Providenciales Dining: Savoring Conch in All its Forms

We’ve been back from Turks & Caicos for a few days now and I’ve been meaning to write down a few thoughts about our trip.  We spent 8 days in a suite at the Ocean Club West Resort  in Providenciales. My review of that place will follow separately but we could have had a better accommodation than we did.  Nevertheless, the objective was to relax and spend quality time with the grandchildren and my son and daughter-in-law and that we did.

The challenge with TCI (as the country is referred to) is that it is quite expensive to both stay and dine there. It’s a series of islands and islands typically have higher costs when it comes to food. We knew that going in so we did what we could to keep costs down.  My son actually travelled with a portable cooler that contained frozen steaks, hamburgers, and hot dogs for his family’s consumption. He had no problem bringing the food into the country since it was frozen and was only meant for personal use.  The resort has a couple of very good grills on site so he was able to grill up some food for his family on a few occasions.  Steaks on the island typically cost in the area of $29-$36 so he saved considerable money there.

However, when I go on vacation I generally don’t want to cook and I do want to sample the local cuisine, so we did not go with the frozen food strategy. We do know that in most places breakfasts are over priced so we brought over breakfast snacks that we bought at Costco and went to the local supermarket near the resort and bought some items to make breakfast and lunch.  Food there was more expensive than we find in the supermarket at home but it was still cheaper than going to a restaurant for breakfast.  Since we had a kitchenette in the room we decided we could make french toast for a few meals and bought a small loaf of bread, a half-gallon of milk, a dozen eggs and some butter.  Those items totaled about  $18.00 – not cheap but cheaper than paying for one meal of French Toast at $10 a person.  We got 6 French Toast entrees out of that and Art made a couple of omelets with the balance of the eggs.  We also brought some flavored rum miniatures with us that we had purchased during our St Thomas vacation and I used portions of the Coconut Rum and Vanilla Rum to flavor the French Toast batter. Yummy.

And, even though dinners on the island aren’t cheap we found that many of the meals were high quality and delicious.  It also pays to eat what’s local or what is considered normal food for the area.  In TCI it’s conch in all its many forms.  We had conch fritters, conch fingers, conch ceviche and conch salad.  All were delicious, although the conch from Da Conch Shack was the best.  Listed in the book 1000 Places to See Before You Die, the atmosphere was relaxed and fun.  The Conch Combo did not disappoint. It was accompanied by another island favorite – rice and peas.  I’m not a big fan of peas but these are pigeon peas.  If you are Puerto Rican (like myself) you know them as gandules.  So essentially rice and peas is Arroz con Gandules a dish I am very familiar with and love.  I was in heaven. Since this is considered the off-season the service was excellent.  I also had conch fritters at the Seaside Cafe at the resort and at the Tiki Hut Restaurant. 

Ribs and Fries from Seaside Cafe

The Tiki Hut deserves a shout out for some of the best ribs I’ve ever had.  Moist and sweet with sufficient meat on the bone to make them worth getting messy.  The entrée cost $18 and that seems to be the going rate for ribs across the island. Their drink specials were pretty good too.  Just make sure to apply your mosquito repellent before you go otherwise you’ll get eaten alive while you’re dining.

 

Conch Fritters from the Seaside Cafe

 

We also enjoyed Jimmy’s Dive Bar.  It is what it sounds like – a dive – but the half-priced piña coladas during Happy Hour were very good and the conch sampler was very tasty and well priced.  They serve breakfast all day – at high-end breakfast prices but are also known for a wide variety of hamburger platters.  As dives go, it was really quite civilized and the service was also very good.

The only restaurant we went to that we considered to be overhyped and with less than stellar service was Hemingway’s at the Sands Resort.  Our waitress did not take our order correctly and my entrée of crab cakes was ample but unremarkable. No one else was raving about their meal either so it was not the best experience.  It also didn’t help to be downwind from a cigar-smoker lazing after his dinner by the pool, which is adjacent to the restaurant. Cuban cigars are available in TCI so I understand why someone would want to savor the experience but not next to where I’m eating a meal.

Another place we enjoyed was Giggles, an ice cream shop located right near Jimmy’s Dive Bar.  Lots of selection in ice cream flavors and friendly service made this a fun stop.  But in the TCI heat you have to scarf down your ice cream pretty quick before it melts all over you.

