Category Archives: food culinary restaurants reviews foodie critic

Kona Grill: 150 University Town Center Dr. Suite #150 Sarasota, FL 34243

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I am an optimist by nature. Sometimes, when the unpredictability of parenting gets me caught in a stressed-out minute, I forget how much easier life is when I practice being flexible. My husband got an unexpected job offer in NYC that we couldn’t refuse. He is there for 6 weeks and then coming home for a week. This is going to be our life for the next year or two, and though it is proving to be incredibly challenging at times, I AM learning how to adapt. I’m given little reminders, like our lunch at Kona Grill today, that I need to focus on the positive and go-with-the-flow whenever possible. I’m laughing at the irony as I sit down to write this article, a deadline swiftly approaching, and two kids nap schedules to juggle. I remember to take a deep breath and know that when we make plans, our children laugh, and that joining their laughter is always the best plan.

This was not our first visit to Kona, in fact we go there regularly, and for great reasons: the menu full of amazing choices, the outdoor seating area with a cool fountain to touch, “Happy Hour” is a LOT longer than an hour and has a variety of fancy sushi rolls, appetizers, and delicious cocktails for around $5, there’s a giant fish tank with friendly pufferfish, a blue tang, (“Dory fish!!”, my 3 year old loudly announces) and a few other species, that’s next to the booth that always ends up available for us, and the fantastic options on the kids menu for an incredible deal. The meals come served in bento boxes with an adorable teddy bear face carved in an orange which delights my kids every time. If you buy a $7.00 t-shirt, and have your kid wear it on future visits, their $6.50 meal is free every time. Forever. Until they outgrow the shirt. Score.

So, at 2:30 on a Saturday afternoon, because in my family, eating at weird, in-between-nap times, is always the best bet, off we went for lunch. We got the lucky booth and Quinn immediately told me about all of the tank’s inhabitants. Anthony came over with menus and I was already ready to order. With toddlers intermittently chiming in, we ordered the California Roll kids meal with french fries and mac & Cheese for the kids to share, (following our: “try something new, try something we know you like” policy) and for me, the Oriental Salad with Grilled Salmon, one of my go-tos.

The kid’s sippy cups of milk and my water came out and about 10 minutes later, our food arrived. Well, their food arrived. My salad arrived. My salmon did not. The waiter realized the error when I brought it to his attention and said he would go take care of it right away.

So, the kids started eating their food. Dori tried a couple of California Rolls before presenting them to me as a half-eaten gift, so I ate most of them. Quinn said she wanted to taste one and then it sat on her plate while she ate french fries and most of the orange. The mac & cheese was steaming hot so I told her to wait a while. Ha! Patience is NOT a 3 year old’s strongest suit as I’m sure all of you know, so we ended up doing a lot of blowing on bites. (Side-note: Why don’t restaurants make it a point to let a meal that is being served to tiny humans cool slightly before putting it in reach?)

We got an unsolicited compliment on the girl’s behavior and willingness to try different foods from the person sitting at the table next to us and I told them how proud that made me feel.

And they finished everything on the plate.

And announced, “I’m donnnne” in the way that makes every parent start doing the how-long-until-meltdown-disaster” countdown.

And then we waited.

And watched the fish.

And played with the napkins.

And we played with the t-shirt.

And we laughed pretending to talk and dance like the fish in the tank.

And we laughed at Dori who was trying to put the t-shirt on and cracking up about it.

And we laughed because Quinn asked where her milk went and then realized she was holding it.

And we went to the bathroom (which, by the way, is a huge, family bathroom. Large enough for a double stroller and has a shorter-than-average toilet) and came back.

And we waited.

And we waited some more.

And I remembered that they have those twisty, wax stick things to play with, and that they forget to give them to us every single time.

And when Anthony finally came out with my dinner the kids were so far past their small window of opportunity that with apologies, I asked Anthony to please wrap it up to go instead.

And my first reaction was aggravation. But then I took a deep breath and remembered that I have a babysitter coming tonight! There is a bright side! Enjoying this meal without simultaneously trying to make sure that my daughters eat more of their food than they throw on the floor, is actually going to be a gift. I can eat this beautiful dinner, picnic style, lakeside, in silence and solitude!

