USA


We didn’t have much free time in Orlando but on the one free day that we had, we bought tickets to Universal Studios Islands of Adventure mainly to see The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We were there as soon as it opened and we and a sea of excited Potter fans raced over to that section of the theme park to avoid the queues. That approach paid off as we were able explore Hogwarts to our hearts’ content that morning and ride all the rides (I, the scaredy cat, skipped the Dragon Challenge!) on a relatively empty stomach.

Hogwarts

Hogsmeade was recreated beautifully but it did feel a bit odd to experience a snow covered town when it was hot and sunny out.

Hogsmeade

We didn’t eat at the Three Broomsticks (we lunched in Mythos at The Lost Continent instead) but we had to sample butterbeer, of course, purchased at one of the street carts. We both opted for the collector’s stein; mine now sits on my desk at work.

Butterbeer

I was quite surprised to see that the frothy topping of the butterbeer was dispensed separately to the main body of the drink. My first taste was just of that topping and it tasted like a very sweet vanilla ice cream. That creamy topping combined with the fizzy drink produced masses of froth, similar to that on ice cream floats. The soda itself wasn’t very sweet, balancing that of the froth. Altogether it tasted a bit like cream soda crossed with butterscoth; I loved it.

ETA: I didn’t make it clear but this butterbeer is a non-alcoholic beverage.

We actually flew back to a real snowy London that night, a bit of a shock after sunny Florida. It was a very short trip to Orlando but overall a pleasant one. All my Orlando photos can be seen in this Flickr photoset.

It turned out that my conference in Orlando earlier this month wasn’t actually in Orlando proper but about a half hour drive away from downtown in Buena Vista, close to many of the theme parks. There wasn’t much around our hotel and everything close to the conference hotel (a resort) was overpriced and mediocre. We had to take taxis to get anywhere decent.

We struck out the first night at a restaurant close to the hotel, Landry’s Seafood, where portions were overly generous and most of the seafood came with superfluous toppings consisting of butter, cream, and more seafood.

My “starter” of crispy onion strings and jalapeños came out looking ridiculously bigger than pictured on the menu. My colleague (R) and I struggled to finish even a quarter of that pile.

Crispy Onion Strings and Jalapeños

My combination plate of fish (topped with a cream sauce, fried mushrooms and crab meat), devilled crab (a crab shell filled with a generic crab mixture) and shrimp 3-ways (grilled, fried in garlic butter on toast and um…. wrapped in that generic crab micture) was insane. While everything was certainly fresh, it was all very over the top and at the same time, all very dull. I can’t say I was terribly surprised though – it was very clearly one of those quantity over quality places one tends to find in this kind of vacation area.

Broiled Seafood Platter

Landry’s Seafood
8800 Vineland Ave.
Orlando, FL 32821
USA

Landry's Seafood House on Urbanspoon

We did much better the second night. I’ve been a big fan of Cuban food since I first tried it in Miami a number of years ago and I was glad to find a Cuban restaurant, Havana’s Cafe, not too far from our hotel (not too far means not too expensive in a taxi – walking around here was near impossible). It’s a plain little place, no frills, but we didn’t mind. We skipped starters and went directly to mains. R’s Camaguey was a mixed grill of skirt steak, spiced chicken and pork chunks, all served with white rice, black beans and maduros (fried sweet plantains).

Camaguey

My Montuno Havanero was a combination of fried pork chunks, congri (rice and beans), maduros, cassava and a Cuban tamale. It was all so so delicious and loathe as I am to use this adjective, it was all good honest cooking. Service too was very friendly.

Montuno Havanero

We actually had a bit of room for a dessert and R and I split a tres leches cake – three milks. Wow – this sponge cake was just amazing, all thoroughly soaked in a creamy caramel sauce that was indeed made of three types of milk (Wikipedia says evaporated milk, condensed milk and heavy cream). It tasted like the caramel of a flan but with the creaminess of the milk and the texture of wet cake – that description doesn’t sound great but it was wonderful.

