October 06, 2014

BellaBrava - Raising The Bar

BellaBrava is a Beach Drive staple. Recently BellaBrava won Best Italian Restaurant and Best Downtown St. Pete Restaurant from Creative Loafing's Best of the Bay awards. BellaBrava is a "New World Trattoria" featuring modern Italian dishes and old classics kicked up a few gourmet notches. Simply stated, BellaBrava is an authentic taste of Italy in our own backyard.

I was honored to be invited to try some of the new dishes coming soon to BellaBrava - courtesy of Executive Chef Jeffrey Jew and Chef Antonio Garcia. These dishes will make their official debut in mid-October, and focus on using locally sourced ingredients. Joined by some local food bloggers and foodie friends, we took a short jaunt to Italy courtesy of some truly delicious dishes.

These guys make some pretty good food
The star of the night was the Housemade Ricotta. The light ricotta on a slightly crisped crostini was a crowd favorite amongst our group of local foodies. My personal favorite was the Wood-Fired Traditional Margherita Flatbread. This is a perfect lunch dish if you're in the Beach Drive area!

Other dishes that will be coming soon to BellaBrava include:

Ahi Tuna Carpaccio - fried capers, pickled fennel, calabrian chili, lemon oil, and micro basil

Trattoria Nachos - house potato chips, gorgonzola & asiago fonduta, housemade sausage, basil

Calamari Fritti - rhode island calimari, peppadew peppers, pomodoro sauce

As if all of that wasn't delicious enough, then came dessert. We were treated to a sampling of Marsala Cake with Sea Salt Gelato. Heavenly! I've never had Marsala Cake but after trying this sweet dish, I would definitely order it over some of my traditional dessert choices. I ate mine up before I could snap a picture - I'm sure you can understand!

Thanks to the BellaBrava and RKC teams for a great event!

September 09, 2014

St. Petersburg Ghost Tour

The St. Pete Ghost Tour is a walking tour of downtown St. Pete filled with storytelling of some of downtown's historic landmarks and "previous" residents." Ghost tours are a great way to learn more about a city's history - and not to be confused with "ghost hunting" tours where you actually look for these spirits - whew.

The St. Pete tour meets at 8pm at Hooker Tea on Beach Drive. With the hustle and bustle of Beach Drive, this can be a busy spot, but soon we went to a less crowded area for our first stop. Our guide, Geneva, told us tales featuring historical facts about the city, and how some of our famous landmarks, like The Vinoy, came to be.

Our tour guide

I did this same tour many years ago and most of the stories were the same. This time we actually went inside the Vinoy. We learned about the mysterious spirits that are rumored to be in the hotel, specifically room 503, while enjoying their lobby and air conditioning. The TV show Ghost Hunters actually came to the Vinoy a few years ago to film an episode.

One of the Vinoy ballrooms

Storytelling in the Vinoy lobby

Since we did this tour in August, it was extremely hot outside, even at 8pm. I would recommend taking this tour in the cooler months because you do a lot of walking and standing. Wear comfy shoes and bring a bottle of water. I think each guide does a slightly different route, so there's no guarantee you'll make any of the air conditioned spots. We spent about two hours total on the tour.

Exploring near Beach Drive

It doesn't look like any of my pictures have orbs in them - so it looks like the ghostly spirits were at bay on the night we went exploring. This tour is family friendly, but may be a little too much storytelling and not enough action for children under age 12. Be sure to reserve online to save $2 per ticket, and make sure to book in advance, especially as we get closer to Halloween.

Have you ever done a ghost tour?

July 12, 2014

Tijuana Flats Hemptation #TFlatsHemp

Hemptation has arrived at Tijuana Flats. With more than 100 locations, the fast-casual Mexican chain does edgy well. You may know their cutting-edge decor, not so typical hot sauce bar, and feisty menu of Mexican favorites. They are taking their edginess one step further by rolling out their new, limited time, Hemptation menu. I was recently invited to sample the Hemptation menu with some fellow Tampa Bay Bloggers including one of my favorites, SandBookWich. (All opinions below are my own).

The three stars of the Hemptation promotion were developed by Tijuana Flats employees in an internal contest. They winners are:

The Pie Roller
A pizza burrito with pepperoni, red sauce, mozzarella cheese, fajita peppers, onions, and mushrooms. Toasted and topped with red sauces, pepperoni, and cheese. Kind of like a supreme pizza in burrito form. I could eat the tortilla covered with sauce and cheese just by itself, it was that good.

