Saturday, November 7, 2015

Sunday Brunch---Italian Style

Limoncello Tiramisu 
When restaurants open, they often do it in phases, adding to their portfolio of offerings a little at a time, hoping to perfect--as much as possible--before adding more. That is indeed the case with Melograno Italian Gourmet, the latest addition to the dining scene at Tarpon Point Marina in Cape Coral.
Sampling the new pastries and specialty jams
Sunday Brunch at Melograno is done Italian style. It is official, it is legit, and it will only get better now that the restaurant's new baker has arrived from Italy. He is getting used to how bread rises in the heat, humidity and air conditioning of Southwest Florida.

I got to sample some of his experiments and they are coming along nicely. The beautiful mini tarts I tried were filled with Italian creme and berries, fig and grape with a hint of spicy mustard, spiced pear with coffee bean and cocoa, and more.

The restaurant is also introducing it's private label organic jams. The concentrated flavors are used in a variety of dishes from sweets to meats here, and they include pear vanilla, peach amaretto and lemon lime.
Deconstructed crostata with caramelized apples
The dough in the deconstructed crostata (with caramelized apples and pine nuts) does not have any yeast, is light and easy on the sugar. With misty eyes, owner Augusta Malacarne describes it as "Sunday morning in Italy."
Spaghetti nests with prosciutto and carbonara  
The Nidi di spaghetti alla Carbonara or spaghetti nests, began as a kid friendly dish but adults love the flavors; proscuitto, carbanaro, mozzarella and even eggs in the middle if you like.

Crepe special with mushrooms and rich cheeses
Satisfying the American palate that is used to big flavors and sauce, Melograno has specials like this crepe with mushrooms, ricotta and other cheeses: decadent.
Puffed frittata with prosecco infused fruit salad
Bread, eggs and bacon are made into a puffed frittata, with a mild hollandaise sauce. This dish comes with a prosecco infused fruit salad sprinkled with basil. I loved this combo. Malacarne says, "Italian basil has a little mint quality and prosecco makes every body happy."

I had mine (prosecco) in a glass, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. You can also have prosecco cocktails with fresh Sun Harvest juices.

Other brunch options at this waterfront spot include a nice selection of imported, cured meats and cheeses, lamb and eggs, a seasonal hash and Panino Melograno; pomegranate whipped creamy ricotta and caramelized shallots on toasted baguettes with Melograno's signature pomegranate mustard.

I'm always looking for restaurants that serve a Sunday brunch with unique dishes, lots of bubbles and a great atmosphere....Melograno has all three. Cheers!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

What's On YOUR Beach---Travel Tales Hawaii

I hail from the east coast of the U.S. and while I've spent time on both the Atlantic and Gulf sides of Florida....I currently swim in the warm calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico on a regular basis. The only elevation is the bridge to the beach. It's worlds different from Hawaii and the famous beaches of Wakiki; the location of my latest classroom for new discoveries.

As I sat in the soft sand yesterday, marveling at the mountains and the water in front of me, I shifted my gaze to the right and noticed a crowd gathering around a huge, dark object on the sand.

Now I'm used to seeing things wash up on the shores of Florida beaches, but nothing like this. It was an endangered Hawaiian monk seal. I got up for a closer look. Police tape was present.

How horrible, I thought, that no one had removed this poor guy yet. Perhaps "they" were waiting on more man power as he had to weigh hundreds of pounds.

Then I saw the sluggish movement of a flipper, his mouth shuddered a bit and my heart sank. He wasn't dead, but dying....on his one helping to get him back in the water, just standing and looking.

I put my phone away, packed my bag and left the beach, it upset me so much that this amazing mammal was dying and I couldn't just bask in the sun and pretend he wasn't there.

Later that day, I told my friend Andrew, a resident of Wakiki, what had happened. I was still clearly distraught with eyes welling up and as he put his hands over his mouth, I knew it bothered him too. Then a grin crept from under his hands. He laughed, looked at me with compassion (or maybe pity) and said in his southern accent, "Darling, he was just sleeping."

Me: What? But he was on his back.

Andrew: And how do you sleep?

Me: What? Well there was police tape.

Andrew: To keep the tourists from messing up his nap. They crawl up on the beach all of the time. Glad you got to see one. Wanna get a cocktail?

Me: HELL YES....I'm so relieved.

