Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Good to Grill at The Melting Pot

It's been years since I've sat down for a dining experience at The Melting Pot, but I did just that with a group of fellow food writers and enthusiasts last week to check out the fondue restaurant's new tabletop grilling feature.

The Melting Pot is known for its interactive dining around bubbling cauldrons of goodness, which famously includes decadent melted cheese accompanied by a tray of crudité, bread, and apples for dipping. That's precisely where we began the evening.

Mixing the cheese for our first course
The cheese fondue we enjoyed was mixed in a base of white wine, garlic, and vegetable bouillon. Our server added a dollop of cream cheese and waited for it to melt appropriately before adding Wisconsin cheddar and Emmenthaler.

Before mixing and stretching for effect, a sprinkling of black pepper and black truffle salt was added. Our server kept a close eye on temperature to ensure the cheese maintained the appropriate texture and level of heat; no rooftop burns thank you. It was delightfully good and hard to stop eatting, especially with the chunks of pretzel bread. The next day had me thinking about the unlimited cheese and chocolate fondue offered at the bar for happy hour...hmmmmm.

After a fresh salad with strawberries and goat cheese, a cast iron grill was placed on the burner in the middle of the table for the debut of the new cooking style. We had an entree combination course of garlic pepper angus sirloin, peppercorn filet, and sweet and spicy shrimp.

Steak and shrimp seasoned and ready for the grill
The entrees come with a plate of vegetables that includes asparagus, zucchini, and mushroom caps, and sampling dishes of six signature sauces for dipping and mixing at will: gorgonzola, green goddess, spicy cocktail, mild curry, teriyaki, and ginger plum.

Tabletop grilling in progress
We were given suggestions and instructions, including precautions on transferring the raw meat, and then left to our own creativity and cooking styles. The meat was tender, the seasoning so good it was almost a shame to experiment with the flavorful sauces but we did anyway.

When we flipped over the mushroom caps, we filled them with green goddess for a flavorful treat. The cooking time was quick, except for the vegetables, and placing only a couple of protein items on the grill at a time ensured they stayed the optimal temperature for eating.

Traditionally, guests at The Melting Pot choose between fondue pots filled with various broths and oils for cooking vegetables and meats. While it's not fondue, there is something about the grill that is fun to watch and feels healthful. It did get a little smoky for us at one point and our server adjusted the grill temperature to help.

The last of the four course dining experience was the famous dessert fondue. The  menu has a number of options or you can create your own combination. Ours was White Chocolate Strawberries Foster.

A dash of cinnamon adds sparks to the White Chocolate Strawberries Foster Fondue.
I can still smell the white chocolate, dulce de leche, strawberries, and cinnamon combo. The addition of the cinnamon after a dash of alcohol produced festive sparks; perfect for Instagram stories.

One of my favorite things about dining here is that things are not rushed. It's a place that fosters conversation, it's fun, it's romantic, it's whatever you want it to be. And the best part, the food is fresh and good.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Pinot Party

I was lamenting last weekend about not being able to attend the fabulous International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon, yet again. 

So to sooth my sorrows I decided to host my own pinot party.

It was also a good way to turn a party into a story for my next wine column in the Fort Myers News-Press; Gina Drinks. I opened almost a case of pinot noir, mostly from California with a couple of selections from Chile and New Zealand thrown in for giggles.

My friends actually cooperated quite well, at least in the beginning, offering impressions of the wines, guessing how much they cost, etc. As the night went on, it got a little more difficult and a lot more fun. Thanks to all who participated in helping me with this latest column which you can read here. You'll see I focused on California. With Oregon and Burgundy being the motherships when it comes to pinot, those will come another time. 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Retired Firefighter Turned Winemaker

Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to attend an epic tasting through 6 decades of Charles Krug Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa. We started with a 1964 vintage. Did I say epic?

I caught a ride from the airport with Ray Hanson, owner of Destiny Wine Tours. As we chatted it up on the drive from SFO to Napa I learned about his past life as a firefighter and how he now makes wine from the cabernet sauvignon growing on his property.

