A Rosy Morning at Rosy Tomorrows

My cauliflower had a first name: Veronica. More importantly, it had a delicious nutty, slightly garlicky flavor after I roasted it with a drizzle of olive oil and grind of sea salt and pepper. Veronica cauliflower, also known by some as Romanesco cauliflower or broccoli, was one of the first-time food encounters I experienced Wednesday during Market Day at Rosy Tomorrows Heritage Farm in North Fort Myers.

The gate to Rosy Tomorrows' Old South grounds

The gate to Rosy Tomorrows’ Old South grounds

I tasted the tiny yellow flower of a Mexican mint plant (a.k.a. Mexican mint marigold), which tasted much more like anise than mint. And a marble-sized Everglades tomato: It burst like a flavor capsule in my mouth. I also brought home a pretty box of tiny, assorted sweet peppers that added a delightful crunch to my salad. And a loaf of rustic olive-rosemary bread.

I met “Rosy” herself at Market Day, which happens every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., when the farm is open to the public. Rose O’Dell King started making the local news several years ago as the founder and first president of Slow Food Southwest Florida and a proponent for wholesome, non-toxic, and humane animal and garden products.

As a French Culinary Institute trained chef, certified sommelier, and former sheep farmer, Rose knows her way around a farm. She found 100-plus lovely acres in North Fort Myers that suited her needs and set out to produce food organically, holistically, sustainably, humanely, and as close to nature as possible.

She raises rare, slow-growing, heritage breeds of livestock known for their adaptability to Florida and their pedigree of good taste: 100 percent grass-fed Longhorn cows, pastured Red Wattle pigs and Dominque, Australorp, and Silver Laced Wyandotte chickens. Naturally, they are hormone and steroid free. I did not buy any meat this week – that you must order ahead as much of Rosy Tomorrows’ inventory is grabbed by fine local restaurants.

Assorted mini-bells from Rosy Tomorrows

Assorted mini-bells from Rosy Tomorrows

Tentatively in early May, the farm will celebrate the opening of a new barn, where Market Day will take place in the future. During its building, Rose suspended serving food on Market Day, but that will reconvene, beginning with a continental breakfast of fresh goodies at the grand opening, and such offerings as Rosy Tomorrows’ signature basil lemonade, market salad, and sweet and savory hand pies on Wednesdays. Check online for details.

A new chef has joined the staff ; meet her and manager Matt DeuxHerst, head gardener Kelsey Costa, their adorable tow-head daughter Ila, and able assistant Bekah. The staff are extremely knowledgeable about their wares and how to prepare them. Thanks, Kelsey and Bekah, for the Veronica cauliflower tips!

Mereday’s boosts Naples’ food rep

Shrimp amusee.

Shrimp amusee.

PORKBELLY_1

Pork belly etude.

First there was Conde Nast Traveler magazine: It recently named Naples as #17 its 2014 Top American  Cities for Foodies list. It mentioned Mereday’s Fine Dining by name in the write-up.

Then just last week Florida Trend magazine’s food writer, Chris Sherman, devoted the restaurant pages entirely to Naples’ boom as a restaurant destination. Again, the Mereday’s name popped up.

“Mereday’s Fine Dining is a multi-course tour of contemporary luxury,” he writes.

Coincidence? Not in my Naples foodie lexicon.

I’m just off another dining experience at the capable hands of Charles Mereday, and I’m still swooning.

The talented young chef boasts experience from Philly to the U.S. Virgin Islands and France. Growing up in North Carolina brings yet another influence on his global cuisine at Mereday’s, which opened harborside at Naples Bay Resort in July 2013.

In March 2014, Mereday opened Alto Live Jazz Kitchen – which Sherman also mentions in glowing terms (“sax-y food”) – nearby in Bayfront Naples. Conjuring it up from his Zanzibar Blue club kitchen days in Philadelphia, he has created a hot spot for cuisine and great live jazz and other musicians.

Back at Mereday’s, I am constantly delighted with every bite I take while I watch Chef Mereday work his magic in his exhibit kitchen. A quiet, calm, anti-chef-acting man, he makes appearances at the table to humbly hear high praise.

I couldn’t help gushing about a simple amusée he sent to our table on Friday. Gulf shrimp languishing in long-simmered shrimp stock tasted of the briny clean and simple.

Famous for his foie gras creations, Chef served that night on his ever-changing menu a foie gras torchon grape mostarda combination that made me groan in delight. I’m not exaggerating. The flavors and textures conspired for something that truly transcended the word “food.”

