Tampa Bay Food Monster

...eating food since 1985.

California Pizza Kitchen: THE NEXT GENERATION at the International Plaze in West Shore

Remember California Pizza Kitchen? Back before they became kings of the frozen food aisle, they used to have actual restaurants! Remember that? It may shock you to learn that those restaurants still exist today! And, perhaps even more mind blowing, these California Pizza Kitchens appear to be evolving into something new… something sentient, far more powerful and fancy, and featuring non-pizza food items. Believe it! Except for maybe that sentient part. Anyway, a change is coming, and right here in Tampa you can get a taste of that sweet sweet future at the California Pizza Kitchen at International Plaza.

california pizza paradise, feat. lucille bluth

I was recently asked to attend a preview of the newer/bigger/badder California Pizza Kitchen, and, in spite of a series of misfortunes and general stupidity on my part, I was able to stop by and get a taste of a bunch of new dishes (entirely thanks to my contact Austen being incredibly accommodating).

look at that dude... look at them chops. serve me, o king of facial expression! SERVE ME YOUR SECRETS.

It would seem that California Pizza Kitchen is going for a new look and feel to the restaurant itself, in addition to the new menu. All of these changes stem from a push towards not only using fresher, local ingredients at the restaurant, but also bringing a focus back to the bold, innovative flavors that made California Pizza Kitchen unique from its start (as with their BBQ, Thai, and Jerk chicken pizzas that made them famous). The result appears to have manifested in a series of high-quality menu items and interior decoration, bringing an upscale feel to a mid-range eatery.

dear god, am i supposed to eat all of that??

Upon my arrival, I was greeted by several friendly faces ready to take me on a gluttonous tour of tomorrow. I informed them that I was on a bit of a tight schedule, and they were very understanding. In order to keep my schedule, I was subjected to a barrage of food and drinks, running the course gamut. It was one part fantasy, and one part heartbreak, as I was presented with dish after dish, but in no way capable of eating more than just a few bites of any one item. Such is my plight, and I bore it alone.

beautiful drinks for a beautiful lady (me).

To begin, two cocktails and a non-alcoholic drink. From left to right, the Fresh Strawberry Mango Cooler (non-alcoholic with a Fresca base, which I do not care for, but decently sweet and fruity thanks to the strawberries), the Blueberry Ginger Smash, and the California Roots. The Smash was essentially a Dark and Stormy, but swap Jack Daniels (my favorite) for the rum, add some agave nectar, cranberry juice, and fresh blueberries and lime. Delicious, well balanced, and personally appealing to me. But the winner was still the California Roots, which captures the “innovative” sensibility of CPK by consisting of fresh (muddled?) avocado and mint with vodka and agave sour. The drink was probably the most light and refreshing cocktail I’ve had, perfect for pretty much any Florida day. Add to it a rim of crushed sea salt and fennel, and you have one of the most unique drinks you’ll ever encounter.

this would make a badass skateboard

The food was brought to me a bit out of order because of my time constraints, but I’ll present everything here in a more “sensible” order, so let’s begin with the Brussels + Bacon Flatbread. By comparison with almost everything else I had during my visit, the flatbread was rather tame. Consisting of roasted Brussels sprouts (which I like even though nobody else seems to), caramelized onions, bacon, and goat and romano cheeses. Everything blended together quite a bit aside from the bacon, so it mostly just tasted like a lightly cheesy bread punctuated by the occasional piece of bacon. Not bad, but nothing special.

it's a beauty

The Harvest Kale Salad, however, was actually quite special. Delightfully fresh and light, the salad started with a bed of baby kale, featuring toasted farro, cabbage, pear shavings, cranberries and pecans, with bits of butternut squash and topped with some of the creamiest, most lovely goat cheese ever. The salad featured a citrus vinaigrette, which is right up my alley. A beautiful salad.