Tree Hugger
A vegetarian burrito with roasted poblanos, mushrooms, onions, cilantro cream cheese, crushed tortilla chips, cheese, and queso. I loved the cilantro cream cheese and crushed chips in this!

Sweet Hemptation
Crispy chicken, churros, and bacon with cinnamon sugar, maple syrup, queso, cheese, and onions. Think chicken and waffles wrapped up as a sweet little burrito package. This would be perfect for weekend brunch. This was my surprisingly my favorite burrito of the night.

In addition to these Hemptation features, we also got to try some other Tijuana Flats favorites: Tortilla chips with queso and guacamole, the Atom Bomb, and my new favorite dessert, Banana Empanadas!

The Atom Bomb is a lightly fried tortilla stuffed with cream cheese and diced jalapenos. This was super spicy to me (I'm a spice wimp) but I would love this even more with some sautéed mushrooms stuffed inside.

The Banana Empanadas were the perfect sweet treat to wrap up the meal. Warm bananas with cinnamon sugar and a caramel dipping sauce stuffed into a sweet little hand held empanada package. Tip: Order these to-go and take them home to top them with a big ol' scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Stop by your local Tijuana Flats soon to try the Hemptation menu. These featured burritos will be available until early September. The Atom Bomb and Banana Empanadas are now permanent menu items so you can enjoy them any time. Sweet!

May 28, 2014

Bites of Nassau Food Tour

Food tours are one of the best ways to immerse yourself in a city. You can interact with locals, learn history and fun facts, and literally taste the culture. During my most recent trip to Nassau I got to immerse myself in Bahamian culture via a foodie adventure.

Our three hour culinary tour with Tru Bahamian Food Tours allowed us to explore six different dining destinations in the city. Our first stop at Bahamian Cookin' provided us with a true Bahamian meal. Along the way we tried everything from decadent handmade chocolates, to seasoning mixes and a thai coconut soup. Our tour ended with a sweet treat at Tortuga Rum Cake Company.

My favorite stop on the journey was #5 - Athena Cafe and Bar. Athena is a Greek restaurant located above a jewelry store not far from the cruise port. We were served a mini Greek salad with grilled pita bread. It was a perfectly refreshing dish after a day walking around the city and exploring new flavors. When we return to Nassau in the future, we will definitely stop at Athena for lunch.

Here is a look at some of the dishes we got to try:

Conch Fritters!
Chicken, baked Mac and Cheese, Rice and Beans, Plantains, and Coleslaw
Thai Coconut Soup
Greek Salad with grilled pita

Sea-Salt and Key Lime Chocolates
I recommend Tru Bahamian Food Tours for visitors to Nassau. Not only did we eat well, but we also walked away with a lot of information about Nassau's history and day to day life in the city. This was a great alternative to the typical cruise excursions offered in the port area. 

What city would you most like to do a food tour in?

March 13, 2014

Marchand's Farm to Fork at the Vinoy Renaissance Hotel #VinoyF2F

The Renaissance Vinoy Hotel is a St. Petersburg landmark. The history and the ambiance of the Vinoy provide charm that you can’t find anywhere else. Since the grand opening in 1925, the historic hotel has played host to countless guests, including Presidents, professional athletes, and A-list Hollywood stars.

I was recently invited to wine and dine my way through the main dining room at the hotel – Marchand’s Bar and Grill. Lucky for us, Marchand’s is open to the public - not just hotel guests.

The six course tasting dinner at Marchand’s featured locally sourced ingredients. Chef Mark Heimann and Chef de Cuisine Ross Clingman turned these locally sourced ingredients into pure food magic. At the presentation of each course, we marveled at the dish presented to us. Each course built upon the last to create a memorable dining experience that I won’t soon forget. Not only did every course look fabulous, they tasted even more fabulous.

The start of a perfect meal

Here is a look at the dishes we tried:

Florida avocado, crisp prosciutto, pickled radish, duck egg, rocket greens, buttermilk dressing
Not your mama’s typical lettuce and tomato salad! This salad was a great way to start the meal, and a tasty preview of the meal ahead.

Spiny lobster cake, celery seed, chipotle-lemon grass remoulade
Before the dinner, I saw a tweet hinting at this glorious spiny lobster cake. I was looking forward to this because I love lobster. What could be better than a bunch of lobster meat stuffed together to form this tasty cake? Mmm. And see those little black squid-ink croutons? They were unique and so tasty. A return trip to Marchand’s would be in order based on this dish alone.

