Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Open Fire Grilled Brazilian Food Truck

Coming from a city (Chicago) that's unapologetically apathetic towards a recent popular culinary trend that the rest of the country somehow manages to embrace, I'm constantly amazed by the number and diversity of food trucks in the greater Tampa Bay area. Case in point - whle driving past our local mall the other day, I happened to just notice out of the corner of my eye what appeared to be a food truck nestled into a tight space between the Upper Tampa Bay hiking trail and a bike shop, nearly invisible unless you were seeking it out. Upon some further investigation, I determined that the truck (called Open Fire Grilled Brazilian) specializes in grilled meats like one would find at Brazilian steakhouses, you know, the ones with gaucho waiters running around the dining room brandishing giant swords of various delectable beef, pork, and other cuts for mass consumption. Excited to have discovered such interesting eats mere minutes from the Canteen, I vowed to check it out for lunch one Thursday afternoon while Hackknifette stayed late at preschool for Lunch Bunch.

Getting to the truck is a little tricky - it's typically parked next to the trail at 7424 Edgemere Road on the property of Citrus Park Bikes, which is accessible from a frontage road that runs along Gunn Highway. I couldn't tell if the unmarked area where I parked on Edgemere was for local residents or for trail users (maybe both); regardless, I was pleasantly surprised to find no waiting at the height of the lunch rush. Given the lack of customers (which, I suppose, could also be taken as a bad sign), the owner Cesar was able to give me a detailed rundown of his food offerings and a little about his personal history. He grew up in southern Brazil learning about grilling meat from the older relatives in the family. At a relatively young age, he joined a company opening steakhouses in Brazil and excelled to the point where his bosses sent him up to Miami to oversee what turned out to be the first Brazilian steakhouse in America (this was back in 1996). Since then, he's bounced around North America consulting on various churrascario projects until eventually settling down in Tampa with his own food truck that he started this past November. The space constraints of operating a mobile restaurant force him to keep his menu relatively simple - patrons can order picanha (top sirloin with a nice strip of fat across the edge), filet mignon, marinated chicken, or skirt steak, either a value portion of the meat on a skewer with pita bread or a larger serving with black beans, white rice, something called farofa (yucca flour mixed with bacon and herbs), and a piquant vinaigrette. I opted to go whole hog (so to speak) and chose the full-size portion of picanha with all the trimmings, plus a can of Guarana Antarctica (Brazil's #2 soda behind Coke, which contains the quasi-cherry flavored extract of the guarana plant from the Amazon Basin - it also has more caffeine than coffee) to wash it down.

I raced home to eat before everything got cold and dug in (see photo above). The meat was cooked perfectly to order (medium rare), well seasoned, and generally delicious, with the acidic vinaigrette providing a nice palate cleanser. Both the black beans and rice, two items that can be bland in the wrong hands, were equally good, making me suspicious that they had been gloriously dosed with a generous helping of both salt and fat (bacon grease?). Even the farofa was very tasty, if not a little grainy - it reminded me of the bread crumb and butter mixtures that have traditionally topped many Betty Crocker casseroles since the 1950s (and I mean that in the best possible sense) and I'm not entirely sure I was using it correctly (does it go on the meat? on the rice? by itself? all of the above?). In any case, Cesar's cooking appears to be the real deal and I'm greatly looking forward to trying more on another lunch visit (or hiring him to cater my next party - he told me that catering allows him to prepare a larger selection of items and provides the bulk of his business)...

