October 23, 2014

Hot Dish: August 27, 2008

Inside the Gulfshore’s Dining Scene
 
Neapolitans give The Keg Steakhouse a hearty welcome 

 

 

The Keg Steakhouse and Bar opened its newest Naples branch this week at the site of the former Sanibel Steakhouse. It has been wildly successful, packed with diners every night. Satisfied patrons leaving the restaurant told me why: The steaks come in at the middle price point, some with veggies and potato included, unlike many competitors who only offer those sides a la carte.

 

 
Grilled salmon at The Keg

The sirloin classic includes a Caesar salad, vegetables, mushrooms and a large baked potato for $20.45; the 7-ounce bleu cheese filet mignon, wrapped in applewood smoked bacon, has a twice-baked potato, all for $23.45. Salads, seafood—such as a $21.95 grilled salmon—and ribs are all promptly served.
 
The ambience is warm, the setting is upscale and the restaurant has a “come as you are” attitude, welcoming for locals or vacationers. The Keg Steakhouse and Bar, 8990 Fontana Del Sol Way, Naples (off Vanderbilt Beach Road west of Airport-Pulling Road), (239) 566-9616.
 
 
New chef joins Casa Ybel’s Thistle Lodge

 

 
Thistle Lodge at Casa Ybel on Sanibel Island

The Thistle Lodge, culinary gem of Sanibel’s Casa Ybel Resort, welcomes new executive chef John Wolff, who previously plied his art at locations such as the Sanibel Harbour Resort. He has brought new creations to the casually elegant resort’s menu—including a fresh new lunch menu—and retained some favorites. His emphasis is on “freshness and great flavors, presented with a classic simplicity.”

 
Thistle Lodge executive chef John Wolff

Thistle Lodge’s price point is in keeping with that at other fine dining on the island. The lobster and lump crab meat crusted sea scallops, with coconut-infused jasmine rice, for $29, is a beautiful offering.

 
Perhaps the most beautifully romantic spot along the Gulfshore’s coast, Thistle Lodge’s Florida-style building reminds me of dining at a bed and breakfast placed on a beautiful stretch of sandy beach, with starfish and shells tossed upon the water’s edge. Thistle Lodge, 2255 W. Gulf Dr., Sanibel Island, (239) 472-9200.
 
 
Another restaurant closes after a brief existence
 
Amador’s Restaurant has closed after a few months in business on the East Trail in Naples. This has been a difficult location for other restaurateurs as well. Owner Dino Redzik says, “It was necessary in this slow market to consolidate it with Dino’s Restaurant,” at 1575 Pine Ridge Road, Naples, (239) 596-0401.
 
Nearly all mid- to high-end restaurants are seriously affected by the weak off-season. The lower end places are doing comparatively well. People are tightening belts at all levels of dining, dining out less often and choosing cheaper places to visit. 
 
The hurricanes will increase summer losses even if the “eyes” of the storms don’t get us because bad PR may cause tourists to rethink vacation plans. Tropical Storm Fay decreased visits and increased hotel cancellations, and Tropical Storm/Hurricane Gustav is doing the same already.
 
 
Sanibel restaurants buck economic trend with packed houses

 

 
The Island Cow

On secluded Sanibel, some spots stay paradoxically busy—even in the off season—and are busier than many spots on the mainland. The Island Cow’s parking lot was packed at lunch, with a lot of nonlocal license plates, so I stopped in to talk with owners Brian and Elke Podlasek, to get their take on why they’re not facing the same economic challenges as many area restaurants.

 
Grouper Oscar at The Island Cow

Elke says the restaurant is open 365 days a year, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner to more than 700 people each day. “Many are locals. It’s very popular with economy-minded families. We are not expensive—prices haven’t gone up in a long time—and the portions are large. Kids can be noisy, and it’s OK. They really like to play out back.”

 
Hmmm. Pleasing 700 folks a day in a small setting is impressive—anywhere.
 
My favorite dish at the Cow is chef Juan Angeles’ grouper Oscar for $19.99. The grouper is broiled on a cedar plank, topped with crabmeat and asparagus and finished with a rich béarnaise sauce. I paired it with the Sanibel Sunset, a mango daiquiri and grenadine, and watched kids with crayons coloring away on tables and on the floor, having a ball, as their parents relaxed. Yes, family-friendly and wallet-friendly are key attractions here. The Island Cow, 2163 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel Island, (239) 472-0606.

 

 
Wood-burning oven at Matzaluna

Sanibel’s Matzaluna, the Italian Kitchen, also has quite a respectable flow of traffic, both adults and families. The restaurant features abundant portions of Italian food, still at a comfortable price point, in a more upscale, yet casual setting. One family ordered the five-cheese pizza for $9.95, and we watched it cook in the large, open wood-burning oven.

 
Antipasto at Matzaluna

The cold antipasto with salami, ham, several cheeses, prosciutto, marinated artichokes and roasted red peppers is large and popular at $8.95. The seafood Siciliana’s shrimp, clams, calamari and fish is a delight with marinara sauce over linguine. It’s at the “top end” of the mid-priced menu for a very reasonable $21.05, making it desirable for vacationers and locals alike.

 
This summer, appetizers served at the bar are half price, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Matzaluna, 2163 Periwinkle Way, (239) 472-0606.

 

 
Doc Ford's Sanibel Rum Bar & Grille

I like to visit successful restaurants, soak in the atmosphere and try to guess what makes them a hit while others with similar quality and price points do not fare as well. Word of mouth plays a large part in a restaurant’s year-round success with locals, and advertising greatly helps attract new diners, especially in the off season. Doc Ford’s Sanibel Rum Bar & Grille parking lot is usually full at lunch and dinner, having become a success with locals.


Mahi-Mahi at Doc Ford's

The restaurant isnamed afterMarion “Doc” Ford, the hero in several best-selling novels written by local author, fishing guide, and restaurateur Randy Wayne White. He and executive chef Greg Nelson offer a casual, friendly setting decorated with rich woods and trophy fish—and a good dozen TVs for news or sports.
 
Favorites include various mojitos, traditional Cuban fried pork chops ($18.99), and all sorts of seafood, cooked with a Caribbean twist. I like the freshly filleted deep water Mahi-Mahi seared in sweet soy sauce, on a jasmine rice stir fry with a prickly pear-ginger vinaigrette for $19.95.
 

Other locals like the snapper wrapped in a banana leaf that’s lined with masa harina, ancho chili purée and Pine Island lime juice. It’s steamed, then paired with black beans and rice with a lime cilantro drizzle for $21.95. Doc Ford’s, 975 Rabbit Road Sanibel Island, (239) 472-8311.


Let's broaden our choices of great Southwest Florida restaurants together. Post your hints and experiences below.