Eat It, Damn It!

Reviews, raves, slams, and damns.

Monthly Archives: February 2012

Tomato & Basil

MG got rave reviews of Tomato & Basil from her relatives. It’s located in an area of Black Rock Turnpike that is littered with strip malls, all of which have small restaurants. We were on our way to a show at Fairfield University and decided that Tomato & Basil would be a good option. If it was crowded and we were in a rush, we would be able to find another eatery pretty quickly.

Tomato & Basil is one floor. There are about ten tables and seating at a long bar. I believe their maximum seating capacity is sixty. We were lucky and a table for two opened up immediately.

Berry Martini
MG got a Very Berry Tini ($11.00) from their drink menu. It seems that all their specialty drinks are made with vodka. There was nothing with rum, tequila, or anything else for that matter, just vodka. Weird. It was not like they did not have a stocked bar. The had various rums, whiskeys, and tequilas on the drink menu, but none of the specialty drinks were made with anything but vodka.

Dark Wheat Beer
I got what the waiter described as a dark wheat beer ($7.50). It was nice, but note the picture. Isn’t it traditional for the waiter to pour your first draw and leave the bottle? Am I just being elitist (I’m looking at you Massachusetts)?

Which brings me to another point. After MG & I had ordered, she pointed out the specials board to me. It is written on a chalkboard at the back of the restaurant. The waiter never told us that any specials were available, nor did he tell us about any of them. That is definitely a violation of general protocol. I’m not suggesting our service was bad or that our waiter was rude. He was pleasant and prompt. After serving us our appetizer and entrees, he checked in to see if we were enjoying our meal. He was attentive. He did not rush us to clear the table. Everything was fine, but the non-pour of beer and the lack of reading the specials does stick out in my mind.

Complimentary Bread
The complimentary bread is nice, but I still wish they served it with butter instead of oil. The bread itself was OK, but something about oil on bread (not toast, bread) just seems off. I know I may be bucking tradition, but I think oil on bread just tastes greasy.

White Bean Bruchetta
MG & I shared a White Bean Bruchetta ($8.99) for an appetizer. I am not a fan of traditional bruscetta. I don’t care how you dress it up, it’s tomato on bread. Granted, this dish at its core is beans and tomato on bread, but it was a bit more interesting. They also placed a thin slice of cheese on top. I think it was romano. With the accompanying spices, it adds an interesting flavor. The beans were fresh and tasty, as was the bread. I really enjoyed the fact that the bread was lightly toasted on each side, not cooked to the consistency of melba toast and awash in oil and garlic. Here’s a closer look:

White Beans up close
MG summed up the dish succinctly, saying it was “clean”.

Penne Vodka with Chicken
MG went with her staple dish at Italian restaurants, Penne ala Vodka ($13.99) with Chicken ($2.99). I did not try the pasta itself, but the chicken was very, very good. I was impressed with the cooking and flavoring. It was not stringy. The texture was very light. There were grill char marks and a slight taste from the carmelization that melded nicely with the creaminess of the sauce. Big thumbs up. Should I return to Tomato & Basil, I’ll be trying a chicken dish. It came in a cauldron, a sizable portion that will fill up the heartiest of diners.

Baked Ziti with Meatballs
I decided to try the Baked Ziti ($13.99) with Meatballs ($2.99). I was not wanting for cheese. Between the mozzarella on top and the ricotta inside, there was plenty to spare. The sauce is tasty, but not exceptional. It was not watery nor overly acidic. It was slightly skewed to the sweeter side, but not quite sweet enough to give the dish a distinct note. The meatballs are nice. They are fresh and tasty, and I think they are mostly beef. I didn’t really taste much of a blend (if any). Not exceptional, nor disappointing, they are not the stuff of dreams. It was a nice dish, but unless you are really in the mood for ziti or meatballs, skip this one and go for something with chicken.

Tomato & Basil is a nice little spot. Their menu is mostly Italian classics, so I believe they could do with branching out to some more interesting dishes. Something a bit more distinct would set them apart and make them worth checking out again. Without that, nothing is compelling me to return anytime soon, but I wouldn’t complain if I was with a group that suggested it for dinner.

Tomato & Basil
1876 Black Rock Turnpike
Fairfield, CT 06825
203-333-3600
(Google Map)

IKEA New Haven

I went to IKEA. I don’t think anyone finds this fact remarkable. However, I’ve never been to IKEA. I remember when I first became aware of IKEA, sometime in my youth (don’t ask if it was the eighties or nineties). Here is what I heard about IKEA:

It’s cheap.
It comes from Sweden.
They are cheap because they do not assemble anything for you.
They have meatballs, and since they are from Sweden, the meatballs are decidedly Swedish.

I guess that all these statements turned out to be true. I don’t know what I really expected, but I was expecting something more foreign, perhaps more Swedish. “What the heck is ‘more Swedish’?” I don’t know, but what I found when I went to the IKEA off I-95 in Connecticut was a Home Depot that sold furniture and was more blue than orange.