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Highway 60 Eats

My dad (Mr. Hackknife, if you prefer) lives in Vero Beach, which is about a 3 hour-drive almost straight east from the Canteen (it's funny to think that we can travel from the Gulf of Mexico clear to the Atlantic Ocean side of the state in a relatively short amount of time). As a result, we've made several car trips over there since we moved, discovering fairly quickly that the most direct route between Tampa and Vero is Florida State Route 60. Route 60 literally runs from one coast to the other, beginning on the Gulf in Clearwater and terminating on the beach (or thereabouts) in downtown Vero. In between, you have downtown Tampa, a few nearby suburbs (namely Brandon and Valrico), two moderate-sized towns (Bartow and Lake Wales), and, for long stretches, not much besides pre-Everglades wetland, scrubby cattle ranches, orange groves, and the occasional trailer park until you cross I-95 on the far end. Usually we're hurtling across this vast landscape as fast as humanly possible (you know, before the batteries in the portable DVD players run out) to reach our destination; however, on our latest journey over the past weekend, Hackknife Jr. and I were by ourselves (the missus and Hackknifette were in Chicago for my sister's wedding shower), so we could be a little leisurely in our travels for a change. As I'm always on the lookout for unique and interesting eats, I'd noticed a lonely Mexican grocery/taqueria perched on the outskirts of Lake Wales (no doubt there for the immigrant fruit pickers who support the local citrus industry) and made a mental note to stop in at some point. This was likely the best chance I'd get to do so, and after promising Hackknife Jr. a Happy Meal if he could be patient for a bit while Daddy consumed a few backroom tacos, we pulled into the parking lot (the address is 2415 State Road 60 in case you're ever in the neighborhood) just after noon on Sunday.

The taqueria in the store is named La Botana (snack or appetizer, in Spanish) and is, in fact, set up in the back corner, with a take-out counter fronted by a handful of tables. Although there weren't a lot of customers, the kitchen was buzzing with activity, and, fortunately, one of the two hardworking ladies there was able to help me in English with my order. Menu offerings included soups, shrimp cocktail, tortas, burritos, and more, but I stuck with the basic tacos, choosing al pastor, carne asada, and lengue to go with a giant-sized horchata poured from a clear plastic cooler next to the cash register.

When the other server brought out my tacos, I was surprised to see a foam plate with four lengue and a separate one with three asada, with no al pastor in sight. After a briefly futile exchange with her during which I tried to explain my order details (she apparently spoke little English), she grabbed one of the asada tacos and returned it to the kitchen, leaving me with the six total that you see in the photo above (still not bad for less than $7 altogether). Giving up and digging in, I found the lengue meat to be a little dry and chewy (clearly not the best I've had), but the asada was fantastic, consisting of charred beefy and fatty bits that melded perfectly with the simple toppings (onion, cilantro, and a cup of green salsa with a solid kick to it). I suspect that the small corn tortillas were prefab; however, I'd gladly stop by again for the asada tacos and perhaps a giant Torta Milanese, which I saw another customer attempting to subdue while we were there.

With our lunch cravings now sated, we continued on our trip back home towards Tampa. Usually, we make a right turn in Bartow to eventually pick up the expressway, however, this time, I stayed on Route 60 for another half an hour, rolling through the phosphate industrial corridor until we reached the heavily-trafficked retail stretch of Brandon. Our target? The Revolution Ice Cream Company, a much-lauded Bay Area sweet treat joint tucked into a quiet strip mall at 220 W. Brandon Blvd. The folks at Revolution have become known for their inventive and whimsical ice cream flavors not seen elsewhere, such as Curried Sky (vanilla with curried toasted coconut), Porky's Delight (vanilla with bacon bits and bacon brittle), and Girlscouts on Espresso (espresso with Tagalong cookies mixed in), not to mention certain "adult only" varieties with various alcoholic liqueurs added that might be available on a given day (see photo of flavor cards posted below).

Hackknife Jr. gorged himself on a scoop of Chocolate Shock (chocolate ice cream with fudge, chocolate chips, and brownie pieces) while I tried out the house's version of banana pudding with a little fudge sauce drizzled on top. The store manager mentioned that a Revolution food truck was close to making its maiden voyage, so we shouldn't have to wait for another trip down Route 60 to get our next batch - it'll hopefully come straight to us...

