As my dining companion and I crossed the Sanibel Causeway and made our way along the winding back roads to Malia Island Fusion, an extraordinary thing happened. The lights of the mainland receded and the darkness of Sanibel’s preserved wilderness took over. The stars shone brighter overhead, and we cracked our windows to breathe in the wild green smell. An island feeling washed over us.
Set inside the Sanibel Island Golf Club but open to the public, Malia has a new menu that features our local islands through dishes like yellowtail snapper and Gulf shrimp. It nods to the Caribbean islands with accents of jerk seasoning. And it folds in the Hawaiian Islands with flown-in exotics like moonfish. This is all in an island-casual but still refined setting.
Seated at a center table with on-trend basket lighting overhead and a tropical mural against the far wall, my friend and I began by ordering cocktails from Malia’s creative drink list. He had the Yooper ($11) with whiskey, maple syrup, bitters and lemon, a pleasantly strong concoction, while I opted for the relaxed and effervescent Paloma ($11) made with tequila, grapefruit and lime juices, simple syrup and soda.
We sipped our drinks and ordered a pair of appetizers, the ahi tuna balls ($12) and the grilled oysters ($12). Furikake panko-crusted, sprinkled with sesame seeds and served with a sesame-ginger sauce for dipping, the crispy and spicy tuna rounds were both inventive and immensely satisfying. When my companion nudged an extra ball in my direction, I didn’t hesitate. The grilled oysters, served warm, featured a unique combination of flavors with oysters on the half shell covered in black miso butter, casino breadcrumbs and a layer of manchego cheese.
For our main courses, we ordered two of Malia’s most popular dishes. The fish stew ($38) was a direct inspiration from our favorite Thai flavors, combining fresh fish, mussels, shrimp, clams and scallops in a coconut-milk broth accented with lemongrass and green curry. The grilled lamb chops ($36) were expertly seasoned with jerk spices and served with a lime beurre blanc that made me want to lick the plate (though I held myself back). The dish also came with a surprising side, a blend of cubed plantains and basmati rice that at first had me perplexed (“What is this in the rice?”) but then left me ravenous for more.
At the end of our meal, we followed our waitress’ recommendation and split a slice of the salted caramel popcorn chocolate cake ($8). She assured us it was the moistest cake she’d ever had, and the cake lived up to her word. Infused with caramel and topped with a layer of salted caramel whipped cream, the cake was stunningly indulgent (and delicious).
There’s something special about island life, and Malia does an excellent job of infusing that specialness into its menu and design. Here’s to hoping for more starlit drives to Sanibel with this inventive restaurant as our destination.
1100 Par View Drive, Sanibel, 472-9222, maliafoods.com. Open Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. Wheelchair-accessible. Reservations recommended.