And that is what I did.

And it was glorious.

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El Greco Mediterranean Café: 1592 Main St, Sarasota, FL 34236

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Choosing a restaurant on Main St. in downtown Sarasota can feel like a gamble with kids. It can take a few loops up and down before finding a spot, and hungry kids never think that’s much fun. We risked it anyway, and amazing! Right in front of the restaurant, in the shade, the perfect parking spot! If this was any indication about how our experience at El Greco would go (and spoiler alert, it was), this was going to be an awesome meal out with my family.

 

We walked in and were warmly greeted by the hostess. She awwww’d a bit over the girls and chatted with me about how fast it goes as she led us to our table. My first impression was how welcomed I felt, and any worries about potential squeals and ‘outside voices’ from my daughters in an upscale restaurant, quickly washed away.

 

Crayons and placemats were given to the girls while the staff went to grab a highchair for Dori and a booster seat for Quinn. Our waiter, Kyle, came over to introduce himself and take our drink order. He returned swiftly with cute, sturdy, plastic, cups of water for the kids, complete with yellow bendy straws. He engaged with both girls personally, and I was impressed with how comfortable Quinn was with him because she is usually extremely shy with new people. I put an order in right away for a sampler order of spreads: hummus, eggplant, and tzatiki, served with pita triangles, to tide everyone over while we decided what else we wanted.

 

As I looked over the extensive menu, I was pleased to see choices for any appetite. There’s a kid’s menu of typical kid-fare like pizza, pasta, chicken nuggets, etc, but we skipped over that and opted instead for a bunch of different appetizers to taste and share. As much as Quinn (like me) could happily eat a bowl of pasta with butter and Parmesan every day, she will eat other foods when that’s the option in front of her, and we welcome an opportunity to broaden her tastes. Dori, also very much like me, will eat pretty much anything she’s offered enthusiastically.

 

By FAR the hit of our dinner, because all four of us loved it, was the Octopadi. When I ordered it, Quinn asked me, “Why you say octopus?” and Gabriel (my husband) got a pretty dirty look from me when he said, “It’s like Hank!” (If you haven’t seen Finding Dory, Hank is the color-changing, 7-armed (he lost a tentacle), good-hearted, mollusk) Thankfully, she was willing to try it anyway, and loved it so much that after her first tentative taste, she kept asking for more. Dori was making her goofy, little grunt noises between bites- which is her highest-level food compliment. I’ll add that Gabriel and I agreed this was the best octopus we’ve had in a long time- and it’s one of our favorite foods. For the quality of the dish, it was so inexpensive that we actually contemplated ordering another one but then looked at the still-full table and came back to reality.

 

We also shared the colorful and fresh Village Salad (which Dori grabbed for the second it was in front of her and ended up spilling the dressing all over the plate), Spanakopita, and the Shrimp special- which was outstanding, with artichokes, red and yellow peppers, and oregano, in a light, lemony sauce. All were presented beautifully, clearly plated with time and care, and tasted delicious.

 

When Kyle came to clear away our empty plates and ask if we wanted to see a dessert menu, Quinn confidently asked him if she could have some vanilla ice cream with strawberries, and I almost fell off of my chair. I have NEVER seen her speak directly to someone she doesn’t know before, and to make eye contact and ask him for exactly what she wanted proves just how natural and kind he was to our kids. He asked my permission and then told her he’d see what he could do. Gabriel and I took at quick look at our options and ordered the Tiramisu to share.

I wish you could have seen how big Quinn’s eyes were when that bowl of ice cream arrived. She was giggling like a loon, anticipating the perfect dessert. Gabriel and I pretty much reacted the same way when we saw our Tiramisu, and it was clear that sugar is the key to my family’s heart. I’m doing the low carb/no sugar thing right now…but some things are worth justifying a little cheat for, and this was it. Quinn was generous enough to share with her sister, and Dori, who we thought was definitely too full from eating everything else in sight, proved that there is always more room when ice cream is concerned. Before we knew it, spoons clinked against empty dishes, and we were ready for our check.