Braised veal cheeks with cabernet linguini, escarole, bronzed sweet onion, pecorino
Lots of firsts for me on this dish. Veal cheeks? Cabernet linguini? They both sound intimidating but were both super delicious. The veal cheeks were melt-in-your-mouth tender. The cabernet linguini was fresh and not too bold or too heavy.

Lake meadow’s game hen, orange-honey crust, charred cabbage, saison beignets
I’m not sure if the best part of this dish was the orange-honey glaze or the saison beignets. I could have easily had a few spoonfuls of the orange-honey glaze and a few saison beignets and been happy. Together, this dish was spectacular. And then…

Fried flounder, corn spoon bread, Andouille stuffed peppers, jalapeño butter
Save the best for last! Just when we thought the meal couldn’t get any better, out came this stunningly delicious (and adorable) plate. The flounder was fried to crispy perfection with a light batter. The corn spoon bread tasted like a spoonful of Southern happiness. Then I tried the Andouille stuffed peppers - a mini bite of sweet heat and the perfect way to wrap up the savory portion of the meal.

Plant City strawberry cannoli and banana cream pie duo
Dessert is always a requirement for me. Marchand’s dehydrated local strawberries and turned them into this cannoli shell and stuffed it with a smooth creamy filling. This duo also contained a deconstructed banana cream pie. Both mini desserts were refreshing and light. This was the perfect ending to a perfect meal.

Along with every course we had a pairing from Marchand’s in-house sommelier. As if the food wasn’t enough, here’s what we enjoyed sipping on throughout the evening:

Chardonnay – Hahn SLH Estate, California
Sauvignon Blanc – Starmont, California
Malbec – Trivento Amado Sur, Mendoza Argentina
Jai Alai IPA – Cigar City Brewing, Tampa
Key West Sunset Ale – Florida Brewing, Melbourne
Prosecco – Mionetto, Italy (does this place know the way to my heart or what?!)

You can have your own Chef's Surprise Tasting dinner at Marchand's (with or without wine pairings) or try these dishes a la carte. There are lots of other dishes on the current menu I'd love to try, like the Lobster and Oxtail Ravioli Duo and the Sea Scallops. 

Another awesome feature of Marchand’s is the new tabletop sommelier. This iPad feature has the full bar/wine menu, suggested pairings, and other nifty features. You’ll even be able to save and send yourself notes on the drinks you enjoyed so you’ll be able ask for them again at a return visit or purchase them to enjoy at home.

After this exquisite dinner, Marchand’s is moving up to the top of my list for go-to special occasion dining. There’s no need to spend lots of money on a chain steakhouse when you can have locally sourced gourmet fare for practically the same price. To top it all off, you can’t beat the charm of The Vinoy for any celebration. And even when not celebrating special occasions, Marchand’s is perfect for your next date night, girls night out, or whenever you’re in the mood for a delicious meal.

PS: Marchand’s also has weekend brunch, sushi on select nights, and a special prix fixe menu. I can’t wait to try these soon.

January 22, 2014

Chihuly Collection

Downtown St. Pete has a lot of gems. A gem that sparkles extra bright is the Chihuly Collection on Beach Drive. Dale Chihuly is the master of glass. The glass art featured in this collection will have you marveling at just how impressive a bunch of glass can be. Whimsical, creative and magical are some of the terms that come to mind.

The Chihuly exhibit goes with the approach of quality over quantity. The Collection is not a full museum, and it certainly does not take long to explore. You could walk through and see everything in as little as 10 minutes, but because you will be stopping, staring, and awing at the art, you will likely spend 30 minutes or more inside. In fact, you may even want to go back through and see it all again. It's really that impressive. There is also a brief film you can watch before or after you explore the art. The film gives you a behind the scenes look at how Chihuly and his team work their magic.

The Collection contains the famous Chihuly chandeliers (my favorite), as well as other stand alone art pieces. Some of the pieces hang from the ceiling, and you could easily touch them but I wouldn't recommend it. (Who would want to be responsible for breaking a beautiful piece of Chihuly artwork? Not me.)

