The King’s Kitchen – Dining with a cause

Charlotte, NC. I don’t often get here, but covering a meeting for a colleague brought me to town for a quick overnight. Such a trip begs the obvious question: where am I going to eat? There are plenty of options, but as I perused options, one restaurant caught my eye for more than just their food and a hopefully great experience – The King’s Kitchen.

Nestled right in the heart of downtown Charlotte, The King’s Kitchen looks like any other trendy spot. Hip lighting (around the bar the shades are colorful strainers) sleek white tables and walls, light marble bar, hardwood floors. Staff dressed in white, just a cool vibe all around. Unlike any other trendy spot, this is a restaurant with a mission, and that mission goes far beyond the cuisine. The King’s Kitchen is a non-profit organization. Noted on their website and on the menu is the fact that all proceeds from their service go to feed the less fortunate in the Charlotte area. Wow. Additionally, all of the ingredients are locally sourced. Southern comfort food in an upscale setting, all for a good cause.

I was greeted with a smile and shown to a seat at the bar (as a table for one, this is usually where I like to end up). The bartender greeted me as well and presented the menu. The wine and beer menu was diverse, but there was an option that caught my eye immediately: a flight of local drafts. There are six taps, so pick four and you’re off. Not being from the area, we had a conversation about it. I’m typically a Yuengling and Guinness guy with a touch of IPA. My barkeep took it from there. 3C’s IPA was first up, followed by a number of OMB drafts; and amber lager, Pecan Brown, and a porter, all four brewed within 10 minutes of where I was sitting, the definition of local. Now to be fair, I was fighting the tail end of a head cold, but what I tasted was delightful. The IPA was hoppy, but not too hoppy (not at hoppy as a Founder’s All Day IPA for example). The Amber Lager drank much like a Yuengling, which is my personal go to beer. The Pecan Brown and Porter also did not disappoint. All four helped accompany the onslaught of delightful dishes that followed.

After spending a few minutes looking at the menu, we were off to the races with starters. I had three in mind, but asked for some guidance on narrowing the field. Without hesitation, the staff favorites were the fried oysters and the pimento cheese. Ok, I’m game, make it so good sir. When I tell you the service was prompt, it would be a remarkable understatement. It seemed that I had no sooner put down the menu and returned to my beverage of choice when a bowl brimming with tender fried oysters appeared. I was able to get one in my mouth just prior the the board carrying the pimento cheese and crostini. I’m a sucker for a good oyster in any form. Raw, fried, broiled, grilled, Rocky Mountain, whatever. The key to a great fried oyster, in my not so humble opinion, is crisp batter that holds onto a juicy oyster inside. These nailed it. First envision if you will a bowl of no less than a dozen oysters, half a lemon, and a small container of remoulade. some micro greens gracing the top, and that’s it. Simple presentation. Now how does one test the first key standard for a fried oyster? Pick it up with your hands! To the touch they were plump, not greasy, and the batter held onto the oyster like a child holds onto their blanket. I always try the first one naked, no sauce, just a slight squeeze of lemon. Pure.Bliss. Masked by the perfectly crisp batter was a plump, juicy, briny oyster; fresh and salty from the sea. This was a true delight. Another with a quick dip in the remoulade and another wonderful treat. I could go all night on these, but then there was that lump of orange goodness over there on the board next to my beer…

Pimento cheese is an interesting dish. As I write I’m still not totally sure what’s in it, but I know from a certain Californian friend I met in New Jersey by way of Cincinnati (follow that?) its a southern classic. It was a treat for sure. Creamy and spreadable, on toasted bread, pairing well with the Amber Lager, and surprisingly with the oysters as well. There was not chance I would finish this and still have dinner, but it was a great sampling. The oysters, on the other hand, were all to die that night. Amazing. I can still taste them as I sit on a plane to go home, and I’m pretty sure I just drooled on myself. Hope the guy next to me doesn’t notice.

