Grand Marlin: Top of the Catch in Pensacola

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Grand Marlin's dining room is sleek and sophisticated

Drive along the commercial stretch of beach front real estate the next time you’re hungry in Pensacola, and there are few surprises. Eateries are casual and family friendly, with the emphasis on down-home cuisine and good value. While downtown Pensacola is undergoing a veritable renaissance, driven largely by the opening of sophisticated restaurants and retro entertainment venues, the beach is the place to kick off your shoes and keep it simple.

Of course there’s an exception to every rule.

Welcome to the Grand Marlin, a gorgeous waterfront restaurant boasting pristine seafood so fresh that the menu is printed twice daily. Sleek in design, without a kitschy maritime theme in sight, the Marlin is a collaboration between operating partner Bryan Housley, last of Atlanta’s well regarded Ray’s on the River and executive chef Gregg McCarthy, a CIA grad passionate about Gulf seafood. Chef Gregg sources out the freshest local seafood possible, as well as the best from other regions, in dishes like New Orleans style barbecue Gulf shrimp and a Maryland style lump crabcake made from blue crab that was swimming just a few days before landing on your plate.

The oysters harvested from Apalachicola to the southwest are sweet and slightly briny, served with a housemade cocktail sauce and a red wine mignonette. Tasty medallions of yellow edge grouper from nearby Destin arrive picatta style, crusted with parmesan with accents of crispy capers and brown butter. Try the crispy lobster fingers drizzled with a vanilla infused honey mustard sauce, and the delish salad of slow roasted beets and Alabama goat cheese, topped with a round of pumpkin seed brittle.

A daily menu of fresh fish, all sustainably harvested and wild caught, can be had simply grilled with rice and seasonal veg or served on with a green salad dressed with a tomato basil vinaigrette. Portions are large, with appetizers in the $9.95-$16.50 range, entrees from $18.50 to $25.95 for seafood, $31.95 for a 16-ounce bone-in cow girl rib eye with all the trimmings. The snappy wine list boast fish-friendly whites like Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc ($35) and a wonderful Willamette Valley Pinto Gris from Lange ($39), along with a tasty array of California-centric reds and a menu of hand crafted cocktails.

So the next time you’re in Pensacola, raise the bar on beachfront dining and land a table at the Grand Marlin. We think you’ll agree that it’s quite a catch.

 

Florida lobster tail is just one fresh option

The best place to hear live music: Frenchmen Street in New Orleans

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Brass and sass at the Spotted Cat on Frenchmen Street

On any night of the week, within a two-block stretch of Frenchmen Street in the Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans, you can follow a brass band down the street, catch a reggae groove at Cafe Negril, and swing dance at Mimi’s and the Spotted Cat. Just across the street, get down with rootsy rock and brass at d.b.a. and at the corner, grunge out at Check Point Charlie’s, a serious rock ’n’ roll dive where you can also do your laundry. A few doors up, you might catch some excellent funk at Blue Nile with Big Sam’s Funky Nation, and support local talent at the Apple Barrel Inn. Hungry? Frenchmen is also a great spot for cheap ethnic eats, like Italian at Adolfo’s and Middle Eastern from Mona’s, along with assorted food trucks that keep things cooking. Window shop for a tattoo at Electric Ladyland before finishing the night at Snug Harbor, a straight ahead jazz club.

A Classic – White House Subs

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The guys get busy at White House Subs in AC

Maybe it’s the bread, fresh Italian loaves straight out of the oven from Formica Bros. Bakery across the street.

Or maybe it’s the oversized fillings of deli meats and cheeses. Whatever it is – White House, at 2301 Arctic Ave. in AC,  has been a lines-out-the-door sub shop since 1946. Supposedly even Ol’ Blue Eyes had sandwiches delivered to him when he was in town.  The owners are definitely fans of the Chairman – don’t miss the wall of fame shrine that includes photos and even a framed towel used by Francis Albert himself at his last AC appearance. Awesome relic.

Naturally, the subs are HUGE – two-handers – so depending on your hunger, a half ($7 for a turkey sub) will do you. Or go for the gusto, and spring for the $12.60 White House Special, jam-packed with Italian meats and cheeses and dressed with hot peppers, lettuce tomato and onions. With more than 20 million subs sold, they’re doing something right.

