August 22, 2014

Appetite

Yes for Business and Pleasure

One long weekend per year, my husband, Tom, and I are responsible for escorting no fewer than 40 people to supper on Sanibel Island as part of our FGCU-Sanibel Island Writers Conference. We accomplish this crazy feat four nights in a row, dividing our prayers as follows: first, that the good eateries of Sanibel can withstand the onslaught of famished scribblers, and second, that our cosmopolitan crew will not be disappointed with the cuisine. This past November, we stumbled upon a tiny gem situated right on the Gulf of Mexico: The Twilight Café. The purveyors of this 45-seat restaurant should have quaked as we darkened their stoop, but they welcomed us with total assurance.

“Let’s be sure to come back to this place next year,” one of our core faculty declared over a particularly succulent bite of sea bass. “Hear, hear!” toasted the crowd.

Tom and I were delighted to return to the Twilight on assignment for Gulfshore Life. This time, the demands of the conference a receding memory, we were able to focus all of our attention on the place itself, with its pastel walls, white tables and elegant-yet-beachy ambiance.

Relaxation comes standard with the good food at the Twilight Café, a presence on the island—off and on—since 1996. Chef/owner Robert Parks had just opened the doors to its new location on West Gulf Drive when we descended on the place in November of 2008. Tom and I eased comfortably into our dining experience as our server, Boston native Pat Harlow, brought out an unusual Argentinian cabernet sauvignon, the Salvatore Principe 2007, along with freshly baked bread with pesto and olive oil. Despite the capacity crowd, we had bowls of steaming soup in front of us before our stomachs could begin to grumble. Tom chose the excellent chicken and sausage gumbo with shrimp ($6.95), while I sampled the chef’s choice daily soup ($5.95), a fresh and light cabbage and tomato soup.

Because more is more in our line of work, we asked Pat to bring us a few more starters, including the mini lump crabcakes on a bed of roasted corn salsa with a red pepper dipping aioli ($10.95), the classic Caesar salad with shredded parmesan and toasted croutons ($5.95), and the house-made crispy coconut shrimp with a citrus and raspberry dipping sauce ($10.95). Once we tasted the coconut shrimp, we had eyes for nothing else.

“Happiness would be an endless supply of these shrimp,” I said. 

If our stomachs could have been more accommodating, we’d gladly have sampled these other starters: grilled marinated portabello mushrooms with tomato and mozzarella ($9.95), the toasted focaccia bruschetta with basil pesto, roasted garlic, goat cheese and roasted red peppers ($9.95), and the New Zealand green lipped mussels sautéed in white wine, garlic and lemon butter cream sauce (or red wine marinara) ($10.95). Sometimes, I envy cows their four stomachs, even if they do waste them all on grassy cud.

We were intrigued by the invitation to “Build Your Own Pasta” and “Create Your Own Entrée,” but ultimately fell prey to the charms of the seafood paella entrée ($22.95), with shrimp, scallops, grouper and mussels tossed with saffron rice, peppers and chicken stock. Equally delightful was the grilled New York strip topped with crumbled bleu cheese and crispy fried onion straws, and roasted garlic and red pepper mashed potatoes ($26.95).

“For such a tiny space, it could take weeks to eat your way through this menu,” Tom said.

“I know! They even have five vegetarian entrées, beyond the pastas,” I said.

“It doesn’t feel tiny, either,” said Tom. “Look how much space there is between each table. That’s pretty unusual these days, where most restaurants cram in as many tables as possible.”

A little later, Tom invited a charming Midwestern couple from a neighboring table to share our desserts with us. They spend a few months every winter on Sanibel, and had just returned from a tour of Australia.

“Have you enjoyed your meal?”
I asked.

“Absolutely!” the husband said. “We especially liked the paella.”