Tres Leches

Havana’s Cafe
8544 Palm Parkway
Orlando, FL 32836
USA

Havana's Cuban Cuisine on Urbanspoon

We had no idea where to go the third night and with instructions to find a seafood restaurant, we started asking the locals at our conference. We went with the advice of our sports-loving security guard (ok, she wasn’t our security guard but we loved chatting with her. She taught me about pickleball.) who suggested her favourite restaurant in Orlando – Sunset Sam’s at the Gaylord Palms. The Gaylord Palms?! Turns out it’s yet another resort hotel but possibly the most fancy pants resort hotel in the area. The centre of the resort, bordered by the hotel buildings, is covered in a big glass dome and within that dome are three separate regions mimicking those in Florida. In the “Everglades” were a few reptile tanks; at the Gator Pond, yup, alligators!

Gator!

Sunset Sam’s was located at the far end of the dome where there was a huge pond with giant fish. Sam’s was on a ship! We dined on that ship.

Sunset Sam's

My colleagues started with mussels (disappointing) and a prawn cocktail (spicier than expected but good). I think I had the winner with tempura oysters with a mango basil salsa. The tempura batter was a little thicker than it should have been but the dish was still quite tasty.

Tempura Oysters

For mains, my jumbo lump crab cakes with spinach and arugula salad, guava mustard vinaigrette and tropical fruit relish was actually quite delicious though visually intimidating. Luckily, that giant pile was all just leaves.

Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes

Our dessert of a key lime tart (split three ways) wasn’t very good though. Overall, the experience was all a bit kitsch but it was a bit of fun. The food may not have been the best we had on the trip but it was still miles above that from Landry’s Seafood.

Sunset Sam’s
Gaylord Palms
6000 W Osceola Parkway
Kissimmee, FL 34746
USA

Sunset Sam's Fish Camp on Urbanspoon

For our final night in Orlando (well, Buena Vista), we pushed the boat out and went to Charley’s Steakhouse, a well respected steakhouse chain in Florida. Well, R had already been his first night in Orlando and had been hoping to return again and I sure didn’t mind a steak. Off we went.

Just in case you didn’t know what they served, there was a display of almost everything available right at the entrance. Those cakes were life-sized. And can you see the lobster tails on the bottom left? They were ginormous.

The Visual Menu

There were printed menus, of course, but the weights of all the steaks were in ounces and I had no idea how to picture an ounce. Not to worry, to help you order, the waiters come around with a tray of each of the raw steaks and a flashlight to help with the presentation. I skipped the first course (my colleagues did not) and went for the 24oz (680g) bone-in USDA Prime Porter House steak, grilled on an open pit. The waiter kindly served me my side salad alongside my colleague’s starters.

My steak was pretty hefty with a generous portion of melt-in-the-mouth fillet steak on one side of the T-bone and a flavourful strip steak on the other. Despite its size, it went down surprisingly easily.

My 24oz Porterhouse Steak

No need for menus again after as the waiter came around again, this time with a tray of each of their desserts. I filled the leftover space in my stomach with a shared slice of Turtle cheesecake (caramel, chocolate and nuts); their cheesecakes were all a manageable size, unlike their humongous layer cakes. It was excellent, just as you imagine a calorific slice of fatty, cheesy goodness to be.

Turtle Cheesecake

Charley’s Steakhouse
8255 International Drive
Orlando, FL 32819
USA

Charley's Steak House on Urbanspoon

What a mixed bag it all was. It felt all too easy to eat badly in Buena Vista but with a bit of looking and asking, one can do alright. I think we did.

Alright, this is the final post on New York! To sum up the trip, I had a fabulous time and ate like a queen, even when eating cheaply!

One afternoon, before a solo trip to the Met, I stopped in at Gray’s Papaya and ordered their Recession Special ($3.50): two hotdogs, one with sauerkraut, one with onions, and a papaya drink. Yummy! I do love a good hot dog and these beefy ones really hit the spot that day. The papaya drink was only so-so but that’s probably just me (I recently also tried some papaya juice and I didn’t like it. I prefer to just eat the fruit.).

Gray's Papaya Hot Dogs

Another morning, we headed for East Houston and ended up at Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery. As a first-time knish eater, the man there recommended a spinach knish ($3.00) and heated one up for me (Mirna had the same). He handed over our knishes in small white paper bags – it must have weighed at least half a pound and was the size of both of my fists combined!

