Monday, September 29, 2014

The Melting Pot

Randomly one night at dinner hubby and I were talking about fondue. The kids became quite interested in the idea of cooking your own food and asked if there was a restaurant in town where you could do it—and as soon as we mentioned the Melting Pot, my son was locked in on what he wanted for his birthday. We went with both sets of grandparents, so there were eight of us. First, I don’t recommend this many people with fondue—the table they had was fairly cramped and we only had two pots between us. It was a little challenging.

There are several ways to order here, but we just went with the “4 course experience.” For this, you choose a cheese fondue for each burner, a salad, an entrée and a dessert. For our cheese, we chose gorgonzola and bacon and the “Alpine Classic.” The favorite of the table was the gorgonzola—there was butterkase and fontina cheese as well as the gorgonzola. For seasoning, they put in garlic and white wine. It was served with bread, fruit and veggies. The Alpine had gruyere, raclette and fontina and was also seasoned with garlic and wine as well as lemon and nutmeg. I don’t know if our server just really overdid it with the nutmeg, but this one had an off taste. The kids really didn’t like it. I think if we went again, we’d try one of the cheddar and beer-based versions.

I had the house salad—it was just okay. It had romaine and iceberg, cheddar, sliced boiled egg, tomatoes and crouton. I went with their ranch. There wasn’t quite enough of the dressing to coat everything. All in all, everyone else’s Caesars were better.

The choices for entrées for the “4 course experience” are varied and all contain a variety of meats. It was hard for me to find one that had exactly what I wanted, but hubby and I got different combos and shared and had way more than enough food. It’s kind of crazy how much they give you. I got the “Land and Sea” ($34.95 for the 4 courses) and hubby ordered the “Seafood Trio” ($34.95 for the 4 courses). Land and Sea included filet mignon, herb crusted chicken and shrimp. The seafood trio was salmon, sesame-crusted Ahi tuna and shrimp. In our pots, we had a “mojo” cooking liquid with bouillon, garlic and citrus and the Coq au Vin, or a red wine-based sauce with herbs, spices and mushrooms. So you spear your raw meat and stick it in and cook it yourself. They give you some general timing recommendations—all different for all the different meats and in general, all too long unless you enjoy meat that is similar to shoe leather. However, we figured out the more appropriate timing for ourselves, and used our various electronic devices to try and keep track. Except both my kids (who split a dinner which also included lobster) kept asking me, “Mom, is my lobster/chicken/steak done??” And I was trying to keep track of my own stuff and both of theirs and lord help you if you stick two forks in at the same time with two different ingredients. Oy. I was exhausted by the end of this course. And I hadn’t even eaten all the stuff on my plate (FYI, there wasa lot of shrimp left over). I don’t know, even with the various sauces they served with the meat, it still just tasted like meat and seafood that was boiled. And it didn’t help the sauces, which were mainly sweet-type sauces (teriyaki, BBQ, sweet chili) and tasted like they came out of a bottle.

Ok, I just need to stop talking about the meat portion—I really didn't enjoy it. It’s one of those things that is more bother than it’s worth. I would rather just cook at home. But dessert, now that’s an entirely different story. The various versions of chocolate fondue all sound good and all were good. My son is somewhat of a purist and just went with straight dark chocolate and I wasn’t complaining (and was glad I was sitting next to him), We had some milk chocolate fans as well so we got the flaming turtle too—well, we got it without nuts due to an allergy, so it was flambéed milk chocolate with caramel mixed in. They give you all kind of fun stuff to dip it—fruit, rice crispies, pound cake and even chocolate and graham cracker coated marshmallows. There were even brownies and blondies—although I am not sure why you need to dip a brownie into more chocolate, but my daughter seemed to enjoy it. Actually, both my kids ate so much of the dessert; they were bouncing off the walls.  It was a fun and yummy dessert and I would go back just for dessert. You can also go for cheese and dessert, which is a decent option. But ultimately the chocolate fondue is where it’s at—and the meat, we’ll it’s not that great and too damn much work.

The Melting Pot
5650 East 86th Street
Indy 46250
The Melting Pot on Urbanspoon

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Guest Post: Federal Donuts [Includes BONUS] — (South) Philadelphia, PA

Sacha here! You might remember me from Erin's review of Guatelinda. I am also known as @zigged.

Our 2014 family road trip took us east to visit my dad in New Jersey + enjoy adventures in Ocean City, MD, and New York City. The itinerary I planned included stops at restaurants that are reported to be culinary gems. This time: Federal Donuts.

