Over my birthday holiday weekend Trader Joe‘s (TJ’s) opened in Orlando. I’ve heard lot of people discuss it – you’d have to be crazy to head over there – and all that. Last Sunday, around noon, I asked Z if he wanted to go to Trader Joe’s with me. He politely declined. Since it is about a half hour door to door, I packed a cooler with ice in the trunk and headed over. It’s easy to find and only about five minutes from probably what amount to my three favorite restaurants in Orlando-Cask & Larder, Tibby’s and Four Rivers. So, going over there will likely be combined with the occasional dinner out and won’t be a ‘weekly’ type event. Driving up the street I could see the lineup of cars and decided to park about a half block away in the non-workday parking lot of the Civic Center. That served well as I would stay out of the fray and also be forced to limit myself to what I could carry by myself in the 90+ degree heat back to my car. I’ve only been in one other TJ’s during opening weekend so I have only that to judge by. This store was busy but not as busy as the Sarasota store opening weekend and the wine section was about 1/3 the size. You can judge that however you like.
I eased my cart inside braving the mixed crowd of Winter Park locals, Orlando hippies (I’ve never seen much of them before -maybe they are college kids from UCF and I’m just getting old?), regular old hipsters and me. I navigated through the dry goods aisles picking up na’an, pretzel loaves, and coffee and then the outer edges for cheeses, meats and prepared stuff like Wine Country Chicken Salad before hitting the center aisle that is what I’ve never shopped before on longer drives to the Sarasota store-the frozen stuff. Many people want to compare TJ’s to something. It isn’t like anyplace that you regularly shop–except just maybe slightly like Aldi. I only say that for the chaos and sort of self defined mayhem in the stores. That and they mostly sell private labelled products. At TJ’s though, they tend to be organic and internationally and otherwise ‘inspired’ type stuff. People who shop there seem to have their favorite items that they just don’t want to live without. Ours have always tended to be things I would best classify as snack foods – pita crackers & pub cheese, halloumi cheese, sea salt caramels, powerberries – with a few staples thrown in for the relatively modest prices on organic products – olive oil, thai chile & lime cashews, spicy pecans and coffee beans. I made this first local trip about trying new things and items that we could actually make for dinner. I tried a handful of new items out of the freezer sections like shredded vegetable nests (B+), poutine with cheese curds gravy (B) and spinach with paneer (don’t ask). I tried some new chicken sausages with Korean spices and bought a handful of different cheeses. All in all it was what I expected. The customers were actually quite a bit more polite than my expectations called for and I can see that there is a demand for it which gives me some hope for my developing neighborhood (WAY) across town.
Z and I were out to dinner the other night (Tibby’s to celebrate the 4th of July/Hurricane Arthur departure weekend) and decided to make a quick stop in. It wasn’t as busy the second go round and I was floored to see many absolutely empty shelves and coolers. Looks like they had a little trouble keeping up with this fierce new demand they have created. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens. I was also excited to see a drop in under the TJ’s sign in the lot. Shake Shack is coming too. That’s another story.
Do you regularly eat at a restaurant with a secret menu? I mean, everyone knows you can get a butterbeer latte at Starbucks and a double double animal style at In and Out, right? I bet when it comes down to it every restaurant has an item(s) that were on the menu once or dreamed up on a slow day by an enterprising team member that has now gained a (cult) following. We had plans to head out for my birthday dinner a few weeks before the ‘big’ day. A couple of days before that event I got an email from The Ravenous Pig. It said, we have a secret menu for three days a week this summer-from Tuesday to Thursday with 48 hours notice you too can get the super secret Summer Bistro menu. I figured why not and booked a table there. So, now, in a grand tradition, I have begun to stretch out my celebrations of yet another birthday to multiple days and events. We went to the restaurant expecting only a 48 hour preparation of short ribs. I mean, honestly. We were quickly seated at a nice window table where we had a view of the room and the rain slatting down outside.
A gin & jam was quickly deposited for me that had a fresh preparation of nectarine jam & basil. It was so fresh and clean tasting. Not a bit too sweet and just right. They brought a slip of paper folded up with a pig stamped on the front that had the ‘secret’ menu on the insides. A frisee salad-briny with salt and lard. I’m sure there was no dressing at all-just this briny weedy salad with a swirl of pomegranate vinaigrette, huge lardons of bacon and pistachio nuts folded into the mound. It was confusingly delicious. If I could duplicate that secret I would. It was followed up by the entree. A small slab of perfectly glazed short rib perched on a swooshy mousselline potatoes, trumpet mushrooms (kinda chewy) and lightly sweet bright onion marmalade. I’m not sure marmalade shouldn’t be reserved for citrus but it was sweet against the rich potatoes and beef. The finish was a nectarine-blueberry crisp which felt too rustic against the refined meal but tasted homey with it’s small scoop of toffee ice cream. I was actually happier with the tiny shortbread cookies filled with dulce de leche that they finished our meal with and could have been perfectly happy with just that. So, it was all a ‘secret’ – only available to those who knew to ask in advance. Do I feel better for it? I’m not sure. That’s why I’m sharing it with you. The secret menu isn’t posted anyplace and costs about $36 per person. Give them a call and I’m sure they’ll oblige you. What about you? Do you know of a secret at a restaurant that is just begging to be shared?
