Sunday, August 23, 2015

Cru Crushes The Ballast Point Beer Dinner

The craft beer business is booming and so are events that feature it, including beer dinners. Most foodie-types are intimately familiar with wine dinners, however, many have the belief that drinking beer with multiple courses of food would be way too filling.

If that is you, you haven't met Chef Bob Boye at Cru in Fort Myers, FL. This beer lover prepared a beautiful seven course tasting menu that left guests wanting more, rather than feeling over served and bloated.

The courses were small bites and the Ballast Point beers were manageable tasting pours, just the right amount. Sometimes dinners like this offer big portions and big pours, which are nice, but by the last course I often find my taste buds getting weary, my belly expanding and my cell phone handy for an Uber ride home.

Not only was this perfect in portions, but pairings.

In our first course, the batter hugging each Apalachicola oyster was made with the same Longfin Lager it was served with. The Beer was light with citrus, a crisp, pleasant pairing with the salty fried oyster.

Longfin Battered Apaloachicola Oysters
Octopus, tender deliciously prepared octopus, was the star of the second course. It was served over a Meyer Lemon and strawberry marmalade. The Even Keel Session IPA had a bitter aroma and a bitter finish that was fun with the all of the flavors on the plate, including the nutty and bitter arugula. There was a bit of pepper that a was a beautiful compliment to the strawberry. A favorite course for many at my table.

Grilled Octopus
Next up was a fabulous gulf shrimp escabeche. The sweet shrimp with a nice snap, contrasted with the spicy chimichurri gelee it was served with. This was a great combo of texture and flavors that held up to the Grunion American Pale Ale. It had a pungent nose and flavors of orange peel.

The miso seared black grouper with hazelnut broth and sticky rice (4th course) actually tasted better with the beer than on its own...that's the magic of the pairing. The Calico Amber Ale smelled and tasted like caramel, with a pleasing bit of toast.

Miso seared Black Grouper
The smoked olive oil scallop sous vide was another table favorite. The char was perfect, the grilled grapefruit offered nice acidity and the thai basil brought it home. Served with Ballast Point's Grapefruit Sculpin IPA, the beer also had a hint of pineapple. It's grapefruit flavors were even more pronounced with the food

Smoked Olive Oil Scallop
Course six brought the heat. Maryland blue crab & habanero, served over greens and with the Habanero Sculpin IPA. If you like it hot, you will love this is not subtle.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night and one of my favorites was dessert. The curry and dark chocolate soufflé with toasted coconut was incredible. Add to it the Indra Kunindra Curry Export Stout and this blew me away. It's nose was intoxicating and inviting. I could taste curry, cayenne, and lots of cumin. This was a perfect pairing and nothing I would have ever thought to try on my own.

Curry & Dark Chocolate Soufflé 
Although wine still has my heart, I'm becoming more and more impressed with the craft beers I've been tasting, their complexities, layers of flavors and the how well they work with food. Many of these beers I would not drink on their own, they NEED food in my opinion.....just like some wines.

Congratulations Chef, Austin from Ballast Point and the entire staff of Cru for putting on a well thought out and executed beer dinner that converted many of my fellow "wine snobs" who were in attendance. CHEERS!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

What's In Your Glass For Pinot Noir Day?

Happy Pinot Noir Day! Not that I need an excuse to drink pinot noir but I had a little fun experimenting today. I started out with a smoky, cherry Rascal Pinot Noir that I was told was the "go to" wine for Oregon wine country locals, looking for a great value.

Next up, a lovely Cuvaison, Estate Grown, full of bright red fruits, violet and a bit of spice. Two thumbs up for this moderately priced one.

While the first two might not be as easy to find, this last one is widely distributed, Mark West. The 2013 releases from California have been great so far and this one is also getting high marks in the best value category; plum, black cherry and a slightly smoky finish.

I know that wine based cocktails are becoming quite popular, although I've yet to get on board with anything other than those that employee Champagne and other things that sparkle.

