Friday, April 17, 2009


Ah, Miami! Land of sun gods, a vibrant Cuban community, salsa music, sunburnt beaches, hedonism, and palm trees, palm trees, palm trees...

I had less than a day in Miami, but I had great plans for my time there - bask on the dazzling beach, see some art deco hotels on Ocean Drive (and I was staying in one too - lucky me!), visit little Havana, do a little shopping...and eat a meal in a sizzling restaurant, of course! A few years ago I had actually concocted a little fantasy about eating at a restaurant in Miami: it would be somewhere lively and chic. There would be dim lights, waving palm trees, Latin music, and it would be hot, hot, hot. A handsome man (preferably my husband) would give me smouldering glances, and I would be wearing a fabulous dress.

Well, at least the last part was right! As is usual when trying to live out a fantasy, things didn't go quite as planned... I arrived there pooped after the long bus ride, rested with my baby, explored the art deco hotels (wow!) and the beach (double wow!) then got dressed for dinner. It was late by then, around 8:30, and my baby was giving indications he wanted to go to bed. I ignored them (he could sleep in the baby carrier if he needed to) and headed out into the night. I walked past the palm trees, by the jasmine bushes, and marveled at the sight of the art deco hotels by night, glittering with neon lights. Ah, I thought...this is what I came here for.

My hotel had recommended a restaurant and I went there, but it was not as stylish as I wanted. I hopped in a cab and headed off to another one I had seen advertised in a tourist flyer - A Fish Called Avalon (great name!) on Ocean Drive. It turned out to be in the Avalon hotel (makes sense) but it didn't have many people there so I decided to keep walking and explore the other restaurants on the strip. All of them were attached to art deco hotels but my guidebook had warned me not to eat at any of them. Overpriced, overrated, with "carnival style barkers trying to

Ocean Drive in Miami BeachImage by zacklur via Flickr Image by zacklur via Flickr

lure you in with plates of congealed food". True, true, all true. But the energy of this strip is awesome!

Restaurants crowded the sidewalks, people laughed and preened; the neon lights beamed, and the scent of wine and food filled the air. Vintage cars were parked outside of some of them, for show, and tourists and clubkids zipped by in others. And on the other side of all this colour and mayhem? Palm trees swayed along a thin strip of grass, the wind swept over the cool dark beach, and the waves of the empty ocean roared.

I wandered along, trying to decide at which of these carnivals to eat. Finally, my baby decided for me - one of them had Latin music playing and he started to dance and grin in his baby carrier. "Okay", I said, "you convinced me!"

The restaurant was Quinn's at the Park Central Hotel and proved to be a great place to people watch - albeit I spent most of my time watching my baby, as he was running around like a madman. I ordered a strawberry daiquiri for me and a (non-alcoholic) one for him. In between gulps I ran around after him, trying to keep him from hurtlng into the traffic of Ocean Drive, or careening into the pool. Finally my food came - seafood with linguine in a white wine cream sauce. I hoped my baby would settle into his high chair and eat (he likes pasta) but, alas, no such luck. I was desperate to eat as I hadn't had any lunch, so, with him squiggling on my lap, I shovelled forkfuls of linguine into my mouth.

Finally I was able to convince him to try a few noodles, and he simmered down. Phewf! I ate quickly (you have to when you have a kid) and found it very tasty. Big shrimps, plump mussels and...what was that? A lobster claw and half-tail on the shell? Hmm...

In case you ever wondered if it was possible to crack open a lobster claw one-handed, with a baby in your lap, I am here to tell you it is not possible. No, it really cannot be done, though I did spend a few moments pondering if I could.

I like lobster, I really do, so I did manage to pry the tail out of the shell with a quick movement, and eat some of it. But I decided not to even attempt the claw. Better to have the staff do it, and take it back to the hotel to eat. By this point my baby was bored with the noodles, so I had given him a small amount of his strawberry daiquiri to drink. This proved to be a big mistake.

I was munching contentedly (though quickly) on the lobster tail when I suddenly felt something was wrong.

Have you ever had a baby pee on you? I have, and it feels warm and wet. This however, was cold and wet. Yes, that's right. My baby had upended his daiquiri in my lap. He looked as surprised as I did. I sighed.

I want to be a good example to my baby, so I always try to stay composed in front of him, no matter how stressed I get. So, calmly (albeit with another sigh) I mopped up the drink from my expensive silk dress and off his new shirt. This was clearly a signal that dinner was over, so I asked for the cheque and a doggy bag. So I did get my exciting dinner in Miami, but not quite as I had planned!