 

I made a quick escape to check out the bathroom, and found the only negative in this whole experience. No changing table! Adding one would be such a simple fix that would definitely bring El Greco to the top of the family-friendly, local, go-to list. Hopefully they will consider it since they are so accommodating in every other way. If you’re like me, you have a changing pad in the trunk of your car for exactly this purpose, so it’s not a big deal…but if you don’t, facing options like laying your own cardigan on the bathroom floor to get it done is not an appealing choice at all. Anyway, I’m not going to hold that one detail against them too much since our experience was fantastic. I took of 1 star in my ratings, but almost was willing to just let it slide since everything else was so on-point.

 

I actually ate here years ago but all I ordered was a salad with grilled shrimp, so I missed the opportunity to realize that a very talented chef runs this kitchen. The prices, for the portions and quality, are totally fair- and maybe even a bit under where they could be. There is no question that this was one of the best meals I’ve had in Sarasota. My family will be adding it to our frequent-visit list, and I hope to bump into some of you there with your kids too!

 

 

 

 

 

 

1.FOOD

On a scale of:

“I don’t like that” to ”Tastes like candy”

***** (5 stars)

 

 

  1. SPEED OF SERVICE

On a scale of:

Getting-out-the-door-with-2-small-humans to Pulling-over-when-your-toddler-says-”I have to go potty”

****(4 stars)

 

 

  1. KID FRIENDLINESS

On a scale of:

The waiting room at the DMV to Disney

**** (4 stars)

 

 

  1. VALUE

On a scale of:

A million dollars to a penny

**** (4 stars)

 

 

Cookies United LLC: 141 Freeman Ave, Islip N.Y.

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I do NOT mess around when it comes to rainbow cookies (or ‘rainbow cakes’, as we called them in my family). I consider myself to be a bit of a connoisseur of the colorful pastry, having grown up with them at almost every family gathering, and to say I’m picky about them would be a pretty massive understatement.

Facebook knows this about me, as I’ve reviewed different bakeries for them on multiple occasions, and have surely posted more than one status update about them. Their ad targeting team/programs are well-aware of this, and it was no accident that the ads from Cakebites have appeared in my newsfeed a few different times. I decided to send them a message asking if they’d like to send me a sample to review, and was delighted to get a quick reply saying that they were sending some out to me right away.

A few days later, I received TWO boxes of Cakebites to try- and, although I was immediately skeptical because of the sprinkles in the pictures, (to me that is an indication of low quality and inauthenticity) I was still excited to try them.

I opened the first sleeve inside the box and noticed right away that the sprinkles actually looked more like little pieces of chocolate than like plastic, and I decided to toss my pre-judging attitude aside for the moment.

I took a bite.

Okay. Wow. I kind of wanted to be disgusted by these simply because I wasn’t in a bakery in Brooklyn, but I just couldn’t be. It was actually super delicious! The cake was moist, fresh, and had very almondy/marzipan-y taste, just like it should. The jelly layer was a little on the thin side, but did have a good, raspberry flavor and stickiness. The chocolate was sort of melty and tasted like top quality ingredients had been used. Overall, it was a little too sweet, but really a pleasant surprise! It definitely fulfills a craving, and I love the portion control packs. I decided to freeze the rest of the box for emergencies after reluctantly sharing the first pack with my kids and husband.

I do not claim to be an expert where I am not, but I will say that the ‘Birthday Cake’ flavor was not for me at ALL. It was SO overly sweet that I couldn’t find anything I liked about it- and I DO have a pretty intense sweet tooth, so that’s saying a lot. This flavor will definitely be for the kids- and I’m SURE they will be perfectly happy about that.

Thank you very much, Cookies United LLC! A very yummy treat indeed.

 

 

Made Restaurant: 1900 Main St, Sarasota, FL

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As a work-from-home mom, speed, ease, and convenience are key factors in the choices I make. When a friend suggested Made Restaurant as my first review for Mommy Magazine, a quick search told me that I could make a reservation on OpenTable, (i.e. without talking to anyone) that they are family-friendly with a great kid’s menu, and that there is a free parking garage, and my decision was made. My decision was Made.

