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“The Gulf” Adds Some Needed Juice to the Orange Beach, Alabama Dining Scene

12 Jan

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The structural design is striking, for sure. It is a beautiful space and it flows nicely with its surroundings. It is clear that a lot of thought has gone into the creation of The Gulf, an exciting new restaurant concept in sun-drenched Orange Beach, AL. The colors blend nicely. The logo (featuring Neptune’s trident) is hip and attractive. GM Johnny Fisher, a former baseball pitcher at the University of South Alabama, tells me the logo was designed by Big Communications in Birmingham, AL. They are the same folks who created the successful Alabama Gulf Seafood campaign. Sounds like they have a nice little niche going.  

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Fisher, who is obviously passionate about this exciting new venture, explained that this original concept was something of a Food Truck 2.0. Clever … and true. The enclosed kitchen structure is not large and the menu is short but sweet. All of the seating is outside — including the bar and the upstairs “balconies.” You can sit upstairs for the best panoramic views. Or you can sit on the wooden deck. Or on the grass — yes, real grass. It’s almost like a putting green. Or you can sit in a chair or comfy couch on the white sands of Perdido Pass. Talk about options! I really like the tiered approach for the outdoor “dining room.”

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OK, time to talk more about the menu board. Here it is (above). It gets tweaked from time to time, but the burger and grouper sandwich have become staples — and why not? Music by the 70′s R&B band WAR was spinning on the house turntable when I stepped up to place my order. Vinyl??? You bet. I heard Dave Mason, War,and Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass during my first visit. This feature scores major points with this longtime vinyl junkie and thrift shop denizen. Getting back to the food, the Gulf Burger is just $6 and made with Meyer Ranch (based in Colorado) Natural Angus Beef. None of the cheap stuff here. The Grouper sandwich is $12 and always fresh. Grab an order of fresh cut french fries ($4) as a side or take my lead and skip right ahead to dessert. More on that later.

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These cool T-shirts at The Gulf are moving fast

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My beach view as the food was being prepared

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Even the seats & indoor/outdoor carpeting are cool

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I’m pretty sure the open air bar will prove to be a smashing success

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The space heaters are here — if they are needed

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The Gulf Burger arrived looking all hot and tasty. It was. I was impressed with the attention to the little details. The brioche bun was soft and delicious. The tomato slices fresh and juicy. The lettuce is chopped fresh daily. The house aioli delivers a nice lemon, garlic tang. Even the kosher dill pickle was impressive. This was no sliver, people — this was one half of a big, fat dill. I take notice of this stuff, don’t you? All the food is served on brown paper trays, which only further reinforces The Gulf’s casual vibe and food truck mentality. Place your order at the window, grab a seat overlooking the water, dig the tunes, and prepare thyself for a solid meal. It is on the way, baby.

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The grilled brioche bun made the burger even more memorable

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As for the previously mentioned dessert, the Meyer Lemon Pound Cake (above) was sublime. It’s basically a lemon cupcake topped with a stunningly sweet, tart Meyer Lemon icing. Plenty of it too. You can even see the lemon zest in the generous blob of icing on each piece of citrusy cake. It was a sunny January day when I visited and the heat of the sun’s rays slowly melted my icing into a soft, warm consistency. My entire meal including the juicy, flavorful burger and tangy pound cake came in at under $10. Pretty hard to beat that. And the views were worth a million bucks — especially in the heart of the winter here along the Alabama Gulf Coast.

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Talk about your table with a view? Incredible!

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Cool day on the beach. Grab yourself a Hot Buttered Rum and chill.

Let me put a bow on this thing by saying that I am thrilled that The Gulf has arrived in our little nook of the world. This place is very hip, the people really care about the food, and the beach views and casual, sandy vibe are second to none. And did I tell you they spin vinyl??? Oh yeah, guess I did. Got any old, neglected vinyl laying around? Take it to Johnny — he’ll give it a good home. And speaking of home, I have found a new one at The Gulf. I’ll be a regular in the Summer months. And I’ll visit when I can in the chillier months too.  Can’t think of a better way to wash away the Winter blues — short of another trip to Hawaii.

Great job, Johnny Fisher and crew. We love your new place. Thank you for giving us this little piece of paradise. Like Neptune’s trident, The Gulf is quite sharp — and “on point” too! 

The Gulf  – 27500 Perdido Beach Boulevard, Orange Beach, AL

(251) 424-1800; http://www.facebook.com/#!/thegulfal?fref=ts 

Frank Sinatra’s “Best of Vegas” — I’m All In!