Continuing to ponder the menu I had a number of choices. Fried chicken was high on the list, as was the pot roast. Apparently the scallops were delicious and the pork chop looked like it was to die for. But I was in Charlotte, and I made it clear I was at the mercy of my faithful Bart ender, and he didn’t steer me wrong. If I wanted the true experience, he said, I had to try the shrimp and grits. Now I’ve had shrimp and grits in New Jersey and most of the time it’s been fine, even delicious. To have it here, however, was altogether different. Again faster than I could have my water refilled my meal was presented. A modest bowl was placed before me. Creamy grits sat atop a shallow pool of tomato pan sauce, topped with six shrimp (peeled and tails removed) with some smoked ham bits in and among the grits for obvious porky flavor. My first bite was the grits. These were different, nothing like what we pass off for grits at home. While creamy they had distinct texture and a firmness that held up in the sauce. They were rich and flavorful, and when paired with the sauce and a touch of the ham, were a savory morsel. The only thing missing at this point was the shrimp, so onto the fork one goes and we have the perfect bite. The shrimp were cooked perfectly as well. Good bite, lightly seasoned, a wonderful compliment to the hominy cloud on which they were presented.

As the meal continued a conversation began among the other solo diners at the bar and I. Both were northeastern transplants to the south. One young man was two weeks into his Charlotte residency, while the other was a mother originally from Philadelphia, now in Tampa, in town for work. We discussed food, travel, out northern roots, and of course the meal we were all enjoying. As an added bonus, Kings Kitchen was mostly gluten free, which was necessary for one oh my accidental dining partners. We all lingered a bit and talked, engaging the staff at several points, while in the background other parties laughed and dined with classic Christmas music filling in the rest. A warm goodbye from our hosts wrapped up the night as we each departed. Accidental comradorie, a wonderful meal, and a worthy cause. When in Charlotte, make a point to visit The Kings Kitchen. It will impact your culinary senses, and the community which is serves daily.

Only 12 months left to plan

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday to host.  I mean let’s face it, I love hosting any event, but Thanksgiving in particular brings me all the warm and fuzzies.  As with many of my childhood memories, my love for all things turkey and family goes back to my Grandparents.  From the time I was born until I was 33 (with the exception of 1 year), I spent every Thanksgiving (and Christmas Eve) at my Grandparents house.  It wasn’t until Nick and I moved in together and we sold my Grandparents house that I began hosting Thanksgiving in my home.

On Thanksgiving morning, I would wake up at my Dad’s house and we would watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.  We would leave his house at around 11:15am, and walk into my Grandparents just before Santa Claus came down the parade route into Herald’s Square.  The house was warm with the smell of the turkey in the oven.  The dinner table was always set and waiting for all of the delicious food that would soon be atop it.  Walking into the kitchen, there were appetizers and wine on the table.  There was a calm in the house and everything was tidy.  You’d never know that my Grandparents had just spent 3 days preparing a meal for 10-12 people.  It was incredible and I loved it.

Many, many years later, when I was in my late 20’s, I started to help my Grandparents prepare/cook for Thanksgiving and finally learned the secret to their success.  It’s all about the prep.  My Grandmother would start on Monday by making the pie crusts for the Pumpkin and Apple pies and the cranberry sauce.  On Tuesday she would make the pies.  Wednesday was the busiest day – washing vegetables, preparing all of the other side dishes, cleaning out the turkey.  Once Thursday came, all of the hard work was done and it was a matter of getting things into the oven at the right moment so that they would all get on the table at the same time.  My Grandmother had been preparing a Thanksgiving dinner since she and my Grandfather were first married, and she had always run the show like this. Even when my Grandmother was still working, she would prep like this when she got home from her day job.  And this was how they ran any holiday or family event.  Anytime we were going to my Grandparents house, when we walked in that door, my Grandparents greeted us and were ready to host.  It was how I learned how to host, and why I start the prep for Thanksgiving, or any family event, days before company is set to arrive.  Once my company shows up, I want as much prepared as possible so that I too can enjoy the time together.  La famiglia; that’s what it’s all about.

