitchen as well, and a smaller place, Inner Compass Brewing Company, will open sometime in the near future a few blocks away. Along with the downtown Sanford Homebrew Shop which supplies all sorts of brewing needs for beer, wine, cider, cheese, etc., and nearby Celery City Craft which has 51 craft beers and ciders on tap plus hundreds more in bottles and cans (and Celery City is set to expand later this year into a much larger space), Sanford is now truly a craft beer lovers destination. But the granddaddy of them all is Wop's Hops Brewing, they really started it all for those who truly treasure the experience of drinking craft beers and ciders. Come for the beer, stay for the food and fun, you won't be disappointed. They have a great outdoor patio which is fun in the cooler months and evenings, and often have live entertainment as well. You will not be disappointed, I guarantee it!

Dreamy Cakes

I've stopped a Dreamy Cakes several times, and right now I wish I'd taken some photos of their unique interior. It's a very quaint, warm, and inviting place. When you step into Dreamy Cakes, you feel like you've stepped outside an old home that's been converted into a shop/restaurant--you are looking at the exterior of a home they've built inside. It's really worth stopping in just to see it.

We've had their cupcakes a few times, but recently when my husband was working nearby and I had the day off, I stopped by to get lunch for him, to go. First I got the ham and cheese croissant. It was nice and buttery, and we split it, so it was filling. I do wish it'd had a bit more ham (and cheese, since I'm a cheese-a-holic), but it wast tasty. Nothing highly special, but definitely tasty and hit the spot. 

But of course the main draw here is their bakery, and at that they surely excel. Tommy has the sweet tooth in our house, and so I ordered for him a Salted Caramel Chocolate Cupcake. OMG, it was to die for. First, let me apologize for the picture, the top got a bit smushed in the transport. But we've had this and other cupcakes at Dreamy Cakes before, and they really are good--tender, moist, tasty, and above all, highly sugary, topped "mile high" with a light, fluffy frosting. The presentation sure is wonderful, but the tasty very good. 

They have another item on their lunch menu that i want to try, a Walnut Chicken Waldorf salad that I've heard great things about--I'll have to give that a try next time, and I'm sure there'll be a next time. 

So next time you have a sweet tooth, be sure to try Dreamy Cakes, I'm sure they'll satisfy that craving. And lunch is pretty good, too. I think I'd eat in next time, just to enjoy the unique and warm outdoor-indoor feeling.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

La Spada's

I'd heard a lot of good things about La Spada's, so I finally decided to check them out for myself. The sandwich I had was indeed very good, but there were a few missteps along the way, too, so I'm not sure I'll be going back.

First of all the food.... I ordered the Mushroom Cheesesteak, basically a Philly cheesesteak (steak, cheese, onions) with the addition of mushrooms. It was a very good sandwich, very, very good--all that a Philly cheesesteak should be, I'd say. The steak was flavorful, the mushrooms and onions hot and adding a lot of flavor, and the cheese, definitely good, typical American type cheese. The bread it was on was up to the task of holding up to such a good sandwich, too. I ordered the small which the menu said was 8", but for some reason, when i picked it up, it was the 10". Not a big deal, and I managed to eat it all, but not exactly what i ordered. I guess the order taker was not paying good attention....


Tommy had the cheesesteak special, an 8" with fries and a drink. The sandwich was very good, and the fries as well, nice and hot, though the fries were rather ordinary. I'd guess they come frozen in a bag or the like. His came with a drink, and I ordered a drink separate. 

Now, to be honest, both the sandwiches were very, very good. I had no qualms about the quality of the sandwich. But there were a few other issues that I had.

First of all, when we got there, the place is pretty "ordinary" on the outside. Let's just call it tired. The outside could use a bit of care. There's a corner by the door that just looks neglected. It could use a plant or two, something to say "we care about the looks of this place. Secondly, the interior is a bit dated. The "wallpaper" is peeling in places, it could use some attention. A few carpets or rugs were still piled atop a garbage can. I got the impression that "we don't really care a lot about how this place looks."

When we found a table, we had to clean it ourselves. In our whole time there, no one came out and wiped any of the tables. Even though they had time to stand around. Again, not once did anyone come out of the kitchen area--even though at times they were standing around--to pay attention to and clean up the dining area. This, to my mind, is a cardinal sin. 

The three employees there were not very professional looking. All were wearing whatever t-shirt they decided to wear, nothing that said "we are La Spada's." I watched while one employee, wearing gloves from (I assume) handling food, came out and did some stuff in a freezer out front, still wearing the same gloves, then went back behind the counter, and continued to work with food, still wearing those same gloves. 

