Stick to baseball, 9/22/17.

I wrote three pieces for Insiders this week: scouting notes on Yu Darvish, more notes on Aaron Nola and some young Phillies hitters, and my annual look at players I was wrong about. I also held a Klawchat on Thursday.

I’m down to biweekly game reviews for Paste, so the most recent one is from last week, covering the great Days of Wonder-published title Yamataï, by the same designer who won the Spiel des Jahres (game of the year) this year for his game Kingdomino.

My book, Smart Baseball, is out and still selling well (or so I’m told); thanks to all of you who’ve already picked up a copy. And please sign up for my free email newsletter, which is back to more or less weekly at this point now that I’m not traveling for a bit.

And now, the links…

Miami eats.

My recap of the 2017 Futures Game is now up for Insiders.

Downtown Miami itself is … not that great, really. The city was badly overmatched by the traffic and crowds in town for the weekend, with cops stationed at many corners but not doing anything to direct traffic or stop the many drivers doing illegal things (right turn from the left lane, blowing through red lights). I ended up spending most of my free time in the artsy Wynwood area, which seems to be the booming neighborhood for food, bars, and culture.

Lung Yai Thai Tapas is not really a tapas place, but it does indeed appear to be a Thai place, and I’d read several glowing reviews before my trip. I also rarely eat Thai food at or near home, since my wife is allergic to shellfish and Thai cuisine has a lot of hidden shellfish (oyster sauce, shrimp paste) in its recipes. Lung Yai’s lunch menu had mostly familiar dishes, so I went with the green papaya salad and with the first dish in the ‘chef’s recommendations’ section, khao soi gai, a northern Thai noodle dish served like a soup, with a coconut milk-curry sauce over boiled egg noodles and chicken, with crispy fried noodles on top. My experience with northern Thai dishes is pretty limited, but the khao soi had a huge umami base with the natural sweetness of the coconut and the flavors of yellow curry without any heat. It’s a tiny spot, with maybe 15 seats around a long counter, in a rundown neighborhood, but the food justified the trip out of my way. I’ve seen comments online that there’s a soup-Nazi atmosphere here, with rules you have to follow, but service was friendly and attentive, and if there were unwritten rules I guess I didn’t break any.

Kyu is an uber-trendy see-and-be-seen sort of restaurant that happens to serve great food, although it certainly wasn’t my sort of scene, and the front of house staff had a little bit of that “we’re doing you a favor by letting you eat here” vibe that drives me up a wall. But the food itself was worth the wait. Their duck breast “burnt ends” is really just a slow-smoked duck breast that develops a bbq char on the outside of the skin and the texture of a high-quality pork chop in the center despite being cooked through (which would ordinarily dry a duck breast out). I think there was five-spice in the rub and/or the sauce it’s served on, which, by the way, is all it’s served on: you get a large duck breast cut into slices and that’s it. I had ordered one side, the grilled baby bok choy with crispy garlic and chiles, which is the best bok choy dish I’ve ever had – garlic and chile are the two main flavor affinities for bok choy anyway, but this version had multiple textures and really crushed the salt-spice component. The garlic was there but didn’t overpower the dish, which I think is often a copout for dark green vegetable preparations. Kyu is particularly well known for their coconut cake, with what I think is a cream cheese-based icing (it was sweet and a little tangy, not just straight sweet), served with a scoop of coconut ice cream, and I can vouch that 1) it was amazing in every aspect and 2) when it showed up there was suddenly a lot of attention from the folks sitting and standing around me.

Panther Coffee is the best-known third-wave roaster in south Florida, maybe in all of Florida, and they do both outstanding espresso and some unique varietals for pour-over preparations. The espresso was bright and balancced with a ton of body, just lacking that sweetness that some of my favorite espressos (Blue Bottle in particular) offer. For a pour-over, I tried a Tanzanian that had a lot of berry and stone fruit notes but not the citrus of a lot of East African beans. Panther also has a big selection of high-quality pastries – I had a croissant, because coffee on an empty stomach is not a pleasant experience for me – from area bakeries, including some donuts that looked like little works of art.

I had drinks on Sunday night with longtime friend Will Leitch, which we realized is probably the longest conversation we’ve ever had in person despite knowing each other for a really long time. (I first met him when he did a reading for his book God Save the Fan in LA, so that had to be the spring of 2008.) We met up at the bar portion of Edge Steak & Bar inside the Four Seasons, which is actually not priced like a Four Seasons hotel restaurant might be and has a great bar menu of small plates as well as an enormous whiskey selection if you’re inclined to that sort of spirit. I tried two dishes – the bay scallop crudo with grapefruit, pomegranate seeds, and cucumbers, which had the perfect acid/sweet ratio; and the tostones with an avocado spread that was kind of a mild guacamole, also very good but on the heavy side. I can also verify that two of their Boulevardier cocktails, in essence a negroni with rye, were enough that I was glad I hadn’t driven to the hotel.

I left first thing Monday morning, but if I’d had one more dinner in Miami I would have tried to get to Niu Kitchen, a tapas place specializing in regional Spanish dishes, with jamón iberico and boquerones on the menu. That’ll have to wait for a scouting trip down there next year.

Sarasota and other Florida eats.

Florida spring training kind of sucks, in my professional opinion, because the sites are so far apart and several are wastelands for decent food. I found a handful of decent spots in my week there this year, along with a lot of mediocrity, but I’ll just focus on the good here, including the fact that Sarasota of all places has a decent little food and coffee scene happening.