So, I’m sharing my tips/tricks to host a successful Thanksgiving dinner, but they are transferable ideas that you can use when hosting any holiday or family gathering.  The steps are simple:

1 Create a menu

2 Create a shopping list

3 Prepare what you can in advance

4 Prepare your home

5 Sit back and enjoy your company

Without further ado, my Thanksgiving prep:

1 week before Thanksgiving:

Create your menu.  I mostly make the same dishes every year, but typically like to add a new item or slightly alter one of my staple dishes.  It all depends on who’s coming (i.e. are there any picky eaters?), and how many people I’m having.  Then there are the dishes that are staples and I will likely always serve them just the way that my Grandmother did.  In fact there was only one of those dishes on my table this Thanksgiving – my Gram’s Sweet Potato Bake.  It’s fresh yams, with oats/brown sugar/butter/cranberries folded in, and then mini marshmallows melted on top.  I had an Aunt who used to scrape all of the marshmallows off.  She is no longer invited to Thanksgiving dinner.

Create your shopping list.  I tend to write and re-write my list a few times so that all of the produce is together, all of the dairy is together, etc.  If you’re not a Type A personality, then simply create your list however it works best for you.

Buy your Tupperware.  Everybody likes leftovers!  Make sure you have Tupperware that you can fill with leftovers for people to take home.

Saturday before:

Take your turkey out of the freezer.  Depending on the size of your bird(s), you may need to take it out of the freezer and put it into the refrigerator as early as Saturday.  It typically takes around 24 hours for each 4-5lbs of frozen turkey you are thawing in the fridge.

Monday before:

Go food shopping.  I can’t stress this point enough – go food shopping as  early in the morning as you can.  I tend to be there when they are opening the doors.  Get in and get out. That’s how you survive the holiday supermarket crazies.

Make your cranberry sauce.  I’ll never understand why people buy canned or jarred cranberry sauce when it’s so easy to make on your own.  Take a bag of fresh cranberries (they’ll be all over the produce section of your supermarket the week of Thanksgiving), a cup of sugar, some orange zest, and a tablespoon or 2 of water and cook over low-medium heat until the cranberries burst.  That’s it.  No need to get fancy here because nobody eats it anyway!  Also, leftovers are great on some Brie and phyllo dough.  Or wrapped in a crescent roll.  I digress.

Make your pie crusts.  Another thing that’s so easy to make, but people buy them.  It’s flour, shortening and ice cold water.  That’s it!  Once they’re made, wrap the dough in plastic wrap an leave in the fridge overnight.

Tuesday before:

Make your pies.  Pumpkin, apple, whatever.  Make it, bake it, let it cool and put it in the fridge until Thursday.

Wash and prep your vegetables.  You can prep all of your vegetables (except potatoes) and put them in a ziplock with a few damp papertowels and they’ll be fine by the time you’re ready to make them on Thursday.

Dry out your bread for stuffing.  Tear/cut your bread into cubes and put it in a 300 degree oven for 35-45 minutes until it’s completely dried out.  Store it in a ziplock bag until Wednesday.

Wednesday before:

Clean your turkeys.  Take the turkeys out of the fridge and get them cleaned up and pre-seasoned.  Stuff them with paper towels, cover them with plastic wrap and put ‘em into the fridge until tomorrow.

Make your stuffing.  No explanation needed here.  You’ll be happy you already pre-washed and pre-chopped all of that celery and onion though.

Make any other sides.  For 2017, I made my sweet potato bake, green been casserole (no cream of mushroom soup here!) and goat cheese mashed potatoes the day before Thanksgiving.  Take a look at your recipes – you’ll be surprised how much you can do the day before.  If you’re making brussel sprouts with bacon, cut up the bacon today.  If you’re using breadcrumbs in/on top of any dishes, make those.  If you’re making a signature cocktail, make that.  There’s a lot you can do in advance and come Thursday morning, you’ll be happy you did.

