Archive for January, 2010

The Keys to Happiness– Part 1 of 2

Monday, January 25th, 2010

Cati and I went to the Florida Keys for 5 days after Xmas at my folks’ place.  We flew from TPA to MIA and rented a convertible for the ~4-hour drive down to Key West.  It was a Chrysler Sebring, and y’know, I didn’t hate it.  I’m not sure I’d buy one, but it wasn’t half bad.  The satellite radio may have positively skewed my perception of the car with it’s “70’s punk” and “80’s hits” stations.

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Before leaving Miami, we stopped for lunch at a Peruvian place called Sabor A Peru.  We were looking for a Cuban joint we had read about in Sky Magazine on a previous flight, but we couldn’t find it.  The Peruvian place was great– cheap, authentic, and non-pretentious.  It was jammed with Spanish speakers (presumably Peruanos, but who knows?) on both sides of the counter.

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I even tried a few Peruvian beers; here’s one:

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Cati and I shared two plates; a light spicy-tangy ceviche and a savory braised beef short-rib with plump white beans.

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For dessert, Cati had a shake called a “batido.”  It was made with guanabana fruit* and whole milk  and I think Cati might have fallen in love with this beverage a little.  I was allowed a few closely-supervised sips and it was delicious.

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We then hit the road for the beautiful drive down.  We were rockin’ out to Joe Jackson, The Jam, The Clash, The Ramones, etc.  Metal was not allowed as Cati is allergic to it.  If I had satellite radio in my car, I would miss a lot of exits.  Fortunately, there were no exits on the drive down to Key West.

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After we checked in at the hotel, we headed out for dinner.  We found a great little place called Blackfin Bistro on Duval St.  They had a great charcuterie plate.

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It’s a tiny place with a hip decor.

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I had a delicious grouper filet with a tangy mango sauce on a bed of grilled pineapple.  I liked the rectangle cut potatoes and asparagus too.

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The next day we walked around town and checked out some of the cool sites on the island like the Ernest Hemmingway House, Duval St., Turtle Kraals, local beaches, etc.  We were essentially playing our parts as quintessential tourists:

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We also took a drive out to the beautiful beaches at Bahia Honda State Park.  They were picture-perfect and very shallow for hundreds of yards out due to the sand bars.  We were kind of wishing we had brought Nina along for the beaches– she’d have had a ball.

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Key West pigeons:

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The spectacular sunsets from the southwest tip of the island looked like this every evening we were there:

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We left a little early for our dinner reservation, so we had time to stop at Blackfin Bistro again and have the charcuterie plate as an appetizer.  I had a glass of champagne to wash it down.

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We had dinner at this fantastic place called 915.  It’s an old home that’s been converted into a restaurant.  We sat outside and enjoyed the weather and ambience.

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Cati ponders what to eat as I have another cava.

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I look for a good wine by the glass.

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We were feeling a bit non-committal so we went with an assortment of appetizers.  We had a whole-leaf Caesar salad and bacon wrapped dates (stuffed with sweet garlic) with a soy, citrus, and green-onion dipping sauce.  They were both outstanding.

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Cati and I could not get over how good this simple caesar salad was.  The fresh-grated cheese and dressing were so good on the crisp romaine lettuce leaves– we were impressed how something so simple could be so good.

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Then I had the filet-mignon beef-carpaccio with baby arugula, shaved parmesano reggiano and black truffle oil.   Cati had the chipotle and orange braised pork- served in flour tortillas and accompanied with creme fraiche and avocado salsa.

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They were both beautifully presented and happily devoured.

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For dessert we split the frozen chocolate mousse with some decaf– it was very nice.  It was (cleverly?) called “Life by Chocolate.”  [har dee har]

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Ok, so we highly recommend 915 and Blackfin Bistro if you are looking for nice places to dine in Key West.  They were both really fantastic.

The following night however, we went to Grand Cafe, and it was among the worst dining experiences we’ve had in Key West and beyond.

We arrived on time for our reservation and we liked the the dining area and our table’s proximity to the busting Duval St.  Grand Cafe is directly across the street from a Hard Rock Cafe, so we could even listen to some decent tunes during breaks in conversation (some crappy ones too).  Our server was taking long breaks between visits to our table, and I actually wondered what was up with her since her other tables were looking for her too.  Cati ordered a smoked salmon plate and I again went with a carpaccio (I was hoping for something similar to what I had at 915 the night before).  My carpaccio was acceptable, if not a bit disappointing.  The carpaccio was no-frills, but not bad.  The reggiano was crumbled and not shaved– I thought that was a lame touch.

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Cati’s dish was a real let down.  The salmon was good, but the bread was brittle and stale.  Who wants to eat anything on bread that has the texture of a dried-out dish sponge?  We mentioned the bread to the server and she said, “That’s how our bread is tonight; can I bring you something else?”  Cati sent back the salmon and opted against any replacement.  The server really missed the opportunity to make things right; but we realized she was in way over her head and probably had no business doing this job.  So she continued to disappear for long stretches and failed to bring us requested refills.  Our only diversion was watching the other tables around us complain to the manager about how terribly their evenings were going. We weren’t particularly hungry or in a hurry, so we were pretty chill about the whole ordeal/debacle.

