August 1, 2014

Appetite

Culinary creativity: Chef Melissa Talmage gives a surprising twist to the crouton. She uses panko-coated, fried avocado chunks in her heart of palm salad.“The Best Food in Lee County”

What do overalls, peaches, Sanibel Island and the southern rock band the Allman Brothers all have in common? Sweet Melissa’s. The band released its iconic song in 1972 on its Eat a Peach album. The name doubles for a real peach of a restaurant located on Sanibel Island, where Executive Chef Melissa Talmage is serving the best food in Lee County, hands down. That’s right, the very best in Lee County. As for the overalls? Well, Melissa is 49 percent owner of her posh café, while Michigan Carhartt heiress Gretchen Carhartt Valade staked the other 51 percent. The heiress knows a good bet when she sees one, and so do we. 

With all due respect to the Allman Brothers, I may have waited until now to try Sweet Melissa’s for myself, despite all the accolades, because I thought it might be steeped in a 1972 theme: long-haired men, bellbottoms, wood paneling, trans fats, etc. While I wouldn’t mind time-traveling back to the days when a gallon of gasoline cost 55 cents, I’m not down with the fashions. 

Subtle perfection: The beef tenderloin is flavored with hickory smoke and a bone marrow bordelaise.One step inside Sweet Melissa’s elegant but unpretentious ambiance and we realized the connection begins and ends with the name. Think burnt orange and other earthy tones, white tablecloths, professional servers and cozy, quiet dining rooms. Our first bites of food made us wish we could travel back to February of 2009, when Sweet Melissa’s first opened. 

An excellent server named Karen Schaeffer helped us select the 2010 Fair Valley Chenin Blanc from Paarl, South Africa ($9.50/glass) and the 2008 Napa Valley Anderson’s Valley “Prologue” Cabernet Sauvignon ($14/glass), and we were off to the races. Tom ordered the grilled romaine salad ($11) with Caesar dressing, parmesan and truffle oil. The massive, tantalizingly seared stalk of romaine that was placed before him was a sight—and scent—to behold. I couldn’t resist the more tropical marinated hearts of palm salad ($10) with arugula, orange segments, avocado croutons, hazelnuts and hazelnut-sherry vinaigrette. In a word, magnificent. In a few more words, truly innovative—Where else will you find panko tempura bites of avocado as croutons?—light, fresh and delicious. Tom and I shared the ricotta ravioli ($14) with beef cheek sugo (pork, cheese and tomato sauce). The sugo comes across like a mouth-watering, umami-rich beef stew drizzled over the fresh pasta, and a basil-infused oil garnish lightens the effect. 

Split dishes: Sweet Melissa’s half portions offer the opportunity to sample more fantastic cuisine, such as the fish stew with chorizo.Unable to choose just two, Tom and I tried half portions of three different entrées, fish stew ($29 whole/$17 half) with shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, fish and chorizo sausage in a tomato saffron broth with Pernod aioli; grilled smoked beef tenderloin ($34 whole/$19 half) with hickory, truffle whipped potato, sautéed spinach and bone marrow bordelaise; and the pan-seared mahi mahi ($26 whole/$15 half) with sweet potato, corn and crawfish hash and smoked tomato butter. A few bites into the experience, we just gaped at each other. 

“Why is this so good?” I asked Tom.

“Fresh, high quality ingredients?” he offered. “Inventive pairings of flavors? Excellent culinary training?”

We practically wept over the desserts, which had to do with berries and homemade gelato on the one hand, and bananas and pecans on the other ($7 each)—not to mention fairy dust and angel’s wings. 

“Please tell us all of your secrets,” we said to Melissa upon meeting her.

Casual elegance: The food and the interior both offer the sophistication of cosmopolitan dining in a laid back island setting.“Having a nice, competent, hard-working staff makes all the difference,” she said. She’s right, but Sweet Melissa’s offers much more than that. It’s the total package, a fine dining experience that rivals others we’ve had in Washington, New York and Miami—for a fraction of the cost. And it’s just over the Sanibel Causeway. What could be better?

Sweet Melissa’s Cafe.
1625 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, (239) 472-1956,

www.sweetmelissascafe.net.  

Dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 6 p.m. Acoustic jazz by Michael David on Thursday and Friday.

Reservations highly recommended.

Free parking. 

Credit cards accepted.

Handicapped accessible.


This article appears in the January 2012 issue of Gulfshore Life.

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