First impressions of big-box store aside, you didn’t come here for my opinions on department stores. You came for a food review.

Ikea Meatballs
Meatballs. They are balls of meat. Duh. What kind of meat? As I understand it, Swedish meatballs are supposed to be a mixture of beef, pork, and veal. They are rolled small and cooked. How? I don’t really know. What do I know? These meatballs tasted like Vienna Sausages. The texture was kind of close to Vienna Sausages as well. Is that a good thing? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

The meatballs also came with mashed potatoes and lingonberry jelly. I’ve never had jelly with my mashed potatoes. It wasn’t bad, but nothing I’m craving again.

Garlic Toast
I also got a piece of garlic toast ($0.69). It was fresh and tasty, airy and nice, not tough at all.

As fast food goes, you could do worse. This dish is dirt cheap ($3.99). I also liked that everything is served on real plates with real utensils. If you are in IKEA, starving, and there is nothing else nearby, I don’t think you will be disappointed.

IKEA New Haven
450 Sargent Drive
New Haven, CT 06511
203-865-4532
(Google Map)

La Creperia Cafe

Crepes are not an item that I go out of my way to find. I do not gush over them. That’s not to say that I have a particular dislike for them, I’ve just never been very impressed by them… until now.

MG & I were wandering about Tampa’s historic Ybor City. There are a number of clubs, cafes, and restaurants that line the streets. There was a little place that caught my eye. I’m not sure what the attracting quality was, maybe it was the little fellow in the window. Garbed in full chef’s regalia, he looked like a caricature of the hard-bitten, determined, and stubborn artisan. Well… as it turned out, he made our crepes.

La Creperia
La Creperia Cafe is quaint. There is a large espresso machine sitting behind the counter. In the refrigerator are the requisite juices and sodas, but there is also another fridge dedicated to wines and other alcohols. It is small and pleasant. Enough about the ambiance, on to the crepes.

There are at least 30 sweet crepes listed on their menu. It takes up an entire page. Savory Crepes take up another page with another 20 or so items. There are another 10 or so Breakfast Crepes. The menu is rounded out with sandwiches, panini, pasta, soups, and so forth. However, MG & I were looking for a little something sweet. Their sweet listings cover all sorts of permutations that include fruit, Nutella, Baileys, bananas, strawberries, and the like. Everything can be customized to your liking by adding jam, coconut, Grand Marnier, and more. We went with one of their standard offerings, the Ana Lucia ($8.50). It contains Dolce de Leche and strawberries. The final product was topped with powdered sugar and whipped cream.

Ana Lucia Crepe
This is worlds apart from the crepes vendors that are always found in New York City street fairs during the summer. This was incredible.

Crepe Innards
First, the fillings. The inside was loaded with fresh strawberry slices, and when I say “loaded”, I truly mean LOADED. There was not so much to overwhelm the pastry (which we will get to shortly), but they certainly did not skimp. The Dolce de Leche was also generously applied. It was not cloying sweet, but was like the most perfect caramel I’ve ever tasted. It went so well with the strawberries, I wondered why other dishes have not utilized this combination. Strawberry and Dolce de Leche ice cream. Dolce de Leche and strawberry jam. The list is endless.

Second, the pastry. Many crepes that I’ve had in the past have been one little pancake of pastry rolled to create a “crepe in a blanket”. Not so at La Creperia Cafe. The little triangle was the result of numerous folds, but the pastry was not heavy at all. It was superb. There was enough substance to create a filling desert, but little enough to not become a huge meal unto itself. The flavor? It was the best balance of sweet and bready that I can recall having in a long, LONG time.

Finally, the whipped cream. It was pretty good. Not heavy, not sickeningly sweet, not too creamy, it was like a sweet, buttery cloud. By the way: I HATE WHIPPED CREAM! Maybe if I had this stuff instead of Cool Whip first, my opinion on the food would be different.

Crepe Aftermath
As you can see, MG & I plowed through this dish sighing and groaning with each forkful. Any visit to Ybor City, or anywhere near the area should include a stop at La Creperia Cafe.

La Creperia Cafe
1729 East Seventh Avenue
Tampa, FL 33605
813-248-9700
(Google Map)

Taco Bus

Taco Bus Preparation Bus
Nearby Busch Gardens Tampa, there is little place that is open 24 hours. While it is called the Taco Bus, it is actually a couple buses and a small building. If you blink, you’ll miss it, but the locals clearly have not. MG & I went during lunch hour and the lines kept coming and going. The parking lot was at least twice the size of the cooking and dining area, and it kept filling and emptying. The local populace was trying to tell us something. “Eat here.”

Butternut Squash Centro
We started with the Butternut Squash Centro ($2.50, small). It is advertised as “prepared Yucatan style with sweet peppers, topped with pico de gallo and queso cotija”. I think the chips were freshly made, as they were very crisp and hearty. I would describe this dish as a sort of butternut squash salsa. The tomatoes, peppers, and squash combine to make a very savory, but not terribly heavy dish. If you are a fan of squash, definitely give it a try. MG loved it.

