Adventures in Dining

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Country House Restaurant, June 30, 2007 June 30, 2007

Filed under: Lake Wales — hpandaw @ 6:57 pm

 We went driving down Highway 27 today, to do some exploring in Polk County, and came upon Lake Wales and this restaurant. Before finding Lake Wales, I had asked myself, “Can anything good come from Polk County?” The answer, having explored Davenport and Haines City previously, had always been, “No.” But today, I have to revise that to, “Yes, if you are in Lake Wales.”

Lake Wales is a very cute little city, with a historic downtown that actually looked interesting. There was a spa, a home decor shop, a jewelry store, and a Mexican restaurant that looked like our kind of place. What drew our eyes, though, was the dilapidated Hotel Grand, a very interesting building that is on the National Historic Register. I think that, if someone were to invest money into this building, it would pay off big time. The bottom two floors could be a boutique hotel, while the upper floors could be turned into luxury lofts. All the infrastructure is there in Lake Wales: cute downtown, nice lake, large park, biking trails, and a decent commute for those who work for Disney or on the west side of Orlando.

Here is the Hotel Grand:

Our path to the Hotel Grand led us past a restaurant on the corner of 27 and 60, called the Country House Restaurant. We weren’t looking for any restaurant in particular, and this was obviously a non-chain place, so we decided to stop in and give it a whirl:

We entered the restaurant around 11:30 on a Saturday morning, and were seated immediately, at a booth right by a window.  Our server, Dana, was very friendly and helpful, though she threw us a bit for a loop when she began by asking, “Can I bring you anything to start with?  Cornbread or rolls maybe?”  We weren’t sure whether she was offering us a free basket of bread, or whether she was offering to charge us for a basket of bread, in which case we wouldn’t have wanted it!  Turned out, the bread was, indeed, free.  We opted for the “rolls,” which turned out to be two small, rather dry biscuits:

We each had a sweet tea to drink, and my husband ordered the fried grouper sandwich, which was a bargain at $4.50.  For an extra $.75 he also got a side of fries.  These prices compared favorably with those of last week’s restaurant, the Tiki Bar, at which sandwiches cost $8.70 and the side of fries was an extra $3!  The taste of the sandwich here also compared favorably to the fish sandwiches at the Tiki Bar.

My husband’s grouper sandwich was flavorful and not too fishy.  The patty was hot, freshly fried when he got it.  Though the presentation of the tartar sauce was lacking: a small container of Ken’s Tartar Sauce, he enjoyed the fact that it WAS tartar sauce, not like the mayonnaise at the Tiki Bar.

It came with two tomato slices, lettuce, onion, and pickles, which he appreciated.  The bun was pre-mayonnaised, which was a bit odd, but he takes forever to assemble a sandwich anyway, so I appreciated this time saver.

The seasoning on the seasoned fries was slightly strange, also.  There was a sweetness to it that was unusual.  The fries themselves were so-so: some crispy, some not, good sized, but nothing outstanding.

I ordered one of the All-Day Specials, the Fried Catfish Fingers for $6.75.  There are several All-Day Specials: fried whole catfish, fried grouper fingers, fried chicken fingers, grilled chicken breast, 1/4 country fried chicken, ham steak with pineapple, baby beef liver, chopped steak, country fried steak, hot open-faced roast beef or turkey with gravy, spaghetti, lasagna, and manicotti.  All of these sides cost $6.75, and all but the last 3 Italian choices include any 3 sides.  I chose cole slaw, french fries, and black eyed peas.

Since I don’t eat meat, when I ordered the black eyed peas, I asked whether they were cooked with meat or not.  The waitress’ response to this was that it depended on who was cooking that day, and she went back to the kitchen to ask.  I was in luck: no meat today!  We thought it was strange that the way an item was cooked would depend on which cook was in the back, since most restaurants strive for consistency in ingredients, portion sizes, and presentation.