wakey wakey eggs and bakey - the pizza

As I mentioned before, THIS AIN’T YER GRANDMA’S CALIFORNIA PIZZA KITCHEN. That is to say, there appears to be a concerted shift from pizza towards other types of food. But, at its core, there’s still got to be pizza at the Pizza Kitchen (because, I mean, it’s in the name right?). And so, in keeping with the “pizza” thing, I was presented with the one item of the tasting that was a pizza – the Sunny Side Up Bacon + Potato Pizza. Right away I wanted to make sweet, sweaty, passionate morning love to this thing. I mean look at it – drippy goo flowing from sunny side up eggs, pouring out onto bacon, shaved fingerling potatoes, and caramelized leeks, with Parmesan and mozzarella cheese (the egg yolks provide the only “sauce” present). It’s breakfast pizza. Unfortunately, I cannot say this was a highlight of the meal. While creative and definitely fun, the pizza was mostly just salty, with very little contributing to the flavor outside of the bacon and yolk. Not bad, but not enough going on here to bring me back in.

fancy and yellow.

The four separate main courses begin with the Hearth-Roasted Halibut. Roasted on a cedar plank, the halibut is served with a savory butternut squash farro with baby kale, and grilled asparagus. The fish was not especially tender or flakey, and was so lightly seasoned I didn’t find it to be very interesting. The farro, however, was amazing.

oh yes it's a slab of meat

Here we have the Fire-Grilled Ribeye – a 12oz USDA choice ribeye grilled with a Pinot Noir sea salt(!), and served with a tiny lump of bleu cheese butter. I asked for this to be as rare as they would make it, and it came out pretty rare (though I’ve had rarer). Of all the items I was served on my visit, this was the one I returned to and tried to eat the most of. It was just a beautiful piece of meat, an excellent cut seasoned lightly enough that the beef flavor shone through. And the bleu cheese butter on top was insanely good, just enough bleu cheese to give a hint, but not overpower. I could eat this steak forever and be happy. Served with roasted fingerling potatoes in a pesto sauce (decadent!) and a lemon-garlic arugala salad, this dish is the one I would order on my next visit. Steak. From a pizza place.

salmon i am

The Cedar Plank Salmon, by comparison with the halibut, was heaven. Also cooked on a cedar plank, the salmon was seasoned with lime and smoked paprika, which all served to capture the “essence” of cedar plank grilled far better than the halibut did. The salmon’s exterior was salty (almost too salty, but not quite) and lightly charred, while its insides were extremely tender and moist. Perfect fish dish, served with a white corn and spinach succotash topped with feta, which had a spicy Latin feel. Squeeze the half a lime on top of everything, and you are going to have an excellent meal.

friggin' chicken

To finish out the main dishes, we have the Roasted Garlic Chicken + Seasonal Vegetables, from the seasonal menu (to be periodically changed… you know, with the season). The chicken was prepared with a lemon-garlic sauce (chunks of warm garlic), and served with fingerling potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower. The chicken was godly… never before have I experienced chicken quite so juicy. The moistness had been sealed inside the meat during the roasting/searing process, providing a crisp, perfectly seasoned exterior, hiding the reason I’m not a vegetarian within. Everything else in this dish was probably fine, whatever – just give me the chicken. Though I enjoyed the steak more, this was probably the best prepared item I had.

is that... S'MORES PUDDING AHHHHH

And we have finally arrived at the end of our meal – the desserts. We begin here with a pair of puddings: on the left, we have S’mores Pudding, and on the right is the Salted Caramel Pudding. I have gone on the record as being a dedicated s’mores fan and supporter, but sadly the S’mores pudding missed the mark, with a gelatinous blob of impassable marshmallow on top, hiding what is an entirely ordinary chocolate pudding below. The graham crackers on the bottom were not easily accessible, not only making this dish difficult to eat, but making it hard to really capture that s’mores flavor.

The Salted Caramel Pudding, on the other had, was completely on point. It was super rich and salty, and in some ways reminding me of a homemade Jell-O pudding that used too much powder… the flavor was so intense that this would be difficult to eat alone in one sitting. Nevertheless, it was incredibly delicious.

ahh the pumpkins have returned

The seasonal Pumpkin Cheesecake made an appearance, on a ginger crumb praline crust. Very good, with a slight spice and an excellent creaminess, but nothing that I haven’t tasted before.

what is this thing

Last but certainly not least, we have the Butter Cake. Butter Cake. It’s a Butter Cake. Have you had this? Probably not. This thing was the best. It was something like a pound cake in consistency, with a bit of the light flavor of angel food cake, but the rich butteriness of butter cookies. You know, those blue tins you get for Christmas? That’s it. That’s what this tastes like. Buttery god damned deliciousness. Served warm, with melty vanilla iced-creams on top and whipped-creams on the sides. I would go back just for this dessert.

