Monday, July 12, 2010

Sanibel - Captiva Restaurant Rundown (Part 1) - The Mad Hatter, Key Lime Bistro

We took a little expedition over the July 4 holiday weekend[1] to Captiva Island on the west coast of Florida. I grew up in South Florida, but have never spent much time exploring the west coast of the state. Just a few hours' drive provided a welcome change of scenery and atmosphere, with even the intermittent rains bringing with them the benefit of some cooler weather. As for the food? Well, we'll get to that.

Sanibel and Captiva Islands have an entertaining history: originally home to Calusa Indians, they were discovered by Ponce de Leon while searching for the Fountain of Youth, then later become a haven for pirates, including one Jose Gaspar, who supposedly held female prisoners captive on the "Isle de las Captivas" for ransom. In this century, the islands have been a vacation retreat for the rich and famous, including Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and more recently, the artist Robert Rauschenberg.[2] Though Sanibel and Captiva offer many reasonably budget-friendly vacationing options, Captiva clearly also retains its standing as a destination for the über-wealthy, with a string of dozens of mansions right on top of the Gulf of Mexico (or, for the mere ultra-wealthy, on the east side of the island overlooking Pine Island Sound). It's the kind of place where the word "compound" doesn't seem out of place, where vacation homes costing millions of dollars bear goofy names like "Captured" or "Orange-u-Glad."[3]

Aside from being a haven for pirates and plutocrats, Sanibel and Captiva are also a natural haven, with major portions of the islands preserved as wildlife sanctuary. Although the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has had an economic impact on the area, with tourists avoiding the area out of fear of the oil hitting Florida's coast, the good news is that Sanibel and Captiva have not seen any environmental impact. For better or worse, if you didn't read the news you could easily be completely oblivious to the havoc and devastation that have already occurred only hundreds of miles away. We spent one morning kayaking in the mangroves and saw more than a half dozen osprey, herons, egrets, and even a couple of roseate spoonbills.

Anyway, this isn't a travelogue, it's a food blog. I've been reading the English food critic Jay Rayner's book "The Man Who Ate the World," and one of the lessons he draws in it from dining around the globe is that great food is often wasted on those who can afford it. If it's any consolation, it appears the converse is also true: the rich also apparently pay lots of money for very mediocre food as well. It wasn't all bad, but it sure wasn't easy finding a good meal either. In the hope of helping others navigate this culinary minefield, or perhaps get some advice for how we could have done so better ourselves, here is our rundown, in two parts:

(continued ...)

The Mad Hatter

I'm always a sucker for Alice in Wonderland references. I'll also often take the bait when given the "new American cuisine" descriptor. And there's no question that the location of this restaurant, in a tiny little house with about a dozen or so tables, backing right out onto the beach and the Gulf of Mexico, is special. But unlike Wonderland, where you know something interesting is sure to happen whenever you eat or drink anything, our experience at the Mad Hatter was decidedly mixed.

What was particularly notable, as previewed earlier, was the over-abundance of sweetness in the savory section of the menu. Now, the breaking down of barriers between sweet and savory is indeed a common tenet of contemporary cooking (see #13 of Ferran Adrià's "Synthesis of El Bulli Cuisine"), though perhaps here the inspiration came from Alice's potion with the "mixed flavour of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast." But for this to work, it requires a deft balance rather than a heavy hand. That balance was missing from several of the dishes we tried.

Salads with watermelon are becoming an increasingly common summer staple. The version here was undoubtedly the most unusual I've ever had, however, as when they say "watermelon salad," they quite literally mean a "salad" made almost entirely and exclusively of watermelon. The plate came piled with about a pint of melon balls, which were tossed with some wet, crumbled feta, a bit of mint, and some occasional pine nuts, and whose shape made them a constant threat to go skittering across the table. Though the menu description promised baby arugula, it was virtually impossible to find. The melon, feta, mint and nuts would have made a fine flavor composition if countered by some greenery, but instead this turned out as more of a fruit cup than a salad.

Goat cheese fritters, wrapped in phyllo, were said to be "finished" with a strawberry and port wine reduction. "Finished," here, apparently means "smothered," and "reduction" means "something bearing an uncanny resemblance to warmed Smucker's strawberry preserves." The fritters (not much more than blobs of goat cheese wrapped in phyllo dough) were barely distinguishable underneath a sticky blanket of tooth-achingly sweet fruity goo.