My fried catfish fingers were pretty good.  The breading was a flour & cornmeal mix, but it was surprisingly well seasoned.  Many places (notably the House of Blues!) offer fried catfish and then don’t bother to season the batter.  I appreciated the flavor that the seasoning added to the catfish.  The catfish itself was nothing special.  It had obviously been frozen, and was a bit slimy, though not disgustingly so.  I’m from Louisiana, and am always trying to recapture the taste of the lovely, flaky, fresh cornmeal-fried catfish that I used to have there as a kid.  We’ve found one restaurant in New Orleans that does this beautifully, but pretty much everywhere else that we’ve eaten, the catfish is a very slimy fish indeed.  The fish pieces weren’t overly greasy, which is another concern when eating fried fish, but they’d done a good job of draining them after frying the “fingers.”

My side of black-eyed peas was okay, but not remarkable in any way.  The coleslaw, however, was not good at all.  It didn’t have any flavor at all, and wasn’t well dressed.  I’d just as soon have gnawed on a piece of raw cabbage, for all the flavor this dish contained.

In all, this meal was fairly average, with nothing to disgust us, but nothing to call us back, either.  The prices are very reasonable, and the menu has a wide range of items.  All are reasonably priced, from the sandwiches ranging from $2.99-$4.50, to the subs from $3.50-$4.99, to the entrees that run the gamut from Chicken Hawaiian at $6.99 to a full rack of baby back ribs for $10.99.

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Tiki Bar, June 24, 2007 June 24, 2007

Filed under: Clermont,Minneola — hpandaw @ 8:22 pm

Our builder, Woody, was nice enough to take us out for a ride on the Clermont Chain of Lakes this past October. While riding around on his boat, we noticed the Tiki Bar restaurant and decided, “We should go there someday.” Well, someday became reality today, when we drove up to Minneola to give this place a whirl.

We’d actually tried to eat here the day before, but the huge crowds made us shy off. It’s the kind of place where people get a table and park it, and we were hungry, so we decided to come back right at opening time, 11:30 am, the next day. As we pulled into the parking lot, an SUV sped past us and cut us off, in their rush to get into the restaurant before us. The male driver got out and ran up to the restaurant to claim a seat, while his wife pulled out the stroller and baby. Crazy, anyone?

When we got up there, there were still quite a few tables left, though they were all gone within a matter of 15 minutes or so. We sat down at a table next to Mr. & Mrs. Pushy SUV, and heard them bragging to a family who was waiting patiently for a table, “We know not to get here after 11:15.” Perhaps they were in such a rush because they were running 15 minutes behind their targeted arrival time?

The Tiki Bar is located in Minneola, at the corner of Washington St. and Main St. It shares a parking lot with the Lake Minneola Inn. The inn is charming, right on the water front, with lush, tropical grounds.  The restaurant is also right on the water front, with an area where boats can park while their drivers enjoy a meal and a drink or two, before setting out for some irresponsible boating:

As you walk up the pathway, to the restaurant, you’re greeted by a cute sign:

The restaurant itself is composed of a bar area under a roof, and several tables (but not many!) out on the deck.

The sounds of Jimmy Buffet music, the Hawaiian shirts of the waitresses, and the lovely view of the lake and gorgeous green grounds make for a very tropical feel.  Unfortunately, the food does not live up to all this atmospheric promise.

The restaurant serves burgers, wings, and baskets of fries, in addition to a few desserts and a small selection of beers.  Being pescatarians, there were three things that we could order on the menu: a tuna Caesar salad, a grilled tuna sandwich, and a fried fish sandwich.  My husband elected the fried fish sandwich, while I went with the grilled tuna (sashimi quality!) sandwich.

The fried fish sandwich had two things going for it: it had a large piece of fish, and the fish was cornmeal-breaded and not overly greasy.

Though promising in appearance, the taste was sub-par.  The cornmeal breading was seriously in need of salt.  Once my husband had shaken a lot of salt onto it (and we’re not the type of people who salt our food at restaurants), it was tolerable.  The fish, however, was quite fishy tasting and had obviously been frozen.  For a restaurant located right on the side of a huge lake, one might reasonably expect freshly-caught fish.  One might be disappointed, though.

The piece of fish was so large that what he wished he’d done was just cut off part, to eat by itself, and then eat a single layer of fried fish inside the bun.  He tried to fold it in half, thus piling on two layers of fish into the bun, and that was disastrously messy.

