October 2, 2014

Now and Zen

Sushi is no longer a fad; it's an established part of the American dining scene; and to succeed, a new sushi restaurant needs to stand out from the crowd. Establishing a distinct identity will never be a problem at Zen. Eat sushi at this new Naples restaurant and you won't forget what makes it special.

If you sit at the sushi bar near the entrance to Zen you can sample about 25 different nigiri, sashimi, temaki and sushi delicacies expertly formed and deftly sliced by executive sushi chef Luke Phillips and his team. Pull up a stool and delve into quail egg, sea urchin, smelt roe, octopus, and even eel and surf clam.

But if you elect to take a seat in one of the dining rooms of this chic and refined Asian grill, an entirely different experience unfolds. The general reach of the menu is Pan-Asian with a French/contemporary American support system. The menu is divided into three sections, and guests are encouraged to mix and match from the trio of pages or to just pick a section and graze from its sundry selections.

The selection of sushi rolls is refreshingly minimal, with about a dozen items, most of them involving cooked seafood. Trying to choose among 50 different versions of fish encased in sticky rice can be a paralyzing and often disappointing task, except for the genuine enthusiasts; and they're probably already at the sushi bar, anyway. The Zen rolls are generous; two can easily be shared as an appetizer among three or four people. Selections include a mild and slightly sweet Maine lobster guacamole ($14) and a coconut shrimp, which incorporates mango, cilantro and blood orange in the mix ($12). The Rainbow, made of three fishes, is popular; and an all-veggie sushi combines whatever is in season with wasabi for just $7.

The next page of the menu, called "small plates," is really an array of creative salads or second courses that can be enjoyed on their own or commingled with the entrées that occupy the final page of the menu portfolio. Here's where you'll tuck into the meals of miso-flavored Chilean sea bass paired with a scallion rice cake ($28), or pork shank served with a caramelized Asian pear and celeriac purée ($26), or even a Wagyu steak. That, our genial server Jay explained, is just like Kobe beef, except these steer are pampered, fed beer and massaged in Wagyu, another region of Japan. At $45, this meal includes a small baked potato, a bundle of slender and crunchy fresh green beans, and a smear of carrot coulis that's more for color and plate décor than for nourishment.

The Wagyu beef is not fork-tender-I tried cutting a piece with my fork (yes, you get Western silverware besides chopsticks) without success. But this strip loin is richly flavored; and the portion is probably more than one person can eat, especially if you've gone the sushi roll and small-plate salad route. Other non-Asian selections include rosemary chicken, halibut with foie gras ($32), prime rib chop with French fries, or the Scottish salmon with risotto and peas.

In each of the dozen entrées, or "large plates," which average about $28, executive chef Andrew Marc Rothschild (he was the opening chef at Annabelle's before it morphed into Lurçat) has infused Asian accent notes into French and contemporary American recipes. It's quite an original line-up, and it changes monthly with the availability of fresh local ingredients.

But what really sets this Asian-influenced restaurant apart from all others is dessert. At a Japanese restaurant, you're likely to get gorgeous-looking molded candies made of red kidney bean paste. They look like art and taste like Play-Doh. A Chinese establishment gives you stale cookies with a "fortune" that in recent years has deteriorated into cheap advice rather than a merry prediction or dire warning. At Thai and Vietnamese places, you can sometimes score fried banana coins rolled in sesame and bathed in honey. But that pales next to the riches you will uncover on the Zen dessert menu. Even if you're determined to skip dessert, ask for the menu anyway and enjoy a great read.

The bento box looks elegant and is laden with bold, intriguing tastes. A square, deep black box with a lid arrives at the table. Remove the cover (fringed with powdered sugar for contrast) and inside are a trio of either sorbets or gelatos (your choice) in sharp, bright flavors-blackberry cabernet wine, passion fruit, ginger, green tea and more. At $7, this dessert is generous enough to share.

The Zen pastry chef also does a lovely light and chocolate pot of crème served in a bistro coffee cup, and his riff on an American favorite is to pair cold apple pie with hot ice cream ($6). The caramelized banana split is nearly a meal. Another Western-inspired dessert is a trio of mini-ice cream sodas, each served in a small graceful glass cylinder. A more Asian selection is the yuzu tart, which is a shortbread cookie combined with a yuzu custard (a bit like key lime) and quince jam. All these sweets have maximum eye appeal.

The same can be said for the décor at Zen, three dining rooms done in soft brown tones ranging from caramel (the glazed glassy ceiling) to deep brown paneling. Waiters are in khaki jackets, while supporting staffers are in disappearing black head to toe. The color scheme is so muted that the interest is in textural contrasts and in the assorted modern hanging light fixtures, so unique they force you to look up. One booth is crowned by what looks like a tray of enormous ice cubes. If you're in the market for new lighting in your home or office, it's worth a trip to Zen to observe just how cleverly owner Sam Phillips and Naples interior designer Regan Reed have designed the place.