I first heard of this place in Saveur's America's 50 Best Donuts (print edition). We tried another one on that list, Nord's Bakery in Louisville, and it was delicious. This one was a no-brainer because SOUTH PHILLY (where I'm from) and FRIED CHICKEN.

The menu is short and sweet. This place makes two things: donuts (hot fresh and fancy) and fried chicken. We were down to try both. I pre-ordered the donuts and chicken the night before to guarantee availability because of all the talk of their selling out of things.

We got a half dozen of each kind of donut—one of each fancy and two of each hot fresh—and a whole chicken. Each half chicken comes with a honey donut, so we got two of those too. If you call 15 minutes before arrival then they'll flavor the chicken before you arrive but I failed to do that, which was fine since I didn't remember the choices without looking at the menu anyway. We ended up with half buttermilk ranch (seasoning) and half honey-ginger (glaze). Then we drove to my dad's house in South Jersey, cut up the donuts into 6 pieces each, put the chicken on a plate, and sampled everything.'s fried chicken. Tiny fried chicken. It wasn't piping hot by the time we ate it, and I tried only the honey-ginger because there weren't enough pieces for all of us to have more than one, so your mileage may vary if the conditions are different. But for $9.25 for four pieces of chicken and a donut, I wouldn't make a special trip again. I want to tell you more but there was really nothing memorable about it.

Oh, and every order comes with Japanese cucumber pickles. These were three teensy cucumber coins pickled in a gingery brine. The Huz liked them. I don't eat pickes.

Top photo, clockwise from top left: chocolate old fashioned, blackberry walnut, blueberry mascarpone, marshmallow marshmallow, chocolate sea salt, salted tehina.
Bottom photo, left to right (I think): Indian cinnamon, Apollonia, vanilla lavender.

So...they're donuts. They're good but not $2-a-donut good (although $6 for a half dozen of the hot fresh is reasonable). We each had our favorites, and all of us liked the salted tehina least (because it was almost savory), but we all agreed that they were nothing mind-blowing. My dad suspected as much ahead of time and I should've listened to him but SAVEUR LIST. A friend of mine wanted to bring us frannoli (fresh donut shells filled with cannoli cream) from Frangelli's Bakery the next day and I declined because we were donuted out but I'm sure that would've been a better treat.

We couldn't tell which hot fresh were which. I liked the dark brown ones the most of the three. They were all good but, like I said, DONUTS. Whatever.

I think the honey donuts are the basis for the hot fresh varieties and some of the fancy. There's nothing particularly honey about them but they are tasty for a plain donut. The cake is moist and tender and light and has a hint of tang like a sour cream coffee cake.

Federal Donuts
1219 S. 2nd St.
Philadelphia, PA 19147

BONUS: If you are going to South Philly and you want to hit up a few slam dunk snack spots (i.e., not cheese steaks), go to John's Water Ice and Center City Soft Pretzel Co. You could even walk to one from the other! The pretzel factory closes at noon and the water ice stand opens at noon, so midday is the magic time if that's your plan.

TIP #1: There are other water ice places but John's is the best. For my entire life I got the same order: lemon on top, chocolate on the bottom. This time I tried pineapple on top, chocolate on the bottom. Solid choice. I'm not a fan of cherry-flavored things in general but that flavor seems to be very popular too, as evidenced by the dyed-red hands of the water ice dippers.

TIP #2: Be careful handling hot pretzels! Center City Pretzels has a mustard pump on the counter but, if your batch just came out of the oven, that pump is a trap. Dressing your pretzel will tempt you to bite it and that will hurt. Also, keep the paper bag open and maybe even take your pretzels out of it to cool (if you bought extra to save for later, which you should) so the crust doesn't get soggy and the salt doesn't dissolve.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Amber Indian--Castleton

I met up with my BFF and another high school era friend (wow, we’ve known each other a long time) for lunch the other day at Amber Indian in Castleton. I have been to the Amber in Carmel, and for some reason did not think the two restaurants were related, but as it turns out, according to their carry out menu and website, they are. So there you go, mystery solved.

I normally don’t get buffets but since I was in the mood for chicken tikka masala, and it was available on the buffet (it’s just under $7), it seemed silly to order it from the menu. Plus, this way, I could try some other things. The chicken tikka masala was good, although seemed less seasoned than when I had it at Amber up north. My guess is they do it on the milder side to appeal to the masses, and I like it a bit spicier. The creamy sauce, flavored with some tomato and coconut, just didn’t have the same dimension as the other. It was still good though, with pretty tender bits of chicken.

