September 18, 2014

Dining Trends Alert

Small plates, big variety: At Angelina’s Ristorante in Bonita Springs, small sizes of dishes such as the antipasto misto, calamari and polpette are often part of multi-course meals.Change is good, especially when it comes to dining out. While there are folks who order the same meal at the same restaurant week after week, most of us eat out for variety (not to mention the lack of dishes to wash).

And while we might be sad when our favorite spot phases out some of the dishes we’ve come to love, it’s always exciting to see something new on the menu or a new amenity.

Although Southwest Florida isn’t on the cutting edge when it comes to molecular gastronomy or revival cocktails, our restaurants do follow the trends when it makes sense for their customers and for the bottom line. With that in mind, we’ve set our sights on three things you are likely to see a lot more of in the coming year—smaller portions/tapas style dining, gluten-free options and a renewed emphasis on the drinking experience.

Smaller portions and tapas-style dining

Tapas have been a trend nationally for most of the past decade, but they’ve just taken hold locally over the past couple of years. Several restaurants have built their menus around the idea of small plates and myriad options.

Although there are a few places that offer the traditional Spanish tapas experience—IM Tapas, Café Barcelona and Bella Maria Café, to name three—newer restaurants are taking the small-plates concept and imbuing it with cuisines from around the world.

Big taste, small bites: In the lobby of The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, Bites offers an eclectic menu with offerings such as shrimp potstickers, above, and veal cheek pizza.Perhaps the best example is Bites, the two-year-old lobby restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples. With a rotating menu of appetizer-size playful dishes, such as veal cheek pizza and polenta fries, the restaurant offers a cosmopolitan dining experience in one of the best settings in town.

After struggling to find a niche at its new location, Patric’s seems to have hit its stride in the past year by offering up tapas at night. The menu bounces around from bistro fare (mussels in white wine with garlic bread) to Asian influences (chicken satay with edamame) to Americana (bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin with apricots).

In Fort Myers, the newly opened Lush offers a mix of tapas that complement a carefully curated, and reasonably priced, entrée menu. But with tapas such as mac and cheese with chorizo, heirloom tomato with white truffle ricotta and pig pizza, why save room for a main course?

Other restaurants are slimming portion sizes, but not going the tapas route. With the cost of food going up, restaurateurs, such as Tony Ridgway, are decreasing portion sizes to keep the prices low. Ridgway also limits portion sizes because his customers prefer it. Having heard complaints about gargantuan plates, he deemed it a good business move to scale back.

At Angelina’s Ristorante, the portion sizes are kept in check because traditional Italian dining is a series of courses rather than just a large entrée. Too large a portion of pasta would mean diners aren’t springing for the osso bucco next.

No gluten, all flavor: Bistro 821 is one of many local restaurants offering up great, gluten-free dishes, such as miso sake roasted sea bass.Gluten-free dining

As many as one in four people suffer from some sort of gluten allergy or intolerance, mostly mild and ranging from hay fever-like symptoms to those akin to lactose intolerance, and one in 133 from the more serious celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that targets the intestines. So most restaurants can’t afford to not offer some sort of gluten-free menu options. Imagine how quickly they’d close if a quarter of their business dried up.

However, until recently, dining gluten-free often meant being relegated to a few salads or less than appetizing non-wheat pasta dishes.

"Dining (out) can be a challenge," says Brooke Bouis, who helps run a Celiac disease support group in Naples.

But now more restaurants are starting to take notice, both in the types of dishes they offer and in the preparation of those dishes. No matter what you are ordering, if you want to avoid gluten or wheat, be sure to ask your server to alert the kitchen.

Bouis says a few restaurants go out of their way to make sure no gluten makes it to a customer who has requested a gluten-free meal. Red Brick Pizza in Naples even has a special pizza stone used for gluten-free pizzas to make sure there is no cross-contamination from other pizzas. P.F. Chang’s serves gluten-free meals on special plates so that servers don’t get the dishes confused. And Noodles Italian Café and Sushi Bar, in Naples, cooks gluten-free pasta in separate pots to avoid any of the wheat protein from making its way to the plate.

Other restaurants with excellent gluten-free dining include The Ritz-Carlton’s dining options, downtown pasta and continental favorite Bistro 821 and Cantina Laredo in Fort Myers.

Drink up: Many local restaurants, such as Osetra, above, are now paying as much attention to the bar atmosphere as they are to the dining room.Great drinking atmospheres

Pre- and post-dinner drinks can be just as important to the dining experience as the glass of wine served with the meal. A good number of stand-alone and food-second bars have popped up in the past few years to give those out for a night on the town a great place to grab a decent drink. In downtown Fort Myers, check out Space 39, a hybrid bar-modern art gallery that offers one of the most fun and unusual settings for a drink on the town. While you can find a good crowd there most nights, it’s definitely the place to be during Art Walk on the first Friday of each month.

In Naples, hit up Avenue Wine Café, a beer-and-wine bar with a serious selection of both. The staff carefully curates the selections to bring customers the best from lesser-known vintners and breweries, so you are almost guaranteed to find something you’ve never tried before. Plus, with cushy, over-stuffed couches and chairs inside, it’s a relaxing way to finish the day.

Some restaurants have started to take notice that their bar areas are an important way to bring in customers.

Off Third Street South, Ridgeway Bar and Grill and Tony’s Off Third opened a patio bar that offers great drinks in a beautiful courtyard setting that opens up onto downtown. On Fifth Avenue, Osetra built a restaurant around the drinking experience by bringing in a contemporary design and a great selection of champagne, wine and beer to pair with its upscale food.

In Fort Myers, Chef Shannon Yates built Lush to combine indulgent food with magnificent cocktails, while Spirit of Bacchus adds delightful twists, such as duck quesadillas and ahi tuna-topped Asian nachos, to the classic bar menu.

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