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Ultimate Spaghetti with Clams

Because my kids are fussy eaters, we rely on a lot of pasta dishes here at the Canteen, although most of the time I end up setting aside a bowlful of plain noodles for them before adding the rest to whatever mélange of ingredients I happen to be throwing together. The frequency of pasta meals is high, but the number of noodle recipes I fall back on is not - in actuality, there are probably less than 10 in my regular rotation (Bucatini alla Amatricana, noodles with pesto, cacio e pepe, Shrimp Gambino, and baked spaghetti immediately come to mind). It is with that mindset that I approached Mrs. Hackknife one Saturday afternoon and asked her to peruse the noodle chapter of my Tyler Florence Ultimate cookbook to pick a new recipe for the coming week. What she chose was his ultimate spaghetti with clams, a tasty and simple dish combining cherry tomatoes with pancetta, garlic, white wine, basil, crushed red pepper, and littleneck clams, which are usually in abundance at Florida supermarkets. Wanting to get fresh clams, I waited until the day of cooking before heading over to the local Publix seafood counter to get my quarry of about 25 littlenecks, which I was reassured by the clerk would stay alive in the refrigerator as long as I kept them in their foam tray with holes punched in the plastic cover so they wouldn't suffocate. I dutifully brought them home and carefully placed them in the fridge with what I deemed to be adequate ventilation between the egg carton and containers of yogurt. When the time came to make dinner, I followed Tyler's instructions of cooking the bulk of the dish in the oven for about 10 minutes until the clams opened. Except they didn't really open. Even after 20 minutes of roasting, all I could see was one lonely clam that had thrust its gaping maw wide and several others with only a slight hint of surrender. Now keep in mind that I don't have a ton of experience with shellfish, but I'd read enough to know that you're not supposed to eat clams or mussels that don't open during cooking, the reason being that the dead (i.e., rotten) ones don't panic like their live (i.e., fresh) brethren when exposed to extreme heat, thus remaining closed. So here I was staring at a beautiful bowl of finished pasta (see photo above) trying to decide what to do with all of these suspect, potentially bacteria-loaded clams. I sniffed and ate the single open one - it was fine; good, in fact. I decided to pry open a few of the ones that had slightly yielded, which was surprisingly difficult without the aid of power tools. These, too, tasted just as I thought they should, briny and a little chewy. After struggling with a couple more, I opted to pull the remainder out of the dish and disposed them, polished off the rest of my pasta bowl, and began patiently waiting for the paralytic toxic plasmosis (or whatever was going to invade my body) to kick in. Fortunately, nothing bad ever happened and I was able to eat the leftovers (sans clams, but presumably bathed in the clam juices left behind) relatively fear-free. Given the ease and richness of the recipe (the wine, tomatoes, garlic, pancetta, and seafood all come together beautifully), I'd say that it's earned a place in my regular noodle rotation and I'll simply hope for cooperative shellfish in the next iteration...

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Elevage/Chocolate Pi (at the Epicurean Hotel)

When we last ate at Bern's Steak House a few months ago, the missus and I couldn't help but notice the massive construction project going on across Howard Street from the restaurant. This was the highly-anticipated (at least by me) Epicurean Hotel, a food-themed venture conceived by the folks at Bern's combining boutique digs (137 rooms' worth, presumably to give patrons overserved on fine Red Bordeaux a nearby place to crash), a culinary classroom (the Epicurean "Theatre"), a spa, a new home for their wine/spirits business, a hip bakery (more on that in a bit), a rooftop bar, and, of course, a new eatery. Elevage (1207 S. Howard St.), which opened in December along with the rest of the hotel complex, is helmed by Sideburn's head chef Chad Johnson and is described as offering elevated comfort food from all corners of the globe, a place somewhere between the old-school steakhouse experience across the road and the innovative modern dining coming from M. Johnson's other kitchen. Although a few of the early reviews for the restaurant were less than stellar, the menu and concepts were intriguing enough for me to choose Elevage as the place to celebrate my (redacted)nd birthday last weekend.

Both the food and the service were taking some hits in the local foodie press, but none of this was immediately evident when we arrived for our 6:30 reservation (the hotel looks great, by the way). As I settled in with a pint of my new favorite beer, Lagunitas Censored Copper Ale, Mrs. Hackknife and I selected two appetizers to start, an antique flour sifter full of assorted housemade breads (baguette, rye, and something akin to toasted white bread) with strawberry butter and a rich jar of potted rabbit rillette (see photo below).