In the main dining room, the bar dispenses fashionable fruit martinis and other fancy drinks. The dessert menu includes a selection of ports, cognacs and dessert wines as well as cigars, which you must smoke at outside tables under umbrellas. There's a separate wine menu; and you can, of course, order an Asian beer, sometimes the best choice with sushi or sashimi.

Zen is a sushi bar, a full-service restaurant, a dim sum eatery and a place to enjoy a late-night drink or to savor a cocktail with nibbles. It's also a place for standout desserts paired with espresso or fragrant teas, processed in the French-press manner and served in pottery cups with a wand of rock sugar. Whatever you want to tease or satisfy your palate could be waiting at Zen.

Zen 898 Fifth Ave. S., Naples. (239) 403-4936. Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner: Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, 5-10 p.m.; Thursday, Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. Bar until midnight and after. Brunch: Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dim sum brunch. Credit cards. Reservations accepted. Street parking or public lot behind the restaurant. Wheelchair accessible.

CHEF CENTRAL

With a 25-year history of serving elegant Southern eclectic food in one of the most gracious settings to be found in Southwest Florida, The Veranda has an enviable reputation to maintain; and executive chef William Murray is upholding the culinary mantle. The 39-year-old Buffalo native is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (Hyde Park) and has lived in this part of Florida for the past 18 years. His recipe for Bourbon Street fillets is a favorite on the menu at The Veranda and a standby for Murray at home. The Veranda 2122 Second St., Fort Myers. 32-2065.

The Veranda Bourbon Street Fillets

(Serves four)

Ingredients

4 (6-ounce) tenderloin fillets of beef

1 cup fresh mushrooms

1 teaspoon minced fresh garlic

1 teaspoon minced fresh shallot

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary

3 ounces Kentucky sour mash bourbon

4 tablespoons butter

12 ounces demi glace (available in jars at specialty markets such as Blue Pepper)

3 tablespoons each butter and oil for frying fillets

Heat sauté pan with butter/oil. Just before smoking point, add the medallions of tenderloin. Sear both sides and remove from pan. Finish to desired doneness in a 400-degree oven. With pan still hot, add mushrooms, garlic, shallots and fresh rosemary. Toss about three minutes and deglaze with bourbon. Let the alcohol burn off and add the demi glace and finally the four tablespoons of butter to give the sauce a glossy sheen. Finish with a twist of cracked black pepper and pour over the beef. Serve immediately.

At the southern section of Fort Myers Beach-which suffered the least amount of hurricane damage on the island-a cosmopolitan bistro, the South Beach Grille, recently opened. Its name and menu will resonate with diners who remember the South Bay Bistro from The Promenade mall in Bonita Springs. That excellent modern restaurant, with its sculptural Miami-inspired furniture and zany color scheme, sadly declined and finally dissolved. This beach incarnation, owned by one of the former partners, is finding a welcoming home in a strip mall that serves the high-end condominiums and hotels on the wide part of Estero Island.

South Beach Grille features a handsome wood bar, an aquarium, and a dining room with seating for 115 at both booths and tables adorned with white cloths and napkins. The curving, swooping ceiling, with its monorail lighting system and artful pendants, adds to the progressive atmosphere, and so does the light jazz music in the background.

You can expect a whole menu of fancy cocktails and 14 wines (mostly Californian) by the glass. Bottles range from about $30 to a high of $110. Specialty cocktails such as the Dirty Mouse, Between the Sheets or the Golden Margarita are $7.50.

Entrées average about $25 and are quite wide-ranging-anything from rainbow trout or Caribbean bouillabaisse to Danish barbecue baby back ribs, Colorado beef, Cajun mahi-mahi or Florida lobster tails. Sides embrace selections such as wild rice pilaf, risotto, sweet potatoes or the ubiquitous garlic mashed. Salads demonstrate a flair for originality, especially one that combines baby spinach leaves with feta cheese, grilled pears, red onion and a pear vinaigrette ($6.50). There's always a soup of the day from the Grille kitchen and one or two nightly specials.

Appetizers or small plates average about $9, and several can be expanded into a full entrée. The coconut fried shrimp with bok choy and a tangy rum plum dip is one. Crispy fried calamari is one of my favorites because it comes with the same banana molasses ketchup I first sampled at South Bay Bistro in Bonita. It's delicious and different.

Desserts are housemade and varied. Selections include confections such as key lime tart, brownie à la mode, citrus crème brûlée, carrot cake and tiramisu. The caramelized banana split (the most expensive dessert at $11.95) is one that the table could share, and it's quite impressive, made with Godiva chocolate sauce, candied walnuts and brownie bits. Service is attentive, and the ambience is sophisticated but completely comfortable. The Grille is not just dependent on the tourist trade. Locals are making it a neighborhood hangout for a leisurely dinner or just for a convivial happy hour.

South Beach Grille 7205 Estero Blvd. (Santini Plaza), Fort Myers Beach. (239) 463-7770. Credit cards. Reservations suggested. Dinner: 4:30-10 p.m. Bar: 4:40 p.m.-closing. Happy Hour daily 4:40-7 p.m. Easy parking in Santini Plaza. Wheelchair accessible. 

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