Anyone with knowledge of French might find a restaurant named Les Marais a bit off-putting. It means the swamp or marshlands. But to its chef and owner, Patrick Fevrier, the name evokes taste memories of his youth in Aix-en-Provence and the nourishing meals his family cooked with local ingredients that abound in that part of France.
So, of course, frog legs are on the menu at Les Marais in Bonita Springs; and they are well worth ordering because they are fat, juicy and coated in a light, crisp batter, pan fried in garlic and arranged on a plate with chopped tomato and black olives in a kind of Provençal salsa ($10.95). What an excellent beginning to a meal. But you'd also be happy with the lobster bisque or chewy snails baked in bubbling garlic butter. At Les Marais, the mussels are steamed in white wine combined with a tomato andred-pepper coulis and a touch of basil-infused cream. You'll want extra bread for sopping up the broth. Fevrier grew up in the restaurant business (his father was a chef), and nearly all the dishes at Les Marais are tried-and-true family recipes from Provence.
The entrée side of the menu is a combination of southern French classics such as bouillabaisse ($28.95), chicken sautéed with crayfish, prawns and smoked sausage ($17.95), or fish baked in a butter crust and finished with garlic confit, bacon and baby shrimp, all bathed in a light, merlot brown sauce. At $23.95, this dish smells like haute French perfume to a seafood admirer.
I'd never tasted one of the house specialties in a French restaurant, but I'm planning to order it again at Les Marais. Two petite tenderloins are pan seared in anchovy butter and arranged atop potato rounds. This is as fine (and simple) a French version of steak and potato as you could want. The flavorful collision of the shapely, salty anchovy with the mellow, rounded beef leaves taste buds humming. It's $23.95. Another house specialty (and the kitchen's most frequently requested dish) is fruits de mer aux morilles at $23.95. This rich preparation combines shrimps and scallops with morel mushrooms and fresh thyme in a champagne cream sauce.
The presentation of meals is understated but artistic, with unexpected flourishes of garnish such as fried shards of yucca. The wine list offers mostly French selections (but some Italian and Californians too) from $35 to $545. A nice feature is that you can order a half carafe of house wine for $12.50, or a full carafe for $25. House wines by the glass are available also.
If you're a first-time guest, try Fevrier's key-lime soufflé. The flavors are delicate and sweet, and the portion is generous enough for sharing. With the cloud-light soufflé comes a silver boat of lime sauce. You make a deep hole in the center of the soufflé, pour in the sauce and enjoy. All desserts are about $6.50 and include crème brûlée, a lovely chocolate raspberry mousse cake and an apple tart.
Les Marais dresses informally but with precise charm, like a Provençal country inn. A lighter shade of the terra-cotta tile floor is repeated on the walls, and there are accents of cheerful paintings, mirrors, silk-flower bouquets and a faux rooster or two. The tables are double cloaked in celadon and white linens; cloth napkins reference the gentle coral walls. The dining room seats 88, with table groupings separated by half walls so you have the feeling of being in a much more intimate space. The background music is French. A few sidewalk tables under umbrellas are usually appropriated by smokers. Since there's virtually no place nearby in Les Marais' immediate area for serious shopping or pleasant strolling, this excellent little place is strictly a dining destination. Only one year old, Les Marais has already attracted a loyal local following. Jackie greets about half the guests on any given evening as returning friends. I intend to be among them.
4271 Bonita Beach Road, Bonita Springs. 992-5848. Dinner: 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Closed during September. Credit cards. Parking in rear. Reservations suggested. Catering, take-out and gift certificates available.
Ray Eynard is pleased to see the cheese course rebounding in restaurants and at home dinner parties. Not that it ever left his table. This chef, former executive in a wholesale gourmet food business and now cheese guru at Haskell's Fine Wine & Spirits in Naples, always includes the cheese course at home when he and wife Linda entertain family and friends.
Because Eynard prefers the European way of staging a meal, his cheese course comes directly after the salad course and right before dessert. Salad in a European meal follows, rather than precedes, the entrée. Eynard also likes to organize a cheeseboard as an appetizer, for happy hour, a picnic on the beach or sometimes instead of lunch.
Eynard moved to Naples and came to Haskell's at just the right time. The management at this widely respected wine emporium had been wanting to engage the services of a cave master (that's what you call a cheese monger in a restaurant or food enterprise) to order and maintain about 100 cheeses that pair well with wine. When Eynard, who had recently moved to Naples from Scottsdale, Ariz., wandered into the store last October looking for some cheeses to go with the bottles of wine he'd just pulled off the shelf, he got into a long discussion about cheeses with wine manager K.C. Boudrie. Soon, the two were making lists, trading sources, discussing attractive displays and planning a whole schedule of cooking classes and tastings that could incorporate cheeses from all over the world.
One of the more esoteric cheeses that Eynard has brought to Naples is bleu de Termignon. This cow's milk cheese is made by an 89-year-old French woman who grazes her nine cows on grass and flowers in the National Park of Vanoise in the French Alps. A mild, slightly creamy cheese with a forward hint of green apples, bleu de Termignon retails for a hefty $29 a pound at Haskell's. But its addition to the Haskell's cheese cases establishes Naples as a serious gourmet cheese city.
Another of Eynard's all-time favorites is Epoisses, a French cow cheese from Burgundy that was probably invented in the 16th century by Cistercian monks. Epoisses has a red-orange skin and a much milder taste than its highly assertive aroma. Genuine cheese aficionados adore this cheese.