31 Jan

A new Sinatra release is always a cause for celebration. That is especially true when you’re talking about LIVE recordings. Better yet if the live material includes performances from the ’50s and ’60s (my favorite era of Frank’s stellar career). The first 9 tracks on this collection fall into that friendly territory. The initial 3 tunes (following the introduction) were recorded at The Sands in 1961 — ring a ding ding! Tracks 5-9 are even better, thanks to the participation of conductor Quincy Jones and the amazing Count Basie Orchestra.

The music swings throughout this 17-track live collection and boasts several 1980′s performances captured at Caesar’s Palace and the Golden Nugget. Nuggets found here include Pennies from Heaven and New York New York. Have the earmuffs ready as Old Blue Eyes employs some salty language during his sometimes lengthy and always engaging between song stage patter. Hey, Frankie had some great pipes … but he wasn’t exactly a choir boy.

In the span of a few years, Las Vegas refueled Frank Sinatra’s career and Sinatra in turn became the lead figure in the city’s ascendance. It was a synergistic relationship that has since become legendary in the annals of 20th century entertainment.

Some of the finest moments in that legendary symbiosis are captured in Frank Sinatra: Best of Vegas, a series of live recordings presented by Concord Records. The 14-song set, under license from Frank Sinatra Enterprises (FSE), captures Sinatra in concert at the Sands, Caesars Palace and the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas between 1961 and 1987. The collection is a distillation of highlights from Sinatra: Vegas, the five-disc boxed set (4 CD/1 DVD) of live recordings released by Reprise Records in 2006.

 

“From his debut at the Desert Inn in September 1951, no entertainer was ever more synonymous with the city of Las Vegas than Frank Sinatra,” says Charles Pignone, author of The Sinatra Treasures, in his comprehensive liner notes to the Best of Vegas CD. “It has been said that next to legalized gambling, nothing has been more beneficial and profitable to Las Vegas than Frank Sinatra.”

All the Sinatra classics are here, performed live before adoring crowds at some of the most prestigious venues in the history of Vegas. “The Lady Is a Tramp” (The Sands, 1961); “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (The Sands, 1966); “All or Nothing at All” (Caesars Palace, 1982); “Pennies From Heaven” (The Golden Nugget, 1987); and of course, the “Theme From New York, New York” (Caesars Palace, 1982) are just some of the gems in the Best of Vegas collection. 

“If you were in Las Vegas at the same time as Sinatra, there was nothing else that could compare,” says Pignone. “Even when the entertainment in town was changing from headliners to magic and production shows, Sinatra was still the ‘main event.’”

 

Or in the words of Las Vegas Mayor Oscar B. Goodman, Sinatra was “the destination’s most enduring icon, an inimitable original who was influential in shaping Las Vegas’ image and entertainment scene.”

Sinatra returned to Vegas in December with the opening of Sinatra Dance With Me, at the Wynn Las Vegas. Conceived, choreographed and directed by Twyla Tharp, Sinatra Dance With Me features original recorded masters of Frank Sinatra with a big band and 14 of the world’s finest dancers.

www.sinatrafamily.com

Lunch at Palm Beach’s legendary Ta-boo

31 Dec

The interior at Ta-boo has an Old Florida, monkey jungle kind of look. They are located in the heart of Worth Avenue, which is Palm Beach’s version of Rodeo Drive. Neiman Marcus, Cartier, Tiffany … they are all here. So you would expect the clientele at Ta-boo to be more than a little bit snobby. But that isn’t necessarily the case. Lots of tourists flock here to tap into the magical vibe created by folks like JFK, Frank Sinatra, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. They have all dined here. Further, the prices are not out of this world high — a pleasant surprise!

The Black Currant iced tea (above) is a good beverage choice to get your meal started. They will also bring you some good bread and butter. The menu is pretty extensive with lots of salads and fresh seafood choices. The Atlantic Ocean is just a few blocks to the east of Ta-boo’s front door.

I opted for the Pistachio Encrusted Salmon (seen above). My family was encouraging me to order a dish called the Crab Stack, but I locked in on the salmon dish. Guess I will have to try the Crab Stack (a mountain of freshly picked lump crab meat with accompanying sauces) when I visit again next year. I was very pleased with the choice I made. The salmon was cooked perfectly and the nutty pistachio crust was right down my alley.

Eileen really loved this shrimp and pasta entree (above). She remarked that it was not as heavy as many similar dishes she has ordered in other restaurants. The shrimp were plump and fresh and the sauce was olive oil & parmesan based rather than the typical goopy, white alfredo mixture.

A look at the interior dining area at Ta-b00.

The swanky bar at Ta-boo.

