Thursday, April 16, 2015

Locale Market

After our stellar meal at Farmtable Kitchen, the missus and I returned to Locale Market a few weeks later for lunch at the upstairs wine bar with some friends. The market's main entrance is via the mall's expansive courtyard, but patrons can also enter through an entrance along 2nd Avenue N.

Once inside, you'll encounter wall-to-wall shelving and cases of products ranging from fresh pasta, craft beer, produce, sandwiches to-go, seafood, meats, cheese, bakery goods, prepared salads, ice cream, coffee - the list goes on and on.

We coincidentally timed our walkthrough while Chef Matt was performing surgery on another swordfish, this time downstairs at the seafood counter to the delight of onlookers (I nearly backed into the pointy bill when I was contemplating various flavors at the gelato bar - fortunately, the safety lemon prevented me from having to make an awkward and unscheduled visit to the proctologist).

Piscine crisis averted, I ended up choosing the Nutella gelato. It was smooth, creamy, and refreshing.

Our food at lunch was delectable as well (no, I didn't have dessert first - I'm going slightly out of sequence). The table all shared an appetizer plate of what's described as "malfatti" on the menu (which translates to "poorly made" from Italian), gnarled and crispy fried sheets of fresh pasta sprinkled with parmesan and local Anna Maria Island bottarga, then served with a dollop of herb foam. My suspicion is that the pasta sheets used in this dish are discarded, off-spec orphans (hence the name), but you certainly can't tell from the taste that anything went awry in the kitchen.

The bowl of dark tagliatelle with Key West shrimp and Two Docks clams in a wine-butter sauce that I had for my entree was definitely ON spec. Nothing to see here (I mean, my plate was empty in a hurry).

I promise that the next blog posting will not involve Farmtable, Locale Market, or anything remotely related to St. Petersburg. I don't want to get into a rut...

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Farmtable Kitchen (Locale Market)

The present time is April 2015. I've now had the pleasure of exploring Tampa Bay area cuisine for a full two years and I've learned a lot, like Cuban restaurants are as ubiquitous here as hot dog stands in Chicago and Florida might actually offer beef that's as impressive as the seafood that gets pulled from its surrounding waters. Mrs. H. and I have had (among other things) elegant tasting menus, down-n-dirty tacos, sublime pho, tasty grouper, spicy datil peppers, deviled crab, sofkee, a half of grapefruit slathered with chicken livers, and enough yellow rice/beans to feed a small Caribbean nation. But one thing we hadn't discovered was a local dining establishment that combined the best aspects of today's gastronomy; that is, a rarefied meal featuring equal parts high-quality and regionally-sourced ingredients, inventive and well-executed dishes, tremendous flavor, attentive service, and theatrical flair. I am excited to say that I believe we have now found such a dining experience in our adopted city at a place called Farmtable Kitchen in downtown St. Petersburg.

Farmtable Kitchen is one portion of a foodie complex named Locale Market, a larger venture spearheaded by celebrity chef Michael Mina (operator of restaurants nationwide) in partnership with local chef Don Pintabona. Open since December of last year, Locale takes up a decent chunk of real estate in the upscale Sundial shopping complex, with several food counters on the first floor (some offering take-out and others selling fresh ingredients) and a wine bar/restaurant upstairs. When we booked our table at FK (using the online ticketing software developed by our friends from Next/Alinea in Chicago), I was curious enough just to see what the marketplace was like as, to the best of my knowledge, there hasn't been any equivalent of this type of business around town (I'll have a future posting on Locale in the coming weeks). Prior to our meal, Chef Don and his head server Ron gave our small group a champagne tour of the market stalls before heading to the private dining venue on the second floor.

At the moment, seating for Farmtable Kitchen is limited to a single communal table (which sits about 12) in a small, rustic room with sliding barn doors closing it off from the rest of the wine bar and fishbowl glass on an adjoining wall (presumably to make other diners jealous as they head to and from the restrooms). We were comfortable (if not a bit cramped) and happy to talk with similarly-obsessed food nuts while waiting for our 8-course meal to begin.

Chef Don and Co. wasted no time in securing everyone's attention. Before too long, a whole swordfish perched on a rolling cutting block drifted by our fishbowl glass and was parked next to us, causing all conversation in the room to immediately cease. After the obligatory photos and a brief aside from Chef Matt Dahlkemper, the swordfish (which had been caught near Jupiter, on the Atlantic coast) was fileted tableside, seared with a blowtorch, and presented on a plate along with toasted peanuts, saffron threads, nam prik (Thai chili sauce), and a small salad of avocado and Lambeth Groves grapefruit.

The wine paired with this lovely dish was a Robert Weil "Tradition" riesling from the Rheingau region of Germany. In case you're curious, we were told that the remainder of the fish would either be sold at the fresh fish counter downstairs or used for other dishes in the restaurant.

