July 25, 2014

A Tanglewood Tale

Southwest Florida has discovered the pleasures of hotel dining. Some of the best and most innovative chefs work in those hotel kitchens; and they're backed by corporate standards of excellence that usually ensure a superior meal in lovely surroundings.

One of the newest hotel culinary destinations is Tanglewood at the new Hyatt Regency in Bonita Springs. The towering hotel, set far back from U.S. 41, is a secluded and luxurious world unto itself, which is just what you want if you're a conventioneer or a vacation traveler determined to get away from it all for a few days. The swimming pools and other water elements are lavish, and amenities are what you'd expect from a first-class operation.

Tanglewood is one of about five eating options in the hotel. Tarpon Bay is the upscale seafood restaurant on the property, but Tanglewood is the place for meat-eaters. The ambience is semi-formal tropical with plenty of island-like foliage and colorful silky tropical fabrics. The refined décor could be borrowed from the plantation of a prosperous coffee grower.

Chef Patrick McElroy provides plenty of flavorful options for carnivores, from the aged tenderloin for two ($55) to slow-braised veal shank, seared venison chops with blackberry sauce ($22), Virginia lamb or even butter-roasted free-range chicken stuffed with chunks of soup apple, Vidalia onion and a splash of brandy. At $16, this exemplary and simple meal is gourmet comfort food.

The side dishes are a welcome reprieve from the conventional- not a garlic mashed potato or a French fry in sight. Instead, anticipate smoked tomato and cauliflower risotto or winter pea ravioli. How about Asiago carrot hash or five-spice ratatouille? With the Asian-glazed wild salmon (one of three seafood items on menu), chef McElroy has dreamed up oyster mushroom and green tea rice with a little blood orange sauce. How enticing. If you're going to eat out, why not have something inventive, something you've probably never cooked at home? But if it's potato you must have, there's a toothsome Okinawan potato and rhubarb ragout or a more traditional potato gratin that accompanies the venison. The spud is elevated with bacon and Montrachet cheese.

Presentation has become a hallmark at Tanglewood, and it's a pleasure to look at the plate that materializes under your nose. My house salad (on a square, white plate) was arranged like a bouquet; all the green shards were gathered and tied with a wide thin ribbon of cucumber and a strand of carrot for a bow. The bouquet of greens was laid on the diagonal and lightly dressed. It was almost too pretty to eat. The Caesar salad features fat, succulent white marinated anchovies and is a delight to see and taste. Just what a classic Caesar should be.

Pastry chef Damian Rivera maintains the standards of visual perfection with his desserts. I can speak highly of the apple tart, which comes with vanilla ice cream (our server substituted Devonshire cream upon our request). And the intensely flavored orange crème brûlée is a standout. Gossamer texture and zippy taste.

Service is friendly and flawless. The server takes care of the wine from a list that is fairly lengthy and fairly priced. Order hot tea instead of coffee or espresso at the end of the meal with dessert and see what a lovely presentation awaits you. It includes honey and a cinnamon stick besides lemon. Because this is a hotel dining room, there's lots of nice hotel silver, from the forks at your table setting to the sweet little silver-domed crock that encases a round of butter molded to fit the container. If these little butter dishes were sold in the hotel gift shop, I'd have gotten up from dinner and gone straight-away to purchase one. It's that desirable.

Tanglewood

Hyatt Regency, 5001 Coconut Point Road, Bonita Springs. 444-1234. Breakfast: 6:30-11 a.m. No lunch. Dinner: Monday through Saturday, 5-10 p.m.,. Closed Sunday. Reservations suggested. Credit cards. Valet parking.

Want a city dining spot both sexy and chic with a menu that balances comfort foods like meat loaf with more cosmopolitan dishes ostrich in a wine reduction sauce or wild mushroom risotto? Then reserve a big, blue surround-around plush banquette at Zoe's and settle in for a leisurely culinary experience that is positively sensual.

A handsome bar (with a plasma TV) dominates the décor and tells you that the wine list here is serious, with hundreds of labels on view as well as vintner-signed bottles scattered around the dining room like art. (The owners, Larry and Marie Andrews, are trustees and committee members of the Naples Winter Wine Festival). The wine list is primarily American, with samplings of Australian, French and Italian. The lighting is artistic, too, , with a combination of Italian modern chandeliers, cool blue pendants, pinpoint recessed fixtures, fanciful sconces and individual table lights. Everybody looks great in Zoe's lighting; and it obviously cost a fortune to do. The room, which seats 170, is sectioned into semi-private areas and swathed in silver and blue with a fashion-forward motif and strategic placements of mirrors. The restaurant is four years old and has been under its present ownership for the past two.

Chef Michael Petrick's entrées average about $25 and are nicely presented with a starch and vegetable. There are pasta selections under that price such as chicken penne. Colorado lamb comes in at $39 and the New York strip steak is $33. Veal, chicken, sea bass, red snapper, ahi, and steamed Atlantic salmon round out a menu that has something for just about every taste.

