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10 Best New Restaurants 2017

We salute the next crop of rising stars in Collier and Lee counties.



Bold flavors, creative combinations and a beautiful setting landed 21 Spices by Chef Asif among our 10 Best New Restaurants.

Erik Kellar

 

It is time again for our annual roundup of the hottest dining destinations to have hit the Gulfshore. In the name of good journalism and public service, I’ve splurged (1500 South), had near steals (Blanc), tried too many places to count. We had an exciting year with not one but two celebrity chefs landing on our shores. In fact, the caliber of restaurants this year is so good that I opted not to choose overall winners. In compiling this list, which appears in no particular order, I made it my business to have a good mix of experiences—formal, casual, expensive, cheap—the non-negotiables being if the concepts delivered what was promised and if I left wanting to return. Now, it’s time to dig in.

 

1500 South

1500 Fifth Ave. S., Naples, 239-774-1500, 1500southnaples.com

To best appreciate 1500 South, you need to know the personality behind it.

A bonafide star in the food world, chef Art Smith owns several restaurants across the country, has won two James Beard Awards, has charmed audiences on Top Chef and was Oprah’s personal chef for a decade—but, at heart, he’s a Florida boy, raised on a farm along the Georgia border.

His food has picked up sophisticated influences over the years, but it ultimately remains faithful to his Southern roots.

Even though he’s can’t be at his Naples Bay Resort dining room 365 days a year, he has entrusted those family recipes (and expanded upon them) to chef de cuisine Dagan Stocks, who has worked in fine dining kitchens for years. The result is upscale twists to time-honored staples, like a show-stopping fried chicken from Joyce Farms, brined in rosemary, alongside Smith’s piquant hot sauce with thick mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts.

His idea for 1500 South’s merging of Italian ingredients with dishes of his youth came about from a gastronomic mission he undertook as a member of the State Department’s American Chef Corps at Expo Milan. Smith was raised eating all sorts of animals and animal by-products. Olives with pickled cheese curd and Berkshire pork with a truffle-spiked barbecue sauce and a peach mostarda may not mean a field day for gluten-free vegans, but for anyone else, it would be a shame not to indulge in such a special treat right in our own backyard. Photo by Erik Kellar.

 

21 Spices by Chef Asif

4270 Tamiami Trail E., Naples, 239-919-8830, 21spicesdining.com

Have you ever noticed that, even in big cities, Indian restaurants often stay in a similar mold? Little dens that feel like an extension of home, with mom’s sag paneer (stewed spinach and cheese) delivered tableside in a copper pot next to a foil-lined basket of naan. This is not that.

This is soaring ceilings with intricate modernist lanterns. This is a wine list with cabernets from Caymus, Stag’s Leap and Silver Oak. This is salty, firm paneer, grilled and woven on a bedecked skewer, and “progressive” chicken showing chef-owner Asif Syed’s grasp of the outside influences at play in the subcontinent—alongside staples like chicken tikka masala and lamb vindaloo.

A meal is not cheap, but it is also not overly pricey. A coconut-cashew grouper for $27 or chili-garlic chicken for $22, each with a choice of rice or naan, is more than your average curry house, but you’re getting more. Syed is taking culinary risks, using quality ingredients and delivering on his professed belief that we “eat with our eyes” (by making his creations look and taste pretty). As he continues flexing his creative muscles, he is also experimenting with prix fixe menus, special wine dinners, fusion nights and a great happy hour (think $5 well drinks and nibbles, like an upscale Indian version of a gyro with spiced lamb and yogurt raita). Photo by Erik Kellar.

 

Zen Asian BBQ

10823 Tamiami Trail N., Naples, 239-260-7037, eatatzen.com

If someone asked me which of these restaurants I visited most over the past year, this Asian noodle house that’s oh-so-much-more would be the clear winner. Part of it is proximity, but mostly it’s because I can find something to satisfy any craving. Korean barbecue—where you sizzle short ribs on a gas-lit dome in the center of the table? Check. Hot ramen? Cold ramen? Check, check. Sushi, curries, fusion “tacos,” pad thai (that’s different from the zillion other places in town that serve it); the list goes on.

