Thursday, June 27, 2013

Weekend at Berns-ies!

        I promised a little history and a little bit from our trip to the gulf coast and since I'm late posting last weeks I'll give you some of of both to make up for it.. Anyway, when I was a kid my mother traveled all over the country for business and was wined and dined over dinner with clients and business associates at all the best restaurants. She would always collect the matchbooks and custom swizzle-sticks from these places so of course being kids we would go through her "spoils" and ask her about these far away culinary destinations.

The one that came up most often in conversation and the one that was probably her favorite was Berns Steakhouse in Tampa, FL. I've been dreaming about going here my whole life since I first heard the place described in detail to me by my mother. It was almost a fairytale- it's plain warehouse-looking exterior, the lavish entryway, the enormous wine list and menu, the cavernous wine cellar, etc.. But, what more could be said about one of the best steakhouses in the country with the largest wine cellar in the world? Not much, although I guess I'll add my two cents.

I would have gotten a better shot on the way in , but there was a huge party bus parked out front. Like I said, not too impressive from the outside and back in the day when my Mom came here it was a rough area. Now the neighborhood is gentrified with many new hip restaurants and bars nearby.

Don't worry, the doors aren't warped, it was just the panorama feature on the iPhone. I couldn't get the picture perfect with it being such a busy place. The restaurant seats 350 people and they turn out between 800 and 1,200 dinners a night! We played it safe and made our reservations two months in advance.

This was another difficult one to get. The foyer is old school awesomeness! Darkly lit, velvet lined walls, vintage chandeliers, statues, and huge oil paintings. When my mother came here back in the late 70's and early 80's they still had separate men's and women's smoking parlors on either side of the entryway as you walked in. Upstairs are the restrooms and straight back to the left of the entryway is the bar area.

Our dining room. I counted six separate dining areas, plus the bar, and the Harry Waugh Dessert Room upstairs. Each room is distinctly different yet all done in the same general theme. You can find tons of great pictures of the whole restaurant here.

Yes, the wine list is a wine BOOK! And just for the bottles, the wines by the glass are in the folder below. They have everything from everywhere and for obvious reasons is on the top of the list in Wine Spectator year after year. Bern and Gert Laxer were collectors of fine wines for themselves, their beloved restaurant, and later their wine store. With a wine cellar that houses over 500,000 bottles this book is a necessity and is actually smaller than the one that was printed when Bern was still alive. It was so big and famous he chained them to the tables so no one would take them as souvenirs! Berns employs two full time Sommelier's and several apprentices that man the wine room and wine cellar to manage all of this, more on that later! You can view the wine list by clicking here.

This is the wines-by-the-glass book. It's probably the size of most good restaurants wine list. They have well over two hundred wines by the glass and several pages of specialty drinks, liquors, and beers in here.

Started things off "right" with one of my faves- Blanton's Bourbon "neat" with two ice cubes.

Berns Classic Manhattan while I pa-rouse the gigantic menu! One of the best I've ever had. Notice the erect pinky.

This is just the steak list page on the book-like menu. They have nearly every popular cut of beef in any weight and/ or thickness you desire. They literally butcher your steak for you at the time you order it. You can get any steak with or without the bone and if you order the Strip Loin the cut out the tough gristly bits and replace it with tenderloin so you don't loose any of the weight. If you order a 24oz Strip Loin you get 24oz of edible meat here folks. This attention to detail on their meat is why they command the high prices you see above and it's worth every cent! On the opposite page it describes this process as well as how to order it the way you want it cooked. Every sauce and style of cooking a steak is represented and is an option- Oscar style, Diane, Au Poive, Demi Glas, Chimichurri, you name it although most people just get it the way it comes brushed with garlic butter. They will cook it to the EXACT temperature you want it. You like it somewhere between medium-rare and medium? No problem!You can of course check the menu out here, but I'll try to sum it up for you. The first page on the inside of the cover has the daily specials that include appetizers, fresh local seafood, and a meat dish or two like kobe beef or a 90 day dry aged steak. It then moves on to the salads, cheeses, appetizers, and the caviar menu, yes, menu.. Then the steak pages and after that the non-beef options i.e. their classic seafood and poultry dishes. it's all good here! They even feature LIVE seafood. There are fish tanks in the kitchen and they will butcher your fresh live fish to order.. AWESOME!

I obviously had wine pairings with every course.. So many different ones in fact with all the courses that I just told the waiter to bring me whatever he thought would go well. I love wine, but I am far from an aficionado and with the dizzying selection they have here I felt it was better left in the hands of a professional. It was great! Everything he suggested went together perfectly.