I paid my bill, glugged off the rest of my drink in the comfort of the lobby (where my baby could run around) and then popped him into his baby carrier. Luckily he fell asleep soon after, so I was able to walk down Ocean Drive by night and peacefully admire the fantastical neon lights of the hotels.

The next morning I enjoyed a complimentary breakfast on the front porch of my hotel, then walked along Ocean Drive to glory in the hotels by day. Then it was time for a quick dip in the ocean before rushing out to the airport for my flight back to Orlando.

In all, I had a few short hours in Miami, but they were memorable. Miami is dazzling!
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Club Med

Two more posts about Florida, dear readers, and then it's back to our regularly scheduled local programming...unless of course I decide to blog about my upcoming trip to New York city! (I leave tomorrow. Hmm...)

After Orlando I visited the Club Med Sandpiper near West Palm Beach. The best way to enjoy Club Med? With a frosty drink in hand, lounging by the pool! During my stay I imbibed many of the concoctions in the bar, and I have to say they were great. I have stayed at other resorts in the Caribbean, and found the drinks all tasted the same - rum and some pink or orange slush. Here they had a variety of alcohols and a variety of tasty juices. My baby got addicted to these drinks too (leading to devastating results in Miami as you shall soon find out) - the non-alcoholic variety, of course!

Mango-strawberry daiquiri slushy - yum!

The meals were also of wonderful quality - everything was fresh and beautiful. For lunch and dinner I enjoyed nice salads, succulent fish with tasty sauces, and a variety of vegetable dishes. I always overreat at buffets, and this one was no exception. And usually I feel stuffed and bloated after them. But here, I ate my fill but felt light and satisfied at the end. Very strange! I think they cook with less oil and fresher ingredients than other places. Yay! The desserts were great too - the first night I went ga-go over them: a meringue pie with chocolate mousse, a chocolate mousse pie, a chocolate mousse cake, and little chocolate mousse tarts.

Alas, by the dessert stage, my baby had lost patience with eating and just wanted to play. So I took my desserts "to go" (they generously provided paper plates for this purpose) and later that night I tucked into them after my baby had fallen asleep. With a juicy novel (set in Miami's South Beach, no less!) I was all set for some late night decadence. But by the third chocolate mousse dessert I had to say - too much chocolate mousse! (never thought it could happen to me). Okay, so there was a lack of creativity that night, but other meals had a diverse array of delectable treats.

Here's a sample from lunch on day 3 - tiny little lemon meringue tarts, florentine cakes dipped in chocolate, lemon square, choco frosted cupcake and cheesecake.

What is it about tiny desserts that makes them so enticing to eat?

Up close and personal with a lemon meringue tartlet

Breakfasts were also sublime, with fresh fruit, delicious omelettes to order, pancakes, french toast, bacon, and all the other breakfast staples. They had icky table syrup for the pancakes (no maple syrup, alas) but they also had some charming preserves with tiny strawberries thatI found entrancing. I also enjoyed the stewed prunes they had - I know many people despise prunes (a la Virginia Woolf!), but I actually like their tangy taste and squishy texture.

It was a bit rough managing the dining hall alone with my baby; pushing a stroller and balancing a plate is a bit tough when you only have two hands. It was easier if I used my baby carrier (two free hands!) but he didn't have the patience to sit for long, so I had to eat quickly. Still, things were okay the first 3 days. By the last day, however, he refused to sit still for any meal at all, and I really had to wolf down my food if I was to get any nourishment at all!

Overall, though, it was a wonderful visit and I recommend going there if you have the chance. Save me a mojito!

Wish I was swimming here right now...

Coming soon...Miami!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Floribbean Cuisine

Dear Foodies,

I had a great time on my Florida trip and, contrary to my expectations, I actually had some good culinary adventures! I had read in the guidebooks about "Floribbean cuisine" - a blend of Floridian and Caribbean flavours and cooking styles, and hoped I might come across some in my travels. Floribbean combines Caribbean tastes and flavours with the lighter cooking styles of Florida. For example, it eschews deep fried, lardy, starchy Latino delights in favour of steaming, sauteeing, fresh fruits and vegetables, citrus, spice, and other flavours fresh and nice.