This sandwich came with what could have and should have been tartar sauce, but what was actually just plain mayonnaise with a few pickle nuggets to indicate that it was, indeed, supposed to be tartar sauce.  He said that even tartar sauce out of a bottle would have had at least some flavor.  He had to poke around this sauce, before discovering the pickle nuggets and realizing that this mild-flavored topping was, indeed, “tartar sauce.”

My own sandwich, the grilled sashimi-quality tuna, proved to be a similar disappointment.  The tuna fillet had been liberally basted in what tasted like pure soy sauce, mixed perhaps with a small amount of sesame oil.  It was way too salty, and didn’t compliment the tuna well.  This was a great pity, since a good sauce would have been relatively simple to make, and would have turned this from a mediocre dish into a very good one.  Roy’s on West Sand Lake serves a piece of tuna with a spicy soy mustard butter sauce that is smashing.  Simple ingredients, but big payoff in flavor.  The Tiki Bar would benefit greatly from a re-thinking of their fish sandwich sauces.

The tuna itself tasted okay.  It wasn’t rare at all, and it had a very large piece of fat running through it and, in parts, along the bottom of it.  In certain areas, the fat made the tuna so tough and chewy that I couldn’t even take a bite of it.  I picked out the thick, obvious layers of fat, but wished that I hadn’t had to.

Our other disappointment was in the value for the money.  If I pay $8.70 for a sandwich at a casual restaurant like this, expect to at least get an accompaniment of fries.  As you can see from the photos, what we each got was a bag of Ruffles original flavor potato chips.  Disappointing.  We could have paid an extra $3 for a basket of fries, but why should we?  We’ve been at Disney restaurants that offer the same portions, with a side of fries for similar pricing.  We expected that a restaurant up in Minneola would not be charging the same tourist trap prices that Disney does.  Our error.

As we left, we noticed a man had set up a chair and was relaxing in the grounds, enjoying the lake view:

In summary, the Tiki Bar is one of those places to go if you want to pay a lot of money for the atmosphere, and if your culinary expectations are low.  We would not return for ourselves, though we might take out of town guests here, just to show them some of the lovely views that Clermont has to offer.

 

Beaches & Cream, June 17, 2007

Filed under: Disney Restaurants — hpandaw @ 7:49 pm

Beaches and Cream is one of our favorite restaurants at Disney World. It doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is: a greasy burgers & ice cream joint. For what they offer, it’s good quality. If you’re looking for a good, greasy burger, you can’t do better than this restaurant. We used to really enjoy the burgers here, before we became pescatarians. Now, however, we go for the equally greasy grilled cheese sandwiches and fries.

To enter this restaurant is to enter Disney’s version of the 1950’s. Is it fakey? Well, it’s Disney – what did you expect? The juke box doesn’t work, but the atmosphere (the lady below excepted) is cute and kitschy, with lots of light blues, pinks, and greens.

Though we are both adults, we invariably order off the children’s menu, because it has the one thing we can still eat and enjoy here: the grilled cheese sandwiches. A platter of a grilled cheese sandwich and fries costs $7.49, and the burger prices are approximately the same ($7.89 for a single patty). There is an option to add fruit as a side, but come on – if you’re here, you’re here for the grease. This is not a dieter-friendly place.

The bread for the grilled cheese sandwiches is first buttered, then – what else? – grilled. The fries are nice and crispy, though they’ve got more meat to them than those skinny McDonald’s fries. They also have more flavor. This restaurant accepts the Disney Dining Experience card, so what we do is just make our final bill what it was before the discount, in effect, getting the 20% tip for free.

Beaches & Cream offers a variety of ice cream floats and sundaes, our favorite of which is the No Way Jose. This is composed of vanilla ice cream topped with hot fudge, hot peanut butter, and peanut butter and chocolate chips. Yummalicious. On this particular day, we weren’t having that, though, so I have no photo to offer you.

The most infamous dessert at Beaches & Cream, though, is the Kitchen Sink, a whopping 8 scoops of ice cream, served with some of every single topping they have in the restaurant, along with an entire can of whipped cream. Only in America, I fervently hope.

