Four decades ago, fondue was the grooviest of food trends as friends gathered around communal pots of melted cheese, spearing bread cubes and vegetables with long forks for dipping. Sandy Squillante, now 60, remembers it well.
"I'm from the '70s, where fondue was very, very in," she says.
Squillante has helped bring the concept back in a big way, opening the 300-seat Sticks & Stones "dipping grille" inside Mohegan Sun's Casino of the Sky, near the convention center. The menu features a selection of cheese and chocolate dessert fondues and "stone-seared" entrees, offering a unique and interactive experience for casino diners.
Sticks and Stones opened in mid-October, and diners immediately gravitated to the shareable offerings, Squillante says. Ninety percent of guests choose the "guided journey," an inclusive package with three or four courses priced at $32.95 to $42.95. Diners pick their cheese fondue: a classic option with Monterey Jack, Vermont sharp cheddar, Gruyere and local beer, or the "Alps" blend with Gruyere, Emmenthaler, Chardonnay and kirsch.
Then they'll decide on an entrée, a collection of meats, seafood or vegetables cooked tableside on a slab of lava rock that's heated to 750 degrees. Each package includes a house salad; the four-course option finishes the meal with decadent warm chocolate, served with fruit, marshmallows, pretzels and cake cubes for dipping.
The entrees include beef short rib, salmon, chicken, shrimp, sea scallops, pork loin, game meats and Halloumi cheese, with Maine lobster tail as a popular add-on. Diners choose three dipping sauces, ranging from sweet to tangy and herbaceous with such options as Korean BBQ, hoisin lime, mango jalapeno salsa and truffle aioli.
"We try not to season the meat too much so you can get the full-bodied flavor of all [the sauces]," Squillante says. While chefs are on hand to walk guests through the stone process with suggested techniques — ensuring fully cooked chicken and steak to desired doneness — they'll also do the work for diners who aren't into the DIY concept.
Fondues and stone cooking were in such demand from the beginning, Squillante says, that it necessitated a shift in the menu offerings and extra equipment. Larger plates like pan-roasted chicken and grilled center-cut cauliflower will come off the menu, but a paella for two with chicken, chorizo and fresh seafood ($41.95) will stay. And although the majority of Sticks and Stones' tables are equipped with induction burners to keep the fondues sufficiently melty, the push for what's become the restaurant's signature dishes required additional portable burners to be brought in.
Squillante says that many Sticks and Stones guests stop in for dinner before a show, so the staff has had to figure out the best pacing for multicourse meals when diners have limited time to eat. All fondues ($11.95 and $12.95) and stone entrees ($24.95 to $32.95) are priced a la carte, and appetizers and bar bites ($8.95 to $16.95) have been popular, with favorites like fried mac and cheese, lobster grilled cheese and a trio of sliders.
The modern space features a functioning kitchen studio, where Squillante — a longtime chef whose resume includes ownership of former Greater Hartford spots The Hearthstone and The Perfect Blend — films her cooking show "Romancing the Pan." The show will be broadcast in rooms in Mohegan properties, and they're in discussions with several networks, Squillante says.
The bar is also a focal point, showcasing dynamic molecular mixology through liquid nitrogen, smoke and centrifuge techniques. Bar manager Ryan Tunnacliffe said he's been inspired by pioneers like Dave Arnold of Manhattan's Booker and Dax and chef Jose Andres, who's long experimented with molecular methods at his restaurants and bars in Washington, D.C.
"I look at what they're doing and how I can apply their science to what we're doing," Tunnacliffe says.
Sticks and Stones' "molecular madness" drink menu ($13 to $15) includes an homage to Andres, a margarita with a layer of "salt air" foam created by using a chemical compound and a fish tank aerator. And like Arnold, Tunnacliffe is fond of the centrifuge, a machine that spins at rapid speeds to separate liquids from solids. He uses this process to quickly infuse rum with overripe bananas, turning the result into a "uniquely smooth daiquiri" with lime and sugar.
In the TBD cocktail, bartenders freeze fresh Thai basil with liquid nitrogen and then muddle the leaves, preserving the bright green color for a union with light rum, ginger root and fresh lime.
"We're really attempting something big here with this sort of size … usually this kind of concept has 20 to 30 seats," Tunnacliffe says.
Sticks and Stones, inside Mohegan Sun's Casino of the Sky, is open for dinner Monday and Tuesday, 4 to 9 p.m.; Wednesday, 4 to 10 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, 4 to 11 p.m. and Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m. Lunch is served Thursday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sunday brunch runs from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. The molecular bar opens daily at 4 p.m. Information: 860-862-2525, sticksnstonesgrille.com.