Sunday, November 9, 2008

Epicure Market - Sunny Isles Beach

So with the Rascal House all but demolished, the National Deli Corporation took the failed Rascal House location and expanded their premier gourmet supermarket to it's second location in Sunny Isles Beach. How does the new location stack up to the original and more importantly, how does it compare to other gourmet supermarkets? With the advent of chains Whole Foods, Fresh market, and even local player, Gardener's Market, Can Epicure stand atop the crowd?

Epicure has a long fabled history in South Florida. Originally opening in 1945, the market has been a Miami Beach staple for high end prepared food and Jewish style appetizers. This includes, wine, cheese, deserts, and their own line of frozen foods. They are best known for their take out and legendary soups. Their Matzo Ball soup is still one of the best around. Their high end flair has catered to the rich and famous as well as the average Joe.

The new location is a beautiful site and has been completely renovated. It is nearly twice the size of the original Alton Road location. As you walk in you see the endless take out display counter, and aisles of gourmet stuff. First stop was the cold appetizers, where I was offered to sample anything in the case I desired. I tried the "World Famous" tuna which was pretty darn good but lacked a little something crunchy. Next was the chopped liver. Boy, that was good, in fact world class. A brief examination of the smoked fish and cream cheeses appeared to look top quality as well. Next was the hot case, where you can buy everything from baby back ribs to stuffed salmon. The case looked good enough for a picture in a food catalog. The seafood case contained Colossal Stone Crab Claws, and Jumbo Shrimps among several other seafood based salads. Their other fish looked to be all fresh and top end. I took a walk through their wine selection and found it to be overpriced and inadequate. The fresh fruit looked as if each piece of fruit and vegetable had been waxed and sealed for a portrait, they could not have a better presentation.

So the place is beautiful, it has high end delicious food, what is the problem? The pricing. This place has the same problem they did when they owned the Rascal House. Their prices are just not competitive and are plain over priced. When National Deli took over the Rascal house the first thing they did was jack up the prices. Next they downsized the portions. Finally they began cutting the "freebies" that were standard table fare. Why do I mention this? Because as good as Epicure is, most items are not worth the money they charge. With the exception of certain "Old School" Jewish Style items such as the soups, Borscht, and Kasha Vanashkas, I don't foresee myself shopping here very often. Whole Foods has lower prices, more sales and their stuff is almost if not just as good as Epicure. Fresh Market is right up there as well, I would put their meat department second to none and they have good sales too. The Gardener's market is my favorite option for eat-in and a home style feel. I would take any of the three over Epicure, hands down.

It saddens me to potentially see another old Miami institution like Epicure going the way of the Rascal House, with over priced items and small portions. Luckily in Epicure's favor they have some of the highest rent district near the new store, Aventura, Sunny Isles, and Bal Harbor, so they may well get the crowd they are targeting. However, in these woeful economic times, I don't foresee huge lines forming at Epicure's registers. Thumbs up for the quality and the selection. Thumbs down for pricing, portions, and pomp. Let's hope Epicure does not go the way of our former beloved Rascal House.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Billy's Stone Crabs

This little known restaurant on Hollywood Beach seems to be in direct competition to the World Famous Joe's. Does it compare? Does it have good claws? These were the questions I sought out to answer on a fine Sunday evening.

Bill Hershey, founder of Billy's, was married to the daughter of Joe's, which is the Stone Crab connection here. They seem to be the only two stone crab specialists in Miami-Dade and Broward. Billy claims to get his claws from the same supplier as Joe's and states they are exactly the same. Lucky for you, your columnist has eaten annually at Joe's since birth and is in a unique position to compare and contrast the two. The restaurant itself is a two story building on the Intercoastal with the dining area on the second floor. After the elevator deposits you at the Maître d' station, Michael Leffler greets you with a big smile and a New York feel. No reservations are accepted, arrive early if you don't like waiting, although it is nothing like the wait at Joe's.

I am pleased to report that Billy's has excellent claws, and even better they have an all you can eat option for those with a hearty appetite. They are available in Medium, Large, and Jumbo size claws. All of these sizes have an all you can eat option. What puzzled me was why anyone would bother with a large or jumbo all you can eat when the mediums were the lowest priced?

We ordered an appetizer of their Cole slaw and Crab Cakes to start. The Cole slaw was excellent, fresh, and mixed by our server table side. The crab cakes were more crab than cake and fantastic. I highly recommend them.

