Scenes and (a Couple of) Tastes from Cedar Key

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Less than 20 hours in Cedar Key: not my ideal, oh what a tease! I’d prefer at least a weekend in this bastion of peace and funk. But as it turned out, after a rainy foray around the Nature Coast hunting for real estate, 20 hours proved an ample pit stop for recovery.

The Nature Coast. That’s the PR moniker. Traditionally it has been called the Big Bend, where Florida segues from south-north to east-west. Others have disparagingly referred to it as Florida’s Armpit. They’re beach-lovers, no doubt, who do not appreciate the region’s Old Florida, out-of-the-spotlight, Southern style.

We were taking a big chance heading out to Cedar Key during its early December Pirate Invasion. Hotel.com and Expedia were showing no available rooms. The relentless rain, however, finally worked in our favor.

We stopped first at the place I most wanted to stay, to show off to my husband – the circa 1829 Island Hotel. Crossing the uneven floorboards past the stuffed manatee at the baby grand piano, I greeted the receptionist with a hopeful smile.

“I don’t suppose you have any vacancies,” I prompted. She hauled out a scrapbook-sized bound book and, with two hands, opened it to the day’s date. Like in an old movie, she scanned the columns with her pointer finger, stopping on a square that had been whited out. My heart skipped. A cancellation, just as we’d hoped. She showed us to room 24, opening the lock with a real key. No computerized reservations system or key cards at Island Hotel. Sigh!

Like Cedar Key as a whole, the Island Hotel is stuck in another era, pre-computers. In fact, the island’s history begins with that most basic of computing instruments: the pencil.

As its name hints, the island was once covered with red cedar trees, eventually decimated by the Eberhardt Faber Pencil Company back in the 19th century.

Today, the island’s economy depends on tourism and its art scene; and clams and their restaurant scene.

With such a short window, we got only one opportunity to taste those locally farmed clams – at Steamers Clam Bar & Grill on Dock Street, Cedar Key’s famed dining and party strip that draws the Gainesville crowd on weekends.

The good news: Steamers’ New England style clam chowder was the best to cross my taste buds in a lifetime, and that includes what I’ve slurped in Boston and Maine.

Our only other meal came compliments of the Island Hotel. It includes a full, hot breakfast in its rates, and it too was outstanding, both my mushroom and onion quiche and my husband Rob’s (who was by this point duly impressed with the old timey establishment) French toast.

We had planned to make the nightlife scene, at least the lively hotel bar that happened to be right beneath our creaky floors, king four-poster bed, and blessedly private bathroom. Instead, we ended up with a bottle of wine on the hotel’s second-story wrapped balcony on a swinging bench overlooking the Second Street holiday decorations and listening to good cover band tunes wafting from Dock Street on the brisk December sea breeze.

Following breakfast, we walked around the two-square-mile island and watched the costumed pirates awakening for the final day of their invasion. We headed back across Route 24, renewed and relaxed, but wishing we’d had more of Cedar Key, and more we shall have.

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Getting a head start on Christmas in Branson, Missouri

merob_1Does this Christmas tree costume make my butt look big?

Judging by the comments on social media after I posted pictures of my husband Rob and me participating in the tree brigade of Branson’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year parade, it was my childish regression that loomed large. And the fact that we were celebrating Christmas the minute Halloween had snuffed out its last pumpkin candle.

Like some twisted version of Cinderella, pumpkins turned to Christmas trees. Goblins to Santas. Ghosts to angels.

It may have seemed as though it happened overnight, Branson’s preemie jump on Christmas. However, as in the case of Silver Dollar City amusement park, it had been carefully choreographed behind the scenes. The park starts stringing its 6.5 million lights on July 5, said Pete, part of the Herschend family that has operated the one-of-a-kind old-time-artisans-meet-thrill-rides park since the late 1950s.

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Silver Dollar City all aglow

The Saturday evening following the Most Wonderful parade, Silver Dollar City debuted its overachieving Christmas season with dazzling displays, holiday treats, a lighted parade of its own, and Branson-quality big-music productions of A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life. Even its cave, the 500-feet-deep hole in the ground from which the park has grown, switches on an underground holiday display of lights.

Everywhere I went in Branson those first few days of November, Christmas unabashedly asserted itself. The lunch cruise production on the Showboat Branson Belle culminated in a rousing round-up of holiday song and dance choreographed to a level of Vegas showmanship. Sans the liquor. Sans the sin.

Because Branson stakes its squeaky-clean reputation on over-the-top entertainment production in a wholly wholesome vein, viewed through a lens of patriotism and faith.

100% Chance of Shows

Marquee show venues cram Branson’s legendary entertainment district, all of them holiday-skewed from Nov. 1 through year’s end. At one of the most popular holiday shows, the Andy Williams Ozark Mountain Christmas Show, I witnessed stars of yore evoking emotion and nostalgia. Stars that included the Lennon Sisters and Jimmy Osmond against a backdrop of vintage video: They pay tribute to one of the most iconic names in the annuls of holiday and Branson entertainment. From a Cirque Christmas show with the world’s only aerial acrobatic violinist to a quartet harmony, the Christmas performances in Branson are as dynamic as they are spectacular.