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We laugh about what a disaster this place is.

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Just as we were taking our napkins from our laps and preparing to cancel our orders and leave, our long-lost entrees arrived.  I ordered a veal chop, and Cati had a tomato and mozzarella appetizer.  I really liked mine, and Cati thought hers was no-frills and rather disappointing.  For me, my veal chop salvaged the night.

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The bill finally came, and the salmon was still on it.  We waited, and waited, and waited for our awful server to return so she could take the item off the bill as we requested the first time.  We called the manager over to let her know how poor the service was and how pitiful the bread that came with the salmon was.  We had a few pieces of the bread left on our table and I said look, “You can use these for packing peanuts.”  She expressed regret and apologized and you could see that she was not happy with the server.  I think the manager was called to almost every table in our section to apologize for the service.  I mentioned that it wasn’t just poor service but low-quality food that was no fault of the server.  I told her I’d pay for everything we hadn’t sent back and that her restaurant had made a terrible first impression.  We scaled the tip down accordingly and we won’t be back.

Breakfast the next morning at the hotel was very nice.

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We went on a sailing excursion that included snorkeling and kayaking– it ended at sunset with some spectacular views.  We went with Java Cat Charters and had a great time.  The boat was nice and small, but still plenty-roomy for the six of us that were on it (not counting the captain or fetus).

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I got to drive.

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Noticing that I was driving, Cati immediately started telling me where to go and to slow-down.  (I kid; she probably saw a dolphin).

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While we were kayaking, Cati spotted a conch ([whining voice] she always sees everything first).  The water was shallow enough for me to scoop it right off the bottom (they’re not exactly fast, y’know?).  The conch was still living in his shell.

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We got a picture of his ugly little mug, put him back, and carried on.  I had no idea they were so freaky looking in there.  Look at those beady little eyes.

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While kayaking, we chased down some near-by dolphins (now, they’re fast).  I didn’t get a good photo, but we got within about 20 feet of them.  We could hear them breathing when they came up for air– it was cool.

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We also spotted a nurse shark (no photo), a bald eagle, and a great blue heron.   See the eagle in the tree tops below?

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I take a moment to splash my kayak partner– accidentally, of course.

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Here’s the sunset as we paddled back to the boat.

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When 6 PM EST came around we ushered in the New Year (it was midnight in Spain).  Luckily there was a German couple on the excursion with us and they we more than happy to celebrate European New Year at 6PM EST with us.  We brought grapes and cava to celebrate Nochevieja Spanish-style.

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The DIY shot:

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Cati calls all her friends as we sail toward the moon (not our intended destination; we stopped when we got back to the marina– on Earth).

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After this, we went out to dinner at Pisces; and had our best meal yet!

Tune in next week month ahh, whenever I get to it.

*This fruit has the most-unfortunate English name of Soursop.  What a lovely ring, eh?

Xmas 2009

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

We went to my folks’ place in FL for Xmas 2009.  Much fun was had.  As we were miserable and waiting in line to check our bags from DTW to TPA, we caught a lucky break.  Apparently there is an entirely separate private check-in room for Big-3 bigwigs.  I guess, with all that holiday spirit being in the air, the ticket agent had pity on Cati and me so she escorted us to this secret room behind the frosted doors and there we were, our own private check-in counter and agent; it was great.  We didn’t ask why we got the special treatment; we just went with it. 

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I am noticing that food photos occupy far less memory on my camera’s memory card than do photos of Nina.  I pretty much take pictures of Nina now.  I’ll do my best not to bore you all with cliche family vacation photos (no promises). 

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Ok, this isn’t working, let’s change the subject.  My buddy LT and I cut down some sugar cane for my father’s cows.  We helped ourselves to a few pieces.  It was sweet and juicy, not much flavor; but sweet and juicy is fine. 

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On Xmas Eve we were all treated to some beautiful Ukrainian folk music.  Carolers serenaded us with the prettiest songs we had heard in a long time.  We all got a little misty-eyed at how touching the musinc was– it even resonated with the Spaniard and Norwegian who were there.    

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Pigs in zen:

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I tried a new food on this trip.  It’s called chayote.  I really liked it boiled and then seasoned with a bit of salt and olive oil.  It is light on flavor like a potato and watery/juicy like a zuchini.   

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We had a delicious meal together, thanks to my dear ol’ mom, on Xmas Eve.  Ham, empanadas, boiled yucca (w/ Cuban mojo), fried yucca (for the kids), and a nice greens salad were on the menu that night. 

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Much fun was had and much food was eaten by all.  You oughtta see Cati’s belly.  ;)