The moment of truth arrived and yours truly ordered the medium all you can eat claws. Also ordered were Shrimp Scampi, Blackened Grouper, and a side of hash browns. The claws were served properly chilled and cracked well, but the meat was not bruised. No cracker or mallet was needed to gain access to the succulent meat. The mustard sauce was also chilled and standard fare. I find the medium claws to be sweeter and tastier than the larger claws and always have. Stone Crabs are expensive enough, without jacking the price up for the larger versions. A standard order of medium Stone Crabs has 7 claws, large 5 claws, and jumbo 3 claws with price exponentially increasing as the size goes up and the number of claws goes down. I thought the claws were every bit as good as Joe's. The Shrimp Scampi and Grouper were also good, the grouper was a little on the small side. Personally, if I go to Joe's or Billy's, I am there for the Stone Crabs; however, at least they have decent alternatives for those who do not partake. The hash browns were good, and the service was exceptional. Our water glasses never went below half-full, and our server was very patient and doting to our table.

For desert, they tout a Key Lime Pie which we sampled and found it to be darned good. Unfortunately, their espresso machine was out of order, so we passed on the cappuccino. We liked everything we had and felt comfortable with the staff and ambiance. The second floor view was scintillating and calming.

This will bring us to the ever pending question. How does it compare to Joe's? Well, it really doesn't. Joe's is an institution that has been built for decades and deserves a review of it's own. The Stone Crabs, Cole Slaw, and service are on par with Joe's. The Hash browns and Key Lime pie are not. The rich excitement and anticipation of "going to Joe's" was not there, because it's not Joe's.

Billy's is a great alternative to Joe's for a Stone Crab night out. The claws are great, the service impeccable. I enjoyed my dinner at Billy's and I will definitely return. Those in West Palm and Broward may find this a closer alternative than Joe's to sample some first class Stone Crabs. Come on down to Billy's and enjoy your dinner. Just don't expect to meet Joe's. Billy's is located on A1A one block north of Hollywood Boulevard. A review on Joe's will be forthcoming in the next few weeks.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The King of South Florida Bagels

Having grown up in South Florida with thick New York blood coarsing through my veins, good bagels are difficult to find down here. Luckily for me and everyone else, we have Sage Deli and Restaurant a/k/a Sage Bagels. There are a few decent bagel places in South Florida that are passable, but Sage is the only place that can muster the litmus test. Their bagels and bialy's are the best - period. Sage is the Heavyweight World Champion of South Florida Bagels. Their appetizers also are high quality, traditional, and never disappoint. You can imagine walking down Clinton Street on the Lower East Side when you enter Sage Bagel.

In business since 1973, the original owners, Milton and Iris Fuerst have maintained this exceptional bagel establishment without interruption. Although Milton died in 2002, Iris has kept the place up to snuff. Originally, bakers from Queens, NY, they opened their small shop in Hallandale and have kept the original location. They expanded into a small eat-in area which is always busy.

The world of commercial bagels is both a blessing and a curse. Places like Einsteins, Offerdahls, and Bruegger's have opened the eyes of the masses to bagel's and appetizers, NY style. For this we are thankful. The problem is they are embarrassingly bad when compared to the real stuff.

So what makes the best bagel different from say, an Einstein, Offerdahl, or other poser bagels? First is the preparation. Real bagels are boiled and then baked. You never just pop them in the oven,like an ordinary bread Also, each one is hand formed, no two are alike. The exterior is slightly crunchy with a chewy, not gummy interior. You generally slice in half and add a "schmear" of cream cheese. Purists prefer plain, scallion, or veggie. Nowhere in a real bagel joint will you find such Protestant things such as: honey butter,maple nut,and fruit flavored cream cheese. Also no real bagel joint will ever sell power bagels, cranberry bagels, asiago cheese bagels, mango bagels, blueberry, etc.

There is also the "bialy factor" at Sage. A bialy is a type of bagel-like creation that is a cross between a bagel and an onion pocket but it is not boiled and has a depression on the top usually filled with diced onions. Bialy's are part of their menu and they are difficult to find much less to find a good one.

