October 23, 2014

Dining Review: Il Cielo on Sanibel Island

The new Il Cielo on Sanibel Island presents innovative, flavorful dishes in a warm, elegant setting.

The mussels at Il Cielo.

The mussels at Il Cielo.

Vanessa Rogers

Change can be good. Or so we hoped, as my husband Neil and I headed out on a Saturday night to Sanibel Island’s “new Il Cielo.” Previously an upscale Italian restaurant, it had closed its doors over the summer, hired Culinary Institute of America–trained Executive Chef Neil Griffin, and reopened six months later in a new, eclectic incarnation. Does “new” equal better? For us, Saturday is an indisputable “date night,” so we had certain expectations.

The restaurant’s curb appeal is unquestionable. Climbing the wrought iron staircase to the torch-lit dining veranda with slowly circulating ceiling fans is equally inviting. Inside, the overall ambiance is elegant and refined, with Art Deco-inspired alabaster pendant lights and sconces, dark wood accents, and a rotunda with an exquisite sky blue-and-gold hand-painted dome overlooking the casual dining “Cloud 9” Grille.

We were starting to get that warm, romantic feeling. So far, so good. I had asked for a “quiet table or booth” in my online reservation, and it was obvious they really listen to their customers. We were led to an intimate corner banquette where we could sit side by side (our favorite way to dine) and look out into the dining room and rotunda. From the maitre d’ to Joe, our server, the staff could not have been friendlier, more gracious or more helpful.

Our evening started with martinis ($13 each), which we both thoroughly savored. Neil chose the Captivating Cosmo, which had an unusual splash of prosecco. My Island Thyme—Hangar One blueberry vodka, St. Germaine elderberry liqueur, muddled blueberries and lemon zest served on the rocks—had a subtle blueberry flavor that wasn’t the least bit too sweet.

In selecting an appetizer, my husband was intrigued by Chef Neil’s addition of fennel to the mussels Il Cielo ($12). He was so pleased with the light licorice-infused flavor of the garlic and herb butter broth that he couldn’t stop sopping it up again and again with bread. The crisp fennel strips also provided a tasty crunch alongside the tender mussels. However, my baked escargot ($14) arrived in strange-looking pools of mashed potatoes. While the snails and potatoes were both nicely flavored with the roasted garlic, oven-dried tomatoes and fresh parsley, I thought the potatoes were unnecessary.

My husband has a lifelong passion for lamb, so the organic pistachio- crusted rack of Colorado lamb ($38) was clearly his choice of entrée. After perusing a list of 20 wines by the glass (as well as extensive bottled selections), he decided to pair it with a glass of the Tally Cabernet, Bishops Peak, Paso Robles ’10 ($13). Since I was having the blue crab-crusted black grouper ($28) and prefer slightly sweet wines, I chose the Bex Reisling, Germany ’11 ($9). Both wines nicely complemented our main courses.

Presentation is an important facet of dining, and the plating was pleasing to the eye. Neil’s baby rack was accompanied by colorful French beans, cherry tomatoes, vanilla-vinegar gastrique, and topped with a sprig of rosemary. The lamb was tender and subtly flavorful (cooked medium rare as requested), but Neil thought the amount of Dijon mustard in the pistachio crust was a little too pungent for the lamb.

My grouper was layered on a bed of rich lobster and sweet potato purée (with bits of succulent lobster), crisp strips of green and yellow zucchini, and baby asparagus tips. The flavors were savory, delicate and delicious. As the portion was generous, I had the remainder wrapped up. (And in the afterglow of this lovely, romantic repast, I kindly offered it up to Neil the next day.)

We really didn’t have room for dessert, but who could resist the espresso chocolate bombe ($9)? The decadent chocolate mousse dome covered in rich, dark chocolate with coffee anglaise took tremendous willpower not to finish.

In the case of the new Il Cielo, change is good. The ambiance is elegant. The food is fresh and flavorful. Chef Neil is innovative, creative and willing to take risks—things we value in gourmet dining. Now, which of our foodie friends should we bring next time?

Il Cielo

1244 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel Island; (239) 472-5555, ilcielosanibel.com

Open 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Credit cards accepted. Reservations may be made online or over the phone and are recommended.

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