The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.
Most Recent Entries
- Epicurean Hotel, One Week From Opening, Tantalizes With Details [Goat Cheese On The Mini-Bar]
- A Word Or Two About Great Bar Food [And The Golden Snacky Award Goes To…]
- This Haiku Contest/Is All About The Fruitcake/Get To Writing, Stat! [Guess Who’s Judging?]
- Five Edible Christmas Gifts To Buy For Friends and Loved Ones [Black Friday Comes Just Once A Year]
- Giving Thanks For Alternatives To Thanksgiving [Turkey, Shmurkey.]
- Taking A Bite Of The Pillsbury Bake-Off [Fear And Baking In Las Vegas]
- Sea Urchin Crostini, Tiger Beef Salad And Faked Alaska [This Week’s Weekend Eats]
- A Way To Eat Kale For People Who Hate Kale [Chef John Besh Cooks From The Heart]
- The Sip: 3 Daughters Brewing Comes To Live [Pumpkin Tap, Carmel Cafe Cocktails, Great Sips]
- Remembering Marcella Hazan [The Most Important Ingredient]
- Elevage Pops-Up, Offers Taste Of Epicurean Hotel [Duck Duck Goose Burger Blows Minds]
- Where To Eat Outdoors Now That It’s Not 1,000 Degrees [East Hillsborough Edition]
- James Villas’ New Book ‘Southern Fried’ Should Be Battered, Eaten [Everything Crunchy Is Good]
- Prepping For A Pop-Up [Chad Johnson Turns SideBern’s Into Elevage For One Week]
- Putting The Wine [And Other Drinkables] Into The Epcot International Food & Wine Festival
Elevage Pops-Up, Offers Taste Of Epicurean Hotel [Duck Duck Goose Burger Blows Minds]
Posted Oct 19, 2013 by Jeff Houck
Updated Oct 19, 2013 at 03:01 PM
Food blogger Logan Crumpton wanted dessert. So did the other four people dining with him Tuesday night at the Elevage pop-up restaurant at SideBern’s.
But the group built a tasting menu of sorts, ordering dish after dish of such items as escargot tortellini, lamb flatbread, a steak sandwich and a burger made with ground duck and foie gras. Dessert was out of question. They were too full.
Still, Crumpton couldn’t help himself, so he ordered an omelet carbonara made with pecorino cheese, guanciale Italian bacon, sage and salted egg yolks.
The rest of the table joined in to put that one away, too.
“I wasn’t pleasantly surprised,” Crumpton said. “I expected it to be amazing and they exceeded that.”
The culinary team creating the food program at the highly anticipated Epicurean Hotel on South Howard Avenue built a restaurant-within-a-restaurant of sorts to train employees and give customers a week-long sneak peek at what the posh, food-themed resort will offer. The pop-up ends five nights of sold-out reservation-only dining tonight.
For Chad Johnson, executive chef at SideBern’s and the Epicurean, the pop-up is a chance to test-drive dishes he contemplated more than a year ago. The concept: Classic American comfort food with a fine-dining touch.
That meant matzo ball soup filled with foie gras instead of schmaltz. And lasagna filled with lamb shoulder, Taleggio cheese and Greek oregano. And fish and chips composed with seared sushi-grade tuna, house-made pickle chips and a Ranch-style tartar sauce.
Johnson said he put a few relatively safe items on the menu, acknowledging that not everyone enjoys a terrine of veal tongue and goat cheeks. The surprise: Diners went for the unusual items with gusto. Including omelets from the upcoming breakfast menu.
“We had four-top tables ordering 10 appetizers at a time,” he said. “That’s kind of a lot.”
Once the hotel opens on Dec. 23 following a soft opening a week or so earlier, Johnson will oversee operations at both the Epicurean and SideBern’s. Chef de Cuisine Courtney Orwig will take over day-to-day operations at SideBern’s while sous chef Price Evans will move to be chef de cuisine at the Epicurean. The event gave kitchen staff and servers a baptism by fire, forcing them to launch the equivalent of a new restaurant overnight. Several new hires for the hotel worked along with longtime SideBern’s staff.
Johnson interviewed kitchen applicants during the week, complicating the Elevage pop-up. Hotel general manager Tom Haines said applications to work at the hotel are still being accepted. When fully staffed, the Epicurean will have about 100 employees.