Set your table.  No explanation needed, but don’t forget the wine glasses and water glasses.

Gather your serving dishes, bowls, utensils.  Most of what you’ve already prepared will likely be in the dish that you’re going to serve it in on Thanksgiving.  That being said, you’ll need something for your turkey to go on, dishes or bowls for the vegetable sides you’re making, or for the appetizers you might be serving.  And ofcourse, you need something to serve all of this food with!  So grab the serving forks, spoons, etc that you’ll need for the day as well and put them on the table.

Review your recipes, create a schedule for the oven.  Take a few quick minutes to do a once over on your recipes for the sides you need to make on Thanksgiving.  Also, take a few more moments to make a quick note (mental or on paper) about what has to go in the oven at what time so that all of the food gets on the table at the same time.  I am supremely lucky in that I have two ovens, and this year Nick smoked one turkey and fried one, so I had both ovens to utilize all day.  If you only have one oven and have to roast your turkey, then you are definitely going to want to take the time to go through this step.

Put coffee into the coffee pot.  No really, do it.  When you’re in the middle of cleaning up the epic amount of dishes from dinner, you’ll be glad you did.

Put all of your dessert dishes, coffee cups into a convenient place.  Again, so that you don’t have to go running around for this stuff after dinner.

Set up your bar.  If you’re family is a bunch of boozehounds like mine, get your bar set up with mixers, bar ware, cups/glasses, etc.  Pull the wine that you plan on drinking throughout the day, or for dinner, and put it out on the table.

THURSDAY!

And here we are on Thursday.  All of the hard work is over!  Take the morning to enjoy the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade with a cup of coffee and relax a bit. About 30 minutes before your guests arrive, start the music, light your candles (if using), open the wine, and put your appetizers out, if serving, 15 minutes or so before you expect guests.  Things will get a little crazy as you start putting things into the oven and pulling them out, but at this point you’ll have people around to help you.  While you’re pre-made side dishes are in the oven, cook your vegetables and make your gravy.  Another moment when you’ll be glad you prepped them in advance!

More than anything else, enjoy the day with your family!  That’s why you did all of the work ahead of time, so sit back, have a glass of wine and enjoy.  Cheers.

BLT Aruba – The Popover Stopover

Ok, ready to head home. We checked out of the Hilton and headed to the airport. Worked our way through Aruban and US customs and immigration, found a club in which to pass the time before our flight, easy as can be. Now we’re drifting toward our boarding time, and nothing seems to be happening. Then eight…EIGHT gate agents arrive at our gate. This can’t be good. Waiting, waiting, and then it wasn’t good. Flight cancelled. Not delayed, but cancelled. Stuck in Aruba until the flight we were rebooked onto….at 3pm the next day. Oh.Shit.

Here comes the thundering herd of irate passengers demanding answers. In order to dodge this shitshow I jump on my phone, pull up the Marriott app, and quickly book a room. Now we just have to leave the airport, catch a cab, and deal with this another day. Except we can’t get out. There’s no exit, no way out without an escort to circumvent customs and immigration. We’re stuck, and apparently stuck until all of the passengers on our flight are rebooked and accommodations are made for our unexpected overnight stay. So we wait. And wait. And wait. In a stroke of wonderous luck we’re approached by two other passengers. We quickly discover that we were high school classmates, and the time stuck in the airport is much better. Then comes more good news. Families will be accommodated at the Renaissance Hotel. Wait, that’s where I just booked a room. No, no, no. But wait, there’s more. Couples have been accommodated at the Ritz Carlton. Now THIS is a winning proposition! Now to get out of the airport….

We are finally escorted out with another couple and our new friends, as we are all taking our own transportation to the hotel, so as to beat the bus crowd to check in. We bid our new friends adieu and we’re off to the Ritz. Now my new bride was talking about wanting to try the Ritz, and I just inadvertently delivered. Score one for me!