So, in the end, we are presented with a conundrum. We have here the California Pizza Kitchen. Pizza is in the title. Yet you can clearly see an emphasis on not-pizza. I was reminded of Seasons 52, but obviously this is a far more casual environment and far more moderately priced. The food was excellent, with dishes far better than I’d expect from the California Pizza Kitchen – far better than I’d expect from a pizza place. So what is to come of this? Seasonal menus, local, fresh ingredients, and a slew of decidedly non-pizza items. Is this sustainable? Will people go to a place with “Pizza” in its name for food that is not pizza? I would definitely go back, but the answer remains to be seen.

Regardless, the food was excellent, as was the experience thanks in no small part to my incredibly knowledgeable and proficient server Shawn. In spite of everything I did that should have ruined this event, I was met with flexibility and kindness, and then given tons of great food. I look forward to returning to the California Pizza Kitchen, and am interested to see whether this new concept for the company works here in Tampa Bay, and from there how it may play on the national stage.

California Pizza Kitchen is located in the International Plaza, at 2223 N. Westshore Blvd in Tampa.
Open Monday through Saturday 11am-9:30pm, and Sunday 11am-7pm.

Smokey Bones’ Smoked Prime Rib

steak is the best. it’s pretty much the best dinner ever. you get a steak dinner, and you feel like you’re tearing into an animal. there’s something primal about it. empowering. a steak dinner makes you feel like a king.

…but a prime rib dinner makes you feel like a god.

them smokey bones

i was given a so-very-kind invitation to come check out the new smoked prime rib dinner (¡¡¡LIMITED TIME ONLY!!!) at smokey bones. i have been to smokey bones before, long ago, and i recall it being a positive experience. “smokey” means smoked, and “bones” means meat, so one may infer that this is perhaps a barbecue type place. and, back when i visited the bones in my past, that would be a mostly accurate description. now, though…

inside the bone

oh. well according to this photograph, smokey bones is a rather low-key meeting place for the elderly, made entirely out of wood. but that’s not true! perhaps my photo skills are lacking. really, smokey bones has been completely remade in the image of the “kinda cool hip place”. it’s hard to describe exactly what it has become, partially because the restaurant now teeters between restaurant worlds. it’s kind of like a smokehouse meets an outback steakhouse. meets a late night club. there’s a huge bar. the lighting is low. lots of sexy cocktails. and some interesting placards, with information running the gamut between “servers are people too” and “hey boobs are pretty cool, right?” so yeah, a bit all over the place.

i do not dislike the makeover, but it is not the most comfortable. it can be summed up thusly: they played “we will rock you” by queen, and rather than play naturally through to the second part of the song, “we are the champions”, they played some sort of hard rock remix of “we will rock you”. the same song they had just played.

smoked wings

we began our meal with a nice appetizer, as recommended by the extremely kind and accommodating contact i had with smokey bones. i love wings. have i mentioned that before? big fan. i will start by saying that these wings are not traditional wings. they aren’t what you think of when you think of wings. instead, they are some of the most impressive non-traditional wings i have ever had. these bad boys are coated in rib rub and smoked, then fried, then coated in a DIFFERENT rub, then given a light sweet glaze. and they are incredible. super crisp outside, like fried chicken, with a delicious, steamy, tender smoked interior. perfect counterpoints to each other. salty and savory, and the glaze was spicy and sweet all at once. it was like eating ribs. tremendously good, and a must-buy for any visit to the bones.

smoked prime rib

and, of course, the smoked prime rib. prime rib – tender, juicy, melt-in-your mouth perfect beef. it is the most wonderful food i can imagine. dip it in au jus… what more could you ask for?

