Florida eats (part two)

Second update:

The best find of the trip was probably Jerk Town USA in West Palm Beach, a small Caribbean place right off West 45th (and close to my hotel) which offers good food in large quantities for not much coin. I ordered their $7.99 “small” jerk chicken platter, which was anything but small: probably a half-pound of meat, mostly white with a little dark, spicy but not obscenely hot. The platter also included a large mound of red beans and rice, with a subtle coconut flavor that really took it to another level; a warm cabbage slaw; and two maduros, which (QED) is one secret to getting a good review from me. Great value, great food, no way you could leave there hungry, especially with a “large” option on the platters.

Caspian Grill in Plantation was one of the better high-end (relatively speaking) restaurants I hit. The restaurant’s iced tea is brewed to order and was excellent. I ordered a combination plate that included two kabobs, one of chicken and another of a spiced ground meat mixture. The plate was huge – the chicken alone was probably two servings – and came with a huge portion of plain basmati rice that had obviously just been steamed, although it could have used a little flavoring. The chicken was perfectly cooked, but a little dull (I know, it’s chicken, it’s dull as a result of a few decades of corporate blanding efforts), while the beef mixture was outstanding. The combo dish was $16, plus $2 for the iced tea. If I end up there again, I’ll go for the beef-only platter ($11) and try the hummus ($5), which ought to be outstanding in a Persian restaurant – or a sign to head in the other direction.

Sushi Rock in Coral Gables was solid, despite the odd atmosphere (the “Rock” refers to rock music, with an eclectic mix of music piped in and some musicians’ portraits on the walls). The salad was huge, a bit overdressed but very good. I went for a simple lunch of salmon nigiri, unagi nigiri, and a spicy tuna roll. The salmon was good, definitely fresh, but maybe a bit bland. The unagi was outstanding, although in my experience, as long as it’s not ice cold, it’s usually good. The spicy tuna roll was a disappointment; the spicy sauce was vinegary, not spicy, and it was kind of dumped on rather than integrated with the fish. When I ordered, I asked if the spicy tuna was made with mayo, and I’m pretty sure that the waitress who said no said something about “kimchi,” which would explain the tartness.

Aleyda’s, a “Tex-Mex” place in West Palm Beach on Okeechobee, was a huge disappointment. Although the menu leans more towards the Mex side of Tex-Mex (a Good Thing™), the food was bland and the portions skimpy. I ordered chicken fajitas – not my norm, but they claim it’s their signature dish – and there was little to like. The chicken was overcooked when it reached the table, a problem that only got worse as it sat on the hot cast-iron skillet, and it had little to no salt on it. The yellow rice that came on the side was hard, like it had come from the bottom of the bowl or had been sitting out for a while. And the side of guacamole that came with the dish made us laugh – it was less than a tablespoon’s worth. To make matters worse, the service was terrible, starting with the hostess giving us a broken highchair and continuing with the waiter disappearing from when the food was delivered until long after we’d finished. The live cockatoo and amazons in a cage out front was a plus, at least from my 10-month-old daughter’s perspective.

Another dud: Mamma Mia in Boynton Beach, a restaurant I had actually been to before, but not since 2000. The veal piccata was overcooked and slightly greasy, the side of pasta was cooked to within an inch of its life, and the salad was drowned in dressing. The portions are huge, and that’s why they pack them in, but the quality isn’t there.

One more update after I get back to Massachusetts…

Florida eats (part one)

So I’ll be here in Florida for most of the rest of March, but rather than posting a leviathan piece at the end of the month, here’s a rundown of the non-chain places I’ve hit since I got down here on the 14th.

The first find of the trip was a little café in the City Place mall in Palm Beach called Bacio. The appeal is that they serve gelato – real gelato, without the grainy or icy texture that most American gelaterias dish out. It was pricey – $4.50 for a medium dish – but the chocolate gelato was excellent, not too sweet with a good cocoa flavor. The crème caramel was a little too sugary and not caramelly enough, but was still good, while the strawberry tasted like real strawberries and (most impressively, since the extra moisture from the fruit can screw things up) had no icy texture at all.