The rillette was a slurry of shredded rabbit meat cooked with foie gras mousse and garnished with cornichons/crostini, quite delicious, although the greens added to the pot made spreading a hindrance (I think they'd be better served just putting the greens on the side). Next up was our salads - I don't normally order Caesar, but the bottarga vinaigrette dressing sucked me in and this version was terrific, a collection of simple ingredients (lettuce, radish, dressing, croutons, and shaved parmesan) that absolutely sang together:

Mrs. Hackknife was also pleased with her traditional wedge salad, lettuce topped with Bay Blue cheese, bacon, cherry tomatoes, warm mustard/chive dressing, and a hard-boiled egg for good measure:

The entrees were a little on the pricey side, but spectacular nonetheless. I had eaten a burger for lunch that day and swore that I wouldn't get another for dinner; however, the Elevage "burger" is more of an experience not to be missed. Called "Duck, Duck, Goose" on the menu, the meat patty (served on a toasted brioche) is shredded duck meat formed around a core of foie gras and goose confit. I recall having a similar burger in Vegas at the now-departed Daniel Boulud Bistro in the Wynn, but this one was clearly superior, and I made sure to direct all of the dripping fowl juices onto the fries (waste not, want not), which were good and made better by the black currant ketchup.

Mrs. Hackknife ordered the lamb shoulder lasagna, shredded lamb mixed with chestnuts, spinach, tallegio cheese, Greek oregano, and housemade noodles. She was kind enough to share a bite with me and also let me have the leftovers for lunch a couple of days later.

At this point, we reached our one sour note of the meal. I ordered us a side of Tuscan kale to go with the entrees - I make a similar version of this at home with spinach instead of kale and it had a delicious flavor; unfortunately, the kale was undercooked to the point of nearly being inedible. We had to send it back and our server took it off the bill.

Instead of each ordering a separate dessert, we agreed to share a signature banana caramel tart and then wander over to Chocolate Pi for some sweets to-go. Pasty chef Kim Yelvington (who runs the show at Bern's Harry Waugh Dessert Room) manages both the dessert program at Elevage and oversees activities at Chocolate Pi. Evidently, she knows her craft well as the tart (paired with caramel sauce and Graham cracker powder) was great:

Chocolate Pi offers a number of French-themed treats (like macarons) and some that are not so French (like ice cream and homemade sodas). After much deliberation, we settled on a few macarons to bring home, specifically rose petal, salted caramel, blueberry-lemon, and pink velvet (cream cheese plus chocolate ganache). Not the best macarons ever, but definitely among the tops you'll find in this nook of the tropics.

At some point, I'll need to look into the cooking classes that the Epicurean has scheduled; until then, it's comforting to know that we now have more eating, drinking, and sleeping options if we ever find ourselves rudderless in South Tampa...

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Cask & Larder (Revisited) - Winter Park

During the year that we've had to survey the culinary landscape of Central Florida, Mrs. Hackknife and I have discovered a number of restaurants that warrant multiple visits; one of them, Cask & Larder in Winter Park, received such a visit from us this past Sunday as we met up for brunch with my sister and her friend (in town for Spring Break). Since our first experience with C&L last August entailed a thorough sampling of their lunch offerings, my plan this time was to focus more on breakfast items, which we did at first by sharing a "bakeshop on a board", consisting of decadent crumb cake, two giant macarons (pecan stuffed with a bourbon buttercream), a monkey bread that puts anything Cinnabon ever did to complete shame, and homemade glazed caramel donut holes. While the remainder of the table continued with the breakfast theme (most of them opted for the brioche french toast, served in a large baking dish with roasted apples, granola, bacon, bourbon maple syrup, and brown butter glaze - and yes, it was as good as it sounds), I couldn't help but to order C&L's special version of pasta carbonara (see photo above). In this case, cavatelli made from stinging nettle (a plant with skin irritating properties that happens to be highly nutritious - cooking the leaves neutralizes the irritants) stood in for the usual fettucine and was quite tasty in spite of its earthworm-like appearance. Other additions to the dish included lamb bacon (which is breakfast, right?), watercress, peas, baby carrots that looked alarmingly like twigs, shaved parmesan, trout roe (for a briny touch), and a light cream sauce. When washed down with a breakfast beverage (a Long Overdue Porter, made on the premises in the attached brewery), this made for a fine brunch. Even the progeny were happy as the kitchen made for them custom plates of scrambled eggs with what was likely the best bacon they'll ever encounter. All told, it appears to me that C&L has conquered both breakfast and lunch, and I can't imagine that dinner would be safe, either...