We arrived well before the bus of other passengers, quickly checked in, asked Sanjay to please cancel my other reservation at the Renaissance, and it was off to our room to shower, change and figure out dinner. Our new friends recommended BLT at the Ritz. We were stuck for an extra night (stuck at the Ritz, I know, such a brat thing to say), hungry, and had the generous meal allowance from United to spend ($20 each…at the Ritz. So a glass of water, no ice?). Off we went to BLT.

It was somewhat quiet, but that was likely because the bus load of other passengers were still checking in (we heard some waited hours for a room. So glad we took a cab!) We decided to take a seat at the bar and figure out how much steak we were going to consume. We were immediately greeted by Luisa, and then by Legino, Two skilled bartenders who were at the centerpiece of this unexpected culinary adventure. Where to start? Well, a cocktail of course! For my bride a Four Petal Flower (a take on the Aperol Spritz that we grew to love in Italy) and for my a Bulleit Old Fashioned. Legino went right to work, like an artist with the libations. The Four Petal Flower was expertly mixed and served with a twist of lemon. The Old Fashioned, another perfection. Not too sweet, just the right amount of bitters, plenty of bourbon. Most importantly, no goddamn club soda in it! God help the poor bastard who adds that to my Old Fashioned.

Moving on. We didn’t just come here to drink, but were hankering for some dinner. We were greeted first by a complimentary ramekin or duck liver mousse with a cherry glaze and crostini. We’re not ones to pass up such a treat, so we made relatively short work of it. We then inspected the three menus for our options. Starters came easy. My bride opted for the wedge salad, because much like a good cocktail, she’s not passing up a wedge salad. I opted for the equally healthy thick cut bacon. We each chose the 8oz. Filet (one medium rare, one blue) with a side of lobster Mac and cheese and the Brussels sprouts with bacon and honey. Yes, we were all in on dinner.

Following the mousse was a presentation of two popovers with butter and a small card including the recipe. What a classy touch. They were delightful, because of course we weren’t going to let them wait. Fluffy inside, crusty outside, just like my sweetheart makes, except she didn’t have to work at it. Next up, salad and bacon. The salad looked fine (I’m no blue cheese fan, so not my thing), and my bride described it a perfectly dressed. Not too much dressing like is the norm for a wedge, and just the right amount of accoutrements. Now as for the bacon, is there ever a wrong way to receive a plate of bacon? The answer is no. Three thick slices dressed with what tasted like a chimichuri, true pork heaven. By this time we had finished our cocktails and it was on to wine, a Malbec as I recall (shocking).

We conversed with our neighbors, a couple from Long Island, and watched some of the others from our cancelled flight shuffle in. We were in heaven. We realized that when we first walked in the restaurant was somewhat cold, but we never noticed it again after we were seated, as the service and comradere kept us warm. We talked with Legino about the resort prior to the arrival of our entrees. And what an arrival it was. Two plates, stark white, were placed before us. They were followed by two cast iron crocks, each containing our steaks, presented with a pat of herb butter and a sprig of rosemary on top. Then another smaller crock with the Brussels sprouts, dressed with honey and cubes of bacon. Finally the bowl of lobster Mac and cheese. In typical fashion we dueled with our forks as we each found large chunks of lobster, and there was plenty to go around. The sprouts also delightful, and in such a decadent meal, a welcome glimmer of health. The steaks though, divine. Perfectly cooked, tender, juicy, and the herb butter was just enough to accompany it. Clean plates abound yet again.

Now that was the food, as we were too full for desert (except for the chocolate caramel brownie bite that we gladly consumed. Beyond the food was the service. Now, it’s an old adage that you get what you pay for, but this is no truer than at the Ritz. We were greeted by name by everyone on the restaurant. Everyone was engaging, and we truly wanted for nothing. But additionally, we developed a relationship with the staff. We joked, we laughed, we discussed life, family, food, anything that came to mind. We also were witness to a show. Watching Legino mix cocktails was much like watching a sculptor mold his clay. His attention to detail and he’s performance was above reproach. His free pour was brilliant, his handling of the ingredients,supurb. He rubbed and clapped the mint for a mojito like it was a ritual, sliced and positioned the fresh jalapeño for margaritas like a pro. With each new concoction there was a copper shaker manipulated overhead, and a glass with a small amount of each for us to try. It was masterful.

