July 30, 2014

Loving That Southern Accent

Tom and I welcomed a new member to our family in May, a son named Charlie, which means three things: We’re happier than we’ve ever been, we’re thoroughly exhausted, and we spend 97 percent of our time dashing past each other with stuffed animals and strollers in tow.

For all of these reasons, it was a special pleasure to step out together as a freshly scrubbed and nattily dressed couple once more to represent Gulfshore Life in the eateries of Southwest Florida. Because he’s a kind soul and a father himself, our editor dispatched us to the perfect romantic hideaway: The Bay House. Tucked away in a stand of mangroves overlooking the Cocohatchee River in Naples, The Bay House exudes the sort of Old Florida elegance that normally requires annual dues.

We were shown to our table promptly, and what a table it was, coming fully equipped with a massive picture window framing the mangroves and the river. We took a quick glimpse around us, at the painted wooden walls and the ceilings adorned with wooden canoes and dinghies—all part of a recent redesign of the site and its menu by new owners Bud and Thelma Negley—and then forsook everything but the river and each other. We held hands under the table. “It’s been over an hour since I’ve prepared a bottle,” I said to Tom. “That just feels weird.”

“Did I hear someone ask for a bottle?” server Katie Kennedy asked. “Here’s our wine list. Let me know if you have any questions.” We settled on two vintages from 2006, the Justin Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles, and the Thea’s Selection Lemelson Pinot Noir, both $12 per glass, and then turned our attention to the cuisine. As part of the redesign, The Bay House chose to have chefs Donald Paleno and Dianna Panebianco focus on three kinds of cuisine: “Gracious, Coastal and Neighborhood.”  

“You know, this place really does feel as cozy and unpretentious as a neighborhood seafood restaurant to me, except that it’s also upscale,” Tom observed as Katie expertly poured our wine into large, sparkling glasses. As a native of Peabody, Mass., Tom revels in all things “unpretentious” and “seafood.” The extra nod to The Bay House’s elegance would bode well for the dishes we were about to enjoy.  

“I’m just glad it’s a one-page menu, because I’m too tired to make sense of anything longer. By the way, this is the best cabernet I’ve ever tasted,” I told him. Tom took my glass and sampled it.

“You’re right, it’s excellent,” he said. “You know what else might be good? The crispy fried oysters on the shell appetizer with tangy remoulade” ($13). “I’d also like to try the steamed mussels pot with shallots, tomato, garlic and herbs” ($12). We rounded off our appetizers with a Caesar salad ($8) and then scrutinized the entreés.

“What’s your favorite dish?” Tom asked Katie. “Definitely the shrimp and grits,” she replied. We saw that it boasted “wild caught American shrimp, Anson Mills grits and traditional bourbon-spiked Carolina shrimp gravy” and signed up for an order ($24). I noticed the “Great American Farmlands: Grilled and Roasted” offerings and asked for more advice. “The New York Strip is just about perfect,” she said, “marbled throughout but without any fat to slice off the sides” ($31). Sold. We sat back and sipped our wine, waiting for the goodies to roll in. A jazz duo softly played wonderful standards like Till There Was You and Summer Wind, further enhancing the mood.   

The fried oysters arrived with lots of fanfare, nestled in their shells atop a bed of rock salt and multicolored peppercorns. They were large, light and succulent, and the remoulade hit all the right notes. “You don’t get this kind of polished presentation in a neighborhood chowder joint,” I said as I divested an oyster from its pearlescent shell. “But you’re right. This place does feel homey.”

The mussels arrived in a lovely blue casserole pot that was equally pleasing to the eye. “Who wins the fight between oyster and mussel?” Tom asked. After a few bites, I answered, “They’re both good, but I say oyster.” Tom agreed with me, and we both munched on our Caesars to cleanse the palate before the entreés.

The Bay House’s Southern influence came across most strongly in the phenomenally good shrimp and grits entreé. “I would come back here for this dish alone,” I said, pausing to savor the subtle flavors and textures of the dish. Tom reached across and dipped a fork in my dish. “Wow,” he said. “I second that emotion.”

“How’s the steak?” I asked. “Is it as good as promised?” “Yeah,” he said, “and you won’t believe the side dish.” The steak came with an “apple–smoked-bacon potato hash” and grilled asparagus. We tried the Bay House Gulf pan roast with scallops, grouper and lump crab as well. While it was very tasty, the best part of that entrée was its side dish: creek shrimp hash.