A Spinach Knish

For other knish newbies, a knish is a ball of seasoned mashed potatoes wrapped in a layer of pastry and baked. It’s heavy and starchy and carby and delicious, especially with lots of mustard!

Later that same day, we were in Chinatown and I searched for one of the cheap dumpling joints I’d heard so much about. We found Tasty Dumpling where 5 pork and chive dumplings can be had for only $1.25. I poured on some black vinegar and some spicy chili vinegar and then took them, along with a bottle of fresh soya bean milk, to the park opposite, where lots of Chinese men play chess!

Pork and Chive Dumplings

Dumpling Innards

The skins may have been a little thick but they were pleasantly chewy and the filling was tasty. Cheap dumplings can’t be beat!

The last notable eat was General Tso’s Chicken eaten at a cheap Chinese restaurant connected to our hotel. It was a combination plate with pork fried rice and an egg roll all for under $7.

General Tso's Chicken

Gosh, have you ever seen fried rice that’s that yellow?! The accompanying rice and egg roll were nothing to shout about but General Tso, what lovely chicken you make! Deep fried battered chicken tossed in a sweet and sour and spicy sauce – delicious and oh so not good for us! General Tso’s chicken is available at just about any Chinese restaurant in the States so I won’t provide the address of this one!

I had such fun in New York – I’m definitely going to plan a trip back in the future! To see all my New York photos (including the non-food ones!), c’mon over to my New York Flickr photoset.

Gray’s Papaya
402 Sixth Avenue at 8th Street
New York, NY
(there are two other locations)

Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery
137 East Houston Street
Between 1st & 2nd The Lower East Side
New York, NY

Tasty Dumpling
54 Mulberry St
New York, NY

After wandering through Chinatown in New York one day, we suddenly were at a loss for what to do next. We could have gone to a museum, we could have wandered the streets more (but the clouds were foreboding), we could even have sat down somewhere and eaten somemore. And well, we kind of did do that last thing, only we hopped on a train to Brooklyn to try Di Fara’s pizza!

This was one foodie trip that I was really really really excited about as Di Fara’s is considered one of the best places to get New York pizza. Going all the way to Brooklyn was a little intimidating to me – I’d so far only stayed on Manhattan and all those subway lines leading off the edge of the map were surely a sign that we were heading off to the end of the world. But actually, it’s really easy to get there. For Di Fara’s, take the Q line to Avenue J, exit the station, turn left and walk up the road about 1-2 blocks. Not so hard.

The place is really really tiny, much smaller than I expected. There’s a counter where you place your order and where a few people choose to eat their slices, and 4 or 5 small tables. There are two menus, one for pizza slices and whole pizzas posted on the left hand side and the other for hot sandwiches and pasta dishes posted on the right. Everyone we saw there went straight for the pizza, either eating slices there or ordering whole pizzas for takeaway or sharing a whole pie there with friends. They make two kinds of pizzas – a New York-style round or a Sicilian-style square. Regardless of style, it’s $4 a slice or $5 with a topping. We each had a slice of the round first. I think this is their more famous pizza?

Round Slice

We had to wait for a fresh pizza to come out of the oven first. We watched as Domenico DeMarco (from the cuttings on the wall and a quick calculation, he’s at least 70 years old this year) spread the dough, spread the tomato sauce, grate the cheese on (a harder mozzerella, not fresh balls), and then slide it into one of the ovens. When it comes out, it goes straight onto a round pan where he examines it, throws on a handful or two of grated parmesan (or is it grana padano?), takes a huge bunch of basil in one hand and snips the fragrant leaf all over the freshly baked pie. Sliced into eight and then handed out.

This was amazing. This was some damn fine pizza. (Nope, haven’t been to Naples yet…I’ll let the situation calm down over there first before visiting.) The crust was thin but with some body to it. The edges of the crust had bubbled and were crisp. The sauce tasted wonderfully fresh and the olive oil (extra virgin, Filippo Berio) was delicious. The two cheeses could be tasted individually and blended beautifully. Oh, this was a wonderful slice. And oh, we walked out of there very happy!

We walked around the neighbourhood a bit but didn’t get very far as it started raining. We killed some time in a nearby nail parlour (it was torrential rain alright? We had to go somewhere quick!) and upon discovering that we had empty stomachs again, then wandered back to Di Fara’s for another slice. This time, a square slice; I mean, we had to sample all they had to offer, all in the name of science, no?