Overall, our outlay for dinners wasn’t cheap ranging anywhere from $45 to $85 per night for two people, most of the time with some form of alcoholic beverage (the rum punches go down very smoothly) but we enjoyed our meals and the relaxed atmosphere of the restaurants and the friendliness of the service all across Providenciales.

 Priscilla (one half of the Travel2Some

Tony Cheng’s Mongolian Grill – Tradition Amongst The Change

A few weeks ago, while in Washington DC on business, I had the opportunity to have dinner at an old favorite. Actually, my choice was pretty much made for me since the only restaurants located within walking distance of my hotel were located in the Gallery Place/ Chinatown area of DC and the area was teeming with Caps fans converging on the nearby Verizon Center for the evening’s game.

I had just finished visiting the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and was starving. This area of DC has changed significantly over the last 12 years and has a lot of restaurant choices but most were packed to the gills, with lines going outside the door in some cases. And, when I checked Open Table for a place to get a reservation I was out of luck until much later in the evening.

Then I remembered Tony Cheng’s Restaurant right around the corner from all the hustle and bustle and near to the Chinatown gate. The restaurant upstairs is a standard “sit down” place but downstairs has the “grill,” a buffet that hasn’t really changed since I last dined there, more than 12 years ago. The dining room was a sea of red Caps’ jerseys but I was seated immediately.

I always loved this place and this visit re-cemented that adoration. The waiter took my drink order and asked if I was familiar with the routine. Since I was, no explanation was necessary but he did issue a reminder, vegetables and noodles in the bottom of the bowl, meat on top.

The grill is centered in the middle of the dining room and there are two access points to the food. You, essentially, move around in a semi-circle around the buffet and fill your bowl with the items you want cooked on the grill. The food generally “cooks down” so filling up the bowl is a requirement unless you want to make lots of trips back and forth to your table. The vegetables include cilantro (an herb but who cares), carrots, peppers, onions, bean sprouts, snow peas and more. There are also noodles and scallions – cooked white rice is automatically placed on your table. The choice of meats are thinly sliced frozen versions of beef, chicken, pork and lamb. Shrimp costs extra.

After you’ve filled your bowl you end up in front of the tiered array of sauces and oils that are used to cook the items. You can pick your own sauces or just hand the bowl over to the cook and have them select the sauces appropriate to the meat you’ve selected. Over time I’ve realized that the cooks are a better judge of what will taste good than I am so I just handed them my bowl and watched them cook my beef and vegetables loaded with cilantro. This whole exercise took less than 5 minutes from the time I was seated.

When I returned to my table the bowl of white rice, a dish of marinated cabbage, and a basket of sesame bread were waiting for me. The bread is ideal for sopping up the sauce at the bottom of the bowl. I went back a couple more times for chicken and lamb and I was done. The meal is topped off with a small dollop of the ice cream selection(s) for the day and a fortune cookie.

And, of course, the check. The buffet costs $16.95 plus drink, tax and tip. For this neighborhood and the quality of food this is still one of the best deals in town. The neighborhood may have changed a great deal over the last several years and most people will say that is a change for the better but it’s nice to know that Tony Cheng’s still offers its traditional fare at reasonable prices.

Priscilla

Eating Our Way Through San Francisco

I was attending a conference last week in San Francisco and Art decided to join me on the trip since it is one of our favorite cities.  I would attend the conference and we would spend a couple of days exploring some places we hadn’t been to before.  Art had never really stayed around the Union Square area so this was a new territory for him and as fate would have it my son was in the same area on business too – so we had some opportunities to get together during our stay.

We arrived in the early evening on a Monday and were starved but didn’t want to go too far from where we were staying.  Our first room at the Hotel Donatello was less than stellar but we were promised a new room the next day so didn’t really unpack.  Instead we headed downstairs to the Zingari Lounge where jazz is played every evening and Happy Hour bar appetizers are half price from 3:30 pm to 6:30 pm daily and from Sun – Thurs from 9 pm till closing.  Art and I shared crab cakes with paprika aioli, Prince Edward Island Mussels sautéed with Roma Tomatoes, Garlic White Wine & Grilled Country Bread, and we each had a plate of Fried CalamariDuring Happy Hours there are also $5 wines, beers and cocktails.  My son joined us a little later for a beer and we enjoyed the sounds of the jazz bass and piano in an intimate yet friendly atmosphere. Not a bad way to start the trip.

