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The Best Restaurants and Hottest Dishes

It’s been an active year in dining for Southwest Florida. In 2009, there were 50 new restaurant openings, giving diners a bounty of culinary choices to look forward to in 2010. Most area restaurants have weathered the recent economic challenges, and diners have benefited. Below are my picks of the best of both old and new. You’ll be quite happy dining at these unique spots. It’s a cross section of cuisines and prices, reflecting the best of traditional and creative chefs.

Restaurants fill their seats through successful strategies. In 2009, they wooed customers by dropping prices 10 percent to 20 percent less than in 2008—and often reduced portion sizes at the same time. Customers are enticed by happy-hour specials, two-for-one dining coupons, prix fixe meals for $15 to $27 or a free bottle of wine. A growing trend I’ve seen is people choosing to eat a less expensive lunch out and enjoy supper at home, while others eat out less often during the week. To combat this, restaurateurs are gracing their tables with tasty, organic, locally grown produce and sustainable fish. Overall, food quality and taste are improving.

The New Hot Spots

Superior Seafood and Elsewhere in Naples, the elegant M Waterfront Grille features Chef Brian Roland’s deliciously attractive cuisine. While there, sample the signature watermelon salad, seared duck breast and stone crab claw with mustard-citrus dipping sauce. The light, healthful and often organic cuisine makes for a wonderful dining experience. Sleek Bay House’s Southern-influenced foods, such as the signature crisp-fried oysters on the shell, seared local yellowtail snapper and oak-grilled lamb are best savored while dining overlooking the river’s mangroves, listening to live jazz. The Turtle Club’s great seafood and sand-between-your-toes, Gulf-front dining is a favorite for impressing visiting guests.

Top Discoveries and One of my 2009 favorites is KC American Bistro, which artfully showcases U.S. regional cuisines on Vanderbilt Beach Road in Naples. Chef Keith Casey’s reasonably priced dishes offer seasonal side treats, such as wild mushrooms, ramps and fiddlehead ferns. I favor the luscious corn chowder and tender, apple-glazed salmon. The menu changes each month, so I return frequently.

This was The Year of Mercato in Collier County, as nine competitively priced spots opened at this popular, upscale new magnet. Blue Martini is now Naples’ most successful lounge, with colorful martinis, tapas-type food and live bands. The English Pub’s British cuisine and numerous draft beers draw a younger set. AZN has beautiful, modern Asian delights, while McCormick & Schmick’s and The Capital Grille’s great seafood and steaks keep tables filled with regulars.

Piola, direct from Italy, has 60 pizzas, fish or beef entrées and a full bar. Bravo! Cucina Italiana offers family-style Italian fare. Silverspot Cinemas features a European-style restaurant and bar. Its 11 intimate theaters have reserved plush seats for viewing first-run and international films. The Mercato complex, with Whole Foods Market and Sur la Table, has free live bands and special foods on sultry summer and cool autumnal Friday evenings.

Sea Salt’s Mediterranean-casual elegance raises the bar on Third Street South, Naples. Wine samplings, wine dinners and chef’s table dining offer a heightened level of cuisine and personalized attention. It’s been chosen as one of Esquire magazine’s 23 Best New Restaurants of 2009—an incredible national honor.

Bonita Springs’ upscale Angelina’s Ristorante features a two-story wine cellar and a top sommelier. She can suggest wines to pair with unique dishes from wild boar and rabbit to seafood cioppino.

Waterfront Dining

The Ritz-Carlton’s Gumbo Limbo restaurant is popular for casual Gulf views. Mira Mare’s stunning bayside setting is popular for family-priced Mediterranean cuisine. Although inland, USS Nemo’s miso broiled sea bass is a must-have. Driving south, Isle of Capri’s romantically elegant Blue Heron has been serving Continental cuisine for 35 years, and Everglades City’s rustic, century-old Rod and Gun Club is worth a visit, taking you back in time.

On Fort Myers Beach, the super-rustic Dixie Fish House looks unchanged from the 1950s. Flippers’ tasty seafood, open-air dining and dolphins swimming by are great for a date or entertaining the family. Parrot Key Caribbean Grill’s seafood and live entertainment are quite popular. Bayfront Bistro’s eagle’s nestviewis topsat sunset, especially when savoring seafood gumbo and crispy yellowtail snapper.

Perennial Favorites

Another great discovery is Collier Boulevard’s Inca’s Kitchen, with wonderfully priced cuisine, exquisite taste and presentation that exemplifies dining’s “wow factor.” Superb Chef Rafael Rottiers’ Peruvian-based creations are a harmonious combination of French, Latin and Asian flavors. Sample the anticuchos, wahoo ceviche and grilled wari fish.

Naples’ Two Brothers Baci’s friendly, on-site owners and culinary richness have earned them many loyal followers. I favor the casual spot’s toasted ricotta raviolis, lobster pasta and zuppa di pesce. Stay for the nightly live music. Bha! Bha! Persian Bistro’s mango-ginger shrimp and braised lamb shanks are must-haves. Sweet Mama’s lively Caribbean island cuisine—spiced duck, jerk chicken and creole fish stew—is cooked with a “sweet hand,” a high Trinidadian compliment.