“We were trying to give customers the essence of the restaurant from the price point, presentation and flavor side,” Haines said. “We feel pretty good about the result of what we were trying to accomplish.”
Crumpton, who writes about local food on his Eat A Duck blog, said the food made him want to book a room.
“The time and care they took to make that menu show,” he said. “It was fantastic. I came away impressed.”
Where To Eat Outdoors Now That It’s Not 1,000 Degrees [East Hillsborough Edition]
Posted Oct 17, 2013 by Jeff Houck
Updated Oct 17, 2013 at 04:34 PM
It’s Sunday morning. My family and I are sitting at a picnic table by the Palm River. Soft winter sunlight is blinking through a canopy of moss-dripping oaks and skinny, tall palms.
There is a slight breeze, just enough to make the hair on my forehead move a little. In front of me is a steaming bowl of Thai fish ball noodle soup. Chopsticks in my right hand and a plastic spoon at the ready, I close my eyes for a moment and let go a small, relaxed smile.
Welcome to my happy place.
This thought of eating Thai street food at the Wat Mongkolrata Buddhist temple on Palm River Road comes to me each fall when the weather gets a little cooler and perspiration outdoors becomes more voluntary.
From about 10:30 a.m. to almost 2 p.m. each Sunday, hundreds of hungry food lovers arrive for what amounts to a makeshift brunch at what people have nicknamed Thai Temple. Dedicated fans know to arrive early. Come after 1 p.m. and the choices of Pad Thai, soup, Kanom Krok coconut custards, Thai Tea, spring rolls, fried banana and other delicious offerings narrow considerably.
The outdoor market is open during the summer, but fall is the best time to visit.
But it’s only one of numerous spots east of Tampa that offer great opportunities to eat outdoors. Here are a few favorites I turn to when the weather cools down:
1902 W. Shell Point Road, Ruskin; (813) 641-9451
This little roadside stand offers a great glimpse of what Florida’s seafood shacks of old used to be like. Soft-shell crab sandwiches, baskets of scallops, shrimp, fish and clams and homemade pies draw hungry visitors from all over the area to sit at the picnic tables in the open air under a tin roof. In the summer, the gnats can be a problem as the afternoon sun beats down. All that goes away in the fall. Get there early if you want fresh fried oysters. Oh, and say hi to Miss Julie for me if you go.
Lithia Springs Regional Park
3932 Lithia Springs Road, Lithia; (813) 744-5572
It only costs a couple bucks to gain access to this rustic, 160-acre park on the Alafia River. What you gain in scenery is more than worth the cost of admission. The cypress hammocks, crystal-clear, 72-degree water and sandy hills offer a beautiful spot to disappear for a few hours with either a picnic basket or a few things to cook on the numerous charcoal grills available near the swimming hole.
Smokin’ Joe’s BBQ & Grill
10252 County Road 39, Lithia; (813) 737-3010
Barbecue always tastes better outdoors. The red picnic tables under an awning between Rick’s Meats and Smokin’ Joe’s is a great place to eat a hearty plate of barbecue and, if you’re lucky, listen to a little blues on a nearby stereo. The telltale sign that Joe’s is worth a visit: Lots of work trucks during the week congregate here at this back road joint between Valrico and Plant City.
The smoked sausage is incredible, the ribs are moist and tender and the pulled-pork nachos are a guilty pleasure. And there are paper towels on the table if you get messy. Be sure to go inside the meat market to pick up a Cheerwine or a Sun Drop soda for the ride home.
Paul Sanders Park
3319 S. Kings Ave., Brandon; (813) 635-3500
Locals nicknamed this “Tree Park” for the towering oak trees that provide welcome shade in the summer and an enchanted playground all year long. This is a great spot for a kid’s birthday party, with thick-trunked trees perfect for climbing and an enormous children’s playground at the center. There is no food served here, but with Tu Pais Latin Market, Bloomingdale Latin Market and The Stein & Vine restaurant and bar nearby, Paul Sanders Park is a lovely refuge to sit for a take-out bite to eat.
Parkesdale Farm Market
3702 W. Baker St., Plant City; (813) 752-0502
Get there now before all the snowbirds descend upon this iconic fruit and vegetable market and strawberry shortcake heaven. The “Garden of Eatin’” is a quirky, fun place to sit down with a milkshake — I recommend the seasonal pumpkin cheesecake variety — and drink in all the kitschy decorations. For the record, I have worn a crown and posed for a photo in the Strawberry Throne.