On my two trips down to see the University of Miami play, I hit two restaurants along the Dixie Highway (US-1) for dinner. The first was a Colombian place called Las Culebrinas, just down SW 27th street a few hundred yards off US-1. I had gotten the impression from something I read online that it was a casual place, but it’s not – it’s a somewhat upscale, sit-down restaurant, although they told me I was fine in my rather casual scouting outfit. The menu was standard Colombian, with all the hits, but with one twist – about a dozen dishes are available in tapas-sized portions, in addition to the large menu of entrées. I went for the fried pork, which was served on a bed of pureed avocado, with sides of black beans and rice and steamed (I think) yucca. I also ordered a side of maduros, fried sweet plantains, and one of my favorite foods in the world. The waitress/bartender warned me “It’s a lot of food,” and she didn’t lie – three huge chunks of pork, fried perfectly with a nice salty crust, plus almost a whole yucca (in spears), and separate dishes with the black beans and rice and the plantains. The yucca was undercooked, which I don’t like and don’t trust (raw yucca contains cyanide, which breaks down through the cooking process), and since it’s carb-laden anyway, I figured it would take up real estate in my stomach better reserved for the plantains, which were delicious – moderately sweet, cooked to still have a little tooth to them. The black beans and rice were good, very simple without any other obvious ingredients. Total cost was about $18 plus tip, and I did leave so full that I didn’t eat anything the rest of the night.

Moon is a Thai/Japanese place right next to a Starbucks on the northbound side of US-1. I generally avoid combo restaurants, but this one had several good reviews, and Asian joints are usually good for getting in and out quickly. It turned out to be a stroke of luck, as they had my favorite Thai dish and general bellwether, pad thai, available in an appetizer portion ($7.95, I believe), allowing me to also order a little sushi and try both sides of the menu. The pad thai was very good, tangy, spicy, just a hint of peanut, and not American-sweet. The sushi was a mixed bag; the salmon was definitely fresh, but didn’t have a lot of taste, and was probably Atlantic or even farm-raised, while the freshwater eel (unagi) was delicious and butter-soft. The size of the nigiri is worth mentioning – everything was huge, to the point where I couldn’t fit an entire piece of eel into my mouth. The sushi isn’t cheap – $2.50-$3 per piece for most fish – and the total bill came to about $20 before tip including a green tea.

Amigos Mexican-Spanish Restaurant in West Palm Beach was a real find, a little bit of dumb luck. I came across this list of Latin American restaurants in the area, drove past Amigoes one night, and thought it was worth a shot. It was – turns out they have a huge menu with dishes from all over the Spanish-speaking world, including Spain, Argentina, Colombia, and Cuba, which is where my choice was from – picadillo criollo. The meal ($8.95) included shredded beef that had been sautéed with olives and some mild spices, rice, black beans (served separately as a soup), and maduros. Everything was outstanding; the plantains were particularly so, super-sweet with great caramelization on the crust, while the beef had a nice flavor from the olive oil and the spices. My wife ordered a chili verde burrito ($10.95), which was huge and which she also liked, saying just that it needed more salsa verde on the outside. The guacamole ($3.95 for a side order) was fresh but needed more lime juice. We’ll go back there again before we leave.

Scoop: Feather-footed through the plashy fen…

So in a recent chat, I mentioned that I had Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop on my to-be-read shelf, and a reader said something to the effect of, “You HAVE to read Scoop!”

Dear Anonymous Reader:

You were right.


It’s been a while since I ripped through a classic novel the way I tore through Scoop last week. It is brilliant, hilarious, sublime, a pinpoint satire with an everpresent smirk. It’s the novel I wish I could write.

For those who, like me, were introduced to Waugh by means of the good but serious Brideshead Revisited, here’s a quick synopsis of Scoop: John Boot is trying to land a high-paying, low-work job to escape from a persistent girlfriend. Lord Copper, the head of the tabloid newspaper The Beast, ends up with his request and hires the wrong man, William Boot, as their new foreign correspondent and sends him to cover the brewing civil war in the African nation of Ishmaelia. Misadventures ensure, including a question of whether the civil war brought in the reporters or whether the reporters (especially William) brought on the civil war.

