"All of our restaurants are casual," the owner of the Seaside Inn on Sanibel Island told us, "and none of them is great."
On a brief weekend getaway from Miami, I had only a few chances to experience local flavor, so I did something I hardly ever do when I'm in a new place (I prefer to wander on my own and take chances). I asked for somebody else's opinion. What I got was a vacationing restaurant critic's worst nightmare -- a blanket dismissal of every eatery in the area.
I was astonished by the innkeeper's apparent candor. Even the operator of a Red Roof Inn with no restaurants for miles except a Burger Doodle and a Sub City ought to venture a positive opinion -- the nature of the service industry demands it. Regardless, I took her attitude as a challenge and immediately set out to prove her wrong.
It wasn't much of a quest: I succeeded on my first try. Espying an ad laying claim to "award-winning" cuisine, I hied to the Greenhouse Grill, a contemporary, black-and-white dining room perched on Sanibel's main drag, Periwinkle Way. Open for a little more than a year, the restaurant is known simply as the Greenhouse and was formerly located on the neighboring island of Captiva. Between the two sites, for three years running it has won a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence (for its wine list), four consecutive three-star ratings from the Mobil Guide, and a host of other honors. Chef-proprietor Dan Mellman has twice been invited to New York City to cook at the James Beard House.
Mellman's cuisine amounts to a Gulf Coast rendition of New World. He throws in the same Caribbean/Latin/Asian influences we're pretty used to here, taking advantage of the west coast's fresh seafood and locally grown produce. We began our meal with a fabulous spinach salad the chef tossed in the open kitchen while chatting with customers seated at the kitchen bar. Crisp leaf spinach was jazzed up with crumbled bacon, white mushrooms, and sweet yellow corn corn cut from the cob, and united by a light bath of Pommery mustard-orange honey dressing.
Changing daily, the summer menu highlights a few appetizers, such as spicy black bean cakes with tomato salsa and shrimp cakes with summer-squash-and-tomato salad, as well as several pastas, including Sanibel shrimp over linguine with feta cheese, orange sections, and green onions and Tuscan mushroom stew with fennel sausage, crayfish, and risotto. We were also attracted by the number of fresh fish entrees, particularly a delicious pan-seared Florida black grouper. The crusty, meaty fillet was arranged over a scoop of garlic "smashed" potatoes, a simultaneously smooth and chunky starch. Surrounding the potatoes, a lake of seafood etouffee was ladled. We couldn't discover the seafood in here, though a plethora of white flaked fish gave the spicy N'awlins sauce (laced with bell peppers and onions) some oceanside character. A delicate nest of flash-fried sweet potatoes decorated the creation.
The same crunchy curls loaded up the grilled salmon. A mild, pale pink Atlantic fillet, the salmon also lay over the tasty mashed potatoes. A roasted-corn butter, highlighting the same freshly shucked kernels, added texture to the tender fish, while a cool salad of stewed plum tomatoes lent temperature contrast.
Don't let desserts like the white chocolate creme brulee and the triple-tiered key lime pie (made with alternating layers of white chocolate mousse, key lime custard, and bittersweet chocolate ganache) distract you. The best sweet by far -- and one that was rightly recommended by a very professional waiter who knew his menu, his restaurant, his chef, and his island in minute detail -- was the pan-blackened bread pudding. This was the French toast of dreams: raisin bread pudding steamed with Jack Daniel's, then sliced, seared, and smothered in a perfectly executed homemade caramel sauce.
Dress, by the way, is casual, though prices aren't.
Our innkeeper was right on with her description of Captiva's most popular restaurant, the Bubble Room on Captiva Drive. "Intentionally tacky," she called it, and I'm inclined to agree: The place is crammed with a mixture of Hollywood memorabilia, Christmas decorations, and countless animated mechanical toys, collectible knickknacks, cheesy gewgaws, and souvenirs. The establishment, which opened seventeen years ago with only 28 seats, has become a three-story, 150-seat monument to nostalgia, where servers call themselves "Bubble Scouts" and act as though their heads are carbonated. When we visited for lunch, our Heather Locklear-on-acid waitress asked us the same question three times, forgot half our drink order, and neglected to bring out one of the appetizers we ordered.
