Saturday, 24 January 2015

Venturing Into the Sublime at Ocean Prime Tampa

International Plaza and Bay Street
2205 North Westshore Boulevard 
Tampa, FL 
33607
+1 813-490-5288

Tastiness Factor: 8.5/10

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 4.5/5

Locavore Approved? The seafood here, as in many places around Tampa, is very fresh which is pretty easy due to its proximity to the water.  As per its name, Ocean Prime has a myriad of the freshest seafood on the menu.  So, if you are a locavore like me, stick with the seafood for a local treat!

New Year's Eve was an extra special occasion this year since I had the pleasure of spending it with my father and his twin brother on a milestone birthday (I will not divulge which one!).  Before the fireworks to ring in 2015, we headed to Ocean Prime in Tampa for our last meal of 2014.

I must admit that I initially had my doubts about Ocean Prime, since it: a) a chain and b) in a mall.  Fortunately though, this was one of those times when a book should not be judged by its cover.

When I say that this restaurant is in a mall, I should be fair and add that they actually takes up a whole side of the mall and has its own separate entrance.  It is a very stylish, large restaurant with two main rooms- the bar and the fancier dining room.  Despite being one of the first to make our New Year's reservation several months before,  we were seated on the bar side at a rather awkward long rectangular table.  The bar was quite loud and we actually had to walk to the other end of the table periodically to speak with those on the other side.  We would have much preferred to be in the dining room which was more suited to a NY Eve dinner.  We know to state our preference the next time!

Bar
Dining Room

The service was among the highlights of the evening.  Our server was very professional and knowledgeable about the menu.  Despite the packed house, she came to ask us how all of our courses were and attentively folded our napkins when we left the table.  We never once felt rushed, which was an anomaly on New Year's Eve and our server allowed us time to enjoy our cocktails before taking our food orders.  There were even a few special touches prepared for the festivities, including a chocolate fountain with cake and fruits to enjoy at the entrance for guests who were waiting to be seated (nice touch!).

Ocean Prime offers a dizzying number of different menus, including lunch and dinner menus, a gluten-free friendly menu (I felt like I was back home in Vancouver!), a young adult menu, a happy hour menu, 3 different drink menus (wine, cocktail and after dinner) and a dessert menu.

The wine menu is quite extensive wine menu and a very nice cocktail menu, including the Cucumber Gimlet (sweeter than I expected but still refreshing) and their infamous Berries and Bubbles (poured tableside, bubbling and smoking, very nicely balanced).



The dinner menu is divided into soups, raw bar, salads, appetizers, seafood, chicken and chops, steaks and sides (served separately and best shared by the table).  It is quite a lengthy menu, so there is sure to be something for everyone.

Between the 8 of us, we managed to cover the menu pretty well, and enjoyed the following:

Oysters on the half shell- Goodies from the raw bar.


Collosal shrimp cocktail- Also from the raw bar (which is a bit misleading since they are cooked!)

Tuna tartare- Of all of the dishes I tried, this was by far the winner.  Tuna tartare is on Hubby's favourite appies and he ranks this one up there with the best.  Fresh tuna, over avocado with small tortilla strips intermingled for texture- simply sublime.



Calamari- This apple is usually flash-fried but I requested grilled.  They were nice enough to accommodate me, but honestly I think it detracted from the dish.  The calamari had no grilled flavour and had that dreaded rubbery texture.  On a positive note, the other elements on the plate including the Asian flavours and the slaw with a few cashews tossed were quite tasty.





Cobb Salad- E veryone unanimously loved the dressing (it was termed "Italian" but was more reminiscent of a poppyseed).  The small slivers of salami worked well to give great flavour without making it too heavy for an apple.  Having said that, there is more than enough to share!


Stipped bass with lobster, mushroom, spinach and fennel slaw, topped with a butter sauce- This was the fish special of the night and boy was it ever special!  The stripped bass (more meaty and not as fatty as chilean sea bass) was beautifully cooked and the slaw underneath was amazingly full of different textures and flavours.


Chilean seabass- This is one of their signature dishes and it is easy to tell why.  How can one go wrong with wonderfully fatty seabags topped with a truffle butter sauce? I don't think they will be taking this one off the menu anytime soon!  The dish is usually served with potato but my aunt subbed in their creamy risotto (yum!).


Sea scallops- As you can tell, these beauties were perfectly seared and served over parmesan risotto.


Pork porterhouse- This was my mom's pick and unfortunately it was probably the least successful dish of the night.  She asked for it cooked medium but it was well beyond that and quite tough.  Although the meat was not a hit, the bed of veg underneath (brussel sprouts and potatoes) was delicious.


Steaks- Ocean Prime may be known for its seafood, but also specialized in steaks, like this filet mignon and New York striploin.


Side dishes- As you will note in the steak photos above, sides are not included with the mains.  There is a long list of sides at the bottom of the menu, including black truffle mac and cheese (a decadent treat!).  I also recommend ordering the brussel sprouts and the asparagus.  The sprouts were roasted and seasoned to perfection, while the asparagus was simply steamed and served with a hollandaise-like sauce that my dad raved about.


