Punta Gorda: 2 New Restaurants

Trabue & Opus elevate the town’s reputation

Punta Gorda, Florida, dining capital? Suspend your disbelief and backburner your cynicism until you’ve pulled up a chair.

Time was when it meant Karl Ehmer’s German restaurant, early bird dinners, and Fishermen’s Village. That all has changed.

Bouillabaisse at Opus

Since Hurricane Charley in 2004, the small, historic town’s dining scene has been slowly reviving and evolving. In the last three days I sampled two newcomers that just may take PG to the edge of cutting.

Opus: A Crescendo of Flavor

Opus opened in April 2011 on Marion Avenue, the burgeoning dining strip just a block off the Peace River. Sleek in design with bright art that changes out and simple, elegant lines, it serves a menu as multi-dimensional as its dining room is streamlined.

We started with the gnocchi with roasted cauliflower and basil pesto – little packages of pleasure we shared among three. Other starters range from seared Haloumi cheese and argula salad with citronette dressing to ahi tuna ceviches; and mussels with chorizo, saffron tomato broth, and ciabatta.

Opus specializes in pasta and seafood, but with admirable nods to poultry (hazelnut-crusted chicken breast and pan-roasted duck breast with cranberry demi glace), pork, and steak.

In the seafood department, our server recommended the seared gulf grouper with warm blue crab and lemon caper brown butter; and citrus marinated sea bass with soba noodles and stir-fried veggies.

I eyed the bouillabaisse, however, and she assured me it was ultra-special. Confirmed. Hardly soup- or stew-like, it featured scallops, mussels, shrimp, fish, and baby potatoes in a shallow pool of wonderfully seasoned saffron tomato lobster broth.

Because dessert posed such a quandary, we all ordered a different sweet to pass around the table. I’m still trying to decide which was my favorite – pot de chocolate, ginger crème brulee, or apple empanadas with caramel. I’m leaning toward the delicate – in flavor and texture – crème brulee.

New, True, Blue Trabue

Named for the town’s early identity, Trabue’s only resemblance to old-timey is its historic digs.

Open the door, and you’re swept into a scene entirely unexpected in this town largely populated by retirees: boldly painted walls; a spectacular blue-tinted, glass-fronted bar; and a magical courtyard out back where live music takes the stage certain evenings.

Formerly Tapas One, classically trained Chef Keith Meyer took the helm last November to transform the menu into “serious food but approachable.”

Chianti-braised short ribs, pan-roasted mahi, and crisp yellowtail snapper with yellow tomato gazpacho: I believe he has achieved his goal with flying colors as bright as the walls.

We stopped in for lunch in the courtyard, and marveled over the attention to details: sleek, unique flatware; the cool sink in the ladies’ room; the missing salt and pepper shakers (how do you vote – a sign of arrogance or seasoning mastery?).

Fisherman Chowder at Trabue

I figured the Fisherman Chowder at $11 a bowl would be a meal, with fish, snapper, mussels, and shrimp. Obviously made lovingly from scratch, it was a bit small for the price (two each mussels and clams, a small piece of shrimp, generous white fish of undisclosed species), but delicious with a nice spicy bite.

And, well that just gave me an excuse to indulge in dessert. Again, three selections. This time the Meyer lemon cheesecake with lemon curd was a clear favorite. The key lime pie had the right amount of tart, and the flourless chocolate cake is a must-try for any chocolate junkie.

Other Good Bites

Trabue and Opus join the long-time champion of PG fine cuisine, The Perfect Caper, winner of the 2009 Florida Trend Golden Spoon and a James Beard nominee.

I’ve lunched there often, and love the duck breast salad with goat cheese and cherry vinaigrette.

Red curry scallops at The Perfect Caper

This time I tried new discoveries: the fun A Warm Goat appetizer with cheese, tapenade, caponata, and more; and a pleasantly spicy red curry scallops with sweet panang curry.

Some other worth-mentionables: The gluten-free peanut butter brownie cupcake and maple bacon cupcake at the new In Your Face Cupcakes; raw oysters and grape nuts pudding (surprisingly better than it sounds, especially if you ask for it warmed) at Village Fish Market in Fishermen’s Village.

Tonight it was dinner at one of my favorite funky Florida fish house restaurants – Peace River Seafood & Crab Shack east of town – where

Server extraordinaire, Chris, demonstrating blue crab disarmoring at Peace River Seafood.

the crab chowder, lightly battered Florida lobster bites, and fresh blue crab were awesome as ever. A tip of the fork to owner Kelly Beall and her crab fisherman husband Jimmy.

Tomorrow morning: Elena’s south of downtown has been recommended for breakfast. So

many restaurants, so little time. Not enough days to get back to Amimoto Japanese Restaurant for sushi north of town, or fresh seafood and river views at Laishley Crab House, or Celtic Ray Irish pub and River City Grill – Marion Avenue anchors. And really wishing I could try the new hot local taco and beer stand – Jimmy’s Taco. Next visit!

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