We arrived at 5:30 to a mostly empty restaurant with our choice of tables. Quinn, my 2.5 year old was delighted by the fountain and the “fire that looked like ice cream cones” (patio heaters), and I approved of the partially enclosed patio, so we chose to sit outside. I love outdoor seating options with my kids, their inside voices aren’t particularly reliable yet, and I feel much more relaxed in the open air. On the table was a mason jar with a flameless candle inside, and the kids were totally fascinated by the fact that it was safe to handle.

The hostess brought over 2 (of the 3 total…I suggested to the manager that they might consider getting some more) highchairs, a coloring book, crayons, and menus right away.  Our friendly waitress, Alejandra, returned quickly to take our drink order, and reappeared almost immediately with glasses of water for Gabriel and I, and a straw cup with a lid for Quinny. I’d previewed the menu online, as I often do, and was ready to order our food. As all of you know, the window of opportunity with a toddler and a baby is small, and time is of the essence when tummies are already rumbling. While we waited for our meals, and the kids were occupied with the candle and coloring, I visited the restroom and was happy to find a cleverly-hidden changing table ready to be used for diaper changes, something thats too-often missing from more upscale restaurants.

By the time I came back, our food was being served. We quickly moved all of the hot dishes away from my 1 year old, Dori- who tends to grab immediately at anything and everything edible (or not) that’s placed in front of her. The presentation of the outstanding Tuna Poke Napoleon was quite beautiful with it’s layers of color and texture, and even Quinn, who is in a ‘white and yellow foods only’ phase, looked for a second like she might want a taste. That thought quickly vanished when a bowl of creamy, cheesy, penne pasta was served to her, and she wasted no time digging in. It was clear that she loved every bite, and Dori gobbled it up too. The adorable mini-bucket of fresh fruit salad that came with it was rejected by her but enjoyed by the rest of us.

My main dish was the grilled Caesar Salad with grilled scallops. Aside from too heavy of a hand on the dressing, this dish was awesome, with scallops cooked perfectly, crunchy corn bread croutons, and generous parmesan and anchovies. I was a little bummed that Dori really loved the scallops also, because I didn’t particularly want to share them. Womp womp. At least she was happy. Gabriel’s Pulled Fish sandwich was okay, but had so much more bread and sauce than fish that it wasn’t the balance I wanted. The cheesy tots on the side were an indulgent treat for me, but too spicy for my kids to enjoy, and my husband wasn’t a fan either. We also shared the smoked catfish appetizer and although we all LOVED the cornbread, none of us went back for a second taste of the spread itself. It had a strange smokey flavor that just didn’t taste right- and was almost a bitter contrast to the sweet cornbread.

Our waitress checked on us a couple of times, refilled drinks, and made sure we were well-taken care of, and I really appreciated that. I find that one of the biggest hurdles in taking my kids out to eat, is to make sure that I can eat also instead of only being focused on whether they do or not…and having help from wait staff is something I don’t take for granted.

At the end of our meal, as I always do, I requested a broom or dishcloth to clean the horrendous mess that baby Dori left beneath her highchair. I truly don’t mind doing it,  but of course I like it even more when I don’t have to. Alejandra said she would “absolutely not” let me do it and I thanked her.

Overall, this was a great choice for my first Whine & Dine restaurant review. I am so excited to be back in the “write about what you love” game, and happy to say that Made left us feeling that families were very welcome there. It’s always a gamble taking my kiddos out for dinner, and going to eat where we are treated attentively and kindly was a wonderful reward.

Blu Kouzina: 25 N Blvd of the Presidents. Sarasota FL.

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roll octopusgreek saladoutside  inside

When Blu Kouzina was still being renovated, my husband and I happened to walk past when the new owner was inside. He saw and heard us admiring the aesthetics and invited us in to look around. He warmly welcomed us and told us about the concept, and about the attention to detail of the quality of ingredients, and we agreed that we would absolutely be back once they opened for business.

