Eating Sarasota

For 15 days in June, foodies can get their fill of Sarasota affordably.

Number one beach in the U.S. in 2012? Sure, I’m impressed by Sarasota’s legendary sugar sand.

Sweet pears poached with lavender and honey, topped with goat cheese ice cream, and served in a pool of black pepper caramel sauce? That, my

Matthison's chicken and wild mushroom bread pudding

Matthison’s chicken and wild mushroom bread pudding

friends, is the first sweet thing that comes to my mind when I’m headed to Sarasota.I’m not even that big of a dessert fan, but this particular dish at Derek’s Culinary Casual definitely rates in my taste bud Hall of Fame. Derek’s, one of more than 50 independently owned members of Sarasota-Bradenton Originals within the cities’ two-county area, excels at the “original part.”

Other dishes I’ve tried and will never forget: salad “Caesaresque,” braised lamb shank, and Prince Edward mussels dish — at once rustic, elegant, smoky, and surprising in its broth of chorizo, garbanzos, and grilled tomato butter.

It’s a stellar example of the standard of dining one finds throughout the Sarasota region – everything from home-cooked Amish to house-created ingenuity.

Savor Sarasota Discount Dining Days

A good time to try out Sarasota’s dining scene is during the eighth annual Savor Sarasota, June 1 through 14. Special multi-course pre-fixe menus encourage experimentation without wallet pain in more than 35 restaurants this year. Lunches cost only $15; dinners, $29. Read more of this post

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Still a Hidden Secret: This Florida Westin soon to be found

Where the heck is Cape Coral, Florida? you may ask. You’re not alone.

As a neighbor to the more well-known resort towns of Sanibel Island and Fort Myers, Cape Coral – although one of the largest Florida cities acreage-wise – hides in the shadows. For tourists, it lacks Florida West Coast’s fabulous beaches, but it does have one manmade beach, a waterpark, and waterfronts on the Caloosahatchee River.

Bargain Luxury

It also, now, has the Westin Cape Coral Resort at Marina Village, which only opened in December 2012, but already has nabbed a coveted AAA four-diamond award. With rates as low as $99 for a standard room, you’re going to get the most luxury bang for your buck in Florida if you  book

What a view!

What a view!

a  summer/fall stay – before the world discovers this bargain and before rates raise as temperatures up north drop.

For summer family travelers, it’s ideal because most of the 263 units have bedrooms, from one to three bedrooms — and wait until you see the size, elegance, and comfort of these rooms, all of which overlook the marina and its mangrove fringe.

So let’s just get it out of the way right off, the beach issue. No it does not have a beach, which is what most people do come to Florida for, granted. But it does have a free shuttle boat that takes you to Fort Myers Beach.

Perfect Girls Getaway

Honestly? We did a girls’ weekend there recently, and we opted out of the beach shuttle. The ride, pleasant and scenic enough along local backwaters and bay, takes about 45 minutes each way. So you end up being away from 10 a.m. to 3:15 p.m.

With only three days, we wanted to enjoy the resort’s great amenities, so chose instead spa treatments and poolside. They have this one secret pool away from the main pool where you can bring your cooler and enjoy removal from families if you’re so inclined. As on-the-lam moms, we were definitely so inclined. And reclined, as much as sipping our cocktails would allow.wes3851ex.127843_1

Equally ideal for girls getaways, it’s one of those places where you can park the car and keep fully entertained in the shops, bars, and restaurants. The property, part of a gated community, is flat-out gorgeous; we spent most of our time gabbing on the balcony, gazing at the view, and fixing munchies in the modern kitchen we all coveted. Our after-hour forays to the bars resulted one night in partying with newlyweds who had married that day on the lawn.

For more active pursuits, there’s an exercise trail, fitness room, kayaking, biking, tennis, and boat rentals and tours.

And yes, there’s the Heavenly Bath and Heavenly Bed and even now Heavenly Dog Beds that Westin conceived and everyone has since copied.  These are the most heavenly (smartly designed) bathrooms I’ve ever experienced in a Westin, nonetheless. We also loved the free late checkout option (3 p.m.) on Sundays. How smart is that?!