James Villas’ New Book ‘Southern Fried’ Should Be Battered, Eaten [Everything Crunchy Is Good]
Posted Oct 16, 2013 by Jeff Houck
Updated Oct 16, 2013 at 04:37 PM
James Villas is one of my favorite food writers. His books on Southern food are full of traditional ingredients cooked in unique ways to bring out the maximum amount of flavor.
His latest book, “Southern Fried” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $29.99), is another enjoyable read about the great Southern art of frying food to a delicious crisp.
Along with recipes for such items as Catawba Pecan-Crusted Catfish and Fried Deviled Eggs (yes, that’s a thing), Villas has a great recipe for Fried Rosemary Zucchini that I wanted to share.
“Deep-fried zucchini rounds are relished as much on the Southern table as anywhere else, but savvy cooks know that if the rounds are to fry up nicely browned and crispy, they must first be salted and drained of excess water,” Villas writes.
“When shopping, look for zucchini about 6 inches long and 2 inches thick with skins that are free of blemishes and have a vibrant green color. Be sure to taste the fried rounds before possibly salting them; if you like, they can also be sprinkled lightly with grated Parmesan cheese.”
Villas and I hit it off in 2007 when he was promoting “The Bacon Cookbook.”
I remember our Q&A. Mostly because it is archived in our library:
Q: How often do you eat bacon?
A: Every day of my life. I can’t imagine a day without bacon. I’ve only got two slices in the refrigerator, so I need to buy some more.
Q: Is there a favorite way you like to eat it?
A: I like to dip it in brown sugar and make bacon candy. It’s the purest way in the world to eat beautiful bacon. It’s addictive.
Q: When were you bitten by the bacon bug?
A: I’ve always had it. I am a boy from the South, having grown up in Charlotte, N.C., and I was brought up eating bacon and sausage. I have to have a full, hot breakfast every day. Back then, we only knew bacon that was produced by specialists. You’d go out to farms and get bacon. My dentist used to cure his own bacon. On back of my stove I can always remember a coffee can full of bacon grease. I can’t tell you all the ways I cook with that stuff. It’s followed me through life.
Q: Bacon as a lifestyle, in other words.
A: I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love bacon. Even people whose religion prohibits them from eating bacon have their knees buckle when they smell it.
This is a man I can deal with. Anyway, here’s his recipe for Fried Rosemary Zucchini.
Fried Rosemary Zucchini
Makes 4 to 6 servings
3 medium zucchini, trimmed and sliced into 1⁄2-inch-thick rounds
Salt to taste
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary leaves
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup dry bread crumbs
Vegetable oil for deep frying
Place the zucchini rounds in a large colander in the sink, sprinkle lightly with salt, tossing, and let stand for 20 minutes to drain. Pat the rounds dry with paper towels and set aside.
Place the flour in a bowl. In another bowl, whisk together the eggs, garlic, rosemary, and pep¬per till well blended. In a third bowl, place the bread crumbs.
In a deep fryer or heavy saucepan, heat about 1 inch of oil to 365°F on a deep-fat thermometer and fry the zucchini in batches till golden brown and crisp, about 2 minutes, turning once with a slotted spoon. Drain on paper towels, season with extra salt, and serve hot or warm with lemon wedges.
Source: Reprinted with permission from the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, from Southern Fried by James Villas.
Prepping For A Pop-Up [Chad Johnson Turns SideBern’s Into Elevage For One Week]
Posted Oct 14, 2013 by Jeff Houck
Updated Oct 14, 2013 at 06:30 PM
Imagine you’re Chad Johnson.
You’re an honored and well-respected chef at SideBern’s in Tampa. You’ve just been given the culinary keys to the upcoming Epicurean Hotel being built down Howard Avenue from your restaurant. You want to generate buzz and get people excited for the new menu at what will be the hotel’s signature restaurant, Elevage.
How best to do so?
Throw out your menu for SideBern’s for a week and substitute an entirely different menu that gives a glimpse of things to come.
Welcome to the Elevage Pop-Up.
Interest in the special event has been strong since the idea of a Tuesday-to-Saturday pop-up was announced. For five days, the SideBern’s menu goes bye-bye while diners, who had to call in to make reservations, get a taste of the elevated comfort food Johnson has planned for Elevage.