Overall Verdict?
As you can tell, my New Year's Eve full of delicious eats and, of course, the finest of company:)  Ocean Prime confidently delivers quality food and professional service in a very nice atmosphere.  And they have even taught me a lesson- maybe there are some chain restaurants worth going back to and this is one of them!



Ocean Prime on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Corner Brook's New All-Day Breakfast + Lunch at The Best Coast Cafe

This marks my third (and last) of a set of posts from my trip back to my hometown of Corner Brook, NL for the holidays (see my other posts here and here).  It was nice to revisit some old favourites and some new spots, including Best Coast Cafe.


This cute little breakfast/lunch spot has recently opened up its doors in the space previously occupied by the Broadway Cafe.  It is pretty much as basic as you can get in terms of decor but has a very cozy feel that makes you feel right at home.  Service pretty much follows suit- very casual and friendly.

While you can find the same ultra-friendly vibe in almost any place in town, it is the food that really sets Best Coast Cafe apart.  They offer a mix of traditional Newfoundland items and more modern fare like fish tacos with panko-crusted fish and eggs bennie.  I also noted a decent number of vegetarian items which is rare for this neck of the woods.  They offer all-day breakfast and a lunch menu (hours are 9-4) and also have a daily board with a pasta, salad, and soup often posted on their Facebook page (see here).  And don't forget to ask about their homemade desserts!



Hubby and I visited at noon with our good friends, and enjoyed some pretty tasty food:

I chose the Soup and Salad from the daily board.  While the salad was pretty average (just spinach, tomato and onion with balsamic), the Tomato and Basil Soup was superb (one of the best tomato soups I have had!).  It was very fresh and light, with just the perfect amount of basil.  Overtop was a generous heap of feta which really knocked it out of the park when it was mixed in.  I really had no idea a tomato soup could be this good!


Hubby and one of our friends enjoyed the Turkey Panini from the lunch menu.  It was made on super fresh, homemade bread and had a myriad of toppings including cheddar, bacon, arugula and a tasty garlic aioli.



Our other friend opted for the all-day breakfast and ordered the Breakfast Sandwich, made with a fried egg, peameal bacon, avocado, aged cheddar and garlic aioli.  The side of potatoes were especially good, with a mix of white and sweet potatoes.  Fortunately, she left some room for their daily dessert, a Bailey's Creme Brûlée.  It was full of boozy flavour (true to its name!) and a great Xmas treat.


I am really rooting for this new little Corner Brook cafe and really hope they do well.  The Newfoundland spirit shines through in their friendly service and atmosphere, but it was their food that really caught my attention.   They are keeping things relatively simple, but taking things a bit farther by adding some new flavours to add some pizzazz.

There is no doubt- I can't wait  on my next trip home!


Monday, 5 January 2015

Rustica- Corner Brook's New Family-Oriented Gastropub


As I mentioned in a previous post (see here), Wester Newfoundland is not known for its food scene in the way that the East Coast is but on my last visit, I did manage to try some new restaurants that have popped up there.


One of the new arrivals is Rustica, Corner Brook's first ever gastropub.  It is locally owned and operated by Sheldon and Erika Bessey who both have experience in the the restaurant industry.  As stated on their website, Rustica is intended to be a family-oriented restaurant with a relaxed vibe and "Old English style".   With its family-friendly claim, some may find it bizarre that it shares a bar and washroom facilities with a nightclub (Nightsounds) but, rest assured, Nightsounds does not get rolling until long after Rustica has closed its doors for the night.  The restaurant portion is a decent size and can seat about 40-50 people for its lunch and dinner services.


I would say that the most positive part of my experience at Rustica was the service.  Our server was very friendly yet professional and came at regular intervals to check in.  Our water glasses could have perhaps been refilled a bit more regularly but other than that, I could not find flaw with the service.  Dishes were delivered hot and within minutes of each other so that no one was kept waiting.  For a relatively new restaurant, I was impressed!

The menu concept is relaxed, approachable food to match the atmosphere.  There are quite a lot of items to choose from (about 15 each of appies and mains) plus some sides/extras and a few homemade desserts that change nightly.  Many of the dishes are comfort food favourites (prime rib, chicken and ribs, Yorkshire pudding) with a few unexpected outside-the-box dishes thrown in (escargot, quinoa and kale salads).  And for those visiting from out of town- cod tongues with scrunchions!

As per their website, they are willing to change their menu based on demand from customers and the changing seasons.  It is nice that they are keeping a locally-inspired menu in mind, which is a feat in Newfoundland, especially in the winter!

They offer small wine, beer and spirits lists, all at very reasonable prices.  Kudos for offering wines by the half bottle, which is a perfect amount for 2 people.  We chose the Lighthouse Reisling from Pelee Island, Ontario, and found it to be very pleasant (not overly sweet) at a very reasonable $20/half liter.