My first food adventure came soon after my arrival in Orlando. I checked into my hotel, felt delighted that it was so nice and had such wonderful landscaping (palm trees! oleanders! hibiscus!), and then went in search of food. Due to my late night packing and the rigours of travelling with a young child I had a headache, my eyes burned and I was achingly tired. I just wanted to eat some lunch and collapse into bed. I hoped that my baby would concur with this plan and take a nap too...

As my taxi pulled into the hotel I had seen a restaurant right beside it - Pollos Mario. Pollos means chicken in Spanish, and there was an appetizing smell of barbeque in the air, so I had a hunch I had stumbled onto something good. "Comida tipica Latinoamericana" (dishes typical of Latin America) proclaimed the menu. That suited me just fine. I had expected a Disney-like homogeneity throughout Orlando, forgetting that the Hispanic influence in Florida is just as strong as ol' Walt's tentacles - if a bit more dispersed.

The waitress spoke to me in Spanish, which tickled me, because I can speak it a bit, and also because I love being mistaken for a "local" (when I was in Cuba, people kept asking me if I was from Mexico; they knew I wasn't Cuban because I wasn't wearing neon lycra!) The restaurant had the feel of a ranch house courtyard with tiled floor, a plastic orange tree in the centre, and lanterns on the booths. Photo taken from a "Chow Hound" review of the restaurant - Orlando Sentinel website

The menu had pictures, which I love, so instead of ordering the barbequed chicken which had smelt so appetizing, I decided to order a dish of sauteed red snapper, because it looked so beautiful. I was spending two nights in Orlando, so I reasoned that I could have chicken the next night.

I ordered guanabana (soursop) juice with high hopes (Azteca restaurant in Ottawa used to have amazing guanabana juice) but this one turned out to be just a sweet tasteless slushie. When the fish arrived, though, it made up for all shortcomings. It looked outstanding!

"Wow!" I said, dazzled by the sight: on a large oval platter rested a whole red snapper. To the north of the fish (which really deserved its own time zone, it was so large) was a pile of halved redskin potatoes. To the west of the potatoes poked out some yucca spears; to the south, several halved plantains ruled supreme - starchy and ponderous. The entire terrain was bathed in a thick yellow sauce studded with chopped tomatoes and cilantro. Colour, shape, form, and aroma all abounded on my plate. Oh, what a sight!

I regretted that I hadn't brought my camera to record this beautiful dish, but I was too pooped to go and get it. Plus, it would have been a pity to let this feast get cold! So I decided to just dig in and enjoy. First, though, I buckled my baby into the colourful high chair and gave him rice, sauce and a little fish. He happily gobbled it up, but refused the other starches.

The serving plate was too crowded to eat off, and I hadn't been given any other plate, so I cleared some space on the rice platter and put sauce and some fish on it. I was sure it couldn't taste as good as it looked, but...oh dear reader, it was!

The fish was tender, the rice perfectly cooked, and the sauce...well, it was what a sauce is meant to be. Thick, flavourful, fragrant...chunks of tomato offering up some texture, it was a perfect complement to the fish. I ate hurriedly at first - I was so hungry! Later, when my hunger was sated I lingered over each mouthful, trying to identify the flavours. Saffron? Maybe. Onion? Certainly. But apart from that I really couldn't tell. So I stopped wondering and just gave myself up to enjoying the food.

Dear reader, I ate half the fish! I also ate a goodly portion of the yucca, potato and plantain. The potato was tender and delicious, but I wasn't so crazy about the yucca or the plantain. Perhaps it is my Anglo roots, but I have to say that I am not a fan of yucca. If you have ever bitten into a wax apple, that's what yucca tastes like. Plantain is more ponderous than yucca, and again perhaps an acquired taste.

I really should have stopped eating after the fish (an insipid salad had preceded my meal, so I really was overfull by now) but the desert menu looked so tantalizing - not because it had the usual cheesecake/chocolate cake offerings, but because of the special Latin American dishes it offered - flan and higos con queso (figs with fresh cheese)! I was really full to bursting but I had to try the figs with cheese - what a cool combination!

At this juncture, though, the waitress brought me my bill! "Uh, no" I said, feeling outraged. Was this was her way of saying that I had eaten too much? "I still want to order dessert."

She shrugged. "Oh."

"Figs and cheese!" I proclaimed. "And a cup of tea too!"

She shrugged again.

I was irritated but decided to ignore it. The waitresses, all slender, doe-eyed damsels in white shirts and tight white pants, didn't seem to speak English very well, and hadn't even come by to ask me how my meal was (a big minus in my books).