Braised pork belly with crisped edging,  a beautiful swirl of butternut squash puree, a small nest of truffle-laced greens, a single spear of white asparagus, and one porcini mushroom in its own sauce: It was poetic in its sentimentality and creativity.

We sampled shelled mussels in Indian Korma curry and coconut milk, stuffed quail with dried cranberry and pancetta, triple tail with blistered tomato vinaigrette and sauce vierge, and filet of beef in an exquisite veal jus with potato puree. Each bite transporting.

Carrot cake, mocha pots de cream with flourless chocolate cake and white chocolate ice cream, and sticky toffee pudding with brown butter ice cream finished the meal and finished us for anything but Charles Mereday’s brand of detailed, tightly  interlaced flavor profiles.

Mereday’s opens daily for dinner. Stop first in the bar for a well-crafted classic cocktail. Then move seamlessly to the contemporary dining space that surrounds it in sleek style. (Or you can choose al fresco dining with a marina view.)

The restaurant prices its meals by number of courses, starting with $55 for two courses plus dessert ($85 with wine pairings included) up to four courses plus dessert at $95 and $145.

Another secret: To sample Chef Mereday’s genius without investing in a multi-coursed meal, ask the bartender to see the evening’s bar menu selections. But beware, one bite leads to utter, desperate dependence on this level of culinary religion.

Uncorking ‘Clearwater Beach Uncorked’

The paella was going to be a hard act to follow. Luckily we hit SHOR’s culinary presentation before the big crowds arrived.

SHOR, the flagship restaurant for Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach, somehow managed a fresh-tasting true taste of Florida for thousands of guests on the beach that Saturday afternoon in early February – part of Clearwater Beach’s third annual Uncorked festival.sign

Under tents set up right on Clearwater Beach’s patent brand of sugar sand, the food and wine adventure is unlike any other of Florida’s barrel-loads of winter wine festivals.

For starters, organizers have decanted out any snob, elitist dregs. Here, beach bash meets foodie feast. It runs for two weekend days and draws a diverse, grape-happy crowd that cheerfully – for the most part anyway – endures long lines and crowds so clotted it got tricky raising glass to lips.

Barefoot and Bountiful

A shoe check-in at the tents’ entrance gave permission to wiggle toes in sand, but I feared for the safety of said toes. At Saturday’s peak, crowds were five to eight deep at the more popular food and drink stations. That’s when we were gladdest to have passes to the VIP Grand Tasting, where vendors were pouring top-shelf drinks, and we could score a splendid plate of escargot with smoky mac ‘n’ cheese from the Lobster Pot in Redington Shores.

The VIP lounge was available only during Saturday’s 1-to-5 p.m. event. It’s worth paying the extra 40 bucks (regular admission is $85 for each day) .

View from the Hyatt Regency

View from the Hyatt Regency

For the most top-shelf Uncorked experience, book a room at the Hyatt, central to the festival: Avoid parking hassles and easily escape the crowds in Skimmers bar or your sumptuous room.  After a couple of hours we were ready to do just the latter, since scoring tastes of food and booze was becoming near impossible.

Sip. Savor. Repeat.

We started earlier the next day so we could pick up what we had missed the day previous – wowsome pancetta-wrapped shrimp atop lime cream corn from Caretta’s on the Gulf and smoked fish dip and house ale from Crabby Bill’s, both on Clearwater Beach; grilled scallops with cheesy grits from Oystercatchers in Tampa; and crab cakes from Salt Rock Grill in Indian Shores – to name a

The Caretta team

The Caretta team

few.

Wines came from all over the country. My favorite new tries were White Lightning Chardonnay, Dreaming Tree Everyday White, and a Florida-made Hurricane Category 5 sangria.

Available both days, a separate lounge area provided samples of liquors ranging from Cape Coral’s artisanal Wicked Dolphin rum to Tito vodka in lemonade with fresh basil and Jim Beam Honey.

So the moral of the story: If you’re expecting hoity sit-down dinners and break-the-bank tastings at your Florida wine

Wine flows freely

Wine flows freely

festival, head to Naples, Sarasota, or South Beach. Otherwise, mark Uncorked on your calendar for next February.

In let-loose Clearwater Beach (warning: no drinks outside of the festival areas), it’s all in the spirit of fun and food that comes uncorked on several levels.

For more information about beach-going on Clearwater Beach, read my USA TODAY coverage.

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

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.