Baker & Wife is a farm-to-table type of place in Sarasota, recommended to me by a friend who lives nearby, and I was impressed by both the vegetable dishes and, as you’d expect from the name, the dessert. I went with two starters rather than a main, a salad of roasted yellow beets with goat cheese, pesto, and pine nuts, along with crab cakes with a spicy green papaya slaw; of all of that, the only aspect I didn’t care for was the slaw, which tasted too much of fish sauce. The beets were really spectacular, although I am a fan of roasted beets in any form, but I think they pair so well with goat cheese, any kind of nuts, and the salty, bright punch of the pesto. Dessert, I had the “baker’s bannoffie pie,” and I’ll let the menu describe it: “pecan and graham cracker crust, house made banana & vanilla bean pudding, chocolate chips, caramel, cream.” It was that good and then some. It all worked so well together.

Perq is a new third-wave coffee bar in Sarasota, using beans from various artisan roasters around the country, and offering numerous cold-brew and single-origin espresso options along with the usual. It’s a sizable cafe too, unlike a lot of third-wave spots, and they appear to rotate through various roasters – they had a number of I knew from my travels and when I chatted up one of the baristas, he mentioned several other great roasters they’ve used, like heart, Sightglass, Four barrel, Counter Culture, and more.

I had half a decent meal at Selva, a Peruvian restaurant downtown, where the ceviche was very good and the entree I had was not. The ceviche isn’t truly traditional; they have numerous combinations that include various fruits, acids, and types of fish, and the tuna/watermelon ceviche I got had larger pieces of fish than I’m used to seeing in ceviche. It came with a spicy lime sauce for dipping or pouring to taste, and I would recommend using that if you end up here. But the main course was kind of a mess – a duck breast that was cooked very inconsistently, and served with a risotto that was anything but.

There’s also a tiny Buddy Brew location right near Selva, at the entrance to the parking garage downtown not far from Tamiami Trail. I would go to Perq before this, but Buddy Brew is solid.

Elsewhere in the state, I discovered the brand new Foxtail Coffee in Orlando’s Winter Park neighborhood thanks to a scout’s recommendation, and both times I went there was a line out the door. They had four coffees available from different countries; I tried their espresso one day and an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe pour-over the next, the latter of which came with a roasting demonstration from Iain, one of the owners and a baseball fan as well. It’s right near the old location of the Ravenous Pig, which has moved into the old Cask & Larder space but which I can report is still some of the best food to be had in the Orlando area.

Near the Jupiter complex is a very unassuming little coffee shop and roaster called Oceana, which does a lot of single origins as well but roasts most of them darker than I tend to like. Their pour-over options are the way to go – I had an Ethiopian the first day I was there, and I’ll be honest in that I was so in need of the caffeine I don’t remember much beyond the sheer pleasure of feeling it hit my bloodstream. Pass on the espresso as their extraction rate is way too high and the result is watery.

Merritt Island’s Cuban Island Cafe is worth a stop if you’re in that area, which I’d never visited before; I went for my standard choice, lechon asado, which in this case came with some amazing black beans, one maduro, one tostone, and well over a half-pound of pork.

I’ll also mention Harry’s Pizzeria in Miami, which appeared on a list of the best pizzerias in the U.S. a few years ago that I’ve kept on hand for my travels, hitting more than half of the 48 places they listed. The pizza itself was just average, but I had an escarole salad to start that was tremendous – lemon, anchovies, parmiggiano, and bread crumbs. It hit a little of everything, adding salty, sour, and umami notes to the slight bitterness of the raw greens. They have a few non-pizza options that might be worth trying if I ever go back to have that salad again.

Tampa/Clearwater eats.

Klawchat today at 1 pm ET. Also, check out my review of the boardgame Evolution over at Paste if you haven’t already.

Jose’s Real Cuban Food in Bradenton looks like a dump – I wasn’t even sure I’d pulled into the right parking lot – but the food makes it worth getting over your initial jitters about walking into the place, with huge portions of authentic Cuban dishes at very reasonable prices. I’m a huge fan of lechón asado, slow-roasted pork shoulder that’s been marinated in a garlicky sour orange mixture (like a wet rub) and is served shredded, usually with rice and beans. Jose’s offers the basic black beans and rice combo, but you can upgrade to yellow rice (with saffron and garlic) or moros (rice cooked with the black beans) for a buck or so, plus your choice of maduros (fried sweet plantains) or yucca frita. The pork was tender and the flavors were well-balanced between the citrus, the salt, and the garlic – not overpowered by the garlic as too often happens, since garlic is cheap and can hide the taste of subpar ingredients – and the plate had to have at least a half a pound of meat. I went with the basic beans and rice but next time would go for the yellow rice instead, while the maduros were superb, not too greasy and cooked just to the point of caramelization without burning. That plate was more than enough for me, but if you’re a bigger eater than I am, for $14 you can get a sampler “taste of Cuba” platter with the pork, ropa vieja (brisket slow-cooked in tomato sauce), and picadillo (seasoned ground beef) with the same sides, after which you won’t need to eat for a few days.