About a month ago I ordered tickets to an event presented by Art House Orlando to hear the founder of Wondermade Marshmallows speak about the origination behind the amazing bites that are Wondermade marshmallows. I have purchased the marshmallows before in several incarnations – strawberry for my sister, bourbon, Guinness, and peppermint for Z on various occasions. Last time I ordered I realized they were actually a local product which was fun to know. A couple days before the event I got an email stating that the event had been moved from the downtown venue to the founders house. What?! Weird. That prompted me to google for information. Somewhat comforted by the fact that he is the digital/online pastor of Northland Church I decided that the event was either seriously undersubscribed or that they were going to kill us. Since I work with the fiance of Art House’s marketing person I decided to throw my normal caution to the wind and just do it. Nevermind he lives at least 20 miles north on the toll road.
We rolled up to a giant old house with a cute kids easel out front telling us we made it to the right spot. We were welcomed inside to cold bottles of Lineage Roasters cold brewed coffees and the promise of toasted marshmallows. These events are conceived as a way to get to know a different, maybe artistic or slightly hipster kind of audience in a way that isn’t a bar scene. They are billed as creative gatherings and I’m not sure they don’t harken back to the old fashion concept of a salon. You hear creative ideas and mingle with the type of crowd that is interested in said ideas. It was an interesting time and fascinating to hear about the extreme care that Nathan put into the conception of these treats. He is thoughtful it seems on everything from the type of sugar to the color of his pants (always red—I caught them in the photo above!) Everything from ingredients to packaging is carefully chosen and considered. After he wrapped us his talk we stood around chatting while we skewered and tasted marshmallows – berry, pina colada, bourbon, s’more, and orangesicle. We love the bourbon but I also really liked the orangesicle. We picked up a box of mojito and bourbon to bring home and sampled them over the next week or so. I think there are even a couple of bourbons left. If you want to share a sweet bite with someone you care about these would be an excellent choice.
So, I haven’t blogged for over a month. Variously I went to Houston for a conference–dined at the Coop (!)–went to Sarasota for Easter weekend–took a week of vacation and went on a cruise. As for blogging? Not so much. I’d say I’m behind but I’m not. I just haven’t blogged. No. Big. Thing. It’s not like anyone pays me for this stuff. Anyway, the Coop. It’s John Rivers new ode to Southern food. His other restaurant is a stand in line brisket joint called 4Rivers (4R) that I have blogged about a handful of times for everything from buying a brisket for Thanksgiving to cooking out of his cookbook. This is kind the same deal but a smidgen fancier and a different foodway. And when I say fancier–they still hand your food to you on a tray but first they put it on a plate. The cost is between say $8 and $12 for an ‘I’m too full’ meal. The decor at 4R is distinctly Texas with cowheads and big ole stars and such. Here the vibe is more country kitchen with whitewashed walls and mismatched tables and chairs. You still stand in line and in truth, the menu choices a little overwhelming. The menu is Southern in scope and has some depth-everything from fried chicken to pimiento cheese to hand pies and fried green tomatoes. Pretty much all things I want to eat. All. the. time. We went on a drizzly Saturday morning with some friends from work, Dustin & Jonathan. They beat us there and, full disclosure, totally let us cut in line. We still had lots of time to peruse the menu and by the time we reached the front we had all conferred what we would order so that we could maximize trying as many items as possible. For starters we tried the pimiento cheese and baguettes, hush puppies and fried green tomatoes. Best bet there is the fried green tomatoes. Vegetal, tart and fried-delish. I ordered a Fried Green Tomato BLT for my entree. Fried green tomatoes, bacon, pimiento cheese on buttered Texas toast… It got messed up somehow and ended up being delivered by none other than John Rivers. It might have taken a while but it was so delicious I’m not sure I can fault anyone. When he came with my sandwich we gave him some feedback about the portion size on the shrimp & grits (Dustin’s meal) and as it turns out he agreed and brought us a little more! Thanks John! Z had the fried chicken and mashed potatoes and Jonathan had the chicken and waffles. Probably for our future dollar the win goes to the chicken and waffles and my super scrumptious sandwich. Crunchy, full of flavor and easy to eat. I tried a mini pecan pie for dessert and Z picked up a deep fried hand pie which he ate later on in the day after wearing off some of our giant lunch shopping. It was caramel apple and seriously delicious, maybe the best bite of the day.
So, I’m not a restaurant critic. Like I said earlier, no one is paying me for my random thoughts. We eat where we want to go and love to try new things and sometimes Z tries things I’m positive he will hate. And to be honest I wasn’t sure if I loved the Coop. I liked it but I wasn’t sure that it would have the lure on me that 4R has. I wasn’t sure that I would crave it like I crave that long smoked brisket with spicy BBQ sauce. I wasn’t sure if the menu wasn’t just a bit …much. But, I sure wish I had that Fried Green Tomato BLT right now. So, the Coop for the win.
***totally forgot to take a picture …of my own food. blogger fail. 🙂