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

edison food+drink lab

For those of you who are not local to Tampa, every year from January through March a whole collection of events take place that are associated with Gasparilla, our mini-Mardi Gras with a distinct pirate theme. No raucous celebration is complete without parades, and Gasparilla has three of them, from the tame (toddlers only) to the raging (think adults in period costumes fueled by toxic amounts of alcohol). There's a music-fest, a fun run, a film festival, a brunch, a mock invasion in which the mayor gets kidnapped (don't ask), an art fair, and probably several others that are less publicized. Since we're in the process of remodeling our living room here at the Canteen, it's the art fair that caught Mrs. Hackknife's attention and drew us downtown one Saturday afternoon seeking some sort of wall hanging for the space above the piano. Sadly, I didn't notice a single pirate-related item for sale (where were the velvet paintings of Blackbeard?); however, the available offerings were otherwise decent and we settled on a large-format photo of a sandy Pensacola beach at sunset (or is it sunrise?). After dropping the family off back home, we needed to return downtown to pick up our purchase and decided to stay there for dinner, popping into edison food+drink lab, located a short distance from the art fair off of Kennedy Avenue (912 W. Kennedy, to be exact).

edison (the lowercase "e" is intentional, by the way) has been on my dining radar since we made the move south - founder and executive chef Jeannie Pierola spent many years honing her craft at Tampa institutions Bern's and SideBern's before striking out on her own, opening her current venture in 2012. The restaurant's name comes from the nearest cross street, but Chef Pierola embraced the spirit of the famous namesake inventor to build her entire concept, creating a culinary experience heavy on innovation (for example, the menus are all designed with a chemistry lab motif and you can order drinks in a flask, among other cute touches). Her reputation for creating modern dishes with exacting techniques has not gone unnoticed in town (there are only a handful of chefs doing this sort of thing here), so the missus and I were excited to finally try it out.

The space is spare and energetic to the point of being a little rowdy, with not a lot of room for mingling. We were seated near the kitchen (which also appeared to be improbably small) and Chef Pierola was there at the pass, putting finishing touches on plates as they made their way through. In addition to inventive cuisine, edison is also known for its unusual cocktail program, which isn't something I normally value, but my curiosity was piqued enough to order a Desert Lily, containing everyone's favorite New Mexico bubbly (Gruet Brut), plus Astral Tequila Blanco, lemon juice, and rosemary syrup (the drink was refreshing, although I could have done without the actual rosemary sprig in the glass that managed to find its way into my mouth when I wasn't paying attention). Mrs. Hackknife equally enjoyed her Vieux Carre, a current interpretation of a classic cocktail featuring Mitchter's Single Barrel Rye, Benedictine Liqueur, Germain-Robin Brandy, Dolin Rouge Vermouth, and Peychaud's Bitters.

