November 26, 2014

Send in the Aquamarines

The double front doors of the Aqua Grill at the Waterside Shops in Naples look as if they belong on a pricey big Sub-Zero refrigerator. And the interior of Aqua Grill is cool, serene and upmarket in its modern-casual marine decor. But the clientele is boisterous, hip, urbane and obviously in the mood for adventurous eating.

They know they've come to the right place, an oasis for fancy fusion preparations such as coconut-encrusted Hawaiian opakapaka (that's a fish) served with ginger-lemongrass jasmine rice, bok choy and grilled pineapple bathed in a curry sauce ($24.95). The ubiquitous yellowtail snapper surfaces here too, this time encrusted with cashews, along with an Asian steamer basket of shellfish with shiitake mushrooms and red curry.

But chef Todd Johnson's menu isn't only imaginative East-meets-West fusion fare. He's also riding the crest of the American wave of comfort food cravings. You can definitely eat-to-cocoon at Aqua Grill. A terrific signature meat loaf fragrant with sage comes with garlic mashed potatoes and a substantive veal gravy for $12.95. It's a sublime hungry-man meal. Rotisserie lemon-rosemary chicken, New York strip steak au poivre ($27.95) and a center cut pork loin hold up the creative American bistro section of the menu.

Other more Mediterranean-style comfort food dishes get proper respect. The paella is cooked Spanish-authentic, with chorizo sausage added to the seafood. The vodka penne is tossed with real Parma prosciutto before it's mixed with green peas and gently coated with a spiced tomato-liquor cream sauce ($12.95). A risotto-of-the-day as well as a white wine version is served as a side dish with some of the menu offerings. Vegetarians can enjoy their own specialty-a grilled portobello mushroom paired with steamed vegetables and cushioned with couscous for $15.95.

The lunch menu features a spectrum of sandwiches, including a Tuscan veggie concoction and a Black Angus burger. Customers can choose from soups, salads and lunch plates, some of which change daily. Johnson gives some sass to the house quiche with crimini mushroom and leeks. Lunch is about $9.

The varied dessert assortment is presented in vertical theatrical ways, but the winner is the demure tropical fruit tart, which showcases fresh seasonal fruits crowned with crème anglaise and raspberry sauce. This tart is $6.50 and large enough to share.

The handsome bar with sleek aqua glass counter lures customers with fancy mixed drinks, traditional cocktails and a serious wine list that. Six whites and reds are available by the glass, along with a selection of bottles from California, Chile, Australia and Europe, Johnson highlights a particular vintage on the printed menu of daily specials and devotes three or four sentences to the wine's characteristics and background. Good idea. These showcased vintages cost from $36 for a bottle of Chappellet Old Vine Cuvee chardonnay-chenin blanc, '98 from Napa Valley to $140 for a bottle of Camus Special Selection cabernet sauvignon '98.

Dressed in practical pale-blue polo shirts and khaki slacks, servers at Aqua cruise through the dining areas with powerboat speed and efficiency. It must be a corporate policy to be extra solicitous. At least four servers other than our own stopped to inquire if everything was satisfactory.

The three Naples residents behind Aqua Grill are pros. Jeff Gately, Mike Hernandez and Johnson have worked together successfully for the past seven years on projects such as Bistro 41 in Fort Myers and the newly opened Mia's in the Old Hyde Park district of south Tampa. Johnson, 30, is a graduate of the Miami campus of Johnson & Wales, the prestigious culinary school with headquarters in Rhode Island. Hernandez, 42, created the interior design of Aqua Grill with his wife, Lisa. Gately, 39, and worked in private dining rooms before going public with restaurants that specialize in creative American cuisine.

Aqua Grill seats 220 inside and out. Decor turns on the color aqua and the soothing coolness of water. Tiny, shimmering blue glass tiles encase columns and accent both the walls and mirror frames. Pendant light fixtures hold multi-colored small bulbs in a tangle of wires. The look is smart, high-style Milan and full of architectural fun. At night, candlelight flickers in a silvery wire mesh cube on each table. But a wide runner of white butcher paper down the center of the white table cloth reminds diners that this is a casual bistro where the atmosphere is casual, not stiff.

The artistic centerpiece of Aqua Grill is a 15-foot painted fiberglass rendition of a deepwater grouper, created by local sculptor Edward Koehler. The big fish swims mid-air between the bar and the main dining area as a room divider. Koehler also crafted the engaging seahorse family of three on a sidewall. The sculptures set the tone of classy good cheer and the food backs up what the ambience promises: creative dishes from Neptune's territory and terra firma, too. 

Aqua Grill.

Waterside Shops, 5555 Tamiami Trail N., Naples. 254-1234. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., daily. Dinner: Monday-Thursday and Sunday, 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5-10:30 p.m. Reservations accepted. Easy parking. Credit cards. 