The entire meal for 2 with the icea teas ran about $40 dollars. That we could easily afford. The $600 woman’s sandals we spotted later at Neiman Marcus? Well, that’s a completely different story.

www.taboorestaurant.com

Drum Circle Rum Distillery Tour – Sarasota, FL

31 May

After doing a preliminary write-up a couple weeks back, I was finally able to visit Drum Circle Distilling in SW Florida to see exactly how they are hand-crafting Siesta Key Rum. Their sole operation is housed in a rather non-descript warehouse complex located just north of glamorous downtown Sarasota. But don’t be fooled, there is real magic happening inside these walls.  

Owners Troy Roberts (above) and Tom Clarke were hard at work when I arrived mid-morning last Wednesday. Both men grew up in the Siesta Key area. They not only run the place, they are also the only two employees of this exciting, fledgling enterprise. Troy has long been a connoisseur of fine rums and eventually decided he wanted to try making it — but only if it was world class stuff. No corners have been cut and, much like the old Orson Welles commercials, they will sell no rum before its time.   

If you’re gonna get in the rum business, you gotta be 1 part Jimmy Buffett and 1 part Enrico Fermi. No kidding. Just look at the product development workspace pictured above. I’m guessing that Troy and Tom are glad they paid attention during high school chemistry classes!

The early makings of clear Siesta Key Rum rumble away in the copper plated still seen above. It looks a bit like a giant deep sea diver’s helmet, doesn’t it?

Testing various versions in search of the perfect blend of rum.

I’m guessing this step ladder gets a lot of work.

The sparkling, metallic equipment at Drum Circle is all top notch and made by the Christian Carl Distilleries in Stuttgart, Germany (www.brewing-distilling.com). Sure, Germany is not exactly the epicenter of the world’s rum production, yet Troy explained that the Germans make some of the finest distilling machinery money can buy. Roberts mentioned that gin is perhaps the most common spirit distilled using Carl’s technology.

Competing products are frequently sampled to compare differing flavor profiles. Troy said they don’t ever want to become big like Bacardi, but they want to be consistently better than Bacardi and the other giants in the global marketplace. Based on our initial tasting, they are off to a fine start.

It’s all small batch at Drum Circle Distilling. The little oak barrels shown above are used for the aging of a soon-to-come Siesta Key Gold Rum. These barrels are quite expensive (about $250 each), which will likely mean a slightly higher price point when this product is at last ready for market. The clear rum currently sells for about $21 per bottle (a bargain), while the gold will probably fall in the reasonable $25-$28 per bottle price range. Siesta Key Rum is now offered by some 50 different liquor stores and restaurants in the greater Sarasota/Bradenton area. Slow, steady growth will insure that product quality remains high.   

Not a bad way to make a living, huh? Troy joked that they do most of their drinking before 5 o’clock around here, yet he hasn’t drawn a real pay check in about 3 years now. This is indeed a labor of love.

Is this a rum distillery or NASA?

Troy looks ready to climb aboard his “rocket ship.”

Tom shows how the small run bottling & labeling process is done.

A roll (above) of Drum Circle’s signature sand dollar labels, which are affixed at the top (over the cork) of each bottle of Siesta Key Rum. The corks (imported from Mexico) also have a very distinctive look to them.

This (above) is the “employee break room” at Drum Circle Distilling.  These guys are really livin’ the dream! We are tremendously impressed with the progress they have made and won’t be betting against them as they set out to first conquer Florida, and then the rest of the Southeast USA.

Troy and Tom were terrific hosts during my visit and graciously presented me with a bottle of rum, a Drum Circle Distilling T-shirt, and an oval  SK Rum bumper sticker as I headed back outside into the bright Florida sunshine. It wasn’t even lunch time and I was already thinking about which rum drink I was going to concoct when I arrived home at our beachside condo. It seems these guys were already rubbing off on me. RRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!!  

For a couple cocktail recipes, visit the Drum Circle web site at …

http://www.drumcircledistilling.com/recipes.html 

And for more info on Siesta Key’s Drum Circle tradition, please go to …

http://www.simplysiestakey.com/DrumCircle.html

Siesta Key Rum Gets Solid Early Reviews

19 May

As former resident of Siesta Key, seeing the little island mentioned in the media always brings a smile to my face and a sparkle to my eyes. Especially if it has anything to do with tropical libations and the key’s vibrant beach life. Can’t wait to give this rum a shot (pun intended) when we next visit SW Florida.

Here’s a recent piece that ran in the St. Petersburg Times …

SARASOTA — I’m standing at a table that appears to be half chemist’s bench and half impromptu bar. While holding a plastic thimble of clear liquid, I listen to the story of how molasses pressed from organically grown Florida sugarcane becomes that rare thing, a sippable white rum of character.