The next day was a busy work day for me but Art had the opportunity to join an old High School friend for lunch at Cafe de La Presse.  This turned out to be a great place and we went back there together later on during the week.  In the meantime I joined a business associate of mine for a fantastic lunch at the Waterbar on the Embarcadero.  This place really has a great view of the Bay Bridge and the food was excellent.  Not cheap by any means, the restaurant featured professional yet friendly service and a reasonable variety of lunch entrées.  We decided to sit in the bar area for the view but the menu is the same no matter where you sit.  The quote on the top of the menu caught my attention, ” We are indeed much more than what we eat, but what we eat can nevertheless help us to be much more than what we are,” ~ Adelle Davis.  It helped to set the tone for a memorable meal.

As it happens we both ordered the same entrée, Grilled Bavette Steak with fingerling potato hash, grilled asparagus, and truffle aioli.  The presentation and the dish were magnificent.  For dessert I had the Meyer Lemon Soufflé Cake with crème chantilly and candied thyme shortbread.  It was light and fluffy with the just the right balance of sweet and tart to end the meal. My dining companion had the Chocolate Oatmeal Walnut Ice Cream Sandwich with vanilla ice cream and cocoa nibs.  A little messier to eat but just as enjoyable.

It was back to the conference which ended with a reception, where I got to down a couple of white wines before meeting Art back at the Zingari Lounge where he was having a martini.  After a lot of texting and phone calls we got back together for dinner with business associates of mine.  My son joined us at a place called Scala’s Bistro.  There were 7 of us at the table (including the person I had lunch with earlier in the day) and with a quick reservation made by the concierge at the Grand Hyatt we were able to get in.   The others with us picked the place because it was within easy walking distance for those of us staying in the Union Square area and it came highly recommended by the concierge.  The place was packed and we were not disappointed with the choice.

Not long after we were seated our waitress took a sidelong glance at Art and said “Didn’t I serve you at lunch?”  She apparently works at Cafe de La Presse during breakfast and lunch and at Scala’s for dinner.  We all teased Art about that since he was being seen with two different women on the same day.  Here we were greeted with another quote at the top of the menu, “One Cannot Think Well, Love Well, Sleep Well, If One Has Not Dined Well” ~ Virgina Woolf.  I was beginning to think this would become a regular tradition at local restaurants.

Bread with olive oil was set on the table and we all enjoyed what we ordered.  Some people ordered appetizers and salad.  I shared an order of Mussels with Art and my son ordered Bruschetta with a fennel pureè, poached prawns, squid ink aioli, and fennel pollen.  One word about squid ink – black.  My son’s mouth was black and black ink could be found on the table and on the napkin.  He had to exchange it for a new one.  Be careful when you eat that dish. 

The special for the night was a Lamb Shank with Risotto and Art, along with a few others, ordered it.  It was a huge portion of food.  I ordered the  Linguine & Clams consisting of small manila clams, garlic, roasted tomato, white wine, and Calabrian chilies.  The dish was also fairly large and somewhat spicy.  The linguine was a perfect al dente.  I decided to skip dessert since I had one earlier in the day but Art ordered the Bergamot Orange Granita / Tangerine Sorbet.  Expecting a small scoop in a small bowl, it was a real surprise to be presented with a large vertical oblong bowl with a significant amount of tangerine sorbet.  That was more dessert than expected.  We all left the restaurant full and happy.

So far, we’d only been in San Francisco for 24 hours and we already had some memorable meals and had the chance to meet with friends and family in one of our favorite places.  It doesn’t get any better than this.  Or, does it?

Priscilla

Valentine’s day at IKEA

IKEA may not sound like the most romantic place to celebrate Valentine’s Day but we get plenty of opportunities to be romantic every other day of the year, so we decided that a $9.99 Swedish buffet dinner was a pretty good deal and worth a try.

