Last summer, tom and i mourned the closing of Patio 33 as if the place had an actual soul. “That was by far the best French food I’ve eaten in Southwest Florida,” I told Tom.
He nodded. “[Chef] Denis Meurgue really knew his way around a plate of frog legs.” We tried to console ourselves by thumbing through our French cookbooks, briefly attempting to recreate the magic at home, but who were we kidding? It only underscored what we had lost.
Imagine our delight upon discovering that Denis has resurfaced to fire up the burners for our eager palates once again! His new professional address proved to be a daunting 52.75 miles south of our home, but Bistro Soleil on Marco Island was well worth the trip.
Denis and his wife, Lisa, have taken over management of the restaurant at the Olde Marco Island Inn & Suites, where the spirit of old Florida is alive and well and housed in a building erected in 1883. Lisa greeted us warmly and allowed us to choose between the elegant, cozy dining room and the gazebo-esque patio, with white wicker furniture and strung with tiny white lights and ivy.
When Denis heard that we were on the premises, he rushed out to greet us like old friends. “This place looks wonderful!” I said. “And packed. Didn’t you just open?”
“Three weeks ago,” Denis said, “but we’ve lived on the island for a long time, and we used to have a restaurant here. Everyone is saying welcome back!”
“How is this place different from Patio 33?” Tom asked.
“We serve more traditional French fare here,” Denis explained.
“Hooray!” I said. “I’m a traditionalist when it comes to French food. Vive la France.”
Our server, Chicago native Bob Boone, placed heavy, beautiful menus in our hands, whereupon we confirmed the truth of Denis’ declaration. Vichyssoise, pate de fois gras, baked brie, rack of lamb: We had entered a paradise of Old World French delicacies.
Knowing Denis’ prowess made our decisions both difficult and easy. We knew everything would be delicious, but every selection we made precluded our tasting of something else. Oh, the cruelty of a single meal.
I selected the Fromage de Chevre ($7), a crispy goat cheese tart tatin drizzled with a caramelized balsamic vinegar, accompanied with a tomato-cumin marmalade, and I was by no means disappointed. Tom plunged into a dish of Moules Provencales ($6.95) generous enough to be an entrée, offering Prince Edward Island mussels steamed with herbs, garlic and white wine. The broth alone was a triumph. Out of curiosity, Tom tried the bruschetta ($6) with ripe tomato, basil and shaved parmesan served on a whimsical ribbon of toast. I’ve never been one to resist a good French onion soup, so I had a cup of the Soupe a L’Oignon Gratinée ($4 cup/$5.95 bowl), which turned out to be a mistake—only because the richness of the broth has ruined me for any other.
“I’m amazed by how reasonable the prices are,” I said to Tom. “Everything here would cost twice as much in my hometown [Washington, D.C.].”
“When you were talking with Lisa, I made the same observation to Bob,” Tom said. “They lowered their prices because of the recession.”
All three of the entrées we sampled were hits. I began with one of the specials—the black grouper with lump crabmeat in a lemon butter and capers sauce served with carrots, mashed potatoes and asparagus ($27.50), and was delighted to find that the crabmeat met with my high Maryland standards.
“I wish everyone used this sort of quality crab and served it this simply,” I told Tom. “Whenever I see lots of red peppers and breadcrumbs, I know that someone in the kitchen is trying to create a distraction.”
“I think that’s one of the best things about well-prepared French food,” Tom said. “The simple flavors of my steak frites have been allowed to shine.” The steak frites ($26) entailed a 10-ounce New York steak in a green peppercorn brandy sauce served with homemade parmesan and rosemary fries and vegetables. Because we are shameless, we also sampled the Cassolette Fruits de Mer ($25), and thank heavens we did because it quickly became my favorite dish. The delectable parmesan gratinée topping revealed a dish laden with shrimps, scallops, mussels, crabmeat, vegetables and mushrooms in a saffron cream sauce.