I’m hesitant to say anything more for fear of ruining any of the jokes. It’s a hilarious book, laugh-out-loud funny in many places, and amusing throughout, with shades of Wodehouse in the snarky prose and Molière’s touch for satire, with almost everyone and everything in the book looking like a sendup of someone or something else. My favorite joke in the book involves the Ishmaelian town of Laku, including the origin of its name. You’ll have to read the book to understand why, but you won’t regret the choice, either.

Atlanta eats.

On the culinary front, Atlanta was disappointing – five restaurants, the best of which was one I’ve been to many times, and two of which were big disappointments.

The Flying Biscuit is a bit of a local legend, apparently, but I’d been warned that it wasn’t as good as it was in its heyday. Given how I feel about biscuits, though, I thought it was worth a shot, especially since the one thing I expected them to still do well was the food item that appears in their name. No such luck: The biscuit was tasteless and even a bit flat, with a dry exterior and a doughy interior. Nothing else on the plate stood out, and I was a bit put off by the fact that the menu includes no pork products of any kind. It’s breakfast, kids. Bacon comes from a pig. Don’t insult me by trying to make it out of poultry.

On the other hand, the biscuits at the Silver Skillet, over by Georgia Tech, were excellent – light, fluffy, buttery (maybe a bit too much so – seriously, just brush the tops, don’t douse them), and you get two of them with your eggs and pork product. The eggs (scrambled) were nicely cooked as well. Some other online reviewers seem to like the décor, but I found it kitschy, and they get a point or two off for serving food-service tea.

Two separate rankings (one by CitySearch) put Williamson Bros. Bar-B-Q at the top of Atlanta-area barbecue joints … which doesn’t say much for Atlanta-area barbecue. (J.C. Bradbury, of Sabernomics blogging fame, told me later that day that Atlanta has no good ‘cue. Figures.) I went with a combo plate – ribs (which turned out to be spare ribs), pulled pork, fried okra, BBQ beans, and a slice of toast. The ribs were so tough that I gave up after one. The pulled pork was better, nice and moist, but really light on flavor; they get bonus points for including some end bits in the mix. The okra was greasy, and the batter didn’t include the traditional cornmeal. The BBQ beans were actually quite good, with a fruity flavor I couldn’t identify (I’m thinking apple juice, but I’m not sure). I’d go back for a plate of pulled pork or a sandwich, but a Q place that can’t do ribs doesn’t belong at the top of any rankings.

Back over by Georgia Tech, I walked from the park (a top-notch college facility) up to the Tin Drum Asia Café, which theoretically is a quick food option. I say theoretically because it took over 20 minutes from when I placed my order for me to get my very simple lunch, which I don’t believe they started making until I complained that it was taking so long. To make matters worse, the food was nothing special: The coconut soup with chicken (tom kha gai) was bland, and the shrimp tempura “drumroll” (a couple of fried shrimp with avocado, tomato, and a honey-miso dressing on a small roti) was greasy. I can see why the student body likes it, though – all that plus a bottle of water was under $10.

Finally, the best meal I had on the trip was an old standby: Annie’s Thai Castle in Buckhead, which I’ve been visiting on trips to Atlanta for about twelve years now, and it’s still as good today as it was when my friend Steve first took me there. Their pad prik with beef was the highlight of this visit – spicy but not incendiary, with extremely tender strips of beef – and their pad thai is always solid. We also had their chicken with yellow curry, which was very good, not too sweet the way a lot of places serve it. You also get plenty of food at Annie’s, which is important, since I was eating with a scout who has two hollow legs.

The Betrothed and the Novel 100.

So the two weeks off between posts shouldn’t be the norm, but it took me about twelve days to finish off Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed. Before I get to that book, though, I thought it might be worth taking a moment to explain how I choose some of these books, especially the classics.

