The Melting Pot

Though a fairly popular chain of restaurants now, the first Melting Pot opened in 1975 in Maitland, Florida, with the first franchise following in Tallahassee, four years later. Since that time they’ve spread across the Unites States and will be crossing the US-Canada border in 2010 with 2 locations already in the works. If you haven’t tried out your local fondue hot-spot, maybe now would be a good time to give it a whirl?

Reservations are highly recommended, but not required. We’ve done it both ways and the wait’s not usually too long but we’ve also opted to eat in the bar area (aside from cozier booths, it’s really no different than being in the main restaurant. Keep in mind, though, dinner is a several-hour affair so plan accordingly.

The basic order of a full meal at the Melting Pot goes like this: you choose the type of cheese fondue you want from half a dozen choices which is then mixed in front of you. With the cheesy goodness comes assorted cubes of bread, raw veggies and apple slices which you then dip into the cheese and nibble on while enjoying the company of your dinner companion(s) and maybe sampling something from the bar. They’ll bring you more dippers if you run out or have a particular favorite.

The salad course is optional, but it’s also quite tasty and you really don’t have to worry about filling up on it because the length of dinner allows you to graze without over-filling yourself. When Todd and I were there, the waiter actually had an issue with our cheese mix–turns out the water level of the pot had dropped too low and wasn’t producing enough steam to melt everything together–so the salad course helped bide our time until the second chance at the cheese fondue had a chance to melt.

You can order your main course a la carte, with options for single meats or combinations, shared dinners for 2 or a larger “Big Night Out” feast. We like the latter because you tend to get a little bit of everything but there’s usually 3 different options even within that range. Your cooking style options include a number of flavored broths or oil. Our favorite part of dinner on our first visit was the Butternut Squash ravioli but, unfortunately, it’s a seasonal entree only and we’re currently not in season. But nothing is really bad here. The meats come out arranged nicely on a platter, cut in bite-sized chunks to promote quick, even cooking and your meal is totally guided by your own pace. Several sauces are served with the main course and a separate place, with wells for each sauce, are provided for the cooked meats and veggies.

Dessert is where they really shine, though. I mean, who can resist chocolate fondue!? Again, there are several mixes to choose from and some even feature a bit of flambe action. The dessert place is really something to see with cubes (as well as a separate slice) of cheesecake, fresh strawberries and bananas, different types of marshmallows, brownies and rice crispy-treat cubes that are great on their own or liberally slathered in chocolate. Many people I know have stopped in after a night out just for the dessert fondue and nothing else.

Now, I won’t lie, dinner here isn’t exactly cheap: a full meal for 2, with all the courses, is routinely $100 or more, especially if you add in cocktails or after-dinner drinks. But the experience is certainly worth the splurge. And, ladies, check your local Melting Pot for details, but on the last Wednesday of each month, a ladies-only table gets you a 3-course fondue dinner for $28 a person and THAT is a steal.

Orange You Glad It’s Cocktail Hour?

The first Thanksgiving with the extended New Orleans family after my 21st birthday was a bit surreal: my Uncle was mixing Mimosas but the carton (pour out a third of the juice, fill with Champagne, shake and pour) and offered me one. I think it took my mother by as much surprise as it did me!

Orange juice is one of the most common mixers in cocktails though I’ve never been fond of it’s most common pair-up, Vodka, in the Screwdriver. Of course, that has a lot to do with early vodka experiences and low-quality product.

Taken a step further, there are a variety of orange alcohols and liqueurs available: from the orange-infused vodkas and rums to Grand Marnier and Triple Sec (which comes in a variety of brands).

At the Plantation, we used a lot of Grand Marnier in both the truffles I made to go out with the checks or as turn-down treats as well as in the Creme Brulee desserts (at least, that is, until I got them to agree to chocolate creme brulee… mmmm, Godiva!). Meanwhile, the stronger, pushier Triple Sec stayed in the bar.

Even though it appears in so many cocktails, Triple Sec is a tough taste to balance. Like I said, this is one pushy orange and many times it’s inclusion in a cocktail means that’s one of the few flavors you’re going to get. Not only has this spirit disrupted a pomegranate martini in the past (I know, what were they thinking), too much of a “good” thing can ruin an otherwise drinkable Cosmopolitan.