He was so kind as to give me a bottle to try which I feature in my Memorial Day wine column for the Fort Myers News-Press, "Gina Drinks." Since I have a limited word count, I wanted to share an excerpt from our conversation during our ride.

Not only does Ray talk about his wine, but what it was like as a retired fireman, to go through last year's devastating fires. Take a listen:

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

An Afternoon of Drinking with Rob Mondavi Jr

Drinking bubbles with Rob Mondavi Jr in Naples
I recently was privileged to spend an afternoon drinking wine with Rob Mondavi Jr., winemaker at for the family's Michael Mondavi Family Estates in Napa Valley, California.

We tasted through his current releases at The Continental on the famous 3rd Street South in Naples, Fl, over an amazing array of food.

During the course of the tasting Rob sat with us telling stories of the vineyard, the fires, the wines in our glasses and even through the tragic tales, there were lots of laughs. It was also the most beautiful afternoon in Southwest Florida and since we had also shared our mutual love for bubbles, there was no escaping a bottle.

Walking across the street to Sea Salt, where Rob had a wine dinner scheduled later that night, we ordered a bottle of Schramsberg before calling it a day.

Read about Rob's current releases with Michael Mondavi Family Estate and which wines survived the fire here.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Wine That Works; New Years Resolutions

Have you made or are you still in the process of making resolutions and setting goals for the New Year. Better health is one of the most popular declarations, loosing weight, eating better, etc. Why do so many people fail? I say it's because while challenging yourself, you still need to be realistic.

You don't have to eliminate wine from your diet. Cut back? Sure. Lower calorie wine options? Even better. And these are actually good...story here from my latest column in the Fort Myers News-Press.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Roy's Turns Up The Heat As The Temps Drop

When Roy's Restaurant opened in Bonita Springs, it was the first time famed chef and owner Roy Yamaguchi expanded east of the Mississippi River. Over the years, locals have seen dining establishments come and go but this one has managed to not only stay, but improve upon what it made it great to begin with.

While there is always a core when it comes to Roy's cuisine, chef-partners have flexibility to adapt to their markets.

Specializing in Pacific Rim fusion, the restaurant keeps the menu fresh by many means, including consistently introducing new food and drinks to the Aloha Hour menu, and now a three-course Chef's Fall Tasting Menu ($49).

The drinks are festive, tropical, and sweet, but not over the top. Served in a heavy brass pineapple, the substantial Paradise Found is refreshing with vodka, pineapple juice, Monin almond, Angostura bitters, ginger beer and fresh lime ($15). Tiki drinks are the rage and so is the Polynesian Passion: Appleton 12 Year Rum, coconut rum and passion fruit ($12). The aged rum is deceiving, almost bourbon like in this cocktail.

Paradise Found, Pacific Cooler,  Polynesian Passion

The Pacific Cooler has Deep Eddy Ruby Red Grapefruit vodka, elderflower, and fresh strawberries and oranges ($12). One of my favorites is the Charred Lemon Sour ($13): Irish whiskey, lemon, grilled lemon wheel and rosemary.

As for the new tasting menu, it includes things such as the mouthwatering Szechuan Spiced Pork Ribs with meat that falls off the bone, the new spicy and fresh Auntie Lei's Aloha Roll (spicy tuna, cucumber, yellowtail, salmon, avocado garlic ponzu) and the Rock Shrimp Tempura that has the right amount of spice and crunch.

Be sure to dine with friends so you can order all three selections; I can't suggest just one.

Aloha Roll, Szechuan Ribs, Rock Shrimp Tempura

The second course on the tasting menu offers choices that include Braised Short Ribs of Beef that take more than a day to prepare with treatments that include searing, sous vide and more. Served over the most amazing mashed Yukons (and some broccolini to make you feel healthful) it's a home run.

Roy's may delight in the tropical drinks and white wines that often go so well with the many fish dishes here, however, they also have a nice selection of premium red wines. And thanks to the Coravin system, they can offer many of these by the glass. I picked Don Melchior, a Chilean cabernet, for the beef dish and it was outstanding; a great compliment.