Fast forward quite a few months and our rookie parent status meant that we were rarely taking the date nights that we needed and deserved. Well, we’ve been making a real effort to change that, and now that we’ve worked out an awesome babysitting trade deal with a close friend of ours, we are finally making time to enjoy each other and try new restaurants again.

We remembered how beautiful Blu Kouzina was, and after reading MANY 4 and 5 star reviews online, decided it would be the scene of our next date. We made a reservation for 9pm (apparently channeling our former NY life) and headed out to St. Armand’s Circle.

When we arrived, especially since it wasn’t yet ‘season’, we found very few other patrons and our choice of tables. We chose a corner table outside on the patio, and a waiter quickly came out to offer us beverages. One of my pet peeves is when a restaurant does not filter drinking water, and they leave you with the choice of disgusting Florida tap water, or ridiculously expensive bottled flat or sparkling water. This was, in retrospect, the ONE real gripe I have about our whole experience. Our bottle of water was $8. EIGHT dollars. We finished it halfway through our first course and ended up too thirsty but too cheap to do anything about it. Not cool at all. Anyway, moving on.

We decided to order 3 appetizers to share, partially because it was late for a huge meal, and also because we had a coupon for a free sundae at Ben and Jerry’s that we absolutely intended to use that night for part two of our date.

The waiter brought out a couple of rolls for us as well as a side of excellent herbed olive oil. The rolls, we discovered, were cold, and I thought maybe even a little stale. I wondered to my Hubs if that was the way they were supposed to be, or if our late dining time meant that fresh rolls just weren’t happening for us. I thought about saying something, but I was hungry enough that I didn’t really care. We didn’t find out until we asked for second rolls a bit later that those first ones *were* in fact less-than-fresh…and the next batch was hot, crusty, and really pretty darn perfect. Well, now we know for next time.

We asked for our appetizers to be brought out in whatever order they were ready, and the Xtapodi Shara (Grilled Octopus) came out first, followed shortly after by the Horiatiki (Greek Salad). The waiter told us that the Spanakopita was made to order and might be a bit longer, which was totally fine with us.

The octopus deserves it’s own paragraph. I can honestly say that this octopus has now ruined me for every other octopus I’ve ever eaten. It’s a food I’ve always loved, and was actually one of my baby girl’s first ‘real’ foods at around 7 months old, which I find pretty hilarious. Anyway, I always thought it was supposed to be slightly chewy but now that I’ve had this impeccably fresh, perfectly grilled, lightly flavored with olive oil and lemon version, I realize that NO! It does NOT have to be chewy at all. It can be melt-in-your-mouth, bursting-with-flavor, tender, sweet, amazingness. Seriously delicious and worth going back for without question. I probably could have ordered another one and easily polished it off by myself.

The Greek salad was bright and refreshing, consisting of tomatoes, cucumber, onion, olives, homemade feta cheese and green pepper, topped with extra virgin olive oil and organic vinegar. It was of superb quality and dressed lightly, which contrasted so nicely with the heavier parts of our meal.

The spanakopita came out when we were about halfway done with our salad which was great timing. They were piping hot and super flaky, and the spinach/feta/herb inside was decadent and delicious. I’ve had a bunch of different versions of this dish before, but it’s doubtful that any of them were homemade-to-order, and it really showed.

Just to briefly touch on the atmosphere since it’s what made me want to try Blu Kouinza in the first place, I found it incredibly appealing. It has a Nantucket-meets-Greece feeling with a mix of blues, refinished furniture, lanterns, and candles. Throw pillows and hanging flower baskets give it a homey, comfortable feel, and the open kitchen adds a sense of dining at a friend’s place. This ambiance is a huge part of what made this experience complete for me, and I couldn’t stop commenting on what great taste the owner has. The attention to detail clearly shows in both the decor as well as the food.

This was one of my favorite meals that I’ve had in a long time, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to others or to return on another date night. I’m so glad we finally made it there and hope we can get back again soon. Bravo!