For dessert, we had a rough time choosing between some tempting fare but settled on the profiteroles with Scharffen Berger hot fudge ($8) and the Crescent City beignets with cinnamon-dusted sugar ($7). Both were fresh and delightful, and oh-so-decadent. “For once, I’m the one who needs to be burped,” I told Tom as we walked out, well sated and relaxed. He put his arm around my shoulders and began a gentle tapping. For the same sort of nurturing, you should visit The Bay House one night soon.

The Bay House, 799 Walkerbilt Road, Naples; (239) 591-3837,
www.bayhousenaples.com. Dinner served nightly from 5 to 9 p.m.; Sunday brunch from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Live jazz Wednesday-Saturday and Sunday brunch. Reservations highly recommended. Valet and free parking in season. Credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

The Massaman Curry Rules

Asia is one of the neighborhood restaurants we visit regularly. Because we’re creatures of habit, we order the same dishes most of the time: the extraordinary Massaman curry with potato, sweet potato, onion, curry paste, coconut milk, roasted cashews and a choice of chicken, pork, beef or tofu ($14.95), or shrimp, squid or scallop (for an additional $3); the combination fried rice with seafood, chicken, pork and beef ($13.95); and the sushi, especially the fresh salmon ($4.95 for two pieces).

We were excited about the opportunity to embark on a new mission: the critic’s mandate to be adventurous. When we walked in, primed for our new role, we noticed the blue glass hanging light fixtures for the first time.

“How’s the baby?” Our favorite server, Mimi, greeted us with a broad smile. “Any new pictures?” We hardly need any encouragement to whip out our wallets and share. “He’s getting big! When are you going to bring him here?” “Soon!” I promised. We looked around and saw that the place was packed, and counted not one, not two, but three infants with their parents. “As soon as we can be sure he’ll sit as peacefully as those babies.” “Until then,” Tom added, “let’s toast the babysitter with some warm sake!”

As we began to give our server our order, causing her to flip her pad twice for more space upon which to write, her eyes widened. “You’re extra hungry tonight!” she said. We patted our stomachs and rolled back in our chairs to make it seem more convincing. And then the parade of dishes began. We knew how delicious the Tom Kha Gai soup is, with its chicken, coconut milk, lime and cilantro ($4.50), but we had never tried the Japanese egg rolls, deep-fried spicy “krab” topped with eel sauce and red tobigo roe ($5.95). As soon as we tasted the rolls, we knew they would become part of our normal repertoire.  

“Why haven’t we noticed these before?” Tom asked. We were less excited about the Mee Grob ($6.95) and the Jumping Shrimps ($6.95), but not every show demands an encore.   

On the sushi front, we tried the Bam Bam roll with fried shrimp, crab meat, cream cheese and cucumber ($8.50). It came with a peanut dipping sauce, and the total effect was delicious. We were equally enamored of the Spider roll, with tempura soft shell crab, cream cheese, alfalfa sprouts and smelt roe ($9.95). With Makimono rolls called “O-Chi-Chi,” “Sanibel Island” and “Y’All Nuts,” we could have done a lot more exploring on the sushi side of things.

But then how would we have found the room to try the basil sauce with onion green beans and bell pepper, with a choice of chicken, pork, beef, or tofu ($12.95), or shrimp, squid or scallop (for an additional $3)? We also felt compelled to try the national dish of Thailand, pad Thai, with rice noodles, chicken, shrimp, egg, bean sprout and peanuts ($12.95). While good, neither of these dishes inspired a defection from the Massaman curry, a dish that has launched a thousand takeout orders.

We had never tried the desserts at Asia before, but we embraced the opportunity to try almost all of the offerings. The Asian Fusion promised fried ice cream and fried banana with toppings, but delivered much more: It looked almost like a birthday cake for two, a generous and festive dish with rainbow sprinkles ($6.95).

We sampled almost all of the ice cream and sherbet offerings, from green tea to mango to lychee ($4.95 each). “The lychee tastes like the secret love child of a pear and a cantaloupe,” Tom said. “With a hint of grapefruit, don’t you think?” I said. He nodded, and “mmm-hmm”ed me.

The best dessert of all was called “Sweet Rice with Mango.” It’s a dark rice dish with coconut milk topped with fresh mango and roasted sesame seeds ($6.95). I could eat it nightly, a fact I shared with the Laos-born co-owner of Asia, Sun Sommarvong, who along with her husband, Mai Syharath, has been perfecting the Asia formula for the past four years.  

For the most part, our night as reviewers confirmed our resolve to stick with our favorite dishes, but we added a few gems to our repertoire.

Asia, 6631 Orion Drive, Fort Myers; (239) 277-7797, www.sushibyasia.com. Lunch served Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner served Monday-Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. Reservations recommended. Free parking. Credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

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