October 25, 2014

Northern Exposure

At Real Seafood Co., there's no wondering about where your fish and shellfish come from. Your server tells you right up front that 90 percent of the seafood comes to this restaurant from Foley's Fish Market in Boston. And after eating at Real Seafood, you may not want seafood from any other place. The food here is properly cooked, and it's served with flair in large portions.

Real Seafood Co. is a chain, with restaurants in Ohio and Michigan and several more planned for Florida, all of which should be up and running by the end of the year. The parent company also owns Blue Point Oyster Bar and the new Carson's Bistro.

The ambience at Real Seafood is marine comfortable (bare tables, cloth napkins), and the prices are reasonable. I can't think of a reason not to patronize Real Seafood Co., other than that everyone else in town has the same idea during season. Even if you have a reservation, you run the risk of being handed one of those vibrating beepers and politely invited to wait a bit. But the dining experience here is worth a little hassle. Besides, the bar has two aquariums, so you can always watch the fish. They say it's relaxing.

Someone had a good time with the décor at Real Seafood, because the sense of whimsy that permeates the furnishings and lighting is infectious. Oversized banquettes are in the shape of half-shells; the glassware is blue washed in waves of darker blue. The metal pendant lights suspended over some of the tables are actually sculptural octopi, and the brass handles of the double front door form the outline of a fish when the doors close. In the main dining room, which is located in an interior courtyard with gaslight lanterns on the wall, a computer generates ever-changing hues of mood lighting, from blues to pinks to warm golden tints. Palm trees suggest the tropics, and shore-bird sculptures soar overhead.

I had the best-looking and best-tasting gazpacho of any I've ever experienced in Florida. Unlike the classic Spanish original, the Real Seafood Co. version incorporates chunks of crabmeat and shrimp. The presentation is knockout gorgeous in a martini-like glass; and the cold, spicy tomato-based soup is so full of crabmeat you can't lift a spoonful without catching a bite. Garnished with shards of blue corn chips, it's almost too pretty to attack; but you'll have no reservations after the first swallow. At $7.95, this is a menu star.

My table mates argued vigorously for the Maine lobster bisque ($5.95 a bowl and delicious), and we all tried the wild blue mussels steamed in garlic and white wine for $8.95. Other appetizers to seduce seafood lovers include nine items from the raw bar, along with cooked delicacies such as baked oysters Florentine, coconut shrimp and Point Judith calamari flash-fried with saffron aioli on the side. And the warm salt-crust bread that comes to the table is wonderful.

The entrée portion of the menu lists about 20 seafood and meat dishes ranging from pork chops with mango salsa to pan-roasted mahi mahi, broiled scallops, Block Island swordfish, crab 'n' lobster cakes and sesame seared yellowfin tuna. Most entrées average about $26. The New England surf-and-turf platter, which includes a pound-and-a-half Maine lobster, is the most expensive, at $39.95. Portions are more than generous; and if you have both an appetizer and salad, you may find your dinner too much to handle. The paella Valenciana ($28.95), made with a half lobster as well as shellfish, chicken and chorizo sausage over rice and vegetables, is so big it's daunting. It's also excellent. Share some or take it home.

Service by uniformed servers is super-efficient. They refill water glasses, replace silver between courses, remove plates promptly and never leave you waiting for the check.

The wine menu offers about 20 selections by the glass and mostly California labels by the bottle, ranging in price from about $20 to $125. Imported and domestic beers and a full range of designer martinis round out the collection. The six desserts offer no surprises. The ubiquitous key lime pie and molten cake make an appearance, along with ice creams and sorbet. I would've liked to have sampled the strawberry rhubarb crisp or the chocolate crepe, but there was no possible way. Another time.

Real Seafood Co. seats 350; at peak capacity, the dining rooms can be noisy, but not unnervingly so. The place draws a diverse crowd-families with children, tourists, the date crowd, the girls-night-out bunch and a healthy number of dedicated regulars. And if you live near this well-run, thoroughly satisfying establishment, you'll probably be a zealous regular, too.

Real Seafood Co. 8960 Fontana Del Sol Way, Naples. Reservations accepted at 1-888-456-DINE. Dinner: Monday through Thursday, 4-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4-11 p.m.; Sunday, 4-9 p.m. Credit cards. Parking in mall lot. Wheelchair accessible.

Chef Central

A native of Bordeaux, Franck Steigerwald discovered cooking at the age of 20. After that, the 29-year-old new chef at the Ritz-Carlton Naples worked with some of the most prestigious chefs in France. Steigerwald came to cook in America after a former girlfriend sent his application to the United States. "One day I got a phone call from Washington, D.C.," he says. "Since I couldn't speak any English. I really didn't know what was going on. But in the end, I moved to Tyson's Corner, Va., in 2001 to work at the Ritz-Carlton near Washington." The Maine lobster salad on the Ritz-Carlton menu is Steigerwald's riff on a recipe from a mentor chef. He suggests serving the dish with Venica sauvignon blanc, a wine with light floral characteristics that balance the lobster.