If you're into seafood over beef, try the Jade Pesto Steamed Whitefish that comes with baby bok choy or the Georges Bank sea scallops. Perfectly seared scallops are placed over a hearty scoop of forbidden black rice cooked in lobster stock and coconut, the sauce is nearly drinkable.

Roy's has it's own boat in Georges Bank to harvest the succulent scallops which can be delivered several times a week.

Buttered Seared Georges Bank Sea Scallops

The portions are substantial but you'll still be able to manage room for the third course; dessert. The Pineapple Upside Down Care is delightful but I was all about the chocolate and Roy's famous Melting Hot Chocolate Souffle. It's drizzled in a raspberry coulis and served with rich vanilla bean ice cream.

Remember that premium wine list? The glasses come in both three and six ounces, so I ordered a small pour of the well known Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon with this dessert and it was brilliant!
Chocolate Souffle
It's not just the food and drinks that people come to Roy's for, but also the staff.

Having worked for Roy's for a decade, Naples native Ignacio Ortiz had always wanted to be a chef-partner and in Bonita Springs he is. Ortiz is a happy chef who has built solid connections with Managing Partner Tina Norris, the staff and the many regulars who spend many hours with the Roy's family. Both he and Norris make regular rounds to make sure all is well with their guests making this beautiful restaurant feel homey and comfortable.

Put Roy's on your radar this weekend for Aloha hour or the new Chef's Fall Tasting Menu.

One more thing to consider; give up slaving over a hot stove for Thanksgiving and celebrate Aloha style. Roy's is open and cooking up some extra special items including a three course pre fix for $39.95. Make your reservation soon.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Making Dough at MidiCi

The pizza stretching station is one of the first things you see when you walk into the new MidiCi, The Neapolitan Pizza Company, at the Coconut Point Mall in Estero.

Based out of Los Angeles, MidiCi is one of the newest concepts from the brains behind one of the most successful fro-yo franchises, Menchies.

Fort Myers residents Dina and John Wysseier fell in love with the restaurant's mission of bringing friends--and strangers--together. So they brought the restaurant to Southwest Florida, along with much enthusiasm.

The Wysseier's were inspired by the dining experiences they had while living in Europe, where food brought people together, even strangers. The have a board by the entrance (another on wall space by the bathrooms) intended to make it easier to meet fellow diners, or at least open their minds to the concept. 

Polaroid cameras are kept at the counter to document your dining experience. Take the photos with or leave them in a frame by the door.

The most notable signature of MidiCi restaurants is a live olive tree, the tree in Estero is in the center of the restaurant, Yes it is real.

The concept is fast/fine dining. You order at the counter, but it's not like any pizza counter you've likely seen. The line starts where the dough is stretched and tossed; the flour imported from Italy. Order one of the classics, a specialty pizza, or pick from the ingredients in the condiment station.

Gluten free diners will be glad to know MidiCi has it, GF crust...and it's GOOD. I sampled it along with a pesto pizza, a meat pizza, the double pepperoni and the devil's pizza. The crust snob in me was very happy; it was light, crisp where it was suppose to be.

The two pizza ovens weigh some 3 tons each, they were shipped from Italy and seasoned over several days. You can see the flames from almost any seat in the house. They are like pieces of art.

Other special equipment includes a fly wheel prosciutto cutter that cuts the meat in perfect ribbons. Aged for 18 months, the prosciutto is then used on beautiful cheese plates, in salads and on pizzas. The ingredients here are top quality.

For diners looking for something green, the salads are fresh, big, plentiful and numerous.

Be sure to save room for dessert, the signature dish being the Nutella calzone with fresh berries. You'll need a nap after this one. Gelato and sorbetto are good if you're looking for a lighter option.

The coffee bar has almost everything you could want; they even offer gourmet teas. The Italian cream sodas are to die for and the beer and wine selection is on point, better than most pizza joints for sure. But then again, you might expect this after stepping through the door and seeing the kind of attention to detail that goes into making MidiCi special.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

BRAVO Cucina Amps It Up For Fall

It's fall, hurricane Irma recovery is making progress, Bravo Cecina is not only open, the menu is full of new happy hour, brunch and seasonal menu items.