Now,  on to the most important part. The food! Above you see the Escargots with home made Italian Bread Toast Points. It was about the best we've ever had! The sauce was so good we practically licked the dish clean! Ridiculously rich and the depth of flavor was outstanding! We couldn't stop ourselves from eating everything including the bread even though we knew we had four more courses coming!

Somehow I dropped the ball and missed snapping shots of the French Onion Soup course and the waiter making our salads tableside.. Oops! Guess the alcohol was starting to kick in a little.. Anyway, the soup was good, the salads were impressively prepared table side by the waiter, and of course the wine was fantastic! With Berns being one of the first "Farm to Table" restaurants some of the vegetables (especially the hard to find ones) are grown on the restaurants own farm. The waiters (who train for at least a year) spend a month or two working on the farm during their internship.

It just keeps getting better.. In the foreground you see the ultimate 32 oz. NY Striploin with all the fat and gristle removed and supplanted by the chunk of tenderloin to the left, then topped with Fois Gras and garlic butter. In the back is my wife's Fillet Mignon. Both came with Creamed Spinach, Fried Onion Strings, Sauteed Carrots, Baked Potato with all the fixins (prepared tableside), or you can upgrade to the twice baked potato like I did. In the middle there are two boats- one with Red Wine Demi Glace and one with a Sesame-Soy Veloute (kind of like a fancy-extra thick Teriyaki sauce). Everything was off the hook!

After you pay your bill for the dinner portion of your meal you are given the option of getting a tour of the kitchen and wine cellar on your way up to the Harry Waugh Dessert Room upstairs. One of the waitstaff interns gives the guided tour and you are allowed to take as many pictures and ask as many questions as you like.

Above you see the main kitchen area with the Expo Station on the left. Behind the Expo area is the charcoal grill that cooks about 200 steaks at a time and is manned by four cooks. To the left of that beyond the video screens hanging from the ceiling is the Fry Station where nearly 500 lbs of onions per day are cut fresh to order, battered, and fried to accompany the steaks. To the right is the Saute Station manned by four cooks and the walkway in the middle goes to the butchering area, bakery, and Dessert Station.

Here is where the magic happens! The Butchering area on the back side of the Grilling Station (to the left) as they were cleaning up for the night. This is where all the steaks and fish are cut fresh to order. If you want a 3" thick 32 oz. steak (like I did) this is where they carve it! To the right is the Bakery and behind that is the Dessert/ Pastry Station.

Tucked back in the far corner of the baking area is Berns' very own coffee roaster. This vintage turn - of - the - century cast iron workhorse roasts all of Berns' hand picked beans for use in all of their coffees, desserts, and kitchen recipe's!

Yes, they even have their own cheese cave! Kind of a necessity with all the wine and giant dessert menu I guess.. Anyway, there are two to store and age the huge selection here. They are both regulated differently for temperature and humidity based on the types of cheese. One is for softer cheeses and kept at 50 degrees and 90% humidity. The other is for hard cheeses and kept at 55-60 degrees and 80% humidity. To the left of the cheese cave are the huge coolers that house the two 1,200 gallon live fish tanks, but they don't let you take pictures of that.. You can check out the cheese menu by clicking here.

You walk through a refrigerated room where they keep the white wines to get from the kitchen into the wine cellar. This is the foyer in the red wine portion of the cellar with the first row of bottles on the left and the red wines by the glass on the right. The doorway to the rear leads to the dessert wine room. As I said before they have over 200 wines by the glass and they keep about 150-200,000 bottles on site. The rest of their 500,000 bottle + collection is kept in a warehouse nearby that also services their store- Berns Fine Wine & Spirits. Check it out here!

Here is one of the rows, there are at least five that I could count of just reds. It's basically floor to ceiling with bottles stuck into nooks and crannies all over the place..

Unfortunately due to the darkness and the romance of the Harry Waugh Dessert Room this was the best photo I could get. You can get a better idea of how the room looks by checking out the photo's here. The wooden alcoves are made out of re-purposed redwood wine barrels that sit between two and six people depending on the size of your group. There are also open booths that surround the grand piano where the maestro plays nightly. We got one of the wine barrels which was pretty cool and retro chic. Kind of a 70's feel like the rest of the restaurant. Each booth comes complete with a music selector switch where you can pick either the live feed from the piano, or jazz, Sinatra, etc. as well as a phone to summon your server.

