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Meeting the Ultimate Standard

The first time my parents came to visit us in Southwest Florida, we took them to a local restaurant we frequented with some regularity. My mother ordered the osso bucco. When the waiter came to make sure we were well pleased with our dinner, she fixed him with a steely gaze and said, “The chef should be shot.” We all gasped. My mother played it for laughs, but it was clear that the kitchen had offended her discerning Washingtonian palate.

Since that first fateful visit, Tom and I have approached every subsequent Fort Myers meal with la famille Tolchin with trepidation. Imagine our relief when we tasted the fare at The Timbers Restaurant & Fish Market on Sanibel Island a mere seven nights before my folks’ annual pilgrimage south. In its fresh, no-nonsense seafood, we knew we had found a restaurant that could please even the most cosmopolitan of gourmets.

When I called ahead for reservations, I was told that The Timbers, a Sanibel staple since 1978 and part of a consortium that includes The Prawnbroker and other local restaurants, does not accept them. We could call half an hour before our arrival and have our names placed on a list, but we should expect to wait 15 minutes to be seated. Tom and I arrived along with throngs of other diners. Armed with a pager and a couple of drinks, we wandered around admiring photos of owner Matt Asen with every known celebrity on the planet. Tom read the “Brief Fishtory” off the back of a menu and erupted in a one-man cheer.

“They used to own The Rusty Nail up in Cortland, N.Y.! When I worked at SUNY Cortland, I used to eat there all the time.”

“I’m glad they’re New Englanders,” I said. “Best seafood in the world.”
The Timbers’ décor called to mind some of the simple eateries my family used to frequent during vacations on Cape Cod, where I was forever ruined for anything but Maine lobster.

After exactly 15 minutes, server Janni Clay showed us to our table. Before our stomachs could begin to growl, she delivered a warm loaf of oatmeal molasses bread on a butcher’s block. It took us five seconds to decide that we would be needing to start with the crab bisque with lump crabmeat, cream and sherry ($5 cup/$7 bowl), the New England clam chowder ($4 cup/$5 bowl), the half pound of stone crab claws, served hot with drawn butter or cold with mustard sauce ($15) and fried oysters, lightly breaded and fried to order ($7). Our entrées came with crisp house salads whimsically adorned with Goldfish crackers, so we welcomed those as well.

When the chowder arrived, we noticed it was not the usual gelatinous affair, but rather a bacon-flavored, rich and satisfying soup. The bisque’s flavors and consistency were equally appealing. We had the crabs hot with butter but asked to try the mustard sauce as well. The portion was generous for the price, and the mustard sauce was a hit. Yet nothing prepared us for the fried oysters. Now, we rarely indulge in anything fried these days, our gusto diminished by news reports on clogged arteries. But what if these tasted like what we’ve been served in New England? Could we afford to miss out on such a delight? Absolutely not, and neither should you: They were plump, fresh and as light as advertised.

“My God,” I breathed through a tartar sauce-laden oyster. “It’s the real McCoy.”

“Can I have the rest?” Tom asked, tugging the plate closer to his side of our fish-themed booth.

“Sorry,” I replied. “I love you, but don’t test that love. It’s been years since I’ve eaten fried oysters this delicious.” I counted out my fair share and gave him an apologetic smile.

I always feel like a bit of a dunce ordering Maine lobster so far from Maine. How many days has it been languishing in a tank, I wonder? Yet bolstered by the authenticity of all of our starters, I boldly ordered the “Maine Lobsta” ($23). I was not disappointed. I don’t know how they got my dinner to Southwest Florida without jet lag, but the lobster was perfect. The owners of The Timbers must have retained ties with their Northern seafood connections. Tom was given a choice of three sauces for his grouper ($27): Thai chili, teriyaki glaze and citrus beurre blanc. He enjoyed the Thai chili. We both got vegetables and sweet potatoes with our entrées; the veggies were steamed to perfection, but the potatoes weren’t as successful. We finished off our meals with a yummy trio of desserts: the apple crisp, a slice of coconut cake and the crème brûlée.

One week later, we returned with my folks. Once again, we called ahead and waited out the obligatory 15 minutes—and not a second more—with drinks at the bar.

“Do you realize that we’re having three glasses of cabernet for what I would pay for one in Washington, D.C.?” my father asked. I knew we had a hit on our hands.

Lightning struck twice with the chowder, bisque and oysters. Tom and I indulged in the Alaskan king crab legs, a decadent pound of sweet flesh served with drawn butter ($36). My folks both treated themselves to the Cioppino, shrimp, clams, mussels and fish in a saffron shrimp broth with pappardelle pasta ($23), and made satisfied noises as they consumed it.

“So we can allow the chef to live another day?” Tom asked my mother.

“Absolutely,” she replied. Tom and I shared a triumphant kiss. It only took us four years, but we found a restaurant that could pass muster with my parents. How sweet it was.

The Timbers, 703 Tarpon Bay Road, Sanibel; (239) 395-2722, www.prawnbroker.com. Open daily from 4:30 to 9:30 p.m., fish market open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and sports bar from 4 to 11:30 p.m. Call-ahead seating only. Free parking. Credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Don’t Miss the Chocolate Bag

We recently sampled the fare at McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant, a national chain with more than 80 outlets that opened in December at The Mercato in Naples. The joint was hopping with chic Neapolitans milling about the dark wood-paneled space, especially the beautiful, stained-glass bar area. We announced ourselves and were promptly led to a “snug”—an aptly named booth with pretty green velvet curtains. Our server, Sarah Menos, welcomed us with great confidence.

“We print a new menu daily,” she said, “and everything on it is as fresh as humanly possible.”

“That’s perfect for us,” I said, “because my husband, Tom, is also as fresh as humanly possible.”

Tom stuck out his tongue at me while Sarah raced off to get our drinks. Sarah gave us numerous recommendations at every stage of our meal and emphasized that all of the martinis were made with freshly squeezed juices. What’s not to love about that?

McCormick & Schmick’s offers an impressive array of choices from Florida, New England, the Pacific Northwest and Canada. We began with the jumbo Florida stone crab claws ($12.95 per piece), a decadent delight, and both the classic Caesar ($6.95) and iceberg salads ($7.95), both of which could almost have been entrée salads.

I cannot resist anything involving a Maine lobster, so I settled upon the twin roasted lobster tails with potato croquette and drawn butter ($43.95). Tom was drawn to the seafood paella with jumbo shrimp, mussels, clams, chorizo and Spanish rice ($22.95). While both dishes were good, we weren’t totally swept away until we tried the Chocolate Bag ($10.95). It is a molded chocolate tower filled with fresh blueberries, strawberries, blackberries and raspberries, buoyed on a cloud of white chocolate mousse. It made the Top 10 pantheon of our favorite desserts in Southwest Florida. For a chic night out on the town filled with martinis and chocolate indulgences, make your way to McCormick & Schmick’s.

McCormick & Schmick’s, 9114 Strada Place, Suite 12110, The Mercato, Naples; (239) 591-2299, www.mccormickandschmicks.com. Open for lunch Mondays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 3:15 p.m.; Saturdays, noon to 3:15 p.m. Dinner Sundays through Thursdays, 3:30 to 10 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 3:30 to 11 p.m. Happy hour menu Mondays through Fridays, 3:30 to 6 p.m. Live music Thursday and Friday evenings. Reservations strongly recommended. Valet and free parking. Credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

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