The probability of live shows during a holiday visit to Branson greatly out-percentages the likelihood of snow. The area averages only 10 inches a year, despite its mountains.

On the flip side of the town’s reputation for BIG entertainment, its propensity for amusement attractions prevails. Wolfe Mountain recently opened a snowless (astro-turf-like) snow-tubing experience that had me flying down an undulating hill like one of Santa’s reindeer. I flew again at Fritz’s Adventure’s latest Aerodium outdoor wind tunnel.

Other attractions follow the head-start Christmas protocol to the point where you forget it’s actually NOT December. Luminary pathways and period decorations at Titanic, for instance, turn one of the town’s most-well done museums festive. Others, like the World’s Largest Toy Museum, build on the Branson’s number one sales chip: nostalgia.

Old-time stars, stores like Dick’s 5 & 10 , and a return to family values attract not only its signature senior bus-tour clientele, but also multi-generational families to Branson.

But Why So Early?

As one regular Branson visitor put it to me: Branson lies in the heart of the Bible Belt. “Since Christmas is the Super Bowl of Christianity, they make it last as long as possible,” she said.

The Herschend family of Silver Dollar City and Showboat fame claims responsibility for nudging Christmas onto the November calendar. Since 1988, it has promoted Branson as America’s Christmas Tree City, with a map to of 350 decorated public trees to prove it, and even brought in the Rockettes for a time. Resident Tony Orlando (of “and Dawn” fame) likes to take credit, too, having gotten Bob Hope involved through his “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” classic and tributes to veterans.

So, whether or not that somewhat awkward Christmas tree costume made my butt look big as I marched with a forest of others along lakeside Branson Landing, Christmas trees and the holiday in general are supersized in Branson, a friendly and genuine town that just cannot contain its holiday exuberance to a single calendar page.

IF YOU GO

Information: Explore Branson

CHATEAU_1Accommodations: Chateau on the Lake resort, turns merry and bright with decorations that include a candy house village and a Nativity scene handmade in Italy, whose only other look-alike starred in the movie Home Alone.

Must-try holiday treats: Fruitcakes made by students at the College of the Ozarks, pumpkin pie concretes at Andy’s Frozen Custard, apple dumplings at Silver Dollar City, and pumpkin donuts at Hurt’s.

Links to My Published Foodie Articles

A pupu platter of some of my tastiest work:

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Where to Find Pink Shrimp & Striped Mullet, WGCU.org

10 Amazing Chef’s Tables You Should Know About, USA TODAY 10Best.com

Naples Illustrated’s 2017 Dining Awards, Naples Illustrated

Best Naples’ Restaurants for Fresh-from-the-Sea Catches, USA TODAY 10Best.com

Nassau’s Best Restaurants, USA TODAY 10Best.com

Pink Gold Rush documentary, WGCU-TV

Pink Gold in Fort Myers Beach, VisitFlorida.com

Shea’s at Lansdowne Street brings a little Boston to Naples, Naples Daily News

Three60 Restaurant in Naples, USA TODAY 10Best.com

Iceland’s Crazy Culinary Traditions, USA TODAY 10Best.com

From Farm to Table in Southwest Florida, VisitFlorida.com

Filling Up on Sushi at ‘Tween Waters Inn, TweenWaters.com

24 Hours of Unleashed Eating in (Un-walled) Mexico Beach

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Sugar-white sand lines gem-toned waters in Mexico Beach.

We found  it! The ultimate restaurant in Mexico Beach. After forsaking Yelp and TripAdvisor, we gut-instincted it to Highway 98’s roadside Shipwreck Raw Bar. Well, technically, it’s just east of Mexico Beach – an unlikely named town in Panhandle Florida, free of trumped-up walls and border-crossings – in neighboring Port St. Joe.

I wanted oysters. More and more oysters. Toucan’s Tiki Bar had whetted my appetite with a basket of succulent, salty fried oysters straight from the source in oyster town Apalachicola, some 30 miles to the east.

Oysters, Hush Puppies, and Beachfront

So our first stop on our Mexico Beach chowdown mission was Toucan’s, which has been the go-to place since my first visit some 20 years ago. Toucan’s constitutes, aside from the beach, the town’s biggest tourist attraction. Funky and colorful in an Old Florida way, it settles right into the snow-white sand. Folks come for the day to sun, play volleyball, and bite into its big juicy burgers, Apalach oysters,  and classic Panhandle fried food. But fried in a good way. The best way. I don’t even like hush puppies, but I could not  stop eating Toucan’s. In short: a tough act to follow.

Breakfast at Sharon’s Café stuck to the Southern theme: neighborly with counter seating and booths and a waitress welcome of “morning y’all.” Of course we had to order biscuits and gravy and chicken fried steak, although the waffles and pancakes were awfully tempting.

Killer Seafood

killer_1For lunch, we figured a place called Killer Seafood would serve us some raw oysters, but alas, not an oyster on the menu. I can roll with the punches when it comes to seafood, so the Killer Bread Bowl ended up on my plate.

