It’s All About Service

The school year ended for me and the next morning Bob and I headed for Chicago for a little vacation. We planned this for a few months – I’ve spent less time planning our trips to Europe – so we were very excited about this. I’ve never been to Chicago and since it has some amazing restaurants I just could not wait.

The trip did not start well. I think I texted something about hating United Airlines more than a few times as we were traveling. From a mess up with seating (Bob and I were not seated together despite the email confirmation that said we were … but we could purchase an upgrade if we wanted to sit together) to the horrible boarding process to the minuscule seats (could not have my arms next to my body at the same time without hitting the poor lady next to me) that we had to wait in since there was a delay (that they knew about before we boarded) to the half hour waiting for a gate in Chicago, it was a rather bad trip. I could deal with a lot of this – the delay, bad weather and the gate issue were not United’s fault necessarily – but the way the treated customers and the very “we don’t care” attitude made everything worse. Good customer service could have made this trip ok if not good, but poor customer service made it horrible.

Adding to my stress (as this ended up being a two hour delay in total) … dinner reservations. I have read about and wondered about Alinea for a while and Bob and I decided to go for it. I read every review I could find (and I do mean every) and one review made up my mind to spend the money. “Alinea will ruin you for five star dining.” With that I had to try it.

20140620-175109-64269431.jpg
We should have had more than enough time to land, check into the hotel, relax, change and get to dinner. Instead we raced off the plane, changed in a stall in the airport bathrooms, hailed a cab and went straight to Alinea. You can probably picture me trying to get my dress and heels out of the suitcase in the stall while getting out of my jeans and top and into the dress. I did brush my hair but went without the make up to save time. We got a great cab driver and a little lucky with traffic and arrived 13 minutes late.

20140620-175755-64675693.jpg
From the moment we walked in, it was incredible. The maĆ®tre’d simply took our bags, told us to relax, got our name for the reservation and led us to our table. He asked where we were coming from, said they were glad we were there and started everything on a great note. He could have commented on our late arrival, made a big deal about the bags or been stuffy or unpleasant but he wasn’t. This foreshadowed the rest of the evening. The wait staff was relaxing, engaging and fun. The food was not just beautiful it was perfection. Each course was unique and made me smile, but nothing more than when I realized Bob was getting seafood (caviar, skate and lobster) while I had alternatives to the seafood. For anyone who does not do tasting menus, this is highly unusual; in most restaurants everyone at the table has the same dish, so Bob does not get seafood since I don’t.

20140620-180640-65200840.jpg

20140620-180640-65200160.jpg But not at Alinea. There we each got our own versions of the dish and it was just perfect. I can say I had probably the best meal, start to finish, of my life. Was it expensive? Yes. More than I am comfortable paying, but I would do it again. It was worth ever penny and if I ever have the opportunity to do it again, I will. The food was that good, but the service made the experience.

20140620-181007-65407614.jpg
The final detail. When we were seated the maitre’d asked if we would need a cab after dinner; we said yes. So after the meal ended we were brought downstairs, thanked for coming, given our bags and walked out to a waiting cab. Not one we had to wait for, but one that was waiting for us. It was details like that really show what good service can do for an experience. It really is all about the service.

June a Cheese Box

There are distinct advantages to knowing your local cheesemonger. The very fact that I have a local cheesemonger still makes me giggle two years after finding the shop. I know I extol Louise’s virtues every time I make a cheese post, but she, and the other ‘cheese gals’ are wonderful. I will also (as usual) say if you have any interest in cheese and will be near Sarasota you need to check out Artisan Cheese Company and chat with Louise or any of her staff. The shop has a very friendly feel and they really do take their time to get to know their customers and each person’s likes and dislikes.

This month’s box included a Smoked Blue cheese from Kentucky.

20140615-092445-33885633.jpg It is the prettiest blue cheese I’ve seen, but I really, really don’t like blue cheese. (More on that and the advantages of knowing your cheesemonger in a second.) Bob, however, loves blue cheese and so Louise did include this one in our box. Bob loved this one. As the name indicates, it is smokey but not overpowering with a mild blue flavor. This is according to Bob as I did not have any. It has a creamy texture and beautiful veining. Bob gushed about this one so much he wants to pick up more before we visit his parents next month. (By the way, Nan and Bud …. We are thinking about visiting next month.)

Now because Louise knows I don’t like blue cheese (and she has had me try several to see if there is a type I do like) she gave us less of the blue, but added a Kentucky sheep cheese for me. Good Shepard is the very cute name and this cheese was about as perfect a cheese for me as you can get.

20140615-093019-34219901.jpg The flavor isn’t strong, but it is deep. It almost melts in your mouth and is perfect by itself or with nuts, crackers or a little blackberry jam. I will have an excellent lunch the next few days at work with this gem.

