Secret garden serves diners in Naples’ most romantic hotel
By Kelly Merritt

he_01Buzzwords abound in the restaurant industry: hyperlocal, farm to table, field to table, seed to table.One local hotel is walking the walk by creating its own sustainable organic garden on the premises for its in-house dining program.

The Veranda E in the Hotel Escalante’s garden still is in the beginning stages, but the charming little green space, which Hotel EscalanteownerMary Brandt and Executive Chef Bryan Sutton have called “Jardin E,” is poised to set new standards for fresh ingredients in Naples. (Jardin is French for garden.) There is a gourmet culinary component to the
garden of course, but Brandt said it’s exciting to see those first signs of life spring forth fromtheambitious project because they are better for you.

“Local foodmeans fresher food,which in turn means healthier food,” Mary Brandt said. “Fresh organic vegetables are on average 10 times more nutritious than conventional supermarket vegetables.”

The International Society for Ecology and Culture reports an average pound of food in the U.S. travels 1,500 miles before it reaches the dinner table. Both Brandt and Sutton say healthful, fresher foods taste better. Sutton is living proof that adding fresh ingredients to a diet works wonders.

“I lost 130 pounds and am in better shape now than what I was in high school,” Sutton said.

“I’ve wanted to grow things myself for a long time and thought it would be cool to grow veggies outside and bring them in. Every chef’s dreamis to walk outside and pick something to use in the kitchen.”

The garden still is young and the two have had a few hurdles to overcome, but all herbs and flowers, including nasturtiums, come fromthe garden, and Sutton has harvested several lettuces including baby romaine, mixed greens andarugula for his salads. Recently, they’re seeing green beans, purple beans, tomatoes and bell peppers emerge.

he_03Sutton and Brandt are quick to give credit to their “garden whisperer” for the garden.

“We hired a woman we call our garden whisperer, Nikki Inskip, to help us, and she is the one who broughtmyvision and thoughts of what I wanted to fruition and put them in the garden to get things going,” Sutton said. “And sometimes she shot down what I wanted because she knew it wouldn’t work here in Florida.”

Inskip mapped out the placement for each crop based on sunlight and soil, using marigolds as bug repellent and other creative natural measures. Inskip has harvested some of the items, including picking the herbs and lettuces.

“We are creating an environment that allows food to be produced in a way that nurtures rather than destroys the land, while we are feeding people with food that is as healthy and nutritious as possible,” Brandt said.

In the future, Brandt and Sutton hope the garden will be grown sufficiently to give diners the option of roaming freely in the garden to select theirown ingredients, glass of wine in hand.

he_04Here’s a tip: For an elevated wine experience, giveMarco Garcia the reins for your table. Garcia is a whisperer himself, a wine whisperer. He is more like a wine and dining guide than staff member and keeps the heartbeat of the restaurant in rhythm. He joins Brandt and Sutton in their enthusiasm for the future of Jardin E.

One of Sutton’s dreams is to have a garden atmosphere similar to places such as Amagansett in the Hamptons where guests can sit in the garden and eat, drink coffee or wine, get a little peace and quiet.

“But I want people to be able to also have food that’s insanely good while sitting in the garden,” he said. That part seemseasy for Sutton,whose trademark hot-and-crunchy grouper
draws diners from all over. He prepared it for years at his former restaurant, Tropical Reef, and brought the dish with him to Veranda E in the Hotel Escalante. When people heard Sutton’s grouper was kicking up the flavor at his new post, they began coming in for that dish, and returning to try other items and follow the progress of the garden project.

“It’s hot because of chili flakes and sambal in the sauce, but sweet fromthe black grouper and butter,” Sutton said. Surprisingly — because it is so crunchy — the hot-and-crunchy grouper also is glutenfree. Chef Sutton adds his hearty punch of crunch with hand-ground cornflakes, almonds and sesame seeds.

Some of Sutton’s other favorite dishes include his Hawaiian Monchong with coconut bamboo rice, sweet chili beurre blanc andMaine lobster chowchow; tempura bluefin tuna stuffed with avocado, crab and wasabi; and his signature pink Gulf shrimp with white stone-ground corn grits. Its Creole bacon sauce combines amelody of tangy andsweet flavors.

All of these dishes include herbs harvested from Jardin E, and when lettuces are available, those are incorporated into the organic hearts of romaine salad, which Chef Sutton prepares with an aged blue cheese Caesar dressing. His Wagyu beef specials change every week; one of the preparations includes celeriac purée, roasted baby beets, cabernet demi and fried shallots.

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The Hotel Escalante is easy to miss if you’re not looking for it, which is part of its charm. A true boutique hotel, it has just 10 rooms and suites along a tranquil courtyard with tropical gardens, private patios and verandas. Veranda E is an accessory to the hotel. Against the backdrop of impossibly romantic Hotel Escalante, its lush foliage
and pool, Chef Sutton already is incorporating as many organic ingredients as possible into his cuisine but is waiting for his harvest—ready to explore dishes prepared from his garden ingredients once they are ready for harvest.