Saturday, October 30, 2010

Savor Superb Bites and Live Music at Ritz-Carlton Naples


“Now if you're blue
and you don't know where to go to
why don't you go where fashion sits...
Puttin' on the Ritz”

Irving Berlin’s 1929 song, Puttin' on the Ritz,  is as popular as ever, and so is stylish dining at the Naples’ Beach Ritz-Carlton, Bites-style.
“Putting on the Ritz” meant dressing in expensive elegant fashion. Dining at Bites, the Ritz's tapas-style spot, is dining deliciously, casually and relatively inexpensively in an elegant setting. In the lobby, captains of industry brush by soccer moms and weekenders from the East coast. Washington lobbyists and tanned jet setters chat with 20-somethings on a dinner date. Bites guests can’t help themselves-they lean over and suggest or share their favorite tapas with curious strangers a table away! One of the best musical duos outside of a top NYC coffee house or club performs latin music and rock favorites almost nightly. Simply said, Bites' offers first class culinary experiences and musicians at family-friendly prices.

“You'll declare
it's simply topping To be there
and hear them swapping
Smart tidbits”

“Wow, this is a well hidden secret," my friend said after swooning over the first bites and the musicians. “Do you really have to blog about it to others? I want it as my private club!”

There are over 40 hot or cold small plates, or tapas-style bites and desserts, divided into seven menu categories. Each dish is a medley of complementary textures and tastes. Think you know what a dish will taste like? Guess again! Chefs like Brandon Carter who opened Bites almost a year ago, and Executive Chef Derin Moore, CMC, tweak and twist each dish to give that Ritz “wow” factor. Below, I’ll take you from squash soup to toasted nuts, so you'll  experience an evening of magical dining!

Valet park the car, silence the cell phone, and sashay into the Beach Ritz-Carleton’s lobby past guests clad in cut-offs to tuxedos. Birkenstocks meet white golf shoes. Fine linen soberly reflects on tattoos and lobster-red sunburns. Walk straight ahead and a few steps up. Bites is a separate world. Its soft chairs, hardwood floors, curtained walls and soaring ceiling say “You’ve arrived.” Lounge on a plush couch. Indulge. A glance at the menu’s prices that range from $4 to just $14 reassures you that “prices really are inexpensive.”

On my three visits,  I chose selections with professional server Jonathan White's guidance. He has in depth knowledge of each dish’s ingredients. His recommendations are spot on. He exchanged his chef’s training for a “front of the house” career. You (and his family) benefit from his decision and his culinary passion!
 I like dining on small plate servings. My friends and I have bigger eyes than bellies-it's best to leave feeling comfortable, not stuffed, sans doggie bag. It’s not romantic to walk barefoot on the beach holding hands, with a bouncing bag thumping your legs and tugging your other hand. It’s not smart heading off to a movie, leaving the bag in the car for hours. That said, the Ritz nicely packages tidbits in clear plastic-topped aluminum trays, discreetly placed in a smart white bag.

Sit near the piano if you want to enjoy live music. If you’re here to chat, sit farther away-no need to  compete with musicians.  Order a drink or glass of wine. I pair drinks more with the sauce, than with the underlying fish, lamb or beef.  Some savory Asian dishes pair best with a beer ($8); bolder dishes go with a strong Pinot or Cabernet. For mixed drinks, I like the colorful Hermosa Sunset ($13)
 and the not too sweet taste of the Blueberry Lemon Drop’s ($13) house infused blueberry vodka, Triple Sec, Limoncello liquor and cranberry juice. My lady friend favors the Ritzy Lady’s house infused raspberry vodka, Triple Sec, Chambord, pineapple and lemon juices.

A lovely lady with an intoxicating South African accent brought the Bites wooden bread box. Its slender prosciutto-Parmesan breadsticks poke upward, antenna-like. Inside huddle three warm savory blue cheese mini muffins with caramelized onions, and slices of sourdough-rye baguette.
 All are baked on site. Dip a breadstick into the pureed roasted mild garlic. The breadstick has concentrated taste layers from melted cheese bound with bits of rich dried prosciutto and a touch of chili pepper – the taste is complex. The Mediterranean olive tapenade’s olive mix, garlic and a hint of anchovy is salty 'n bold. Place some on a baguette slice. Enjoy the box’s treasures throughout your evening- just don’t fill up on breads!