Square Slice

Again we had to wait for a fresh pizza to come out of the oven. This is a twice (perhaps thrice) baked pizza: first the dough is placed in the tray, baked once, olive oil is spread under the base, and then the sauce and fresh mozzarella are placed on top and the whole thing baked again. When it comes out of the oven, the tomato sauce and mozzarella have melted together and form something like molten lava threatening to spill out of the top of the pan if tipped a little too much. Again, there’s the extra parmesan on top and fresh basil snipped over and the whole thing is cut up and our slices are handed over to us.

This was impossible to tackle with our hands and so plastic forks and knives were employed. The base is much thicker and in some places, crunchy all the way through. Part of my slice was a bit burned (top of the photo) and the lava-like mixture tended to slip off the pizza but it still was a terrific slice. However, I still prefer the round slice.

For a real feel of what it’s like at the tiny joint, check out this video from Slice entitled “Sunday at Di Fara”.

Highly recommended! Go go go!

Di Fara Pizza
1424 Ave. J
Brooklyn, NY

DiFara Pizza on Urbanspoon

From a recommendation from a reader (hi newmi!), we ventured out to Madison Square Park (only a few blocks from our second hotel) one night to eat at the Shake Shack. It was already past 9pm and so we thought we’d we able to eat quite soon but what greeted us was a long line, snaking it’s way down the path and around all the tables! And the line stayed that long by the time we got to the head of the queue, about 45 minutes later.

Shake Shack

I ordered a Shackburger, French fries, and a regular Arnold Palmer to drink (half lemonade and half iced tea). I was given a pager and I went to find a place to sit. My pager buzzed about 10 minutes later and I went up to collect my box of food.

My Dinner

Mirna’s pager took a lot longer to buzz and then she took even longer to pick up her food. It turned out that they had just forgotten to set off her pager and so her food had been sitting there getting cold. They proceeded to cook her another burger (also a Shackburger) but her cheese fries were already soggy and beyond redemption. Well, we ended up splitting the first lukewarm burger, pushing us into very full territory and without any stomach space to try their famous frozen custard.

The first thing that came to my mind when I took a look at my burger was butter! The burger reeked of butter – it’s a butterburger, not a Shackburger. But the burger itself? It was very good, definitely not the best I’ve eaten, but not to be sniffed at. The fries were crisp and crinkle cut and were most likely from frozen. I have nothing against that – they were nice fries. The cheese fries were topped with an extremely rich cheese sauce (their menu says its a mixture of cheddar and American cheese) and would have been nicer had they been hotter and the fries crisper. If/when I’m next in New York, I’m going to try their frozen custard!

You know, I thought sitting in the park would be great, all fresh air and bbq party atmosphere. What I’d forgotten about were the um… critters. We sat at a table with some plants and midway through our meal, we saw and heard something rustling underneath all the foliage. A mouse emerged and shot between my legs (yes, I’m not too proud to admit that I squealed like a girl) and then proceeded to make a tour under all the other tables. Eeks!

Shake Shack
Madison Square Park, SE corner
enter at Madison Ave and 23rd St.
New York, NY

Shake Shack on Urbanspoon

Thanks to a recommendation from Don, we headed to Sushi Yasuda for lunch one day. Reviews online seem to indicate that it’s quite difficult to get a reservation there but I managed to book a place for two at the counter for lunch on a Thursday only a week beforehand. I chose for us to sit at the sushi counter – and I highly recommend the same for you if you visit! We were the second group there for lunch and were seated in front of the first sushi chef of a row of them.

We chose to go with the sushi pre fixe menu ($22.50), which came with a soup or salad to start. This would give us five pieces of nigiri sushi and two maki sushi rolls all from a particular list. Each menu item had its own list. There is also the option to order by the piece or even to have an omakase meal, but we wished to walk out of there with our wallets intact. When we had made our selections (ticking off boxes on a little piece of paper), our counter space was set as such:

The Setup at the Sushi Counter

That leaf is a Hawaiian ti leaf and is where our sushi would be placed by the chef in front of us.