A friend recently revealed he had a FANTASTIC cocktail of pinot noir and bourbon. So I thought I'd give the mix a try. After a couple of experiments with proportions, I decided the cocktail he had, must've had something else added, a splash of this or that, bitters or juice, because this didn't do it for me. If you have a good recipe, please pass it on and I'll make another attempt.

Otherwise....I'll stick with both my bourbon and my pinot.....straight up!

The Redesign of Bonefish Grill; And Other Fun Features

It had been awhile since I last dined at Bonefish Grill, allthough I had heard rumors of a change in the air. Invited to the restaurant in Fort Myers for Hooked-on-Tuesday (I'll get to that next), the first thing I noticed was the community tables that once lined the center of the bar, had been moved outside, creating more dinning space and places to wait for a table to open up.

The changes outdoors made me curious to see what had taken place inside. Waiting for the crowd of people at the hostess stand to move, I scanned the bar to see what had replaced the community tables. The new high tops slightly resemble the former tables, but these can be moved, creating more options for bigger parties, while not forcing a party of two to sit so close to strangers if they're not up for it.

Similarly, the booths along the bar wall have been replaced with high tops that can also be moved to customize a space just right for your dining companions. There's a new, open feel now that the wall separating the dining room from the bar has been opened up, decorated with modern lighting and wine bins.

New art highlights the back wall of the dining room which also lost some of it's traditional booth seating along one wall. The interior is not all that's new at Bonefish. Diners are loving the new Hooked-on-Tuesday deals. The three course meals come in three prices: $14.99, $17.99 and $20.99.

Spicy Tuna Bowl with Jasmine Rice and Passion Fruit Salsa
For $14.99 I had a salad, the spicy tuna bowl, a dessert and was satiated. Dining with a pregnant friend, the servers at Bonefish graciously substituted her raw tuna for cooked chicken, even though it was not a menu option. I've always found this restaurant to be extremely accommodating; something nice to know if you are dining with someone who has a special need.

Teriyaki chicken bowl
One thing my pregnant friend could NOT wait to dive into was dessert. In fact, she said that was the main reason for choosing the new Tuesday special.

Coconut Pie with Myers Rum Sauce
She nearly stuck her face in the coconut pie; it was so moist and the rum sauce was a perfectly constructed compliment. The sea salt caramel and chocolate sauce on the cheese cake was finger lickin' good, as you can tell by the photo below.

Check out the new design of Bonefish Grill and be sure to take advantage of the new, affordable and delicious Tuesday dining deals!

Monday, August 17, 2015

My Milkshake, Is Better Than Yours

I've judged a lot of food competitions, but after two rounds of milkshake judging this weekend, I still feel like I'm in a sugar coma. The fast/casual restaurant, PDQ, is known for many things, including their hand spun milk shakes. Each year the company has an employee competition, looking for some fantastic, new seasonal flavors.

I sat on the judges panel at both PDQ locations in Fort Myers, FL and was so impressed with the great combinations I was able to try. One had cheerios and honey in it, perfect for breakfast, another had salted caramel and mini chocolate chips.

The winning shake at the PDQ location on US41 near College Parkway, was a pina colada. That might sound more ordinary than the Smurfberry it was up against, however, it had all of the flavors (and in the right balance) that you would expect from a pina colada. The only thing missing was the rum...that's coming up in the next blog.

The winner at the PDQ in Gulf Coast Town Center was the Ahoy Matey.....a shake with Chips Ahoy cookies, marshmallow cream, vanilla and cinnamon; great texture and flavor. Congrats to the winners who now move up the ranks to the national competition, cash prizes and the bragging rights of having their creation served at PDQ restaurants nationwide.

ginab2u's PDQ album on Photobucket

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Local Breweries Setting The Pace In Fort Myers

Fort Myers Brewing Company is becoming quite a destination for beer and fun lovers in Southwest Florida. The craft brews continue to leave their mark in the field and can even stand up to fine wines and gourmet cuisine.