I also tried the chicken do piazza—more of a tomato based sauce with a little different seasonings—garlic and ginger as well as some flavors like cinnamon and cardamom giving it that slightly fallish taste. There were definitely similarities between the two. They both had a creamy taste, but the tikka masala more so. My one piece of tandoori chicken was kind of dry, which was probably to be expected from a buffet (hence another problem with them). I also had a bit of palek paneer—the creamy spinach with hunks of cheese in it. As always, I don’t eat a ton of it, but I like it as a sort of vegetable side.

They had a couple versions of pakora on the buffet as well (pakora is a fried batter made with seasoned chickpea flour)—a mixed vegetable version and then one that was all mushrooms. The mixed vegetable version wasn’t bad—seemed like it had sat a bit too long, but I really liked the mushrooms. This was something I went back and got more of. I don’t know if the moisture from the mushrooms kept them from drying out, or if they were cooked more recently, but the inside was moist and the outside still crisp. These were one of my favorite things. And I liked the way the chickpea flour gives it a bit of nutty flavor.

Interestingly, I felt like their naan was different from the Carmel location too. I really liked it though. The version here was a little thinner and less dense. We had the garlic version—it added a nice garlic flavor without being overpowering. I easily could have eaten a whole basket on my own. One friend ordered the chana masala and my quick bit of this chickpea-based dish was that it was comparable to the one I had at the other Amber and was tasty.

Overall, I enjoyed it, but other than the naan and mushrooms, nothing really stood out for me.  Again, maybe it’s a buffet thing, and they just season things more moderately for mass appeal. What do you guys think?

Amber Indian
5929 E. 82nd Street
Indy 46250

Amber Indian Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 22, 2014

Napolese - The Fashion Mall

We always struggle on the weekends trying to find somewhere to eat lunch near our house that’s local and that won’t be jammed packed. We had not yet tried the Napolese in the Fashion Mall, so we thought we try it and see how crowded it got. Turns out, it was just as packed as most places, and particularly since there were six of us that day, it took even longer (they don’t have a lot of capacity for larger parties when they are crowded). The nice thing is you can wander the mall while you wait for your table and they’ll call you when it’s ready.

First of all, I love the olive mix they serve at Napolese. I’m an olive fanatic and these are fantastic. A nice mix of pitted olives—green, kalamata, and Nicoise. This is the little freebie they give you when you sit down. We then also got a starter of the polenta with Trader’s Point feta and cherry tomatoes ($10) and the tomato/caper/olive dip ($10). Honestly both were really good and a nice combination of things to have together. The polenta is creamy and rich—a slightly sweet corn flavor with the warm gooey feta and the roasted, soft tomatoes giving it just a bit of acid. The tomato dip is full of salt and acid with the tomatoes, salty capers and olives and olive oil and red wine vinegar. My only complaint about this dish was it was very cold—I can only imagine how the flavors would pop if it were served fat room temperature.  The table went back and forth about which we liked better, and like I said, it was nice to have them both together. I felt like the bread that was served alongside both (basically the same—thin version of the pizza crust topped with parmesan) went better with the polenta—it was also served warm with the polenta, which I enjoyed. It’s kind of flabby bread so it’s a bit more difficult to stack the tomato mix on. I also wished I had some toasted baguette or something with the tomato mix to absorb more of the vinaigrette.

My in-laws ordered the BLT, which is one of me and hubby’s standbys, so we took this opportunity to try something new knowing we could probably steal a piece of their pizza. We tried Elliot’s pie ($13), which is a white pie (no red sauce) with pancetta, roasted potatoes and Gorgonzola. I was really craving blue cheese, so this appealed to me. It was good, but that Gorgonzola was so mild, it didn’t have any of funk to satisfy the craving. The potatoes were small new potatoes and were cooked just right—I liked the chunky aspect. The pancetta was tasty giving the pie a salty kick.

I still preferred the slice of the BLT ($13) that we stole from my in-laws. They top this one with red sauce, Smoking Goose jowl bacon, leeks and Taleggio cheese. The strong flavor of this cheese gave me the slight stinkiness I was craving cheese-wise, and I think I have decided that I like Napolese pizza with red sauce the best. You know that jowl bacon is gonna be good too. Both pizzas’ crusts were perfect—crisp with some dark areas, but not so blackened that it tasted bad. The kids split a cheese pizza and may have found their new favorite pizza.

I like the way the Fashion Mall is incorporating smaller local places, and some smaller chains (Cheesecake Factory notwithstanding). It’s nice to have a “nicer” independent place where you can get quality food and even a glass of wine if you want, right in the mall.

8702  Keystone Crossing
Indy  46240

Napolese on Urbanspoon