smokey bones’ smoked prime rib is a bit different, though. the rib is smoked in-restaurant for hours. the au jus is served on top, rather than on the side for dipping. and, to be quite honest, the whole thing is a disappointment. you would think that the ultimate in tender preparation would mix perfectly with the ultimate in tender meats. instead, you are left with a smokey monstrosity. one bite and you are overwhelmed with smokey flavor, masking the quiet, intrinsic beauty of the cut. the salt and pepper seasoning makes the edges just a bit too salty to enjoy properly. the au jus was a bit thick, almost more of a gravy than a juice. and, in spite of all conventional knowledge, the prime rib was not tender. it was not tough, but it was far more chewy than it should have been. the most enjoyable bites were those not dominated by the smokey flavor, found near the fatty portions of the rib. otherwise, this dish was sadly not worth ordering.

and i did not feel like a god. i just felt like a slightly disappointed man.

apple pecan crisp

the meal ended on an up note, however, with the apple pecan crumble. this delightful little dish was, again, recommended by my contact, and was superb. it’s basically what you get when you cross an apple cobbler with a pecan pie… which is just as amazing as it sounds. served super hot, with a lump of vanilla ice cream on top. the crisp crust played well against its hot sticky insides, melting the ice cream into a river of cool relief. a perfect dessert. the only thing i could ask for is more pecan goodness in a largely apple dominated dessert.

it was a good visit. the place has changed a lot, but it’s a kind of cool, hip change. the prime rib was a disappointment, but the dessert was great, and the wings warrant another visit all on their own. they also have a build-a-burger thing going on, with more options than you’ll ever need, which is probably worth checking out. and my friend got baby back ribs, which looked amazing. i’ll just have to realize my godhood elsewhere.

Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill on Urbanspoon

Arby’s Grand Turkey Club

TYPICALLY, change is a good thing. like, changing a poopy diaper, for example. where once there was poopy, now there is none. and this works! because there was a problem before. but then there are times when changes are made to things that don’t necessarily need change. this may be one of those times.

…prepare yourself.

this is where we’ve come. this is the brave, new world you were looking for.

yes, arby’s has changed their logo. and no, this is not my poorly photoshopped guess at what it may be like; this is the actual logo. let’s take a quick trip down memory lane and glance at arby’s former majesty:

yes, now that’s more like it. much is the same, yet much has changed. the font has lost its fun time western style and moved to a simple, clean piece of modern mundanity. the apostrophe has morphed into what i think is supposed to be a meat slicer, ruthlessly cutting into the ‘s’. and the hat itself (it’s supposed to be a hat) has undergone a 3D makeover, in keeping with the recent surge in popularity of three-dimensional media. this effect can be achieved in photoshop elements, or its nearest competitor, MS PAINT. the decision to leave the font two-dimensional is both baffling and distressing, causing my mind to bend in a similar fashion to when i look at an m.c. escher image.

…and i mourn what we’ve lost. the new logo is not great. what was once vaguely recognizable as a hat (from its own all-but-lost origins) is now some floating abstraction. the new font comes at the cost of its old identity. it’s no wendy’s train wreck, but it’s not an improvement.

arby's new thang

it’s not just a logo – it’s a whole rebranding. they are pushing the freshness/sliceness angle, which works for them what with all the slicing they do. and to increase that amount of slicing, they are throwing in a whole new chunk of meat to cut at: turkey bird.

arby’s has introduced three turkey-blasted sandwiches – turkey classic, turkey ‘n cheddar classic, and the grand turkey club. basically, it’s as though this turkey meat is floating alongside the beef meat as just another option. which is a pretty decent idea. in a real-life deli, you get a whole assortment of different kinds of meats, all of which are sliced up right in front of your face. this is the same as that! fresh! variety! etc!

turkey club box

arby’s offered to buy me one of their new sandwiches. to check out dat new meat. i opted for the grand turkey club, assuming “grand” meant that it was the best. the other sandwiches are pretty much identical to their beef analogues, with the addition of mayonnaise, honey mustard, or ranch dressing to the classic. the grand turkey club is along the lines of a non-grand turkey club, with turkey, lettuce tomato and mayo, swiss cheese, and bacon all on a harvest wheat bun rather than toast.

the box claims this is the greatest thing since sliced roast beef. there is also lettuce escaping through the bottom, and a dab of mayonnaise has gotten out as well. these are indicators of things to come.