While on our cruise this past January, our itinerary took us to Roatan, Honduras, where I picked up a small bottle of Vaca Negra Tangerine Liqueur. It smells like concentrated orange soda and, straight, has a lightly orange flavor with a warm base–much like the brandy-based cordials friends had made. And, since I was thinking Cosmo (which, at it’s most basic, is vodka, triple sec and cranberry juice) I decided to give the Vaca Negra a try in place of the usual. The result was tart, refreshing, and not at all overpowering in the citrus department–just enough for flavor without going overboard. (Okay, the vanilla vodka didn’t hurt, either.)

CHF Cultural Cosmo

2 oz Vanilla Vodka
1 oz Vaca Negra Tangerine Liqueur
1 oz Lime juice
2 oz Cranberry juice

Shake everything over ice and serve in a chilled martini glass with an orange twist.

Now, even though the label on my Vaca Negra mentions a States-side importer in Metairie, Louisiana, I’ve been unable to  find any leads online of where to order it. Still, it’s possible to make your own if you’ve got a few tangerines and some time to make an infusion. Pierce a few tangerines and cover with vodka or brandy (my vote is for the latter) for up to 2 weeks. Then, strain off the liquor and let sit for a month before using.

Ray’s Steel City Saloon

In the building that once housed a Godfather’s Pizza (high school years) and a Mexican restaurant (college years) now exists a bit of Pittsburgh transplanted to the South. Or at least that’s what the inside cover of the menu says.

One Friday night Todd & I decided to give them a try and while we expected a little bit of a wait (it was 7pm on a Friday night, after all) we didn’t expect to stand in the entry for fifteen minutes with hostess and waitstaff passing us by, refusing to even make eye contact and acknowledge our, or anyone else’s, presence. Not the best introduction.

Eventually we were seated and presented with the drink menu which comes in the form of a very busy paper place mat. One of the selling points of Ray’s is the extensive beer selection featuring all sorts of micro brews and specialty beers. I’m not a beer aficionado but I do enjoy a good brew so I wanted to try something interesting. Unfortunately, the menu leaves a lot to be desired unless you know your way around IPAs, Ales, Lagers and Stouts. The beers are arranged by price and could benefit, at the very least, with some sort of legend or key for the uninitiated. Better yet, if they were arranged by style, people might have a better chance of picking something new to try but in a category they know they’re familiar with. Something like a “If you like ______, you might like these.” Help your customers broaden their horizons, don’t overwhelm them or make them feel cheap by choosing something from the $4 category.

For the record, I ordered a Honey Weiss something, it was okay, but still not what I was really looking for.

Then we got into the main menu. Which is 16 pages long. Half pages, sure, but even full-size, 8 pages worth of menu is WAY too long. Again, we’re back to too much, poorly organized and potentially overwhelming to the clientele. Also included in the story section of the menu is a bit about their French bread being flown in a baked fresh daily. Really? Flown in? Considering it’s not an integral part of their menu, nor do they serve bread and butter with every entree, what’s the big deal about flown-in bread dough? It’s sounds like a lot of hype and even if it’s true, it just makes me think that they’re paying extra for an unnecessary perk. Plus, while some vegetarians do include eggs and dairy in their diet, it’s probably not the best move to mark the Coral Gables Crab Burger or Asian Tuna & Calamari as vegetarian entrees.

We ordered the Key West “Konk” Fritters as an appetizer and were a little surprised to be served something that more resembled hush puppies. The texture was somewhat dry and mealy with an aftertaste that we couldn’t quite place. Moving on to entrees, my Chesapeake Chicken Pot Pie came topped with a tower of puff pastry that had slumped over and eclipsed the dish it was in (one word: docking). The “grilled chicken” showed no sign, or flavor, of ever seeing a grill and the entire thing needed something akin to a flavor. The next day, warmed up, with salt and pepper it was decent, but not worth $16 and the “made to order” wait entailed. Todd’s Open Faced Jacked-Up Stuffed Meatloaf was more of a mouthful on the menu than on the plate. Certain bites had flavor but it was a rather confusing entree. At least the onion rings were decent.