Upon leaving, I took a good look at the grill area. The wall behind the flat-top seemed, to me, a bit dirty with a greasy build up. The stainless front of teh grill seemed to be dirty, more than just from the day's activity, I'd guess. As we were sitting and eating, I noticed the windows were really dirty. The whole interior looks like no one really cares a lot or cleans a lot. It was really rather dirty and dingy, overall.

On top of that, the counter was cluttered, the signage was messy and sloppy, and the whole feeling I had while there as "we don't really care a lot." The "daily specials" sign at the counter had been edited with sticker over the prices--I'll assume raising prices. But at any rate, it was sloppy and unprofessional. There were a bunch of signs there, one falling off. It just looked sloppy and messy. Very unprofessional, like a really old, greasy diner that is past its prime.

So, overall, while the food was good, I was totally unimpressed by the decor, the cleanliness, and the unprofessionalness of the employees. It just did not impress me at all. Will I go back? I doubt it. I know where to get an equally good cheesesteak in a better maintained atmosphere in Sanford. Should you go there? Well, that's up to you. The food was good, but the service and value were lacking, in my mind. But go and see for yourself. Feel free to disagree with me. But take a good look around when you go there and see if you see what I saw. And be ready to sit at a dirty table or clean it yourself--that's what we experienced.  



La Spada's

I'd heard a lot of good things about La Spada's, so I finally decided to check them out for myself. The sandwich I had was indeed very good, but there were a few missteps along the way, too, so I'm not sure I'll be going back.

First of all the food.... I ordered the Mushroom Cheesesteak, basically a Philly cheesesteak (steak, cheese, onions) with the addition of mushrooms. It was a very good sandwich, very, very good--all that a Philly cheesesteak should be, I'd say. The steak was flavorful, the mushrooms and onions hot and adding a lot of flavor, and the cheese, definitely good, typical American type cheese. The bread it was on was up to the task of holding up to such a good sandwich, too. I ordered the small which the menu said was 8", but for some reason, when i picked it up, it was the 10". Not a big deal, and I managed to eat it all, but not exactly what i ordered. I guess the order taker was not paying good attention....


Tommy had the cheesesteak special, an 8" with fries and a drink. The sandwich was very good, and the fries as well, nice and hot, though the fries were rather ordinary. I'd guess they come frozen in a bag or the like. His came with a drink, and I ordered a drink separate. 

Now, to be honest, both the sandwiches were very, very good. I had no qualms about the quality of the sandwich. But there were a few other issues that I had.

First of all, when we got there, the place is pretty "ordinary" on the outside. Let's just call it tired. The outside could use a bit of care. There's a corner by the door that just looks neglected. It could use a plant or two, something to say "we care about the looks of this place. Secondly, the interior is a bit dated. The "wallpaper" is peeling in places, it could use some attention. A few carpets or rugs were still piled atop a garbage can. I got the impression that "we don't really care a lot about how this place looks."

When we found a table, we had to clean it ourselves. In our whole time there, no one came out and wiped any of the tables. Even though they had time to stand around. Again, not once did anyone come out of the kitchen area--even though at times they were standing around--to pay attention to and clean up the dining area. This, to my mind, is a cardinal sin. 

The three employees there were not very professional looking. All were wearing whatever t-shirt they decided to wear, nothing that said "we are La Spada's." I watched while one employee, wearing gloves from (I assume) handling food, came out and did some stuff in a freezer out front, still wearing the same gloves, then went back behind the counter, and continued to work with food, still wearing those same gloves. 

Upon leaving, I took a good look at the grill area. The wall behind the flat-top seemed, to me, a bit dirty with a greasy build up. The stainless front of teh grill seemed to be dirty, more than just from the day's activity, I'd guess. As we were sitting and eating, I noticed the windows were really dirty. The whole interior looks like no one really cares a lot or cleans a lot. It was really rather dirty and dingy, overall.

On top of that, the counter was cluttered, the signage was messy and sloppy, and the whole feeling I had while there as "we don't really care a lot." The "daily specials" sign at the counter had been edited with sticker over the prices--I'll assume raising prices. But at any rate, it was sloppy and unprofessional. There were a bunch of signs there, one falling off. It just looked sloppy and messy. Very unprofessional, like a really old, greasy diner that is past its prime.

So, overall, while the food was good, I was totally unimpressed by the decor, the cleanliness, and the unprofessionalness of the employees. It just did not impress me at all. Will I go back? I doubt it. I know where to get an equally good cheesesteak in a better maintained atmosphere in Sanford. Should you go there? Well, that's up to you. The food was good, but the service and value were lacking, in my mind. But go and see for yourself. Feel free to disagree with me. But take a good look around when you go there and see if you see what I saw. And be ready to sit at a dirty table or clean it yourself--that's what we experienced.