Let's move on to appetizers. this includes, cream cheese, salads, smoked fish, and deli. They excel in this area. Their cream cheese is made fresh daily and whipped with the appropriate ingredients (scallion, veggie, plain). The cream cheeses are second to none. The salads include: White Fish Salad, Baked Salmon Salad, Chicken Salad, Tuna Salad, Egg Salad, Eggplant Salad, Chopped Liver, Chopped Herring, Nova or Lox Spread. They also offer Pickled Herring w/Onions & Cream Sauce, Schmaltz Herring w/Onions, Matjes Herring w/Onions & Wine Sauce, Pickled Lox w/Onions & Cream Sauce, and Gelfite Fish. These salads are also top quality and match up against any other local bagel joint. Smoked fish includes: Whole Filleted Whitefish, Hand-sliced Nova & Belly Lox, Kippered Salmon & Sable, and Sturgeon. Lastly, the deli meat is high quality and is better than most.

A few tips for the inexperienced: When buying Nova or lox, always insist they cut it near the head, never from near the tail. Nova is sweet and unsalted salmon, lox is it's salty cousin. (most people eat Nova). Figure one eighth of a pound per person for smoked fish. Bagel shops always sell a Baker's dozen, make sure you get the extra bagel. This stuff should be purchased the same day you are going to eat it. Finally, don't get sticker shock from the bill. It's expensive but well worth it. Honorable mention goes to Deli Den in Broward on Stirling Road.

Pay Sage Bagels a visit. They located in Sage Plaza next to Gulfstream on Hallandale Beach Boulevard just east of US1. Once you pick up a dozen of these, you too will imagine you are now transported to the Lower East Side of New York and wonder what those bagel chains have been doing all these years.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Old Heidelberg

The Oktoberfest is a sixteen-day festival held each year in Munich, Bavaria, Germany that has been held since 1810. I was amazed to learn that Oktoberfest was actually in September, held until the first Sunday in October. Having been to the real Oktoberfest a few years ago, I have not been impressed with most of the German food I have tried here in the United States. In honor of this fine German holiday, I set out looking for some real German food. Enter the Old Heidelberg, a Mom and Pop establishment that has become a landmark on SR 84 in Broward County. The Old Heidelberg was recently sold to new owners, although the original owners still own the deli located next door to the restaurant and still supply them with their Würstel (sausages).

The decor in the restaurant makes you feel as if you are in Munich as soon as you walk through the door. Lederhosen, German Dirndl Dresses, Cuckoo Clocks, Folk Music, Nutcrackers, and Steins are all here. So far, so good. While we waited for our table, we grazed at the bar. They had no less than ten authentic German Biers on draft. We settled on a traditional Bavarian Hefeweizen or Hefeweißbier in German. This is a nice light wheat beer with yeast. The beers come in two sizes, big and bigger. The beer is good. There is an accordion player and a dance floor where the kinder (children) supply live entertainment by doing a traditional German Folk Dance.

After being seated, we started with an appetizer of their Sausage Sampler Platter with Bratwurst, Knockwurst, Kielbasa, Thüringer and an order of Marinated Herring in Sour Cream. The sausages were served with Mustard and German Potato Salad. The sausages were delicious and cooked well. The mustard has a slight kick to it, and the potato salad was clearly homemade and delicious. The herring was good, it was minced into pieces I thought were a bit too small and lacked onions. The sausages were the clear winner here. Equally interesting are their soups. The German staple, Potato Soup, is served in a cup or a bowl and is worth a taste. Also of note is their liver dumpling soup, it's unique and tasty. A basket of fresh German breads are gratis and taste as if they were flown in from Germany daily.

The main courses are a very tough decision at the Old Heidelberg. The standout above the rest are the schnitzels. They offer "Wiener Schnitzel" Pan fried in Butter, Red Cabbage, and Potato Salad, "Holstein Schnitzel" Anchovies and Egg, Red Cabbage, and Potato Salad, "Paprika Rahm Schnitzel" Red and Green Peppers, Sour Cream Sauce, Rice, and Red Cabbage, and "Jäger Schnitzel", Mixed Mushroom Sauce, Spätzle, and Red Cabbage. They also have an excellent Beef Stroganoff, Sausage Plates, Lamb, and of course, Pork including an excellent Schweinhaxe (Roast Pork Shank). All come with choice of sides: Spätzle, Red Cabbage, Sauerkraut, Rice, or Mashed Potatoes. I strongly recommend the Spätzle, which is like a German pasta dish. I also recommend the Jäger Schnitzel for rookies of German food. They have a huge menu, there will be something for everyone here, it makes a great family restaurant.

By the time you are done with your main course, desert seems as impossible as improbable. However, they do offer Fresh Baked Apple Strudel and Schwarzwälder (Black Forest Cake).