I’m a lists guy, which is no surprise to those of you who read my ESPN stuff. I love lists and rankings, both for the debates they generate and, in the case of stuff like books or albums or restaurants, for the way you can work through them yourself. My favorite book-ranking is a book in itself, and probably one of the best gifts my wife has ever bought me: The Novel 100, by Daniel Burt. The book itself contains Burt’s rankings of the 100 greatest novels ever written, with a four-page essay on each book that summarizes its plot, discusses the author and his influences, then talks about how the book was received at the time it was published and how it is viewed today.

When I got the book, I was all cocky and thought I was so well-read and probably had already read 30-40 of the books on the list. I was wrong – I was only at sixteen, and had never even heard of close to half of the titles. This, of course, was a personal affront, and a challenge not to be declined, so for the last two-plus years I’ve been plowing through the books, a few of which (Lawrence’s Women in Love, James’ The Ambassadors, the latter of which I didn’t even finish) were duds but some of which are now among my all-time favorites, including The Betrothed.

(I’d like to publish the list of titles, without his essays, and if I can reach Prof. Burt I’ll do so. In the meantime, I believe the top 10 are Don Quixote, War and Peace, Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, Middlemarch, Moby Dick, Madame Bovary, The Brothers Karamazov, The Magic Mountain, and The Tale of Genji.)

The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi) is one of the earliest historical novels, the greatest novel in the canon of Italian literature, and a work that was influenced by and then in turn influenced a number of great English writers. The story revolves around the engagement between two young peasants, Renzo and Lucia, whose wedding is blocked by the local lord, Don Rodrigo, who saw Lucia in the street and has decided as part of a bet with his cousin that he will seduce Lucia for himself. Renzo and Lucia flee and end up separated, leading to two story lines that eventually connect again in the end.

That plot (separated lovers) isn’t all that uncommon, but Manzoni adds two wrinkles to make this novel unique. One is the introduction of some amazing secondary characters, including the Nun of Monza (based on a real person) and the fiend only known as the Unnamed. Each of them receives his or her own short story within the novel, and while I ordinarily find that sort of thing distracting, it works here because those stories are themselves very compelling.

The other twist, one I didn’t care for as much, was a very long digression in the novel’s last third where Manzoni describes the twin tragedies that hit the Italian states and particularly Milan in the late 1620s, when the novel is set. Milan was first beset by a famine that was largely caused by idiotic economic policies (like arbitrary price ceilings), and then was hit by the Black Death, introduced by invading soldiers and facilitated by the inaction of the local governments. It is a withering criticism, one that makes Manzoni something of a literary forerunner of Friedrich Hayek, but it is more history than story, and the tangent from the main plot line is extremely long.

The writing itself is crisp, and a lot of aspects of the prose and the story reminded me of Tom Jones, another book on the Novel 100 and my favorite picaresque novel. It’s a bit overlong due to that late bit on Milanese history, but otherwise well worth its heft.

Recent books

Ex Libris is a novel by Ross King, the author of the bestselling nonfiction book Brunelleschi’s Dome, which told the story of the design and construction of the basilica on top of St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican. Set in England in the 1600s, Ex Libris is told from the perspective of a widowed bookseller who is asked by a peculiar widow to track down a unique manuscript that her father had rescued from Prague during the Battle of Prague in the Thirty Years’ War. Although King’s attempts to work 16th-century English styles into his prose dragged the novel down at times, the plot was definitely compelling and he managed to strike a nice balance between evoking the time period and grabbing your attention with action sequences, with a nice history of the printed word mixed in. It’s like a Da Vinci Code for non-morons.

The Big Over Easy is Jasper Fforde’s first novel outside of the incredible Thursday Next Series (which started with The Eyre Affair, a book to which he pays backhanded homage in TBOE). Humpty Dumpty – who is in his sixties and is living in Reading, England – well, make that “was,” because he’s been murdered. Detective Jack Spratt and his new assistant, Mary Mary, are on the case, which involves a visit to the imprisoned gang leader Giorgia Piorgia, a sighting of the serial killer The Gingerbread Man, and some magic beans. It’s typical Fforde, broad, farcical, witty, but I will say that it wasn’t as brilliantly madcap as the Thursday Next books. I was at a bit of a disadvantage, since I can’t say I know my nursery rhymes that well, but the society-page description of the wedding between the Owl and the Pussycat was one I understood.