Lee County’s Sanibel Island welcomes an attractive new setting for Sweet Melissa’s. Nearby, the Sunset Grill and romantic Thistle Lodge restaurant have similar upscale dining. Cape Coral’s Brew Babies is worth a visit for good food, homey atmosphere and live music in the courtyard. In Fort Myers, Lee Roy Selmon’s is hard to top for authentic and inexpensive Southern food, and the venerable Veranda Restaurant has elegant lunches.

Toward East Naples, 23-year-old Anthony Chinaglia opened Mister Five, which is very popular and offers large, tasty breakfasts and lunches for $5, with similar dinner pricing. I predict Anthony will franchise and become a millionaire by age 30!

Chrissy’s/Bianchi’s opened by the Collier Courthouse, with Chrissy’s breakfasts and lunches and Chef Gino Sciallis’ suppers. Naples Flatbread and Wine Bar has a broad selection of pizza and flatbreads under $13, and its wines are very tasty. Falafel Grill has delicious Middle Eastern and Greek foods, many for under $7.

A Taste of Europe

Authentic family-run European shops with friendly staff are flourishing. Try Naples’ homey European Bakery and Café’s delicious Polish and European soups, light pastries and stuffed cabbage. Little Prague has Czechoslovakian dishes like Szegedin goulash and schnitzel; Jaegerhaus features traditional German cuisine with Jägerschnitzel and plum cake.

Escargot 41’s classic French cuisine is magical with fresh pompano, snapper and veal served with the finest wines. For takeout, Camilla European Deli on the North Trail and Old World Market on Davis Boulevard offer a wide assortment of European and Russian cuisines. Bonita Springs’ Deli Bohemia offers home-style European cuisines. Fort Myers’ Delicious Things offers both Italian and German foods.

Quick Bites, Coffee

In Fort Myers, 58-year-old Mason’s Bakery, known for beautiful wedding cakes and pastries, is the spot for indoor and al fresco breakfast or lunch, with fresh sandwiches, espresso and gelato. Why is Bennett’s Fresh Roastso busy?The best coffee in town! Sip a fresh-brewed EthiopianorColombiancup and see. While many orderpaninis and large salads, the incredible homemadedonuts are what truly fly out the door. icOrganic food is in demand. In Naples, Escargot 41 Master Chef Patrick Fevrier grows his own organic heirloom produce and edible flowers, and the rich taste is telling. His signature yellowtail snapper and pompano are locally purchased.Eastern DelightsIn the mood for some Asian flavors? You’re in luck.Home Thai Sushi Bar, new in Bonita Springs, has a broad selection of colorful Thai and Japanese offerings, and a full bar. Nearby David Wong’s Pan Asian offers authentic Malaysian, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Thai selections. I favor the scallops amok, rich masaman curry and the Chris roll.I shop at Naples’ two well-stocked Asian markets, Asia Pok Market on Pine Ridge Road and Tamami Trail East’s 88 Asian Depot. The latter is known for Friday’s great takeout items such as Peking duck and baked pork—you’ll need to order days in advance. I buy Wagyu beef, Kurobuta pork and quail at Naples’ Jimmy P’s. My locally caught fresh fish comes from Swan River Seafoods, Captain Kirk’s Fresh Seafood and Captain Jerry’s Seafood, supplemented with Whole Foods Market’s local and national bounty. Fort Myers’ India Bazaar is the spot for Indian spices and foods.

and Sweets

Latin Family Bakery in Naples has both Chilean and Peruvian cuisines. Try its Paila Marina, a rich, seafood-laden soup. I make a regular beeline to Baker Andre Gratesol and Chef Eric Truglas’ East Trail French Bread Oven for the best in French breads and pastries. Gracie’s Cupcakes and Ice Cream, across from Macy’s in Naples, is my spot for combining Royal Scoop’s rich ice creams and Gracie’s desserts. Each cupcake is a freshly made, beautiful, moist delight. Bring a dozen as a gift, and you’ll be in good graces with any hos

Food and Thought features 100 percent organic produce, raw and cooked foods. Randy’s Fishmarket grows hydroponic tomatoes and basil. Bonita Springs’ A Table Apart is a gem, offering organic ingredients and the fine cuisine, serving a luscious Cornish game hen and honey bourbon-glazed porterhouse. Fort Myers Beach’s tiny V & J Bistro offers award-winning cuisine that includes organic produce when available. Chef Brooke’s Natural Café has picture-perfect, great-tasting organic and natural food.

It’s hard to top dining on the river with Charlie Chiang’s dim sum roast duck, honey ribs or the savory slippery shrimp. Naples’ Fuji Sushi Bar and Asian Bistro serves great Thai and Japanese food at family prices. Salmon rolls, ceviche and lettuce wraps are popular. Nearby, larger Blue Fish Sushi and Hibachi offers a full bar and a wide range of attractively plated sushi, hibachi creations and steaks.

For At-Home Chefs

Cooking classes combine education and fun dining. Whole Foods’ classroom brings chefs from Sur La Table, Fleming’s and The Capital Grille. Most courses are free; others are just $5–$10. I’ve enjoyed learning Cuban cuisine, bread baking and have picked up some great barbecue recipes and wine-pairing tips. Haskell’s features cooking classes, wine and cheese tastings, with some held on the Naples Princess. Chef Martin at Bonita Springs’ Robb & Stucky features weekly cooking classes, multicourse dinners with wine and retail gourmet foods. Make world-class chocolates at Norman Love Confections in Fort Myers and take home some of the world’s best chocolates. Fort Myers’ Young’s Asian Market offers year-round classes as well.

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