A few notes about The Old Heidelberg, during Oktoberfest on the weekends, you must have a reservation. If you walk in you will be relegated to the bar area or if you are lucky to a rear isolated room usually for private parties. The service is friendly but slow. Plan on spending a few hours with a large group, they are in no hurry to get you out, the place is packed on the weekends.

I thoroughly enjoyed myself at the Old Heidelberg. I have had enough bad German food to last me a lifetime. While dining at Old Heidelberg, I felt as f I were in Munchen (Munich) walking along the Marienplatz. For those who are a fan of German cuisine, the Old Heidelberg is a breath of fresh air. For those not experienced, it is an eventful introduction to a new cuisine, and culture not often portrayed properly or positively. Give the Old Heidelberg a try you will be impressed.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Christy's Restaurant

I was really excited to go to Christy's this week. Number one, I hadn't been there in many years. Number two, it's still Miami Spice month. Number three, it's nice to get into Coral Gables every now and again. This iconic Coral Gables steakhouse is going to celebrate it's 30th birthday next month in October.

Upon seeing Christy's from the street, I was jogged by memories of years past, and pleased to see the familiar sign with the Christy's logo had survived. As you enter the foyer, you are ensconced with dark masculine colors and brass fixtures that take you back to the elegant 70's. I felt like I had been transported to one of the great reading rooms of Europe. Christy's gave me the feeling it had not been updated in many years.

Christy's Miami Spice menu offered your choice of appetizer: Soup of the day, Caesar Salad, and Fresh Corvina Ceviche. We were only interested in the "World Famous" Caesar Salad and the ceviche. The salad was excellent, anchovies were on the side, and the dressing was great. The only thing missing was a table-side preparation. The ceviche was likewise excellent. The corvina was presented in a small martini glass diced up with red pepper and onion in a lemon juice. I wasn't sure if an old school restaurant could pull off a great ceviche, they proved me wrong. So far so good. Our service was excellent, the gentleman who served us seemed as if he had been there for all of the 30 years Christy's has been open.

The main course was a choice of: 8oz Filet Mignon, topped with gorgonzola butter, with shallot mashed potatoes and fresh asparagus with a red wine sauce, Herb Crusted Seabass, with a baked potato, fresh vegetables and horseradish cream sauce, or Chicken Porcini sautéed in a brandy sauce with porcini mushrooms, served with a baked potato and fresh vegetables. Cristy's is one of the few restaurants to offer a filet on the Miami Spice menu so that was the unanimous choice. We were allowed to substitute a baked potato for the mash, which was a nice allowance, most Spice menu's are not flexible.

The steaks came out cooked correctly, but the quality of the meat was fair at best. I was terribly disappointed in my filet and began rethinking that decision. Christy's is first and foremost known as a steakhouse and they did not deliver this fateful night. The baked potato was great and the fresh chives and sour cream made a nice presentation. The asparagus were likewise cooked al dente and perfect.

For desert, they offered a choice of homemade Key Lime Pie, or Caramel Flan. The pie was very good, a bit on the tart side for my taste. The flan was the better choice. Firm, creamy and smooth, just as you would expect from a Miami restaurant.

It was almost all there. I was ready to give Christy's a glowing review, but alas, I cannot. The service, the appetizer and the desert were magnificent. But the steak took them down. I am not sure who supplies their meat, but I am confident I could have prepared a better filet on my own grill. They could also use a face lift and update their decor. Perhaps we can revisit this in the future, but there is no excuse for such a poor quality of meat to be served in a place with the reputation of Christy's.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Thanks to the great success of Miami Spice, Ft. Lauderdale will be offering a similar program aptly named "Dine Out" during October 1 - November 14, 2008. Although not as well known, or advertised as Miami Spice, there are some excellent restaurants on the list such as Cero's, and Jackson's Steak House. This dining program started last year, and was successful enough to bring it back for '08. They also note on the website that there is a special preview at selected restaurants beginning September 15, 2008, check the web site for particulars.

Three course dinners will be offered at $35 per person. A few interesting restrictions are notable: Most Dine Out Lauderdale menus are valid Sunday-Thursday, and not valid during the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, Oct. 30-Nov 3, 2008. American Express is an official sponsor; however, no word yet whether they will offer any cashback bonus as they did for Miami Spice. The official Dine Out website can be seen here.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

South Florida Storm Website

As a typical South Florida Resident, we spend a lot of time checking a hurricane's trajectory. I wanted to share the best storm tracking website out there for now: This is off topic but very relevant to South Floridians.

Click here: for the latest storm information.