“Just about every night, we’re full,” Johnson said. “Three minutes after we sent out an email blast, our two phone lines lit up and we stayed on the phone for hours. I had 80 reservations for Saturday night I had to turn away.
The restaurant closed off the SideBern’s booking months ago when they first planned the pop-up.
“Every person who made a reservation made it over the phone with us,” Johnson said. “They know they’re coming for a non-SideBern’s experience.”
In total, more than 40 dishes will be cooked Tuesday night that have never been fully completed before. That is in addition to the new craft cocktail list by Dean Hurst and the dessert and pastry menu by Kim Yelvington.
The purpose, Johnson said, is two-fold.
“It gets a little buzz for the hotel and it also gives me and the chefs a chance to do the food,” he said. “We’ve been talking about this a long time. Making a dish when it’s just three of you standing around and then making it for service are two different things.”
Diners also will get a look at a sample of the wine list, which will average about $60 per bottle.
“It’s not cheap. We’re not going to be Applebee’s,” he said. “But if you come in and want to find a $35 or $40 bottle, we’ll have it. We’ll have an extensive list and splits at the hotel.
Bottom line: It’s a taste of things to come.
“We’ll get people in and out the door and still have a fancy experience without having to threaten a mortgage payment,” he said.
Here’s a video I shot in the SideBern’s kitchen as the chefs were prepping for this week’s meals.
Putting The Wine [And Other Drinkables] Into The Epcot International Food & Wine Festival
Posted Sep 27, 2013 by Jeff Houck
Updated Sep 27, 2013 at 07:10 AM
Today marks the start of the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. Through Nov. 11, food lovers visiting the park can eat and drink their way around the world. (After they get past the science-y stuff near the giant golf ball at the front.)
Things have changed drastically in the 18 years since the annual cross-cultural gorgefest began. The food at the more than two dozen marketplace kiosks has improved. So have the seminars and the hedonistic Party for the Senses weekend shindigs.
The food world has changed, too, since 1995, with the Food Network hatchery birthing new culinary celebs and giving them huge showcases in Aspen and South Beach. Also, local festivals such as this weekend’s Tampa Bay Wine & Food Festival have upped their game with better grub and drinks.
It makes you wonder why you should bother going to a theme park when a restaurant such as St. Petersburg’s Red Mesa Cantina can put on a perfectly fun Big South Tequila Festival like they will Saturday evening.
The answer: Because nobody does it like Disney. And Disney never stops trying to improve.
Most festivals last a weekend. Some go for five days. Disney does it for 46 days. That they can maintain the consistency and creativity needed to serve 1.5 million plates of food — all while running a theme park around the festival — still boggles my mind.
The part I’ve tended to overlook — thank you, escargot in France and beer cheese soup in Canada — is the festival’s beverage program. For each of the bites cooked, Epcot also offers beer, wine and the occasional spirits pairing.
Marianne Hunnel, the event’s content development manager, [pictured above] each year has the task of making sure the right plates are matched with the perfect sips. As Epcot executive chef Jens Dahlman and his staff spin out new dishes, Hunnel and her sommeliers and tasting panels look for the best drinkable companions,
That means finding a glass bold enough to stand up to the South Korea kiosk’s hot dog made with kimchi and served with a spicy Korean mustard, Her solution: Jinro Soju, a clear, carbonated, slightly sweet spirit traditionally made of rice.
For the crispy pork belly, black beans and avocado served at the Brazil marketplace, Hunnel found a hoppy Xingu black beer that does the trick.
She also keeps an eye on new products and trends. To stay current with the exploding craft beer scene in Florida, she will feature several brews from around the state, including Cigar City Florida Cracker Ale from Tampa and two brews made specifically for Epcot by Florida Brewing Co. in Melbourne and Orlando Brewing Co.
The festival also will take advantage of changes in state law that now allow for wine to be served by keg. At the Intermissions Café in the festival welcome center, premium California chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon will be on tap. Over at the Outpost next to the China pavilion, a California pinot gris and an Oregon pinot noir will be poured.
“It’s great because you don’t have the waste or cost of bottles,” Hunnel said. “You don’t have the cardboard or labeling. The wine has a little bit longer shelf life, and the wines are served at the perfect temperature.”