Vibe: No frills is giving this place too much credit. But it works.

The Crowd: A real mixed bag, from business types to teens, tourists – the line is always interesting. But don’t wait on it if you’re taking out, elbow through and head to the back to order.

Best Bets: The tuna with provolone is the best.

And for Dessert: if you can possibly save room, go across the street to Formica where the cannollis are piped to order and the filling is thick, sweet ricotta spiked with chocolate chips.

Open (very) wide

 

BYO Bonanza in Philly

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Mercato chef Mackenzie Hilton

When it comes to a BYOB restaurant scene, Philadelphia is a real corker.

With more than 230 bring your own bottle eateries around town, diners can save big bucks – and drink their favorite vintages without paying a restaurant mark-up. Sticker shocked by the high price of liquor licenses, more chefs, like Ian Moroney, who owns the 28-seat Pumpkin on South Street, opt to do what they do best. “I got into this business to cook, not run a bar. BYOB works for us, and our customers love it.” Moroney, like most BYOB owners, doesn’t charge a corkage fee, another reason to wine and dine, Philadelphia style.

Three to Try …

Mercato: Chef Mackenzie Hilton infuses the slow cooking of Old World Italy with a bold take on new Italian American cuisine at this airy cash only BYOB. Large floor-to-ceiling windows open out onto a lively street scene. 1216 Spruce St, (215) 985.BYOB

 

Mercato in Midtown VIllage

Pumpkin: Artful New American cuisine, locally sourced produce and a great deal on Sundays: five courses for $35, including dishes like seared scallops over lentils spiked with a beet vinaigrette and braised branzino with fennel, preserved lemons and olive tapenade. 1713 South St. (215) 545-4448

 

Kanella: Cyprus meets Greece at Kanella’s table, where chef/owner Konstantinos Pitsillides coaxes wonderful flavors out of slowly braised rabbit with butter beans and the daily whole fish, simply roasted with seasonal greens. Or come for the Cyprus breakfast, eggs fried in olive oil with tangy houlami cheese. 1001 Spruce St. (215) 922-1773

BYOB Bits: Reservation policies vary, so call ahead. Ask in advance about credits cards – cash only is not uncommon. And if you don’t have your favorite Super Tuscan handy, not to worry, here’s an interactive map of the city by neighborhood, complete with the locations of the nearest liquor store.

 

 

 

Kayak-iti-yat Paddles Along Nola’s Bayou St. John

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Sara Howard, co-founder of Kayak-iti-yat

A snowy egret is watching us cagily from the banks of the Bayou St. John, strutting with his over sized yellow feet like a clown on parade.

Maybe he’s not used to seeing humans kayaking in his urban waterway, a sight that’s becoming increasingly common, thanks to Kayak-iti-yat, a fledgling touring business owned by local partners Sara Howard and Sonny Averett.

Founded last year, Kayak-iti-yat (a paddling riff on the local query, where y’at?) sheds new light on the city’s charming Mid-City neighborhood bounded by the historic canal, once a vibrant transportation waterway connecting to Lake Ponchartrain.  Sara and Sonny take turns leading the tours, which are geared mostly to novices, unless a wind whips chop into the usually placid canal.

Bits of history and lore are shouted into the breeze, historic homes are identified and a growing confluence of birds remarked upon, from great blue herons to beady eyed pelicans.   Special tours can include lunch at Liuzza’s at the Track (don’t even think about getting anything besides the barbecued shrimp po’boy) and admission to the racetrack during the season, a fun chance to see what happens there when Jazzfest isn’t the main event. If you’re feeling lucky, and since you’re in New Orleans, that’s a given, the night is still young, and anything can happen.

Paddling along Bayou St. John in Mid-City

Garden to Plate New Zealand Style at Colenso Cafe

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Ruth Pettit snips away in her fragrant garden, gathering an armful of aromatic gardenia and lemon verbena to steep for tea. It’s a sample of what awaits the hungry visitor in search of both beauty and sustenance in the North Island’s stunning Coromandel coastline along the northeastern shore. When asked about farm to table cuisine, Ruth seems a bit flummoxed.  “Well, we’ve always done it this way,” she says with a shrug.

Ruth and her husband Andy own the Colenso Country Shop & Cafe, an outgrowth of the family orchard business.  “With four children to put through school, we needed more than mandarins,” said Ruth, who opened the cafe and shop 22 years ago.