The Refinery in Tampa is a Kiley McDaniel favorite, one he’s been recommending to me for about two years now, and I finally made it late on Friday night after seeing Kyle Tucker and Jake Woodford play. The Refinery’s a farm-to-table restaurant with a menu that changes a few times a week, mostly small plates with four or five entrees, and an extensive beer/wine list. I went with three small plates, one of which was dessert – a roasted beet plate with a beet soubise, catfish fritters, and their sweet twist on biscuits and gravy, all of which were grade 55s but none plus. The fritters were a little disappointing because they were so big and bready that I didn’t taste the fish at all, so while they were perfectly fried (smoking hot when they reached the table) and came with a delicious remoulade-like sauce and some pickled tomatoes on the side, they could have been corn fritters or zucchini fritters or anything else and I wouldn’t have known it. The dessert was clever, a cocoa wafer serving as the biscuit, a dollop of chocolate mousse serving as the sausage, and a floral crème anglaise as the sauce, not too sweet but not quite as chocolatey as I’d hoped for. I think the Refinery’s best attribute is the quality of their ingredients, but I wish, for example, they’d showcased the catfish in that dish the way they showcased the beets on the other savory plate.

Buddy Brew is a local coffee roaster in Tampa with a decent selection of single-origin pour-overs as well as one espresso option, all third-wave stuff and fairly high-quality. I tried the Peru Cajamarca as a pour-over, definitely getting the toffee and cocoa flavors listed on the description (although the power of suggestion is quite potent when you’re talking about anything as subjective and borderline pretentious as “notes” in coffee, wine, chocolate, or tea) but looking for a little more acidity to balance it out. I preferred the espresso, which uses their Double Dog blend and had that dark cocoa + berry combination that, for whatever reason, I think makes the best espresso. I’m assuming there’s some Ethiopian beans in there, but they don’t identify the components on their site.

Lenny’s in Clearwater gets such high marks, with Alton Brown even paying them a visit recently when he did a show in the area, but it’s entirely about quantity over quality. Their “redneck Benedict” is just sausage gravy on biscuits with poached eggs added, but the eggs were badly overcooked (and shaped oddly, like they’d been cooked in thimbles) while the biscuits were clearly not fresh, and why bother when they’re going to be obliterated underneath a half-gallon of heavy sauce? Don’t waste your time. Clearwater’s a bit of a wasteland for food – one of you recommended Cafe Pont on Ulmerton, which I didn’t have time to try between games on Friday – but you can do better than this for breakfast.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

I have an omnibus post up for Insiders covering the Cuddyer signing, the Gose/Travis trade, and more, plus I held my regular Klawchat Thursday afternoon. Over at Paste I have a review of the hit Japanese game Machi Koro, a family-friendly deckbuilder that all three of us enjoyed.

We spent half of our vacation visiting The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios before moving over to Disneyworld, our first trip to the former , prompted by our trip through all seven books this year during our evening reading time. The two parts of Harry Potter World, Diagon Alley in Universal Studios and Hogsmeade in Universal’s Islands of Adventure, look exactly like you’d want them to look. The designs are spot on, especially in Diagon Alley, and you’ll feel like you’re walking around a movie set. Universal’s attention to detail around both areas was amazing, which makes it a little easier for you to fail to realize that twenty-dollar bills are flying out of your pockets the whole time.

There are four main rides in the two areas; my daughter tried one with me, I went on two alone, and we skipped the fourth (a roller-coaster that goes upside down, a dealbreaker for me). The Escape from Gringott’s ride in Diagon Alley is the newest one, and I thought the most impressive – it’s a 3-D ride where you’re in motion down a track that knocks you around a bit but isn’t terribly rough, and never goes all that fast. It’s the visuals and the illusion that sell it, which I won’t spoil here. There’s also new footage featuring most of the main actors from the films, adding to the realism of the ride (at least for kids who want to feel like they’re really in the story), which hews to the part of the seventh book where our heroes are going after the Horcrux in Bellatrix Lestrange’s vault. The waits were about 45-60 minutes while we were there, but there’s a single rider line if, like me, you can’t convince your daughter to try it.

Hogsmeade has the other three rides, including Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey as well as The Flight of the Hippogriff. The Forbidden Journey is a dark ride within Hogwarts that borrows the parabolic screen concept from Disney’s Soarin ride but puts riders in a vehicle that rotates vertically, so at one point you’re looking down at a steep drop while at other points you’re nearly prone. The story within the ride is unique and draws on several different books within the series, putting riders on a Quidditch pitch, in the Forbidden Forest, and in the Chamber of Secrets at different points, all with more new footage from actors playing the central characters. (While I’m sure they were all compensated well for their time, I imagine they wouldn’t participate if they were eager to leave the roles behind.) The Flight of the Hippogriff is a small roller-coaster, similar to Goofy’s Barnstormer ride at the Magic Kingdom but a little longer with tighter turns, running about 75 seconds in total; my daughter was iffy on it, although I think she didn’t like the fact that we rode after sunset and she couldn’t see any of what was coming.

While not technically a ride, the Hogwarts Express train that allows you to move between the two Harry Potter areas (if you have a combination ticket for both theme parks) is also fun and extremely well executed, with compartments that seat six and show a little outdoor footage on the exterior window. It’s a different film in each direction, and you even get some shadows behind the compartment door and a few familiar voices too.

Next stop: Platform 9 3/4.