Gripes aside, this place has an undeniable fun factor reminiscent of one of my favorite Miami spots, K.C. Cagney's in Kendall. Menu items are jokingly named, sometimes with inattention to orthography ("Mae's West," for instance, refers to chicken breasts) and the food ain't half bad. "Moon over Miami," a seafood gumbo stocked with shrimp, okra, bacon, and tomatoes in an herby broth, might have been more accurately called "Moon over New Orleans," but we enjoyed it just the same. She-crab soup was a thick mix of real crab, cream, and sherry, rich and filling despite being served lukewarm. An order of tender artichoke hearts dipped in a mustardy batter and deep-fried was steaming hot, and irresistible when dunked in the accompanying creamy horseradish-mustard sauce. Sandwiches were good-size, especially the muffuletta, an authentic pleasure. Sweet and hard salami, provolone cheese, shaved lettuce, tomatoes, and onions were stacked on a grilled Italian bun with a dressing of green and black olives, roasted pepper, garlic, and oregano vinaigrette providing a burst of flavor. Roast beef, too tough and well-done, wasn't quite as successful, sandwiched between French bread with lettuce, tomato, onions, bacon, and oddly bland horseradish dressing.
"The Sailor Man," a baked casserole of crepes, chopped spinach, and Parmesan cheese, was topped with a bechamel sauce and sunflower seeds, a lovely combination. Fresh fish of the day was excellent, too. A char-grilled tuna steak, exuding juice, was served with a cucumber sauce and a side dish of black beans and rice, a surprisingly tasty version garnished with chopped white onions.
Desserts are the main attraction here, as jumbo as the Bubble Room's reputation. We had a hard time deciding but eventually smacked our lips over a potent pecan golden rum cake layered with whipped cream, and a rich "industrial strength" three-story chocolate fudge cake. I might not stand in the two-hour line that forms for dinner, but lunch is a wait-free kick, and dessert is a requirement.
Back on Sanibel, breakfast is served all day at the Lighthouse Cafe on Periwinkle Way. A bare-bones kind of place that turns over as many tables as the waves do shells on the nearby beach, the inventive eggs served here belie the restaurant's creaky wooden booths and walls hung with framed pictures of South Florida lighthouses.
Of course, lying prone on the beach might be the only alternative after consuming one of these rich concoctions. The Lighthouse special was doubly sinful, a fluffy omelet encasing chunks of turkey, sauteed broccoli and mushrooms, and cream cheese, topped with hollandaise sauce. A side of hash browns fried with onions (or a cup of creamy grits) and a choice of toast or English muffin served with homemade strawberry preserves completed the plate. The red-sauce frittata was also a hefty serving. The flat, round egg dish was dotted with piquant Italian sausage, bell peppers, mushrooms, and onions, and blanketed with marinara sauce and melted provolone cheese.
The lunch-geared appetite can order broiled fish for breakfast or feast on a grilled croissant stuffed with turkey, Swiss, broccoli, and mushrooms, served with tangy cole slaw and peppered French fries. A breakfast sandwich was two eggs (fried or scrambled) and a choice of ham, bacon, or sausage, sealed into a kaiser roll with melted Cheddar cheese. Corned beef hash, a little on the salty side, was a crisp meat-and-potatoes option.
Those looking for that famed Florida fruit can start with fresh-squeezed orange juice topped off with champagne, then continue with tropical fruit-stuffed French toast, drenched in a custard batter and fried. Granola nut pancakes were outrageous, filled like a layer cake with granola, dates, and almonds, then iced with sliced bananas, whipped cream, and warm maple syrup.
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Sanibel and Captiva, only three hours away by car and easily traversed by bicycle, make for a great place to play hard and eat well. Living as we do in a seasonal community, it's easy to forget how much fun it is to be tourists ourselves.
2407 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel Island; 941-472-6882. Open Wednesday -- Sunday for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The Bubble Room Restaurant
15001 Captiva Dr, Captiva Island; 941-472-5558. Lunch and dinner served daily.
362 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel Island; 941-472-0303. Breakfast and lunch served daily.