The advantages of escaping to resort islands such as Captiva and Sanibel during the unbearable mugginess of summer are numerous. Despite a certain similarity in climate to South Florida, these islands off our state's southwest coast are home to breezier, easier days and slightly cooler nights. Shelling on the mica-strewn beaches, shopping the galleries filled with handmade crafts, and swimming with pods of curious dolphins that linger just beyond the breaking waves are the most stressful activities allowed (along with drinking a rum punch or three). And the few tourists who roam about don't wear the tacky, flowered plumage of snowbirds but rather look like weekend-tripping Florida residents indulging in cheap, off-season room rates.
For the gastronomically minded, however, vacationing in a seasonal place also has its disadvantages: Half the restaurants close for the summer, shorten their hours, or go out of business. The ones that do stay open are usually as tried-and-true as old jammies -- comfortable but frayed at the edges or missing a button or two. (See "Foodstuff" for a hint on finding more restaurants on Sanibel and Captiva islands.)
Indeed such was the case at the Village Cafe (14970 Captiva Dr., Captiva Island, 941-472-1956), an upmarket eatery that has served the population for several years. The décor is stunning; the bi-level restaurant features an enormous open kitchen that feels like part of the dining room. Smooth white walls are sculpted and waved, with human faces molded into the walls in inconspicuous places in such a way that you'll notice them only if you look for them. Picture a cross between Gaudi and Dalí and you have the general picture.
Unfortunately the fare shows a distinct lack of artistry. While main courses such as the sea scallops with curry, caviar, and champagne sauce were well conceived, they were not as successfully executed. The curry-dusted scallops carried so many spice flavors that the buttery tang of the shellfish virtually disappeared beneath them. Free-range roaster over crawfish hash was pleasantly juicy but much too salty. And a trio of so-called "homemade" pâtés was actually underflavored, with the exception of a smooth truffled mousse -- which the server then informed us was the only pâté the chef buys rather than makes.
Flip that experience over and you have the Mad Hatter (6467 San-Cap Rd., Sanibel, 941-472-0033), another long-standing, New American restaurant that tops the list of concierge recommendations. But this time, while the long, narrow dining room is memorable only because it's starting to verge on shabby, the wonderfully conceptualized eats were outstanding. Take, for instance, the chef's "soup of the moment." What could have been a simple crab chowder was revitalized with sweet potatoes and roasted corn. Instead of being served with a common marinara, the exceptionally tender fried calamari were tossed with baby greens, pickled cucumbers, grape tomatoes, and a subtle sweet-and-sour vinaigrette. An appetizer of goat cheese "pillows" was highlighted with port wine- strawberry sauce, a fruity combo that worked beautifully to offset the pungency of the cheese.
Almost more compelling than the recipes themselves, the quality of the ingredients attested to an evolved kitchen. The yellowfin tuna entrée was medium-rare sushi grade, even if we did think that the orange, chipotle, and peanut-flavored crust and accompaniments of shrimp sausage, sweet potato hash, and cilantro-lime butter constituted overkill. A savory filet mignon was one of the best I've sampled, neither gamy nor bland, and underscored by a gentle but intense caramelized red-onion demi-glace.
For diners such as me who enjoy the uncharted waters of new restaurants, off-season is also the time for raw cafés and bistros quietly to debut. And I'm not kidding when I use the word quiet: When we walked into the month-old, purple-and-green-hued Keylime Bistro in the Captiva Island Inn (11509 Andy Rosse Lane, Captiva Island, 941-395-4000) for a late lunch, the waiter, who was also the bartender, seemed unusually glad to see us. He pulled up a stool to take our order. "You folks are going to get an awful lot of my attention," he confided. "You're only the third table I've had all day."
Not only did we get his undivided and at times overly solicitous attention, we also received a meal that, like the Captiva coastline, was rich with treasures. We'd actually settled into the bistro with few expectations because, despite the white tablecloths and elaborately painted pastel ceiling, the menu reads simply, with lots of puns in the descriptions: for instance the "shrimp-to-shore bloody Mary" (a damn good drink with two huge jumbo shrimp) or the "cakes -- You can have them for dessert if you want, but we use real blue crab in ours" (along with what we suspect were Ritz cracker crumbs).
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The oysters in a stunning po'boy were helped by a crisp tempura batter, and the bread into which they were dropped had been spread with garlic butter for an extra wallop. "Killer, macho nachos" were heaped with tomatoes, onions, olives, jalapeños, steak, and cheese and served on a pizza stand for a startling presentation. My entire party loved one of the waiter's recommendations, bruschetta topped with garlic-infused oil, chopped red onions, roasted red peppers, capers, and a smear of creamy goat cheese. I was particularly wowed by a tricolor garden terrine with stripes of ground carrots, cauliflower, and spinach. Though one of my guests described it as "grown-up baby food," he also had to admit that the preparation was accomplished, a subtle mastery of the form. A puddle of tomato-basil coulis added some depth to the terrine, which, given the climate of Captiva, is an excellent choice for a lady who lunches -- in her bikini.
Just don't plan on fitting into the teeny-weeny after lunching at Katie Gardenia's Kitchen and Mermaid Club (2055 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel Island, 941-472-1242). Located in a shopping center, this mostly Mexican restaurant was created by Gardenia, the original owner of Captiva's infamous Bubble Room, which is known both for its oversize servings and its incredible kitsch. After the proprietor sold the Bubble Room, she switched islands and opened the Mermaid Club on the edge of Sanibel Island only a few months ago.
While the portions of items like the blue crab enchiladas (corn tortillas stuffed with lump crabmeat and topped with blanco and Jack cheeses, caramelized onions, and homemade tomatillo salsa verde) aren't as prodigious as those at the Bubble Room, they are pretty hefty. Consider too that the superbly balanced enchiladas and the savory carnitas (marinated and grilled pork with onions, roasted chili peppers, and warm flour tortillas) were accompanied by stewed pinto beans and fluffy Mexican rice and that all tables receive a basket of freshly fried tortilla chips and home-brewed salsa. You'll be full faster than you can say "Katie Gardenia's Kitchen and Mermaid Club," even if you didn't order the starter of creamy chili con queso dotted with tomatoes and pickled jalapeños, which proves too tempting to resist.
The Mermaid Club's pressed Cuban sandwich, a medley of house-roasted pork, shaved ham, dill pickles, Swiss cheese, and a mojo sauce for dipping, blows away most of the Cuban sandwiches in Miami. Of course the Mermaid Club must both compete with the Bubble Room (a tough assignment indeed) and live up to its name. Thus the plethora of knickknacks -- mermaid lamps, flying mermaids, mermaid Barbies, little plastic mermaids hanging from margarita glasses -- that had one of my friends, a dedicated mermaid lover, drooling with envy. But all in all, since comparisons are inevitable, the Club is more themed and less cacophonous than the Room, and it makes for a great last memory as you make your way back to the off-season hits and misses of South Florida.