Here are the dishes that Hubby, my parents-in-law and I enjoyed when we dined there over the Xmas holidays:

Onion Bake- The name of this dish is a bit misleading.  After reading the menu description, I was pretty sure they were referring to french onion soup and that is precisely what this is.  The flavour of the broth was nice and it came out piping hot, but it could have done with more cheese.  Another tip- the two different sizes (cup and bowl) appeared almost identical in size so I would save the 2 bucks and stick with the cup. 


Quinoa Greek Salad-  I was excited to this healthy option on the menu but disheartened when the tiny little pile of quinoa on a single kale leaf was placed in front of me.  The flavours were all there with a nice garlic dressing and I enjoyed the fresh tomatoes and cucumbers mixed in, but the $13 price tag left me bewildered.

Cajun Lime Shrimp- I was still quite hungry after the petite quinoa salad and looking forward to a decent helping of juicy shrimp to fill the void.  Again, the food quality was good (nicely cooked shrimp with tasty seasoning) but the quantity was way off- 4 shrimp (not jumbo) for $14?  I am totally for quality over quantity but at these prices, diners at a place that calls itself a "family restaurant' will likely leave feeling ripped off.


Shrimp and Scallop Linguine- My in-laws quite enjoyed this pasta dish which was well balanced with a nice pasta-to-seafood ratio, including some notably large scallops.


Smoked Baby Back Ribs- These were available with either a BBQ sauce (strongly recommended by our server) or a dry rub with a choice of potato on the side.  This was yet again a case of decently tasty food, but simply not enough of it (4-5 ribs with some 3 overcooked coins of carrot and 1 lone asparagus spear for $20).  



Overall verdict?
I am pleased to see some new restaurants popping up in Corner Brook and I appreciate what Rustica endeavours to achieve- a relaxed atmosphere, friendly service and familiar comfort foods.  The food quality is quite good and is just as good or better than anywhere else in town.  I fear, though, that if Rustica does not either lower its prices or increase its portions substantially, diners will opt to go elsewhere.

It is still early days, and I have my fingers crossed that Rustica has a bright future ahead!







Monday, 29 December 2014

Newfoundland Nostalgia at The Deer Lake Irving Big Stop

Newfoundland's East Coast has hit it big on the Canadian food scene this year.  From traditional Newfoundland dishes with a twist at Mallard Cottage to world class fine dining at Raymond's, St. John's has quite the foodie reputation.


But how about Newfoundland's other coast?  While the West Coast does not have restaurants with the same notoriety as those in the East, it does have some local hangouts that deserve mention, including one of my childhood favourites, the Irving Big Stop.


The Irving Big Stop is located in Deer Lake, the home of a major regional airport, making it an ideal stop after a long flight.  Corner Brook, the island's second biggest city with a population of approximately 20 000 people, is a 30-40 minute drive away from Deer Lake and my family and I would often stop at the Big Stop on our way to or from the airport.  Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site, is also located a short 30 minutes away and well worth the trip if you find yourself over this way.

Yes, the Big Stop Irving is located at a gas station and yes, there is a convenience store located right next to the restaurant.  But don't let this stop you from coming in to get some grub.  Just think of it as one stop shopping- fill your tank with gas, fill your car with snacks for the road and then fill your belly with lots of down-home Newfoundland eats!

At any given time of day, the Big Stop is typically jammed with hungry customers from all over the province, making it a great place for those from away to experience the local flair.  While you may not catch everything your server says to you, and likely will be baffled by some of the words and sayings that you hear around you, you will no doubt feel engulfed in friendliness.  There is a reason that Newfoundland is said to be home to the nicest friends on earth. 

So what kind of food can you expect?  For tourists looking to be comforted by some food to which they are well-acquainted, there are plenty of options like burgers, sandwiches and a very popular all-day bacon and egg breakfast.  They also make a mean Chef Salad which has enough meat to satisfy even the largest appetite.  Even these more familiar dishes are infused with a lot of Newfoundland love and are sure to leave you with a very full and satisfied belly (portions here are VERY generous!).   For those looking for traditional Newfoundland food, there are dishes like fries, hamburger meat, dressing and gravy (yes, all on one plate) and, of course, fish and chips.  If you are fortunate enough to visit on a day when “Jigg’s Dinner” is served, go for it.  This traditional Newfoundland dinner which is served in many homes every Sunday includes turkey, peas pudding and carrots, potatoes and turnips all boiled with salt meat which is then served on the side.  This is something everyone should experience at least once!

Here are some of the dishes that we enjoyed when we visited recently:

Pea Soup- You have not had pea soup until you have experienced the Newfoundland version.  It is thick and salty from a healthy dose of salt meat, and often comes with a dumpling in the middle.


Club House Sandwich



Western Sandwich


Jigg’s Dinner (http://www.newfoundlandlabrador.com/TheLatest/BlogPost/379)- Not on the menu on the day of our visit but hopefully it will be when you are there! Here is idea of what to expect!


After a visit to the Big Stop and a trip around the western region, you will understand why we call the West Coast is called the “best coast”:)  

Stay tuned for more of my West Coast restaurants- coming soon!