Taco Bus Medley
To get the most from our Taco Bus experience, MG & I got a medley of tacos ($2.69) each. Each comprises two soft shells, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, shredded cabbage, and a lime to zest up the entire affair. We had to do a little poking and prodding when the dish came, since we weren’t sure which was which on first inspection. The Carne Asada (grilled steak marinated in Mexican seasonings) was nice, but won’t be replacing Baja’s for my favorite Carne Asada anytime soon. The Carne de Res Desebrada (Northern Mexico style meaty shreds of beef with tomatoes and chiles) is a nice medley of flavors that should not frightened the pepper-aversed. The Barbaca (braised beef) was okay, tasty, but ultimately a little dull. The Cochinita Pibil (shredded pork marinated in achiote and bitter orange, then wrapped in banana leaves and slow roasted in a smoker / based on a 5,000 year old Mayan recipe), is well prepared, but does not live up to the hype of that long-ass description. The Lengua (beef tongue) was very good. It is a very savory flavor cooked until very tender and cut into nice cubes. It was my favorite of the bunch.

It may sound like I’m dismissing many of the tacos, but I’m not. They were tasty and nice, but did not blow me away. However, the fact that they are open all the time, their prices are good, and their service is quick, makes up for not being a culinary masterpiece. If you are on your way to Busch Gardens, this is certainly a better bet that amusement park food. In addition to the beef and pork offerings, they also have seafood (fish and shrimp) and a wide variety of vegetarian options, including roasted Poblano pepper, tofu, tempeh, and soy “steak strips”. Also, anyplace with a sign like this is worth a shot.
Broken English Sign

Taco Bus
913 East Hillsborough Avenue
Tampa, FL 33604
813-232-5889
(Google Map)

Munch’s

Munchs Sign
Well into the Tampa portion of our Florida vacation, MG & I decided to try out another restaurant that had been visited by a certain spikey-haired host of a gastronomic program. We were going out to lunch with MG’s uncle, and he was also interested in trying a new restaurant.

Munch’s is definitely a popular place with the locals. The parking lot was full, and there were plenty of people that were leaving the restaurant on foot. The ambiance is quintessentially diner. There is a counter area, and plenty of bench-style, booth seating. A sign in the front tells customers to seat themselves, the Maitre d’ is unavailable. Munch’s specialty is what would generally be considered comfort food. They are only open for breakfast and lunch.

Fried Green Tomatoes
To start, MG’s uncle ordered the Fried Green Tomatoes ($3.25). I’ve never had this dish before, neither had MG. It was good. MG’s uncle also proclaimed the item, “very nice”. They were not greasy, and the batter did not overwhelm the tomato. I was expecting something tart, but this dish was definitely more savory than sweet. The accompanying ranch dressing was great for dipping.

Onion Strips
The Onion Thins ($3.25) were very light. They were the perfect balance between batter and onion. These might be contenders for some of the best onion rings I’ve every had. They are quite thin, but because the batter does not overwhelm the onion, they can be had in big handfuls without being too salty. If you are an onion ring fan, give these a shot.

Meatloaf
For an entree, I got Munch’s Famous Baked Meat Loaf ($7.75). It comes with mashed potatoes, green beans, and toast. The potatoes and meatloaf come smothered in gravy. As I was telling, MG’s uncle, I did not grow up with meatloaf. In fact, I only started eating it a few years ago. This particular offering was pretty good. Beef and pork combined to create a really wonderful flavor. The loaf is clearly not crammed with filler. The gravy was slightly sweet, but mostly savory, a great compliment. There were bits of bacon on the outside of the loaf’s edge. MG, who is a bit of a loaf aficionado was impressed. The mashed potatoes had the texture of boxed, but they were very good.

Green Beans
The green beans were fresh, and while not outstanding, very good.

Chicken Finger Basket
MG got the Chicken Finger Basket ($5.95). Again, the frying was very good, creating a wonderful balance between fresh chicken and crunchy breading. Not salty, not heavy, this was some really good fried chicken. The fries, though frozen were good as well.

Fish and Grits
MG’s uncle ordered the Fresh Fried Mullet or Catfish ($8.25). Unfortunately, they were out of both and only had Tilapia. They were also out of biscuits and could only offer toast. The dish came with grits. Generally, the lack of this many items would cause me to give a restaurant major demerits. However, we were there near the end of their hours on the Sunday before MLK day. Their business may have been a little more brisk than usual. I’ll give them a little pass. The fish dish came with grits. I tried the tilapia and though it was very well made. MG’s uncle also enjoyed it, and he said the grits were good as well.

The folks at Munch’s are very friendly, and the dishes are extraordinarily wholesome and tasty. Stop in for a bite if you want some “stick to your ribs” cooking.

Munch’s
3920 Sixth Street South
St. Petersburg, FL
727-896-5972
(Google Map)