This restaurant is tiny, so the best bet is to go on a weekday, when it’s less crowded. Otherwise, sitting at the counter will get you seated faster than waiting for one of the very few tables or booths.  The service is spotty and runs the gamut from servers who are smiling, friendly, and prompt, and those who don’t crack a smile and take nearly 20 minutes to appear at the table and take your drinks order.

 

Belle Vue Lounge Breakfast, June 17, 2007

Filed under: Disney Restaurants — hpandaw @ 7:34 pm

I don’t think many people know about this place for breakfast, because, if they did, they wouldn’t all be lining up like suckers at the Boardwalk Bakery. Boardwalk Bakery in the a.m. = line out the door. Belle Vue Lounge in the a.m. = no lines.

The way this works is you approach the counter, upon which a variety of pastries and breads are spread. You choose the one(s) you want (these are all very, very large, though: about the size of a small child’s head). You then tell the server behind the counter what you’d like to drink: coffee, tea, juice, milk, etc. You pay the man/woman, and you are done. Nothing left to do but find a comfortable chair in which to enjoy your pastry in peace.

On our visit, we each got a different pastry. My husband ordered a cinnamon roll:

As good as it looks, he would not recommend this to fellow diners. The cinnamon roll itself was hollow, which was disappointing. It was also undercooked on the inside, so that it was chewy and doughy.

My selection, on the other hand, was a cheese danish:

This was not just any cheese danish however; it was a prince among danishes. Kind of like Hamlet. The pastry was nicely done: light and soft. The icing was deliciously sweet, with a faintly lemony taste. The cream cheese filling, though, was the star. It was soft, smooth, and creamy, without being too heavy, and without having that grainy, ricotta-like taste that some danish fillings have. I’ve had danishes where I ate the dry pastry reluctantly, waiting to get to the sweet center, but this was not like that. I enjoyed this entire pastry very much.

For two pastries and two juices, with a Disney Dining Experience discount, we paid around $9-10. This is unreasonable pretty much anywhere in the world except for at Disney World, but at Disney World, $5/person for breakfast is an amazing feat. We would highly recommend this place for those looking to relax in a cool, quiet, comfortable lounge for breakfast, while avoiding the long lines at the bakery below.

 

Tijuana Flats, June 16, 2007 June 17, 2007

Filed under: Winter Garden — hpandaw @ 11:06 pm

Tijuana Flats is one of our favorite affordable, fast-food restaurants. As non-carnivores, we appreciate the diversity of the menu here. Most, if not all of their dishes here are offered with the option of having either black beans or refried beans as the protein, instead of meat. The beans here, unlike those at some other restaurants, are not cooked with lard, so they are 100% vegetarian.

From the exterior, this looks like any other restaurant in a strip mall:

The vibe is very casual, family-friendly (Winter Garden location – corner of 50 and 535) or Gen X friendly (Kirkman location), and comfortable. Up-tempo music plays over the speakers, loud enough to be heard, but not loud enough to impede conversation. In keeping with the tradition that it was started by college-age guys, it’s staffed with younger people. The TVs are usually set to sports channels, and there is a lot of risque double entendre in the literature, with discussions of “heat” and “wetness.” While this restaurant acknowledges the word play, they don’t revel in it or shove it in your face. This is no Hooters.

The decor is colorful and trendy, with the focus of the restaurant being a hot sauce bar:

The sauces range in heat levels from Sissy Sauce up to their hottest sauces. Our personal favorite is one called “Smack my sweet ass and call me Sally.” We refer to it simply as “Sweet Sally.”

For those of you, like us, who don’t tolerate heat well, this sauce is great. It is very sweet, almost like a duck sauce with more flavor. It’s mild enough that even I can pour it right onto a chip and eat it as dip.

