Naples As Never
We recently had a splendid Sunday brunch with super food, service and waterfront views at Maxwell's on the Bay in Venetian Village (941/263-1662), and we found much to praise while eating at the refurbished and reliable Merriman's Wharf in Tin City (1200 Fifth Avenue South, 941/261-1811), across the Gordon River from the town's oldest seafood feedery, Kelly's (941/774-0494), opened in 1952.
Cuisine Management is still doing all the right things at its Naples-area restaurants, which include three fine-dining spots - The Chef's Garden (941/262-5500), Villa Pescatore (941/597-8119) and Bayside, A Seafood Grill and Bar (941/649-5552) - and a pair of casual bistros, Truffles (941/262-5500) and Plum's Cafe (941/597-8119). Two months ago, recognizing a trend, it opened Tony's Off Third (941/262-7999), adjacent to The Chef's Garden and Truffles, featuring a coffee bar, bakery and wine shop with a 3,000-bottle inventory. Other pacesetters include the following:
821 Fifth Avenue South
Five years ago, Michael Hernandez took the proceeds from the sale of his highly regarded Mad Hatter restaurant in Sanibel to start the equally impressive Michael's Cafe in Naples. And on Valentine's Day 1994, he and wife Lisa opened this casual contemporary cafe with sidewalk seating and a changed-daily menu that supplements its regular menu, featuring such superb starters as blue cornmeal-crusted frog legs with lemon-caper salute and calamari filled with crab and shrimp in a spicy saffron-tomato sauce. For the main action, I like the yellowfin tuna glazed with honey, ginger and soy; the grilled grouper with chipotle-orange barbecue glaze on a bed of chayote slaw; sauteed Dijon rabbit with sherried tarragon jus and risotto with sun-dried tomato, herbs and Parmigiano Reggiano; and sauteed loin of elk in a garlic-sage sauce with platemates of sweet potato gratin and haricot verts. Dinner, with entrees from $9 to $22, served nightly.
3126 North Tamiami Trail
Doris and Andreas Hienerwadel emigrated from their successful Berlin restaurant to open this surprise in September 1994. Andreas is the manager and maitre d' and Doris is behind the bar. She started in the kitchen but was smart enough to hire the former sous chef at Miami's award-winning Mark's Place, Paul Bradley. He's adapted some of the Miami breakthroughs - curry-fried oysters with tequila-splashed tomato salsa; escargot with a ragout of wild mushrooms mingled with angel hair pasta; filet mignon with a fill of roasted garlic and bath of Gorgonzola butter softened with cabernet. But he stays loyal to the owners' origins with Veal Hienerwadel, wiener schnitzel served with herb-sauteed roast potatoes. Dinner, with entrees from $15 to $23, served nightly.
Cafe La Playa
La Playa Beach Resort
9891 Gulfshore Drive
Re-opening this month in its new location in Naples' posh resort, this aptly named slice of sunshine joins the Soleil Bar which has already earned an enviable reputation in its first year of operation. The indoor-outdoor setting is smack on the Gulf shore, and we like the wall of windows providing panoramic views. The food is neither Neapolitan nor nouvelle, but Southwest and Floribbean in inspiration, which means masses of mangoes and exotic tropical fruits and seafood from Florida waters. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, with entrees $15 to $22, served daily.
1170 Third Street
Chef Gianni and hostess Christina are a personable pair of real Neapolitans, via New Jersey, and in the heart of a string of shops and boutiques, they have established in March 1994 what they proclaim to be "La Cucina Creativa Italiana." That translates to wonderful appetizers of filet mignon and smoked tuna carpaccios, arugula and radicchio salads and a namesake Spaghetti Il Posto bristling with fresh clams and spicy shrimp. The fusilli with chunks of fresh tuna, sliced olives and shower of capers is fabulous, as are the salmon scallops freckled with green peppercorns finished with cream, the veal cubed and tangled with porcinis with a slab of polenta or sauteed in a Barolo-infused sauce. The setting, indoors and out, is understated downtown Milan with Italian tenors on tape doing the classics and setting the mood in the new Naples. Lunch and dinner, with entrees from $12.50 to $19, are served Monday through Saturday.
