Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Rumba Cuban Cafe in Naples

     Cuban food in Cuba hasn't tasted this good since the '50s. Cuban food in many of Miami's spots hasn't tasted this good, ever. What's the secret? Flavor, flavor, flavor. Garlic, lime, lemon and vinegar are the major flavor messengers.

It's on the intimate side inside, with perhaps  a grand total of 60-some seats. Choose your spot along the bar, in the dining room, or outdoors on cooler nights. The music is perfect for dancing (sorry, no dance floor) and the servers treat you as a long lost relative. What's not to love?

    It's the former site of Fernandez the Bull's Southern location. Fernandez has kept their Immokalee Road location at 1201 Piper Blvd, Suite 10- you'll get delicious Cuban food there, too. No surprise-I'm told the chef at Rumba was the chef at Fernandez, and the former Fernandez staff bought this location, changed the name and kicked up the flavor a bit!  

Pick a table and have a seat. Soon slices of piping-hot grilled Cuban bread arrive, crisp and butter soaked with pungent garlic.

Start with Cuban nachos ($11).  A quartet of tostones-thin sliced fried green plantains- are piled with marinated chicken, beef or pork, and covered with Rumba cheese sauce. 

This flavorful dish is an ample meal for most people. Recommended.

If it's lunchtime, order cafe Cubano, or a double Cubano for a sweet caffeine kick. There's also soft drinks like Materva, Jupina, Malta, Iron Beer, and  beers and wine.

For dinner, the huge portion of lecho asado ($16) is enough for two people. This slow roasted marinated pork is grilled and basted in mojito sauce- a garlic and lemon tart treat. 

 All entrees come with a choice of two sides-my favorites are the crisp tostones, sweet plantains (plantanos maduros), and the best is the fried yuca- a potato-like tuber that's boiled then fried to a pillowy light texture. 

Highly recommended.

Not a big eater? The thin palomilla steak ($13) is mojito-marinated, topped with grilled onions, and served with sides. 

This is a bargain price. Palomilla steak is quite thin, so it's almost always served well done.  Recommended.

My favorite treat is the shrimp al ajillo ($19).

 These plump shrimp are sautéd in a white wine, butter and garlic based sauce, then topped with capers. Cooked to tender perfection, the shrimp are to be savored/devoured within minutes of serving. Highly recommended.

Neighboring tables recommended the ropa vieja, masitas de purco, churrascos (beef or chicken), medianoche sandwich,  and croquetas de la casa.

Dessert?  I've only tried the bunuelos so far. 

This sweet petite delight is a figure-8  pastry that's hand rolled, fried, and topped with a special tropical sweet sauce. Add the scoop of vanilla ice cream for $1. It's worth it.  Next time I'll save room for the guava cheesecake, flan, tres leches or the Rumba jump start with a shot of Cafe cubano!

For a wallet friendly family meal, friends or date night (it can get noisy) , Rumba delivers delicious food in a casual setting. You may just become a regular, too.

1265 Airport-Pulling Road South, Naples, 659-2996,

Monday, August 18, 2014

A Caribbean Delight- The Island Seafood Restaurant - Cape Coral, Florida

 The Island Seafood Restaurant promises "The Best Mayan Riviera and Caribbean style Seafood in Cape Coral."  I'll happily extend that promise to cover all of Southwest Florida, and put it head to head with any Latin-Caribbean cuisines.

  Opened in late April, the restaurant sports al fresco dining, a full bar, and is very family friendly. 
  Freddie Garcia and  Jacqueline Vasquez are the owners. Chef Garcia painted the Caribbean underwater murals ( makes me want to SCUBA dive!), crafted the tropical bar, and did all the other decoration. 
He's so creative in various culinary and decorative arts. This is their second restaurant.

We started with appetizers. The quality of the food kept us ordering more and more.
Server Emilee is tops in her thoughtful suggestions warmth, and her personality made for  a wonderful evening.

Fresh fish ceviche ($12) is a large flavorful appetizer with perfectly citrus-marinated fish,  fresh corn, sweet peppers, diced tomato, onion, mixed garden greens and lime juice. 
This is a great deal for the fine quality and portion size.  Highly recommended.

Guacamole at $8 is enough for two-it's clearly prepared to order, served in a molcajete. 
Chef Freddie adds his delicious twists to a creamy traditional dish, including bits of sliced boiled egg with spices to chunks of Haas avocado and diced tomato.

The fresh mixed seafood cocktail appetizer ($12) is a meal in itself, attractively served in a large glass bowl with chips.
 Inside is an oceanic cornucopia with cooked Gulf shrimp, delicate octopus, oysters, scallops, fish, diced tomato and lime juice.  Highly recommended.

Salsa and chips are $1, how can one go wrong? The salsa is under-spiced, so one can add as much heat as desired from several hot sauces already on the table. The chips are ok, they are perhaps the only thing not freshly made on site. Very few places freshly bake/fry  corn tortilla chips anymore.   

The tropical pineapple ($16)  was the pinnacle of  our evening!  Chef Freddie
combines pineapple, tropical fruit, multicolored sweet peppers, ham and grilled chicken (or seafood) with an aromatic Mayan-Creole sauce.   
The generous portion is  served  in a half-pineapple, baked with a topping of mozzarella cheese, and served with crisp Cuban bread.  Highly recommended.

 Vegetarian molcajete ($12) is served hot and stayed hot for perhaps 15 minutes with the heat retained by the thick volcanic molcajete.
 The mix of  tomatoes, broccoli, potatoes, carrots and Mayan-Creole sauce, topped with mozzarella cheese is a vegan delight.
Save room for the signature dessert ($6) - banana cheesecake wrapped in tortillas and fried, served with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with luscious caramel. It's enough for three people to share. 
 Latin night is a must attend if one likes Latin American music with a Latin DJ and dancing. It's only offered Saturday nights from 10 pm -2 am.

1339 Cape Coral Parkway East, Cape Coral, 541-0722

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,

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.


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,