The Catholic Church, by Swiss theologian Hans Küng, was a fascinating read as he broke down the various points in the Church’s history where various popes, emperors, or other power-brokers imposed some of the various rules, practices, and doctrines which still exist in the Church today, and which Küng argues are a major reason that the Church is in disarray. The refusal to ordain women, the opposition to contraception, and the doctrine of papal infallibility all postdate Christ’s life and the founding of what is now the Roman Catholic Church by hundreds of years. He also has a very critical take on the reign of Pope John Paul II (written two years before John Paul died) that runs in stark counterpoint to the hagiographies that greeted that Pope’s death.

Finally, The Invention of Clouds, by Richard Hamblyn, was a very good if unusually conflict-free history-of-science book. I say conflict-free because these books usually involve some massive stumbling block that keeps the protagonist from quickly (or ever) reaching his goal of fortune or fame or just contributing to scientific progress. Luke Howard came up with the first reliable method of identifying different types of clouds, using the same three basic terms we still use today (cirrus, cumulus, and stratus) at the core of his system. The concept was an immediate success and Howard, a quiet, religious family man, became a celebrity in spite of himself, culminating in a correspondence with the German polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The Invention of Clouds is a quick read, mostly well-written and with lots of interesting facts, but that lack of some conflict or foil left the book feeling a little light. One little highlight is the description towards the end of how Howard’s system of nomenclature led to the modern phrase “on cloud nine.”

Note: I’m turning on comments for this thread as a sort of test to see how much I really need to moderate it. As long as it’s not too much work, I’ll leave them on for all book threads and will try to participate myself. Thanks for coming by.

Back to Arizona.

Not much new food-wise on this trip – just two new restaurants that I managed to hit while otherwise stuck in chain-restaurant hell. Line Thai, on Bell Road in Sun City, jumped out at me as a non-chain place, although it’s not exactly a hole-in-the-wall either, with a big, brightly-lit dining room and a pretty extensive menu.

Anyway, I went for the pad thai (spelled phat thai on their menu), and also added a “salad” the Thai name of which I can’t hope to remember. It was actually a dish of finely chopped chicken that had been sautéed with lemongrass, mint, chili powder (just a little), and scallions, and was served with cilantro and with sliced green cabbage wedges. It was good, not great, with a pleasant but mild flavor that unfortunately didn’t do enough to disguise the plain taste of the chicken. The pad thai was excellent, with an earthy sauce, shrimp that didn’t taste like they went from the freezer to the wok (which happens way too often, even in “good” Thai joints), and a nice hit of spice from what I presume was either chili powder or a chili sauce.

The big hit of the trip was a relatively new gelateria in Scottsdale called the Gelato Spot, on the corner of 3rd Ave and Scottsdale Rd. This is the newest of the chain’s four locations, and the gelato was very good. The texture was excellent, smooth with no granularity found in a lot of cheaper gelato places. They do keep it very cold, too much so, so that it was harder than the gelato you’d get at a really top-notch gelateria or at any gelateria in Italy. The chocolate flavor was superb, not too sweet with a nice cocoa flavor, while the caramel flavor was fair with a weird sour undertone, almost like a cheesecake flavor.


Let’s just get one thing out of the way first: Downtown Houston is something of a disaster, at least over by Minute Maid Park. That area is particularly decrepit, with abandoned buildings ringing the stadium. I walked across the street from my hotel to the ballpark, but didn’t feel safe walking anywhere else in that part of town. I drove up to Market Square in search of a restaurant that turned out to be closed for dinner (it’s only open three hours a day, 11-2 – great business model), and that area is also ringed by abandoned buildings, not to mention the ultimate feel-good establishment, the bail bondsman, which I passed on the way there.

