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Fresh Catch

Blame it on the salt air and the warm Gulf breezes that have been rolling across Southwest Florida, heralding the advent of summer. Tom and I, enjoying a bona fide love affair with seafood these days, set out for The Prawnbroker, a Fort Myers staple for the past 28 years—the Southwest Florida restaurant equivalent of a century.  

“How does a restaurant survive the slings and arrows of this fickle trade for more than a quarter of a century?” I wondered aloud as we were seated.

“It stays consistently good,” explained our server, Kathy Malfregeot, as she handed us a pair of menus. Kathy has worked at The Prawnbroker for 22 of those 28 years, and her well-honed instincts were in evidence throughout our meal.  

The Prawnbroker is a comfortable place to satisfy your jones for fresh fish; according to its simple menu, it never serves frozen. It’s part of a restaurant group that includes The Timbers on Sanibel—whose fried oysters we continue to remember with fondness a year after we sampled them—and six other venues on the east and west coasts of Florida. The joint was hopping when we arrived at 5:15 p.m., but with our reservation, we were seated immediately.  

The menu is broken down into a handful of categories, including appetizers, seafood, pasta, chargrill, and a list of fish including such local favorites as pompano and grouper. We began with the clam chowder ($3.95 cup/$4.95 bowl), which turned out to be our only mistake. You expect the clam chowder to be outstanding in the sort of place where every entrée comes with soup or salad, bread, choice of vegetable and choice of potato, but in this case, Tom and I agreed that something was decidedly off and stopped after one spoonful. The stone crab appetizer ($13.95) quickly restored our faith in the meal; we were given two large claws, all of which were fresh and came out of their shells with the ease of a precocious child.

We arrived in time to take advantage of The Prawnbroker’s “early catch” menu.  From 4–5:30 p.m., diners may choose from 10 entrées, all of which come with house salad, Caesar salad or chowder, fresh baked bread and vegetable, and choice of fries, baked Idaho, baked sweet potato or rice. Tom had the ample early catch version of the fried oysters dinner (four-ounce early catch, $11.95/eight-ounce regular portion, $17.95). I was sorry I hadn’t gotten the regular version of my entrée, the baked stuffed shrimp. They were addictive, but I was given only three ($11.95). Had I ordered from the regular menu, I’d have been given five ($17.95).

On the regular menu, I was most intrigued by the single pasta offering, pasta Provençal ($11.95), with four protein options including sautéed scallops (add $7.95), grilled chicken (add $4.95), sautéed shrimp or sautéed clams (both add $5.95). Who wouldn’t want to try a linguini dish with plum tomatoes, artichoke hearts, capers, olives, fresh basil and garlic? I had it with the clams and found it both visually pleasing and downright succulent. The portion was so large, I was able to take the leftovers home and make a tasty supper out of it the following night.

While we were dining, we overheard the elderly couple at the next table talking economics. “The bill should come to $27, so with tip, that makes $30,” said the husband.  

“Is that tip right?” I stage-whispered to Tom. “You know I’m hopeless with math, but that seems low to me.”

“It is low,” said Tom, whose mathematical prowess allowed him to determine within 10 seconds that $3 on a $27 bill constitutes an 11 percent tip.  Having both worked in restaurants, and feeling great solidarity with servers everywhere, we generally tip at least twice that much.

“How are the tips here?” we asked Kathy.  “Do people shortchange you a lot?”

“No, not really,” she said.  “Some do, but then others make up for it.  It usually evens out in the end.” We decided that you’d have to have a lovely temperament like Kathy’s to take the slings and arrows of restaurant tipping in stride, night after night.

We finished our meal with three very good desserts: the apple crisp ($4.95), the chocolate cake ($5.95) and the crème brûlée ($5.95). I think the apple crisp was the best, but Tom loved the brûlée. Then we complicated matters further by taking some of the cake home to our babysitter, who swore nothing could top it.

In the end, we decided that, chowder problems notwithstanding, we will be returning to The Prawnbroker.   

