Even before we set foot inside the new The Capital Grille in north Naples, we knew we would be pampered like visiting dignitaries. By phone and e-mail, we were assured that the entire staff looked forward to our visit. When we walked through the door, we paused for the briefest of moments before being escorted to a comfortable booth surrounded by oil portraits of famous Floridians such as Barron Collier. The pause gave us just enough time to take in the private liquor lockers that line the front of the restaurant. We recognized the names of Naples luminaries by their locker nameplates.
For Team Tolchin-DeMarchi, there’s no business like food business, so we tucked our napkins into our laps and let our server, Mary Lee Holland, launch our dining experience. Mary Lee has lived in Bonita Springs for 23 years, and her warmth and experience make her the ideal server for The Capital Grille, the crown jewel of Darden Restaurants, which also owns Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse and Bahama Breeze, among other chains. There are 36 Capital Grilles, several of them in Florida. Despite Darden’s size, as we settled in with our drinks—a pregnancy-safe cranberry spritzer for me and a miraculous “Stoli-Doli” martini for Tom—we felt as if we were the only diners in the world, at one of the most exclusive restaurants around.
“How’s your martini?” I asked Tom.
“Honestly? I’d like them to hook me up to an IV of the stuff,” he said.
The menu at The Capital Grille is succulent and eminently manageable, with nine appetizers, nine soups and salads, five “Chef’s Suggestions” (mostly steak), nine main courses (mostly steak), four seafood dishes and 10 sides, including potatoes four different ways: Sam’s mashed, lyonnaise, au gratin and Parmesan truffle fries. As Tom noted all of the steak and potato options, he murmured, “They really understand me.”
We flirted with the appetizer called “The Grand Plateau” ($96), which offers king crab, north Atlantic lobster, shrimp cocktail and oysters on the half shell, but decided that it might leave us too well sated before the arrival of the entrées. Instead, we asked for the pan-fried calamari with hot cherry peppers ($13), the shrimp cocktail ($15) and cups of both the lobster bisque ($10) and the clam chowder ($8)—basically enough food to feed the Russian army, as my mother likes to say. They were all winners.
The bisque was overflowing with large chunks of cold-water lobster, the chowder reminded my Bostonian husband of home, the shrimp were firm and flavorful, and the calamari came with tentacles—Tom’s favorite. The hot cherry peppers were a bit too spicy for my tastes, so I dipped the calamari in the cocktail sauce that came with my shrimp instead. Eureka! Fantastic.
“Did we come to the right place or what?” I asked Tom.
“Can we come back tomorrow night?” he replied.
“Well, let’s reserve judgment. After all, we haven’t tried a single entrée yet.”
And then they came. The 24-ounce, dry-aged Porterhouse steak with the porcini rub ($48) and the steamed, two-pound, cold-water lobster ($52). I momentarily regretted my decision to have the kitchen de-shell my lobster. I grew up spending summers on Cape Cod, where I could make an hour’s festivities out of a single steamed lobster, sucking at each individual leg like the most unabashed of omnivores.
“There’s no sport in this,” I complained to Tom, but he was too busy making love to the Porterhouse—an excellent piece of meat cooked to perfection—to care.
Sport or no sport, the lobster was delicious, and I was grateful that I didn’t have to humiliate myself with a bib.
Mary Lee insisted that we sample the lobster mac ‘n’ cheese side dish ($14), with mascarpone cheese, chunks of tender lobster and firm campanelle pasta. Smart lady! She also brought us half orders of both the broccoli ($6) and the asparagus ($8), along with Sam’s mashed potatoes ($9).
“Can we manage dessert?” I asked Tom. “If so, should we be good and ashamed of ourselves?”
“Not you,” he said with his trademark chivalry. “You’re eating for two! Now I, on the other hand, have no such excuse, but that’s not going to stop me from ordering the classic crème brûlée [$8].” He’s a very good husband, so why would I deny him such a simple pleasure?
Mary Lee had apprised us of a special Italian menu available that evening as part of a new wine offering. We decided to stick with the regular menu, but one of the desserts caught my eye: a homemade caramel gelato with biscotti ($7).
“I’ll bring you some right away!” she said. The desserts were as pleasing as the service, leading us to conclude that The Capital Grille has gotten its formula right, without a false note ringing forth the entire evening. If you’d like to know what it would feel like to experience true luxury and excellent food—to be a modern day baron in Collier County—make a reservation tonight.
The Capital Grille,9005 Mercato Drive, The Mercato, Naples; (239) 254-0640, www.thecapitalgrille.com. Lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner Monday through Thursday, 5–10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5–11 p.m.; and Sunday 4–9 p.m. Reservations strongly recommended. Free and valet parking. Credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Great Tastes plus a Flight of Birds
It had been a long time since we had braved the traffic and sampled the pleasures of Fort Myers Beach, so we were especially pleased to be sent on assignment to the new Bayfront Bistro by the Snook Bight Yacht Club & Marina. Marina food runs the gamut from lowbrow to high, so we weren’t sure what to expect. As we walked up a flight of stairs and into the large, airy, beautiful space that is the Bayfront Bistro, we knew we had come to the right place. Sweeping views of the bay were enhanced by light wood décor, blue stemware and other lovely touches. The Bistro has at least 20 slips for boats; it’s clear that whether you arrive on a Sea Ray 60-foot Sundancer or some more modest form of conveyance, you’ll fit right in. (Actually, we recommend that you take your boat rather than travel by car, if at all possible. It took us quite a while to get on and off the island because of traffic.)
Server Trace French, a Seattle native, brought Tom, who is enjoying a martini renaissance of sorts, a “Stress Martini” ($8).
“How is it?” I asked as I sipped my new trademark cranberry spritzer.
“Only the greatest thing I’ve ever tasted,” he said, his eyes rolling back in his head.
Trace urged us to sample two specials, the Ibis salad ($5) and the carrot and ginger soup ($5). These modestly priced starters were fresh and delicious: The salad was like a modified Caprese, with stacks of tomato and mozzarella adorned with both a great balsamic reduction and a chive olive oil sauce.
Fresh from The Timbers, which serves dynamite fried oysters, we decided to try our luck with the fried oyster po’ boy sandwich ($14). Unfortunately, we believe we caught the kitchen on an off-day for oysters, because they had a strong castor oil flavor; however, the accompanying truffle fries were outstanding.
We had genuine success with the filet mignon ($32), with its melted portabella mushrooms and cognac demi glace and creamy golden mashed potatoes, and with the whimsically named Bayfront “Booya” ($22), a classic saffron bouillabaisse with whitefish, shellfish, fennel and tomato.
General Manager Mike Wilke stopped by to make sure we were enjoying our evening as we were sampling two desserts, the Mike Martin’s Key Lime Pie ($7) and the Chocolate Madness Cake ($7), both of which were winners.
“In just a few minutes,” he said, “something amazing will happen. It happens every night at about this time. A flock of ibises goes over the bay, right past our windows. They’re all white, except for a single red ibis. Keep watching!”
What could be better than dinner and a show? Enjoy the plumage and the ambiance for yourself at the Bayfront Bistro.
Bayfront Bistro,4761 Estero Blvd., Fort Myers Beach; (239) 463-3663, www.bayfrontbistro.com. Open daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., with appetizers and drinks only from 3–5 p.m. and dinner service ending at 10 p.m. Happy hour from 4–6 p.m. daily. Reservations strongly recommended. Free parking. Credit cards accepted.