Friday, May 20, 2011

Moonlighting as a Food Critic?

Um…no.  Not really.  I do get sidetracked by outstanding restaurants on occasion; and by “outstanding” I mean either the definition of excellence or something completely pathetic.  In either instance, I feel that the experience is worth taking an extra minute or ten to scrawl something relevant on one of the more popular consumer travel review sites.  Some may consider this a complete waste of time, but I don’t.  For me it’s all part of the “pay it forward” concept that in this case actually works.  I’ve used these sites to find excellent eateries and lodging while avoiding the mediocre.  Well, mostly.  In kind, perhaps my words will help someone find Foodtopia.  Here’s a review I surreptitiously drafted for a spot in Ybor City that knocked it out of the ballpark; “The Laughing Cat”…

This is one of *those* places. You know the kind... the one you'll be talking about for at least a week afterward. The one you'll tell your friends about until they wished you'd just shut up. The one you wish you had eaten at instead of the Columbia before a long flight back to the U.K. (Nothing against our famous icon!) Yes, the reviews are right. This is not a case where the company's internet review boffins shill something from nothing, no, this is the real deal. It's one of those slightly off-the-beaten-path hole-in-the-walls you hope stays around forever. There is no hint of elitist pretension; there are no famous paintings on the walls; there are no uniformed millenials running around exuding their sense of entitlement. Instead you have three servers -- a younger man, a middle aged man, and a middle-aged manager named Sue -- all casually dressed as if they were just out running errands. There was also a middle-aged '70s-looking Italiano chef helping with those duties.

We were lucky, arriving on a Thursday night just after 7pm, not knowing what to expect. They asked if we had a reservation. Oops! No, we didn't, but it was only me and my wife. They had an empty table and accommodated us without delay. +1 for service!

The servers immediately brought two fresh goblets of filtered ice water, menus, and shortly after that, a basket of scrumptious toasted bread. My wife went for the Marsala chicken because that what she always orders at a new Italian stop. I selected a veal piccata dish until I saw an adjacent table served the Chicken Yolanda. They caught me staring. Well, to be honest, *everyone* was staring at that dish. An entire crusted chicken breast stuffed with Italian sausage, coated with red peppers, provolone, caramelized onions, tons of mushrooms, and drenched in a sherry sauce that made the next 20 minutes waiting for my own dish complete torture.

What the Laughing Cat did right:

- Service. Sue was excellent, attentive, and an obvious pro. She gave excellent recommendations to first-timers, and never once gave the impression that she had anything else to do but make you happy.

- Food. Tampa, like Miami, New York, and Chicago, is blessed to have one of the best restaurant selections in the country. If you are from out-of-town, there are places you must go (Bern's, Columbia, etc.) and places that are simply Tampa's best. The Laughing Cat is now in my Top 5. The Chicken Yolanda was, of course, exquisite. My wife said her Marsala was the best in town, period.
- Location. It's at the corner of 8th and 15th...heart of Ybor.
- Wine. Not an overly abundant selection, just a GOOD selection. The two $9 glasses we had were perfect; nothing under-aged or over-described.
- Water. Not too many reviewers mention this, but I think it has become important lately that a restaurant's water not taste like the local tap, or worse, like a garden hose. TLC's water tasted filtered (if not bottled).
- Portions. This is important with respect to the pricing. Sure, you're paying a *slight* premium over, say, Carraba's or Macaroni Grill, but please -- they are not in the same ballpark. At TLC, you're actually buying two meals...maybe three. Unless your last name is Creosote, you will be going home with leftovers. We had two full entrees, two glasses of wine. Plus taxes and tip it came to just under $75. It was worth every penny...and I don't say this often.

What they did wrong:

- Nothing. Look, if I really wanted to nitpick, the finest 5-star could suffer a mark or two in some regard. I could complain that a straw wrapper had been missed and left on the window sill. I could whine about the one little gnat that somehow made it into the front entrance and flew back out. I could gripe and say their windows needed to be spotless. I could say that the kitchen staff shouldn't take their smoke breaks just outside the kitchen's sidewalk exit. But if the place was perfect, it wouldn't be...perfect.

I highly recommend The Laughing Cat and look forward to trying everything on their menu over the next several years. Go -- you won't be disappointed.
T. Nelson Taylor | Official Site | DusT | Bolita