Dining In Style at Ulele

I absolutely love dining at local hot spots. I enjoy seeing what all the fuss is about with certain restaurants. With these things in mind I had a real treat on hand when I was afforded the opportunity to attend a blogger dinner at Ulele, sister restaurant to the Columbia Restaurant.

WIth accolades such as, “One of the Top 100 Restaurants in the U.S. – Open Table”, “One of the Best New Restaurants in Florida – Florida Trend” and “Best Overall Restaurant – Yelp Tampa Bay, and most recently rated the 7th best restaurant in the bay area by Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley, you can see why I was thrilled to give Ulele the green light on my stomach.

Upon entering the beautiful building (seriously beautiful, $6 million went into the renovation), I was hit with a restaurant loaded with hustle and bustle and glitz galore. I instantly felt like this was a destination restaurant not to be missed. As myself and fellow Tampa Bay Bloggers were whisked away to the upstairs area, I couldn’t help but take in all the aromas of steak and char-grilled goodness. The cuisine at Ulele is American inspired Indian, but really focuses on fresh local cuisine indigineous to the Florida.

Ulele blog event-3Our first sample of Ulele came in the form of samples of craft beer. Tim Shackton, head brewmaster of Ulele’s microbrewery, is known for creating delightful crisp lagers and on this evening I had the chance to sample his Honeymoon beer, a black lager, and a bourbon barrel aged red. Our waiter was gracious enough to recommend the bba red and I really loved the caramel and vanilla from the barrel that came through, yet it was still full of biting hops.

The water they use for brewing their beer (a high-tech filtration system) is actually the water they use to serve patrons at the dinner table. The water comes in glass water bottles original from the Columbia Restaurant, dating back to 1905.

We were then treated to a small buffet of luscious mac n cheese (Four-cheese, Ulele light beer sauce) with all the fixin’s you cared to add, things such as lump crab, green onion, and duck bacon crumbles…yes DUCK BACON! On the same table there was delicious chili with loads of beans and hunks of glorious meat. We weren’t allowed to share our photos of these items because they were not served in their typical plating style. Trust me it was some handsome eats.

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The first dish to arrive at our table came in the form of freshly shucked raw oysters on the half shell served with freshly grated horseradish and quartered lemon pieces. These were super fresh and I could’ve eaten a dozen easy. Here is a pro tip, I later received a bottle of datil pepper sauce to try out and I wish I had that bottle while enjoying some of these oysters. That was followed up with a platter of char-broiled oysters. There were simple and delicious. I enjoyed that there was not a gloppy mess of cheese atop the oysters and they had that great char flavor from the broiler.
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Next up, I enjoyed the alligator hushpuppies (alligator, country ham, duck bacon, fresh corn, jalapeño, honey datil pepper sauce and fresh-ground horseradish aioli). While not entirely a new idea, these were well-executed bites of crunchy goodness.
 Ulele blog event-9As the food train kept marching along, I enjoyed a crunchy bite of squash gratin. The veggies were cooked quite well, not mush, yet not raw. I adored the crunchy breadcrumb and manchego mixture atop the vegetables.
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Now on to the carnivorous portion of our segment. What I enjoyed next, and I do mean enjoy, is a hefty 10 ounce portion of perfectly seared wet-aged filet mignon. The filet was accompanied by fresh asparagus and a mound of white cheddar popcorn mashed potatoes.
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Taking a brief break from beef, I had the pleasure of noshing on some fresh pan-seared pompano topped with fried carrot ribbons all set atop a mound of wild rice and a drizzle of sundried tomato shallot cream. This could be my favorite dish from the evening. I absolutely loved the fried carrot ribbons.
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That was quick break and now back to the beef. This mammoth of a steak is the kilo porterhouse, coming in at a whopping 2.2 lbs. This too had great char on the meat and a great steak quality that I absolutely loved. The extra fat in these cuts always lends to great flavor.
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 Swoon. That’s what I did when dessert hit the table. Candied Duck Bacon Maple Fried Ice Cream (cinnamon corn flake candied duck bacon crust, Knob Creek crème anglaise, caramel, sweet potato waffle crisp). This was definitely the bees knees and if I wanted to eat whatever the hell I wanted everyday, this would end each and every night for me.

Do yourself a favor and get down to Ulele, fast. It is such a unique experience and I absolutely love that they took and area of town and made it an up and coming destination. The ball is rolling, so get a jump on things and make a visit.

For reservations at Ulele, visit Ulele online or call 813-999-4952.
Ulele
1810 N. Highland Ave.
Tampa, 33602
In Tampa Heights
In exchange for my review the food I wrote about was free.

Baked Oatmeal For Mommy

I have had a really busy last two months. My wife and I had our first baby and needless to say things are very crazy and I am pressed for time between caring for the baby and working a full-time job as an elementary art teacher. My baby is not the only person I need to take good care of though, the other person would be my hard-working wife. She has very little time to cook her own food because she is nursing our baby or doing laundry or going to a baby appointment of some sort or doing a bounty of other numerous tasks and on and on.