Azuma is a high-end sushi joint in the Market Square area, and by high-end, I mean that only one person who worked in the place spoke Japanese, and the restaurant was more about ambiance and selling booze than it was about the fish. But unlike most of the other restaurants I saw in a walk around Market Square, it was open, had customers, and didn’t look like a front for the Lithuanian mob or something. (Most ominous was the “Irish pub” that had one customer, a cop, sitting out front. In fact, the sheer number of cops I saw around Market Square made me wonder what the hell goes on around there that requires that many cops in a two-square-block radius.)

Anyway, Azuma’s food didn’t live up to its ambiance. I went with an “Asian mixed greens salad,” which was a mesclun salad with asparagus added, and enough dressing to drown a rhinoceros. Once I was done spattering dressing all over Market Square – you try eating vinegar soup with a pair of chopsticks – I turned to the sushi. The spicy tuna rolls didn’t contain mayo (bonus points), but the tuna itself was fishy, and the chefs hadn’t removed the blood-line portion of the fish. It was also too spicy for my tastes, but that did have the benefit of making me forget that it tasted fishy. The salmon was better and was clearly fresh, but didn’t have much taste of its own, lacking that slight sweetness that good sake should have. I also tried a fish called escolar, which had a good smooth texture but tasted something like Styrofoam peanuts. Add in one serving of unagi and the total came to over $30.

Friday morning I headed to a restaurant featured on The Hungry Detective, a Food Network show aimed at finding “off the beaten path” restaurants and a new addition to my Save-Until-I-Delete list on the Tivo. The Breakfast Klub is just what the name says – a breakfast joint that serves up eggs, bacon, sausage, waffles (with fried chicken wings, the house specialty), and what I have to say is the best breakfast biscuit I have ever had. The thing was pillow-soft, almost like cotton candy, with a tremendous butter flavor and just a hint of a buttermilk tang. Seriously, a box of those vs. a box of Krispy Kremes … wars have started over dilemmas like that. (I’ll take one box of each, thanks.) I went back the next day to try the waffle, but was disappointed; although it was made on a Belgian-style griddle, it was a traditional batter, so the finished product was dense and a bit dry, and I was surprised that it wasn’t sweet. The eggs were good the first day but divine the second, cooked but not overcooked and still moist when they reached the table. I’d also take the country sausage (a little tough, but with outstanding flavor) over the bacon (nothing special). But the biscuits – seriously, I’d beat you to death with a butter knife over the last one.

The other pleasant surprise of the trip was, of all things, the restaurant in my hotel, the Inn at the Ballpark. Because the hotel and its Ballpark Café (okay, no points for the name) are right across the street from Minute Maid, it made a perfect spot for me to jump over, grab lunch, and get back during the one-hour breaks between games. And it turns out that the food there is very good, especially because they’re clearly using fresh ingredients for everything they make. At my first visit, I went for the default option, the grilled chicken sandwich (served with roasted red peppers on focaccia), and was amazed to find that unlike most grilled chicken breasts, this one wasn’t cooked within an inch of its life. It had a perfect brown sear on the outside, and the inside was fully-cooked but still moist. The shrimp BLT – I ordered the fried shrimp sandwich (which sounded like a makeshift po’ boy), but the waitress screwed up my order) – was also delicious, with shrimp that were also cooked properly, as well as sliced avocado and bacon. The restaurant makes its own potato chips, and I’d bet that the French fries were cut on-site as well.

The kicker for me was the Sunday breakfast, which is usually a disaster at good restaurants. I ordered off the menu – if you’ve read Kitchen Confidential, you know why – and went for the yogurt/fruit plate. I ended up with a 10″ plate full of fresh fruit, a dish of yogurt, and a blueberry muffin that had just been made. The waiter thought I was done with the dish with the last bite of the muffin on it, and I nearly broke his wrist to keep him from taking it. But what impressed me the most was the fact that the executive chef, Oscar Mejia, came out and manned the omelette station himself. I told him how much I’d enjoyed the food over the past few days, and he gave all the credit to the people who work for him in the kitchen.

