From Peru to You
Tom has a disturbing new habit. “Howdy, neighbors!” he calls to the strangers at the next table whenever we’re dining out for Gulfshore Life. They eye us with suspicion, especially when our server begins to deliver a crazy amount of food to our table. I try to convey the message “he’s really harmless” with my embarrassed smile. “Looks good, doesn’t it? Why don’t you pull up a chair and join us?”
For a long time, I tried to embrace my husband’s magnanimous behavior, to relax when unwanted spoons found their way into my soup, but I finally drew the line at Inca’s Kitchen, a Peruvian restaurant in south Naples. The food was too good to share.
Inca’s Kitchen doesn’t look like much from the road. In fact, your spirits may sink a little when you find yourself pulling into your umpteenth south Florida strip mall, and not a terribly chic one, at that. The restaurant itself is modest in ambiance, with a charming rooster theme but not much in the way of glamour and glitz. Hang in there. After your first bite of Chef-owner Rafael Rottiers’ delicious Peruvian cuisine, you’ll think you’re in swanky digs overlooking the Gulf.
This is Chef Rottiers’ first independent venture, but he’s by no means new to the restaurant business. He directed food and beverages for Sonesta Bayfront Hotel in Miami and then did a stint at the Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort before striking out on his own. “I was disappointed that people didn’t know Peruvian food,” he says. “In Peru, there are over 380 kinds of peppers alone. I use a lot of ají limo, a tiny, powerful pepper with lots of aroma. We also have 2,800 kinds of potatoes.”
“Hold it right there,” Tom said, his face taking on a beatific glow. “Twenty-eight hundred kinds of potatoes?”
“It’s as if you just told him there were 2,800 Santa Clauses,” I explained to the chef.
“Honey, why don’t we live in Lima?” Tom asked.
“Because we don’t have jobs, family or friends in Lima,” I said. “Eat your potatoes.”
Our first taste of the fruits of Inca’s Kitchen did indeed involve the potato. It was a special appetizer called Chicken Causa that came in the form of three mini, hollowed-out towers of mashed potato stuffed with chicken salad on a plate garnished with avocado and pepper ($10.95). I detected the unmistakable tang of lime and cilantro, two of my favorite flavors.
“This is a refreshing take on chicken salad, which is itself a refreshing take on the world of appetizers,” I said. “I wish I could have this every day for lunch.”
Tom started with the Conchitas a la Parmesana, scallops baked with lime juice and Parmesan ($10.95). “You won’t believe these,” he murmured. I reached across the table and speared a scallop.
“To think you actually wanted to give it all away to strangers,” I said, savoring the tangy, cheesy delicacy. “You know, I’m not usually a huge fan of scallops, but I would make the trek back here for this dish alone.” The next time we visit Inca’s Kitchen, we might just place a double order of those scallops and pretend it’s an entrée.
Our third appetizer was our most adventurous choice, the Calamar Imperial a la Olla, a seafood bouillabaisse-esque dish with Japanese eggplant, ají mirasol pepper and garbanzo beans ($10.95). We weren’t sure we would like the combination of flavors, but we were glad to have placed our faith in Claudio Ormeno, our dimpled young Peruvian server. Inca’s Kitchen was doing a brisk business, with every table occupied, yet Claudio took such good care of us, we hardly noticed.
Inca’s Kitchen prides itself on its Pollo a la Brasa, or marinated, charcoal-roasted rotisserie chicken, an “Incan-inspired” entrée that customers can order in a variety of sizes ($7.95-$14.95). No one who knows us will be surprised that we ordered the whole chicken ($14.95), despite the fact that Claudio was also bringing us the Cilantro Beef Stew with White Beans ($11.95) and the Arroz Chaufa de Pollo, or chicken fried rice ($10.95). None of the entrées compared to the Conchitas, but all were good.
We shocked ourselves by sampling two desserts, the Picarones, a traditional dish made of hand-ground and fried dough in chancaca (cane sugar) syrup, anis and cinnamon ($5.75), and the Suspiros a la Limeña, Peruvian dulce de leche with Italian meringue and cinnamon ($5.15). Both were amazing, but the Picarones had been modified, with Peruvian brandy and ice cream. You take something fried and add sweet syrup, brandy and ice cream to it, and you have my devotion forever. When the bill came and we saw that we had been fed eight dishes—appetizers, entrées including one whole chicken, and desserts—plus a Cristal beer ($4.25) and a glass of the house cabernet ($5.25), for only $95, our happiness increased threefold.
“Please don’t give this place a good review,” our neighbors called out to us as we floated toward the door. (I had failed in my efforts to shun them, and I was glad. They turned out to be colleagues from Florida Gulf Coast University, some of the nicest folks around.)
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because it’s our favorite! Tell the world, and we’ll never get a table.”
