August 1, 2014

Join the Club

As unpretentious as the little clutch of beach vacation resort suites that surround it, The Turtle Club at the Vanderbilt Beach Resort is a friendly, reliable place to casually dine on fresh seafood while you watch the sun leisurely sink into the Gulf of Mexico. This restaurant makes you understand the phrase "just another perfect day in paradise."

Dark green, lemon yellow and crisp white tones establish the color scheme in the dining room, which has low ceilings and a fairly high noise level. A small aquarium at the entrance of the restaurant hints at the featured cuisine (although the brightly colored little fish certainly aren't for eating). Seafood rules here.

The sea harvest platter at $23.95 is the Turtle Club's signature dish; it combines shrimp, sea scallops, grouper, and a crayfish cake. Other choices include honey and almond-roasted salmon, almond crayfish cakes, pan-fried yellowtail snapper and an intriguing dish composed of low-country grilled shrimp and smoked Kielbasa sausage. The duo is drizzled with lemon butter.

Not everyone who visits Florida or lives here wants to dine on only seafood, so smart restaurants such as The Turtle Club pay attention to meats, too. The Club insists upon aged, hand-cut, Midwestern, grain-fed steer. All steaks are served with either rice, Parmesan mashed white potato soufflé or sweet potato soufflé and fresh vegetables. The menu offers a center-cut New York strip steak ($22.95), filet of beef tenderloin and a steak and lobster combination, filet medallions paired with shrimp (in a nice sauce of cabernet, demi glace, roasted shallots, garlic and rosemary). There's also a chicken breast stuffed with fresh zucchini, tomatoes, prosciutto and provolone. Topped with tomato vodka cream, it's a good value at $16.95, since all the other entreés are higher.

Vegetarians are going to have a rough time, because the ubiquitous portobello mushroom is absent from the Turtle Club menu. However, the appetizer of vegetable spring rolls, served with a horseradish marmalade and straw noodles, sounds promising. And the potatoes are marvelous. Both the sweet and white potato soufflé come to the table in individual ramekins and could be paired with an extra helping of fresh vegetables.

The service in the dining room and at the beachside outdoor deck is more amiable than efficient. Fortunately, the servers and bus staff stayed close by and were eager to please.

A bar at one end of the dining room seats about a dozen. Wines served tableside average $35-$40 a bottle. The list (primarily domestic) bows to popular tastes with lots of chardonnays. We seafood lovers had a Kenwood sauvignon blanc, and the steak eater in our party pronounced the George Deboeuf beaujolais villages perfectly drinkable.

The kitchen prides itself on the dessert selection. The tasty house specialty is a dense chocolate torte with a caramel glaze. I'm also fond of the wild berry tart made with a sweet butter crust. Other fine choices include a banana nut sundae, white carrot cake and a key lime chiffon pie. Desserts average $5.

The Turtle Club

Vanderbilt Beach Resort. 9225 N. Gulf Shore Drive, Naples. 592-6557. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner: 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday; 5 p.m.-9 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. Credit cards. Parking at the restaurant and across the street in resort lot.

The germans say "zum mitnehmen," while the Brits refer to it as "take away" and the Americans call it "take-out." Whatever you call it, it's the food you pull out of the refrigerator case at the market and zap in your microwave at home so you can sit down to a meal you did not have the time or inclination to personally prepare. A full-service gourmet market with take-out, bakery, wine shop and catering services is a neighborhood amenity that is becoming increasingly more important to working folks and those on vacation. Which is why everybody is so happy about Fort Myers' new Blue Pepper. It's one of the best places in Southwest Florida to find something appetizing and already cooked to take home, and a walk through the wide aisles is a global tour for cooks.

The take-out section of the 6,000-square-foot food palace offers a sandwich board (all subs and sandwiches come with a pasta or potato salad and average about $6.50); a lunch menu that is available until 4 p.m.; and a dinner menu of about a dozen grilled or rotisserie selections. The price ranges from $7.95 (roasted garlic chicken with potatoes and house vegetables) to $20.95 (for the pan-seared tournedos of beef with truffled mashed potatoes). We tried the veal medallions with wild mushrooms in a sherry demi-glaze with gorgonzola risotto and found it perfectly cooked and delicious. We had similar good experiences with the shrimp sauté with udon noodles and the wood- grilled lamb with fingerling potato mash and roasted asparagus. There are real chefs in this busy kitchen.

