October 25, 2014

The Playa's the Thing

Southwest florida is taking a cue from las Vegas: High-profile restaurants are becoming a big drawing card for resort hotels. Naples now boasts a growing group of centerpiece resort restaurants, including the Ritz Grill, Shula's at the Hilton, Lafite at the Registry, Sale e Pepe at Marco Beach Ocean Resort and now Baleen Naples at LaPlaya Beach Club & Resort.

Baleen's monkey-themed dining room is a logical stop for guests staying at the newly renovated 189-room LaPlaya. But Baleen should also attract vacationers staying at other places and residents who live in the region year-round. "Baleen," which means "whalebone," bears no obvious connection to the menu or the décor; but it sounds slightly exotic, and it's easy to pronounce.

Parent company Noble House Hotels and Resorts this summer completed a $54 million renovation at LaPlaya, which opened in 1968. The result is a contemporary take on the Old Florida relaxed and low-key lifestyle, including lots of comfortable cane and wicker chairs with deep, plump upholstered cushions. Every corner holds pots of colorful tropical plants, and artworks depict Florida herons, egrets and spoonbills. The look is quintessential Southwest Florida without being a cliché because the fabrics, furniture and detail accessories are expensive and elegant.

Thanks to the monkey theme, metal chandeliers and sconces, and vivid tropical fabrics, the dining room and lounge achieve a balance between formality and fun. The restaurant seats 234 (88 outside-Gulfside) at tables and banquettes. A monkey candle is the focal point of each table. The banquettes are raised (the better to see the water), and their mirrored walls maximize vistas. Wherever you look, you see white sand, blue-green water and a dazzling sun or rosy sunset.

But do look at the menu, too. It's composed by Robbin Haas, executive chef and vice president of restaurant concepts for Noble House. What he did for the company in Miami and San Diego, he's now doing for Naples with dishes such as parsley-crusted salmon with tahini butter. Jeff Bowles is the property's executive chef, and the chef at Baleen is 44-year-old Michael Patterson, formerly of Annabelle's in Naples. Patterson is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America.

The short menu is a quick read, with an emphasis on fish and shellfish. While you're reading, nibble on warm, soft monkey bread that you pull apart and dip into herb-infused olive oil. The appetizer portion concentrates on the familiar-clams casino, oysters Rockefeller and the like. Entrées (which average $28) include such tourist favorites as grilled mahi mahi, fried snapper, Maine lobster, Chilean sea bass and the very popular crab cakes.

Additionally, there are two beef selections and one chicken entrée. The latter is a plump and wonderfully juicy roasted Bell & Evans chicken (a gourmet brand bird, indeed) served with goat cheese dumplings and wild mushrooms. The dish is full of rich flavors yet simple enough to please diners who prize plain food. The most-requested nightly specials include seared tuna, grouper, sea bass and the Roquefort-crusted filet mignon. Some are served with a light and lovely side of potato puree.

Desserts include the ubiquitous key lime pie, a mango tart, three kinds of crème brûlée, and a few diet-blasters such as a chocolate mousse tower too spectacular to devour-at least for a second or two.

The service at Baleen is what a diner hopes for from a top-quality restaurant. The staff reacts quickly and silently, changing silverware between courses, filling glasses, and answering questions about the wines and menu. Wine choices include 20 by-the-glass options ranging from $9 to $15.

Baleen Naples

LaPlaya Beach Club & Resort, 9891 Gulf Shore Drive, Naples. 597-3123, ext. 5707. Breakfast: 6-11 a.m. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: from 6 p.m. Reservations suggested. Credit cards. Valet parking. 

Celebrity sightings have occurred at La Brasserie, but that's not the reason to search out this authentic French restaurant. It may be in a strip mall in Fort Myers, but you'll think Left Bank Paris when you walk through the funky-Deco entrance. Once inside you could swear you're in an edgy, sexy cellar even though you know the place is just a standard issue storefront. The floors are concrete, the walls roughhewn, the artworks jagged and colorful. Iron-work divides the room. Caught in the grasp of the twisting pattern are bottles of wine.

Banquettes, tables and a welcoming bar make up the seating arrangement. The wooden tabletops are bare. The lighting is gentle. The background music is jazz. The waitstaff wears black. It's all so bohemian French. No one hurries you, and co-owner and chef Gerard Pinault quietly chats up the many regulars during the evening. The other two partners are Jean-Claude Roge and Stephen Hyde.

Since this is a brasserie, the menu stresses traditional, hearty, working-class food. Thick soups, (tomato, French onion, even clam chowder) chicken stew, sauerkraut (champagne-infused) and sausage, steak frites, duck with orange sauce, cassoulet and bouillabaisse, stuffed cabbage with lentils. But Pinault also does poached salmon, yellowfin tuna, shrimp scampi and grilled quail with green peppercorn sauce, even Maine lobster and grilled rack of lamb.

We were dining with a woman so expert in French cookery that we call her the empress of sweetbreads, and she gave her plate of calf thymus gland and pancreas a royal A-plus for texture, breading, freshness and delicate taste. She was afraid the peppercorn sauce would overwhelm the fragile flavors of the sweetbreads but decided it delivered just the right amount of unexpected perkiness. She also noted the portion of sweetbreads was unusually generous and the batter gossamer light. Entrées (about $18) are served in generous portions with sides of either mashed potatoes, rice or pasta. While the presentation of the entrées is straightforward, the sweets are lavish and pretty. The sorbets are especially intense. The wine list is not overly extensive but offers enough choices among French and American labels to accompany the menu.

La Brasserie offers daily specials, lunch, Sunday brunch (I've heard the eggs Benedict are a revelation) and a children's menu where everything is under $4.

The waitstaff is sharp. And they're nice. Silverware is replaced between courses, water glasses refilled before they are empty.

La Brasserie is the kind of restaurant that invites slavish devotion. People who go once come back often and bring friends. It's comfortable, intimate, and the food is deeply satisfying. Why wouldn't tout le monde want to eat at La Brasserie? 

La Brasserie

15660 San Carlos Blvd., Fort Myers. 415-4375. Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Nightly from 5-9:30. Sunday Brunch: 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Credit cards. Reservations suggested. Easy parking in mall lot. 

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