In the spirit of fairness, we did go back at the request of Mom, who wanted to give it a try and, well, it was Mother’s Day weekend and her choice.  We were seated much faster but not served any quicker (mid-afternoon it was a few 4-or-under-tops and 2 larger parties). In addition, the waitress spilled water on the floor while refilling our glasses (non-carpeted, so very slip-prone) and no one cleaned it up until I snagged another passing waitress to point it out. Oblivion rules, so be forewarned.

At least the food was better, this time, of course we were given the dinner menus and Mom happened to pick the one thing that wasn’t really served until dinner (Pittsburgh Steak Salad), but they ended up letting her order it anyway. It was a good thing, too, since (even with fries on the salad) the New York Strip slices were very tender and probably the highlight of the lunch. My Yenta Yacht Club was passable (it’s tough to screw up a club, though I do prefer mine with a tad more schmear) and Todd’s Grandma Dulin’s Dog looked absolutely atrocious on the plate but was, apparently, tasty.

Overall, I think it they dropped a bit of the hype (ditch the fly-in and understand that we EXPECT things to be homemade without being told every other entree), streamlined their menu and expected more from their servers, it might be worth going back. Until then, I’ll keep missing the Mexican place that once was (they had the _best_ Taco Salad).

Non-Alcoholic Cocktails

I remember one visit home as a kid, my cousins and I had a slumber party at our grandparents (okay, one cousin is technically an aunt who’s 5 months younger than me and it was her house, but let’s not sweat the semantics). While some of the grown-ups congregated in the dining room we took over the living room, complete with a treat: Shirley Temples.

Shirley Temple

Ice
Grenadine
Ginger ale
Maraschino cherry

Splash some grenadine over ice and top with a healthy pour of ginger ale (other clear sodas can also be used, depending on what you’ve got in the house) and garnish with a cherry (or two).

Now, adult me kind of wonders about the wisdom in giving children faux-cocktails, is it really the best choice? On the other hand, treating it as a special occasion sort of treat might be just the thing for instilling the right attitude about cocktails.

And it’s not just the underage who drink virgin drinks or, as David Biggs refers to them in his book of the same name, “Mocktails.” Alcohol-free drinks are popular from the pregnant to the designated driver and plenty of folks in between. I mean, every now and then a fruity drink might be nice without the worry of a hangover. Or maybe a tart refresher midweek–or even midday–is a welcome change without the booze.

A lot of non-alcoholic cocktails are sweet, either from the additional of soda (clear for clear alcohol, cola for dark) or increasing the fruit juice to make up the difference. A Virgin Mary (just skip the vodka and maybe a dash more clam juice) is a nice change to the sweet or try this one, a definite throw-back to another era:

Jones Beach Cocktail

This savory drink uses lemon juice to balance the saltiness of the beef consomme. To make consomme, dissolve a beef stock cube in a cup of boiling water. [Or use canned]

Crushed ice
1 c Beef consomme, cooled
Half the quantity of clam juice
Juice of 1/2 a lemon (or lime)
1/2 tsp Horseradish sauce
Couple of [dashes] of Worcestershire sauce
Celery salt
Sprig of parsley

Place a scoop of crushed ice in a cocktail shaker and add all the ingredients until well mixed. Now place two ice cubes in a tall glass and strain the blended drink over them. Serve ungarnished or with a sprig of parsley.

–David Biggs, Mocktails

Julie’s Place

A Tallahassee institution for almost as long as I’ve been alive, Julie’s Place is well known as a spot for a nice meal in a relaxed setting. I’ve been there several times over the years, going back to a pre-prom dinner in the early 90s followed by banquets, meetings, and several dates. It’s been almost 20 years since that first visit and, unfortunately, the years haven’t been kind to this aging grand dame of the Tallahassee culinary landscape.

An early-evening mid-week dinner about a month ago showed a few flaws in the decor–fading carpets, stained ceiling tiles, a musty smell in the lobby and the like–but the curved banquettes are still a delightful throw-back to an earlier age. The menu is what you would expect from a steakhouse with a fair amount of variety to be had. Being in a comfort food mood we ordered the potato skins appetizer which was actually more potato than skin with just broiled cheese and chopped bacon on top–it really needed some salt at the very least (even the bacon was lackluster in the taste department).