I always reach nirvana with the signature Hokkaido ramen, a dish inspired by the travels of chef Pitak Herkhunthod, who goes simply by chef Koko. He brings an expertise to the genre that’s not often seen in this area, the result of five years training in Japan, including tutelage from Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto himself. The broth, simmered for 17 hours, is delivered with a mile-long king crab leg poking out and bulges with mussels.

The wine and beer list is short, peppered with interesting international scores like sakes, sojus, Kirin, Sapporo, Singha and, fittingly, limited- edition Morimoto craft beers. The only mixed drink is the infamous “Drunken Watermelon” in its hollowed-out shell that is a wink-wink to tiki-esque revelry. The daily happy hours and reverse happy hours (10 p.m. on) can’t be beat—order one of everything because they’re $4 a pop. It’s a virtual romp around the Pacific Rim. Photo courtsey Zen Asian BBQ.

 

MidTown Kitchen + Bar

2119 Ninth St. N., Naples, 239-908-6558, midtownkitchenandbar.net

For a restaurant that opened in the middle of the stagnant summer, saying it made a splash is an understatement. During two visits, the communal table was packed, the banquettes lit by exposed-filament bulbs were full, four-tops with industrial-chic metal chairs would empty then magically repopulate.

There’s good reason for this: A traditionally underserved section of town (a restaurant no man’s land north of Golden Gate Parkway and south of Pine Ridge Road) craved a watering hole and place to kick back with fancy burgers, flatbreads and small plates. Longtime Naples restaurateur Michael Hernandez was able to fill that void by building on the success of his modern American approach to eating and drinking at HobNob on Fifth Avenue South (one of Gulfshore Life’s Best New Restaurants in 2015).

Some have called it “HobNob lite,” but when you peel back the onion, the reality is that chef Tony Biagetti, who wrote both restaurants’ menus, did MidTown’s in a similar style with only three or four crossover dishes, including the maple-bacon deviled eggs and sweet-chili calamari. Otherwise, here his melting pot-approach has produced killer bao buns with tangy hoisin and fresh cilantro, a perfect-for-sharing hummus trio and memorable entrées, including a Gulf snapper with a lemony risotto. It’s hard to think of anywhere else serving draft beer and draft wine—an eco-friendly keg that preserves freshness and minimizes waste—and the cocktail list hits the mark, too. Photo by Vanessa Rogers.

 

Tacos & Tequila Cantina

8971 Tamiami Trail N., Naples, 239-254-8226, tacosandtequilanaples.com

OK, OK. So this is not the first Tacos & Tequila to charm Naples food lovers with crazy-creative handhelds and salsa served by the mason jar. That honor goes to a tiny joint way east on Davis Boulevard that was affectionately coined T&T when owner Kelly Musico opened it several years ago. But this new one is bigger (vastly so), boisterous and upholds the same standards of freshness as the original. That salsa? The tomatoes and herbaceous mix are pulverized each day no matter what.

The menu is primarily unchanged, a dream shopping list for a taco fanatic with true-to-roots barbacoa and carnitas, plus nouveau spins in the fold like a Philly cheesesteak number and even fried chicken with maple syrup. The pick-and-choose format makes experimentation affordable (prices range between $3.50 and $5), and while there are a few salads, appetizers and entrées, not trying the house specialty seems borderline sacrilege—especially when it begs for a salt-rimmed margarita or shot of Patrón. 

What’s more, the arrival signaled a game change in local dining, a tipping of the scales northward and the ongoing renaissance of the Pavilion shopping center across from Mercato. The Pavilion is almost unrecognizable for someone visiting Naples for the first time in five years—wrapping around from T&T is Paradise Wine, Inca’s Kitchen, the expanded KC American Bistro and The Crust, plus a second Brooks Burgers next to the Paragon Theater and Royal Scoop. Photo by Erik Kellar.