I love brunch and was hoping to make it for the new crepes (chef Raul Rodriguez loves them) but it was happy hour that got me first, one of my favorite times of the day. From 3:30-6:30 you can enjoy $5 cocktails (like the midnight mojito with strawberry and blackberry) and new, chef inspired bar bites.

Stuffed Banana Peppers
One of my faves was the stuffed banana peppers ($7.99). Halved and roasted, they are stuffed with mild sausage and cheese mix of mozzarella and provolone mixture; creamy, spicy, and hard to eat just one.

The table as a whole could not get enough of the shrimp bruschetta appetizer (13.99) on ciabatta bread with a borsin cheese spread. It's substantial and the creamy, herbal cheese adds an extra special touch.

Pepperoni Cheese Dip
Pizza is an American favorite and I could eat it everyday, in fact we had one here. It had burrata, mozzarella, provolone, garlic roasted pesto, prosciutto, and arugula with fennel seed. It had a touch of sweetness to balance the salty meat.

Not all pizza crusts are as good as this, therefore I have been known to mutilate a slice by taking the toppings off and eating them solo; the dough left behind in a sad heap. So  the new pepperoni cheese dip sounded like a dream. It's hot and deliciously gooey with cream cheese, mozzarella, provolone, parmesan and pepperoni; pizza toppings.

Cod Fresca
New seasonal entrees include balsamic chicken with orzo, farro, zucchini, red peppers, feta and asparagus. and also the harissa grilled shrimp. This shrimp dish also has orzo, farro, zucchini, red peppers, feta, but with the addition of arugula and red pepper aioli; a more than pleasing combo

The cod fresca ($18.49) completely won me over. I felt healthy just by looking at it. Things that look good for you don't always taste so good but that is definitely not the case here. The 6-ounce piece of fish is pan seared then placed over green beans, zucchini, tomato, orzo and faro in a lemon butter sauce, then topped with cucumber relish.

Chef Rodriguez was so enthusiastic about the new caramel mascarpone cheese cake (6.99), how could we say no? Dense and delicious it was a delightful finish.

Caramel Mascarpone Cheesecake 
Chef Rodriguez runs the kitchen with skill, he has been with the company for 10 years and likes the family atmosphere. About the new additions, he is a fan of the cod fresca as well, and likes how the menu has been simplified. He says, "Now there are lots of light choices and I'm happy about that."

The restaurant decor has also been freshened. It is still Tuscan but with a modern touch.

The staff is welcoming and the servers know the dishes well, helping diners navigate with ease. Whatever you do, try the new menu items at BRAVO Cucina before they go out of season.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Sanibel Travels to the Fort, Summer Wine Dinner

Now that season is over, and things on Sanibel Island are slowing down a bit, chef and restauranteur Melissa Talmage of Sweet Melissa's fame, is able to cross the causeway and hang out in Fort Myers for a night.

But she won't exactly be taking time off. Talmage is hosting a pop up dinner at Harold's. The talented chef is not only pairing her creative dishes with wine but specialty cocktails for an evening of food, fun and friends ($88). The four course meal without beverage pairings is $56.

Each course has several choices rather than just one. The second course consists of NOLA style shrimp and grits, steamed mussels or beef tartare. Course number three; fish stew in tomato saffron broth, roasted lamb chop, grilled smoked beef tenderloin or pan seared cobia with banana lentils. The only bad thing about this dinner is having to choose just one item in each course.

Seatings are at 5:30 and 8:00. Harold's is a small place and there are only a a few seats left, so make a reservation ASAP for the June 25 soiree. 239-472-1956

In other summer wine dinner news, the TasteMaker Dinner at Ruth's Chris Steakhouses nationwide last week featured some beautiful wines from the award winning Chateau Montelena. I attended one in Bonita Springs.

At this dinner, some of the wines poured were those that most of us would never have had access to unless physically visited the winery. A Potter Valley Riesling (slightly viscous but crisp with the food) for the first course was paired with a sesame grilled chicken and udon noodle salad. Thumbs up around the table.

Above is the second course; seared scallops in citrus bacon buerre blanc--I wanted to lick the plate. It was artfully and perfectly served with a 2014 Napa Valley Chardonnay; a Burgundian style wine, kissed with oak not drowning in it.

