It’s no longer a secret that Southwest Florida is a culinary hot spot. Fervent foodies have always benefitted from home-grown, high-quality produce and the Gulf ’s bountiful treasures. But in recent years, more and more talented chefs have begun to call the Paradise Coast home. From tiny bistros tucked away in strip malls to temples of contemporary fine dining, we’re lucky our gastronomic gems come in all forms—and the unifying factor is mouth-watering, finger-licking, down-to-the-last- drop-good food.
We’ve scoured the shore from Bokeelia to Goodland and everywhere in between to bring you the best of what’s new. (And for the record, we dined anonymously at all of the restaurants featured here and then some to come up with this list.)
Best New Restaurant: Lee County
Editor's Note: Mereday's Brasserie is now closed
23161 Village Shops Way, Estero; 949-9466, meredaysbrasserie.com
Charles Mereday’s ascent to the upper echelons of the food world here has been rapid, and the area is truly better for it. But we can almost hear a collective sigh from some readers—“This guy? Again?” Mereday’s Fine Dining, his first offering in July 2013, was at the top of last year’s list, and he’s opened three restaurants in less than two years, earning a cover story from this magazine in the process.
Rest assured, however; this designation is not an understatement. Mereday’s Brasserie is the best new restaurant in the region by a long shot, so the praise is fully deserved. Dollar for dollar, there is nothing that comes close to the value you’ll get at Mereday’s relaxed-yet-elegant version of an everyday French eatery. Sure, you’ll spend $16 for a wheel of baked brie (the restaurant’s divine spin on a cheese plate) or $42 on lobster Thermidor (impressively adorned with organic baby vegetables tilled at 2 a.m. that day), but it is worth every penny for the way the flavors magically come together and the artistry in which they’re expressed on the plate. The sauce alone for the Thermidor is a delicate dance, starting with a shrimp-snapper stock base that’s then enriched by tomato, shallots, double cream, brandy, parsley and lemon juice. A whole lobster, split lengthwise, its meaty knuckles and tail intact, gets topped with crab and cheese before being baked. The halves balanced just so on the dish elicit gasps the second they’re brought to the table. Then it’s silence after the first bite.
That’s not saying anything of the service—almost obsessively attentive and genuinely warm—or the ambiance, which bears an unintentional but uncanny resemblance to New York’s headlining Boulud Sud.
“I want people to feel relaxed and comfortable, but I want it to be more like a Parisian brasserie—boisterous, active and fun,” Mereday says of his vision going forward. “I want more people to come in. We’re in Coconut Point, and people should feel fine just swinging up to the bar or grabbing a table after shopping.”
To that end, Mereday is working on version 2.0 of the menu. For the September launch, all of the entrées pretty much squarely fell in the $30 range, with one or two outliers, but he is adding some more afford- able options, like a Croque Madame, a burger and pasta dishes. The one thing he won’t budge on—and we salute him for this—is having it a dinner-only establishment.
“People keep saying to me, ‘How can you be in a mall and not serve lunch?’ I struggled with the decision at first, but what we’re doing takes a lot of time and dedication. My team is working from sunrise to prepare for dinner service. For us to be able to execute the level of quality we want for lunch and dinner, we would be overstraining,” he says.
When it comes to dining out, we’ve put our trust in Charles Mereday to take care of our palates. We know you won’t be disappointed if you do, too.
Blue Coyote Supper Club
1100 Par View Drive, Sanibel Island; 472-9222, bluecoyotesupperclub.com
The decade-long wait is over for folks who have been wanting a coveted table at the Blue Coyote. What had previously been a strict members-only private dining experience at a Fort Myers country club is now democratized with an open-to-the-public second location on Sanibel. On any given night patrons can see owner Mitch Schwenke shuffling between the intimate dining room, bar and kitchen—and that hands-on involvement manifests from start to finish. The food especially is handled with care, mixing top-tier ingredients with subtle yet intricate preparations. Witness the house specialty: a hunkering panko- and rosemary-crusted kurobuta pork chop in a pool of blackberry gastrique, topped with chopped tomato (those dices look deceptively simple, but they’re actually peeled, seeded, coated with truffle oil, and then sprinkled with salt and pepper). Funky paintings by artist Markus Pierson of the namesake howler adorning the walls are equally quirky and cool, and we’re howling to pay his home another visit.
2612 Santa Barbara Blvd., Cape Coral; 800-2517, blazebistro.com
A convivial neighborhood bistro first and foremost, this strip mall storefront is exactly the kind of place where waiters know the regulars by name, and it’s worth a trek to Cape Coral for a taste of chef-owner Todd Sheffield’s whimsy. The menu reads like a trip around the world—East Indian bang bang chicken, pan-seared Carib- bean jerk prawns, langostino fettuccini and misoyaki butterfish. His sourcing is idiosyncratic (flying in fish from Hawaii yet using Seminole-raised grass-fed cattle), and the plating recalls the ’90s in an unironic way (edible orchids and criss-crossed raw bean sprouts). But he definitely gets an A for effort, and most importantly, we can’t remember a more perfectly cooked piece of meat than the walloping cut we devoured there. And it’s quite possible this is the only restaurant in Southwest Florida where venison, meatloaf and ahi tuna can end up in your belly, and that’s something worth writing about.