Zoe's offers a cheese course for dessert ($15), a nice surprise and a good reason to order another bottle of wine. Then there are the usual suspects-crème brûlée, cheesecake, tiramisu and a molten chocolate cake. A decadent hot fudge sundae would be so much easier to eat if it were in a more traditional container. It's served in a tall glass designed for milk shakes. Desserts average $7.

The youngish waitstaff, dressed in blue, is professional, alert and friendly. The sommelier, Manny Nieves, wears a suit and tie and is amiable and knowledgeable. Like all good sommeliers, he loves to talk wine.

When you've finished enjoying the food and each other at Zoe's, notice the "kissing" chrome salt shaker and pepper grinder (which are magnetized), the silver coaster for your wine bottle, the handsome silverware, and the blue and white dinner plates with their optical-illusion, off-center design. And do take a blue box of signature matches on your way out to tuck into purse or pocket, because the packaging is cool and it will remind you to return to Zoe's. It's a place to add to a list of comfortable, chic places for enjoying a first-rate meal, and it's a reliable place to recommend to visiting friends and relatives who want to be part of the downtown scene in Naples.

Zoe's

720 Fifth Ave., Naples

261-1221. Monday-Thursday and Sunday, 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Live music several nights a week for dancing. Credit cards. Reservations accepted. Street parking.

When Bistro 41 opened in 1996 at the Bell Tower mall in Fort Myers, it helped usher in a new trend in Southwest Florida eating: the American bistro with a menu of wide-ranging regional favorites and some continental classics like French onion soup. The bustling café/bar attracts neighboring business people on the clock, shoppers with more time, and both seasonal visitors and locals who never make it into the mall to browse or buy. And it's the perfect spot for a light bite just before or after a movie, which is just across the parking lot.

The restaurant's owners (who also have Aqua Grill at the Waterside mall in Naples) hit upon a winning combination of excellent food served in a chatty, informal atmosphere reminiscent of European neighborhood eateries. Expect bright yellow walls, open kitchen, utilitarian straight-back chairs, white butcher paper on the square, white-clothed tables, and waiters in long, white aprons.

The bill of fare features heaping salads of field greens, burgers, hoagies, individual pizzas, even croissants and quiche. After all, the bistro is a French concept. And speaking of French, the onion soup is exactly what it should be-sweet, soft onions in a rich broth topped with melted cheese. Under it all, a deliciously soggy crouton. The soup arrives at the table scorchingly hot, the molten cheese wearing just the right amount of crust.

The small pizzas have a fusion edge, so you'll discover combinations such as chicken, sweet corn and shaved red onion under Grana cheese. A twist on the traditional BLT combines grilled salmon and apple-smoked bacon in a toasted baguette with lettuce and tomato. It comes with a lemon caper tartar sauce. Sandwiches and pizzas are about $8. Salads are in the $9 range and include the Bistro house specialty, which has pine nuts, mushrooms and bits of Gorgonzola cheese in the mix. The vinaigrette is maple flavored.

The dinner menu offers paella ($17.95), rosemary-roasted chicken, vegetable risotto ($10.95) oak-grilled salmon ($16.95), and lighter fare such as chicken satay ($5.95), spring rolls, quesadillas and escargot. Calamari is served with a key lime aioli for $6.95 and is a good appetizer to share. Or pair it with a salad for a meal.

There are plenty of seating options at Bistro 41: the main dining room, patio, glass porch and the bar (noisy but fun). On your way in or out, notice the cable lighting system above the bar that features silvery silhouettes of acrobats holding the spots. Those little guys doing the balancing act define Bistro 41's sense of fun and casual ambience. This place is a neighborhood hangout in the best culinary sense of the term. It's worked in Paris for centuries, and it works in Fort Myers, too.

Bistro 41

13449 U.S. 41 (Bell Tower Shops), Fort Myers. 466-4141. Lunch: Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Monday through Saturday, 4-9 p.m. Limited menu: Monday through Saturday, 2:30-4 p.m. Credit cards. Parking in the mall lots.

Ask Marsha:

Q. Where can I get a sandwich that's out of the ordinary but still a meal, not sissy croissant stuff?

A. You're ready for some divine revelations at Manna from Heaven, where the French-style meat, seafood and veggie masterpieces are created between an Eden of thick bread slices and served with multi-colored crisps. Portrait of Provence is roast turkey, asparagus and brie on a crusty baguette smeared with lemon-infused butter ($9). And there's always a seasonal soup du jour. Eat inside or out and feel pampered with pretty silverware and classy logo paper napkins that are almost cloth.. Manna from Heaven, 835 Vanderbilt Beach Road (The Pavilion), Naples. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. 593-4948.

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