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Tropical cuisine has a similar dogma to French cuisine: like spices paired with fish or meat, sauces and side dishes that result in a recognizable culinary genre. But many tropical restaurants are just stateside designer imposters that serve little more than watered-down frozen cocktails with rice and beans.

Anyone can buy a chicken breast and drown it in a jar of Caribbean spice. The challenge in creating perfectly spiced island-style dishes lies in striking the right balance between a multitude of spicy ingredients. Lucky for tropical food fans, Chef Greg Nelson at Doc Ford’s Sanibel Rum Bar & Grille on Sanibel Island has amassed more than a few flavorful dishes that are both traditional and inspired. A second location recently opened on Fort Myers Beach, offering a similar vibe and menu.

Munching on a shared platter of shake-and-shuck shrimp ($7.95) is a great way to begin your meal at Doc Ford’s. In fact, this is a great place to share anything on the menu. The portions are huge, making for an economical as well as filling dinner. The shake-and-shuck shrimp was served in a very spicy (and delicious) sauce with crusty bread perfectly suited for sopping up the marinade. I was wary of the famous fish fingers ($8.95) when I heard that the restaurant uses only non-trans fat cooking oil, but they were tasty. I prefer less breading, and switched out the tartar sauce for the spicy remoulade that comes with the lime panko-crusted fish sandwich ($9.95), which to me simply made the dish.

Achoate grilled grouper with South American spices is served with saffron rice and veggies and garnished with a succulent pineapple salsa (market price)—what a colorful, inviting dish. The steamed snapper wrapped in banana leaves is also hard to resist, with its chili purée and Pine Island lime juice taking center stage among the rest of the flavors ($21.95).

Even diners who can’t stomach the strong flavors of traditional island fare can find several dishes suited for a less expectant palate at Doc Ford’s. One of them is the Doc’s Beach Bread ($6.95). It looks like an open-faced grilled cheese sandwich on a hoagie topped with some chopped tomato. And that’s just what it is, except the addition of spices on the underside of the three cheeses makes it work as a perfect accompaniment to a couple of ice-cold beers.

It’s hard to beat a cold beer on a hot Southwest Florida day. But if there is a better accompaniment to tropical food than a mojito, I haven’t found it. Doc Ford’s Happy Gator Mojito ($6.95) was outfitted so perfectly with such a generous portion of mint leaves and sugar. The restaurant, having a rum bar and all, offers a variety of serious rum drinks along with the ones you wish you could forget from that graduation trip to Antigua.

If the atmosphere at Doc Ford’s seems just a bit too authentic, the spirit of the place weighing heavy on your table, you’re not imagining things. This is the stomping ground of marine biologist Doc Ford and his sidekick Tomlinson. Though both are the fictitious superstars in mega-bestseller Randy Wayne White’s novels, there is no doubting their presence, adding to the personality of a restaurant that already has plenty of mood to spare. The restaurant’s name, décor and ambiance were inspired from White’s Doc Ford series of novels. Even some of the staff resemble characters. White’s newest Doc Ford book, Deep Shadow—most of which he wrote at Doc Ford’s Sanibel Rum Bar & Grille (though he doesn’t own the restaurant)—is expected to hit bookstores in March of 2010.

Before he wrote bestselling novels, White was a light-tackle fishing guide. For more than a decade, the lifelong mariner spent nearly every day on the water near the restaurant. He even sold some of the fish he caught in the building that is now the restaurant. White’s novels and the restaurant are reflective of neighboring islands, White’s time on the water and the people he encountered.


Doc Ford’s Sanibel Rum Bar & Grille, 975 Rabbit Road, Sanibel Island; (239) 472-8311; www.docfordssanibel.com. 708 Fisherman’s Wharf, Fort Myers Beach; (239) 765-9660. Open daily for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. until closing. Reservations and major credit cards are accepted.

Get Your Groove on at Blue Martini

Great live music and cocktails are the top two reasons to come to Blue Martini. Far more of a bar than a restaurant, Blue Martini is the latest place in Naples where "boogie down" should be on the menu. And to help you release your inner John Travolta, the lounge serves a cocktail for every occasion. If you love groovy tunes, mark your calendar to head for Blue Martini anytime they feature live music.

In addition to toe-tapping music and sweet drink choices, one of the biggest accolades at Blue Martini is the local management. This is a bar that likes VIPs, although the managers and servers are nice to everyone (and some of the best-dressed, most attractive folks around). For a minimum of $225, you can get bottle service and a reservation in the VIP section. It’s worth it—Blue Martini is a thriving singles scene that is jam-packed nearly every night. Happy hour is a madhouse (a good thing in the club world), and patrons are memorable. The VIP section is a retreat from the crowd, and it is the best to comfortably dine on a few appetizers or enjoy an expensive bottle of wine.

Along with a laundry list of luscious martinis, Blue Martini does serve food. A limited menu will keep your stomach from growling between colorful cocktails and dance steps. The St. Louis spinach and artichoke dip ($8) is served with pita toast points. Flatbread pizzas such as barbecue chicken or pepperoni (both $9) are popular with regulars. The sliced beef tenderloin appetizer was served with sliced tomatoes and an oddly flavored scoop of seasoned rice. The horseradish sauce that came on the side with the filet was very good, however, and rounded out the filet nicely ($15).

There is one major drawback to coming to Blue Martini that cannot go without mention. Through a loophole in Florida law, the bar permits smoking, and the second-hand smoke there was inescapable—even on the outdoor patio. Despite a ventilation system, the smoke was so thick it was difficult to taste the food and virtually impossible to enjoy the bouquet of the wine. For serious diners and cocktail aficionados, being around smoke is a big no-no.

Blue Martini, 9114 Strada Place, Suite 12105, Naples; (239) 591-2583; www.bluemartinilounge.com. Open daily from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Major credit cards accepted. Reservations only accepted for VIP bottle service.

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