Check out all the brewery has to offer in my feature for USA TODAY's 10Best.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Pairing Wine And Beer

This time last week I was preparing to go to my first beer/wine combo dinner. I've been to hundreds of wine dinners and a handful of beer dinners, but never one that embraced both; apparently no one else at this event had either.

When I took my seat at the funky 7th Avenue Social in Naples, the gentleman next to me was conflicted, not knowing which flight he would choose, the beer or the wine. You should have seen his relief when I assured him the restaurant would never be so cruel as to make him choose, he would get BOTH.....wink, wink......because I know people.

We got a glass of wine and one of beer with each course. Not only did the beverages pair seamlessly with each dish, they also complimented each other, proving that like dogs and cats, beer and wine can sometimes get along too.

I really wasn't sold on the idea until I took a sip of Fort Myers Brewing Company's signature, Gateway Gold, a blond ale,  followed by a taste of the award winning Balletto Pinot Gris. Both were fresh and light with lots of, this is gonna work. When paired with the ceviche tacos (poblano crema and pico de gallo) the food and wine geek in me got giddy with excitement!

The diver sea scallops (pictured below with Fresno, saffron creme anglaise, micro greens, poached quail egg and lardons) were served with a small production Ehlers Estate Sauvignon Blanc and a high Five IPA. Another beautiful combination that had diners licking plates and draining glasses.

Then came the house smoked duck rillete with drunken fig jam, served in a glass jar that seemed to be bottomless. The hops in the Red Tape American Amber came from Willamette Valley, Oregon; same place as the grapes found in the silky Coleen Clemons Pinot Noir.

4th course was a petit filet with blue crab, béarnaise, glance de viande, pencil asparagus and twice baked fingerling potatoes. What a savory dish, served with two toasty, complex beverages: the Tamiami Tan brown ale and the Baer Callisto blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah and petit verdot grapes. The groans of delight were getting louder with each course.

Then came the grand finale, put a fork in me! A PB&J empanada was plated with salted caramel ice cream and served with a Peanut Butter Porter and Delaforce Ruby Port from Portugal.

This dinner was an amazing three pronged punch of pleasure. It's rare in these types of dining events that every course hits the mark....this one did.

Bravo to Heather Smith from Opici Wines and Fred Malone from Fort Myers Brewing Company for working together, sharing tasting notes and picking the perfect wine and beer match ups. The triangle was then completed by 7th Avenue Social's amazing chef, David Lani, who created dishes full of flavor and texture to compliment the beverage combination.

When is the next one?

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Summer at Sea Salt, Naples Dining

Many Southwest Florida restaurants have summer menus that are not only full of seasonal specialties, but also spectacular deals, aimed to get the locals out of hiding from the heat. As I started previewing some a while back, I somehow got sidetracked. I found this draft, waiting sadly in its queue to see the light of day.

Sea Salt in Naples is quite spectacular, in its food quality, presentation, service and of course wine list. I recently got to sample some of the summer specials created by Chef/Owner Fabrizio Aielli and his Executive Chef Josh Zeman staff, like a delicious Zellwood corn bisque with double smoked gulf shrimp and potato hash. The rich, salty/sweet treat also offered a fun table presentation.

And how could anything be bad with these three magic ingredients: Lobster. risotto and truffles. I was hoping there was a vat in the back that I could dive into.

Another flavor packed dish was the White Peking Duck with celery root veloute, crispy parma ham, pear and currants. And one of my favorites, the Foie Gras saucisson; fennel potato puree, red onion jam, pickled mustard seeds

Just at the moment when I thought I couldn't possible eat anymore, pastry chef Chelsea Phillips sent out plates of decadence so beautiful it would make a grown man cry.

Try the summer specials while they last and take advantage of some outstanding Sea Salt specials such as lunch at the bar. It's only $12.95 and that includes a glass of wine. There are lots of 1/2 price options for happy hour, and the pre-sunset menu is 3 succulent courses for a mere $29.95.