My favorite piece
Yes, this is all glass

Hours for the exhibit are 10-5pm Monday-Saturday and 12-5pm on Sundays. Too bad they aren't open weekend nights because this would make a perfect date night. A dinner on Beach Drive and a leisurely stroll through the Chihuly Collection sound like the perfect evening to me. Whenever you go, you'll be lucky to have an up close and personal view of some amazing art. For an extra Chihuly fix, head over to the Vinoy Hotel and check out the Chihuly piece in their lobby.

November 04, 2013

Orlando weekend recap

Last weekend we ventured out of Tampa Bay and into the Orlando area. No theme parks in mind on this particular visit, just relaxing and enjoying time together and with friends.

The best part of our trip was our temporary vacation home at Windsor Hills Resort. Windsor Hills is a perfectly kept community of vacation homes for families visiting the Orlando area. They boast themselves as "the closest vacation home resort to Walt Disney World." The property seemed to be very secure, and totally picture perfect. The lawns were perfectly manicured, the neighborhood was perfectly quietly, and it looked like the ultimate suburbia dream land. Nearby you could find every chain restaurant you could imagine and lots of souvenir shops. If you are vacationing with your family to the Disney area, this is the way to do it. Our vacation home had 6 bedrooms, a game room, and a private pool.
Ah, Pleasantville
My favorite meal of the trip came from Shula Burger. I found out that this was actually the newest location - it was in Kissimmee at the Rolling Oaks Plaza. (We actually visited the Rolling Oaks Plaza several times while we were in town. It has pretty much everything you need.) Shula Burger is a part of the Shula family of restaurants (including Shula's Steak House), from namesake and former NFL coach Don Shula. The Kissimmee location of Shula Burger is the 5th - and I was really surprised when I learned that one of the locations is in the Southwest terminal at Tampa International Airport. I am hoping that Shula Burger adds a full scale Tampa or St. Pete location in the near future. I have been thinking about that burger since I had it 2 weeks ago!

Shula Burger is a fast-casual burger chain. You order at the counter and your meal is delivered to your table. The staff was incredibly accommodating, starting with Carlos who greeted us at the door and explained the experience to us. He mentioned that he had tried everything on the menu (lucky guy!) and would be happy to make recommendations if we needed them. I stuck with my favorite type of burger, the Mushroom Swiss burger. There were 9 signature burgers to choose from or you could customize your own creation. I counted at least 8 cooks in the kitchen during our Saturday afternoon visit. It was nice to know that they had adequate staff to handle the lunch rush.

The Shula Burger and Sweet Potato Tots
Mushroom Swiss Burger with Sea Salt Fries
I was also very happy to find that Shula Burger uses brioche buns for their burgers. I hate going to a burger place and being served a cheap bun. The buns used at Shula Burger were strong enough to hold the patty and toppings without falling apart. The burger patties are made from Black Angus beef, short rib, and brisket. The burger was very juicy and flavorful. I loved that they used a perfect ratio of cheese on the burger. The cheese fit the whole patty - not too big or too small like at other burger places. The branding of Shula on the bun was a nice touch too. The Sea Salt fries sounded a little intimidating because I don't love salt THAT much, but they were pretty much regular fries. The salt was not overwhelming or even really that noticeable and the fries were extra crispy.

In case you can't tell, I give Shula Burger an A+!

On Saturday evening we ventured out to Citywalk at Universal. I love going to the Universal parks, especially during Grinchmas. Our visit to Citywalk featured a trip to Rising Star. Rising Star is the ultimate karaoke venue for those who dream about being on stage. You sing karaoke along with a live band and backup singers. All of the singers were really good. This is not your typical "tone deaf" karaoke bar (although maybe some not so good singers came on after we left?). Rising Star has an ample list of karaoke classics and several current songs to choose from. The downside was that the band takes 30 minute breaks in between sets of about 30 minutes. I'm not sure why they go from 100% entertainment to 0% entertainment for such long periods. However, this is the perfect spot for anyone who dreams of being on stage and wants a taste of stardom - even if just for 1 song.

Rising Star - backup singers, live band, and an awesome performer
What are your favorite places in Orlando? I hope to be back for Grinchmas this year!