My lunch came with either a soup or salad and I chose the latter. What arrived was this small bowl of greens, beans and tomatoes with crispy, dried baby jako sardine. If you’re familiar with Malaysian food, you’ll know what I mean when I say they’re like smaller fried ikan bilis!

Salad

My five pieces of nigiri were the following: Spanish mackerel, freshwater eel, striped bass, egg custard, egg. I was very curious about the egg versus egg custard and the chef brought both out for me to see, explaining that while the egg custard is common in Japan, it’s less common outside it, and that Japanese people above a certain age tend to be very very picky about their egg sushi and then he suggested that I try both. So I ticked them both off on my sheet.

I was trying not to take photos and instead just sit back and enjoy but I couldn’t help it when such beautiful pieces were placed before me! This was my egg nigiri (huge and so the chef sliced it into two for me) and the freshwater eel. No other photos of the nigiri but a little soy sauce is already painted onto each perfectly sized piece and so it’s all ready to pop into your mouth.

Egg and Eel Nigiri Sushi

This was the best sushi I’ve ever had (ok, so I haven’t travelled to Japan yet). Honestly, the rice was the best part, still warm and so well seasoned. The fish was extremely fresh and the eel soft and flavourful. And the two eggs? The egg custard had been cooked with fish stock and other various ingredients and was smooth and almost creamy and utterly delicious and the egg was, apart from being a massive slab, slightly sweet omelette and was delightful upon the rice.

For my maki rolls, I chose tuna and salmon skin. When these were being made, the chef’s knife slicing them into pieces made wonderful crunching sounds thanks to the amazingly crisp nori.

Maki Sushi

The nori did turn out to be incredibly crisp and a wonderful contrast to the rice inside. The tuna was a white tuna and again was soft and fresh and the salmon skin was freshly fried and also quite crisp and salty. Delicious with a little dab of their homemade soy sauce.

While we were eating our sushi, our chef would chat with us and give us information about the sushi we were eating as well as about other pieces that were being made for the people around us. This was in stark contrast to the other sushi chefs who seemed to be the strong silent types made sushi for their customers at the counter but also for those seated at the tables. After his talking about it, we were seduced by a large box of sea urchin roe that was brought out for uni nigiri for a woman next to us. And so, to end our lunch, we each chose a piece of uni nigiri ($5) from the a la carte menu. It was topped with large flakes of sea salt and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Again, fresh and salty and its texture was silky and sigh… it was a good ending.

Oh, and our sushi chef? He turned out to be Chef Yasuda himself.

The Man Himself

Sushi Yasuda
204 E. 43rd Street
New York, NY

Sushi Yasuda on Urbanspoon

To celebrate our last day of work in New York, Mirna and I took ourselves to Babbo, a Mario Batali restaurant just off Washington Square Park. It was on my list of places to eat in New York and as we’d only managed to secure a reservation for 22:45 the following day on Thursday (their phone lines are insane), we tried to drop in that day, on Wednesday, much earlier. No problem! If you’re happy to wait by the bar with a drink in hand and delicious little olives and crispy parmesan-covered grissini to nibble on, a table can be secured for you. We were told an hour’s wait but we were seated in about half that time.

We already knew ahead of time that we wanted one of the tasting menus but which one – pasta or traditional – would depend on the mood that day. The mood was pasta. A little card with the pasta tasting menu printed on it was brought to our table so that we could keep track of what we were eating (and drinking, if we had ordered the wine pairings).

We started with the Black Tagliatelle with Charred Corn and Castelmagno. Tossed along with the pasta were chives, giving a lovely oniony greenness to the carby, cheesy mixture. And the corn! I never would have thought of incorporating corn into a pasta sauce but the toasted sweet corn was delicious with the pasta. The pasta was fresh and perfectly al dente (I’d expect it to be!) but didn’t have much squid ink flavour. I licked this plate clean.

Black Tagliatelle with Charred Corn and Castelmagno

Along with this first course, we were served this chickpea bruschetta, their now quite well known amuse that they serve to everyone there. I wish we had been served it before our first course rather than having it unceremoniously dumped inbetween our plates. The chickpeas were tender (though not as creamy as the ones I love in Spain) and tossed with an tapenade/olive oil/balsamic vinegar mixture. Tasty enough.