The prices for entrees here range from $4.50 to around $8.00, and the burritos come in three sizes: Regular, Tijuana, and Megajuana. We each have our favorites that we order. For my husband, it’s a Tijuana sized black bean burrito. He has it “wet” with chipotle sauce, though other wet options include queso or salsa. The chipotle sauce is very nice, with a smoky flavor, without being too spicy. The Tijuana size burrito is quite large, and usually has enough left over for him to take home and have as a side with whatever we’re having for dinner that night. It’s well-stuffed, and you can tell that it’s made to order and hasn’t just been sitting around waiting for some poor sap who’s in too much of a rush to care that his dish has been under a heating lamp for 6 hours. The burrito also comes with a side of chips.

My favorite entree is the refried bean flautas. The flauta shells are flour, not corn, and they’re always nicely done, with the ends crispy and great to dip into the accompanying queso. The queso is very good, creamy and melty, and I “compose” each bite by adding queso, guacamole, sour cream, and a drop or two of Sweet Sally.

Why, you may be asking, don’t we order any of the appetizers like chips & salsa or chips & queso? For two reasons: 1. Our entrees alone are substantial enough to fill us, and then some. 2. The one time we ordered salsa here, it was DRASTICALLY under-salted. We are not the kind of people who salt our food at restaurants, and we had to pour salt into this salsa to make it even remotely tasty. While we highly recommend the entrees here, we find the salsa to be sub-par.

A few notes about etiquette: about $1/person tip is appropriate here, or, alternately, 10-15% of the total tab. Though you place your order at the counter, the servers bring it out to you and are very quick to offer refills of your drink or anything else you might need. On one occasion, a child about 4 years old at a table near us told his server, “I don’t like this,” referring to the entree that he had chosen. She asked him what he’d like instead, and she brought it out to him, without charging his mother for his culinary whims.

Children are NOT allowed at the hot sauce bar. This is for their own safety; many of these sauces are very, very hot and can burn dreadfully if rubbed by dirty little fists into curious little eyes. My pet peeve is that, every time we are there, despite the large sign on the hot sauce bar stating “No children allowed,” invariably there is a family who allows their 3 year old free rein at the bar, so the munchkin walks around grabbing the hot sauce tubes, serving him/herself, and spilling sauce on his/her clothes. My favorite was the kid who kept roller skating around and around the hot sauce bar, running into patrons and servers. The Winter Garden branch of this restaurant has a superabundance of children, so this is a much more common scene than at the Kirkman branch, which seems to be more of a professional or collegiate crowd.

I would definitely recommend this restaurant for off-property guests of the Disney World resort who are seeking to escape the exhorbitant prices and usually mediocre quality of the counter service food in the parks. Our tab for 2 people usually runs around $17-18, including tax, tip, and those extras like upsizing the burrito and adding the chipotle sauce.

 

What do we eat?

Filed under: Philosophy,what do we eat — hpandaw @ 2:06 am

What do we eat?

I hear this often among my brethren in the school of existentialist stoicism and it always elicits a firestorm of debate that rages well into the night and usually ends with us re-enacting entire scenes from Mr. Belvedere.

As recently as 3 or 4 generations ago, “what do we eat” was really the question “what could we eat?” In rural areas, the selection was tied to that which was grown in the immediate area. In the city, it was what could be made in a kitchen or survive a long, intemperate transport. Choices were already made long before any shopping or chopping, and many of these choices were well out of the consumer’s hands.

 

 

In today’s local metropolis, I can find just about any food imaginable regardless of origin, preparation complexity, or rarity. Animal proteins are plentiful, cheap, and conveniently butchered down to the most intricate cut. Cheeses and fruits from far off lands with names that tangle the American tongue arrive in the 24/7/365 hypermarket not 3 miles from my house. Where else could matzoh and khubz coexist peacefully!?

 

 

I could sample a different cuisine each meal of the day for a month without repetition, and wash them down with wine from 7 6 continents (unless the penguins finally got their press up and running).

penguin wines

I can have my food cooked to order or I can have it prepared by my food jobber and sitting in a display case. If I’m too lazy busy, someone will bring the food right to my car. Heck, I can even stay in my skivvies and have them show up at my door! Some dishes come micro-measured for portion control and are so far removed from nature that they are mysteriously labeled “food products”. If I wish to tackle the task myself, I can choose from the basest, rawest ingredients or select from something a little farther down the production line with “pre-“ in the description: pre-washed, pre-chopped, pre-baked, pre-shelled, and pre-chewed.