On a chill January afternoon, it not only hit THE spot it hit every spot. Port St. Joe is known for its bay scallops and they, along with local pink shrimp, floated in a tomato-y broth well-seasoned with thyme, a bit of fennel, and other sundry savories.

I doused it with the house Killer Seafood Hot Sauce, bite-y with a horseradish base, and didn’t stop scooping and dipping until I reached the bowl’s gooey, doughy bottom, which made a sort of thickener and each bite a new delight.

My husband, Rob, had settled on a fried shrimp po’ boy. Southern-born, he thrives on the Panhandle’s penchant for fried. And the hush puppies here may have even trumped Toucan’s. Our vote was split there.

Oyster Heaven

shipwreckoys_1So when we landed at Shipwreck to find NO fried food, Rob was a bit disappointed. I, on the other hand, reveled in the selections of raw and baked oysters on the half shell – and at considerably more reasonable prices than at Toucan’s. Act followed!

We split a tray of half-dozen raws, which actually held eight. Eight squeaky fresh oysters with a cup of horseradish, a bottle of Crystal hot sauce, a squeezer of ketchup, and a sleeve of Saltines.

Next course: oyster stew for me and Wench’s Crab Bisque for him. The menu promised three oysters to a cup but, again, the kitchen seems a little rusty on math, and I happily slurped down five oysters stewed just to tender doneness in a rich broth of cream, butter, and oyster liquor. Absolutely perfect, like Christmas Eve all over again (a family tradition). The bisque was thick enough to stand the spool up in, and the high-flavor result of long, loving prep.

The Kicked Up a Notch steamed shrimp fired away with sriracha, cayenne, and Old Bay. Then the piece de resistance: The sample platter of oysters gave us the choice of three out of eight styles of oysters offered, four of each style.

The St. Joe Beached was our favorite – baked with bacon, cheddar, and feta. The Mexico Beached earned its name (and our love) with fresh pico de gallo, lime, and Mexican cheeses. Spinach and basil with panko bread crumbs and garlic butter filled the baked Rocky Beached oysters with subtler flavors.

We left quite proud of ourselves for discovering this gem without Yelp help, but as it turns out, it didn’t pop up because we were searching Mexico Beach. We did eventually find it rated 4.5 stars, but not listed among the top 10.

 

 

 

Cuban Nuances in Tampa’s New Generation of Restaurants

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Ulele restaurant

Senor Castro may have left this world, but the intrigue and influence of the Cuban culture is still alive and well in Tampa, a historic Cuban cigar-making town since the 1880s. Ybor City is the Cuban foodie epicenter with such historic, landmark restaurants as the original Columbia Restaurant, La Tropicana, Carmine’s, and La Segunda Central Bakery.

But Cubano foodways are not confined to Tampa’s Latin district. Cuba and its Spanish abuela insinuate themselves into most menus, even the newest, finest, and most progressive. Besides the ubiquitous Cuban sandwich that everyone claims bragging rights to, you’ll see and taste the influence in dishes from ramen to ice cream.

I was recently engaged in a mission to sample and write about six of Tampa’s most up-and-coming restaurants. There I found delightful ways that Cuban cuisine had purposely or unknowingly creeped into the chef’s head.

In the case of Ichicoro Ramen, the fusion is intentional. The roast pork asado in its Tonkotsu ramen bowl takes cues from Cuban pork mojo. If that’s not evident enough, consider the CuBaoNo – a not-so-subtle nod to the Cuban sandwich in an Asian bun. “This is Tampa,” says manager Eric. “Our Asian fusion has to incorporate that tradition.”

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Tonkotsu ramen

Oxford Exchange, just off downtown Tampa near the university, may emulate a British club, but there’s jolty Spanish cortado (similar to café con leche) beside sthe tea sommelier’s menu.

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Coffee at Oxford Exchange

It was less of a surprise to find tostones – albeit breadfruit tostones rather than plantain – at Seminole Heights’ darling Rooster & the Till. Considering that Chef Farrell Alvarez has Colombian roots, Latin influence is expected. It came with the crisp chicken thigh and yuzu habanero kosho the night I dined.

Also no big surprise at Ulele, one of the latest brainchildren from Columbia Restaurant dynasty kingpin Richard Gonzart. Although the culinary concept is defined as native American, the Naviaera Espresso Chocolate Swirl Ice Cream uses a coffee blend straight from Ybor City.

A native Tampan, Chef Jeannie Pierola has reached semifinalist status four times in the James Beard competition and was recently a guest chef at the Beard House. Her latest edison: food+drink lab near downtown draws on influences from here to Cyprus. The paella negra on the dinner menu the day I visited draws on strong Spanish tradition with a few of Chef Jeannie’s trademark twists such as squid ink rice, saffron uni foam, and piquillo pepper jam.

Chef Greg Baker at Fodder & Shine had me stumped. He professes strict Southern cuisine (with his own interpretations), and whereas I expected Florida Cuban influence to show up, it took a while to find it. There it is! On the Cornmeal Cake Sandwich, topped with killer collard greens, tomato, green pepper, scallion, and cayenne vinegar slaw. And served on – tada! La Segunda Cuban bread.

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