The salads came and I was really impressed with the Citrus Lemon Cream dressing–so much so that I tried to find a reasonable facsimile for a recent party. Todd’s steak and my shrimp came out well-prepared though I must confess my continued peeve of restaurants that serve shrimp, especially those pre-sauced, tail on. It’s one thing as a passed appetizer in place of a toothpick but any place that provides a knife and fork really should forgo the tails. And, once again, almost everything on the plate needed salt. While spice is definitely a matter of personal preference, habitual under-salting is a sign of a careless chef (or that you’re dining in a hospital cafeteria).

My hope for this long-time establishment is that the management will be able to give Julie’s Place a bit of a face lift and, perhaps, a bit more flavor.

The Mojito

This Cuban drink is currently experiencing its second wind among the cocktail elite, with good reason. It’s tart, refreshing and nice to look at with the muddled mint swirling around the glass.

A Mojito is basically lime, mint and rum topped by club soda or sparkling water. In order to release the oils in the mint, a muddler (kinda like a cross between a pestle and a meat mallet) is used to bruise and break up the leaves without destroying their delicacy. (While the back of a wooden spoon can also be used, an actual muddler isn’t very expensive and can also be used to muddle fruits for sangria, lemonades and other beverages.)

While a good start, sugar (or sugar syrup) is also added in the muddling stage (pre-rum). There seems to be a bit of division between what is best: sugar or syrup. Anyone whose grown up ordering iced tea in restaurants where only unsweetened is available knows full well that regular sugar does not dissolve easily in cold liquids. It may give the muddler more purchase on the mint leaves and seem like the best course of action, you’re just not going to get much sweetening from it. Even knowing this, I still tried recipes using both sugar and sugar syrup and found my hunch to be correct. Leave the sugar for rimming the glass and use a 1:1 simple syrup in your drink.

Even with the syrup, a classic Mojito is much more tart than sweet and I prefer my drinks both tart AND sweet. While in Orlando last year, the Ale House near my brother’s apartment was serving Pineapple Mojitos and it was a divine drink. Tart and sweet and very drinkable. Of course, when the Mojito came up on my list, I knew I needed to recreate that yummy version at home.

CHF Pineapple Mojito

1/4 of a Lime, lengthwise
1 oz Simple syrup
5-7 Mint leaves
2 oz Pineapple rum
Pineapple juice

In a medium glass with a heavy base, place the lime, simple syrup and mint leaves and muddle until the lime is juiced and the mint is a little broken up. Fill with ice and then top with the rum and juice. Stir and sip in contented tropical bliss.

I’m not really a big fan of club soda–to me it tastes like stale water and why would I want to drink that? Consequently, it’s left out of my version of the Mojito. If you wanted to thin it out a bit, a la the classic drink, use about an ounce of pineapple juice and then fill with club soda or sparkling water.

When making Mojitos for a crowd, Stirrings makes a tasty mixer version that just needs rum and club soda. I’ve been known to use tonic water instead of club soda and find even just the mix and the tonic water make a very fresh drink on their own, no rum required.

3 Reviews: Bay Point Marriott Restaurants

For the past 2 years, Todd and I have attended a convention held at the Bay Point Marriott Golf Resort & Spa in Panama City Beach, Florida, and have had mixed results eating at a few of their house restaurants. What follows is a brief report for the 3 we’ve tried over that time period.

Lime’s Bayside Bar & Grill (pdf menu)

The best thing about Lime’s is the gorgeous bay view afforded from the entire restaurant. It’s a bit of a trek down a boardwalk over the water to this casual dining restaurant with outdoor seating at high tables and pretty basic food. In fact, I think I ordered the fish tacos but they didn’t make that much of an impression on me. Still, the prices are decent, the drinks tasty (I believe we both had the Bay Point Breeze–rums, cranberry and pineapple juices) and were there just at sunset. Like I said, go for the view. Also appropriate as a casual place to unwind with some friends after a day of beach fun.

Kingfish Restaurant & Sushi Bar (pdf dinner menu)

This is the primary in-house restaurant for the Bay Point Marriott and you’d expect–with a name like Kingfish–that the seafood would be impeccable, right? Unfortunately, the best thing I’ve found at the Kingfish is their burgers.