When we realized that we needed to kick up Elizabeth’s lactation up a gear or two I resorted to some good ol’ oatmeal. Except I can make just any normal oatmeal, it has to be baked and full of flavor! There are so many things that make this oatmeal great and many more that you can include, but the main ingredients for kicking up lactation is brewer’s yeast, flaxseed meal, and the most obvious in this recipe, OATS. This is not so much a recipe as it is a guide to steer you in the direction you want to go. Add whatever nuts, fruit, meals, extracts, etc that your little heart desires. The great thing about this idea is that you can make a big batch of it and you can add whatever the hell makes you happy.

Here’s a list of what I added:

  • oats
  • flaxseed meal
  • brewer’s yeast
  • frozen hand-picked blueberries
  • vanilla extract and Tahitian vanilla bean
  • brown sugar
  • honey
  • maple syrup
  • cinnamon
  • nuts
  • pinch of kosher salt
  • milk to cover all of the mixture by about 1/2 inch in a Pyrex dish

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Cinderella at The Straz, Your Golden Carriage Awaits

“Now go – to the ball. In the name of every girl who has ever wished to go to a ball in a beautiful dress. In the name of every girl who has ever wanted to change the world she lived in. Go! with the promise of possibility!” – Fairy God Mother in Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Book by Douglas Carter Beane

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When I asked my wife Elizabeth if she was interested in attending the musical Cinderella with me at the Straz Center, she answered with a resounding “YES!” That was really a silly question on my part because I know she loves anything musical and these nights will be far and few between once our little Arya is born this December. A chance to get out of the house one more time and spend it watching a classic like Cinderella was a no-brainer.

As I walked into the Straz Center lobby, I immediately felt like I was attending a very special evening ball. There were people of all ages in attendance, from grandparents all the way to grandchildren and everyone was enjoying themselves. I felt a bit of nostalgia myself in anticipation of this musical. For some reason I have always been a fan of this tale.

This musical of Cinderella was so well done and I was in awe of how they transformed Cinderella’s costume from dull rags to magnificent gowns and back, all in a blink of an eye, just like the magic that it is suppose to portray. The actors/actresses did a great job with the song and dance as well as nailing their lines. I was glued to the set the entire time. Definitely get out to watch this masterpiece.

There was also a great charity made possible by the Straz Center, Belle of the Ball Project, and the Company of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella to accept donations of formal gowns, shoes, and accessories. The goods will be given to young women in need for prom outfits. This will be going on through October 26th, so get out your garb and donate for a great cause.

Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella will play Morsani Hall, Oct. 21-26. Performances are Tuesday – Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Regularly priced tickets are $56-$95 and may be purchased by calling 813.229.STAR (7827) or 800.955.1045 outside Tampa Bay, in person at the Straz Center Ticket Office or online at http://www.strazcenter.org.

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***Disclaimer: I received complimentary tickets to see Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella from the Straz Center and the Tampa Bay Bloggers. All opinions are my own.

California Pizza Kitchen…#NewCPK

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I will admit that I have not eaten at a California Pizza Kitchen (CPK) in ages. The main reason is that it is a chain and I do my best to support local first. With that said, I realize chains play a very important role in our culture. That role is to be consistent with its food and offer up a comfortable and familiar feeling to the customer. Whether you are dining at an establishment in California, Montana, New York, or Florida, you know for the most part what you are going to get and that is gratifying for many people.

Though I don’t dine at many chain restaurants, I was really excited to be tasting some new offerings from CPK and getting to check out their new digs. This Tampa location, inside International Plaza, is one of a handful in the country to get a construction makeover and some fresh menu items that will change based upon the seasons and even the area that it resides in.

The space that CPK occupies is bright enough so that you aren’t lulled to sleep, yet certain areas of the restaurant stand out superbly to highlight its California roots. There is a series of photos on a wall, all of them black and white except for a couple in color. Those that are in b&w are photos of California in some respect and the ones in color are dedicated to the specific location that the guest is currently at, in this case Tampa. CPK also had a wall made entirely of pieces of wooden wine crates, many of them from Californian vineyards. This is the only location to currently have a wall formatted like this and these are the types of details that will lure “non-chain people” in to CPK to enjoy its comfy, yet chic, confines.

wine crate wall
wine crate wall

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The lovely and informative Manager at CPK Tampa, Jamarie Gomez, was so gracious in taking time out of her shift to fill me in on many of the little details that have gone into making CPK more current. One of those details is that the head pizza chef whose sole job is to do just that, to create glorious pizzas, will have a signature pizza that he or she has single-handedly crafted. So one can go to a CPK in Jacksonville and get a shrimp scampi pizza and head back to Tampa with no such luck of ordering a scampi pizza. At the same time that person has the ability to eat something totally unique to that Tampa location. I find that this really helps the chain feel not as chain-like.

