From the moment I walked into Azure, the modern French bistro in south Fort Myers, I knew it would be a special evening. The restaurant was small, lit with glass chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and light reflected off the blue walls. The intimate space felt sophisticated, tasteful and—though I couldn’t yet put my finger on why—convivial. It was the sort of atmosphere that makes people with a taste for upscale dining excited to experience it.
The tiny room was full for this particular mid-week dinner, so my dining companion and I were seated at the bar that faces into the open kitchen. My friend is a traditionalist when it comes to fine restaurants, and I worried that she’d balk at eating at the counter. But the show in front of us was so captivating, I saw right away that we’d gotten the best seats in the house. As the chef and sous chef ladled sauces into sauté pans, laid out fine cuts of meat and torched ramekins of crème brûlée, I wondered why anyone would choose not to sit ringside.
When it came to selecting our first course, my companion and I considered the more traditional French offerings—escargot, foie gras—but instead we settled on the stuffed quail ($18) and risotto made with wild mushrooms and duck confit ($19-at right). (For those so inclined, a tightly edited list of wines was surprisingly not limited to France.)
The quail was filled with diced sweet potatoes and cubes of smoked bacon, giving it a rich, comforting flavor. The risotto, too, had a delightful richness, and I enjoyed watching the steps that went into making the dish as the sous chef combined rice, broth, duck, mushrooms and a handful of Parmesan cheese.
After the waitress set the plate in front of me and I took a few bites, my face must have reflected the exquisite flavor. The man in the couple next to us leaned over and asked, “What do you think of that risotto?”
“It’s delicious,” I told him.
This, I realized, was part of the joy of eating at the counter: the feeling of a shared dining experience. How nice, I thought, to expand a dinner to include those seated near you. When the couple’s order of mussels arrived, my friend whispered to me, “I wonder if they’d share?”
Thankfully, our main courses appeared before we could ask. My companion had chosen the lamb ragout cooked with Moroccan spices and served with wide pappardelle noodles ($32). The dish was delicately spiced and very fresh and modern in its flavors. I had the seared venison with the butternut squash purée ($35-at left), a dish that felt both local and foreign at once. It’s impossible for me to eat venison without thinking of the hunting camo and pickups so specific to this area, but this version was prepared in a way that reminded me of the good restaurants I’ve known in France.
When it came time to choose dessert, my companion and I agreed that we were too stuffed to order more than one. But which one? We both love a classic crème brûlée ($9), but there was a chocolate trifle ($11) on the menu layered with mousse, whipped cream and a berry compote that had us both salivating. A man at the end of the bar, dining by himself, had just ordered one. He must have noticed our glances at his dessert because he sat forward and asked, “Would you like a bite?”
I looked at my companion with my brows raised, and she gave me a nudge with her elbow.
“Seriously?” I asked the man.
“Joe,” he said, calling to the chef Joe Pittman. “Hand us two spoons.”
Pittman, a talent who had risen to local prominence as the executive chef of Mereday’s Fine Dining, graciously paused in his ladling and passed two spoons across the bar. The man scooped up two bites, one for my friend and one for me, and handed them to us.
“Not bad, is it?” he asked.
My friend and I laughed. It was outrageously good.
I glanced around the restaurant and noticed that everyone seemed to be in a festive mood, eating, drinking, sharing. I’d swear there’s something a little magical about this place. And you don’t even have to sit at the bar to experience it.
15301 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers, 239-288-4296, azurefortmyers.com. Open 5-9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Wheelchair-accessible. Reservations strongly encouraged.