Food + Dining Main

Dining Review: Prime de Leon

An upscale new steakhouse brings epicurean delights to downtown Fort Myers.

BY April 3, 2015


Years ago, when people first talked about revitalizing downtown Fort Myers, a certain amount of eye-rolling came with it.

“Downtown?” the doubters said. “Please.”

To be fair, they had good reason. Many of the storefronts stood empty, and a rakish crowd often appeared after dark. Plus the process seemed to go on forever, a never-complete project with no endpoint. But those who said it could never pull itself out of its seamy slump misjudged. Now, almost a decade later, the River District has proven to be a true destination, bustling with hip, locally owned shops and a selection of quality restaurants.

Prime de Leon, a new addition, is a standout dining experience with superb food, excellent service and a sophisticated atmosphere that represents the culmination of the downtown revival. It sits in the middle of Patio de Leon, the cobble-paved heart of the district, and offers outdoor seating both at the street level and on a breezy, elevated terrace. On this particular night, my companion and I chose one of the interior tables. The dining room is lined with white tablecloths, black leather banquettes, and classic posters for Campari and Cognac. The waitstaff wear starched shirts and black aprons. The effect is very sleek, like a fine New York steakhouse.

To begin the evening, my companion and I decided to split a cheese plate ($14) and the pomegranate-arugula salad ($10). A trio of thoughtfully sourced artisan cheeses—a cheddar from Wisconsin, a bleu from California and a red-wine-soaked goat from Spain—was accented by pleasingly sour pickled grapes, a handful of raw walnuts and a tart crabapple sitting in a pool of honey. The salad rendered a good counterpoint to the cheese with an acidic sherry vinaigrette that provided the right amount of zing. Toasted pistachios grounded the greens, which included slices of endive, and also offset the sweetness of the pomegranate and slivered apple.

In the midst of all this cheese and salad eating, my companion glanced over my shoulder and said, “Is that a hunk of meat?”

I turned to see a restaurant staffer carrying what was, in fact, a large piece of meat. Prime de Leon is clearly a place that prides itself on its beef. The chef butchers his own meat, and the menu touts a selection of prime cuts. That’s why, for my main course, I had to choose the evening’s special, a New York strip served with a red wine and wild mushroom demi-glace ($37). I love a good steak, and sometimes I’ll cook up a rib-eye or a T-bone. But nothing I’ve thrown on the grill has looked anything like this—an inch and a half thick with a perfect sear, cooked exactly medium-rare and topped with a delicately balanced sauce.

“My God,” I said as I took the first bite. There is steak and then there is steak.

For those less interested in beef, the menu is more limited. There’s an airline chicken breast, three fish choices and a lobster dish. Each comes with its own sides. (For the steak, sides are extra but large enough to feed several people; there are classics such as creamed spinach as well as modern takes such as chorizo grits and a roasted-sage butternut squash.)

To test the restaurant’s full range, my companion ordered the salmon ($25). The fish arrived in an uncomplicated presentation, served alongside whipped potatoes and spears of asparagus. Simple and fresh, it was, in my opinion, exactly how salmon should be done.

My companion and I wondered if the restaurant could carry its stellar performance into dessert—always a challenge. We ordered the mascarpone cheesecake and chocolate pot de crème ($8 each), and the cheesecake arrived looking nothing like what we’d expected. Instead of a triangular slice, this version was more like custard, served in a jar swirled with pieces of crystalized caramel. Rich and not too sweet, it revealed an unexpected combination of flavors and textures. The pot de crème, too, offered its surprises. In a clear glass, the mousse-like crème was topped with a layer of smooth caramel and flecked with bits of sea salt. The taste was a marvel, complex and original.

It’s rare that a restaurant can pull off three seamless courses, but Prime de Leon did just that. It also has a solid wine list, with a heavy American representation and some international choices. Upstairs, an outdoor bar overlooks the Patio de Leon courtyard, and on Friday and Saturday nights live music plays from 9 p.m. until close.

When visionaries first thought of revitalizing downtown, I like to think this is exactly the sort of upscale dining experience they had in mind.


Prime de Leon

33 Patio de Leon, Fort Myers, 689-3984, Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. with valet parking on First Street. Wheelchair accessible. Reservations recommended.  


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