Our second course (labeled on the menu as "Foraged/Garden") was a simple, yet punchy bowl of Faithful Farms beets (grown just across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Palmetto) presented in a few different ways (raw, cooked, and dehydrated "soil"), bull's blood greens, and an infusion of hickory smoke, a combination of tastes and textures I absolutely loved. An uber-grassy Round Pond sauvignon blanc from Napa was chosen to accompany the beets (Mrs. Hackknife enjoyed this, but it wasn't my favorite).

Course #3 featured a tree stump plate topped with slices of luscious prosciutto di parma and a little sandwich of oozing taleggio cheese on artisan olive loaf from the bakery downstairs. The richness of the ham and cheese perfectly melded with a glass of bright Corsican rose wine (Clos Canarelli), a bottle of which was brought home to the Canteen after dinner.

Chef Pedro Arreaza subsequently entered the room to prepare our pasta course, three pockets of cappellacci pasta filled with a mixture of blue crab and marscapone, topped with tarragon, lobster-infused butter, and a bit of black caviar. The chef joked that almost everyone asked for more of these once they finished and I could understand why after making them disappear in short order. The wine pairing for this dish was a bit unusual, a glass of funky Tahbilk marsanne (a white grape normally associated with the Rhone region of France) that I found overpowering by itself, but mellowed out by the rich pasta and sauce.

Next up came a palate cleanser of sorts (dubbed an "intermezzo" on the menu), two fruit and vegetable based shooters. The first was a vibrant green shot glass containing pureed kale, spinach, and mint with a minted salt rim (like a healthy virgin margarita), plus a tumbler with strawberry juice, scarlet radish, honey, and dehydrated strawberry petals. While refreshing, this was the one course I wasn't particularly crazy about.

Chef Matt returned to the space with another visual aid, this time a hunk of 80-day dry-aged prime beef from the meat locker in the market downstairs. Pieces of this beef had been sliced off and seared medium rare for our dining pleasure, then placed on a plate with a similar cut of wet-aged beef for comparison.

The beef was served with a bit of wilted baby spinach from Faithful Farms, some trumpet, maitake, and alba mushrooms (which I politely declined), and a smear of bold chimichurri-chipotle aioli sauce. Both slices of beef were divine and, as expected, I had a slight preference for the minerally tang of the dry-aged meat. Not pictured was a tasty country sourdough roll from the bakery downstairs (gone before it could be memorialized in pixels) and two glasses of wine, a delicate red Bordeaux (Chateau Coutet Saint-Emilion) and a vibrant Joseph Carr cab sauvignon from Napa.

One last tableside prep followed, this time a "pre-dessert" featuring a scoop of Tahitian vanilla bon-bon (which is what they call their house-made ice cream) flash frozen in liquid nitrogen, then topped with a heady dose of LAMILL espresso.

Now sufficiently jazzed by sugar and caffeine, we happily dug into our final dish of the evening, a deconstructed s'mores consisting of a long, thin slab of Valrhona milk chocolate ganache, oat graham base, dollops of browned campfire marshmallow, crispy chocolate curls, and a dusting of cocoa powder. Divine solo, this collection of sweets fared even better with the Alvear Pedro Ximenez Solera 1927 sweet sherry that accompanied it (if any of you would like to gift me a bottle, Father's Day is coming up).

The consensus opinion of the communal diners was that this meal (the whole experience, really) had been spectacular, breaking new ground in our local dining scene. I am keeping fingers crossed that Chef Don and his talented crew at Farm Table are able to sustain their early success and get the word out to folks on the far side of the bay that their new venture is well worth the drive over to St. Pete. The other chefs in town should be on notice that the fine dining bar has been nudged a little higher...

Friday, April 3, 2015

Slyce Pizza

Among the numerous discoveries we've made about the Indian Rocks Beach area (which include uncrowded beaches) is what we believe to be the greater Tampa Bay area's leading pizza so far; that is, Slyce Pizza Bar, just across the road from the Gulf of Mexico at 311 Gulf Boulevard. Although not quite the equal of the pies available in Chicago (but, then again, is anyone?), Slyce offers some inventive (if not outright bizarre) topping combinations like the "Pear a Dice" (olive oil, sliced pear, gorgonzola, mozzarella, and prosciutto) and the "Coney Island" (beanless chili, sliced all-beef hot dogs, cheddar, diced white onions, ketchup, and spicy mustard), plus a decent selection of craft beers on tap and bottle (although they have a tendency to run out of the more popular varieties). After several hours of baking in the warm Florida sun, there are few better things than sitting in an air-conditioned restaurant sipping a Wit bier and indulging in a slice of red clam pie (see photo above). If you happen to be in town during tourist season, be sure to show up early to avoid a long wait for tables...