First, I try to put the kibosh on sharing our food. Now, I’m telling everybody about Inca’s Kitchen. I won’t be winning Miss Congeniality, but Tom’s nice enough for both of us. Luckily, Inca’s Kitchen doesn’t need anyone’s help making its customers happy.
Inca’s Kitchen, 11985 Collier Blvd., Suite 9, Naples; (239) 352-3200. Open from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays–Saturdays and from 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sundays. Reservations recommended. Free parking. Credit cards accepted. Wheelchair-accessible.
A Nice and Spicy Nirvana
It’s easy to find a nice, quiet corner at Nirvana Indian Fusion, which boasts several indoor and outdoor dining venues at its sprawling, 8,500-square-foot site on College Parkway in Fort Myers. If you like ethnic food and are tired of shouting to make yourself heard by a dinner partner just five feet away, make your way to this brainchild of owner James Rajiah. We spoke with him just a couple of weeks after the restaurant’s Oct. 23 opening.
“I want the market from Punta Gorda to Naples,” he declared, his boldness coming as a bit of a surprise given his discreet demeanor. As we spoke with him, we realized that the calm sensation we were experiencing had been carefully orchestrated. Nirvana offers live music Wednesday through Saturday in the bar and veranda, but Rajiah was careful to assure us that it wouldn’t be the normal, wall-shaking fare that too often pumps through south Florida venues.
“No techno music, no Jimmy Buffett or heavy rock,” he said. “Customers have enough choices for that. We’ll have ambient music, some Eastern, some jazz, where people can still have a conversation.”
Tom and I put in a massive order with server Dora Rojas, and within moments, she reemerged with our drinks, a mango martini for Tom ($7) and a Tiger beer for me ($3.50). We were already humming with delight a few minutes later when she brought our appetizers to the table.
We highly recommend that you try the Nirvana Sampler, which includes most of the appetizers on the menu—naan bread, Tandoori chicken, vegetable samosas, vegetable and chicken pakoras, and a trio of chutneys ($9). The samosas were particularly good, and of all the chutneys, I was most surprised and delighted by the cilantro. In addition to the Sampler, we rocked the Nirvana Spring Rolls ($4) and the Dhall soup ($3). The spring rolls were fairly standard, but the Dhall immediately won our allegiance. Billed as a “mildly spiced lentil soup with scallions and coriander,” it was the sort of fresh and festive soup you would expect to be given in the home of an excellent cook. In addition, the Naan Bread Basket offered plain, garlic and onion naan along with a bowl of hummus ($6).
“We need to come back here with our friends,” I said to Tom. “It’s very reasonably priced, especially when you consider that the Nirvana Sampler alone would make an excellent meal.”
“And our vegetarian friends aren’t going to be stuck choosing between a Caesar salad and the macaroni and cheese on the kids’ menu, the way they usually are,” Tom added.
We picked out a number of entrées: Nirvana Fusion Rice, a chicken-and-vegetable fried-rice dish with Vietnamese hot chili sauce ($9); the Masaman Chicken Curry, a Thai dish with peanut and coconut accents ($12); the Beef Vindaloo, with hot chilis and garlic ($15); the Butter Chicken with creamy tomato sauce ($12); and the Lamb Saag, a traditional spinach dish ($13). Tom has never met a fried rice dish he didn’t like, and I enjoy all things vindaloo-ish and saag-y, but most of the dishes were too spicy for my sensitive palate. (I’m certain that a special request to the chef will make all the difference next time.) Thus, we were very glad that Dora suggested the eggplant dish Baigan Bharta. We didn’t expect to be surprised by this dish, since it was compared to a baba ghanoush and we’ve known many a ghanoush in our day. Yet the Bharta, with its firm, tiny squares of eggplant, was nothing like the pureed ghanoushes we’ve eaten for years. Since my tender tongue doesn’t thrill to the five-alarm fire, I should have been burned by the dish’s “splendid mix of turmeric, garlic and chili powders.” Yet the Bharta’s combination of spices was potent without overwhelming the palate.
Of all the desserts we tasted at Nirvana, I was most delighted by the Laddu ($4), a sweet dish of rolled pastries made of flour, ghee and sugar syrup. Tom, who is enjoying a lifelong love affair with mango, went from his mango martini to a slice of mango cheesecake ($6). I’d love to tell you how it tasted, but he devoured the whole thing before I got the chance.
Dan Bern, one of our favorite singer-songwriters, sings, “I don’t meditate, I don’t pray, but I eat two samosas every day.” If you think a good meal can be a spiritual experience, you could do worse than to follow the aroma of samosas
Nirvana Indian Fusion, 9101 College Parkway, Fort Myers; (239) 277-9101, www.nirvanafusion.com. Lunch buffet, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday–Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Dinner, 5:30 to 9 p.m. Monday–Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Live music, 6 to 10 p.m. Wednesday–Saturday; Ladies’ Night Wednesdays. Reservations recommended. Free parking. Credit cards accepted. Wheelchair-accessible.