Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Mereday's Fine Dining - The Tops in Naples, Florida




Chef/Owner Charles Mereday has earned success in Naples. In less than a year even, his first restaurant, Mereday's Fine Dining, was selected as Gulfshore Life Magazine's Best 2014 New Restaurant.
 His friendly, strong visage is on the cover of Gulfshore Life's July issue, too! The teaser asks, "Can this hot chef cut it here?" The answer, of course, is a resounding "Yes!"
His second restaurant, Alto-Live Jazz, Kitchen, has been just as successful for both its cuisine and its high quality of Jazz that entices people to linger long after dinner, especially when  Lew Del Gatto and Dan Miller are on stage. (And, there's no cover charge.)  As Cheryl7677 on Tripadvisor says "Alto is the ultimate Jazz Dining Experience in Southwest Florida! Our food was elegantly prepared and served while listening to an equally matched musical experience by expert jazz artists! The menu offers a variety of selections at prices for your budget! The music is top shelf!"
I stopped by for drinks with friends the other day, and we stayed at the bar to try some dishes before going to Alto. Before we knew it, hours had gone past unnoticed and we had experienced one of those magical evenings in Naples with superb food and company... and we never got to Alto!

The bar looks out on part of the Bay, with some diners arriving by boat. The other side of the restaurant also has a water view.  You can take the water taxi to the restaurant, and enjoy the ride and the view along the way. Then continue gazing on the water and passing boats from inside Mereday's  or while dining out on the waterfront terrace.  How many restaurants offer these beautiful perks?
We had a flight of  delicious wines through the evening...each stands on its own merits. I'd enjoy it even when not paired with food; the food only elevates it. There's also daily wine flights for $10 as well.  Cocktail? Try "Thyme after Thyme", "The Sazerac", and the "Green Goose".  Draft beers are on tap from Naples Beach Brewery; Pale Ale, Rye Stout and Weizen.

The menu changes daily.  We started with  pan-seared hog snapper, with  a lusciously creamy parsnip purée, truly fresh peas and micro greens. 
The combination of the crispy hot tender fish and parsnips in each bite is like ambrosia.  


 The 2013  Origine Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc was perfection. One of my dining partners paused between bites and sips to exclaim, "This is ridiculously delicious!"

Next was cheese-filled  squash blossoms atop blood oranges and beets, with edible nasturtium, and two different sauces.
The hot oozing cheese, crisply fried blossom and the cool sweetness of the blood orange slices is over the top. My other dining companion said " If I can eat here every day it would make me happy forever!"

We cleaned our plates in no time!

Pizza at Mereday's is also over the top,  with real Wagyu (Kobe) beef  and oodles of Maytag blue cheese,  caramelized onions, basil and  micro greens sprinkled on just before serving. 
The crust is crisp and hot. The savory combination of the blue cheese and seared rare beef is a must have.  

I went to the completely open kitchen to see the chefs working their magic.
Next was long flat pappardelle pasta with earthy fresh brown mushrooms, basil, cherry tomatoes and pancetta in a creamy sauce. 

 Pappardelle derives from the word to "gobble up, " and you'll do just that. Pasta never smelled as wonderful or tasted this good outside of Italy till now!

Do try one of the wines we enjoyed...the Domaine Nicolas Girard  "Menetou-Salon" 2011 Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire River Valley, the Domaine Jean Guiton Savigny Les Beaune, or the medium bodied La Tribu Bodegas el Angosto Mourvedre blend.  The sommelier has already figured a pairing for each new dish, and wines change with availability. These may come from small allotments-the sommelier has his buying connections.  The Yountville  Liparita "V Block" Cab goes fast!

Every afternoon in SW Florida it rains for a glorious half hour, and we got the catbird's seat view of the rain and clouds coming and going. 
Nice show. If only we thought to bring our dishes onto a nearby yacht's  covered deck, I could not imagine a meal being more enjoyable.