Indeed, pretty much everything among the starters featured some sweet component: phyllo-wrapped shrimp came with a "sweet and spicy dipping sauce;" a maki-style roll with smoked salmon and cream cheese was served with a "sweet soy dipping sauce" (Frod Jr. had both of these items and happily wolfed them down - after the fritters and watermelon "salad," I happily passed on tasting any other appetizers with sweet elements). And it goes on ... crab cakes paired with a tropical fruit salsa and mango cream buerre blanc, foie gras with honey caramelized Asian pear. The bread service, with some very good focaccia along with a chunky tapenade and roasted tomatoes, defied the tendency to have a heavy hand with the sugar.

Things improved with the main courses, all of which were daily specials (usually my experience is the opposite, that the appetizers are the best things on the menu).[4] I had a veal porterhouse, which was nicely cooked to requested temperature, served with a creamy (not sweet!) peppercorn sauce, and plated with some decent mashed potatoes along with some asparagus and carrots that were reminiscent of a wedding dinner. It was a heavy dish to be eating along the beach, but well-executed nonetheless. Mrs. F's bouillabaisse also had its virtues. Though the shellfish (lobster, clams, mussels) was a touch overcooked (the lobster in particular), the big chunks of fish in there were nicely tender, the broth was tasty, and the aioli had a pleasingly strong dose of fennel. Some croutons to shmear with that aioli or to float in the broth would have been a nice addition. An Alaskan salmon also came out nicely.

For dessert, a crème brûlée offered a very nice custard, but the burnt sugar topping was not adequately caramelized and came out more like gritty raw sugar rather than shatteringly crisp. A chocolate truffle terrine was rich on rich: chocolate ganache, crème anglaise, cassis sauce, whipped cream ... and sweet. Frod Jr. did not complain.

The wine list was a pleasant surprise, with a pretty broad selection and some unusual producers. The Tres Sabores "¿Por Qué No?" was an intriguing zinfandel based blend that also included some cab, petite sirah and petit verdot. The selection of dessert wines by the glass was even better (perhaps this should not have been a surprise, given the sweet tooth on evidence in the rest of the menu), and a glass of Pineau de Charentes went a long way towards making up for any other shortcomings.

While The Mad Hatter has a fantastic location, you will definitely help pay for it. Appetizers were not outrageous, mostly around $12, but entrées were pretty much all north of $30, with the veal going for $42 and the bouillbaisse a whopping $45. I'd be happier paying such prices if the food better delivered on the promised whimsy of its name, instead of seemingly sharing the Dormouse's obsession with treacle.

The Mad Hatter
6467 Sanibel Captiva Road
Sanibel, FL 33957

Mad Hatter Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Key Lime Bistro

The following evening, we wound up at the Key Lime Bistro after trying to go someplace called "The Mucky Duck" and being told there was an hour's wait. I'm sure the fact that there is an hour-long wait at a place called the Mucky Duck - and that we were trying to go there - says something about Sanibel/Captiva dining, but I'm not sure what.

The Key Lime Bistro is one of about a half-dozen restaurants on Andy Rosse Lane, which is about as close as Captiva comes to a "central business district." We were hoping to find some fresh local seafood, but after looking at a few menus and seeing many of the same things - lots of crabcakes, coconut shrimp, tilapia - I told Mrs. F that the closest we were going to get might be fresh off the Sysco truck. You can imagine my amusement when we saw this on our way out of town, backing into Andy Rosse Lane:

Key Lime Bistro looked at least a bit more promising than some. The menu was awfully long (a choice of nearly sixty starters and entrées, plus another entire page of specials), but focused on seafood and primarily on those that could at least theoretically be local - grouper, mahi, snapper, tuna. We explored both some of its depth and some of the seafood offerings, with mixed results.

I ordered the "S-Cargo" for two reasons: first, because my late grandmother used to love telling a terrible joke whose punch line was "Look at that "S" car go!" so much that she would invariably start laughing uncontrollably before she got to the punch line; and second, because I was intrigued to see, at a place like this, an attempt to do something other than the ubiquitous snails in garlic butter. Here, the snails were swimming in a buttery, garlicky tomato broth interspersed with strips of portobello mushroom, with a puddle of melting blue cheese in the center and crispy toast rounds lined around the edges of the plate. Unfortunately there wasn't much to recommend this over the standard escargot preparation: the tomatoey sauce overwhelmed the snails, the long skinny strips of mushroom were slippery and flavorless, and the blue cheese sounded an incongruous note. The "Mr. Mussels" appetizer, a simple dish of mussels simmered in a tomato broth perked up with garlic and basil, fared somewhat better. Meanwhile, I'm reasonably certain I've sleuthed out their recipe for coconut shrimp, a daily special which Frod Jr. ordered.

