One of the great joys of eating at a non-chain restaurant is that you often can get the sense that you are peering into the personality of its creators. Sure, there are some restaurants—see HobNob Kitchen and Bar that we reviewed in May—that are engineered to create a feeling more calculated to impress than representative of any one person. But have a meal at Blue Windows Bistro, and you leave feeling like you’ve been friends with the chef for years.
Blaze Bistro in Cape Coral offers a different twist on that experience. As a diner, you are certainly getting a peek into the culinary brain of its chef, Todd Sheffield. The curious thing is when you leave you might be more confused than when you got there. This restaurant is a singularity in a sea of strip mall outposts. (The plaza it’s in off Santa Barbara Boulevard is the definition of nondescript.)
Even on the way in, you sense something is slightly off when you see the sign hanging outside that says “Now serving and dinner,” because someone has blocked off the word “lunch” with duct tape.
The only real letdown of the evening came immediately upon walking in the door, when, after seeing the somewhat strange menu (more on that in a second) and the sign out front, I was expecting something more than the generic neighborhood bistro starter kit (although the mismatched flatware did add back a sense of eccentricity).
As for that menu, it is a strange amalgam of Italian, Asian and American comfort food influences. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen gnocchi ala vodka ($17), venison chop ($30) and East Indian bang-bang chicken ($17) on the same menu before. But it’s clear Sheffield has taken the No. 1 piece of advice given on TV cooking competition shows to heart: He’s cooking what he loves.
And it’s good.
Without fail, everything we sampled was delicious. There were flaws, certainly. The Bangkok prawns ($14) were overcooked, holding on too tightly to the skewers when they should have slid free as if they were greased. And the advertised chipotle flavor in the bow tie Caesar salad ($4), which, as its name hints, did have bow tie pasta in it for no discernible reason, never showed up.
The prawns, though, did have a wonderful crust, a spectacular succotash of quinoa and edamame with hints of Sriracha and a lime aioli. And its presentation—four prawns skewered nearly vertically into a half of a Fuji apple—was whimsical and began the evening’s theme of tall dishes.
The salad dressing, despite the lack of pepper, had a nice kick of anchovy—which so many Caesars leave unsaid—and remarkable croutons. The croutons were the second fantastic bread product of the evening. The starter plate of focaccia with roasted garlic paste and olive oil was one of the best house bread plates you are going to have in Southwest Florida.
We sampled entrees from all three sections of the menu—comfort food, seafood and meat. Each section offers a pretty wide variety of choices, so you won’t have to work too hard to find something you’ll enjoy.
In the comfort food department, we availed ourselves to the langostino mac and cheese ($18), which brought back the bow tie pasta along with heaping helpings of cheddar, truffle, blue and goat cheeses in addition to the crustaceans and some bacon (though the menu called for chorizo). It was every bit as decadent as you would expect with those ingredients and easily large enough for dinner and lunch the next day.
The dish did introduce us to the chef ’s fetish for the peppadew pepper and giant sprig of basil garnish, neither of which really added anything to the dishes other than to reinforce the conception that the chef “really loves the ’90s,” as my companion put it, in reference to the garnish and his vertical plating.
Our two other entrees both came plated with a second house succotash, this time without the quinoa, and on folded banana leaves with more of the peppadew and basil. The presentation made sense for the pistachio-crusted opa ($29), served with brown rice and topped with the creamiest beurre blanc sauce I’ve ever tasted. The Hawaiian fish seemed right at home with the banana leaf.
Not so much the lamb porterhouse ($22), which was cooked to a deep red medium-rare and served with super-rich mashed potatoes. The dish was spot-on, pairing well with the bottle of Wildwood pinot noir ($33) that was part of the very affordable, if not overly impressive, wine list; the presentation seemed out of whack.
But then, so, too, does the chef ’s insistence on flying in fish from Hawaii daily. That would make more sense if we didn’t live right next door to a bountiful body of water. It makes you scratch your head as you read the menu, but, after a few bites, you give him the benefit of the doubt.
Dessert options weren’t anything outlandish, your standard Key lime pies and the like. But the cheesecake ($9) we sampled was wonderfully creamy and came encased in a fantastic graham cracker-crushed pecan crust that would be worth ordering on its own. And the chocolate soufflé ($9) was a fine rendition of the chocolate lava cake that seems to be required for local restaurants.
Several days after having this meal, my dining companion and I were trying to describe the experience to another friend. We spent a long time talking about the eccentricities of the menu, the dated feeling of the peppadews and vertical plating, and the duct-taped sign.
“But was it good?” he asked.
“Yes,” we both answered.
2612 Santa Barbara Blvd., Suite 12, Cape Coral; (239) 800-2517, blazebistro.comcastbiz.net
Open for dinner 5-9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Wheelchair accessible. Reservations recommended.