Food Jungle gym

We’ve got so much food we build jungle gyms for them to romp on!

We’re perpetually inundated by food and the idea of eating. Our clocks tell us to eat, as does our culture, the media, and occasionally our own bodies. But we can only eat so much (some more than others), and thus we must choose from a bewilderingly array unknown to our society only a half-century ago. Given that we could eat just about anything, how do you choose what to eat given the literal smorgasbord afforded by modern civilization? I’ll give you my own take on that in my next post, but in the meantime consider your own answer.

Mr. Belvedere

(more…)

 

What Separates the Good from the Bad, Part III (Final) June 10, 2007

Filed under: Philosophy,What makes a good Restaurant — hpandaw @ 12:14 am

Let’s apply this framework to two restaurants we recently visited. First, we’ll start with NYC’s Per Se, Thomas Keller’s east coast flavah of a west coast vibe. We were welcomed a bit stiffly, although not as formally as I would have expected from a 3-star. Service throughout the evening was attentive if a bit cool. Some staffers were obviously meant to interact with the guests; while it seemed that others were charged with delivering the dish, describing it, and then hightailing it back to the mothership. At some point in the meal, we were assumed to be celebrating our anniversary, which was odd considering we were still more than 2 months out from that date.

I really, *really* wanted to like the food here. But only two dishes stood out as culinary epiphanies- oysters & pearls and the foie gras. Both were fairly simple, with the foie more so. I found the food more interesting than satisfying and rarely did I finish a dish thinking “just one more bite”. When I asked for some details on a particular saucing, the server had to think for a bit and didn’t sound very sure in his answer- not a good sign. The kitchen seemed to have played with my plates before I got to.

Given the above, where do I find value? I sincerely felt that the price was tied more to the name on the cookbook and food pedigrees than to the execution of the 9 or so dishes set before me. I wasn’t sure if I were paying for the privilege of being in the same space where Thomas himself may at any moment burst forth from a darkened kitchen and squeeze a new creation from a secret gland; or if this was NYC’s way of saying “welcome back you bastard, betcha forgot how pretentious this city can be!”

We did have an excellent view and enjoyed how much space and privacy the tables were given. Aesthetically, the dining area was a combination of dark woods, soft lighting and cool metals that looked modern but in a comforting combination. Oddly enough, the whole she-bang is housed in the retail section of the Time Warner building adjacent to a number of other upscale spots, giving me a feel of mall food court. I regret not visiting the loo.

 

In contrast, the Nook over on 9th Ave is pretty much summed up by its name. The owner/waiter/bouncer was a Polish man of squishy features and weary frame. He looked like he didn’t really want your business, which is probably because with approx 2-dozen seats, he couldn’t always take it. His demeanor may have been the result of a 6-month bender, or perhaps he still hadn’t gotten over the annexation of the Sudetenland and all those Truly Tasteless Jokes from the mid80s. I asked whether he recommended the burger or the ham & cheese for lunch. His response of “oh I don’t know….the burger?” wouldn’t have felt any different if he offered a side of shut-the-hell-up to accompany. On the night before, we had some of his apple pie that was less than primo. Our party let him know and he replied, “I know, I know! It sucks!” This is a man who doesn’t put on airs and expects the same from you.

The pie not withstanding, the food was hummin’. The review below has the details, but the net was a bevy of good choices all around. And I didn’t mind paying the prices our Polish friend asked because he delivered exactly what his environment promised, and then some. Small hole in the wall staffed by a no-nonsense immigrant owner who can afford to cuss at his customers because his food knocks their socks off. Not everyone would like it, but enough do, and we’re among them.

Our job, as patrons, is to seek out those places that cut the mustard and do right by them. Recommend them to your chums and mates, befriend the waitstaff and ask after the cooks, try the dishes that come from the owner’s personal recipe book. If you happen upon a place that’s not firing on all cylinders, you also have choices- don’t recommend them, don’t go back, and don’t buy their blasted cookbooks. Life’s too short to waste in mediocre restaurants.

Wind’s dying down, back to the galley.