The man telling the tale is distiller Troy Roberts, lifelong rum aficionado and co-owner of Drum Circle Distilling, a distillery and producer of small-batch, hand-bottled rums. Siesta Key White Rum hit retailers’ shelves and bartenders’ arsenals — first on Siesta Key, of course — in March. The first batch of Siesta Key Golden Rum, Roberts says, needs a few more weeks in 10-gallon new American oak barrels before it is ready for market.

We sampled the young white rum from Batch 1 first. It was crystal clear and full flavored, aromatic on the nose and smooth but with just enough agreeable edge on the palate. It would be fine simply poured over ice, but it would make a mighty good mojito, too.

Next we barrel-sampled the aged rum, the golden, straight. The rambunctious youngster, weighing in at this stage of its life at an overmuscled 65 percent alcohol by volume, nearly lifted the top of my head off. Then Roberts cut a sample in half with water to approximate its polish when it has finished its time in the barrel, to yield a civilized 80 proof spirit. The golden rum, having borrowed some structural tannins and its color from the oak, is even smoother than the white and more complex. It compares favorably with my usual rum of choice, Mount Gay Barbados.

Everything about Drum Circle Distilling is small-scale and hands-on. Roberts and his father assembled the gleaming stainless steel mixing and fermentation tanks and the copper still and rectifying column. They scraped and painted the floors and walls of the industrial park warehouse-turned-distillery. They’re the ones who mop up after the messy business of loading the mixing tanks and transferring the sticky mix of molasses and water to the fermentation tanks, where Roberts’ own custom blend of two yeasts is introduced into the process prior to distilling. Likewise for moving the raw rum into aerating tanks and, for the golden, on into barrels. The bottles are filled, corked and labeled by hand and then the batch number is entered by hand on each label, which bears an evocative island illustration by Ringling College of Art & Design graduate Ron Borrensen.

The white rum retails for about $22 and the golden is expected to go for less than $25. For the growing list of merchants, bars and restaurants where you can buy the product of Roberts’ labor of love, check out drumcircledistilling.com.

John Bancroft is a freelance writer in Sarasota, specializing in food, wine and travel.

“The Kentucky Bourbon Cookbook”

15 May

Imagine my delight when I returned from a 4-day business trip to Kentucky and found this beautiful volume in my mailbox. The University of Kentucky Press has crafted a rather handsome piece of work. And who knew bourbon was such a versatile spirit?

The book begins, no big surprise here, with a thorough sampling of drink recipes. Highlights include The Presbyterian, The Seelbach, The Missouri Mule, and The Tropical Itch. You’ll even find a recipe for “George Washington’s Grog,” which combines bourbon, spices, butter and Madeira.

The plentiful food-oriented recipes are broken down seasonally – Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall.  Author Albert Schmid has gathered some real winners such as Chicken Kentuckiana, Rock Shrimp Jenkins (sounds like an old bluesman), Drunken Vidalias, Bourbon Steak Au Poivre, Applesauce Cake with Bourbon Frosting, and a sinful Kentucky Bourbon-Pecan Creme Brulee with Chocolate Sauce.  

The book’s colorful photography and thick, sturdy stock add to its overall sensory appeal. So let’s raise a glass of Woodford Reserve or Maker’s Mark and toast Mr. Schmid and our new friends at UK Press for a job well done. “Bourbon – it’s not just for cocktail hour anymore.”

Once considered merely the tipple of southern gentlemen or a nostalgic ingredient in a Mint Julep, bourbon has enjoyed a steady resurgence in popularity over the years with an ever-expanding and diverse audience. Distilled almost exclusively in Kentucky, bourbon has attained prominence and won recognition for its complexity, history, and tradition.

In The Kentucky Bourbon Cookbook, Albert Schmid provides readers with his best collection of recipes using the famous Bluegrass spirit. From classic Kentucky cocktails such as the Mint Julep, to bourbon-inspired desserts, such as Bourbon-Pecan Crème Brûlée with Chocolate Sauce, and more savory fare, such as Steaks with Bourbon Ginger Sauce, this book supplies recipes for every course. Schmid uses the seasons of the year to guide the reader through this rich collection of bourbon dishes and color photographs. In many ways a study on the flavor profiles that pair with and improve the flavor of bourbon, this book can be used by the home cook and professional chef alike. The Kentucky Bourbon Cookbook also recounts bourbon lore, food traditions, and Kentucky history.

Albert Schmid has worked as an executive chef and currently teaches at Sullivan University’s National Center for Hospitality Studies and is the author of The Hospitality Manager’s Guide to Wines, Beers, and Spirits.

http://www.kentuckypress.com

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