Chickpea Bruschetta

I have to admit, I became a little apprehensive when that first plate of tagliatelle was set before me. It was a very large serving of pasta for a supposed tasting menu. Luckily, the sizes of the following dishes were much more manageable.

The second plate was “Casunzei” with Poppy Seeds. (Why the quotes?) These were ravioli stuffed with roasted beets and potato. According to an Italian colleague, they’re from the north of Italy and are not very well known even in the rest of the country. But they should be – they’re delicious! I expected more poppy seeds on top but this was a fine amount; they gave just a hint of flavour on top of the creamy filling and tender pasta.

"Casunzei" with Poppy Seeds

Next was Garganelli with “Funghi Trifolati”. (Again those quotes! Why?) The waiter came over with some goat’s cheese and while grating it over our pasta, we were told, “The chef recommends ____ cheese.” Shame I didn’t catch the name of it – it was quite noisy in the restaurant. The internet tells me that trifolati is a method of stewing involving olive oil, garlic and parsley – a most excellent way of cooking mushrooms. The mushroom and garlic flavour infused every bite of the dish – gorgeous.

Garganelli with "Funghi Trifolati"

Then came Domingo’s Pyramids with “Passato di Pomodoro” with a grating of the recommended pecorino romano on top. Inside was shredded braised beef. This was good but to me, the least impressive of the dishes. Perhaps the novelty of the first few pastas overshadowed this one.

Domingo's Pyramids with "Passato di Pomodoro"

So, who is or was Domingo?

The final pasta course was Pappardelle Bolognese. The chef recommended parmigiano reggiano for this one. This was extremely filling, with the sauce to pasta ratio highest of all the pasta dishes, so we were eating meat and pasta, not pasta with meat. It was a very classic Bolognese and the perfect pappardelle went superbly with it. (I was rather pleased that my own bolognese tastes rather like Babbo’s!) A great final pasta dish.

Pappardelle Bolognese

Time for the cheese course. These were “Frittele di Caprino” with Warm Honey. These goat’s cheese fritters were hot and creamy and flecked with what I believe was mint and crunchy on the outside. They were incredibly moreish and I ate mine slowly, wiping up the honey, to make them last longer. Two little fritters are not enough!

"Frittele di Caprino" with Warm Honey

Inside a Fritter

Our first dessert was a Milk Chocolate Panna Cotta with Licorice. This little thimbleful of rich, cold creaminess (heavier than a typical panna cotta) was very chocolatey but I could not taste any licorice. On a side note, I was shocked that in the time I took to eat my little panna cotta, the man sitting next to me managed to wolf down an entire double thickness pork chop.

Milk Chocolate Panna Cotta with Licorice

Finally, while Mirna was served this Citrus Polenta Cake with Olive Oil Gelato,

Citrus Polenta Cake with Olive Oil Gelato

I was presented with this Peach Crostata with Amaretto Gelato. It seems to be the norm at the restaurant to give each diner a different final dessert, though only the first was listed on the printed menu. We shared them both.

Peach Crostata with Amaretto Gelato

The first dessert I was keen to try as it had that olive oil gelato I’d heard so much about; however, I found that there wasn’t much olive oil flavour to the gelato and that most of it came from the olive oil drizzle on the plate. Perhaps the cold dampened the flavours? The citrus polenta cake was served on a slice of candied lemon but I wasn’t fond of the cake. Actually, we left it half eaten as the polenta gave it too much of a graininess that made it very dry in the mouth.

The second dessert was just perfect and was a warm peach tart with a crumble topping. I loved just placing my face over the plate and inhaling deeply as the scent of peach tart and lavender and rosemary wafted up to greet me. The two herbs were used as a garnish, crushed lightly before being scattered over the plate.

It was $69 for these eight courses and trust me, you’re not going to find a tasting menu in London at that price; actually, that’s the average price for a meal for many people eating out in this nation’s capital. Overall, while Babbo is not the most inventive of restaurants, the pastas were delicious and I was very happy to have tried it. We left full (but not uncomfortably so – does that make us pigs?), happy and ready to really do some proper sightseeing in New York.

Babbo
110 Waverly Place, NW corner of Washington Square Park
New York, NY

Babbo on Urbanspoon

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