We left after several hours and walked the property. We realized that we had sat and continued the conversation with our neighbors and the staff long after we had finished eating. This is the experience you want, the reason such luxurious places exist. It was an unexpected extra night on our honeymoon, but the best popover stopover we’ve had.

Barefoot

Dining on the beach. Who doesn’t like the sound of that? If you raised your hand, please go and promptly fuck yourself, ya damn killjoy. So here we go in a $17 cab ride that almost had to go off-roading to get there, down by the airport for our beach dining experience. I LOVE off the beaten path spots in cool locations. Dinner on the beach with my love. Except I’m an idiot and booked the reservation too late and we couldn’t get a table on the beach. On the deck yes, but not the beach at sunset.

Dammit.

Then the gods smiled on me and it was overcast and you couldn’t see the damn glowing orb in the sky. See, I win..again…

What I did see was a great seating area on the beach. Like tables, chairs and bare feet galore on the beach. Great setup and the folks who booked an appropriate number of days in advance looked quite pleased with their seat. Thankfully we got a two top on the rail of the deck, in a spot with the open sky above, and all was right in the world. Also on the deck were seats that had sand underfoot, like dining in a sandbox, but without the cat poop and kids toys that so often take over such a site. Did I mention we were here to eat?

Feeling a bit full from a late afternoon snack of fried fish pieces and cocktails, it felt like something on the lighter side would be appropriate, lest we literally fall out of our pants. We were greeted quickly with glasses of champagne as someone knew we were honeymooning (so using that on future trips). We then perused the wine list and settled on a Spanish white (Deusa Nai, Albarino, Rias Baixas). It was crisp and dry, with a tart fruity punch at the end. Lovely…and served cold… as we know is not my favorite. Still lovely.

First up was the escargot and mushrooms. Again, if you turned your nose up at escargot, please go join the others who don’t like dining on the beach. I bet you’re the same people… Delecately cooked mushrooms and escargot, covered in a creamy cheese yumminess, or as described, Parmesan cheese. We found it a bit light on the garlic but a tasty morsel. Not turning down escargot when we can get it. We also shared the wahoo carpaccio, which was delightful. Give me a fish sliced thin and untouched by fire and I’m a happy man. This didn’t disappoint. Topped with a light seaweed salad and the soy sauce far enough away it was wonderful, every so lightly seasoned, almost smokey.

A quick aside before the main course. When out to dinner with a friend or lover, a few words of advice.

1. Unless you have an alergy that will kill you on sight, stop customizing the fucking menu items! Good lord, they are on the menu that way because the chef knows something about putting food together to make a great dish. Don’t assume that because you didn’t like anchovies when your drunk uncle threw one at you when you were 5 that it won’t work in the dish you’re considering. As an alternative you can just stay at Applebees and keep eating off the kids menu. Amature.

2. Unless you are placed at a table for two with a complete stranger, put down the phone and communicate with your mouth. There are only so many times that we can put the world aside and enjoy the company of other people and a good meal, so take advantage. I assure you, Instagram will still be there (the only pics we take are of great presentation, but I’m not posting while I’m eating). If you don’t like the person at your table that much, why are you out with them in the first place?

Ok, that’s done, but sound advice to the ladies at the next table. Misery at a meal. Please go home.

