Saturday, March 22, 2014

Delicious Bites at Naples Ritz-Carlton

Some things, like fine wines and musicians Steve Uscher and Winnie Purple, just get better with time. I last reviewed Bites at the beachside Naples Ritz-Carlton Hotel in 2010, and visited a few more times since then.It's a unique setting to wow appreciative locals and guests alike.

    Bites is directly ahead as you enter the spacious lobby, with the tall windows on its west side. Though open to the lobby, as sunset becomes night, Bites gains intimacy and romance as the overhead light level similarly diminishes. You are promptly greeted, asked if you have a reservation, and escorted to your table or comfy couch. If you’re there before 6 pm in Season, you’ve a decent chance as a walk-in to score a spot.

My favorite entertainers are there five out of seven nights- Steve Uscher on the acoustic guitar, and Winnie Purple with velvety vocals and percussion. The pairing is a must- hear; they’ve been chosen to perform at Bites for at least 5 years. 
   Their empassioned Spanish and Brazilian  musical selections are my favorites. Music transcends languages-you don't need to know the lyrics to feel a song's emotional impact. Do reserve a spot closer to the musicians, otherwise you may strain to hear them over intermittently loud talkers.

   The menu’s thirty five offerings are bite-sized, tapas-style, with orders having odd or even numbers of items. As all but one of the tables had two or multiples of two persons, having an odd number of portions made it slightly awkward to split up the odd item.

   The wine selection of reds and whites is sufficient, with pricing by the glass from $16 to $19, and bottles ranging from $55 to ~ $150. My dining partner and I were very pleased with the smooth  $55 Sean Minor 2011 Pinot Noir Carneros. 
The house started us with two small porcelain bowls of delicious stuffed olives, and mixed nuts. 
(Alas, years ago, an accompanying wonderful selection of breads was a most welcome treat…)

   Our personable and attentive server Mary was spot on with her recommendations. She let us set the pace of the dining-leisurely- to savor the live music. We were never rushed, even though walk-ins arrived; they were happily seated a few feet just outside Bites on couches.

We started with a stellar home run;  the short rib slider ($14) is a BBQ chef’s holy grail! Oh-so tender, it truly falls apart on your tongue. 
The red wine-marinated beef’s richly savory flavor is accented by melted Tallegio cheese and caramelized onion. Nestled in a crisp sesame bun that is topped with speared pickled onion and a gherkin. This  culinary marriage of top flavors and textures has been my favorite for years. Highly recommended.

The foie gras royal ($12) comes as an elegant  trio of three brown hen eggs, their tops neatly removed, revealing a firm, cold yellow foie gras mixture, topped with a rich Port wine glaze and some diced nuts.
Yellow foie gras???  Yes, the chef mixes egg yolks with the creamed foie gras, crafting a chilled firm emulsion of pure goodness, served with crisp toast!
I wouldn’t mind if it were served a little warmer.  Recommended.

After a leisurely spell listening to Steve and Winnie, we devoured the steak and fries ($14). 
This was excellent, with six speared filet mignon bites cooked to perfection, accompanied by wonderfully crisp golden-brown fries. The porcelain bowl of Béarnaise sauce was enlivened by generous bits of fresh chopped tarragon. Highly recommended.

We were comfortably satiated, and ended the meal not with a dessert (next time!) but with an order of sambal sea bass ($12) graced with a lightly spiced chili, tomato sauce, all atop coconut rice. 
The three pieces of  perfectly cooked bass were a tender delight combined with the rice-we wish we had room to have had another order!  Highly recommended.

Desserts are $8-12, with gingerbread cup cakes, chocolate fondue, bananas cup cakes with Nutella, blueberry cobbler and orange flan. I’ll go for the chocolate fondue with mint marshmallow.

   We could not have asked for a more relaxing evening of great music in an elegant setting with a fine assortment of hot or cold tapas, er, bites. The evening was enhanced by top server Mary, who orchestrated our selections and their leisurely timing. I’ll be back again and again, as selections may change with the seasons. The popular ceviche tacos, shrimp pot stickers, tomato tartar, baked brie, and burrata with pesto are high on my list.

Competition? None, with so unique a gem. There are fine Ritz-Carleton restaurants at  both the beach and the golf properties; this is my favorite for the casual  intimate setting, delicious cuisine and fine musicians. Music lovers may enjoy a wonderful  dinner and live jazz at Alto Live Jazz Kitchen, down at Bayfront. This larger restaurant setting features superb cuisine and a stage for nationally known jazz musicians. That’s pretty much it-two places that pair creative fine food and music in Naples. It’s a start... 

 Bites, serving 5 pm to 10 pm every night. 280 Vanderbilt Beach Road, Naples, 514-6001.


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