One last note on Houston – while flying out of IAH, I grabbed a chopped beef sandwich at Harlon’s BBQ, the only non-fast-food chain dinner option I could find, and for a quick airport meal, it was pretty good; the meat wasn’t dry and didn’t taste or look like it had been sitting for hours. Out in the world I’d demand better, but by the low standards of airport cuisine, this was pretty good.

Watertown eats.

My wife and I recently got the chance to go out for dinner without our daughter for the first time in about five months, but neither of us was interested in heading downtown, so our options for a nicer meal were somewhat limited. We decided to try Porcini’s, an Italian restaurant in Watertown very close to our favorite little restaurant in the area, Strip-T’s.

It was a mistake.

The main meal was fair; my wife liked her veal saltimbocca, but my veal piccata wasn’t pounded thin enough and the sauce was very tart, meaning that it didn’t have enough butter to balance out the acidity. But the gigantic failure on Porcini’s part was their tiramisu, which we decided to split. It looked like it was done correctly, but after one bite each, we realized that the cheese-custard was sour. It overwhelmed the taste of the dessert, and I thought they might have skimped on the ingredients by using cream cheese instead of mascarpone (an imported Italian cheese that has a texture similar to American cream cheese, but a much milder and smoother taste). So I asked the waitress if there was cream cheese in it. She asked the chef, and came back to tell us that yes, the tiramisu contained a “mixture” of cream cheese and mascarpone (which I took to mean that it had 98% cream cheese and 2% mascarpone). I pointed out that that “wasn’t exactly traditional,” and she just shrugged her shoulders.

She didn’t take it off the bill. I took it out of her tip.

And for what it’s worth, I’m not a fan of any restaurant that cuts corners on ingredients. I don’t care how good your chef is; if the ingredients suck, so will the finished product. Porcini’s cuts corners on ingredients. That’s a dealbreaker for me.

My wife pointed out that we should have just gone to Strip-T’s, which is a much more casual, mom-and-pop type of restaurant that specializes in ridiculously fresh fish. We wanted to do something a little more upscale, but as often as not, upscale just means a higher price, not a better meal.


Naples didn’t offer many hidden-gem restaurants of the sort that I particularly like to hit when I travel, but there were two spots worth mentioning, one on each end of the price scale.

Driving towards the hotel (the Naples Grande Resort) from the Fort Myers airport, I caught a glimpse of a place called Tacos Ardiente in a strip mall just before I got to the hotel. Since almost every other restaurant I saw on Pine Ridge Road was a fast-food restaurant or casual-dining chain franchise, I was pretty sure that I’d need a place like that to keep me sane. It was good enough the first day that I went back for a second. I can’t speak to authenticity, but their tacos were outstanding, and unlike any I’d had before. I tried both the chicken and steak tacos; the steak ones had more flavor. The tacos were served in a soft flour shell with lettuce, shredded cabbage, cheese (although naturally I had them leave it out), and a fresh tomato salsa; they went for $1.99 each. I also ordered a small side order of guacamole (50 cents), which tasted homemade. So the damage for one meal, including a Jarritos tamarind soda, was about $6 including tax.

I saw a few good comments on chowhound about a sushi place a mile or two north of the hotel on US-41 called Sushi-Thai. I’m usually wary of sushi-plus-non-Japanese-food restaurants, but this is Florida, and beggars can’t be choosers. I stuck with sushi and was pleasantly surprised. The salmon was very fresh and mild-tasting; it didn’t have the slight sweetness of Pacific salmon, but it still had good flavor and boded well for the rest of the fish. The unagi was excellent, although it’s hard to screw it up. The spicy tuna maki was a treat, as I’d never had it prepared this way before: Rather than tossing finely chopped tuna with a spicy sauce (sometimes containing mayo, making the whole thing wretched), the chef made a plain tuna maki, cut the roll into eight pieces, then drizzled a hot chile pepper sauce over the top of it. The taste of the tuna really came through in a way that traditional spicy tuna rolls don’t allow. I also splurged on fried shumai, which were just lightly browned and not even a little bit greasy.

By the way, the best quote from the GM meetings belongs to Jeff Angus of Management by Baseball fame: “Alcohol is the humidor of conversation.”