Wednesday is half-price on bottles of wine under $100 AND no corkage fee if you have something special you would like to open from your home cellar. If you have not been to Sea Salt, or it has been awhile, now is the time to check it out; the tourists are gone, you can get a great seat and an even better deal on some of the best food in the area.  Cheers to summer in Southwest Florida.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Summer Series: A Tale Of Two Whites

I've been doing some spring cleaning this summer, going through my whites and drinking the ones that have a few years under their belt. Most white wines lack the same aging potential as reds.

This week I came across two gems from my wine travels. For me to ship or stash a bottle in my suitcase, it has to be something special, something that would be extremely difficult for me to get in Florida, or impossible if not at the winery.

Mendel was a great stop on a recent trip to Mendoza, Argentina and one of only a small handful of wineries that produces a 100% semillon wine. This grape is typically used for blending, often with sauvignon blanc. On its own at this winery, I thought it was something special, special enough to pack and pass through customs.

I found the 2012 in my stash, chilled it, put in a wine bag and brought it with me for a lunch with my travel companion, wondering how it had aged. Much to my disappointment it had lost its luster, but I could still taste a bit of what it once was. I put the cork back in and took it home to use in some dressings and other dishes. I just couldn't let it go.

Another type of grape that is not typical to find at my house is gewürztraminer, and definitely not one from Oregon. But this is another gem that caught my attention on a trip to Willamette Valley a few years ago. When I noticed this was a 2011 my heart sank a little, not again.

The tasting room at Sarver was a bit frazzled when I visited, a wedding was taking place on the property that evening and all focus seemed to be on the event. I remember feeling rushed and wanting to stay and enjoy these wines more. I managed to leave with one bottle, now hoping against hope that it had survived the years.

Wow, it was still brilliant, tropical and fresh. I wanted more and got online to see what the winery was offering. Gewürztraminer, is not currently available for purchase, it could be a winery only selection and why I picked it up.

As for Mendel's Semillon, it is an award winning wine, imported by Vine Connections, so there is a good chance you can find the current release.

Let me know if you do!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Fast and Casual Summer Special

Oh how I've been remiss on getting the word out concerning this restaurant and this great summer contest. It's been more than a week since I first set foot into a PDQ (US41 in Fort Myers). It's funny to hear people who don't know, guess what it means. While you can still play the game, I'll give you the answer:   People Dedicaed to Quality.
The new PDQ on US41 in Fort Myers
This newest chicken chain is the brainchild of some former top brass in the Outback Steakhouse operation; immediately lending credibility. Beginning in Tampa in 2011, there are now 43 restaurants around the country. Each location has the proprietors name on the door; inspiring pride at the top almost always filters down the line.

A fast casual restaurant, don't lump this into the "fast food" category you may have stored in your brain. Everything at PDQ is fresh and made in house. I toured the kitchen and can vouch for that claim. I did not see one microwave, nothing frozen, no plastic bags of premixed anything. It is evident in the taste of the food; chicken tenders, salads, sandwiches and decadent hand-spun shakes.

Even the fries are hand-cut and go through quite a process to get them tasting just right. They are cut and rinsed over and over to get the starch out, then blistered and fried in soy oil just before you order. You can actually taste the potato flavor!

Washed and blistered, these guys are waiting for the fryer
There's a hand washing basin by the drink station, making it fun for kids and easy for adults to wash up before and after meals. The self serve drink machines offer 155 flavors, there are fresh brewed teas including the house special, a jasmine clover green tea. It is made fresh and taste tested every day. So is the lemonade. The PDQ on US41 in Fort Myers hand squeezes as many as two cases of lemons a day, mixing the fresh juice with simple syrup and water: so refreshing!

The chicken tenders are big and juicy. The choices for dipping sauces range from sweet sriracha and chipotle BBQ to creamy garlic, buffalo blue and more.
More than a half-dozen dipping sauces will delight your taste buds

The kitschen is wide open, you can even see all of the way through it to the drive-up window, full disclosure. Ordering at the drive-thru is face to face with an employee, virtually eliminating any chance to mess up your order do to a squeaky microphone in a plastic box.