They treat the dessert room as almost a separate restaurant (hence the paying of your check downstairs for dinner first) and there is a separate host stand when you arrive upstairs. In fact, you can make a reservation just for the dessert room if you want to. When you are seated the server goes through everything and the dessert menu is just as extensive as the dinner menu in the dining room. The first two of three pages are desserts and cheeses while the rest of the book are dessert wines, aperitif's, dessert drinks, and coffee drinks. You can read more about Harry Waugh and the dessert menu by clicking here.

"Cafe Con Leche" Bern.. This is Berns version of the classic Ybor City- Cafe Con Leche and it was probably the single best coffee drink I've ever had in my life.. It was perfect in every way!

For the grand finale my wife had the Chocolate Peanut Butter Truffle with a scoop of house made Banana Ice Cream and for me I had the Malted Chocolate Cake with the mini chocolate malt and malted chocolate mousse. We shared and they were some of the best desserts we ever had. Of course every single element is made in-house from the ice cream to the malt balls and it shows. .Not pictured is the awesome tawny port our waitress suggested go with the chocolate.. A great finish to an unbelievable dining experience!

If you're ever in the Tampa area this place is a must-do! I've had ties to this place my whole life and it was one of my dreams to come here so we made the detour and it was the cherry on top of our gulf coast tour! While I've probably had better individual items of this meal at other restaurants (for the most part) none of them can pull off the whole experience like Berns does night after night. If you're a wine person there is no better place in the world! All in all it was well worth the trip and if you do come plan on dining here twice at least so you can truly explore the menu . Also, bring your wallet because you'll want to try all the good stuff this place has to offer and the wine!


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Healthy Eating..

As you may see by my svelte physique I am not a health nut or anything. But, I am definitely not in the best shape of my life- especially after coming home from the previously mentioned Gulf Coast vacation. Anyway, as you can presume I am on a diet from chowing down seriously hard for three weeks and will continue as long as I can without loosing my mind!

In the meantime I will keep myself busy with the "Brag" exploring my history of food and sharing with you all why I love it, where I've been, what I've done, what I miss, who I admire, what I've seen, where I want to go, and what I hope to do in the future. Some future posts you'll see things I'm coming up with in The Little Diner "Test Kitchen" here at our house in Vail, CO and maybe a behind the scenes glimpse or two at our restaurant..

Check it out:

Simplicity at it's finest and one of my most favorite treats. You say "Yeah, but it's just a Grapefruit", but it's not JUST a Grapefruit it's one of natures finest inventions! Sweet-Sour-Deliciousness! And, once you get past the painful chore of cutting out the individual pieces the melt in your mouth pulp of the slices are just that- a little slice of heaven! No need for sugar here, my wife does that, but she's a girl. I love it! Moving on..

Ahh!!! Two of my most favorite things in the world- Sushi Rice and my trusty Zojirushi "Neuro-Fuzzy" Rice Maker! First, the rice.. While most sushi rice will do, the one I like the most is the one we have here. Kokuho Rose from Koda Farms in South Dos Palos, CA in the Central Valley. Doesn't get much better! If you're in a bind Nishiki makes a pretty good product.  Anyway, it's topped with Shichimi Togarashi- a zesty Japanese seven chili pepper spice blend and Tamari- the traditional Japanese dark soy sauce. No Kikoman here folks! I just use that stuff to cook with.. I've been eating this combination since I was a little kid going out for Japanese food in the International District with my family growing up in Seattle. More on that later!

The Zojirushi! Best rice maker ever! It's called "Neuro Fuzzy" because it is intelligent and actually cooks the rice perfectly every time based on standard cook times, humidity, type of rice to be cooked, etc.. Not only that, but all you have to do is load it properly, select the type of rice, push the pink button on the right, it plays a little chime, and does everything else automatically! No fuss- no muss! When it's done it plays "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and your good to go! You can also leave the rice in there for up to two days if you want! Thats right, TWO DAYS! FRESH-HOT-RICE! It's like having a hot food dispenser on your kitchen counter, AWESOME!

Simple Smoked Salmon Salad with Cilantro-Lime Vinaigrette and Crispy Julienned Fish Skins. I would have gone with the Ginger-soy Vinaigrette, but I ran out. This is what's for dinner tonight, and it worked out great! More simple pleasures. The crispy fish skins aren't for everyone, but growing up in the northwest crispy Salmon skin is just one of those treats you don't pass up when you get the chance.. For me anyway, maybe it's the Japanese influence.

Oishii desu ne!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


After photo-bombing everyone on Facebook during a recent trip to the Gulf Coast with all my foodie stuff I decided that it was "high time" to breakdown and start my very own food blog- or brag as I'd like to call it.. This is the first entry mostly to test it out. I'm still pretty green with this whole thing so it will definitely be a learning process.