Freedom fries may get all the lip service, but when Naples area gourmands want something lip-smacking, it's pommes frites. The latest big news around town is Le Riviera, a renovation of Le Caffe des Artistes now under the command of Marie and Georges Tabardel. The Tabardels own the enormously popular French Deli, a quick meal and takeout establishment that always accumulates votes when Gulfshore Life does its Best of the Best awards in the spring.
Le Riviera is French-owned, the chef is French (he cooked at the Ritz Hotel in Paris) and the food is French-inspired, to be sure. But to understand the full reach of the kitchen, refer to the restaurant's motto, "Cuisine of the Sun." Chef/partner Alain Bonnot offers dishes from lands blessed by warm Mediterranean climates and a lifestyle in which food plays a premier role. At Le Riviera, you'll surely find foie gras (expertly prepared in blueberry reduction and garnished with whole berries), French onion soup and escargots; but you'll also find lamb and chicken couscous, paella Valencia, tournedos Rossini, ravioli, veal sweetbreads and seafood salad with mango vinaigrette. Entrées average about $26 and come to the table beautifully plated and paired with fresh, never-overcooked seasonal vegetables.
Appetizers average $10 and include a goat cheese and grilled vegetable terrine with herbs that will satisfy any vegetarian; and if you call ahead, you might get the couscous made with just vegetables and no meat. In addition to the regular menu's seven or eight meat dishes and an equal number of fish preparations, Bonnot dreams up at least one nightly special based on what's fresh and readily available. The butter is shaped like small pinecones, and crusty French bread is served with an avocado spread-a pleasant relief from olive oil or tapanade.
While the atmosphere is cozy and relaxed, rather like a French country inn, the service is formal and attentive. Silverware is discreetly replaced between courses, and (should you be patient) your server will actually cut and arrange the food on your plate if you're splitting an appetizer such as the foie gras or stuffed mussels. Water glasses are refilled during the meal, and servers check to see that things are progressing well, meeting your needs at just the right moment without being intrusive. You'll feel pampered but not pandered to. Madame Tabardel handles reservations and greets guests at the door; and when the owner is on the premises, his eagle eye for detail makes comfort levels rise.
The tables are cloaked in stiff ivory linens. A half wall separates the full-service bar from the dining room, which seats about 150. The low black ceiling, individual table illumination, background music and two-tone terra-cotta walls create an intimate, rosy atmosphere. Gleaming copper pots and genre paintings combine with bouquets of flowers strategically placed throughout the room to further support the country inn ambience, encouraging diners to linger over the wine list and stay for dessert. This is a lovely place for a long and leisurely catch-up conversation with friends or just one special person.
The wine list is extensive but not particularly French, with a preponderance of California wines, a smattering of labels from Argentina, Italy and Australia, and at least a half-dozen wines by the glass for about $8. Desserts are special at Le Rivera, so save room for them. A favorite (of mine, anyway) is the tarte Tatin-thin, crisp, flaky crust with slim slices of caramelized apples served warm with vanilla ice cream. The apple tart, like the Grand Marnier or raspberry soufflé, is cooked to order and takes a bit of time; if you're going to order it for dessert, alert your server when you place your entrée order. For those who don't care to think that far ahead, other options include a classic pear Helene (love that hot chocolate sauce), dark chocolate cake, Napoleon with raspberry coulis, and cherries gratin in a Kirsch sabayon. Desserts average $9 and are generous enough for sharing.
The food at Le Riviera is sublime enough to call it a special-occasion experience. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't seek out this restaurant often-unless, like any true gourmand, you classify dinner any day of the week as a special occasion. Then I say indulge your palate at this spot of sunshine on Tamiami Trail.
Le Riviera 210 N. Tamiami Trail, Naples. (239) 261-7598. Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11-2 p.m. Dinner: Monday through Saturday, 5-10 p.m. Closed Sunday. Reservations accepted. Credit cards. Parking in restaurant lot. Wheelchair accessible.
"Cin cin" is what italians say when they clink wine glasses (they pronounce it chin chin)-and it's also one of the best new places to dine in the Naples-Fort Myers area. Located in a former Italian restaurant in the popular Cypress Lakes shopping/eating enclave, where parking at night is not for the impatient, Cin Cin has it all: a gorgeous, comfortable cocktail lounge; a sophisticated, relaxed dining room; great service by men in black; and wonderfully creative food.