Ok, main dish time. My lovely bride had the Snapper “Old Amsterdam”, a filet of snapper crusted with Old Amsterdam cheese, seasonings and bread crumbs. I opted for the Blackened Mahi with mango salsa. Both were our server, Lotte’s favorite fish dishes. Anytime I order fish I say the same little prayer, “please don’t dry out the fish.” Again the dining gods smiled on us, and both dishes were flakey and moist (try making anything else sound good using those words, I dare you), and paired nicely with the mashed potatoes, upon which everything at Barefoot is served unless noted. Now remember, we weren’t all that hungry coming in. Lotte ended up taking two empty plates from us when we were done. We didn’t feel too full, just satisfied. When I’m on an island, I want seafood. Mission accomplished.

We sat for awhile longer just talking about the trip so far and finishing our wine. We did feel the need for something sweet, and key lime pie gets me every time. Theirs was different. It was light and fluffy, almost like a whipped cheesecake, with the clean tart taste you would expect. The strawberry coulis, while tasty, was overpowering in some bites. I would have put it way on the side so as not to take away from an otherwise delightful pie. A couple of boozy coffees (because, you know, booze) and we were on our way in the cab they called for us prior to our check arriving. Service, service, service.

The service was wonderful from arrival. Actually the reservation process is where it began, prompt email back with available times, easy booking. The champagne on arrival was a classy touch, and the servers were both knowledgeable and friendly, while never overburdening us. They were present as needed, and left us to enjoy our meal in peace. I noticed other tables having the same experience, with many hugging their servers after their meals. What a great atmosphere they have going here. While the cab ride back was something out of Mad Max (if it took place in a 2004 Rav-4 on narrow island streets with a transmission that sounded like it was about to fall out), but we made it in tact, ready for our next fat, drunk band fancy experience.

Omakase

So when you are on an island in the southern Caribbean, what’s the cuisine you crave? In my mind it isn’t sushi, but that’s what my bride wanted and in fairness, I never turn down good sushi. So can you get good sushi on an island? It turns out you can. Omakase at the Manchebo Beach Resort was the destination. A quick ten minute cab ride brought us to the resort, not before passing the beach tennis open in full swing (not exactly the US Open in Queens, but on it’s scale it was an interesting find). If you’re not paying attention, you will walk right by Omakase. We literally did just that. Why is it so had to find? Because it occupies half the bar inside the ChopHouse steakhouse at the resort. Hmm, small, hidden sushi gem? I like where we’re going here.

Once seated at the bar (there were10 seats at the bar and three 4 tops that comprised the seating area for the restaurant) we were greeted by Jason. Jason is fucking fabulous. Charming, quick witted, a total sweetheart, and as it turns out, a knucklehead like us. Check us out on Instagram for pictures of our new best friend.

What drew us here were the rave reviews and the fact that they offer an omakase experience. In full disclosure, I’ve become a bit of an omakase whore. I seek this experience out whenever I travel, and have enjoyed Nobu in Las Vegas, Sushi Roku in Scottsdale, and Matsuhisa in Denver. Why do I set that stage? My expectations are high, and I’m a spoiled little bitch when it comes to this experience.

Considering we can eat like champs (fat, drunk, you get the idea) We were all in on the omakase, but it was a four course experience. I’m used to a 7-8 course experience, and based on the price point I assumed this was a smaller offering so we supplemented with two rolls (Caterpillar and Rainbow). Some Sake and a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and we were ready to indulge. First up was the obligatory miso soup. A standard in most sushi experiences, this was delightful. Just a hint of steam rising off the broth served in a stark white square bowl. At first sight, this was different. Plenary of nori floating throughout, and cubes of tofu that may require a fork to cut. Not too salty (my knock on standard miso soup), aromatic,delicious. Toward the end we both picked up our bowls to make sure we didn’t miss a bit of it. Stay classy bitches.

Next up was a crab salad. Fresh crab, seaweed, roe and black sesame seeds. Again delightful and fresh. Interesting, we didn’t order these two plates, and the menu didn’t reveal any inclusions with the meal. Hmm..

Next up the chef presented a plate of sushi and sashimi, and explained that this was the first of two plates as part of the third course. Oooohhhh, got it. The four course Omakase included soup and salad as two courses. While delightful, my expectation was something wildly different. So, expectations reset, ready to proceed. I’m now viewing this as a sushi meal, and less as the omakase experience that I was used to. That said, the sushi was a hit.