But will never live it down.
I guess I will have to brush up on the habits of native wildlife when I travel from now on.


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Beating The Storm---Travel Tales

With so many stories lately about flying fatalities due to weather, fellow passengers on my recent trip from Florida to Atlanta were getting fidgety at the gate watching dark storm clouds rolling in.

Apparently they weren't the only ones as airline personal began boarding our flight early, urging everyone to move swiftly so we could take off before the storm hit. WOW,  if only travelers were this efficient at finding their seats and stowing their bags on a regular basis!

We did it, pulled away from the gate a record 20 minutes early, but alas, it was not meant to be. It wasn't weather but a pesky warning light from a clogged galley drain that made us return to the gate and wait for maintenance. By this time the storm had indeed passed.

As we sat patiently waiting for the problem to be fixed I would occasionally hear the exclamations of a young child, quickly followed by a shushing from the parent. If they only knew their constant shushing was louder and more irritating than the questions of their child. Last time I flew with a curious child it was one of the best times I've had.

Too bad the shushing parent couldn't get ahold of the loud talkers who became even louder with the roar of the engine temporarily silenced. A man and a woman forced to sit next to each other apparently felt the need to get to know each other, and in turn let the entire cabin in on their life story. In one hour I learned more about them than some co-workers I've known for ten years.

I was further enlightened in Atlanta while waiting for my connection, by a business traveler droning on and on about his $4 Chick-fil-A sandwich. His companion shocked, had he known it was only $4 he might have taken time to eat too. $10 or $12 was just way to much, but a $4 meal? Then there was the gushing over how GOOD it was for $4, real chicken you know, not a bunch of parts, and a tomato and lettuce too. The conversation was repeated nearly word for word, for a good three or four rounds.

I finally made it to my DC, grabbed a cab and half-way to my final destination noticed that like the plane, this vehicle also had a warning light on its control panel. It said check engine. I disembarked at my family's home, his car promptly died.

I've decided to walk the next few days.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

New Southern Cooking Comes To Punta Gorda

Leroy's Manhattan with a moonshine soaked cherry
LeRoy's Southern Kitchen is the newest restaurant to grace the dining scene of Punta Gorda's quaint downtown. The brainchild of two longtime Southwest Florida restauranteurs, Lee Richardson and Bob Mulroy, the two scooped up a former chef from the highly acclaimed Mereday's in Naples--Richard Howze.

Howze also spent time in the New Orleans culinary scene. He brings a big dose of NOLA inspiration to Leroy's southern menu, then adds a modern twist.

Located in what used to be Opus, the somewhat chic decor has been replaced with lots of repurposed looking materials for a casual ambiance.

On the surface, it's a place where you might expect to find shrimp and grits, and pork and pancakes, and you do. However, the menu also has foodies salivating with dishes that include foie gras, truffle and bone marrow.

I was so excited to find the above items that I didn't know where to start. Thankfully Mulroy made the decision for me and sent out a tasting board that included two types of sausage, pork rillette, chicken pate, cheeses and more.

Tasting board
He also advised trying the fried green tomatoes which to be honest, didn't excite me as more often than not, I find this dish to be marginally prepared. I should've known better. Chef Howse cut the tomatoes in wedges not slices so we could actually taste them. The crisp batter, the salty blue cheese and tasso fondue, the juicy tomatoes in the middle, created a wonderful trifecta.

Fried green tomatoes
I couldn't pass up something with foie gras. It came on Po Boys, on top of burgers but I had it on it's own, blackened and with a bit of blueberry jam and balsamic. A must try.

Blackened foie gras
I really wanted to try the brussels spouts in a truffled goat cheese with bacon or the crawfish beignets, all small plates. But my dining partner had a small appetite so we had to scale back, this time.

Roasted mushroom pilau, egg, truffle and pork rinds
We did manage to put a dent in the roasted mushroom pilau; the truffle flavors were distinct and delicious. It was topped with a fried egg and served with crunchy pork rinds.

Leroy's has one of the largest (if not THE largest) selections of bourbons and whiskeys in Southwest Florida according to Mulroy, with even more to come. The happy hour includes $4 drafts, wines and wells; only a dollar more for the premiums.

Congratulations on your opening and more exciting things to come!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Farm To Table In Southwest Florida

Smoked, cured and pickled plate
When I was recently asked to dinner by fellow journalist and fellow food lover Chelle Koster Walton, I couldn't wait to get caught up over a meal at The Local in Naples. I was even more excited to find out I would be part of her "research" into the farm to table scene in Naples and Fort Myers for VisitFlorida.