Sandwiches come with fresh cut fries or blueberry coleslaw

Giving back is an important part of the PDQ SOP (standard operating procedure). Charity nights and other fundraising opportunities abound, along with reward cards. The staff seams to really enjoy being here and will go out of their way to make sure you do too.

Now here is why I need to be whipped for the delay in passing along an great summer ends July 31. If you eat at PDQ ten times in the month of July you qualify to win food for a year and other sweet prizes!

Sign up here. You can still count the times you dined earlier in the month, as long as you have the receipt for reference information. Each restaurant will have a party at the end of the month and draw the winners name. If you frequent any of the newer locations, you're chances might increase as the word might not have gotten around.....until now!

Pick up some tenders for dinner tonight, delicious sandwiches for the office or fool everyone at your next party by serving PDQ's mouthwatering apple slices and toffee dip. You still have time to win so sign up today.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Summer Series: Fabulous Franciscan

Every summer it's the same drill, finding some good white wines to accompany seasonal foods and also feel good going down in high temperatures.

I was doing some research on medal winning wines for an upcoming story when I came across the latest releases from Franciscan. The 2014 vintage from Napa has been highly anticipated and thought to be a great year. From what I've tasted here, I'm excited to try more.

Equilibrium (under $25) is one of the signature bottlings from Franciscan Estate and the 2014 is extraordinary. With a beautifully floral nose, the crisp wine had citrus, peach and honeysuckle for a full range of flavors on the palate. This complex blend is sauvignon blanc based, with a little chardonnay and muscat to round things out.

Empty bottles equal a good tasting
The 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, in the $20 range, is made from grapes that are harvested from several sub-appelations in Napa Valley, fermented using a variety of techniques, then blended together for a great marriage. The result is a fresh wine with lime and lychee and a finish full of minerals and citrus.

Both of these wines are refreshing accompaniments to fish, summer picnic foods or simply sipping on their own. Be sure to buy several of each, as you will almost certainly want more once the bottle is empty.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

I "Heart" Ehlers

The first thing I noticed on the label when I was first introduced to Ehlers wines was how the E on the label forms a neat little heart.

Ehlers has quite a history, first making wine as early as the mid 1800's, then a long history of selling the land, recouping it all and then giving it away again, this time for charity. 100% of the proceeds from Ehlers wines goes to cardiovascular research, hence the heart on the label.

The celebrated winery grows Bordeaux varietals and is 100% organic. The newest releases come from the 2012 vintage, a banner year following the brutal weather of 2011 that caused many vintners big losses.

The 2012 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon may seem young for a Napa cab, and while it certainly could use a little more time in the bottle, it is delicious with lots of rich dark fruit; cherry, black raspberry a bit of caramel.

The 2012 Estate Merlot is bold but velvety, with some of the same characteristics of black raspberry and cherry, but a little more spice and a juicy mouthfeel.

Both wines come in around $55, good for drinking now but are keepers for some aging.

Monday, June 29, 2015

KC American Bistro Beats the Summer Heat

As the summer heat gets even hotter, my summer menu sampling continues with KC American Bistro in north Naples. This is another one of those great, strip mall finds.

The small bistro first opened in 2009 where it became a standing room only space. Four years later, Chef/Owner Keith Casey expanded and more than quadrupled the capacity while still keeping some intimacy.

This bistro serves American regional cuisine; a spin on traditional dishes from around the country, integrating local elements in a way that  just makes sense and tastes great.

You'll find lots of seafood on the menu but also succulent lamb, beef and a refreshing watermelon salad. Like many restaurants, chef is offering a few new seasonal specials that you have to try before they go away

One of these items is the cornmeal fried oysters served with a green apple slaw, over a cajun remoulade that had just the right amount of kick, not to overpower the mollusks. The cornmeal was crisp and the oysters juicy.