 

 

Azure

15301 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers, 239-288-4296, azurefortmyers.com

Perhaps holding the fewest seats of any restaurant on this list, Azure is small on size but large on flavor. It has quickly earned a place in the Fort Myers food pantheon, and that’s because of chef Joe Pittman.

His vision for what modern French bistro fare should be can be traced to his start in Southwest Florida. The young talent, an old soul with an affinity for classic technique, helped launch all three of Charles Mereday’s critically praised restaurants. When Mereday left town, Pittman was a natural choice for restaurateurs Marlene Moreau-Boye and Eric Boye, who were launching a higher-market concept than their petite sandwich-salad shop Mad Fresh Bistro.

Most nights, it’s Pittman and his sous chef, Laurel Phelps, working side by side in the compact open kitchen. What may take a team of 15 to do in a larger restaurant, the two here slice, dice, simmer and sauté day in and day out. For as traditional and spot-on as the onion soup, foie gras torchon and coq au vin are, the escargots are different. A light cream with an undercurrent of lemon enlivens a heap of tender snails—a unique treatment, something you could imagine eating at a better restaurant in the French countryside or in a Parisian alleyway.

Pittman and Phelps are also given free reign to veer off topic with an etouffée here (over citrus basmati rice), a braised lamb pappardelle there (with a Moroccan-spiced ratatouille), mirroring how the French these days are just as intrigued by global cuisines as the rest of us. Photo by Vanessa Rogers.

 

Teatro 

11515 Bonita Beach Road, Bonita Springs, 239-389-6901, teatrofl.com

Don’t be confused: While this is within the new Southwest Florida Performing Arts Center (that has a different menu for the theater as well), you can waltz into Teatro and have a meal any day or night with or without tickets.

And this standalone eatery is not serving just any standard dinner. The architect behind the menu is prominent New York City-based chef Michael Psilakis. He once earned a Michelin star in his hometown for the avant-garde Greek cuisine he delivered at Anthos, and he contributed to the upscale-casual fine dining revolution with hits like his taverna Kefi.

Psilakis says he’s long finished with treating each dish like a work of art as he did during the days he was an upstart among the world’s food elite. But you’d still be hard-pressed to find something from the Italian-leaning Mediterranean repertoire at Teatro that isn’t enticing to the eye and the palate, starting with pillowy hot garlic rolls capped by a snowfall of pecorino.

His Greek heritage shows in subtle ways, like through a heavier hand of oregano in meatballs and a grilled branzino with an heirloom tomato and olive salad. He also imported a favorite Italian dish from one of his past endeavors, the can’t-miss ricotta gnocchi made from freshly strained cheese and folded with black truffles, sage and crisped prosciutto. It’s a blend of textures, flavors and general handiwork you’d expect from a Michelin-caliber chef. Photo by Erik Kellar.

 

La Corte Bistro

1520 Lafayette St., Cape Coral, 239-542-2224, lacortebistro.com

When you live in Naples, surrounded by any number of elegant restaurants ready to roll out the red carpet, there’s often little need to venture 15 minutes beyond your doorstep.

It’s rare I tell friends they have to drive an hour out of their way for a meal, especially if it involves traipsing up a highway and crossing a toll bridge to Cape Coral. La Corte is one of those exceptions.

Let’s start with the setup. If Southwest Florida winters are God’s gift to enthusiasts of al fresco dining, you can enter the gates of heaven on earth through the wrought-iron structure rising above the front patio. It may seem familiar, and it is, but that’s about the only comparison you can draw between the restaurant that formerly occupied the space, Brew Babies, and its current incarnation. A secluded garden, intimate main dining room, retro bar and delightfully quirky dining nooks give you a choice of where to sit, but the tipping point is chef Tim Spain. As a 10th generation Floridian and self-described Florida Cracker, his move to Cape Coral to open this restaurant marks a homecoming of sorts. He had years of fine dining training at the CIA’s San Antonio campus, including its prestigious and selective Masterworks post-graduate program, and spent time in innovative kitchens such as La Torche in Bordeaux. How that translates here is a burrata salad with an artful sprinkling of herbs and tendrils of carved vegetables, or juicy Colorado lamb chops with a savory bread crust offset by the creamiest mashed potatoes—which is why I can’t resist spreading the good word about this new crown jewel in the Cape like a gospel for food aficionados. Photo courtesy La Corte Bistro.

