September 1, 2014

Big and Cozy

Syrah, a big bistro named for a red wine grape, is indeed a happening place full of young good-timers, families and out-of-towners wanting to dine waterside and experience a menu full of surprises. The restaurant seats about 220 in a curvaceous dining room, at a compact sushi bar, long kitchen counter, or on a terrace overlooking the Gordon River, where the atmosphere is calmer and white cloths cover the tables. A handsome (and busy) bar opens to both the dining room and the terrace. The young things in backless dresses or polo shirts crave strangely flavored martinis. The Yuppies and Boomers drink wine, and the youngest guests bring their own sippy cups with juice thanks to Mom.

The décor is Pottery Barn meets South Beach. The light fixtures are sculptural, and the plateware in various shapes and patterns puts on a good show as well as providing staging areas for adventurous food piled into architectural oddities. Faux palm trees dot the rooms; and the walls are a deep comforting terra cotta. Guests always look healthy and happy against this color.

Syrah is noisy. So noisy people communicate with gestures or they get very close to one another and shout. This is not the place for an intimate conversation. It's a place to see and be seen as part of a hip new Naples scene. But within the din and amid the swirling crowd, it's possible to enjoy some brilliant food. The menu, under the direction of executive chef (and co-owner) Ross Peterson, is global fusion, which means just about anything goes. And it goes very well.

We tried the black-currant, tea-smoked roast duck in pinot noir reduction ($22), which was served with mashed potato and asparagus. We could pick out all the individual flavors and the mélange was most satisfying. We also liked the mixed shellfish (fresh and fat) in a tomato basil broth heaped over angel hair pasta with fresh grated cheese. A porterhouse pork chop comes with black truffle and a Pernod demi glace. And a surprisingly tasty meal was the Gulf shrimp glazed with raspberry reduction and served in a gorgonzola and chervil cream. Rich and delectable.

The menu has a good selection of tapas (finger snacks) that average about $8 a plate. Order one pre-dinner or compose a whole meal of tapas for sharing around the table. We loved the Hudson Valley foie gras served with slices of roasted apples, caramelized onions and a drizzle of wine.

The menu also includes a sushi card, and many Syrah guests come to sit at the small sushi bar or at one of the round lazy-Susan tables. The goodies are set in the center and guests rotate the platters until a favorite comes around.

The fusion menu at Syrah isn't random. It makes sense. There is a strong Asian influence and lots of wine in the sauces. Chef Ross balances seafood, meats and pastas to create a full and original spectrum of dishes. He makes something to appeal to most appetites. And pastry chef Melissa Johnson orchestrates a banana split like nothing you might imagine. Share it with someone-unless you want to have it as a meal.

Syrah offers a wide variety of wines at virtually all price points. Given the bistro's name, one would expect a godly number of syrah/shiraz offerings. The reason for this dual label is that syrah is the French name for a grape that, along with grenache, dominates the Rhone Valley in France; while the same grape, brought to Australia by James Busby in 1832, is labeled shiraz down under.

The 16 offerings in this category range from $32-$95/bottle. Surprisingly, there is no Cote Rotie on the list. This is considered by many to be the boldest and, perhaps, the most age-worthy of wines vinted from the syrah grape. We chose a well-crafted Stefan Daniels syrah (Redwood Valley, Cali-fornia), with tobacco and leather aromas mixed with plum and jam. The markup on wines at Syrah is relatively modest-about 100 percent above store prices. Many restaurants list wines at a markup of 200 percent or more, but Syrah owners clearly intend to encourage guests to enjoy a bottle or two with Chef Ross Peterson's innovative meals.

Syrah

475 Bayfront Place, Naples. 417-9724. Open daily. Dinner 5-10 p.m. Bar 5-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and until midnight on Friday and Saturday nights. Credit cards. Valet parking. Reservations suggested.

Eating at the Sunshine Café in Fort Myers is like being invited to dinner at a friend's place where entertaining centers around an open kitchen outfitted with an oak and mesquite wood-burning grill. Co-owners Bruce Brust and Jeff Archambeault and genial on-the-floor manager Tom Irwin establish a homey, even boisterous atmosphere.

Although the 65-seat Sunshine Café is a destination restaurant (there's no other reason to wander into the half-abandoned mall where it is situated), it feels like a comfortable neighborhood bistro where the regulars know one another and the staff is super accommodating. How accommodating? The wine list is strictly American, but includes a French selection because one regular will only drink French wine.

You're a vegetarian? Chef Chris Agius will make up a special plate for you. It's this kind of focused personal service combined with high-quality fresh ingredients and an imaginative chef that have generated great word of mouth about Sunshine Café. The Fort Myers restaurant celebrates its fifth birthday this month. The Captiva Sunshine Café has been in business for 13 years and under the present ownership for the past six.

The atmosphere may be plain and simple, but the menu is sophisticated and eclectic, with a strong California influence. Chef Chris likes goat cheese, Gilroy garlic and surprise flourishes such as pear-leek chutney, oregano butter sauce (on the Prince Edward Island mussels in white wine), jicama, brandy peppercorn cream and balsamic vinegar reductions.

Wood-grilled filet mignon is served as medallions mounded around mashed potatoes crowned with shards of crispy leeks. The kicker is a reduction sauce made with blue cheese. An unusually large pork chop is teriyaki-marinated, grilled over oak and served with tropical fruit chutney. Wonderful. The fresh Atlantic salmon is honey-glazed and presented with sweet potato hash. Sunshine paella has the requisite fresh seafood and is further embellished with chicken, sausage, artichoke hearts and capers. This is a terrific multi-flavor dish, and the serving size is just right. It's not overwhelmed with rice.

Desserts are made fresh daily and include a comforting apple crisp, the tourist-appealing Key lime pie, creamy cheesecake and sometimes a delectable fresh peach melba.

Regulars who have diligently worked their way through the dozen or so entrées need not fear repeats. Chef Chris does nightly specials, which means there is always something intriguing to look forward to at this cozy little café.

Sunshine Café

8750-1 Gladiolus Drive, Fort Myers. 489-2233. Lunch: Monday-Friday from 11:30 a.m. Dinner: Monday-Saturday from 5 p.m. Reservations suggested. Credit cards. Easy parking in mall lot.

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