We stayed after the rain for the spicy spirited mussels in red Thai curry sauce with coconut milk, topped with cilantro. It was paired with my favorite Hoopes Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley.
 I like boldly spiced food-it's infrequently found in Naples. If you like some heat, this dish  will also be one of your favorites.

  The ambiance at Mereday's is one of simply casual elegance. The servers are amazing. Tell them your preferences, and they are ready to suggest a dish or wine that will suit you.
    Stay for dessert-the pastry chef crafts unique dishes- some with Caribbean origins, others with twists on classical desserts.  Currently, there is mocha pots de cream with flourless chocolate cake and white chocolate ice cream; sticky toffee pudding with brown butter ice cream, strawberry lemonade sorbet with fresh fruit, and artisan cheese selections.


1500 5th Ave S, Naples,  732-0784,  www.meredaysnaples.com/

Sunday, June 15, 2014

La Bazenne- French and International Cookery with a World Class Chef



La Bazenne is one of my go-to restaurants in SW Florida. That says a lot. I infrequently return to a restaurant, given that there are hundreds to try in my Collier and Lee county niche. The welcoming spot is at 474 5th Avenue South, with a bright yellow and white awning casting shade for some two dozen outdoor seats, an inner seating area for perhaps 25 more, and the innermost dining area with seating for perhaps 20 around the bar and at a few tables.

Trying to order the same dish weeks later is like trying to capture a rainbow. Executive Chef Andy Hyde's creativity keeps bringing new dishes alongside traditional French dishes to tempt, and satiate your palate.  Every few weeks the menu changes a bit with seasonal produce. If a favorite from weeks before is off the menu, perhaps he'll revive it for you, seasonal produce willing! This write up covers dishes I've ordered on several visits. Everyday, there are specials on the blackboard of food and drink delights.

   Chef Andy channels Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz and other "cooking gods" in his quest for uber-fresh vegetables and seafood, cooking each item to bring out its best flavors, and  crafting beautiful presentations that have folks snapping photos with cell phones to share with friends and FB. His multicultural background has taken him from Ghana to Germany, France and across the USA, picking up the best from top chefs at 3-Michelin starred restaurants (Germany's Aqua, Gordon Ramsey's, etc,) as he charts his own creative course. 

   Affable owners Amy and Romuald (Romeo)  Giacometti, an American and French couple (and daughter) have opened the second La Bazenne restaurant, and it's the first on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
 The first La Bazenne was started in 1974, and now celebrates its 40th birthday.

As in France, come for a cup of Illy coffee and a wild mushroom crepe for breakfast; salad, confit duck leg or Le Zen Burger for lunch; or a nice French wine and entrée  with a perfect dessert to cap off an evening with friends-the ones you dined with, and the new ones you've made with Amy, Romuald, and perhaps someone at the next table!  Join the Social Club to reap the benefits of special promotions, meet  other lovers of good food and conversation, and perhaps refresh some of your faltering French language.

Breakfast  may start with a choice of butter or chocolate croissant, crepes, galettes (special crepes) and various egg dishes for starters. Check the black board for daily specials.

Lunch/Brunch is when I'm awake!

My repeat favorite is the large $14 la tarte aux champignons, or crepe/tart with a good handful of fresh earthy mushrooms, melted Époisses de Bourgogne cheese and cream, bacon,  frisée (curly endive) and arugula, topped with a light Dijon vinaigrette.
 This is so luscious, flavorful and light-it's a perfect meal portion- just filling and yet light. Highly recommended.  Or your can have the ham galette /crepe/tart with egg and salad.
Dinner can start with a generous pour of the French pinot noir ($12), or the house drink, La Bazenne ($8), with Dolin vermouth, Tariquet wine and strawberry flakes.

Salads are perfect for summer. the mixed melon features greens with  different melons-watermelon, canteloupe and papaya that have been lightly marinated in liquors like Courvoisier, Grand Marnier, etc. Refreshing!

An amuse bouche may arrive-one evening the crisp baked bread and butter was accompanied by a tiny  rabbit-eared carrot, and a spoonful of a salmon treat. 
Who knows what may greet you?