The zinfandel below was served with a hearty, Portuguese white bean and chorizo stew. The wine comes from 120 year old vines and pays homage to the chateau's labels from the 1920's. The combination of old vine zin and newly planted primitivo creates a velvety wine with dark fruit, tobacco and chocolate.

No dinner at Ruth's Chris would be complete without a succulent piece of meat. Ours was a petite filet mignon with cipollini ragout and a cauliflower mash. Pulled out of the vault and shipped special for this event, the 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon had wild berries, soft tannins and opened nicely the more it sat in the glass...I wish I had more.

Dessert was indeed a treat. A teeth staining, winery release only, the Napa Valley Petite Sirah was lovely with the chocolate dacquoise torte, with praline crunch.

Manager Peter Hyzak, Gina Birch and General Manger Aleks Kunov
The staff at Ruth's Chris is known for professionalism and this dinner was a great example. Peter and Aleks (above) are not only professional, but also fun. The next nationwide TasteMaker Dinners are in August (Champagne) and October (Marchesi Antinori). Cheers.


Monday, June 12, 2017

Reserve a Seat for the TasteMaker Dinner with Chateau Montelena

Pan seared scallops, bacon citrus beurre blanc and chardonnay
Summer in Southwest Florida is a gold mine for wine dinners and special events. That may seem counterintuitive since our population drops drastically with the flight of our winter residents and visitors.

However, this is when local restaurants put out the welcome mat for local diners, with incentives on both food and wine. It's also when chefs have a little more time in the kitchen to prepare special meals to pair with the many special wines that are distributed on our area.

There's one this week at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse featuring a name most food and wine aficionados know quite well, Chateau Montelena. If you'll remember the 1973 chardonnay from this winery is widely credited with putting California on the world wine map in the so-called Judgement of Paris.

This special TasteMaker Dinner is taking place at restaurants across the country this Thursday (06/15/17) so if you're not in Southwest Florida, you can still enjoy the spoils of this event. As you might expect the chardonnay will be poured along with the well-known cabernet sauvignon (2006).

Petite filet mignon, cipolinni ragout, roasted wild mushroom,
cauliflower mash and estate cabernet
Even those familiar with the Chateau Montelena brand may not have tried the others being served: Potter Valley Riesling, Calistoga Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. The menu is impressive.

Sesame grilled chicken and udon noodle salad in Thai peanut dressing with riesling
This is the fourth in a series of TasteMaker dinners by Ruth's Chris. Future events feature Moet Hennessy and Marchesi Antinorri.

Throughout the summer I'll be featuring these special food and wine events hoping to see you at some.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Bubbles for Breast Cancer

It's that time of the year when all things are pink, for breast cancer awareness. I've spent a lot of money on 'pink' items that I really didn't want or even know what to do with just to show support.

This year I've found ways to support the cause that also support two of my favorite habits: bubbles and coffee.

It's the second year for Mionetto's Pink Cork for the Cause. The prosecco makers have put 125 pink corks in both their brut and rose' sparklers. Find one and not only to you win a pink 5-speed hand mixer, but you are also entered into a contest for a $10,000 charity donation. Win this and Mionetto will make a $10,000 donation to the breast cancer charity of your choice, on your behalf.

The company donated $40,000 last year. Both of these proseccos are pleasing not only in flavor but also in price, $15 range. Even better, is the limited edition Speculoos Truffles created by Master Chocolatier Christophe Toury; they are fabulous with these wines. Dipped in pink and white chocolate, the confections are a decadent combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and brown sugar; a kind of gingerbread truffle.

A portion of the chocolate proceeds also goes to breast cancer charities.

The truffles are not only good with the bubbles but a hot cup of coffee too.

I just got this Lulu Travel Tumbler from Trudeau, a company that has donated more than a half million dollars to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. They have an entire product line of tumblers and travel mugs, designated to the cancer cause.

I like the design of this one; its curves and artwork. I especially like the flip top. So far I've not spilled any liquids and none have leaked out either. Victory! This one is $14.99.