Start light with the lobster roll trio ($14). Fresh Maine lobster chunks are mixed with mayonnaise, red onion, capers, lemon and fresh herbs.. The Ritz version replaces the traditional New England butter- toasted hot dog roll with rich brioche rolls. You get your money’s worth of lobster.

Go bold with a plate of marinated olives ($4). 
The long porcelain boat's olives are marinated with garlic, red onion, carrot, chili flakes, preserved lemon, olive oil and tarragon. They accentuate the flavor of lamb and short ribs.

The short rib sliders ($12) offers slow and low red wine braised short ribs, served on two small sesame buns, topped with melted Taleggio cheese and onion relish. Recommended!   
Two Plump Hushpuppies Cornering a Short Rib Slider
 Go exotic with the three Thai styled curried chicken meatballs ($6) cooked in a creamy peanut sauce flavored with lemongrass, red curry paste, coconut, and lime.

There’s a nice crunch from the peanuts and texture from the rice. The sauce has a welcoming mild-moderate spiced heat. This demands a Corona beer ($8)!

"Come, let's mix where Rockefellers
Walk with sticks or "umberellas"
In their mitts,
Puttin' on the Ritz"

The musicians perform at a comfortable sound level, and we paused in our dining to clearly concentrate. Steve Uscher’s masterful classical and contemporarly guitar and Winnie Carrillo’s evocative vocals dance through the air, warming the room as they play their version of “Hotel California, ” and a variety of contemporary and torch songs. Winnie’s mezzo soprano voice and her percussion from castanets, snapping fingers, and the drum-like Peruvian box deftly mesh with Steve Uscher’s passionate playing.
Steve Uscher and Winnie Carrillo
  The duo’s light jazz and latin standards move one to dance. Songs like the hauntingly beautiful “Sodade” by Cesária Évora make for an enchanted evening, as twilight’s pastels surrender to nightfall. A lady nearby breathlessly whispered to her partner, “This evening is so magical, I don’t ever want it to end!” She took the words out of every dreamy-eyed guest’s lips. Do arrive early to sit by these accomplished artists.

It’s a must to savor the exotic taste of Moroccan lamb ($11). The tender lamb loin is marinated in a refreshing Moroccan spice mixture and grilled, nicely showcasing the delectable lamb. Dipping a morsel of lamb into the English pea and fresh mint puree puts each morsel over the top!
Duck and white bean cassoulet ($10) has traditional white beans slowly simmered with duck confit, braised lamb, pork belly and Toulouse sausage, served in an enameled cast iron pot.
If only the Ritz had a roaring fireplace, I’d never leave this comfort zone! Served on the side are crostini rich with foie gras butter. This is French country comfort food at its best, with layers of concentrated taste. Highly recommended.

“High hats and narrow collars
White spats and lots of dollars
Spending every dime
For a wonderful time”

Mr. Berlin, Bites at this Ritz won't break your piggy bank.

 It’s time to reveal the ahi tuna carpaccio ($8). It’s my favorite visual presentation. The luscious pink slab of high grade tuna is pounded thin, topped with a diced green tomatillo and red tomato salsa, and crowned with miniature tortilla chips.
The tuna is garnished with thin sliced jalapeno, micro cilantro, and lightly brushed with olive oil and lime juice. Savor each bite! Pair with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio or Rosé. Place a slice of tuna on a mini tortilla chip, top with tomatillo salsa, lime juice and jalapeno. Sip wine. Pause, then enjoy the rich red tuna’s meaty texture, delicate taste and the contrasting tortilla crunch. This is set off by the tomatillo salsa’s refreshing mouth feel and cool bright taste. The aftertaste evokes coastal Peru, with a hint of ceviche’s acidity. Lime juice and oil amplify the tuna’s essence. Let your senses and thoughts linger on a beautifully executed creation. Savor another tostada, then another…

CIA-trained Chef Brandon Carter came by. He started at the Naples Ritz-Carleton six years ago, and has been appointed Sous Chef. He currently presides over Bites.
 He explained the process that goes into a Bite’s dish—a team collaboration of top chefs 'till all agree it’s palate and menu-ready.