But in the estimation of a somewhat needy girls’ group, the bend-over-backwards service set Cape Coral, Florida, finally and firmly on the landscape our getaway map.

Lee County: Best grouper sandwiches

Grouper sandwich a la Lazy Flamingo.

Grouper sandwich a la Lazy Flamingo.

With grouper fishing season just reopened as of April 1, the time is right to get it fresh at local restaurants. The iconic grouper sandwich is to Southwest Florida what hot dogs are to Coney Island. Nearly every local menu lists one, and each restaurant claims to make the best.

“Best” may be in the mouth of the beholder. It depends upon if you go for the classic grouper sandwich — breaded and deep-fried to a golden brown then smeared with creamy tartar sauce – or something creative and lighter. With the onset of health consciousness, many restaurants offer the delicacy grilled, blackened, or broiled between a bun.

It starts with one of the world’s meatiest, sweetest-tasting fish — a saltwater catch in the sea bass family that swims deep waters. The most common, red grouper, can grow to a beefy 32 inches and 25 pounds.

So grab your appetite and let’s get started. Here, in no particular order, are 10 grouper sandwiches that I recommend wrapping your palate around.

  1. Lazy Flamingo, Bokeelia (239-283-5959) You’ll find Lazy Flamingo restaurants throughout the county, but I like Bokeelia’s best the best for its view of marina and boats. Seafood always tastes better seaside. Its fried grouper sandwich is textbook classic with the exception of its overachieving caper tartar sauce. Lazy Flamingo adds the healthy touch of a whole wheat bun. Healthier still? Order the mesquite-grilled version and opt for Caesar salad instead of fries.
  2. Gramma Dot’s Seaside Saloon, Sanibel Island (239-472-8138) Another salty marina view, another noteworthy tartar sauce: Dill sparks the mayo and sour cream, cornmeal forms the coating, and Swiss cheese tops it all off. You can also order the fish broiled, mesquite-grilled, or blackened.
  3. University Grill, Fort Myers (239-437-4377) Some restaurants add serious crunch to their fried sandwiches by rolling the grouper in cornflakes. The one they serve here could fairly break an ear drum.
  4. Rumrunner’s, Cape Coral (239-542-0200) Here’s another one that talks back at you when you bite it, with an outspoken crunch that counterpoints its chewy, soft Kaiser roll.
  5. Mucky Duck (239-472-3434) and Green Flash (239-472-3337), Captiva Island. Same owner, same recipe, different water views. The secret here to the cornflake-crusted grouper sandwich? Tartar sauce blended with house-made mayo.
  6. Coconut Jack’s Bonita Beach (239-676-7777) Crowd-pleasing Coconut Jack’s also coats its fried grouper with cornflakes, but gives diners options including beer-battered, blackened, and grilled. Diners often order the grilled version with the special homemade BBQ sauce; otherwise the sandwiches come with house remoulade on a brioche bun.
  7. Pincher’s Crab Shack (239-415-8973) Its Great Grouper Sandwich too gives you a choice of preparation: broiled, blackened, or lightly breaded. With several locations, its most properly fish-eating venue resides bayside at Fort Myers Beach.
  8. Fresh Catch, Fort Myers Beach (239-463-2600) A seafood market on premises is a good sign that the grouper is super-fresh – the most important part of any
    Sanibel Grill

    Sanibel Grill

    recipe. Here they grill the filet and serve it on a rustic roll.

  9. Sanibel Grill, Sanibel Island (239-472-4453) Cousin to University Grill, it too adds cornflake crunch to the grouper. Try it in the Grouper Reuben grilled with Swiss cheese and slaw.
  10. South Beach Bar & Grille, Boca Grande (941-964-0765) Its Ultimate Grouper Sandwich is the ultimate in gourmet – pan-seared and served with garlic butter glaze, oven-roasted tomatoes, and complex homemade tartar. It’s enough to make me lose my prejudice for classic fried grouper .  So, if forced, I would deem it my favorite to date. However, I’m nowhere near finished researching the topic.