Also new for the summer is the potato crusted Alaskan Halibut served over lentils, garlic spinach and potato. There were layers and layers of flavor and I couldn't put my fork down, trying each of them individually and in conjunction with the others.

Also new this summer, KC American Bistro adds a full liquor bar to its lineup. The great wine list remains, with lots of boutique selections and a nice by the glass roster.

For even more specials, pick up the July edition of Living Local and look for the bistro's ad along with my business review

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Peter's Pinot.....

I love  experimenting with new white wines during the summer new, I mean new to me. Peter Zemmer is certainly not new to the wine making game. His grandfather founded a winery in the small Italian village of Cortina in 1928.

An Italian pinot grigio might not seem like a big deal to you, as many are thought to be sleepy. Not this one. The grapes come from Alto Adige in northern Italy where the average elevation is 1600 feet.  The valley is surrounded by snow capped mountains, popular for skiing, but the grapes are happy despite the cold, as there is prolific sunlight to warm them year round.

The alpine style wines released from this area are more and more impressive.

Once in the glass, the wine was a straw color with a floral nose. Mineral, acidic and tropical, I tasted a variety of fruits as it sat in my glass and warmed up a bit; melons, pineapple and citrus to name a few. It was fresh and enjoyable.

I served the Peter Zemmer Pinot Grigio with pasta, shrimp and fresh pesto and it was an satisfying combo. Next time, I would like to try it with any salty appetizer or fish dish, or simply drink it on its own. In the price range of $16, this one is a delicious and affordable simmer find.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Barbatella: Summer BOGO's and Brunch

For food and wine lovers, summer in Southwest Florida is exciting. Forget about the suffocating humidity and threat of hurricanes, we've got 1/2 price wine and pre-fix menu's that will make you sweat.

Some amazing places are putting forth some amazing deals to make us brave the heat and afternoon rains, Barbatella is one of them. The restaurant on Third Street South in Naples not only has some new summer dishes but equally impressive are the seasonal deals.

I got a sneak peak recently while sipping a floral and fruity Zibibbo from Sicily. Yes Zibibbo is a grape, it is typically on the sweet side, but this one was fresh, with more minerality; a nice summer treat served at Barbatella.

Gorgonzola and pistachio, wrapped in fig and salami
Some super specials this time of year include a happy hour that starts at 2:00 and an early dining menu; three delicious courses for only $21.50.

This restaurant has a courtyard, a cozy bar and an open pizzeria with a wood fired oven. The pies are fantastic, especially on Monday when it is buy one get one all day.

Other great deal include Wine Wednesday with 1/2 off bottles under $100 and Sunday when it is 1/2 off ALL bottles. The Sunday Brunch is also impressive with a three-course spread for $21.50 and $3 mimosa's all day.

There are specials almost every day of the week but they're not listed on the website at the time of this posting, so give them a call. Get out and enjoy their great food and drinks at amazing prices this summer.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Wiley Whites

Since it's summer I can "officially" wear white, and I feel the need to drink them (and pink) too. Unfortunatley I've had a few tucked away that just didn't withstand the test of time and have had to dump more than drink lately. Sad.

I fell in love with the Cadaretta SBS during a Wine Wednesday interview a couple of years ago, and stocked up on a case of the sauvignon blanc/semillion blend. Digging around for some weekend wines, I FOUND ONE, but my excitement was quickly tempered when I read the fine print....2011.

Not because it was a precarious year for some growers (mostly in California, this is from Washington) but because it's four years old. While some reds aren't even released for four years, whites are a different story....aging potential is generally more limited.

When first opened, my fears were supported....disappointment. It was a bit astringent, however, I tasted tropical fruit even mango, so I put a cork on it and tried it again the next day. Guess what? It worked itself out.

Moral of the story....if there is a HINT of potential....let it sit and try it again, you never know if magic can happen with a little infusion of oxygen.