I was not about to leave Marco Island without a fix of Denis’ warm chocolate fondant with vanilla ice cream ($7.50), such a crowd-pleaser at Patio 33 that it got transferred intact to Bistro Soleil. As we prepared to leave, well-sated, we ran into one of the Meurgues’ daughters. Margot asked if we had enjoyed our meal.
“Of course! Your father has real talent,” I said.
“I wish he would adopt us so we could eat his food all the time,” Tom added. Margot laughed good-naturedly and waved us off into the night.
Bistro Soleil, Olde Marco Island Inn & Suites, 100 Palm St., Marco Island; (239) 389-0981, www.oldemarcoinn.com. Dinner served Monday through Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday brunch from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Reservations strongly recommended. Free parking. Credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Winning Flavors at J Bistro
The nicest waitress in Southwest Florida works at J Bistro, a new venture in the same space that once housed Davidson’s. We explained to Molly Murphy that we would be ordering more food than usual in the guise of just wanting to share everything.
“That’s great,” she said, laughing. “Caring is sharing.”
I was in the mood for a soda, which only happens once every six months or so, and Molly steered me toward an icy bottle of Boylan Cane Cola. “You won’t regret it,” she said, and she was right.
As we waited for our appetizers, we took in the décor and found it distinctly improved, with pretty white window treatments, a bamboo centerpiece and Asian red accents. J Bistro advertises “bistro-style cuisine with French and Asian influences.”
We first detected the Asian influence in the excellent stone crab claws appetizer ($18), featuring de-shelled jumbo stone crab claws and Asian slaw finished with wasabi mustard and Florida citrus ponzu sauces. France arrived in the form of the French onion soup ($8) with Emmentaler cheese and an herbed crouton, which was tasty. We were intrigued by the whimsy of the fried green tomato caprese salad ($9), with prosciutto di parma stuffed mozzarella cheese and fresh basil topped with balsamic gastrique, which was good but not quite hot enough, given its fried centerpiece.
Speaking of fried food, we didn’t expect the jumbo Key West shrimp ($24) entrée with Old Bay panko crust over heirloom potatoes, haricots verts and house-made garlic sausage in a lemon thyme beurre blanc to be fried, but fried it was. We overcame our reservations (born of too many television reports on heart disease) and enjoyed it. The real winner, though, was the beef bourguignon ($26), slow braised beef top round over heirloom potatoes, pear onions, baby carrots, mixed wild mushrooms and Nueske’s bacon lardoons in a rich burgundy wine reduction. This proved to be the perfect wintry dish to satisfy us, and it expanded our culinary vocabulary: according to Merriam-Webster, a lardoon is “a strip (as of salt pork) with which meat is larded.” See the afore-mentioned reports on heart disease.
The meal reached a genuine apex with dessert. Tom, the crème brûlée king of Southwest Florida, enjoyed J Bistro’s take on the dish ($8) garnished with fresh berries. I ordered the Tarte Tatin ($9), billed as “a classic French dessert of caramelized Golden Delicious apples on a crispy puff pastry crust, served with a quenelle of pistachio ice cream.” They should have said, “the nectar of the gods.” Pastry Chef Karen A. Schaeffer deserves real kudos. This dessert was nothing short of phenomenal, and it afforded a second vocabulary lesson: “quenelle” is an archaic word for dumpling.
Chef and proprietor James E. Hudson came out to make sure that we had enjoyed our meal. “We’re just trying to make simple, honest food,” he said. J. Bistro is clearly off to a good start—and they couldn’t have a better public face than our server.
“Come back soon,” Molly called out to us as we departed. “We’ll keep the Boylan’s on ice for you!” What a refreshing thought.
J Bistro, 15291 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers; (239) 489-3350, www.jbistros.com. Dinner served Tuesday through Saturday from 5 to 9:30 p.m. Reservations recommended. Free
parking. Credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
For more local restaurant news, read Gulfshore Life’s bimonthly blog “Hot Dish.”