The first year at this resort, just after their renovation if the convention’s website was to be believed, we ate at the Kingfish for one lunch and one breakfast. The burgers we had that day were fantastic–juicy, flavorful, basically what you expect of a nice burger. Of course it’s a little pricier than I’d have preferred, but it’s a hotel restaurant, they have an all-but captive audience thanks to the hotel’s somewhat remote location on St Andrew’s Bay, so a higher price tag comes with the territory. The following morning’s breakfast was passable (my companions got the buffet but I’m of the mind that if I wanted to serve myself, I’ll stay at home and cook, so I ordered the French Toast) but nothing really spectacular. What did stand out was the scattered service of the morning which left–pardon the pun–a bad taste in my mouth.

Our most recent visit, however, we ate at Kingfish for dinner the first night. This turned out to be a horrendous mistake. The menu was mostly what we remembered, we weren’t overly hungry or in the mood for cocktails so went straight to the entrees. I ordered the Shrimp & Scallops (which, at the time, was being served with a savory rice cake; I notice the current menu online lists a different accompaniment and a slightly lower price) which, after quite some wait, strange for a mostly deserted restaurant–we’ve never witnessed it full, either year, came out beautifully presented. Alas, looks are only skin deep as the 6 shrimp and 3 scallops (at a price tag of $32, if I recall correctly) were overcooked to the point of rubber–they were chewy, dry, and could be shredded like the faux crab meat into little, plastic, chunks.

Now, honestly, I’ve worked in a high-end restaurant and I know what can happen to dishes that are sent back, but I could not, in the name of good taste, possibly eat this. So, after waiting for the waiter to finally come check on us, I apologetically (only out of habit, that chef should have been apologizing to me and his fishmonger) returned the dish as inedible. Todd opted to keep his Shrimp Pizza even though it, too, was slightly overcooked. Not willing to wait for another potentially ruined bit of seafood, I punted and went with the burger, at least I could count on it, right? I ordered it Medium Rare. It came out Medium. While it was acceptable (and I certainly wasn’t going to send something ELSE back), I doubt I’ll eat there again.

30° Blue Pub & Eatery (pdf menu)

Not part of the main hotel complex, 30° Blue is in the condo section of the resort, surrounded by shops and stores. It was a stone’s throw from our room in the Golf Villas but, since you can’t walk across the course, it’s a little bit of a trek to get to it. Let me tell you, though, it was well worth the walk!

I’d actually heard of 30° Blue–or what I thought was it–back in Culinary School and understood it to be somewhat upscale restaurant with really good sushi. I think I confused it with a place down in Destin, the more I think about it, but whatever–we tried this 30° Blue and were more than pleased. It’s not much to look at, really. There’s a big oblong bar dominating most of the room, televisions playing the latest golf coverage, and booths and tables ringing the outside walls which have plenty of windows but not much in the way of view.

The food, though, that’s another story. At the enthusiastic urging of our waitress we tried the Spinach & Artichoke Dip appetizer which, she claimed, was the best she’s ever had. It was a large dish, bubbling with cheese and featuring quartered artichoke hearts studded through it. That’s probably the only thing I’d have changed about it because it made it harder to scoop up with the fresh chips it was served with–chop the artichokes, it’s okay, we’ll still know they’re there. Todd ordered another recommendation: the Mahi Mahi sandwich, grilled, while I ordered the Fish & Chips. Unlike at the Kingfish, this seafood came out perfectly prepared: tender, flaky, flavorful. It was a revelation after the previous experiences over the past 2 years. In fact, my portion of fish was so large I couldn’t finish it all and took half of it back to the room. Later that night I heard it calling my name, though, and even after spending several hours in the mini-fridge the breading on both the fish and the onion rings was not that heavy, cold-oil taste you’d expect but just as clean and fresh as when it was originally served to me. Now that’s a proper frying that can stand cold storage and still be tasty!

The future of the convention that brought us here is uncertain as of this writing, but if we ever find ourselves back at the Bay Point Marriott we’ll happily wander over to 30° Blue again and probably give Lime’s another try. Otherwise, we’ll be eating off-site.

What’s So Hard About Being a Lemon?

You know the saying: When life gives you lemons… But why stop at just plain old lemonade? Why not bring lemonade from the stand to the shaker and beyond?

When you hear “Hard Lemonade” it probably brings to mind the bottled malt beverages that come in a variety of flavor options. To make this sort of lemonade, it takes your basic home brew kit, some sorbate-free lemon juice concentrate, malt extract and yeast (the brewing kind). While I’m sure there’s finesse required to make a truly exceptional hard lemonade this way, the 6 to 8 weeks it would take before it was ready is a bit of a deterrent.