Perched on a scenic hillside overlooking Mercury Bay, the cafe is on “state highway” 25-A – one of the ribbons of gorgeous roadways crisscrossing the North Island. The Cafe’s menu is all about fresh and seasonal comfort fare, usually starring herbs, veggies and fruits from the garden out back. Dishes might include local lamb enfolded in buttery puff pastry, wedges of feta and spinach pie and grilled ham and cheese panini featuring happy porkers from a nearby pasture. Homebaked scones, with clotted cream and fresh peach jam, are the perfect accompaniment for Ruth’s just-picked herbal tea.

After lunch, browse through the stylish shop for a few New Zealand made goods to take home. At the very least, buy a jar of local Manuka honey, a tonic for just about anything that ails you.  Then again, the same can be said for New Zealand, a destination that’s definitely good for the soul.

Salad from Ruth's garden

Lamb pie and salad for lunch

 

Obsessed with Mariza in the Bywater

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Coins of beets add snap to this salumi gorgonzola salad at Mariza

I can’t stop dreaming about the burrata.

It was love at first bite when I first visited Mariza , the new Italian inspired eatery in the Bywater from Iris chef Ian Schnoebelen and his wife and business partner Laurie Casebonne. Located inside the Rice Mill Lofts on the river, Mariza sports an industrial vibe, with brick walls, floor to ceiling windows and high ceilings. The setting is relaxed and casual, but the real star of the show is the food. There’s a raw bar and an open kitchen where you can spy cured salumi and pickled veggies, which along with the pasta, is all made inhouse. Love love the private dining room for eight guests, with its swank chandelier and cushy banquettes.

But back to the burrata, a plate of creamy mozzarella goodness served with a drizzle of pesto, micro greens and crostini, just one of the value priced apps in the $7-10 range that makes this place such a gem.  The yellowfin carpaccio glistens with EVO, a salami and gorgonzola salad delivers the unexpected crunch of baked beet chips.  Other deliciousness includes a duck ragout pappardelle, a short rib rigatoni, vegetable lasagna, and meat and vegetarian pizzas.

I love that you can order a small plate of pasta in the $8-12 range instead of a large serving. The tangle of squid ink pasta with shrimp and crab tasted so indulgent, but the serving kept the guilts at bay.  All of the meats and most of the produce are local.  Schnoebelen and Casebonne have earned raves over the years at Iris, the restaurant they started in 2006, the same year Schnoebelen was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s best new chefs.

Oozing goodness — the burrata at Mariza

Crispy red snapper, a steal at $20


Beyond the Beach in Funky Pine Island

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Nothing shy about Matlacha artist Leoma Lovegrove

Located just 30 minutes west of Fort Myers and off of most tourists’ radar, Pine Island, Florida doesn’t have a single beach to its name. Ditto for high rise development, theme parks and the typical chain stores. Yet its Old Florida appeal is undeniable, both for the 9,000 year-round residents of the 17-mile long island, and for the savvy visitors who come calling.

Besides a plethora of wildlife and a no-frost tropical clime, Pine Island is also home to the Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival, which takes around the beginning of November every year. . Hundreds of paddlers, competitors and outdoor enthusiasts convene to follow in the wake of the Calusa Indians, who first paddled along the pristine gulf coastline.

Pine Island is at the northern most point of the Blueway’s 190 miles of marked water trails that start in Bonita Springs, and offer meandering views of leggy wading birds, mangrove tunnels and sugar-sand beaches.

Pine Island’s section of the trail brings you in splashing distance to the artsy small town of Matlacha (say Mat-luh-shay), with its funky waterfront galleries and restaurants. Here, you’ll meet Leoma Lovegrove, whose Painting Out Loud performances have earned her international acclaim. Peggy McTeague at Wild Child Gallery is proud to showcase her own metal sculptures, along with art by more than 120 mostly local artists. And Lou Demek, a New York shoe wholesaler who “retired” to Matlacha and opened the Shoe Gallery, a lemon-colored shop full of serious fashion bargains. Stroll up and down the main drag, and in each shop, it’s the owner who will welcome you, something that just doesn’t happen at your average chain store.