Eynard has a special fondness for goat cheeses, so at any one time the Haskell's display cases might be tipped 40 percent in the goat's favor. Usually a bit more acidic than cow cheese, with less fat content, goat cheeses vary in flavor and strength. One of Eynard's favorites is Selles-sur-Cher (the name describes the cheese's place of origin in the southern Loire Valley). Selles-sur-Cher is disk shaped and covered with an ash rind made from charcoal powder. Its flavor is nutty and tender.
For casual summer entertaining, a wine and cheese platter is a natural because it's so easy to assemble and it gets people talking. Eynard advises no more than five different cheeses for your guests. Any more just confuses the palate. He suggests serving the cheeses with a crusty French baguette or water crackers; crackers with flavor just detract from the cheese. Fresh or dried fruits, or big olives (Haskell's stocks a dozen or more) could be part of the presentation. Don't forget spreads. For instance, with manchego cheese from Spain, a little smear of quince paste on a baguette slice will enhance the cheese's flavor characteristics. A fig spread with pecorino Romano is just the thing.
Cheeses should be served at room temperature. For storing cheeses, Eynard suggests (and sells) a French double-layer wax--and-cellophane paper that keeps the cheese from drying out or holding too much humidity. Eynard never refrigerates his cheeses at home. They remain wrapped on a counter. But they don't hang around long. He does as he suggests: buys in small quantities and eats them up.
Ideally, a summertime cheese platter includes cow, goat and sheep cheeses. Try to include one rare or unusual variety for its conversation value. For the novice cheese adventurer, Eynard recommends the paperback book Cheese Primer by Steve Jenkins.
Ray Eynard's Summer Cheese Platter
(with wines chosen by K.C. Boudrie of Haskell's cellars)
Cow's Milk Cheeses
Ubriaco prosecco: Semi-hard Italian cheese from the Veneto region. Cured in grape must and aged in wine. Sometimes referred to as one of the "drunken" cheeses.
Point Reyes blue: A California cheese from Holsteins that graze on grass overlooking Tomales Bay. This is a region of superlative oysters, too.
A good wine to go with cow cheeses: a Thornberry New Zealand sauvignon blanc. About $20.
Goat's Milk Cheeses
Bermuda Triangle: from Mary Keehn and her daughter Malorie McCurdy at Cypress Grove Chevre in Humboldt County, California, this white cheese with a natural ash rind is rich, creamy and slightly crumbly. It comes in a 10-inch triangle shape and is great cut up and tossed in a green salad, too.
Goat Gouda: from Holland, this white semisoft cheese has a creamy, nutty flavor and is aged eight months.
A wine of choice with the goat cheeses would be a pinot grigio. La Tunella at $15 a bottle would do just fine.
Sheep's Milk Cheese
Pecorino del Casentino: from Tuscany, this semihard cheese has a natural rind that is rubbed with tomato olive oil by the cheesemaker before being aged for eight months.
With the sheep cheese, you can't go wrong with a Cote du Bone pinot noir from Domaine Bachelet at about $22 a bottle.
Haskell's of Florida
2021 Pine Ridge Road, Naples. 254-1120.
The green sign above the door at Sweet Caroline's emphasizes "Muffins and Lunch" but that doesn't adequately divulge the range of tasty options at this bakery and eatery located in a busy healthcare complex in north Naples. While the muffins indeed warrant star billing (they are oversized, generously studded with goodies and have crispy tops), there are plenty of other seductive ovenly and prepared fresh items that seven women whip up for breakfast and lunch five days a week. I'm thinking especially of the chicken or tuna salad sandwich on fresh rye ($6) or maybe a cup of soup du jour with a slab of herb garlic cheese bread ($4). A Cobb salad ($4.50) or a BLT on whole wheat honey toast garnished with alfalfa sprouts could surely satisfy. Or how about the Sweet Caroline, a chicken curry surprise salad served on a fresh baked croissant, for $5.95? And if you want an all-veggie lunch, the kitchen complies with a healthy sandwich composed of fresh cucumber, tomato, green pepper, parmesan cheese, green olive, shredded carrot and alfalfa sprouts on whole wheat honey bread lavishly smeared with mayonnaise and honey mustard for $5.75. Pickles and chips are on the side.
Caroline's (which is 12 years old) is owned and operated by the mother-and-daughter duo of Barbara Oppenheim and young Lisa Juliano, who bought the enterprise from the original Caroline nearly four years ago. Barbara, a retired school administrator from New Jersey, supervises the salad and sandwich part of the operation and runs the business. She was looking for a little retirement project when this entrepreneurial opportunity came up. Now she just laughs at the word retirement.
Lisa is the baker, menu planner and recipe authority. Every morning, her side of the kitchen turns out more than 300 muffins in 22 flavors. Blueberry is the most popular, but there's a substantial following for some of the more unusual choices, such as banana-chocolate-walnut or double-chocolate cheesecake. All the muffins are made from scratch using soybean oil, and most are prepared with egg whites instead of whole eggs. So these muffins are cholesterol free; and they are preservative free, too (if that makes you feel virtuous) besides being toothsome and soul nourishing. Muffins are $1.75 each. Additionally, Lisa's ovens turn out five fresh bread varieties every day, a small army of sticky buns, turnovers, croissants and a batch of her ever-popular brownies.
Sweet Caroline's does catering and fancy sandwich platters for home parties, and the baker will gladly fulfill specialty orders with 24-hours' notice. About half the daily bakery and food plates are for take-out. But whether you must take your food and scurry back to an office or home to a waiting brunch gathering, or whether you can sit a spell in Caroline's little world of wonderful smells, you'll be pleased with the cheerful service and quality food. The "sweet" in the logo could easily refer to the kindly, energetic women behind the counters as well as to the baked goods.
11121 Health Park Blvd. in North Collier Health Park (off Immokalee Road), Naples. 592-1111. Breakfast and lunch: 7 a.m-2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.