The pan-Mediterranean kitchen is under the direction of 30-year-old Scott Sopher, a talented adventure-seeker whose menu is brash and full of fun. (A few weeks ago, he was into deep-frying individual pumpkin cheesecakes.) A staple on the dessert menu is his fried chocolate tortellini with cream, made by slipping a tablet of dark chocolate into the macaroni pouch and dropping it into hot fat. Sound ridiculous? Wait until you taste it. (It's not really a shock that Sopher's first job as a teenager was manning the fryer at McDonald's.)
There's a confident exuberance to this chef's menu that makes you want to jump onto his wavelength and ride out the night. His stylish meals even start out with pizzazz: Bread comes with an eggplant "caviar," a toothsome alternative to butter or infused oils. The half-dozen appetizers ($7-$11) include roasted vegetables in a feathery pastry pouch, served with tahini yogurt and scented grape seed oil, and a fontina walnut-stuffed quail that's nearly a meal in itself. Almost fully boned, the little bird comes to the table swaddled in prosciutto on a bed of arugula enriched with a port reduction. Sinfully good.
Besides the regular menu (with a nightly special or two), Sopher offers a degustation meal for $65 a person, not including wine. This five-course tasting menu is best enjoyed by the whole table since the timing of service is different for this type of experience than for a regular meal.
Cin Cin's menu focuses on traditional and modern dishes from places like Italy, Spain, North Africa, Cyprus and France. But everything has a Sopher spin. Instead of serving his lamb with a boring blob of mint jelly, the chef encrusts the lamb with dried mint leaves so the meat looks as good as it tastes. Other entrées include Spanish paella, Moroccan spiced swordfish, seafood fettuccini and the chef's vegetarian plate with fresh seasonal vegetables. Entrées average $26, which is more than reasonable when you consider the intriguing sides and generous portions.
The wine list is surprisingly wallet-friendly. It includes 14 wines by the glass and a healthy California selection in the $30 range (with fun labels such as the Liar's Dice Zinfandel).
The dining room and lounge decor are the work of Fort Myers interior designer Kappy King Cole, who has rendered the two harmonious spaces in rich red textural wall finishes and upholstery. It's modern European chic with a touch of North African exotic, and the result is a warm, relaxing environment conducive to animated conversation. Pace yourself so you experience every aspect of the food and the ambience. A long convivial night of wining and dining at Cin Cin will seem to zoom by.
Cin Cin Mediterranean Bar & Grille 13451-5 McGregor Blvd., South Fort Myers. (239) 415-2007. Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner: nightly, 5-10 p.m. Sunday brunch: 11 a.m.- 3 p.m. Lounge open until 2 a.m. Credit cards. Reservations suggested. Parking in mall area. Wheelchair accessible.
Q. It's my turn to pick a place for a casual lunch for our monthly girls group. There are six of us, and we like to hang out and talk.
A. Assuming that none of you has an irrational fear of carbohydrates and you're not vegans, you should do what everybody else in town is doing and go to Calistoga Bakery Cafe. It's like the Panera national chain, but with its own breezy, comfortable identity and light, jazzy background music. You can eat inside on cushy sofas near the fireplace, at high tables, low ones, banquettes or out on the stone patio, where the sound of falling water from the fountain contributes to a soothing ambience. The menu specializes in hearty salads and sandwiches (both cold and hot pressed ones) so fat you can barely get your mouth around the piled-high ingredients. Freshness is key here-everything looks as appealing as it tastes. You'll also find soups, breakfast pastries and huge cookies for dessert. With a drink, you can do lunch for under $10. Place your order at the counter and pay; when your name is called, you take your goodie tray to your preferred seating area and no one bothers you. So munch and gossip to your heart's content. Afterwards, you may want to take home a jar of Calistoga's specialty jam ($5.95); each of the four flavors is well worth the caloric and financial investment.
Calistoga Bakery Cafe 7941 Airport- Pulling Road, Naples. (239) 596-8840.