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Florida, Day 2: Way Too Many Fishies, and an Unforgettable Spanish Meal

Columbia

Image Courtesy Kari Sheppard, ShepArt Studio

The original Sunday plan was to go to church, then the Lowry Park Zoo, and on to the Florida Aquarium. No plan ever survives contact with reality, of course. I swear we were jet-lagged, even though the time difference is only one hour. It had to be true, of course; if we were already that tired then the rest of the trip would be a major drudge. So it was jet lag. For sure. Definitely.

We hung around after the Service for coffee and snacks, and to hobnob with some more of the Sheppard clan. The coffee really perked me up, after the third cup. (Or maybe it was the fourth; I lost count.) Then we chose up sides and headed out to the aquarium. (The zoo would have been way too hot at lunchtime, and so we opted for cooler digs.)

The Florida Aquarium is an awesome place. Right downtown Tampa, next to the S. S. American Victory dock, it’s a self-guided tour of Florida’s shores and oceans, and way beyond. There are even penguins! The Aquarium has a mission of education and conservation, and there are many programs and events for kids and adults alike.

The best way to experience the Aquarium is to start at the top. There’s an outdoor-like space, with all sorts of things to see, hear and learn from. Not merely a fish repository, this area exhibits birds, reptiles and flora of the wetlands. As you move back into the building you see dioramas and exhibits from bays, beaches, reefs and deeper oceans. Sharks, moray eels, crustaceans, octopi, seahorses and dragons; this place has it all. Several of the display areas are interactive; you can actually touch a ray or a shark, feel the surface of a lobster or turtle. Amazing.

We spent quite a while there. Our lunch break was in the Café Ray, a kind of a fast-food indoors place. There are a lot of options for meals, from the usual burgers and chicken strips to deli sandwiches, paninis, pizza, wings and salads. I think our group of seven had pretty much one of each. With fries. (Don’t forget the fries.)

By mid-afternoon I’d seen enough sea creatures to last a lifetime, and my camera batteries were running as low as my energy reserves. We adjourned back to St. Pete and the comfort of the Hilton. Nap time!

Paella

Then the pièce de résistance of the day: Dinner at Columbia Restaurant, located on the fourth level of the St. Pete Pier. The original Columbia, in Ybor City (Tampa), is the oldest restaurant in all of Florida. It’s now 106 years young. A few years back the single Columbia began to have children; there are seven locations now listed on their website. All of them serve essentially the same fare, although some (like the original place) offer special events and entertainment such as Flamenco shows.

We arrived just as the sun was over the yardarm, so one of our first acts was to order some Sangria de Cava. A pitcher full for the adults. (We offered to the new adults, and they declined. The older adults rejoiced quietly.) Because man does not live by sangria alone, we also ordered some snacks: Shrimp “Al Ajillo,” Queso Fundido, and Scallops “Casimiro.” All three of these dishes were delightful! The Queso Fundido was especially flavorful, with tomatoes, chiles, olives and more under a molten blanket of white cheese.

With our appetites now in full gear, we ordered entrées. The youngest of us all, Nils, wanted Filet Steak Salteado. (He may be small, but he’s got a black hole stored somewhere near his middle. A mere hollow leg doesn’t begin to accommodate his power of consumption.) Of the young lovers, Jessi selected Chicken and Shrimp “Barcelona” while Kai chose Merluza “A la Rusa.” PJ sprang for the Paella “A la Valencia” while Chris went with one of the most famous meat platters in Cuban cuisine, namely, Ropa Vieja. Kari and I showed the best taste of all, choosing Paella “Campesina” for our meals. (It was a close thing, though.)

The paella dishes were individually prepared, so we had to wait just a bit longer than usual. That was okay, as the wine cellar had plenty of sangria. Waiting’s easy under those conditions! That, and great company with lots of stories to tell shortens any wait. To top things off, rain showers were coming in as the sun was setting. Kari and I took some nice sunset pics from the porch, then the rains came. And then our food! Perfect timing.

Sangria Fruit

Kai’s dish of fish (merluza), rice and vegetables was the most colorful of all the entrées, by a bit. Everybody praised the presentation, aroma and flavors of their own choices, although in some cases it came out as a bit of a mumble. Hard to talk with that much food stuffed in!

When it came time to clear the table, we all sat back and sighed deeply. One more pitcher of sangria magically appeared on the table, as a liquid dessert. Nobody had room left for the other desserts, though. Even Nils was a bit full in the face at the end.

This has to be one of the finest dining experiences I’ve had. Ever. Spanish and Cuban food places aren’t plentiful in Austin, so we don’t get to have this fine stuff there. The meal at Columbia compares favorably with the best meals I had in Barcelona and Sitges on the Mediterranean. A fine meal with great service, made even better by the families at the table (and the friendly weather). I’d go back to Columbia in St. Pete in a heartbeat! Or to any of their other locations, if I was nearby.

At the last we went down and got our rental out of hock with the valet. He was plenty soggy, but smiling. The late evening had a cool silkiness that was most refreshing as we drove the half-mile or so back to our hotel, with the angel’s own light show sparkling in the distance as the storms moved off. An evening to remember, fondly…

Columbia Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Columbia Restaurant, 800 2nd Ave., NE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701. Phone 727.822.8000. Open seven days a week, lunch and dinner; reservations encouraged. Elegant, affordable fine dining, featuring Cuban and Spanish fare in a relaxed atmosphere with great views of Tampa Bay and the St. Petersburg skyline. Kid friendly and romantic, with outdoor dining options (weather permitting). Sangria and wines (many from Spain) from an award-winning list available. Valet parking available.

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Go Watch Some Fish…

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