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Ravenous Pig - Winter Park, FL

I have to say that the more time I spend in Orlando away from the obvious touristy areas (read: Disney World), the more I'm impressed with what there is to discover just beneath the veneer of theme park sheen. For example, we find ourselves returning again and again to Winter Park, an affluent suburb just north of downtown that features a picturesque liberal arts college (Rollins), historical lakeside estates (many built by industrial barons as winter residences), a vibrant town center (with events like an annual sidewalk art festival), and several good restaurants. This time, our visit included an hour-long pontoon boat tour of the waterfront mansions and a short jaunt past booths at the art fest; however, the main attraction in my mind was lunch at The Ravenous Pig, open since 2007 and one of the pioneers of the farm-to-table movement in Florida (I recall trying to hatch a scheme to escape the Magic Kingdom and secretly lunch here on our trip to Disney in 2010 - sadly, the plot was foiled). We already enjoyed dining at the newer restaurant of owners James and Julie Petrakis (called Cask & Larder, just up the street and around the corner from Ravenous Pig), but this was our first time at the flagship location.

Much like Cask & Larder, the pig is king in these parts (although other animals certainly receive their due) as you can smell the woodsmoke out in the parking lot. My first impression of the place is that it's a bit more upscale than the sister eatery, although the menus have a lot in common. One key difference is that you can get a bourbon cocktail here that sports an actual strip of bacon (clearly, they're not messing around).

After much hand-wringing and deliberation, we opted on a collection of starter plates for the parents and off-menu grilled cheese sandwiches for the kiddos (unfortunately, choices for younger patrons are limited). This included terrific housemade soft pretzels with a taleggio-porter cheese sauce and whole grain mustard (not photographed) and a fine charcuterie plate featuring chinese sausage, coppa (cured pork collar), beef salumi, a hunk of pungent Oma cheese from von Trapp Farmstead (yes, those von Trapps) in Vermont, some pickled veggies, grilled bread, and a cup full of to-die-for pork rillettes.

Since we didn't want the ocean to feel neglected, we also tried a dish of crostini topped with citrus smoked grouper (good Florida fish), blood orange, Old Bay aioli, pickled kumquat, and cucumber slaw. This combo of ingredients was much more subtle than I expected and I think the missus enjoyed it a little more than I did.

Desserts were fantastic across the board. Although the kids largely ignored their grilled cheeses (which were quite good, by the way - Mrs. Hackknife and I ended up eating a decent amount of the leftovers), we were feeling magnanimous and let them have the "pig tails" (curly fritters dusted in cinnamon sugar and paired with a chocolate espresso sauce). Of course, sharing was mandatory.

The missus and I greatly enjoyed our plank of blood orange chocolate glazed doughnuts with candied pistachios and a scoop of vanilla chantilly cream on the side. We did not shed tears when the progeny rejected our pleas to try it.

All in all, the folks at Ravenous Pig seem to have solid cooking chops. If I had any complaints, I'd gripe that the experience was a little on the pricey side given portion sizes (for $7, would it have killed them to toss in a 3rd pretzel?); still, if you're ever in town on vacation or whatever, I'd advise you to hatch your own lunch scheme to skip Mickey Mouse chicken tenders in lieu of this...

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Baked Shrimp Risotto

The March 2015 issue of Food & Wine Magazine has a very enticing-looking shrimp risotto recipe that I thought I'd try here in the Canteen a few weeks ago. Usually when you make risotto, you're sentenced to a good hour of near constant stirring in order to get the arborio rice grains to properly absorb the cooking liquid; however, this particular method cheats a little by using the oven to bake the risotto instead. Basically, all you do is toast the rice in some garlic and olive oil, add your chicken broth, and bake for 20 minutes until done. Since this recipe is so simple, the key is to source top-shelf ingredients - for example, I bought freshly-caught Gulf shrimp from our local neighborhood seafood van (they operate a stand at the weekend flea market in Oldsmar) and whipped up a batch of our house pesto sauce (which would make even old leather shoes taste delicious) to drizzle on at the end. Instead of parmigiano reggiano cheese, I substituted pecorino romano since that's what I had on hand; otherwise, I tried to stay faithful to the instructions. How'd we do? Well, the wife was happy ("you can serve this as a side dish anytime, even without the shrimp" she said) and the kids even ate a couple of bites before bowing out, so this shorthand risotto will be added to my repertoire for future use (although I still plan to do the ol' stovetop risotto when I can - I think it's a wee bit better)...

