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Tops in Taste

When it comes to food, the Gulfshore is a glorious place to be right now. Lee and especially Collier County have shed their culinary cul-de-sac status and moved into the mainstream restaurant whirlwinds that swirl along the Gold Coast, the Keys, Orlando, Jacksonville and the Gulfshore around Destin. Sleepy Fort Myers has emerged from its shell with the arrival of exotic newcomers and an infusion of German capital gentrifying strategic downtown sections and sites. Sanibel and Captiva have become saturated with feederies of all kinds, and Naples is absolutely chock-a-block with places to eat-one restaurant seat for every three of the 200,000 residents of Collier County.

It's exciting to track the progress, follow the flow and find the winners, admiring the persistence and the struggles of all those who strive so mightily to realize their dreams. But I keep going back to the old pros, the time-tested success stories, the tried and the true, where consistency and reliability have been honored as hallmarks.

In Fort Myers that means The Veranda with its great sense of place in the heart of the historic downtown district. Its walls talk to me-of the first settlers on the site, the family of trading-post pioneer Manuel Gonzalez, who built the pair of houses at the turn of the century; of Palm Beach's Peter Pulitzer, who joined the two homes 30 years ago to make a restaurant and lounge, putting his long-time fishing and hunting guide, Fingers O'Bannon, in charge. They lined lounge walls with a rogue's gallery of Fort Myers movers and shakers, and graced dining room walls with marvelous black-and-white pictures of the town's development. The city's most distinguished past resident, Thomas Edison, gets prominent attention, but so too do Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone and other visiting luminaries.

When Paul Peden took over in the late '70s, he upgraded a bit. Peden installed a skilled crew out back and friendly, caring serving staff in rambling dining rooms and the inviting

courtyard, delivering a menu that celebrates the South. That means cakes of grits spiked with pepper-jack cheese and grilled Andouille sausage, blue crab remoulade and a salad made with fried green tomatoes, accompanied by fresh-baked breads and muffins just begging to be slathered with Southern pepper jelly ($6-$9). Southern mains include breast of chicken, Gulf shrimp and Andouille jumbled jambalaya style; grilled grouper with blue crab hash splashed with caper-freckled vinaigrette; and Bourbon Street beef saluted with a smoky sour-mash whiskey sauce. But the kitchen also prepares some non-regional zingers-veal piccata in the classic manner with a fine white wine-lemon sauce; rack of New Zealand lamb with rosemary-flattered merlot sauce, filet mignon Béarnaise and Chateaubriand. ($20-$29). Key lime and peanut butter pies, or pecan praline tarts with French vanilla ice cream, provide the proper climax.

Across the causeway in restaurant-rich Sanibel-Captiva, I seek similar solace with another veteran, The Timbers Restaurant & Fish Market, where the walls talk not of pioneers and Pulitzers, but of a band of enterprising New England expatriates who arrived 20 years ago and applied their seafood smarts and restaurant resources to create a 10-link chainlet on both coasts that includes Prawnbrokers in Fort Myers and Stuart, where they also have The Black Marlin and Shrimpers Grill and Raw Bar; the University Grill in Fort Myers and Matzaluna in Sanibel, as informal and moderately priced as The Sanibel Grill adjacent to Timbers. The Grill features overhead TVs and a raw bar for the sporty set, along with good burgers, Buffalo wings, pizza, crunchy shrimp and Killer Quesadillas. At the slightly more formal, dinner-only Timbers, you can start with oysters Romanoff, smoked pepper bluefish or a brewed out back chowder of the day ($2-$5.), and then get serious with bacon-wrapped, skewered shrimp, broiled seafood platter or the house specialties of crunchy grouper and coconut-encrusted dolphin with raspberry-gentled horseradish ($15-$23). It's a reliable spot for steaks, superb service and highly professional management.

Marilyn Grinos runs the equally consistent and venerable St. George & the Dragon in Naples . There the walls' wealth of maps and nautical necessities talk of men and the sea, of clipper ships and whalers, slick sloops and sturdy sailors. What it all has to do with St. George I have never learned, but I'm more than content to sit comfortably immersed in all the lore and legend. Especially at Halloween or Christmas, when the decorations are close to overwhelming-and when it's absolutely necessary to make your reservations well in advance.

Whenever I go, I always start with the incomparable conch chowder and then work slowly and ever so thankfully through super chef Oscar's special catch of the day, hoping it's rainbow trout or grouper Celestine with a bracing sherry-splashed butter sauce and a shower of sliced almonds with accompanying red and white grapes. But I'm sorely tempted to order the almond-coated fried shrimp, pan-fried chicken livers or tenderloin tips en brochette with bacon, green pepper, onion and tomato with dollops of a superior, fresh mushroom sauce ($13.95-$21.95). When the trencherman in me takes over, I saddle up for the King Arthur's cut of prime rib, a pair of double-cut lamb chops (which weigh in at nearly a pound), or the 22-ounce center cut sirloin ($38.95-$43.95).

Several years after Grinos opened St. George, Pennsylvania native Tony Ridgway arrived in town, taking a fling on a simple grill called The Wurst Place, which quickly became the talk of the town as he expanded the menu into areas far removed from what the locals were used to eating. Soon he was on Fifth Avenue in his first Chef's Garden, then on the reborn Third Street South site where he too has been reborn, at Ridgway Bar & Grill.