20140615-093257-34377419.jpg Also in our box this month was an ash goat cheese from Goat Lady Dairy. We had a goat cheese log from them last month (which I totally forgot to post) which was good, but not spectacular. This one was amazing. Creamy and mild but it had a great flavor. I’m still coming to terms in my own head that mild and bland are not the same thing. Bland is the absence of flavor, I suppose, and mild is subtle flavors. This definitely falls on the subtle flavors side of the coin and I liked it best by itself on bread.

20140615-093615-34575231.jpg Our last cheese this month was from France – Montboisse du Haut Livradois. This one is pretty incredible too. It has a stronger smell than taste, and a slight texture (possibly from the ash layer) to it, but it is creamy and silky and all the wonderful things you want cheese to be. I liked this one with the cranberry hazelnut crackers and a touch of the black tea jam. It has a slight nutty taste to it which lets it stand up to other flavors.

20140615-094052-34852676.jpg This month (like almost every other month when we get our box) I get super excited and simply amazed what milk, enzymes and time can create. The sheer variety of cheeses are incredible and I feel very lucky to have a local cheesemonger that knows our tastes and really emphasizes quality – both in products and service. We love our cheese club so much, Bob and I already signed up for a second year of it – and we are leaving the choices of cheese to Louise each month. It’s a mini Christmas and a great ‘date night’ for us.

Summer Stir Fry

I had every intention of making Pad Thai this afternoon. I picked up some pretty veggies and cilantro at the farmers market this morning and was super excited by this. (It’s also cheese night so double excitement for food today.) What I didn’t consider was that I was almost out of soy sauce. I thought I had another bottle in the pantry, but I didn’t. To make pad thai I need four to six tablespoons of soy sauce; I had two. So rather than going out for Indian or heading down to the grocery store, I improvised.

I went with what I had on hand:
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1.5 tablespoons grated ginger
1 tablespoon chili garlic paste

I mixed all of that together and set it aside. I slice up some form tofu, seasoned it with salt and pepper and pan fried it in a little peanut oil.

20140614-134452-49492987.jpg

Meanwhile I chopped the vegetables:
1/4 red opinion, sliced thin
1 carrot, cut into match sticks
1 handful sugar snap peas (end cut off)
2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped

20140614-134656-49616974.jpg

After the tofu was done I beat one egg and quickly scrambled it so it wasn’t cooked completely and added it to the tofu. I used a little more peanut oil and added the vegetables. I used one tablespoon of the sauce to help season the vegetables and added some chopped peanuts and half the cilantro. To that I added the rice noodles and then half the remaining sauce. Once the noodles were coated and everything was mixed together, I added the tofu, egg and the rest of the sauce. Toss it all a little longer over medium heat then squeeze a slice of line over everything.

20140614-135335-50015392.jpg

I was a little nervous about this one. I didn’t have a recipe and was pretty much winging it. It came out really well, however. Bright flavors and enough depth of flavor to keep both Bob and I eating. I really did love this so I will chalk it up as a win.

Dining Out

A lot of cities have a restaurant week. Restaurants put together special menus for a fixed price. It’s a great way to try new places, go to favorite restaurants or give a local spot another chance. The general idea behind restaurant weeks is to increase business in slow seasons and in Sarasota, summer is the slow season.

20140610-231048-83448074.jpg

When I moved to a Sarasota, Polo Grill was a great spot for dinner. The food was good, service solid and the restaurant itself is close. Over the last few years the menu has undergone some changes and our last few visits were disappointing. The last time we went here the service was so bad I actually asked the hostess for a new waiter. Generally I am very patient with waitstaff having worked in a restaurant in college, but even I can get frustrated.

We decided to give Polo Grill a second chance tonight since the Savor Sarasota menu looked pretty good. We headed out early and arrived shortly after they opened for the evening. Service was slow. Again. The waitress was more attentive than the last time we were there, but this went downhill as our meal progressed. About an hour and a half after we were seated we had eaten our appetizers (which were good) and our main courses (ok but not great) but still had no dessert. We waited. And waited. The waitress told us twice that dessert was on its way, but we finally flagged her down and asked for the check. I hate to say it, but this was twice in a row where the food was only ok and the service was terrible. As much as I want to support local businesses, I think this one is crossed off our list.

Momentum Can Be Dangerous

It started with the palm tree out front. The branches were overhanging the walkway to the front door. I figured if I was hitting my head on the fronds everyone else was too. What should have been five minutes outside today turned into almost two hours for both Bob and I.

20140608-162331-59011350.jpg
While Bob worked on the camera by the front door I cleared the walkway of the overhanging palm fronds. Then I thought to trim the bush by the garage that scrapes Bob’s car every time he goes in and out. Then I decided to chop it really small – it was a little unwieldy and things grow insanely fast here. Of course, if I cut the bush by the drive, I need to cut back the hibiscus that was way taller than me. Of course Bob mentioned the bush on the property line so we went to cut that one back. This left the two bushes that were overgrown around the air conditioner. None of this sounds like much but once we actually got to it … It was way more work than we anticipated when we originally started today.