We bought our tickets a few weeks ago because some of these IKEA events get sold out well ahead of time. As it turns out IKEA may not be as popular for a Valentine’s date night because there were still some tickets left for people to purchase at the entrance. However, the long line to get in and the length of the buffet line proved that this was definitely a pretty popular option. And the broad appeal wasn’t just with the over-60 set (used to going for those early bird specials). There were tables with young couples, parents with children, girls only groups of all ages, and every other demographic group you could imagine.

So what do you get for $9.99? Well, if you’re willing to wait in line for a few minutes for a few rounds over the course of two hours, quite a bit. However, I’m not that patient so if I can’t fit it on enough plates to carry in one pass that’s it. As it turns out, that was enough.

There were plenty of both hot and cold Swedish specialities. The advertised menu included roast beef, Swedish meatballs, glazed pork loin, Prinskorv (like a Vienna sausage), assorted herrings, green salad, shrimp cocktail, deviled eggs with shrimp, an assortment of cheeses, red beet salad and cucumber salad. But there was more including several kinds of potatoes (I picked the dill potatoes and they were delicious), and crab spread canapés and assorted breads. Desserts included a fairly dense chocolate truffle cake, Princess cake with strawberries, strawberries and whipped cream and an almond torte – all delicious.

The atmospherics are pretty bares bones – a red napkin at each seating area. You pick up your utensils with everything else on the buffet line. But, this is IKEA. Minimalism is an expectation. They did have someone busing tables so that was a slight upgrade from the typical dining experience at IKEA.

But added bonus was upon leaving we were given a large bar of chocolate and three different frequent purchaser cards that each had been stamped or punched to reflect purchases made. In one case that amounted to $50 of prepunched value. Not too bad a bonus for a person who loves to shop at IKEA.

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Victor’s Cafe: a New York City Classic

I had to take quick trip to New York City this week and had the opportunity to have dinner at Victor’s Cafe in the Theatre District of the city – not too far from Times Square. I got really lucky because this is Restaurant Week here in the Big Apple. During Restaurant Week participating restaurants offer specially priced prix fixe menus for lunch or dinner or both. Some restaurants have very restrictive policies with respect to how they will participate while others offer real choice and value. Victor’s Cafe falls within the latter category. In general, Restaurant Week is a weekday only affair.

Lunch and dinner menus for Restaurant Week are posted on the web and there was enough choice for each course to make the $35 per person investment for dinner worth taking the trip to the restaurant. If you are an Open Table member it’s worth 100 points to make a reservation and on some days this can be necessary. And, if you update your location on foursquare, to let your friends know where you are dining, there is a special promotion offered by American Express that takes $5.00 off your American Express bill if you spend at least $24 – not tough to do in this place.

I’ve been told by some people that some of the restaurants that offer Restaurant Week menus treat those that order off them somewhat shabbily – like interlopers who don’t deserve to eat at the restaurant. That was not the case at Victor’s Cafe. I was greeted warmly as a single diner and was seated promptly. There were other single diners there as well so this place felt comfortable immediately.

It was a very cold evening outside but the warmth of the decor and the traditional Cuban music made me comfortable both on the inside and the outside. The place was well heated as well which made me more willing to give up my coat to the coat check lady.

The wait staff pointed out the Restaurant Week menu in addition to the standard choices and I was served quickly and warmly, always being asked if I enjoyed my meal and making sure I was happy. And, boy was I – the dinner did not disappoint. The bread roll was warm and fresh and served right after I ordered.

I ordered the Shrimp Ceviche, the Ropa Vieja and Flan. The shrimp ceviche was served in a martini glass with a nice amount of shrimp. The flavor was spicy and piquant with fresh ingredients. Loved the cilantro, pieces of tomato and onions. Delicious!

The ropa vieja, which translated means ” old clothes” is a traditional dish of shredded meat in a spicy tomato-based sauce. This version was served in a plantain basket resting on mashed sweet plantains and white rice and black beans on the side. All were delicious, including the plantain basket.

The flan was served with a raspberry drizzle and this was a small but dense flan. Not too sweet yet very creamy and although I’ve never had flan with raspberry before, the flavor combination worked.

Even when finished I was not rushed off but when I requested the check it was quickly presented. This was definitely worth the trip and, although this place won’t qualify in the “cheap eats” department it definitely fit the bill for ambience, quality and service.