Cafe Evergreen. 801 Tamiami Trail South, Nokomis FL 34275 

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It’s true. I am not posting nearly as often as I once did. There are multiple reasons for this that all stem for the same source…I have a one year old. Going out to eat doesn’t happen very often anymore…because I have a one year old. When I do get out for a treasured, rare, date night with my husband, I never seem to find the time to write about it…because I have a one year old. When we go out as a family, it’s usually to places we’ve been before, or where we know the owners…because I have a one year old.

Today was different. Today was a VERY special day. It was the first day in over a year that I took an official day off from my one year old. Now don’t get me wrong. I loooooove being a mom. I loooooooove spending time bonding with, playing with, and taking care of her, but OMG, today was glorious.

First on the agenda was to finally go for lunch at Cafe Evergreen. I’ve heard such great things about it and the menu is incredible….sooooo many pescaterian options that sound amazing.

When I sat down the friendly waitress made some suggestions at my request and they were ALL appealing. Clearly I’m going to need to make a few more visits. I told her why it was a special day for me and she was totally supportive and amused, and stayed to chat a bit before she left me to ponder the menu options.

The manager came by soon after with a complimentary edamame appetizer which was a nice touch- although I didn’t love the strong seasoning they put on it. I prefer my edamame done classically with just a pinch of sea salt.

When the waitress returned for my order I told her that I was taking her recommendation of the Roasted Beet Reuben and I chose the Arugula/apple/almond salad as my side. She had mentioned to me that she’d never had beets (?!?) before that sandwich and that she really loved it. Beets are one of my very favorite foods, and lately I’ve been on a huge sauerkraut kick, so it didn’t take much to convince me.

As I reveled in my aloneness, I let my mind wander to this blog and how I used to find such satisfaction in writing entries. I looked forward to this moment of writing and reminiscing about my meal, and vowed to make more of an effort to stick with it even with the challenges that motherhood has brought. I decided right then and there that there would be more of an  effort to take ‘me’ days, and that those days would surely include more trying restaurants by myself like I used to in the ‘old days’.

My meal came out looking delicious and I dug right in. WOW. That sandwich was shockingly good. Fresh, lightly-toasted, marble rye, warm, sweet, roasted, beets, melty Swiss cheese, tangy sauerkraut, and thousand island dressing. These are things that I wouldn’t have guessed would taste so so so good together but seriously, it was one of the best flavor combos I’ve ever had. The salad was simple and perfect with a light, creamy, dill dressing that complimented the whole meal beautifully.

When the waitress came to check on me I raved about my lunch, so happy that I’d finally gotten down to Venice to check this great cafe out. She joked with me that given my day-off-rose-colored glasses, situation, it probably wasn’t too hard to impress me.

Well, maybe she was right…but this really was an absolutely perfect meal.

Lunch with a large side of freedom.

I’ll be back for sure.

Introducing my new guest writer, Littleforkinmouth!

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 Hello! I’m Baby Q, otherwise known as Littleforkinmouth, and my mama asked me to write an entry about my special 4th of July dinner. She made me some super yummy stuff to celebrate when my neighbors tried to keep me up all night exploding stuff and putting fire in the sky. My pretty blue plate included a veggie dog with sauerkraut on a whole wheat roll, corn on the cob, grilled mushrooms and zucchini, fennel salad with apples and red onions with a lemony oil dressing and some cut up watermelon. I still don’t have any teeth but I do pretty well anyway. I have a really good appetite and surprise mama a lot with foods she wouldn’t expect me to like, such as octopus, lemons, and olives. I tried the fennel first and it was really good. I especially liked sucking the lemony oil off of it. I didn’t trust the hot dog even though mom promised it wasn’t made of real animals, but I did like the roll with the funny shredded sour stuff on it. The zucchini was kind of mushy and Figgy the dog seemed to like it a lot so I gave it to her. The mushrooms were ugly. I didn’t want those in my mouth or my hands at all so I left them where they were. The corn was heavy and too hard to hold. Mom cut it up a little more for me but by then I remembered that I love watermelon most of all and didn’t want anything else in it’s way. I got three more helpings of it once mommy and dad accepted that I didn’t want anything else.

Next year I will definitely be requesting a plate full of watermelon and nothing else. Happy 4th! 

Bye bye!