Another aspect that CPK has going for itself these days are the seasonal menu items that are being offered. They are turning that corner of using some local ingredients and also tweaking some of their offerings based on the seasons. A harvest salad of theirs might include squash, cranberries, and other Fall offerings during Autumn, yet during another season be based on citrus and berries to highlight that season.

Autumn Harvest Kale Salad
Autumn Harvest Kale Salad

Overall, I was highly impressed with the new decor, the service, and most importantly the quality of the food. There wasn’t one dish that I was disappointed in. It’s kind of like kids, of course you have your favorites, but you still love them all for different reasons. I will leave you with some photos from my meal with my lovely wife Elizabeth.

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Strawberry Mango Cooler (left) and Blood Orange Sangria (right)

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Brussels Sprout and Bacon Flatbread
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Good Color Underneath
Pan-roasted chicken with seaosnal veggies of cauliflower and brussels sprouts
Pan-roasted chicken with seasonal veggies of cauliflower and brussels sprouts
nice color on the plate and prepared nicely, nice crispness on the chicken and veggies
nice color on the plate and prepared well, good crispness on the chicken and veggies
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Cedar-plank halibut with farro and squash puree, al dente asparagus. Loved the farro and sqaush puree combo.
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Seared ribeye cooked medium, blue cheese compound butter, roasted fingerling potatoes, bright citrusy arugula. Delicious and though I would have prefered med-rare it was still very tender.
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Pumpkin Cheesecake. Seasonal. Very good, but it doesn’t have anything on the next dessert in the lineup…
Butter Cake with Haagan-Dazs Ice cream. Unassuming yet so fantastic, warm and yummy. GET THE ICE CREAM PEOPLE (it's optional on the menu)
Butter Cake with Haagan-Dazs Ice cream. Unassuming, yet so fantastic, warm and yummy. The one thing I can’t get out of my head for two straight days now. GET THE ICE CREAM PEOPLE (it’s optional on the menu)
The warm delicious interior
The warm delicious interior
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My beautiful and 8 mo. pregnant wife, Elizabeth

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***I attended a tasting of California Pizza Kitchen’s new menu items on behalf of Tampa Bay Bloggers. California Pizza Kitchen gave me a complimentary meal in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.

Pork and Cauliflower Vindaloo, Coconut Cilantro Basmati

It has been quite some time since I’ve posted on my blog. It’s been a whirlwind of happenings lately. Elizabeth and I had our baby shower so I had to prepare for that. Then there are birthdays galore. I am honestly feeling wiped out. I am still cooking like always, but breaking out my camera, uploading photos, editing and then writing for my blog is just too much lately. This here is a dish that put some flare and excitement in my life with a bit of spice to light a fire under me.

I present to you my pork and cauliflower vindaloo with chickpeas and potatoes. homemade naan. coconut milk cilantro basmati

pork and cauliflower vindaloo, chickpeas and potatoes. homemade naan. coconut milk cilantro basmati pork and cauliflower vindaloo, chickpeas and potatoes. homemade naan. coconut milk cilantro basmati-3 pork and cauliflower vindaloo, chickpeas and potatoes. homemade naan. coconut milk cilantro basmati-2

Corn and Swiss Chard Arancini Stuffed with Mozzarella, Italian Sausage and Rapini Ragu

Leftover risotto is better than freshly made risotto for one reason…Arancini.

Mix leftover risotto with an egg, add some bread crumbs (I like panko), form into balls, and stuff with some mozzarella. Roll risotto balls in more panko bread crumbs. Chill in the fridge for an hour to firm up. Fry them up for about 4 minutes and boom!

Corn and Swiss Chard Arancini Stuffed with Mozzarella, Italian Sausage and Rapini Ragu

corn and swiss chard arancini stuffed with mozzarella, italian sausage and rapini ragu-3 corn and swiss chard arancini stuffed with mozzarella, italian sausage and rapini ragu-2 corn and swiss chard arancini stuffed with mozzarella, italian sausage and rapini ragu-4 corn and swiss chard arancini stuffed with mozzarella, italian sausage and rapini ragu

Spaghetti Squash with Pork Belly Ragu

Spaghetti sqash with pork belly ragu

This dish was a collaboration with my wife Elizabeth.  She never enters the my kitchen unless it’s to pour herself a bowl of cereal or make some soft-boiled eggs.  The girl who used to microwave chicken breast for dinner has now added another food item she is good at preparing.  Spaghetti squash.  For this gluten free dish I created a hearty and flavorful ragu.  

I marinated a 3 pound slab of boneless, rindless pork belly for 24 hours in Cigar City Brewpub’s Brewers Brunch beer.  It was patted dry really well with paper towels and then hit with a dose of hickory smoked sea salt.  I let it roast in the oven for four hours or until tender.  After letting it rest for an hour, the pork was sliced, diced and added to a simple tomato sauce of sautéed onions, garlic, fresh oregano, and crushed tomatoes.  This mixture was then cooked down in the oven with a lid slightly ajar until the sauce was thickened and the pork even more tender.  It’s as simple as that.  Sometimes the best things in life are the simplest things in life.  Enjoy!  

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