20140608-162931-59371339.jpg

20140608-162932-59372019.jpg

20140608-162930-59370638.jpg
This is a lot of vegetation. A lot. Hopefully the county will take it all away this week.

20140608-163235-59555286.jpg
We also started working our way through the Savor Sarasota restaurant week this week. Tuesday we decided to try The Melting Pot. I’ve never done fondu before and it was a nice change. I loved the cheese fondu and the chocolate but the main course was okay. Not my favorite, but still pretty good.

20140608-163525-59725468.jpg
We also could not wait for our cheese box next week so we headed down to the cheese shop and created our own little cheese plate. Since I usually pick out the cheese I let Bob pick this wee’s cheese. We went with a French goat cheese, a French cow’s cheese, a Kentucky cow’s cheese and a Swiss cheese from Switzerland. We really loved everything and opened a nice wine to go with it. I also broke out the Inna blackberry jam that is pretty perfect with cheese.

20140608-164153-60113228.jpg
This was the nice way to cap the busy week that started with graduation and ended with FCAT scores coming in. Very busy week. Now I just need to sleep off the yard work from this morning.

Sunday Dinner

I know I’ve posted something like this before, but this has to be one of my favorite slow meals. I have favorite quick meals – tofu pad thai, french toast, – but for a take-half-the-day-to-make meal, pulled pork sandwiches are right up there.

20140601-202144-73304752.jpg
Since I have not been creatively cooking much the last few weeks, I decided I wanted to spend a day in the kitchen and putter. I picked up a pork shoulder the other day and seasoned it with salt, pepper and chili powder. I seared it then added veggie broth and hard cider before covering and popping it in the oven at 250 for about four hours. (turned once) It does take a while, but it is wait time not active work time. Which gave me plenty of time to make all the stuff that goes with it.

20140601-202415-73455392.jpg
I got the basic recipe for my focaccia rolls from my favorite vegan cookbook. Yeast, warm water (I use a tablespoon of yeast and 1.25 cups water), three tablespoons of oil, three cups flour (one cup whole wheat, 2 cups regular), 1/2 teaspoon salt. Mix all together, knead and let rise. After about an hour, punch down, knead a little again and then I cheat and just pull the dough apart with my hand and make the rolls. I try to keep them relatively even in size, but they are home made so not exactly perfect. Bake for 20 minutes at 350 and we have bread for the sandwiches.

20140601-202751-73671800.jpg
Basic tomato cucumber salad. Add sherry vinegar, mustard, salt, pepper, garlic and oil together and you have the dressing. I let it marinade while the pork cooked to help meld the flavors. It worked.

20140601-202900-73740392.jpg
Rosemary sweet potato fries. I stole the basic recipe for these from one of our Hello Fresh boxes – cut up the sweet potatoes (in this case, two), chop some rosemary and garlic and mix everything together with some olive oil, salt and pepper. Bake at 400 for 20 minutes (I did this while the pork was resting and being pulled).

20140601-203117-73877551.jpg
Onions. Caramelized onions. Possibly my favorite (and most pain in the neck) part of this whole meal. Contrary to many, many recipes, onions cannot be caramelized in twenty minutes. These little dears take an hour to do right. Start with butter or oil and let it get hot in the pan. I added two large onions (vidalia in this case) sliced thin and let them cook over medium low heat, stirring every now and then so they don’t burn. About 25 minutes in the look like the picture above and that is when I turn the heat to low and stir a little more frequently. The house smelled so good all the cats and Jessie were hanging around looking for tastes.

The BBQ sauce is the altered form of Grandmom’s recipe. In this case I used some of the hard cider left over from braising in place of water, but otherwise I left it alone. Ketchup, maple syrup (the real stuff, not the fake stuff), butter, apple cider vinegar, onion, garlic, chili powder, season all, pepper, BBQ seasoning and ground mustard. Just let it boil for a minute and you have it. (One of these days I will remember to look at the amount of each and post it – for now its twice the Ketchup as maple syrup and just enough water to make it sauce instead of syrup (usually about the same amount as the syrup) and spices by taste.

20140601-203552-74152870.jpg
I paired this with a nice honey apple cider (yes, hard cider) that actually worked well with it. I am absolutely not claiming this as health food, good for you or low calorie. But it is good. Very good. Mom said it was better than eating in a restaurant and Dad cleaned his plate – high praise indeed. Bob has leftovers for lunch this week and I’m contemplating next week’s Sunday Dinner … unless I make Bob take me out for one of the Savor Sarasota dinners – it is restaurant week here so all kinds of good, special menus.

20140601-204237-74557261.jpg
Could not resist. They are just so darn cute.

Hope everyone has a great start to June and the unofficial start of summer. Keep cool.