For a main, I ordered from the specials and had a grouper stuffed with lobster and sauced with a key lime hollandaise. It was decent if unexceptional. The same could be said of a salmon "Oscar." The fish itself was a bit mushy and undistinguished in flavor, but at least the dish offered real lump crabmeat along with spears of asparagus and the same key lime hollandaise. Little Miss F's chicken parmigiana, served over pasta, was equally innocuous.

There was nothing actively bad about Key Lime Bistro, but unfortunately nothing that would ever prompt me to go back either. With my next post, our hunt for a decent meal in Sanibel/Captiva will continue.

Key Lime Bistro
11509 Andy Rosse Lane
Captiva, FL

Keylime Bistro on Urbanspoon

[1]My apologies for the dearth of posts lately. We were gone for a few days, and then my other obsession - basketball, and the Miami Heat specifically - intruded. I've been a big Heat fan since the inaugeral 1988-89 season. I can still remember their lineup from that season, still remember rooting for them to close to within ten points before the end of the game, still remember going to games against teams like the lowly Clippers because those were the ones they stood a chance of actually winning. So yeah, it's been a roller coaster the past week.
[2]Digression #2: In confirming my recollection that the late Rauschenberg resided in Captiva, I came across this rather unusual story describing how he sued a former neighbor for marketing works which apparently had been retrieved from Rauschenberg's trash - a matter of some irony, given that a huge part of Rauschenberg's oeuvre worked in the realm of found art, including in a sense one of his most notorious early works, his 1953 "Erased de Kooning Drawing," in which he asked William de Kooning for one of his drawings so that he could erase it as an act of art. But I digress, again.
[3]We've decided that if Family Frod ever wins the lottery, our mansion will be named "The Breakwinds."
[4]Other than the items we ordered, the mains also seemed to demonstrate the same proclivity for sweetness: rack of lamb with walnut and cherry pesto crust; maple syrup glazed black grouper; duck with a mixed berry sauce. Maybe our avoidance of the sweet stuff explained why we did better with the entrées.


  1. Totally agree on your assessment of Captiva/Sannibel dining. We typically take a couple days vacation there during the summer to escape Miami and ultimately end up doing more cooking in the condo we rent than going out to eat. Dining is not at their core unless you're good with a cheeseburger or a crab cake. Which, in end and during a beach vacation, is not a bad option.

    Been to the Mucky Duck and you're not missing much. Breakwinds is funny. Great post and go Heat. I too was present during the inaugural season and who can forget the formidable lineup made up of the likes of Rory Sparrow, Dwayne "The Pearl" Washington, Ronnie Seikaly, Pat Cummings, Sylvester Grey, Grant Long and so many other classic Heat players. Can't believe we just became the center of the basketball universe.

  2. Home cooking would indeed seem to be the solution. Mrs. F suggested next time we do a fishing charter and cook our catch.

    In a perverse way, I sort of miss those crummy Heat teams. There was nobody who worked harder than Grant Long, though Udonis Haslem may be his reincarnation, and might well be the menschiest guy in the NBA to give a major hometown discount after having done so on his last contract too.

    It is going to be weird being the front-runners who everyone loves to hate, though it annoys me when people talk about Miami and fair-weather fans. To bring things back around to the focus of this blog: it's much like Miami's food scene - it may not be the entire population, but there's a strong hardcore group who really care deeply and appreciate quality. And this team is going to be a blast to watch.

  3. You gotta take a drive up to Sarasota if you have not already. When my fiance was getting an itch to get out of South Fla but not quite take a full blown trip, I picked it based on culinary options. They have some really good cooking there. Had an amazing, incredible olive oil poached beef tenderloin at the Ritz Sarasota's restaurant "Vernona". Also had a great lunch with a Groth Cabarnet by the glass at Libby's. Had some great peanut butter cream pie at a legendary amish diner...forgot the name...but it was featured on diner's/dives/drive-ins. Also, several wine/tapas bars in town...a belgium beer joint....and a james beard nominee called Derek's Culinary Casual !! I think you need to go there and feature a blog write up on the town :) We staed at the Indigo on the bay (2 blocks from Bay..and across from Ritz)...for like $130 !

  4. Agree with your posts about Captiva but we did have one good find. The yucatan Shrimp at Doc Fords are amazingly tasty. UNshelled shrimp sauteed in butter, Colombian chilis, garlic, cilantro and lemon served with crusty bread to dip. We went back the next day for more. Also a fresh seafood truck comes to that little grocery store on the corner in Captiva on Tuesday and Thursday. We bought some beautiful fresh snapper and huge stone crab claws at Timbers in Sanibel. I think it is best to cook in there.