Check out Shula Burger on UrbanSpoon:
Shula Burger on Urbanspoon

October 15, 2013

Tampa Bay Speed Boat Adventures

I recently hit the jackpot when I came across the website for Tampa Bay Speed Boat Adventures. The website reads "Be your own captain as you tour Tampa Bay driving your own speed boat." Once I saw "no experience necessary" and all of the 5-star reviews on TripAdvisor I knew I was sold. (And to know me is to know I love a good tour!)
The 3pm tour coming back to land
I was able to book a 5pm tour on a Saturday. They do have earlier afternoon tours available, but I wanted a time that wouldn't be so hot. We met our captain near the Tierra Verde Marina. After a brief safety orientation and overview of the boats, we were stepping into our temporary home on the water.
Idle speed as we left the dock
There are a few periods in the tour where you have to go "idle" speed. This speed allows you to take in the scenery - waterfront homes and other boats out on the water. After a few minutes of getting used to the steering and the boat, you soon reach the regular speed zone. Then, it's party time! You can go full throttle throughout the Bay. The majority of the tour is at full speed. We did have some choppy water for short periods, but it adds to the experience. (Tip: you may want to bring a towel to put on the seat to ease some of the hit you will take if you have choppy water.)

nice house, eh?
We were lucky enough to have a clear day with ZERO percent chance of rain! Since it was a 5pm tour in October, the temperature was in the mid-80s, and there was not a cloud in the sky. We saw a handful of other boats out on the water, but it felt like we had the bay all to ourselves. Our captain took us all the way out to the Skyway Bridge. Let me tell you, the bridge is much nicer when you're looking up at it from a boat instead of driving over it. Unfortunately no dolphins came out to visit us while we were on the water.
oh how I love where I live
The speed boat tour was leisurely and FUN. We weren't rushed at all and before we knew it the sun was starting to set and we were heading back to dry land. I HIGHLY recommend this tour to anyone who is up for an adventure. It's an amazing way to unplug, unwind, and enjoy the sweet beauty of Tampa Bay.

August 24, 2013

Brew Over Ice giveaway!

Let's face it - Florida is hot all year long! We may get a few weeks of cooler weather, but most of the year there is no need to wear anything more than shorts and flip-flops. There is also not much need to drink anything that isn't cold! An iced coffee is almost always my choice over hot coffee. I was really excited when I saw that Keurig has a brand of Brew Over Ice K-Cups that I can use to make iced coffee or iced tea at home.

I have been able to try a few Brew Over Ice K-Cups, and so far my favorite is the Donut Shop Sweet & Creamy Regular Iced Coffee. I was surprised how "sweet and creamy" it was right out of the brewer. (You can tell from the picture below too!) Unlike past attempts to make iced coffee at home, this one tasted like what I would get from a local coffee shop. I did add a splash of vanilla creamer for a hint of vanilla flavor. It came out perfect!

Brewing, brewing...
If you prefer tea over coffee, Brew Over Ice also sells many varieties of tea. I tried the Strawberry Pomegranate from Vitamin Burst, and Peach Iced Tea from Snapple. Both were great for an afternoon pick me up.

Brew Over Ice has offered a prize package to one of my readers! 
Congratulations to Tabitha W!
To enter to win, leave a comment with what Brew Over Ice flavor you would most like to try! 
Use the Rafflecopter widget to enter after you leave your comment. 

Prize package includes: 
3 Brew Over Ice K-Cup samples 
A Brew Over Ice plastic tumbler so you can take your tasty drinks on the road with you
4 Brew Over Ice drink coasters
A light up Brew Over Ice ice bucket with ice tongs

Even if you don't win the prize package, you can still feel the love from Brew Over Ice! You can download a $2 off coupon to try the Brew Over Ice K-Cups of your choice, or enter to win $10,000 cash!

Disclaimer: I received a free Brew Over Ice package including K-Cup samples in exchange for this review.

August 17, 2013

Cupcakes, cupcakes, and more cupcakes

Today the Morean Arts Center hosted their 3rd Annual Great St. Pete Cupcake Contest. This event allows amateur and professional bakers to compete for the title of the best cupcake. I was happy to participate this year by sampling as many cupcakes as I could handle. In lieu of a normal lunch, I sampled sweet cupcakes, savory cupcakes, traditional cupcakes, gourmet cupcakes, and everything in between. Here are some highlights of the event:

Chocolate Oreo Cheesecake
Blood Orange Creamsicle
Cannoli Cupcakes (Parisian raspberry to the right)
Caramel Apple
The Elvis
Lemon and Pomegranate
My favorites were:
Red Snapping Turtle
Can't go wrong with Chocolate and Peanut Butter

I'm looking forward to next year! Go hungry and leave happy.