Dig That Local Flavor
Fruits and vegetables ripened in Southwest Florida soil. Fish straight out of glistening Gulf waters. The Gulfshore’s restaurants don’t have to go far to find the freshest ingredients. Many of their chefs use local bounty when creating delectable dishes.
That’s good news for Fort Myers farmer Ken Ryan, who personally hands boxes of his beautiful Herban Gardens organic produce to some 40 local chefs. Seasoned chefs such as Reiner Drygala of Bistro 41 and Harold Balink of Crü, both in Fort Myers, and Jeffrey Acol of A Table Apart in Bonita Springs await Ryan’s 80 different seasonal herbs and vegetables. Diners rave about his succulent heirloom tomatoes, colorful lettuces, microgreens, bold basils, marjoram and sweet potatoes.
Denise Muir’s Rabbit Run Farm hydroponically grows more than 30,000 plants on only half an acre in Lee County, supplying peppers, beans, lettuce, squash, spinach, eggplant, zucchini, arugula and strawberries. Curious chefs tour her farm, taste the produce and sign up on the spot.
Ryan and Muir are two of the area’s main restaurant suppliers. Here’s a sampling of restaurants in Collier and Lee counties whose culinary creations include their local flavor as well as produce and seafood from other local suppliers.
Savor balink’s seared tuna and pork belly salad at Crü; the pork belly is from Alva, the greens from Rabbit Run, and daikon and orange juice from SWF Organics. Grilled grouper and oysters are Gulf-sourced by Merrick Seafood; corn hails from Zellwood and Plantation Farms, and tomatoes come from Six L’s Immokalee farm.
Acol proves that 100 percent sustainable is a delight at A Table Apart with crispy fried whole yellowtail snapper, pan-seared char-siu glazed wild Alaskan scallops and escargot sautéed in coconut milk. He favors The Fish Lady wholesaler Susan Bulifant’s fish, Laughing Bird shrimp, Loch Duart salmon and wild Alaskan scallops.
Another client of Muir and Ryan isSea Salt Chef Fabrizio Aielli, who started his own organic garden atop the Naples restaurant’s roof. Aielli selects the evening meal’s Wagyu beef and heirloom pork daily from Jimmy P’s Butcher Shop in Naples. Deep Creek Ranch in DeLand supplies local grass-fed beef. The Fish Lady brings Gulf of Mexico fish caught near Naples beaches. Sea Salt was one of Esquire magazine’s 20 Best New Restaurants in 2009. The award-winning cuisine bursts with freshness and flavor.
Master Chef Patrick Fevrier of Escargot 41in Naples is renowned for the rich taste of heirloom fruits, vegetables and edible flowers grown in his backyard nursery. “I grow enough for the birds and insects to have their fill, so there’s plenty left for you and me,” he says. He offers Florida Pompano and Key West shrimp supplied by Bulifant. After savoring the duck confit and fruit de mer aux morilles one evening, a well-heeled bachelor asserts, “Dining here is an aphrodisiac.”
Chef Brian Roland of M Waterfront Grille in Naples offers Muir’s same-day picked produce in organic salads and with pan-seared Caribbean grouper. He meets with top U.S. chefs such as Thomas Keller of French Laundry and Dan Barber of Blue Hill, bringing back the message that sustainability is America’s present and healthy future.
Ridgway Bar & Grill in Naples sources Rabbit Run’s greens for the artisanal and Honeycutt salads. I recommend the signature pan-roasted Florida Pink shrimp with sweet corn grits, tasso ham gravy and fried green tomato.
Bamboo Café in Naples pairs local greens and caramelized onions with Bell & Evans natural chicken. Savor the café’s lamb tagine, then take a moonlit dock stroll among Naples Bay’s bobbing sailboats.
Scott Sopher at Olio on Naples Bay harvests his on-site garden’s tomatoes, basil and peppers—the pineapples go fast. I favor his spicy shrimp ceviche, oven-roasted black grouper, cheese-stuffed quail and specials with produce from Muir, Ryan and local farmers’ markets. USS Nemo pairs local produce and sustainably sourced Chilean sea bass for its delectable miso-broiled fish with a citrus-ginger butter sauce.
Frank Oakes’ Food & Thought, a Naples organic farm market and café, creates nourishing meals all day. Taste the fresh quality of his USDA-Certified Organic food, grown locally by Oakes. One staffer says, “We are militantly organic, so you can shop in peace.” The kitchen’s wide open to see. People say they are “energized” and “get a buzz” from his organic foods.
Fort Myers’ Pizza Fusion goes beyond a 100 percent organic menu. Its produce comes from Sarasota, seven beers come from Melbourne and all of its food is delivered in high-mileage, low-carbon-emission Prius hybrid delivery cars. Earth-friendly is both tasty and profitable.
Chef Brooke’s Natural Café in Fort Myers has organic, made-from-scratch food, and she gets her produce from Sarasota. There’s vegan, gluten-free, macrobiotic, raw, soy-free, sugar-free, dairy-free lusciousness. Sample cheese-laden lasagna, decadent sandwiches, luscious soups and sweet desserts—a healthy feast on every plate. Flavorful lentil and sweet potato soup, and curried chicken salad with sweet raisins and crunchy cashews are my comfort foods.
Sanibel’s Sweet Melissa’s Café picks clams and seafood from Pine Island. The café also uses sustainable products for its strawberry shortcake, Latvian red beet soup with Louisiana crawfish tails and heirloom tomato salad. Beef, cheeses and mushrooms are sustainable here as well as at Fort Myers’ J Bistro, which also features rabbit, trout, redfish and organic salmon.
Sarasota’s Mote Marine Laboratory produces locally farm-raised caviar from Siberian sturgeon. Distributor Gary’s Seafood supplies the delicacy to restaurants at both Naples Ritz-Carlton resortsand toThe Turtle Club, also in Naples.
Read Ivan Seligman’s dining blog, “Hot Dish,” at www.gulfshorelife.com.
There’s a delicious bounty of healthy local produce to be savored by those who like to cook at home as well as dine out.
Farmers’ markets are magnets for truly fresh produce and seafood, often sold by the farmers and fishermen. At Naples’ Third Street Farmer’s Market, I take home Captain Kirk’s Fresh Seafood Market stone crab claws, tripletail, hog snapper and smoked mullet.
Nick Battey’s produce is picked no earlier than the day before it’s sold Saturday mornings at Third Street Farmers Market and Wednesdays from 2 to 6 p.m. at St. Monica’s Church on Immokalee Road, not far from his five-acre, certified organic Inyoni Farm. David and Jenny Burd of Naples are my go-to farmers for uncommon fruit, such as organic sugar apples, canistel (egg fruit), Florida grapes, carambola (star fruit) and 20-pound jackfruits from their tropical backyard nursery.
At the North Naples Farmers Market on Vanderbilt and Airport roads, GR8 Legs Seafood Co.’s grouper, scallops and mahi mahi sell fast. Worden Farm organic produce is also sold at five other farmers markets from Sanibel north to St. Petersburg. Its 60 crops include boniato (white-fleshed sweet potato), collards, corn, leeks, kale, shiitake mushrooms, sunflowers and herbs.
Fort Myers Green Market at the Alliance for the Arts features Andy’s Island Seafood, Brittain Farm and Lee Bees Honey. The Downtown Fort Myers Farmers’ Market at Centennial Park has local vegetables, fruits and fish. Find more farmers’ markets in Bonita Springs and Estero.