DeRomo’s Gourmet Market and Restaurant
26811 S. Bay Drive, Bonita Springs; 325-3583, deromos.com
Nothing has been more buzzed about than the arrival of this eatery and accompanying market in the now-revived Promenade at Bonita Bay. The owners, originally from the corner of the Bronx famous for authentic Italian restaurants and specialty stores, invested heavily into turning a huge slice of commercial space into a glittering gourmet market stocked with artisan breads, made-in-house pastas, imported espressos and other delicacies. The adjoining restaurant, separated from the food hall, has an inviting feel from a chic mix of industrial-glam elements (think: metal shell light fixtures with dangling crystals). The end product is a match made in foodie heaven—what’s on the menu incorporates the best of what’s next door, such as straightforward pasta dishes like tortellini stuffed with veal and finished with generous slices of cremini mushrooms, salty pancetta and sweet baby peas in a creamy Parmigiano-Reggiano sauce.
Prime de Leon
33 Patio de Leon, Fort Myers; 689-3984, primedeleon.com
In the River District, where there’s no shortage of casual restaurants, bars and cafes, this steakhouse opened quietly in the summer aiming to provide a more elegant alternative. The white tablecloths, plush leather banquettes and jazz wafting through are a welcome breath of fresh air. Even the location is subdued, in the historic Patio de Leon hid- den behind the bustle of First Street. The owners tapped Brent Devlin, a young, zealous chef from New York, to head the kitchen (he makes both the blue cheese and mozzarella in house). While some of his concoctions need a bit of refining—the deconstructed wedge salad didn’t have the richness we were expecting—we appreciated the creativity and expect more as he hits his stride. What you can expect right now is appropriately juicy steaks and other bold mains (we were dreaming about the wild-caught organic salmon with key lime beurre blanc weeks later) at easy-to-swallow prices.
The Boat House, 5819 Driftwood Parkway, Cape Coral; 945-2628, theboathouseusa.com
SS Hookers, 17501 Harbour Point Drive, Fort Myers; 689-3857, sshookers.com
Editor's Note 11/5/16: The owners of SS Hookers recently changed its name to Summerlin Jake's and shifted the focus from Cajun cuisine to seafood and steaks.
11: Eleven Cafe, 16120 San Carlos Blvd., Fort Myers; 208-8100, 11elevencafe.com
HobNob Kitchen & Bar, our pick for Collier County's best new restaurant
Best New Restaurant: Collier County
HOBNOB KITCHEN & BAR
720 Fifth Ave. S., Naples; 580-0070, hobnobnaples.com
In a town where there’s no shortage of restaurants and people clamoring to open them, several names stand out that have withstood the test of time. Michael Hernandez is a quiet presence among them—and he lets his hot spots speak for themselves. After selling Bistro 821 and Bistro 41 (both still standing strong) to move to the Montana countryside for eight years and give, in his own words, “being Mr. Mom” to his four kids a try, his hunger to get back in the game led to his arguably greatest creation, HobNob Kitchen & Bar.
No place in either Collier or Lee has nailed the current foodie zeitgeist of rustic comfort better than HobNob. Starting with the name, you know you’re there to kick back and have fun. (“We wanted that—we even considered calling it ‘The Social,’” Hernandez says.) And in the divided-yet-not, airy space, whether you slide into one of the wooden tables underneath the whimsical textured mural by local artist Bryan Relyea or you grab a bar stool across the room within the glow of the enormous DRINK sign floating above, you can’t help but feel cosmopolitan and hip. “I’m happy with the layout because you still get the energy of the place, but you don’t get someone at the bar falling into your table,” says Hernandez, who, with his wife, gutted the space and did the bulk of the design work with help from local architect David Poorman and designer Edward Gary Shanabarger.
Right before HobNob, Hernandez had taken over Handsome Harry’s on Third Street South as his first foray back into the Naples scene. Although it was short-lived because of a dispute with the landlord that predated him, it wound up securing an important partnership: that of HobNob’s executive chef, the Culinary Institute of America-trained Tony Biagetti.
The two collaborated from the start on what they call their menu of “creative American cuisine,” composed so you can either graze or have a full sit-down meal. The result is an eclectic mix of small plates and entrées, many of which have subtle Southern influences, including the tin of warm corn muffins brought to your table to launch the meal and the can’t-miss deviled eggs topped with sweet-savory sugar-cured bacon and tomato jam. “We didn’t want to be different just for the sake of being different,” Hernandez says. “Along with the restaurant’s design, we wanted the menu to be something you felt comfortable with—rotisserie chicken, short ribs—interesting twists on food you have all the time.”