Tastebuds sufficiently primed, we now took on the task of wading through the menu, which is segregated into small plates (spark, cold start, and hot start) and entrees (soluble/solid and large format). We quickly realized that edison is one of those places where we could easily just order one of everything, so to make life simpler, we limited ourselves to mainly small plates for this first visit, starting out with a spectacular trio of goat cheese truffles stuffed with a filling of Medjool dates and foie gras, dusted with fennel pollen, and paired with toasted baguette rounds for spreading (spark, indeed!):

Good, but not quite as spectacular was Spark #2, another trio of items, this time thin slices of Benton's aged ham nestled into sweet potato biscuits and garnished with pickled mustard seed and goat's milk cajeta (a sweet caramel sauce). While tasty, the biscuits became very crumbly upon handling, although the combination of the ham with caramel sauce is a new classic that (mark my words) will somehow find its way into my home kitchen:

Two of the hot start dishes followed. First up was a crispy pork belly terrine containing an unknown stuffing (maybe ground-up head cheese?) with fennel pollen polenta, radicchio fennel agrodolce, bread and butter apples, and fennel oil. From the richness of the terrine to the perfect polenta (daresay the best I've ever had?) to the palate-cleansing radicchio, I absolutely loved everything about this plate. Mrs. Hackknife had a slight preference for our other hot start, cracked conch and bacon fritters (which I found to be a little heavy) paired with pickled mustard seed and burnt honey dijonnaise (both dishes can be seen in the photo below):

We opted to go for a light course before diving into dessert, choosing a lump crab and butter lettuce salad with avocado, heart of palm, cucumbers, pickled strawberries, and goat milk ranch dressing. The salad was bright and refreshing, just was the doctor (or, in this case, nutritionist) ordered:

Our server brought over a separate menu for desserts, which included a number of tempting homemade ice creams (think pb&j or sweet potato/toasted marshmallow) as well as several original creations. We first picked the sugar-crusted butter cake garnished with brown butter ice cream, pistachios, orange segments, toffee sauce, and pellets of meringue (all of it amazing):

We just couldn't leave without trying the house's most famous dessert, homemade crullers with cardamom glaze, carrot ice cream, and powdered white raisin puree. The crullers made me think of the breading that surrounds the sweet and sour chicken from the local Chinese take-out joint (in the best possible way, not an oil bomb):

Clearly, edison tops a number of the local food press's "Best of" dining lists for good reason. After our experience, I have no problem declaring that it's on our personal short list of best restaurants in Tampa and I sincerely hope we'll be able to return before Gasparilla comes rolling around again next year...

Monday, March 10, 2014

Icebox Lemon Cream Pie

Back when the Midwest's summer was just getting cranked up last year (and Florida's was already in full swing), Chicago Magazine ran a picnic article with recipes for two scrumptious-sounding desserts: salted caramel brownies from pastry chef extraordinaire Gale Gand and an icebox lemon cream pie from the good folks over at Bang Bang Pie Shop in Logan Square. I have to admit that I'd be hard-pressed to find a better brownie than my mother-in-law's (and I'm not being coerced to say that, either), but the pie definitely caught my attention primarily due to the source - I'd never had the pleasure of trying a Bang Bang pie before we left town, however, the word on the street is that they're a serious rival to my favorite Chicago pie people, Hoosier Mama. So, with anticipation in my belly, I set out to re-create the icebox pie for some dinner guests that Mrs. Hackknife had invited over one Thursday evening not too long ago.

This was my first ever homemade Graham cracker crust - I'd heard it was pretty simple (just a combination of cracker crumbs, sugar, and butter) and it was. Keebler even sells boxes of pre-crushed Graham crackers for the home cook without a mallet or rolling pin to do their own dirty work. Once the crust is baked and cooled, the filling isn't much more difficult, although I ran into a little trouble when separating out the egg yolks from the whites. The recipe calls for 5 egg yolks, which is exactly what I had in the fridge until I lost one in the garbage can during the separation process. After a brief panicked moment during which I actually considered digging the soiled yolk out of the trash, sanity gripped me and I decided to simply adjust down the ingredients to account for one less egg and hope for the best. As it turns out, I needn't have worried - the filling level in the pie shell was a bit paltry, but the taste was just fine (as you can see in the photo above, there wasn't much left after a few days), so good, in fact, that I'm not putting this pie in my regular rotation for cookout/picnic-themed desserts. My hope is that the locals here in Florida will embrace it since the flavor is pretty darn close to our beloved Key lime pie...