The Prawnbroker Restaurant & Fish Market, 13451-16 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers; (239) 489-2226, www.prawnbroker.com.  Dinner Sunday through Thursday from 4–9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 4–10 p.m. Happy hour from 4–7 p.m. Early catch menu must be ordered before 5:30 p.m. Fish Market open Monday through Saturday noon to 9:30 p.m., and Sundays during football season. Reservations strongly recommended. Free parking. Credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Tom and i once had the extremely good fortune to be invited for a month-long writers’ residency on the southeast coast of Spain, not far from Valencia, the birthplace of paella. Our experience with Spanish food was both great and terrible. When it was great, we ate fish so fresh it was practically still swimming, and we sampled exquisite tapas (small Spanish dishes), including the addictive tortilla de patatas (potato, onion and egg pie).  

In such moments, we seriously contemplated relocating to southern Spain, as many cold and soggy Brits have done. When the food was not so great, we roamed the countryside and longed for a nice, fresh salad but could find nothing but sardines and ham sandwiches—delicious, but too salty and dry to eat for days on end.

We thought of that incredible summer in Spain the other night when we visited the small, family-owned and -operated Café Barcelona in Naples. Within a few minutes of our arrival, we were seated at a very simple bistro table, slicing into authentic, steaming tortilla de patatas ($6) and gazing at a poster of Seville, utterly transported.  

Café Barcelona offers a simple but complete array of Spanish delicacies with many tapas offerings, so diners can eat their way around the menu without exploding.  The menu is divided into these categories: cold-cuts, vegetarian tapas, fish and shellfish tapas, meat tapas, specialty plates and paella. It also features five varieties of paella, made for a minimum of two people (prices per person): lobster ($32), seafood ($20), meat ($19), mixed ($25) and vegetarian ($18).  

Tom and I briefly considered a tantalizing (and budget-friendly) Happy Hour Dinner Special, which includes a bottle of wine or pitcher of sangria, soup or salad, special bread, one tapa (tapas being plural), and dessert for $29.99 per person.  Instead, we
decided to gorge ourselves on a variety of tapas and then tuck into the lobster paella, nostalgia being a powerful force in our culinary lives.

We savored all of the following tapas: gambas ajillo (shrimp with garlic, parsley and olive oil, $9), pa amb tomaquet (Catalan bread rubbed with fresh tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil, $3), pisto (Spanish ratatouille, $8) and the Revoltillo (scrambled eggs with shrimp and mushrooms, $8).  Two red wines, the Tempranillo Torres ($7/glass) and the Rioja ($12/glass), enhanced the tapas.

“Thank you for not ordering any sardines,” Tom said.  We saw a lot of sardines during our residency, to Tom’s dismay.  I loved every salty bite.  

“I know you aren’t a fan, but they can be delicious,” I said.  

“You know, this may actually be better than the food we ate in Spain,” Tom said through a mouthful of garlic shrimp.  

The high quality of the tapas gave our anticipation of the paella a special jolt of electricity.  While it was very tasty, the lobster in question turned out to be Floridian. (We made a point of asking whether the lobster was warm or cold water when we ordered, but a language barrier may have thwarted our efforts.) To make matters worse, my tail was undercooked and had to be sent back to the kitchen. Also on the negative side of the ledger, I visited the restroom while my lobster was being rehabilitated in the kitchen, and I was not wild about the level of upkeep. In other words, adventurous eaters will enjoy the total Café Barcelona experience, but the more finicky ladies of Southwest Florida may have a quibble or two.

We ended our evening on a high note: the St. James cake ($6). Like the smaller offerings we had sampled, this almond cake dusted in powdered sugar was excellent, unusual and not too sweet. For an authentic Spanish experience, try Café Barcelona.  

Café Barcelona, 336 13th Ave. S., Naples; (239) 261-7498, www.cafebarcelona.webs.com. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to close. Happy Hour Dinner Special from 5–6:30 p.m. Reservations recommended. Free parking. Credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.


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