Thinly sliced salmon, tuna and yellowtail sashimi, accompanied by shrimp, mackerel and eel sushi. Nothing was too cold, and all smelled remarkably fresh. The sashimi simply melted in your mouth, like you would expect a perfectly cooked steak to do, except, you know, it’s fish. The sushi was also prepared right, with hints of rice vinegar and wasabi. Just enough, but nothing overpowering the guests of honor on these rice pillows. For god’s sake, don’t use fucking soy sauce on a treat like this! If I wanted to taste soy sauce I could put it in a glass and drink it. Don’t sully this treat with the stuff. To say this plate didn’t last long would be an understatement. Next up was plate two of course three (bootleg) which was an array of three menu rolls. Ok, now that I’ve accepted this meal as a menu tasting experience, I can review it appropriately. Two out of three were tasty. Caterpillar roll (frankly a terrible name, who wants to eat something associated with those hairy crawling beasts?) Tuna, salmon and avocado. Very pleasing and refreshing. Surf & Turf roll, asparagus and tempura shrimp, but not overly fried, topped with grilled tenderloin, sweet and savory. Then there was the Ebitem roll. Jason wanted us to try it, but we saw cream cheese in the description and don’t typically enjoy cream cheese in sushi. However, it was on the plate, and we decided to try it, because you can’t register a valid opinion without trying it. This is what we teach my son, so I guess we have to play by those rules. Also, as my son would say, “it’s not my favorite, but I tried it.” Our opinion on cream cheese and sushi was confirmed. No shot of enjoying this one. While I figured the cream cheese would add a creamy and tart element to the right roll, this didn’t do it. The roll was tart to begin with, and the cream cheese just made it more tart. Not our favorite. If this is your jam, have at it, but not us.

Next up were our other two rolls, caterpillar and Rainbow. Caterpillar described before, just as yummy, and Rainbow, which was avacodo and cucumber topped with salmon, tuna and crab (we debated whether or not it was imitation crab). Again, delightful and fresh, at the risk of sounding repetitive. Clearly we were off our chopstick game as we each had pieces fall apart on us, but it sure felt like operator error.

The Sake hit the spot, but it wasn’t listed on the menu, nor did I see the brand. It was mild, and accompanied the first few dishes well. We followed that up with a Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc, which was like drinking a sun kissed grapefruit. However I’m not one to chill my wine, and the first things to hit the bar were two chilled wine glasses. That was followed by the chilled wine bottle and the ice bucket. Oh well.

Now as to the service, this made the experience. Our server, Jason, was a trip. He endeared himself to us immediately. He was hysterical, like a close friend who always has something witty to say (much like me). He captured some great pictures for us, and made his way into a few selfies that will end up on the Instagram for sure. He also refused to give us the check until he came up with some surprise for us as we were on our honeymoon. Eventually a piece of cake with a goddamn Roman Candle in it showed up, and he sang “Endless Love” to us, knowing about half the words. Our own personal a dancing queen.

Now when you go out, take the time to talk to the people charged with your experience. Besides Jason, we had a chat with Mylene, the chef. She was hands on both in preparing the meal and in serving. She stopped by our side of the bar and we talked about our honeymoon, the resort where the restaurant was located, and he 23 years in Aruba. She was very proud that in the three years since opening Omakase she has had many customers follow her here from her past restaurants. She also was proud of the customers who come weekly, not just the expected tourist crowd. This endeavor is a labor of love for her and it shows in the greeting we received, the serivce, and the conversation. Get to know Mylene, Jason, and the rest of the staff at omakase for sure.

We went looking for sushi and found it. With the correct expectations you cannot be disappointed. Take your time, savor the meal, and enjoy some laughs. That’s an appropriate dining experience away from the tourist traps. The healthier option when endeavoring to be fat, drunk and fancy.