We share a special appreciation for one new Bite-the “wild mushrooms with sherry cream sauce” ($9). The base is a crisp potato puff- termed by Escoffier in 1903 as "croquettes de pommes de terre a la Dauphine." Pate a choux dough and potato puree are mixed, piped, and deep fried into a fritter in truffled oil till puffy and crisp, with a creamy interior. Looking like swirled donuts or buñuelos, they taste divine while hot! The chefs elevate the classic French dumpling to a culinary art form, topping it with the tender earthy flavors of fresh wild mushrooms. Tonight’s mushroom mix has wood ears, chanterelles, and matsutakes.
The mushrooms are anointed with sherry sauce and crowned with microgreens. Savor each mushroom-they differ in taste and intensity. The fresh mushrooms' sauce and their swirled puffed pastry beds yield a uniquely delicate and wonderfully balanced dish. Highly recommended!

“Thanksgiving dinner on a skewer” ($9) is the Rit’z clever holiday take, tapas style.
Slow roasted turkey breast with crispy skin is skewered over a bite-sized ball of sage dressing and topped with cranberry compote. The braising jus is on the side. Alas, Thanksgiving heaven to me is a plateful of dark meat, oyster dressing, cornbread and bourbon-sweet potato pie. This traditional trio is right for one who prefers succulent breast meat and sage. Dip in and enjoy!

Steak and fries ($14) got very good reviews from the next table.
Beef tenderloin is cooked to order on skewers with freshly hand cut fries that are fried in peanut oil. Dip into the Béarnaise sauce. Other dishes include truffled salmon dip ($9), grilled scallops over pineapple ($11), fried green tomato ($5), butternut squash soup (7), and various cheese dishes.

Sautéed chicken livers ($6), Bites-style can made a chicken liver lover out of any dining companion! The morsels are pan fried till crispy yet still tender inside-not easily done. Their rich taste is accented by a reduction sauce rich with caramelized sweet onion and smoked bacon. Recommended.

Osso bucco, Ritz style ($12) has Madeira-braised veal cheeks painted with braising sauce reduction, served atop crispy risotto fritters. Dusted with gremolata (chopped lemon and orange zest and finely chopped rosemary with sea salt) it’s the ultimate in rich and savory!
BBQ pork belly is cooked low and slow, house smoked rolled in cabbage with apple horseradish slaw and Ritz BBQ sauce ($11).  It’s a very tasty wrap.
Port wine braised pears ($8) are a trio of small pears braised in port wine with spices, each supporting a crisp croquant triangle (caramelized sugar and chopped hazelnuts), served with persimmon relish.
The rich red pears started as white California pears-the poaching port wine has completely permeated the pear! I’ve used cloves, cinnamon, honey, vanilla and citrus zests in my pear spicing-I wonder what the Ritz uses. Why put pears in the menu’s cheese column? Bite in and savor the contrast of the crisp pear and port with the pungent soft blue cheese nugget at the base.
 Pair with a glass of Port, Sauternes or Barsac to toast this creation.

 Desserts change often.
I liked the warm snickerdoodles cookies followed by hot chocolate shooters ($6). It’s fun!
We went gaga over the now-gone raspberry crème brûlée (above); the current pumkin crème brûlée ($6) is just as luscious. You can’t go wrong with the vanilla ice cream profiteroles ($6) - 3 profiteroles filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with warm chocolate sauce and toasted almond-a classic. Pair with a cappuccino ($6).
"Different types who wear a daycoat
Pants with stripes and cutaway coat
Perfect fits,
Puttin' on the Ritz"

I've given you my favorite bites to savor at Bites, chosen from three visits.  Now take someone special, or special friends, to enjoy Bites with you.

 Relax… Pace yourself. Listen to the musicians. Savor your evening. Walk on the beach afterwards. An evening at Bites is an experience you'll treasure.
Bites, from 5 pm to 10 pm every night. 280 Vanderbilt Beach Road, Naples, 514-6001.

1 comment:

bill uscher said...

We love the Ritz, we live in Ft Lauderdale and enjoy the ride over to snack and listen to the great music, it should not be missed.

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