 

Petar’s Restaurant

3300 Bonita Beach Road, Bonita Springs, 239-494-1343, petarsrestaurant.com

From the outside, it’s hard to tell what awaits beyond Petar’s few minimalistic tables bathed in the glow of a neon sign. Step in and one look at a dish followed by the ensuing bite, however, and you’ll be wondering what took you so long to make your way to a Bonita Springs Publix plaza to give chef Petar Al Kurdi’s inspired creations a try.

A short printed list of appetizers and entrées changes seasonally, and it reflects years spent training in temples of fine dining across the U.S. and Europe, including the beachfront Ritz-Carlton in Naples. It’s okay to just go with the flow, to pick something and be surprised: A risotto on an early menu, laced with butternut squash, chive oil and sprigs of dill, was one of the best I’ve ever had. Al Kurdi is quick to tell customers who chat him up from the bar fronting the open kitchen that he doesn’t own a freezer. Guests can taste the difference and see for themselves how every last ingredient, from a rich demi-glace to the sheets of noodles constructing a lasagna, are being crafted right then and there. It’s not so much that Al Kurdi is bending the rules or reinventing the wheel, it’s just that it’s difficult to be disappointed with what he puts in front of you.

Returning customers are sure to fall for his latest chicken with spaetzle and short ribs atop creamy polenta—and breathe a sigh of relief that the category-leading crab cake and lobster linguine have remained. Photo by Vanessa Rogers.

 

Blanc

13451 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers, 239-887-3139, blancentertainment.com

There’s a conviviality that comes from the tight quarters at Fort Myers’ bustling Blanc. Make sure you spend a night there with people you like—not only will you be cozying up to them, but you’ll want to sample a little something of everything from the “shared plates” and “almost entrées” on the table.

Two Southwest Florida restaurateurs joined forces for the first time here: Chris Whitaker, a founding partner at Blu Sushi, and Jean Claude Roge, who had run La Brasserie and the Village Café. Nearly all meats and seafood are cooked on a robata grill, something the owners thought would be fun to experiment with. The petrified wood nuggets burn at an intense 1,000-degree heat that imparts a unique flavor.

Roge, a jack-of-all-trades, has outfitted the space—building the wine bar, sculpting the wall art, designing the layout—to give the impression of a momentary jaunt to St. Barts. Not one square inch goes to waste. White walls, white chairs, potted palms, brushed silver tables and a living wall of botanicals add to the allure.

It’s amazing as well that nothing is above $15. Artichoke fritters are a textbook example of deep-frying done right, with a thick, crisp, deceptively light batter and zesty sundried tomato remoulade. Charcuterie boards with house-made paté also shine. Perhaps a bit overzealous at times with the robata (an octopus “almost entrée” was too dry one occasion), it’s still hard to quibble over a decent-sized plate of food with a scattering of roasted veggies and dollop of mashed potatoes. Photo by Vanessa Rogers.

 


Next Up...

These 10 places have all recently opened or will open soon:

The Oyster Society (Marco Island)
The Bevy (Naples/Third Street South)
The French Brasserie Rustique (Naples/Fifth Avenue South)
Ocean Prime (Naples/Fifth Avenue South)
Timeless–an MHK Eatery (Naples/Design District)
True Food Kitchen (Naples/Waterside Shops)
The Warehouse (Naples/Collier Boulevard)
Divieto Ristorante (Estero/Coconut Point)
Pasture & Pearl (Sanibel Island)
Izzy’s Fish & Oyster (Fort Myers/River District)

 

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