A video posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

The food at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was somewhat disappointing, unfortunately – a valiant effort that fell short on execution. The butterbeer is the main attraction, and it’s good for about half a glass. The beverage itself tastes a lot like cream soda, but is topped with a creamy foam that tastes strongly of butterscotch, and there’s definitely the impression of dairy even if there isn’t any actual milk involved. It’s just too sweet to finish, and the one time I did more or less do that, I regretted it. The frozen version is even sweeter (your taste buds are dulled by cold, so frozen desserts need more sugar), and you lose some of those buttery notes in the regular drink. I never tried the pumpkin juice because it contains artifical sweeteners.

The two main restaurants are The Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade and the Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley, both quickservice restaurants that serve a decent number of options of mostly British pub fare. The Three Broomsticks was a tick better in our books, although neither was any great shakes. I liked their cornish pasties with side salad, but that plate alone (at $8.99) wouldn’t be a whole meal for an adult. The fish and chips were adequate, clearly just fried but not made from particularly good fish. The toad-in-the-hole (bangers served in a Yorkshire pudding-style dumpling) at the Leaky Cauldron was really disappointing – the sausage itself tasted fine but was overcooked, and the whole thing seemed to have been prepared the day before and half-heartedly nuked to order, although my daughter inhaled the minted peas (not mushy or grey) on the plate. The best thing I had to eat in either area was the ice cream at Florean Fortescue’s, where they have some non-traditional flavors like butterbeer, earl grey with lavender (really good, kind of subtle and not perfumy or floral at all), and sticky toffee pudding (could have used a little more toffee flavor).

And then you have the shops, basically giant vacuums that aim directly at your wallet as you walk by. My daughter saved up for months, including birthday money, and bought herself Hogwarts robes ($105), Hermione’s wand ($45 for the interactive model that activates some effects in the parks), a Head Girl pin (only $10), a stuffed Hedwig (I don’t even remember), and a bunch of things in the stationary store – a quill, a bottle of ink, a Gryffindor journal, and so on. We managed to limit the damage she could do in the candy stores (including Honeydukes), at least. But you’re primarily there to look and shop, with a few rides in between. My wife also picked up a Hedwig backpack which I mocked until I noticed how many women stopped and complimented her on it, so perhaps that’s the next best thing to walking around with a baby or a puppy.

The Diagon Alley area even includes a little dark corridor for Knockturn Alley, with one shop, Borgin and Burkes, selling slightly more sinister items for those of you on Team Voldemort. That was also the one place where we encountered a park employee who was truly in character, a young woman in darker garb who lurked in the alley and decided to tease my daughter, who was wearing a cat-ear headband and a shirt with a cat on it, by meowing and hissing at her while following us for a few minutes. She eventually asked if she could take my daughter home to be her kitten. I think my daughter was half-amused and half-worried, but my wife and I thought it was great. I wish more employees were in character – not named characters, which would be impossible, but playing typical denizens of the wizarding community to get the kids (and the grown-up kids, of which there were many) more into the feel of the setting.

The twin theme parks at Universal Studios are both massive beyond the Harry Potter sections, but there wasn’t a lot there that appealed to my daughter – a few rides in the Dr. Seuss area, a bit in Jurassic Park, but that’s about it. We probably could have done all of Harry Potter World in one full day if we’d arrived when the parks opened, and two days proved more than enough, probably just leading us to spend more money than we’d wanted to in the first place. I doubt we’ll go back until my daughter is willing to go on the two big Harry Potter rides she wouldn’t try this trip – it’s not worth spending all of that money to get into the parks just so we can spend even more at the shops, especially now that we’ve been there once and seen the scenery, which at the end of the trip was the best part of all.

Florida eats, March 2014.

Recent posts over at ESPN: on young Dodgers players, on Jose Abreu and other White Sox, and on Nick Gordon and other Florida prep kids. I also held a regular Klawchat this morning.

After I posted my dining guide to Arizona, I was asked – as I am every year – when I’m going to do a similar one for Florida. The answer, of course, is never. Here’s why:

* I lived in Arizona for just under three years. I have never lived in Florida.

* All of the spring training sites in Arizona are located within about 30 miles of downtown Phoenix. The biggest gap between any two parks is a 75-minute drive. It might take you that long to get through Tampa, never mind far-flung sites like Fort Myers or Viera.

* Arizona has a wonderful, thriving culinary scene. Florida has oranges. Actually, the food scene in Miami is supposed to be pretty good, but there are no teams there.

So this is more of a quick round-up of where I ate on last week’s trip, not an exhaustive guide to eating in the state where you shouldn’t even bother going for spring training unless your favorite team is there. And even then you should think twice.

In the greater Orlando area, I had two meals of note at off-Disney sites (I stay at WDW because they own us and it’s cheaper to stay there than anywhere else), but also wanted to mention two others. One meal was at 4 Rivers, a wonderful Texas-style barbecue joint in Winter Garden about which I’ve waxed poetic many times. Get the moist brisket, the corn, and the collard greens. The smoked sausage is pretty good too, although it’s not always that hot. Their “burnt ends” aren’t my idea of burnt ends, so I haven’t ordered them again. There’s another location of 4 Rivers in Longwood.

I also ate at Prato in Winter Park, a trattoria focused on pastas and pizzas located on a cute, expensive-looking street well off I-4. I had dinner with a scout, so we split their meatball appetizer – three small, moist meatballs, firm enough to hold their shape, served with just a coating of tomato sauce on a bed of creamy polenta with some sauteed onions. I had to get the pizza, because I’m pizza-obsessed, and it was solid-average – good crust, a little doughy without much char, but with great toppings, including mixed mushrooms and arugula. I wouldn’t go well out of my way again to eat here, but if I were in the Winter Park area to see a player I’d consider it worth visiting again.