His Cuisine Management Company has been reduced in scope and size, and he's come out from behind the desk. He prospered with all his operations and outlets but is now back where he is sure he belongs and wants to remain-in the kitchen. And he has just one partner, the enthusiastic and experienced Sukie Honeycutt, who's worked her way up through Ridgway's ranks to become partner and wine director, handling the front desk, cellaring the wines and skillfully running Tony's Off Third next door, arguably the best wine place in the state if not the South. It's a great success, selling the kind of eye-popping cakes, pies and tarts that used to be available in their old Truffles and pleasing the morning brigades who want good coffee with their croissants and the lunch crowd that longs to layer the good breads with mouth-bending treats.

I find it hard to give up lunch next door, where I can start with some excellent gazpacho or a salad called the Honeycutt-grilled chicken breast on a bed of fresh greenery and radicchio, the crunch of carrots and slices of beefsteak tomatoes laced with strips of fried tortillas, all of it dressed with peanut sauce and honey-lime vinaigrette; or the Laura Chenel goat cheese with oven-roasted baby beets and baby greens or the tuna Caesar with an original tonnato dressing first developed at Truffles ($5-$12). There's a full range of sandwiches, including a BLT removed from the realm of the routine with applewood-smoked bacon and griddled ciabatta bread, which also helps highlight the marvelous skillet preparation of Prince Edward Island mussels. They come in a luxurious sauce of garlic-enhanced fennel and tomato in fish stock with a touch of olive oil. ($8-$11).

The dinner menu displays similar range and cutting-edge stuff, like the spaghetti salsiccia with broccoli rape, roasted garlic and spicy sausage, or the seared duck breast with purée of celery roots, lavender and vanilla caramelized pears; the apple and sherry cured pork rib chop with apple brandy demi-glace, polenta cake and apple chutney; soft shell crabs tempura remoulade; seared sea bass with grilled fennel risotto, and the balsamic-glazed, grilled salmon with grilled romaine and black bean ratatouille ($20-$24). Desserts are as impressive as ever.: apple tart with caramel sauce and cinnamon ice cream, peanut butter pie, and a carrot cake that ranks among my all-time favs-it's a Ridgway classic he created in l971 with cream cheese frosting and a garnish of walnuts.

Ridgway has spun away from his various spinoffs but retained Bayside at Naples' eye-pleasing Village at Venetian Bay with a casual ground floor café serving freshly assembled salads, crunchy fried grouper and blackened mahimahi sandwiches and specialties such as roast duck with orange honey glaze, sautéed crab cakes and sesame seed tuna ($9.50-$20.95). On the upper deck with its great views, you can start with lobster-filled spring rolls or escargot vol-au-vent and then have oak-grilled Chilean sea bass with sundried tomato vinaigrette and a great platemate of lobster mashed potatoes; pistachio and macadamia-coated snapper or a selection of fresh fish simply prepared on the oak grill and enhanced with Tony's superlative sauces-herb beurre blanc, roasted red pepper aioli, tropical fruit salsa. ($8.95-$25).

There's more kitchen magic at work on Marco Island where, in the midst of all the modernity of humongous hotels and condominium canyons, Marek's Collier House Restaurant stands out as a shining sentinel of the past. Its walls talk of Marco's first permanent American settlers: schooner captain W. T. Collier and his nine children. Son Bill had his own schooners and also a boatyard, clam cannery and this house, built in 1882. It was reborn more than a century later when chef-proprietor Peter Mareck arrived with wife, Penny, all the way from the Isle of Jersey. Quite a bonanza for Marco! Schooled in London and trained at the Savoy, he was Jersey's top toque, a master of seafood, and he flashes those credentials with such starters as sherry-spiked shellfish bisque, delice of smoked salmon and salmon mousse surrounded by cucumber-dill sauce and sprinkled with salmon caviar ($7.50-$10.50). Follow that with anything from the sea, but think seriously about the pairing of Maine and Florida lobster with Gulf shrimp and local fish steeped in garlic butter, or the filet mignon topped with fresh blue crab and served on garlic creamed potatoes with superlative sauce Béarnaise ($28 and market price).

Heading south, all the way to Everglades City, I have another favorite escape, The Oyster House . The Rod & Gun Club, sporting a new coat of paint, has a lot of history and The Oar House is interesting, as is the Everglades Seafood Depot in the 1928 railroad station with its bountiful buffets; but I keep going back to the 20-year-old, wonderfully casual jumping-off platform leading to the stone crab capital of Florida, Chokoloskee, a couple of miles down the old road, and across from the dock where the boats voyage to the Ten Thousand Islands. In season, mid-October to mid-May, I hunker into a mass of cold crab claws, and out of season into other fresh seafood specialties of the house. There's fried everything but also shrimp scampi and grouper broiled or baked with green peppers, onions, tomatoes and lots of spices. Here's a good place to try gator tail as well as frog legs gigged in the Glades ($11.95-$17.95); but if your palate is landlocked, retreat to a boneless chicken breast or New York strip steak.

Robert Tolf, restaurant editor of Florida Trend since l973, has written some 50 books and guides covering a wide range of subjects. His latest is a history of the Stolt-Nielsen Company, international leader in parcel tanker transport, aquaculture and offshore support for the oil industry, to be published early next year.

Tolf's Top Picks 

The Veranda, 2122 Second Street, Fort Myers. (239) 332-2065.

The Timbers Restaurant & Fish Market. 703 Tarpon Bay Road, Sanibel. (239) 395-CRAB.

St. George & the Dragon, Naples. 936 Fifth Avenue. (239) 262-6546.

Ridgway Bar & Grill, 1300 Third Street South, Naples. (239) 262-7999.

Bayside at Naples, 4270 Gulf Shore Blvd. North. (239) 649-5552.

Marek's Collier House Restaurant. 1121 Bald Eagle Drive, Marco Island. (239) 642-9948.

The Oyster House (Chokoloskee Causeway, Hwy. 29S. (239) 695-2073.

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