The fried oyster appetizer ($14)  is a crisp treat, with lightly fried Louisiana oysters and a French tartar sauce for dipping, accompanied by wonderful pommes frites and mixed greens. 
There's scant breading on the oysters so it's pure molluscan goodness!

Coq au vin, La Bazenne style ($18) , is a French red wine braised portion of chicken, that's then coated in panko then deep fried, Southern style, and served with mixed greens, pearl onions and a superb secret recipe sweet 'n spicy dipping sauce.
 Order with fries or bacon-vinaigrette mixed greens.
 The chicken is very flavorful dark meat, richly accented by the wine. Don't expect traditional coq au vin or Southern fried chicken, this clever twist is unique.

I'd make a meal out of two orders of gazpacho soup with scallop ($11). It's red and white, with a dollop of Vichyssoise mousse alongside a seductive blend of heirloom tomato, tomato leaves, cucumber and red bell pepper. 

The star is the large diver scallop, seared and served hot, with the red soup and microgreens placed in the bowl at the last minute. Highly recommended!

Schnitzel  ($18) is to die for delicious. Of course, a German-trained top chef would know he'd be tested on his wienerschnitzel, and Chef Andy scores a 10 out of ten.
Pounded just thin enough, it is breaded with herbs and fried, with a delicate sauce, jicama, and a couple slices of lemon. This infrequently seen special is highly recommended.

Lamb Lolliops are superb! 
 Adding just a little seasoning and a light sauce, lamb does not get more tender or delicious than this. Highly recommended.

The lobster special may come with shrimp, lobster, or fish. It is perfectly cooked and beautifully presented. 
 The seasonal special has a sweet Maine lobster tail glazed with blood orange besides a rich asparagus puree and frisee

Other signature dishes include les St. Jacques diver scallops, Le Bar Zen rye bread crusted sea bass with a Burgundy truffle risotto, lavender duck breast and le vegetarienne wild mushroom risotto with fava beans and fennel pollen.

Desserts...

La banana chocolat Chantilly is a dessert for two that's a bargain at $8. This large crepe is made to order, drizzled with your choice of chocolate, Nutella or both, and served hot with a large puff of fresh whipped cream. 
I'd go for both toppings. What a way to top off a meal.

Le Bouchon Decadent is another chocolate high, with a chocolate bouchon (brownie-like cake), Bourbon vanilla ice cream, chocolate, caramel or butterscotch drizzle and fresh berries for $9.
 Ready for a wallet-friendly Romantic early dinner? The tastiest deal on 5th Ave South is the the 3-course prix fixe menu from 4-6 pm, Monday to Friday, which features some of the above mentioned starts, main dishes and desserts.

La Bazenne, 474 Fifth Avenue South, Naples, 682-8623, labazenneonfifth.com

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Bill's Steak & Seafood Restaurant




    Bill's Steak and Seafood Restaurant has got to be experienced to be believed!  This seafood and steak gem in the Lakewood Plaza is a time warp, a snapshot of all that was great in the 70's, from live music and  dancing to humongous lobsters and steaks at wallet-friendly prices. This earns Kia Billy's HUGE designation on the lobsters alone. Live in North Naples or Bonita Springs?  C'mon down for New England style seafood, and steaks that greatly exceed the quality of, say,  those at say Naples' 5th Ave's Avenue5,  for less than half the price.

I went on a Friday at 6 pm with my dining companion. We were greeted and seated quickly at a booth. Seats were empty.   Not for long...
 An hour later there were few seats to be found. No surprise. During that time we leisurely dined and  enjoyed a singer and her guitar playing partner singing Sinatra, Beatles and other artists' songs from the 60's and 70's. In no time, couples in their 50's to 80's were filling up the dance floor.

We just about fell out of our seats to get a better look at what came next... a gargantuan live 9 pound lobster cradled in a pan. Make that  live 9 pound lobster after lobster marching out of the kitchen, cooked to perfection, for $79 each!!!
   Yes, it is a superb special that is offered fairly regularly. Go to any other restaurant, and if they could even find such a big boy, that crustacean would go for $250-$300.  