The Ravenous Pig was the best meal I had during the winter meetings, but I never had the chance to write the meal up afterwards and won’t dare to do it the injustice of writing it up now. I’ll just say that it’s the best restaurant in greater Orlando in my own experiences, and I want to try its sister restaurant, the more casual Cask and Larder, the next time I’m in the area. There’s a focus on local fare, artisanal ingredients, house-made charcuterie, and cocktails. You can’t lose.

I had to see a prep pitcher in St. Petersburg and went to Bella Brava, which has a little bit of a chain-restaurant feel (think Carrabba’s) but better food than that would indicate, other than the use of dried rather than fresh pasta. I had their slow-braised pork belly (which apparently is also smoked) rigatoni with pepper/onion confit, fresh rosemary and fennel, and crispy lardons, with the jus from the meat serving as the sauce. It was as good and rich as it sounds other than the dried pasta, which seemed flat and incongruous next to the powerful flavors of the meat and the sweetness of the pepper confit.

With two games in Dunedin, I took the chance to visit some old haunts but had mixed results. Eli’s BBQ Shack disappointed; Eli passed away a year ago of leukemia, and unfortunately the chopped pork wasn’t the same, coming out dry and tough with no bark. Casa Tina in downtown Dunedin was just as good as I remembered, solid-average to a tick above, serving authentic Mexican food with great attention to detail in the food; my entree was good but it was actually the salsa that blew me away, as the tomatoes tasted like they had just been picked that morning. The Whistle Stop Cafe in Safety Harbor still had good food, although the menu has changed and is now much bigger with more upscale (expensive) fare as well as the old sandwiches and salads, but the service – never good – was unbelievably slow.

Sarasota eats (and links).

Links first: Today’s chat transcript. My podcast with the drunks at Drunk Jays Fans. Some intriguing-looking jalapeno cornbread with a recipe, although it includes sugar, which makes it corn cake, doesn’t it? Jerry Crasnick wrote a good piece on Adenhart that gets a little more at Adenhart as a person than as a prospect. (Seriously, stop talking about his baseball future. It’s trivial.)

Speaking of Adenhart and the chat, did anyone get what I was saying here?

J.B. (Dunmore, PA): As a father, today’s news really upset me. Three lives lost and another in the driver that is pretty much over. This may sound harsh but I really hope that young man spends a good chunk of his life behind bars.

Keith Law: They should release the other driver and give him a pass to the Angels’ clubhouse for Friday’s game. And then lock the doors.

I was suggesting that the killer (let’s not mince words – that’s what he is) would be locked in the clubhouse with Adenhart’s teammates. It doesn’t read that way to me now.

On to more mundane matters: I was in Sarasota for the last three days and ate a lot of needlessly heavy food. My go-to place from years past, an Amish restaurant called Yoder’s, wasn’t quite up to my memories of it. They’re best known for their pies, and while they do have a great variety, I had three flavors in three days and didn’t love any of them. The strawberry-rhubarb pie was packed but with about 90% rhubarb; if I wanted rhubarb pie, I would have ordered it, since that’s another option. The peach pie and blackberry pie were both filled with gooey cornstarchy liquid and not enough fruit. Their pie crusts are very good, though – tender, not really flaky, very soft and buttery.

The food is mostly comfort food. Their fried chicken is above-average, pressure-fried (the Colonel’s method!) to produce a crisp crust and fully-cooked meat in a shorter time than traditional skillet-frying, which takes about 45 minutes. Unfortunately, the meat I got was lukewarm and I had to send the thigh back. (The drumstick wasn’t much warmer, but you can’t put a fried drumstick in front of me and get it back unless you use the jaws of life.) Their roast turkey is solid-average – it peels apart like it’s been smoked but doesn’t have the slightly rubbery texture that I always associate with smoked turkey – while their smoked pulled pork was moist but kind of flavorless. The stuffing was mushy, and the green beans were grayish-green from overcooking. I did have one meal at another Amish restaurant down the street, called Mom’s, with pretty similar results.

Tropical Thai in northern Sarasota was just bad. The chicken in the chicken with green curry was barely cooked and way too soft – almost like a great steak, except that that texture is great in steak and lousy in poultry – and the sauce had clearly been thickened with some kind of starch, while the vegetables in it were also undercooked.

And one more dud before I get to the two recommendations: Dutch Valley is a diner that claims to be known for its Belgian waffles (spelled “Belgium waffles” on the sign outside, which I now know was a warning). Putting pancake batter on a Belgian waffle iron does not produce a Belgian waffle – it produces a thick, dense, doughy cake-like waffle that, if cooled to room temperature, might make a suitable mattress for a hamster.

Word of Mouth was a better bet for breakfast, at least a solid 50, although I found the food to be a little hit or miss. On the plus side, their scone of the day today was pineapple-coconut (right out of the oven) and it was incredible – slightly dry, like a good scone should be; sweet but not overly so; with bits of actual coconut inside and a crumbly texture. Their home fries are nicely browned and cooked with onions, although today’s onions were more black than brown. The Tex-Mex omelet with chorizo had absolutely no salt in the egg portion, and when I ordered eggs over medium the other day I got something about five seconds past over easy. They serve Harney & Sons teas and the service is very good, but they play awful music (John Mayer on Tuesday, Hootie & the Blowfish today). There are two locations, and I went to the on Cattlemen near Bee Ridge. It’s a solid 50.