Maine Lobster Salad

4 lobsters (1 1/2 pounds each)

4 handfuls of greens from a bag of mixed fancy lettuces

1/2 bunch mint

1/2 bunch basil

1/2 bunch tarragon

4 shallots, chopped

1 bunch chives, chopped

1 tablespoon raspberry vinegar

3 tablespoons olive oil

Court Bouillon

1 carrot

1 onion

1 celery stick

20 black peppercorns

4 bay leaves

1 bottle white wine

2 cups water

salt to taste

Dice the carrot, onion and celery. Boil the wine and vegetables for five minutes; add the spices, bay leaves, water and salt. Boil for 10 minutes. Cook the lobsters in the court bouillon for five minutes, two at a time; and then chill the lobsters in ice water for 10 minutes. Clean the lobsters, split tails in half and reserve in the fridge. Mix salad greens and herbs and reserve in refrigerator.

Beurre Blanc

1/2 stick butter

1 glass white wine

2 shallots, sliced

Dice butter into small cubes. Boil the wine with sliced shallots. Reduce by half. Remove pan from heat and whisk in butter. Just before searing, add shallots and chopped chives. Season with salt. Warm the liquid and add lobster. Let sit for five minutes. Season the salad greens with raspberry vinegar and olive oil. Place the warm lobsters on top of the salad and glaze with beurre blanc.

University grill has a quite likeable nutty-professor personality, and that's obvious before you ever walk inside this big, boisterous full-service restaurant. The management uses the marquee outside to publish puns, pithy sayings or humorous advice. Folks who live in the area (near Edison College) are always eager to see what will be up there next. But if you've driven to University Grill for more than just food for thought, you're at the right place. The menu is extensive, the presentations are straightforward and generous (lots of Styrofoam boxes leave with sated customers), the service is capable, and the prices are reasonable. University Grill gets an advanced degree from me in total culinary satisfaction.

It's a place for families, groups of friends who want a casual evening out, or couples looking for an easygoing meal. The rambling space, done in a sportsfishing theme, is casual and comfortable.The menu features standard American favorites with a regional overlay, which means lots of local fish and shellfish. Choices range from casual nibbles such as burgers, quesadillas, chicken salad, bruschetta, crispy calamari and baked spinach-and-artichoke dip to substantial meals (two sides) such as the crab cake and sirloin plate ($18.50), horseradish-crusted grouper, roast half duck ($17.95), tilapia piccata, chargrilled pork chops or Atlantic salmon. A house specialty is the black-and-white sesame tuna with wasabi and teriyaki glaze. Whether you get it as an appetizer or a full meal, it's first-rate. The serving size is enough to share. Robust desserts include banana-split pie, bread pudding, apple crisp, key lime pie and a triple chocolate cake. There's a full bar as well as wine, along with a watermelon house martini for $7.95.

When a group is meeting for a casual meal and needs a place that will please the greatest number without disappointing anyone, take the class to University Grill.

University Grill, 7790 Cypress Lake Drive, Fort Myers. (239) 437-4377. Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Monday through Saturday, 4-10 p.m.; Sunday, 4-9 p.m. Reservations accepted. Credit cards. Parking in on-site lot. Wheelchair accessible.

Ask Marsha

Q. Recent vacations to England and Ireland have left me craving pub food and drink. Anything for me here?

A. Absolutely. They're waiting for you at Dwyers, where it's as much fun to hang out as it is to eat-and where you're wished a hundred-thousand welcomes (cead mile failte) written in Celtic above the front door. Inside, a long, handsome bar features "draught" beers such as Killian's, Guinness, Boddingtons, Blue Moon Belgian White, Harp, Stella Artois and even Magners vintage cider. In the fireplace room, mismatched chairs pull to wooden tables, where you can cozy up to a menu that offers shepherd's pie (with beef, not lamb), chicken pot pie, ale-battered fish and chips, Irish stew, and corned beef and cabbage, along with a range of pizzas, pastas, and American snack foods and steaks. Children's menu, too. Desserts include bread pudding or apple cobbler, as well as key lime pie for the folks who think they're in Florida. You'll find rousing Irish entertainment on weekends. Upstairs is an expansive, comfy sports bar where you can order pitchers of brew and watch the games on weekend afternoons and evenings in big tapestry easy chairs. Smoking is confined to two outdoor eating areas; but hey, you can't smoke in the pubs in Ireland anymore, either.

Dwyers 13851 S. Cleveland Ave., Fort Myers. (239) 425-0782.

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