Rather than give the melt-in-your-mouth short ribs a more traditional meat and potatoes pairing, Biagetti serves them with a Meyer lemon-accented risotto, wilted escarole and a zesty pine nut gremolata. Then there’s a sea bass with coconut pesto, butternut squash and jasmine rice, or mussels dotted with spicy chorizo, Manchego and flecks of cilantro.
Hernandez figured out a way to transport diners beyond the confines of the very first space in which he started his career nearly 20 years ago (that’s right, HobNob used to be Zoe’s, a boîte named after his first-born daughter). And thankfully for us, he hungers for more. “HobNob is here to stay, but even though Naples is full of restaurants, we’re looking at other projects. There is still room for something new and exciting.”
Fuse Global Cuisine
2500 Tamiami Trail N., Naples; 455-4585, fuseglobalcuisine.com
When Greg Scarlatos left Angelina’s of Bonita Springs, devotees wondered where he had gone and what was next. Last year we got our answer in this small yet handsomely appointed space on U.S. 41 just north of Golden Gate Parkway. Scarlatos is hands-down one of the best chefs in the area right now, and you can depend on him to consistently deliver bold flavors and thoughtfully sourced ingredients down to the exact farm and grade of meat. Moreover, he imbues a creative vision into his dishes that is ambitious and sophisticated—and, of course, tasty. Inspired by food memories from his childhood and those of whom he collaborated with on Fuse, he riffs on old themes in unexpected ways. Take, for example, the brioche French toast with cherry marmalade and mascarpone cheese that gets an unlikely yet delightful partner in pan-roasted duck confit and foie gras. We’ve never come across that before, and we hope for other such surprises in the future.
La Bazenne on Fifth
474 Fifth Ave. S., Naples; 682-8623, labazenneonfifth. blogspot.com
Don’t be fooled by the casual street cafe exterior. This is a place for serious food. Ghana-born chef Andy Hyde cut his chops in the private club of LaPlaya before being brought on to head up this French restaurant and supper club (members have special perks). It’s a good sign of the changing times that a restaurant can open on Fifth Avenue with a garage door (albeit clear-paneled and sleek) enclosing a dining room bookended by chalk- board walls. Dinners like diver scallops with a pea purée, red pepper coulis and saffron foam can be ordered as both large and small plates, but we highly recommend “Le Zen Burger.” It’s one of the best we’ve tasted—thick, juices flowing, with soft Port Salut cheese, avocado slices, mixed greens and a “secret sauce.” We’re fine with our secret being out, as long as we don’t have to wait too long for a sidewalk table.
3936 Tamiami Trail N., Naples; 331-3669, lamoragarestaurant.com
When the first U.S. outpost of a small, ultra-modern Spanish tapas chain sprang up this summer on a nondescript tract of Tamiami Trail just south of Pine Ridge Road, you could have been forgiven for thinking they were giving away food. That’s how packed it was. Alas, no one was getting a free lunch, and actually, the prices are somewhat steep for small plates. Be forewarned, or consider yourself happily informed, depending on how you like your Iberian cuisine: These are not your garden-variety gambas—although there is a traditional piquant ajillo version served in a cast iron skillet. Tread lightly in the “classics” section of the menu to get the most out of the experience. In Spain, as it is here, it’s in vogue to experiment with eclecti- cism, and at Lamoraga you can find sushi mingling with sliders, in addition to delicately crafted salads alongside three different types of gazpacho.
Cider Press Cafe
Editor's Note 11/5/16: Cider Press Cafe in Naples is now closed but a second location that launched in St. Petersburg remains open.
1201 Piper Blvd., Naples; 631-2500, ciderpresscafe.com
As people have gone bananas for juicing, mixing kale and carrots with apples and oranges has never been more popular. But asking a meat lover to go vegan for a day—or even just a meal— can still be a hard sell. Enter this tiny, adorable, light-filled spot that we have high hopes can sway even the most stalwart omnivores through its refreshing and absolutely delicious raw cuisine. Yep, that’s right. This place not only eschews meat and dairy, but nothing is cooked above 120 degrees. A “lasagna” layered with paper-thin veggies, creamy pulverized cashews (you’ll do a double take to check it really isn’t ricotta!), a sundried tomato spread and pesto is all at once zingy, smooth, a tad crunchy and anything but bland. It, along with the other dishes on offer, doesn’t make you think of what you’re missing, and we challenge you to free your mind and your palate for the New Year.
Avenue 5, 699 Fifth Ave. S., Naples; 403-7170, avenue5naples.com
Alto Live Jazz Kitchen, 492 Bayfront Place, Naples; 261-2586, altonaples.com
Editor's Note 11/5/16: Alto Live Jazz Kitchen is now closed.
Marco Prime Steaks & Seafood, 599 S. Collier Blvd., Marco Island; 389-2333, marcoprime.com