Mi Pueblo is a local mini-chain of Mexican places serving mostly the usual fare of burritos, enchiladas, and tacos. Their tacos al carbon with steak were outstanding. The steak was soft – how often have you had steak in a taco or fajita and needed a hacksaw to chew it? Mi Pueblo’s was at the other end of the spectrum. The rice was fresh and gently seasoned, not sticky with tomato paste or sauce. The one I went to, at the corner of McIntosh and Bee Ridge, is tiny and there was a wait when I arrived on a Wednesday night after 7, so the locals seem to have caught on. Based on one dish I’d hazard a grade of 55.

Florida panhandle eats.

On the heels of a rainout at FSU, I had dinner at the bar at Cypress, a fine-dining restaurant in downtown Tallahassee. I decided to go tapas-style and order three starters as my meal, two of which were excellent.

I began with the salad special, local organic baby spinach with red onion, goat cheese, and candied pecans, served with a poppyseed vinaigrette and topped with duck confit. I left a few poppyseeds. The duck confit was outstanding – not that I’ve ever had bad duck confit – while the spinach leaves were very fresh and unbelievably green. All the dish lacked was a little heat, because it hit so many other dimensions of flavor, from the sweetness of the pecans to the tang/acidity of the cheese and the vinaigrette to the slight bitterness in the spinach.

The second dish was a blue crab cake tower, with two crab cakes, each sitting on a tostone, then stacked on top of each other, with a jicama-melon salsa on top and a smoked onion-jalapeño tartar sauce on the bottom. The crab cakes weren’t made from lump meat, but that would be my only real complaint, as they still had great crab flavor and a red pepper kick, which was nicely complemented by the creaminess of the sauce and the faint sweetness of the melons in the salsa. The tostones were sort of irrelevant, since it required a lot of work to cut them into manageable pieces.

The last dish was a pecan-crusted quail which turned out to be a pecan-battered quail, and it was the one disappointment of the evening. The interior of the quail was undercooked, and while I know that game is typically served medium-rare, I find quail that’s cooked less than medium to be gamey in texture and flavor. The accompaniments lacked the balance of the earlier dishes, and the smoked tomato vinaigrette and sweet pickle relish created a rather low pH for the dish as a whole.

I loved the food but was most impressed by the little things at Cypress. They make their own breads in-house every morning; my bread basket had two miniature buttermilk biscuits as well as two pieces of a fantastic sponge bread, with a perfect crust and very soft interior. Because I said it was my first time at the restaurant, I received a “gift from the kitchen,” a watermelon shooter with diced heirloom strawberries and a hint of mint in the liquid. And most impressively, even though I didn’t complain at all about the quail, the bartender, Grant, took it off of my bill because he noticed how much food I left on the dish after practically licking the previous two plates clean. It was an unnecessary step but indicative of an awareness of the importance of customer service.

• I stayed in the Fort Walton Beach area Friday night after seeing a game in Niceville and got takeout from a little Thai place in Fort Walton called Thai House. The kitchen had just closed but they were willing to make me some pad thai to go, but I’m sorry to report that it had zero taste. I was a little put off when I discovered that it had no heat; I was asked how spicy I’d like it, and I said, “Just a little bit,” after which the woman who took my order said, “Mild.” That’s not the same thing to me, and what I got was mild, not a little bit spicy.
• On the drive from Niceville to Tallahassee, there ain’t much for lunch, so I stopped at a Sonny’s BBQ, which is a chain of Q joints I’ve seen all over Florida. Don’t waste your time. Their “signature” baby-back ribs had no flavor whatsoever, while the BBQ beans were almost as blah, and the corn bread was sickeningly sweet. The only acceptable item was the fried okra, straight out of the fryer with a crispy crust made with stone-ground cornmeal.
• I hit Paschal’s in the Atlanta airport for Sunday breakfast. I ordered their chicken hash, which is more of a stew with onions and chicken stock thickened with some form of starch, although it was pretty good even if it wasn’t really a hash. The main problem was the service, as the waitress screwed up two parts of my order, and the coffee, which was what my cousins in Italy call acqua sporca – dirty water, which I could see through when I held the glass mug up to the light.

Disneyworld eats (second trip).

So before I get into new places, let me reiterate how much I like Raglan Road. We went twice, and I had the shepherd’s pie and Guinness both times, while my wife and I split the bread-and-butter pudding once. Other dishes I can recommend: The Guinness and onion banger is delicious, served over mashed potatoes and topped with a ladle-full of their beef stew, making it ridiculously hearty; their chicken and sage banger is also very good and a bit lighter than the pork banger, plus it’s a more reasonable portion than the prior dish; and the “pie in the sky” (chicken and mushroom pie) is hearty without being heavy, although it could never reach the heights of a proper steak and mushroom pie. We ordered a side of chips at lunch, and they appeared to be hand-cut. One caution: The Dunbrody Kiss dessert may sound delightful, but the cornflake layer on the bottom turns into a chewy, icky mush, and ruined the dish for me the one time we ordered it back in ’06.