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Teperto - Fried Bacon (First Quality Sausage House)

Yes, you really are seeing what you think you see. The photo above contains pieces (nay, chunks, rather) of the crunchiest, fattiest, most soulful expression of the pig that I think I've ever encountered. The local Central European butcher shop in Safety Harbor (First Quality Sausage House") sells this product that they call teperto, which is loosely translated from Hungarian to mean "pork cracklings". On my last visit, I spied a hotel pan full of these piggy jewels behind the counter and asked about it - shop owner Aniko Rakoczi let me try one and explained (as my eyes rolled backwards into my skull upon first nibble) that she takes these thick-cut bacon slabs and oven roasts them (no deep frying, because, you know, that would be unhealthy) to a crisp. At $12 a pound (and worth every penny, mind you), it's one of the store's best-selling items (if fact, she told me to "call ahead next time if you want more - sometimes customers come in and buy the whole pan"). I took a brown sack loaded with half a pound of teperto back to the Canteen to share with the wife, kinder, and house guests, each of whom has their own dietary restrictions/hang-ups and each of whom reacted in the same manner as I did when they sampled the goods, that is, transported somewhere between ecstasy and unconsciousness. If you've ever wondered about the existence of God, this will have you singing his porcine praises...

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Taqueria Acapulco/La Caridad

Shortly after my recent posting about Senor Taco, FOB Eric R. suggested that I try out another local taqueria, this one (called Taqueria Acapulco) located quite a bit closer to the Canteen in South Tampa (1001 N. Macdill, to be precise). As luck would have it, I happened to be headed to this part of town one day a few weeks ago to return a light fixture, so I decided to pop in for a quick lunch on my way home.

The building's exterior isn't much to look at (you'd probably fly right by without a second look if you weren't seeking it out) as the proprietors share the lot with, among other things, a chiropractor clinic. When researching details on the Web, the business comes up on the search engine as being a Mexican grocery - there is, in fact, a grocery area when you first enter, although it's probably the smallest one I've seen, more on the order of a convenience store (still, the selection of dried chiles for purchase is impressive). The back 2/3 of the space holds the taqueria, a collection of counters, tables (maybe 8 total?), a deli case, couple of TVs tuned to (what else?) telenovas and a food prep area. Behind the counter, two older ladies who appeared to know their way around a comal pretty well were making tortillas and chopping vegetables in preparation for the lunch rush.

After flagging down one server who didn't speak English, another came by to take my order. I spied a number of tasty-sounding items on the menu (sopes, for example), but decided to stick with the basics and ordered up my usual round of lengue, carnitas, and al pastor tacos, plus a horchata to wash everything down. While waiting for the food, I noticed a handwritten sign on the wall that read "We have pork skin tacos (cueritos)!" and, although I hadn't seen the term cueritos before, asked if I could have one of those as well. The 4 tacos arrived at my table with a simple garnish of cilantro and chopped onions, to which I added a drizzle of fresh lime juice and a couple of hot sauces of indeterminate origin (one red, one green). I had a little bit of trouble identifying which meat was which, but every taco was nonetheless delicious, with just the right mix of textures and flavors (some crunchy bits, some fatty bits), much like my experience at Senor Taco (the homemade flour tortillas were also excellent). I managed to determine later that cueritos are a version of pork skin that's been pickled in vinegar instead of fried (like chicharrones) and I can tell you now that they're much better than you might imagine from their description.

Feeling alternately full and inspired, after paying the check I opted to make one more stop before heading back to the homestead, this time at a bakery on a busy stretch of Hillsborough Avenue (4425 W. Hillsborough) that I've passed a hundred times going to/from the Toyota dealer. The eye-catching yellow sign out front says "Angelito's at La Caridad Bakery - Panaderia y Dulceria" and purports to be a specialty purveyor of Cuban baked goodies. The bakery cases were full of enticing-looking pastries, cakes, and sandwiches, most of which eluded easy identification (my favorite kind of bakery). Like the last joint, English is mostly a second language here, so I had to pantomime a bit with the sales girl when making my selections, which included a couple of cream cheese and guava pastelitos, a coconut pastelito, a chocolate and peanut corona, and something called torrejas.

As you can see above, most Cuban baked sweets are of the puff variety, that is, consisting of many thin layers of pastry (much like phyllo dough) surrounding some sort of filling (like guava or coconut). The pastelito seems to be the basic unit, with the corona representing a slight variation on this concept where the filling is more on the outside (the top, or crown, hence the name "corona"). These 3 were all very good, if not a bit similar, and held up surprisingly well for the couple of days it took us to consume them (I recommend refrigeration). The surprise of the bunch, however, was the torreja (top right in the photo), a preparation for day-old Cuban bread that's like French toast on steroids, eggy, syrupy, and riotously sweet with evaporated milk and sugar (even my kids liked this one). The sales girl sounded a little surprised when I told her I had only wanted one piece (they're not large) and now I understand why - I'll be picking up an easy dozen of them on my follow-up visit...