If you’d like something a bit quicker, try one of these recipes on for size:

Sunny’s Hard Lemonade
(adapted from Cooking for Real on the Food Network)

4 oz 2:1 Simple syrup
1 oz Vanilla Vodka
2 oz Lemon Juice

Mix over ice in a tall glass. Serves 1. Garnish with a slice of lemon, lime, or both.

Now you know I’m going to love this because of the vanilla vodka, right? Of course! It’s actually a good, fresh lemonade, very tart, but that hint of vanilla just makes it oh-so-good. Plus, with the relatively low alcohol content you could sip these all through a barbecue or pool party with little worry.

Hard Lemonade
(adapted from DrinksMixer.com)

1.5 oz Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
.5 oz Sweet and Sour Mix
4-6 oz. Sprite
Splash of Grenadine

Combine, in order, in a tall glass over ice.

The original called for Jack Daniel’s but I didn’t have any and Squirt is kinda hard to find around here. I wouldn’t mind trying it with a citrus soda that had more grapefruit influences (I’ll bet I could find a good substitute at World Market–their beverage section is awesome) and see what difference it made. The taste of this version is, obviously, stronger and Todd thinks that going down to a single ounce of Whiskey might be a better plan for those not into the harder flavors. The grenadine really makes this one for me, though, the touch of sweet pink making it more palatable than if it were just the booze and soda.

Of course, if you prefer your lemonade with a different edge, have you ever had the Earl Grey Lemonade from Earl of Sandwich? The recipe couldn’t be simpler: brew a pot of fairly strong Earl Grey tea and then dilute with a can of lemonade mix (the frozen kind is fine) and the 2 or 3 cans of water it calls for. It’s incredibly refreshing and suitable for all ages.

I know that school will be starting again very soon and, with it, the end of what we think of as Summer. But the heat will surely continue for many months, at least down here in Florida, so there’s still plenty of time to enjoy your lemonade–hard or soft.

Magazine Mash-Up

Okay, everyone, show of hands: how many subscribe to cooking magazines? Bonus round: how many times have you actually used a recipe from said magazines?

Uh huh, exactly what I thought. (Don’t worry, I’m just as guilty as the rest of you.)

It doesn’t seem to matter what I’m interested in, a “collector” streak always seems to run right through it. In my heyday of culinary collection, I probably subscribed to half a dozen food-related magazines (at least!) and, while I did read them, and store them, and flip through them occasionally, I probably only used half a dozen recipes total (mostly from my favorite: Cooking Light).

Since that time I’ve moved house more than once and in one of the pre-move purges I forced myself to toss the years of back issues that took up so much space. Then I went several years without buying or subscribing to a single cooking magazine–I know, however did I manage?–until last Fall, when Food Network announced they were coming out with their own magazine. Then I found Imbibe… here we go again!

So now I’m back to subscribing, but still trying to keep things under control. Also, I’d like to actually _use_ the magazines’ content more than I have in the past. It doesn’t help that I also use a menu service (Saving Dinner’s Menu Mailer) which includes dinner recipes, suggested side dishes and an itemized, categorized shopping list for all of it each week–I seldom actually plan a meal these days. Which is why I was so proud of myself a week or so ago when corn on the cob was the suggested side dish one night. I remembered seeing a mention of “Charm City Corn” in the last Food Network Magazine, dug out the issue that was hiding on the bedside table, and was able to dress up the side dish a little bit.

Instead of relying just on my own memory, I’m trying to come up with ways to making using the information in those pages easier. Here are what I’ve come up with so far:

  • A tear-file of possible favorites, kept in an accordion file or binder, organized by primary ingredient.
  • Recipe cards kept in a file, maybe hand-copying the recipes will make their existence stick in my memory better.
  • Scanning interesting recipes into my computer with a spreadsheet to cross reference ingredients (that might be a lot of work, though).
  • Sticky flags (color-coordinated?) in the magazine itself.
  • Planning a magazine-based dinner once a week in addition to the planned menus I get from Saving Dinner.

Okay, those last two seem the easiest to implement. The others… might be better for long-term storage and make me wish for one of those counter-top recipe gadgets.