It's always wise to do some research before blindly buying a product or donating money to any group claiming to support a charity. While most are reputable, there are always a couple of bad apples. These are two good ones.

Friday, October 14, 2016

October Isn't Just About Beer--Rumtoberfest Is Here

Who says October celebrations have to surround beer? Bahama Breeze Island Grille is putting a tropical spin on Octoberfest with Rumtoberfest and TODAY is Rumbash Friday.

Rum Flight
Not that you need an excuse to leave work early but Rumbash Friday is a good one as Bahama Breeze turns the party up a notch with things like rum tastings, games, prizes and fortune tellers.

The Caribbean inspired  restaurant also has food specials such as rum glazed ribs and is introducing some new rum cocktails.

The flights are fun. See what the rum fuss is about by picking three from the list that includes selections such as Barbancourt 15 year estate reserve, Don Q Gran Anejo, Brugal 1888 Ron Gran Reserva and more. They're served 'neat' but you'll get some fixins on the side, like ice cubes and cola to experiment at will.

Small tastes of special rum cocktails

The menu has so many rum cocktails it's hard to pick just one so Bahama Breeze is offering three cocktail flights as well. Take for instance the Mama's Hooch & Holler, it contains smaller portions of the Bahama Mama, Bahama Sunset and Goombay Smash.

Rum cocktail samples for Rumtoberfest
Rumtober ambassadors also pan the crowd with samples of the evenings specialty rum creations.

Rumtober selfies are submitted for free trips
And if you take a selfie of your fun night out you could win a Caribbean vacation.

Rumtober runs through November 6th...spread the word and have some fun with rum before the tourists and snowbirds return.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Wine Lovers Rejoice, The 2016 California Harvest Is Looking Good

Cabernet at Jordan Vineyard
Harvest time is an exciting time in wine country. I got to witness much of the fun this year in the Santa Lucia Highlands area and throughout the Sonoma Valley. The story I wrote last week for the Fort Myers News-press tells a good bit of what we can expect from the 2016 vintage: click here.

Chardonnay at McIntyre Vineyard
The photos I took and stories I have could not possibly fit into that one column so there will be more to follow. But in the meantime, I thought I'd share a few here. The chardonnay pictured above is from McIntyre Vineyard in The Santa Lucia Highlands, the beautiful purple grapes are from Jordan Winery.

Ted Lemon, owner and winemaker at Littorai Wines checks the equipment during harvest. Here, everything is hand sorted to his specification.

Fisher Vineyards uses an optical scanner to pick the perfect grapes for each batch of wine that comes from their steep slopes.

The old punch down method is still in use at Hahn Family Wines, for specific small batch fermentation. Below are videos of pinot noir coming out of the press at Hahn Vineyards and the sorting table at Fisher, amazing.

If you ever get a chance to visit wine country during harvest, do it. It can be a bit chaotic and some of the smaller tasting rooms won't entertain tours and may limit tastings as it is all hands on deck when tons of grapes start rolling in.

Make arrangements for accommodations as quickly as possible as many place fill up this time of year.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Time and Italian Wine

Over the last year I've been thinking about and writing about drinking older wines; wines that I and others have been saving for that 'special occasion' or have frankly just forgotten about.

I knew I had a few older vintages Italian wines and had promised to share one with some friends from the old country next time I was at their house for dinner, happy hour, really any occasion. 

Feeling a little wine depressed after a weeklong trip to California I dug in my cellar and pulled out a twenty year old bottle of La Giola Riecine a sangiovese based Super Tuscan. This is one of several bottles I brought back from Italy when you could actually still carry liquids aboard an airplane. I put it in the overhead compartment, put it in my wine cuvee and let it sit...for nearly 20 years!

BTW, the currently release is highly rated and available in the U.S.

We carefully removed the cork and made the executive decision not to decant. In the glass, it immediately smelled like bandaids, had very little fruit and we feared it was past its prime. But patience paid off and after about 45 minutes the bandaid burned off, dark fruit and tannins emerged. For a brief moment, it hit a stride, however, it was short lived.

I have a couple more older Italian wines on the roster to open. Next time,  I may opt to decant.You never know how a wine is going to drink, that is one of so many things that makes it exciting.