Additionally, the Blue Pepper is a scene. You see everything there, and I'm not talking about just the venison tenderloin and ostrich in the meat cases or the important-looking Japanese knives hanging in rows. It is a place to congregate, to see and be seen. Cute Gen-Xers in workout Spandex congregate around the displays of hot pepper sauces and infused vinegars while they wait for their healthy grilled citrus-cured salmon fillet dinner ($11.95). Permanently tanned locals dash in for cocktail-hour goodies and bottles of chilled wine, while harried mothers dragging toddlers order full meals for the family. (Live orchids, napkins and candles are also part of the inventory.) Look carefully and you'll also notice avid foodies, who float in just to browse the store and luxuriate in cuisine lore. You can tell when they are in the zone because they tend to bump into the serious shoppers.

I did some zoning out myself. I could not resist a package of magenta-hued scarlet passion beans (a runner bean that dates back to 1750). When cooked, these lovely legumes offer up a mild fruity flavor and firm texture. I also bought appaloosa beans-they get their name from the spotted horse-and a pretty jar of drunken goat mayonnaise ($6.95)-the mayonnaise is blended with cabernet sauvignon.

Chai iced tea tastes like no beverage you've ever had. A glass may or may not pair well with rosemary-flavored olive oil potato chips, but don't you want some around the house anyway? If not, maybe you're interested in conjuring something up with dried chestnuts, purple pasta that's shaped like grape clusters and flavored with wine, fiery wasabi peanuts and dried poblanos at $10.50 a pound. Petite champagne lentils would be beautiful and refreshing in a cold salad.

When I got home, I poured the dried flageolet beans into a bowl and showed them to my painter. "This is the exact fragile, faded celadon green I want for the guest bedroom," I told him. "Can you mix up some flageolet-bean green?" Which supports my theory about great gourmet markets. They are only partly about groceries. They're mainly about lifestyle.

Blue Pepper Gourmet Foods & Bakery

7190 College Parkway, Fort Myers. 939-4700. Open daily 10 a.m.-8 p.m. (lunch menu untill 4). Credit cards. Ample parking.

When indulging in a day of antique hunting in the fertile neighborhood near the intersection of McGregor Boulevard and College Parkway in Fort Myers, it's smart to pace yourself (so many shops, so little time) and take a break for lunch. If you stop at the conveniently located Rene's, you will feel even smarter because you can take something home for dinner and not cook at all that day.

The informal little eatery seats about 60 at bare square tables and bentwood chairs. Faux plants and flowers on the tables, a high shelf laden with baskets, garden items and greenery give the place a comfortable cottage feeling. Rene's has been in business since 1981 at the same location. Before that the building housed a hamburger joint. The drive-through window remains, and many people in a rush use it.

You'll receive your beverage in a plastic glass and you'll get a paper napkin. But the food is served on nice big white ceramic plates with a sprinkling of chopped herbs around the perimeter for artistic flourish. Place your order at the counter, sit down and a server will bring your order when it's ready.

Rene's insists on fresh-baked bread and makes desserts daily from scratch. There are 15 salads on the menu and a few more among the daily specials on the chalkboard. Average price is $6.50. All the salads are fresh, flavorful and generous enough to make a meal. The chicken Caesar salad comes with pasta in the mix, and it is really delicious. The crackers on the side are probably superfluous, although I managed to eat mine. Other good salad choices could be the seafood salad plate or the turkey-pasta-spinach combination. Rene's makes eight different salad dressings including a fat-free raspberry and a nice sweet and sour.

Sandwiches are hearty and thick with fresh ingredients. Eight of the sandwiches are served on croissants; another eight come on pita bread and include a pasta salad on the side. Specialty sandwiches include chips and pickle and encompass such constructions as a Reuben, club, tuna bacon melt or French dip with provolone. A big favorite is the Connecticut Yankee, which is lean rare roast beef, creamy horseradish, lettuce, tomato and cheddar cheese on a fresh kaiser roll. Sandwiches are about $6.50. Additionally, there is always a homemade soup of the day ($3.25 a bowl), which can be combined with a half sandwich, quiche or salad. If you save room for dessert (or you want to take it home), there's carrot cake, brownie and key lime pie.

The food at Rene's is excellent and the ambience is comfortable and casual. The service is efficient, brisk and frankly, a little brusque, although our waitress did refill the iced tea glasses. Best of all, lunch at Rene's will definitely allow you to rest your bones and restore your energy so that you can shop some more.

Rene's

12731 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers. 489-0833. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Catering available (489-4424). Deliveries for $30 and up are free. Orders in by 10 a.m. Major credit cards. Easy parking.

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