Butchers cut double pork chop from Palmetto Creek Farms
Not long after we took our seats, Chef Jeff Mitchell kept the food coming out and every dish had something special, from local ingredients to bold spices and everything in-between. 

Smoked eggplant with goat cheese
The menu here changes every week, depending on what is fresh, seasonal and as local as possible. The Local also serves 'local' brews....not just from Southwest Florida but Florida in general. The wine list is affordable and has some unique selections.....probably the only part of the menu that is not local.
Peach granita, mango sorbet and mint chocolate chip custard
Be sure to read Watson's article as it gives a lot more info on the above food items, not only featuring The Local, but also other restaurants committed to serving items from area farms. It also gives insight into the farms themselves. Eat local!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Wait Is Over For Melograno; New Restaurant In Cape Coral

For months, Melograno has been tempting people at Tarpon Point Marina in Cape Coral, with its chic yet rustic interior, imported Florentine tiles, and beautiful Italians with their intoxicating accents, promising to open soon.

Soon is finally here! In it's second week of operation, Melograno is only open for dinner, Wednesday through Saturday......for now. So much more is in store. Serving foods from Italy's 'cradle of cuisine,' Lombardia and Emilia Romagna in northern Italy, the food here has an authentic yet modern touch.

I was so excited to finally check it out and didn't know where to start. Choosing a plate of grilled vegetables, mozzarella and prosciutto di Parma we had it with a beautiful, crisp sparkling rose. Manager Robert Loseto takes great pride in the wine list and offers expert advice when it comes to at pairing.

Green Florida Soup
Next up was the Green Florida Soup, made creamy by pureeing avocado and potato. It also had onion, cilantro, tomatoes, peperonino and perhaps some other goodies, but nothing was overpowering. It was very thick, rich and balanced in flavors.

Insalata Melograno
The Insalata Melograno was even more unique; a stack of chickpeas, quinoa, artichoke and pomegranate. Vegetarians are going to love this 'meaty' dish. I wasn't sure what to think of the combo at first, then I got one of those bites, the perfect amount of each flavor, and I was hooked. Wine could be a challenge with this one. We had a refreshing, yet substantial Gavi

Strozzapreti alla bolognese
Most of the pasta is made in house so I had to try some, opting for the strozzapreti alla bolognese. The pasta was al dente and I could actually taste it as it was not swimming in sauce. The combinations of meat in the bolognese were flavorful and once again, not over served. Chianti was in order for this dish!

I really wanted to try the prawns over caponata or the asparagus stuffed chicken with a light gorgonzola cream, but there was no room at this point. Darn, I'll have to return.

Melograno is adding items to their dinner menu a little at a time. Eventually they will be adding entertainment to the roster as well. Look for lunch and breakfast soon, and a bakery full of thoughtfully made treats with the highest quality ingredients. Bravo Melograno.

Friday, August 28, 2015

How Do You Bunulu; New Store at Coconut Point Mall

You're shopping options at Coconut Point Mall in Estero FL just got a bump with the opening of the new Bunulu. While the shutters quietly went up last week, today is the official Grand Opening celebration with yoga demonstrations, entertainment and refreshments.

The name Bunulu is inspired from an aboriginal word meaning a place of water or water. Perfect for the coastal lifestyle theme this store is all about. The items found in its 4000 square foot space cater to people with an active lifestyle, specifically those activities found in coastal communities like Southwest Florida.

Not just a place to buy stuff, I was given a sneak peak last week at many of the activities this store has planned for its customers, such as yoga

They have also teamed up with the College of Life Foundation for guided kayaking and canoe tours on the Estero River with even more events to come once they get up to full steam.

Bunulu buyers have carefully selected unique items from well established brands like Patagonia, Prana, Trina Turk, Nixon and even GoPro. From footwear to accessories for both men and women, you'll find a wide variety of functional and fashionable items here.

This is Bunulu's inaugural boutique and construction is currently underway for Bunulu shopping in Jacksonville, FL, a third Bunulu shopping experience is planned for Palm Beach Gardens this fall, and there are plans to eventually expand outside of Florida.

Find Bunulu at Coconut Point Mall in Estero, between J. Crew and Victoria's Secret

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?