Le Bistro Provencal
Neapolitan Shopping Center
842 Neapolitan Way
For nearly three years, chef Jean-Michel, formerly top toque at the Spanish Embassy in Washington, D.C., has been building a loyal legion of fans who return again and again for his signature dishes of duckling a l'orange and bouillabaisse, inspired by the Marseilles classic but adapted to the harvest of Florida waters. We like to start with his lobster bisque, and then discuss the wines with the charming Ursula, Jean-Michel's wife who adds greatly to the ambiance, the feeling that you've come across something special in Provence. Dinner, with entrees from $15.50 to $26, served Monday through Saturday.
878 Fifth Avenue South
Chef-proprietor Douglas Amaral stirs the Naples cross-cultural culinary pot with his Florida menus, everything from pan-seared sweet and sour snapper glazed with balsamic vinegar enlivened with mango, to scallops and shrimp sauteed with citrus and ginger and bedded down with fresh spinach; lamb shank glazed with lingonberries and fresh mint; veal with mango Marsala; spice-rubbed duck with smoke apple bacon, cranberry and Port wine drizzle. Alligator gets special attention; it's braised with fresh basil, garlic, lemon and white wine with a hint of habanero; it's blended with conch into a fine, flavor-loaded chowder; and it's ground and spiked with spices for a burger served with remoulade sauce. Lunch served Monday through Friday and dinner, with entrees from $11 to $17, daily.
2950 9th Street North
Chef-proprietor Keith Parker took the tiller from Michael Hernandez when he moved over to Bistro 821, maintaining the same high standards of service and superior food, putting his own European experiences to good use by adding French accents to the New World menu. Among favorite creations are the duck-filled ravioli, in a rich butter sauce freckled with sun-dried tomatoes, and the thick fillets of grouper coated with a crisp hazelnut crust flattered with a fine raspberry sauce, followed by the classic tarte tatin, which comes with the added compliment of the cafe's own cinnamon ice cream. The decor is sophisticated, the lighting soft and romantic, and there's an inviting lounge for pre- and post-dining stimulation. Dinner, with entrees from $11 to $22, served nightly.
5200 North Tamiami Trail
This is a stunning tribute to the art of design - Southern manse style - and the growing internationalism of Naples. Owners Alexander and Margaret are German, chef Shayne Bedford is from New Zealand and our wonderful waitress was an emigre from the Philippines. The menu is a marvelous merger of Old South and New American, exemplified by the spicy crawfish chowder, fried quail on a bed of mixed baby greens with a whole grain mustard barbecue sauce; pastry-wrapped smoked chicken with smoked corn and red pepper sauces; pan-roasted oysters with Tasso ham, leeks, corn and roasted red peppers; pecan-crusted rainbow trout in a ginger-orange sauce spiked with rum; and Southern fried chicken surprised with barbecue sauce and accompanied by fried green tomatoes and a cake made with cheese grits. Desserts are a knockout. Lunch served Monday through Friday and dinner, with entrees from $14 to $26, nightly.
Voila Wine Bar & Brasserie
590 North Tamiami Trail
Manhattan's loss was certainly Naples' gain when the chef-owner of the highly rated La Mangeoire, Loic Avril, wanted sand in his shoes and opened this wonderful evocation of casual life in Paris. The steadily growing colony of Big Apple expatriates has made it a favorite retreat, as have the Francophiles who appreciate the glories of the Gallic kitchen and Avril's mastery of herbs, spices and the magic of blending superior sauces. Anything he does with lamb and beef is worthy of serious attention. His duck is sheer delight. Dinner, with entrees from $13 to $18, served Monday through Saturday.