The figs and cheese came in a tall sundae dish - 5 figs and 3 slices of cheese. The figs were small, plump things that had clearly spent the greater part of their lives suspended in a jar of sugar syrup. The cheese was salty and crumbly, strongly resembling Indian paneer, and was a perfect counter balance to the the sweetness of the figs. The tea was hot and flavourful. A nice finish to the meal!

I really was stuffed, so after tasting one fig and eating a small piece of cheese, I decided to take a short break and go to the bathroom. Upon my return, I was startled to find the table cleared off. No figs, no cheese, no tea, no mess of napkins and plates - even the bill had disappeared!

"Uh, excuse me," I said, chasing down a waitress. "My dessert - it was taken away!" She shrugged and disappeared. My waitress came and I explained to her what had happened. She looked disinterested, but eventually the busboy appeared and brought me a new dish of dessert and cup of tea. But, there were only two figs and two pieces of cheese in it!

"Uh, excuse me," I said. "Four figs!"

"No!" He replied. "Two!" and then ran away.

I was perplexed. Clearly, he didn't speak English, so there was probably no point in insisting on getting the extra figs. And maybe there weren't any more in the jar. Anyway, I really was stuffed, so I decided to let it go.

After this incident, I started to feel rather unwelcome in the restaurant. Perhaps they really wanted me to leave?

Defiantly, I sat there, stuffing figs into the spare corners of my tummy and sipping my hot tea. Finally, I really couldn't eat anymore, so decided I was finished.

Some more brouhaha resulted over paying the bill (I was using a credit card) so I felt really irked when I left the restaurant. The food had been delicious, and the waitress hadn't charged me for the tea (due to the confusion over the premature clearing away of my desert) but I was still displeased with the service and decided not to return the next night. Anyway, I had enough fish, rice and tubers to make another full meal.

So, there you have it, a review of Pollos Mario on South Blossom Drive in Orlando, Florida. Delicious food, terrible service - you can decide for yourself if you want to go (and, of course, I recommend that you do!). It wasn't Floribbean cuisine, per se (Colombian, the desk clerk at the hotel later informed me) but it did bear the hallmarks of Floribbean food, and was far removed from anything I would find in Ottawa, so I was well satisfied with my first meal in Florida.

Next up - food adventures at Disneyland!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Disney Food

Our first morning in Orlando started off sunny and a bit cool. The verdant tropical foliage around the hotel, however, reassured me that I was far, far away from Ottawa!

My hotel, the Baymont Inn and Suites, offered a continental breakfast, of which I intended to partake fully. However, it featured a plethora of white flour products - French toast, danishes, waffles, bagels, and sugary cereals. There were some healthier options - apples, instant oatmeal and raisin bran cereal, but I eat these regularly at home, so I wanted to try the more appealing sugary items. Alas, they left me feeling gluggy, so I vowed to eat the healthier stuff the next day.

The view from my breakfast table

I swiped an apple and some yoghurt for a midmorning snack. I considered taking a bagel and peanut butter for lunch, but I planned to go to a sit down restaurant in Disneyland (hopefully during my baby's nap!) so I didn't bother. Then it was on to Disney's Animal Kingdom and my rendezvous with the giraffes, hippoos, and rhinos!

Needless to say, I wasn't expecting great food - or even interesting food - from Disneyland. And that was good, cuz there wasn't any there! The food stalls all had really cool names and exteriors, but the offerings were plain ol' middle America - 'burgs and fries, chips and chocolate cake. I had read about a good restaurant in the "Africa" section, but I couldn't find it, so ended up eating - guess what? - a bagel and a cherry turnover for lunch! Oh well. I bought these at a really neat food stall housed in an old building shipped over from Tanzania and reassembled in Orlando!

The bagel was predictable, but the turnover was surprisingly tasty and flaky, albeit with the usual canned cherry pie filling. I did later find the restaurant - Tuskers - and it promised a lavish buffet with African flavours - all housed in a building made to resemble the interior of an African marketplace. By then I was full, however, so I just sniffed it in appreciation.

Later in the day I had some fresh cut fruit and ice cream, to cope with the heat. My baby enjoyed the fruit, and the prices were not too bad, so I was reasonably content with my Disneyland food experience (oh, and the animals and rest of the place were Grreeeeat!!)

Regal lion roaming a deserted Indian palace