Other than Raglan Road and a couple of breakfasts at Boma, we ate in the parks this time around. Most pleasant surprise was Flame Tree BBQ in Animal Kingdom; it’s real Q, complete with pink smoke ring. They offer pulled pork, shredded beef, ribs (St. Louis), and smoked chicken. My wife went with the pork sandwich; the meat had a mild smoke flavor and was just a little bit dry (unavoidable given the quantities they must smoke and serve). I went with the ribs, which were a little tough but were covered with spicy-sweet bark, the most glorious part of barbecued ribs in my book. The baked beans that came on the side had a smoky molasses flavor, but the corn muffin was nothing more than mushy corn cake. It’s easily one of the best values anywhere on the property.

The Prime Time Café at Hollywood Studios (formerly MGM) had good food, but was way overpriced. We both went with the pot roast, which was very nicely done, with most of the fat cooked out and plenty of well-browned surface area; it sat on top of some ultra-smooth mashed potatoes that served mostly to soak up whatever ran out of the pot roast. At $17 for lunch, it’s a bit dear, and large portions at lunch aren’t a big plus to me. They do make a good chocolate shake, though.

Get the smoked turkey leg if you have to eat at Magic Kingdom, or maybe the tuna on multi-grain bread at Columbia Harbour House. The Kingdom really doesn’t offer much for full-service options, and their quick-service selection isn’t great, either. The Sleepy Hollow stand, tucked in a corner in Liberty Square, has funnel cakes and Mickey waffles, two guilty pleasures.

We ate our way around Epcot, as usual, but hit a few new places this year:

  • The Biergarten in the Germany pavilion, offering a dinner buffet at $27 per adult (not including booze). Dinner buffets don’t usually thrill me, but the selection at this one was excellent, and our server, from northern Germany, told me that most of what was on the tables was authentic German food. The various sausages were all fantastic, as was the warm German potato salad (cider vinegar, mustard, and bacon … seriously). The salmon in dill sauce was solid, although I’d bet I got a piece that hadn’t been sitting under the lamps for long. The beef roulade tasted great but had dried out, while the pork schnitzel (breaded and fried!) was outstanding. Desserts were a disappointment. Live music is part of the appeal, with your typical goofy Disney humor.
  • The Rose and Crown in the England pavilion served straightforward versions of some of what you’d find at Raglan Road. We went twice; I wasn’t blown away by the pot roast, which was fattier than the one I had at Prime Time, but the bangers and mash were excellent, with outstanding color on the sausages. My sister got the fish and chips the time she came with us, and the breading on the fish was ultra-crisp and golden brown. Guinness on tap here is a bit colder than I’d like.
  • The San Angel Inn in Mexico was a disappointment. The menu seems less geared towards authentic cooking than other Epcot restaurants, and the prices here were out of line with 1) what I expect at a Mexican restaurant and 2) the quality of the product. I ordered the pescado a la ranchera, seared tilapia served over rice with an avocado cream sauce and roasted poblanos. The tilapia was quasi-blackened; the fish was almost certainly frozen at some point in its post-life life. I did like the avocado cream sauce, which was about as smooth as soft-serve ice cream.
  • We did the “princess dining” dinner at Askershus in the Norway pavilion. It’s steep at $29 per adult, but you are paying for the characters (your kid gets a photo with one of the princess characters, and the remaining princesses walk around and visit all the tables). The food was very good, probably the best of any place we hit at Epcot. Dinner starts with a koldbordt buffet of cold cuts, smoked fish (the smoked salmon was ridiculous, ultra-smooth with a sweet smoky flavor), and salads. For the entrée, I went with the baked salmon with mustard; I was disappointed that the mustard was yellow mustard, which I think is kind of nasty, but the salmon was perfectly cooked and the potato pancakes underneath it were fresh and crispy. My wife went with the braised pork shank, a huge portion where the meat just slid right off the bone. Dessert is family-style, with three desserts coming on one plate: a “rice cream” (pudding) with sweetened strawberries, a cappuccino cheesecake that tasted more like mousse than cheesecake, and a “princess cake” with a white chocolate mousse. All three were delicious. Note that this restaurant’s menu appears to change seasonally.
  • We hit the quick-service restaurant at the Morocco pavilion, the Tangierine Café. The “lamb wrap” was a gyro in all but name, with very juicy lamb shaved to order and served on a hot fresh flatbread with just a little bit of yogurt sauce (can I call it tzatziki if it’s not a Greek restaurant?). It’s a bit messy to eat while you walk, but either it was delicious or I was starving, because I inhaled the thing.

Finally, I can’t discuss Epcot without mentioning the Patisserie in the France pavilion. Their chocolate mousse is dark and very smooth; I can’t imagine that they’re making a true mousse with an egg white foam, a labor-intensive and fussy preparation, but that sure as heck is what it tastes like. Their éclairs are solid, with chocolate pastry cream inside, and the strawberry tart has a hard shortbread crust filled with sweetened whipped cream. I just wish you could get a proper espresso somewhere around there, but the only coffee they serve is Nescafe.

Disneyworld eats.

The perks of working at a Disney subsidiary include discounts at some Disneyworld restaurants, and stays at hotels on the property when I have to go there for business. Since the GM meetings were held at a hotel just outside the northern entrance to Walt Disney World, I stayed at the Animal Kingdom Lodge and ate all my meals within the property (thereby putting my per diems back into the company).