Together, the four of us made fast work of two desserts: the chocolate cobbler, a warm and gooey brownie-type treat served with vanilla ice cream, and the phenomenal apple dumpling, consisting of a whole spiced apple wrapped in pastry, with cinnamon ice cream topped with caramel sauce ($6.95 each). We talked about the economy. If you must discuss the beleaguered state of the economy, we recommend doing so when you have easy access to the Twilight Café’s excellent homemade desserts.

As we were leaving, Pat made us promise to return soon, with or without any official business to conduct. What a delightful promise that will be to keep.     

Twilight Café, 2761 W. Gulf Drive, Sanibel Island; (239) 472-8818, www.twilightcafesanibel.com. Breakfast and lunch daily from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., and dinner 5 p.m. to close. Reservations suggested. Free parking. Credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

 

Charming Delights at MiraMare

When an unexpected houseguest forced Tom to stay home the night of our second review of the month, the new northern Italian Naples eatery MiraMare Ristorante, I knew just the person to call: my friend Leslie Hinton, a beautiful young friend who calls herself a “full-blooded Sicilian” and knows how to make a killer meat sauce. Leslie is the sort of friend who looks dazzling in stilettos but also knows how to shimmy up a ladder with a screwdriver between her teeth to help you install your hurricane shutters. Everyone should have a friend like Leslie.

When Leslie and I descended onto the outdoor terrace at MiraMare on a cool night and took in the white tablecloths, the chic crowd, the soft live music and the sparkling view of Venetian Bay, we felt like two ingénues arriving on the set of a well-funded Hollywood film. With the help of our handsome young server, Leslie selected a glass of the GL
Barolo V wine ($18 glass), and we settled on one of six antipasti: the imported Prosciutto di Parma Con Melone ($16), a towering plate of salty and sweet. We were equally inspired by one of four salads, the Insalata Tricolore ($9), with radicchio, endive and arugula with shaved parmesan and an excellent lemon dressing, and the Minestrone Condito Con Pesto ($6), a basil-infused twist on the usual vegetable soup. Our server turned out to be Sal Jr.—the son of proprietor Salvatore Sinzieri, who was equally charming when he stopped by to make sure we were well-pleased with our meal.

We caused our neighboring diners to gasp audibly as we ordered three entrées after consuming all of these starters. Normally, I can gesture toward my tall, muscular husband apologetically when people notice how much we order, as if to say, “He’s a growing boy.” Alas, this doesn’t work when I’m dining with Leslie, whose stomach muscles are so toned and flat, they actually form an eight-pack beneath her size zero white pencil skirt.

Off the “Primi Piatti” list of 12 smaller plates, we ordered the Linguine Alle Vongole ($25), linguine with white wine steamed clams and flat leaf Italian parsley, and marveled at the al dente pasta and the mild goodness of the sauce. From the “Secondi Piatti,” we chose the Scallopine Di Vitello Picatta ($26), sautéed veal
scallopini with lemon, capers, mashed potatoes and vegetables. As with the clams, the flavors of the veal were subtle almost to the point of blandness, yet pleasing. The real crowd-pleaser came in the form of our third choice, the Risotto Allo Zafferano ($19): a cheesy risotto topped with wild mushrooms. I would be lying if I told you I wouldn’t be willing to bribe the chef for the recipe.
Then again, I’d be missing a hell of a view of the bay if I cooked it at home.

As my mother likes to say, “In for a penny, in for a pound.” We continued to shock our neighbors by ordering dessert, the homemade chocolate cannoli ($6). For a moment, as we tucked into its ricotta goodness and savored the atmosphere, we imagined we might be in a seaside Italian town, two young women without a care in the world between us.

MiraMare Ristorante, 4236 Gulf Shore Blvd., Naples; (239) 430-6273, www.miramarenaples.com. Lunch daily 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., happy hour 4–6 p.m., and dinner 5–11 p.m. Reservations strongly recommended. Valet and free parking. Credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

 

For more local restaurant news, read Gulfshore Life’s bimonthly blog “Hot Dish.”

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