* * * 

Katie Gardenia's Kitchen is a genuine roadside attraction. On any given night of the season, this Sanibel Island oddity is filled to 150-seat capacity with out-of-towners who stare with wonder at the tropical marine baroque surroundings featuring mermaids-thousands of mermaids. Mermaid lamps, plaques, weather vanes, vases, salt and pepper shakers, prints, tree ornaments, dolls . it goes on and on.

Tiny plastic mermaids cling to the rims of water glasses at place settings. The glass-topped tables in the restaurant are actually big display boxes. When you're finished with the menu, gaze down and see a Barbie mermaid with billowing sea-green hair and sparkly tail fin grinning back at you. The table boxes are full of shells, books, old photos and mermaid memorabilia of every kind imaginable. Of course, there are an aquarium in the restaurant as well as nets hanging from the ceiling, buoys and dangling paper lights that remind you of seahorses. Mermaids, too, are suspended from the rafters.

The establishment's owner, Katie herself, has at least a dozen mermaid costumes. She often wears one when she greets guests at the door. What is going on here? Katie Gardenia's passion made public--that's what.

The 60-year-old Gardenia has collected mermaids since she was a child. "The irony is that I never learned to swim," admits the native of San Antonio, Texas. "But as early as age 7 or 8, I was making sculptures out of clay, and the figures would always be mermaids." Now she's moved the bulk of her collection, including three of her own sculptures, out of her home and into the restaurant, where the public is invited to rejoice in a kitsch gallery-eatery.

A colorful, cheerful character, Gardenia moved to Captiva in 1974. She and a former spouse owned the wildly popular Bubble Room, an emporium celebrated for big portions, a decor of Yuletide lights and holiday toys, and servers called Bubble Scouts because of their attire. The restaurant was sold in 1979 and Gardenia had to abide by a 10-year no-compete clause, which kept her out of the food business but didn't sideline the lady one bit. Gardenia, who buys island properties, moves in, renovates, sells and relocates, is working on her 19th home. She also sculpts, does bead work, and cooks for her friends.

Gardenia was, in fact, born in her Polish grandmother's restaurant in San Antonio. By age 3, she was helping with the baking. Married at 18 to her high school sweetheart, she raised a daughter while launching a needlepoint design business. She's also owned a handbag factory, a restaurant in Atlanta's upscale neighborhood of Buckhead, a restaurant in Asheville, N.C., and a 19-acre farm near Asheville where she cultivated grapes.

A year and a half ago, an abandoned Italian restaurant became available in a shopping center in Sanibel. Getting extra space from two more nearby empty stores, Gardenia created a garden restaurant of 150 seats inside and out, and began adding mermaids.

You'd expect the dining room ambience to out-perform the kitchen. But a genuine chef labors at the stove, and that's what accounts for repeat business and local customers during the off-season.

Brant Kotel, 27, is a self-taught cook who was born and raised on Cape Cod and moved to Florida to fish in the Keys. He cooked at both Sunshine Cafe restaurants in Fort Myers and Captiva before joining Gardenia's enterprise. Kotel is up for trying anything in the cuisine world. This past winter, he's been serving a lot of Southwestern and Caribbean dishes as well as some Asian seafood entrees and salads, such as the tempura fried oyster salad at $10. With your corn muffins and pepper jelly, you can order Southwestern crab cakes, blue cornmeal-crusted conch and a black bean chili, twice baked potato. Tortilla soup and Southwestern-style grouper chowder keep the heat level elevated.

This summer, Kotel aims to experiment with several different chicken preparations, and he'll alter the demiglace on the excellent filet mignon. Changeable and hard to classify, the menu at Katie's caters to those who seek excitement or just crave the comfort of the familiar. Entrees average about $23.

Desserts are outrageous-mile high, rich and plenty generous enough to split two or four ways. The signature dessert is cake, either pound or chiffon, that is tarted up to become orange crush, red velvet, rum and more. Because this is Florida, there's key lime pie on the menu, too.

The wine list, under the direction of Steve Cearley, is a work in progress. Currently, it's mostly American, with only a modest markup. We were pleased with a David Bruce Pinot Noir at $34, which complemented the beef, pork, tuna and shellfish that we sampled. Katie Gardenia's Kitchen has a retail wine license and will soon be selling wine separately from the dinner menu. The restaurant also intends to offer a series of multi-course wine dinners in the 50-seat Orchid Room, which can be closed off for private parties. The first should take place this summer. Mermaid costume optional, although Gardenia will probably wear one.

Katie Gardenia's Kitchen

2055 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel Island. 472-1242. Lunch: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. daily. Dinner: 5:30-10 p.m. daily. Reservations suggested. Credit cards. Easy parking.