arby's grand turkey club

open the box up, and we find with a giant turkey sandwich just waiting to burst out. it’s all packed in there, with good amounts of everything. a solid amount of turkey, enough to satisfy my hunger. nice, crisp lettuce, and fresh tomato, playing a big part in the overall feel of the sandwich. decent slices of bacon. probably some swiss cheese. and a full bucket of mayo.

mayonnaise everywhere

oh god. yeah. there’s a lot of mayonnaise here. now, i’ve gone to great lengths to make it known that i do not care for mayonnaise, but i can tolerate it. i believe there was too much mayonnaise on here even for a lover of mayonnaise. it was the first taste you noticed. it was almost the only taste you noticed. and it really took away from my enjoyment of this sandwich.

but let’s assume, for the sake of a fair review, that this sandwich was never intended to have so much mayonnaise on it. taking it for what it is, the sandwich is not bad. their toppings are decent (good lettuce and tomato, decent pepper bacon). the swiss cheese was all but lost behind the mayo, which is disappointing. the bun was actually a very solid choice, playing a bit sweet against the turkey.

and the turkey itself? it was good. it was not great. it was not bad by any means. good turkey. tender, with good flavor. a bit salty, not overwhelmingly so. but nothing special. i did not detect any exciting seasoning, nothing mind blowing. it was just turkey.

don't

they politely request you try the turkey. you would not be worse off for it. but what this boils down to, for me, is that the turkey is not good enough by itself to convince me to go to arby’s. it does not change what arby’s is to me. for me, it is just another menu item. and, speaking as someone who loves arby’s roast beef sandwiches (RIP big montana!!), the presence of turkey as an option is not going to change my order from whichever sandwich they can pack the most roast beef onto. all i want from arby’s is a pile of roast beef on a warm, pillowy bun, doused in a packet of arby’s sauce.

as with the old logo, all i want from arby’s is simplicity, and what i’ve grown to love them for. aaaaaaaand maybe a talking oven mitt.

White Chocolate Candy Corn M&Ms

white chocolate candy corn m&ms bag

okay, so if you’re anything like me, you’re just now realizing through a storm of facebook posts that TODAY is, in fact, the hallowed eve. that is to say, halloween. and that means one of two things: 1.) a bunch of disgusting children are going to be trespassing on your property this evening, dressed like FOOLS, or 2.) you’re ready to join them on the streets, “just passing” as young enough to be out there (nobody believes this, they give you nothing). either way, you’re going to end up buying a whole bunch of candy and eating it yourself. and what better time to do that than the day after halloween, when all that sweet sweet candy goes on sale??

so allow me to tell you about one candy you might want to avoid.

white chocolate candy corn m&ms*note: candy corn added for comparison; not actually included in bag of m&ms.

those jerks at m&ms think they can just crap out anything, and we’ll buy it from them. well… they’re right. this season’s disgusting new variant on an original that does not need to be improved upon is the white chocolate candy corn m&m. alright, so we’ve got a lot going on here. first of all, they are yellow, orange, and white, just like real candy corn! they’re a bit larger than normal m&ms, around the size of the peanut variety, but retaining that signature m&m spheroid shape. i also noticed my bag’s m&ms were a bit slimy, but i cannot say whether that was just my bag, or if they all suffer from this gross affliction. eh. regardless, visually, they did it. i get it – candy corn. mission accomplished.

taste… taste is another story.

inside the white chocolate candy corn m&m

what you have here is a densely packed, super-sweet white chocolate interior. the “artificial and natural flavors” they’ve chosen provide absolutely no hint of candy corn flavor (which should be simple – just add honey!!). so essentially we have just white chocolate m&ms, which would be fine if they just weren’t so damn sweet!! bleh. combine with a shell that seems a little thicker than a typical m&m shell, and a greasy slime coating (again, could be just my bag), and we have ourselves a worthless product that becomes inedible after half a handful.

as a sweet bonus, some of the m&ms tasted vaguely of alcohol?? an odd fermented flavor. maybe it was just the rotten caramel apple i ate for lunch, but, if not, this was hugely unpleasant.

so, in the informed opinion of a self-admitted lover of real candy corn (i’m sorry if you can no longer trust my tastes), this candy sucks. it’s not the worst thing i’ve put in my mouth this halloween, but it ranks up there. if you made the mistake of picking these up, do your damnedest to unload them on unsuspecting children – those kids will eat anything.