So while the masses flock to the sandy beaches of places like nearby Sanibel, the fortunate few seek out the road less traveled to Matlacha. People like Bill and Diane Stoelker, who moved from Philadelphia to this quirky little town a few years ago. Co-owners of the comfortable Angler’s Inn, the couple fell in love with the island’s laid back lifestyle and friendly vibe.

A paradise for boaters, Matlacha is made up of a series of canals, so you’re never far from the water. And there’s a strong sense of community in town, a one-mile strip of ramshackle fishing shacks turned into galleries, restaurants and shops. Painted in rainbow hues, downtown Matlacha is reminiscent of what Key West used to be like, long before the cruise ships started bringing boatloads of tourists to town.

Order some just caught fish, blackened, broiled, fried or grilled, at Olde Fish House, a waterfront market that serves food Thursday through Sunday out on the shaded patio. Or grab a cold one at Bert’s Bar, where you can sample the best smoked smelt in all of Lee County.

Pine Island isn’t the usual FLorida beach destination, but if it’s authenticity you crave, along with fresh seafood, friendly bars (when was the last time you had a $1 beer?), great fishing and a bona fide artists’ community, then you’ll give this off-the-map destination five stars.

Philly transplants BIll and Diane run the Anglers Inn on Pine Island

 

 

New Orleans: Home of the Indie Supermarket

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Langenstein's in the early days

When New Orleanians “make groceries” in the Big Easy, chances are they’ll be patronizing one of many locally owned, independent grocery stores.  Langenstein’s, Robert Fresh Market,  Dorignacs and Rouses are four great options, each with its own signature style and claim to fame.

Marc and Darlene Robért are newcomers to the party, opening their first Robert Fresh Market in the suburb of Metaire in 1994, now with multiple locations around town, each with an emphasis on local and organic  product.  Rouses is the go-to spot in the Quarter, with a fancy new location in the burgeoning Central Business District. The store has its roots as the City Produce Company, founded by J.P. Rouse in Thibodaux, Louisiana, in 1923. Dorignac’s, opened in 1947 in Metairie, is known for its terrific wine selection and outstanding customer service.

When Michael Langenstein and his sons George and Richard opened Langenstein’s supermarket in the early 1920’s, their goal was to carry the best meat and seafood in New Orleans. Locals love this place for its amazing quality meats and gourmet prepared Louisiana specialties.

Making groceries N’Awlins style means it stays in the family.

Two Langenstein's specialties, The Original Better Cheddar and The Original Le Popeye Dip

 

Aw Shucks! Mayberry Still Alive and Well in Mt. Airy, N.C.

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Cruising Mayberry-style in the Galaxy

Gloria Joyner Johnson had one wish for her birthday. She wanted to go to Mayberry.

So Johnson and her friend Addie Lisby traveled 100 miles north of Charlotte, NC to Mt. Airy, Andy Griffith’s hometown and the inspiration for The Andy Griffith Show. “I have every DVD, but I still watch the reruns,” said Johnson. “The show captures a more peaceful time. Mayberry was a real neighborly place, a place where funny things happened, but there wasn’t ever any cussin’ or real problems. Andy practiced ‘Do Unto Others,’ which is something I believe in.”

The show, which first aired in 1960, inspires a cult following, with a regular stream of pilgrims fueling Mt. Airy tourism. Visitors can take a Mayberry squad car tour in a black and white Galaxy police car, stopping at landmarks like Wally’s Fillin’ Station, Floyds Barber shop, Snappy Lunch and the Griffith’s homestead.

Emmett Forrest, Griffith’s friend since grade school, curates the Andy Griffith Museum, an impressive collection of memorabilia that includes Sheriff Andy Taylor’s original office set, one of Barney Fife’s dandy suits, and the keys to the town jail. In front of the museum, a statue of Andy and his son Opie (played by the young Ron Howard), is a popular place for photo opps.

Lisby and Johnson got lucky and ran into Betty Lynn, the retired actress who played Thelma Lou, Barney Fife’s girlfriend from 1960-1965. Lynn, whose resume includes June Bride with Bette Davis and Cheaper by the Dozen with Myrna Loy, moved to Mt. Airy from Hollywood a few years ago. “I was tired of all the craziness. Here, I have a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and I like small town life. Everybody still calls me Betty Lou, but I really don’t mind.”

The birthday girl is all smiles next to "Thelma Lou"