Raglan Road is by far our favorite restaurant in Walt Disney World. A celebrity-chef venture involving Kevin Dundon, one of the top celebrity chefs in Ireland, and amed after a poem by Patrick Kavanagh, Raglan Road pretends to be an authentic Irish pub, but in reality it’s far too upscale in décor and food – not that either is a bad thing. The Guinness on tap is served at just the right temperature (that is, not too cold), and the upscale twists on some classic Irish comfort foods are excellent. Their shepherd’s pie is pretty close to the standard recipe, with a generous portion of lightly spiced lamb/beef mixture sitting below whipped mashed potatoes. Their take on bangers-and-mash includes a small dollop of their beef stew as a sauce, and the pork sausages (bangers) are outstanding. Even the Irish soda bread (no raisins!) and the olive-oil-and-Guinness-reduction that come before the meal are excellent. And the “bread and butter pudding,” served with butterscotch sauce and crrème Anglaise, is easily the best bread pudding I’ve ever had, with the bread still firm despite a thorough soaking in custard, and both sauces good enough to drink straight from the creamers.

We ate several meals at Boma, the buffet-style restaurant at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. Breakfast was mostly straightforward, with a mix of standard American breakfast fare (nothing special) and some African-influenced dishes, including a sausage-and-biscuit skillet dish with a spicy light-brown sauce and fluffy Southern-style biscuits that was out of this world. They also offer a “jungle juice” – just a blend of orange, pineapple, and guava juices – that tastes mostly of guava, which is fine by me because guava juice is naturally very sweet. Their pastry selection is strong, with scones, apple turnovers, banana bread, and four kinds of muffins (the orange bran muffins were the best), all clearly baked that morning or overnight.

Their dinner buffet has a huge menu of choices, leaning more towards African food (or African-influenced food), including bobotie (a South African tamale pie, with an egg topping and dried fruits mixed in with the meat), Moroccan couscous, cardamom-spiced pork, carved prime rib (get the ends), fufu, and so on, as well as some American choices for kids and fussy eaters. Their signature desserts are “zebra domes” and “tiger domes,” little fondant-filled chocolate domes with a hint of liqueur, but we preferred the chocolate mousse and the peach crumble (a touch heavy on the nutmeg, though). I was most impressed by the fact that the savory dishes are strongly flavored, unlike a lot of restaurants aiming for a broad market, and I never had to reach for the salt shaker.

The problem with Boma is that it’s not cheap – $26 per adult for dinner, $17 per adult for breakfast – and unless you’re a huge quantity eater or you have an employee discount, it probably won’t pay. Also, if you’re going for dinner, make a reservation ahead of time, as they’re sold out most nights. One minor bonus – about half the staff come from either north Africa or sub-Saharan Africa, and we chatted up one server from Botswana, asking her if she was familiar with Alexander McCall Smith’s books to see if they presented an authentic picture of the country. (Answer: She hadn’t read the books, but told us they had just filmed a movie based on the first book right near her apartment in Gaborone.)

The Animal Kingdom Lodge has one quick-service restaurant, called the Mara, offering all three meals. The Mara has a large refrigerated case with drinks, yogurts (packaged and in parfaits), puddings/cakes, and so on, and they offer a short menu of hot foods. Their breakfasts were greasy, and the dinner selection wasn’t great except for one option – the roasted half-chicken with (hot) couscous, a Moroccan-style dish that was delicious albeit a bit overcooked. They offer French fries or a cold couscous salad as side options for their other dishes, like hamburgers and fried chicken strips. It’s buried within the hotel, so it’s not worth seeking out.

The Earl of Sandwich is a Panera-style sandwich place at Downtown Disney, and they serve panini on a homemade English-muffin bread that is out of this world. The list of sandwich options is huge, but the fillings are mostly pre-sliced or pre-cooked; I went with a Caribbean jerk sandwich with chicken (pre-cooked), bell peppers, sliced banana peppers, and a jerk sauce that turned out to be mayo-based. But the bread was delicious, and my wife liked her Caprese salad sandwich, which had just the traditional fresh mozzarella, fresh basil, and sliced tomatoes, with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The Earl also offers salads and wraps, and for breakfast they have egg sandwiches and yogurt parfaits.

While we were down in Orlando, the Epcot Food & Wine Festival was just wrapping up its six-week run, so after the GM meetings ended we took the afternoon to check it out. The World Showcase part of Epcot is lined with food stands and a few shopping kiosks representing every country with a permanent pavilion, as well as separate stands for Spain, Chile, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Oklahoma (Native American foods), India, Poland, Turkey, Greece, and the Champagne region of France (selling wines and champagne truffles). Just about everything we ate was good; the portions are very small and run $2.50-$6 for savory dishes and as little as $1.50 for desserts. Hits included “shrimp on the Barbie” (grilled marinated shrimp) from Australia, mofongo (mashed yucca with pork cracklings) and more grilled shrimp from the DR, a beef empanada from Argentina, and spanikopita from Spain. The papas con chorizo from Spain were more like a stew with a heavy tomato flavor, and the “boxty” potato pancake from Ireland was greasy and lukewarm, although the six-ounce Guinness hit the spot. I didn’t try the bobotie at the South Africa pavilion, but I did have it at Boma, and it was excellent despite the presence of raisins. My wife gave high marks to the chilaquiles from the Mexico stand, but since they were smothered in cheese, I passed. The apple strudel at Germany tasted great but the dough became a bit tough from sitting for so long, and the ginger ice cream at China was very good; we never go to Epcot without slipping into the Patisserie at the France Pavilion for a chocolate mousse. The Food & Wine Festival ran from September 28th to November 11th this year, and I hope they expand it next year so it doesn’t overlap so perfectly with the MLB playoffs.