Here's my size 8 hand for comparison to Larry the lobster's level. One claw alone has almost a pound of meat!
 
During the next couple hours, a good dozen more nine pounders were cracked and served tableside. Next visit, I think I'll first go without food for two days, then share a nine pounder with a friend. BTW, all who ordered the lobsters said they were as tasty and tender as any lobster; size does not correlate with toughness, only overcooking.
Our server Sal and his sense of humor alone is worth the price of admission. He said with his best gangster voice " If you don't get the lobster you'll sleep with the fishes."  He suggested a house unoaked Chardonnay. for $3, it was quite delicious-crisp and lightly fruity. We ordered a second one, big spenders that we are. I've paid $8-12+ for Chardonnay in Naples that didn't taste as good.   While the house Pinot ($6) was good, the Chardonnay with seafood is the bomb. Bottles of wine range from $22 for a Malbec to 39 with a  $37 Chalk Hill and a $47 Cakebread. Just want a drink? The full bar is the size of Rhode Island.

The atmosphere is warm and friendly. We wandered over to take photos and chat with those that ordered the 9 pounders. Others came by to take photos, or compliment dancers, now seated. "Strangers are just friends you haven't met"  could be Bill's motto. Yes, this time warp of a restaurant has down to earth Midwestern charm and friendliness in spades.

Our bow to the past was ordering the clams casino special at the '70's price of  $6. "This is buttery crazy good" my companion exclaimed. The five good size clams are served hot, topped with buttah-laden seasoned bread crumbs, spices, perhaps parsley and cheese,  and bacon. Deelicious!

The fried calamari appetizer ($8) with yellow banana peppers  
could be a meal alone for some people! The majority of the calamari were the prized baby tentacles, not the usual, and cheaper to obtain large body rings. The calamari was crisply tender, and nicely matched with a pepper and some rich sauce in every few forkfuls.

Sal suggested the 16 ounce porterhouse steak for $24, and I bit. Hey, if the place's name is Bill's Seafood  and Steak, and also Bill's Steak and Seafood, how could I go wrong? 

  It arrived, larger in life, hot and delicious. Cooked precisely medium rare and nicely salted and spiced, it was far, far better than a $56 steak I recently had at  Fifth Avenue's Avenue5- that was improperly cooked and over twice the price. And, Bill's steak comes with two stuffed mushrooms,  about a half pound of roasted potatoes and haricot vert skinny flavorful green beans, too! Toto, I don't think we're eating steak on 5th Avenue anymore.  (BTW, in fairness, Avenue5's lamb is superb.)

The baked seafood casserole was reasonably priced at $24, with a nicely cooked assortment of shrimp, scallops, haddock and lobster.
 The cooked juices from the seafood made for a watery base. Next time I'll get the $28 Bill's New England clam boil with a cup of chowder, a pound of steamers, a pound of mussels, white and sweet potatoes, corn, linguica sausage and a hot dog!
  
There's a menu for minnows, er, kids.

We were too happily stuffed that we didn't sample a dessert. The lemoncello Marscapone cake; New England grasshopper with mint chocolate chip ice cream; and homemade bread pudding sound good.

Bill, the owner/chef visited each table-what a great down to earth guy. Wonder as we did how the prices are low, and portion size and quality are high.  He owns seafood markets in the Boston area, so his son ships pallets of seafood every day by jet to RSW. You can spot Bill by the lobster tank when he's not in the kitchen.
 The '70's music, large portions and low prices are here to stay at Bill's  As we were leaving, the musicians sang the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody and dancers swayed blissfully in each other's arms. 
video

"Lonely rivers flow to the sea, to the sea." We'll be back... we admit it...we hunger for your steaks and lobsters.

 Bill's Steak & Seafood,  every day from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., 4221 East Tamiami Trail, Naples, 455-5111, www.seafoodrestaurantnaples.com