Courtyard dining extends from the building outward and past the pool at the Hotel Escalante’s restaurant Veranda E in Naples.
You’ve likely seen the saying “eat dessert first” on Facebook, on a coffee shop sign or stitched on a pillow somewhere. Usually I shirk this premise: my salty palate drives me to the savory and only occasionally do I find bliss in the sweeter side of dining. And while Veranda E at the Hotel Escalante has some amazing savory dishes, Executive Chef Michael Kang’s homemade ice cream dictates beginning this story with dessert.
At dinner at Veranda E last week, one of my favorite dining partners said, “I know we’re stuffed but let’s just try chef Kang’s ice cream ($8). It sounds refreshing.” Huh? Ice cream? That’s usually my last preference in a fine-dining restaurant. But when we ordered the ice cream, Veranda E’s restaurant coordinator Marco Garcia just smiled and nodded knowingly.
Garcia forgot to mention in his psychic endorsement that Kang’s lemon and ginger ice cream is utterly stupid-delicious. That first bite into the tiny crystalline pieces of lemon and bursts of ginger flavor is historic, epic even, in the world of fine restaurant ice creams in Naples. Kang’s ice cream is served in a martini glass and there will never be enough of it.
Earlier in the evening, the savory side of Veranda E shone through as well, with dishes like Kung Pao calamari ($14), crispy shrimp tortillas ($11), Montrachet goat cheese wontons ($10) diver scallops, Hoisin barbeque short ribs, pork loin, whole red snapper and the “new wedge” salad with plum vinaigrette ($14). Disclaimer: Chef Kang’s menu changes frequently, emphasis on frequently, so come prepared for new items and (gasp) the possible absence of favorites.
If you go
Where: Hotel Escalante, 290 Fifth Ave. S., Naples
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. daily, reservations required
Prices: Entrees $11-$38
Information: 239-659-3466 or www.HotelEscalante.com
The Kung Pao calamari is so tender, you can cut right through it. Sharp contrasts of spicy with sweet, crunchy peanuts and scallions converge in this dish. The crispy shrimp tortillas, filled with gooey cheese, shrimp and pickled jalapeño are served with “trio paints” or three sauces — a black bean sauce, basil sauce and red pepper sauce — each more addictive than the last. The crispy Montrachet goat cheese wontons are served with a raspberry coulis while the “new wedge” salad is prepared with minced chicken breast, impossibly crispy water chestnuts, pine nuts and plum vinaigrette.
On the entrée side of Verdana E, the star of the show is the diver scallops entrée ($39). This foray into decadent dining includes beautifully seared diver scallops topped with foie gras and a port wine foie gras truffle essence. Our dish was prepared with papadelias (wide, flat noodles) but Chef Kang already has changed it to risotto. The Hoisin barbeque short ribs ($34) are incredible and filling — a foothill of tender beef that was brimming with complex Asian flavors.
The Kurobuta bone-in pork loin ($28) is prepared with Maui onion rings and Asian mango papaya chow-chow — scrumptious. And Chef Kang prepared his whole red snapper ($38) that evening with a tomato citrus ginger sauce, leeks, cilantro and papadelias.
The biggest soup surprise at Veranda E was the lobster bisque. A word of advice: Please do not go to Veranda E with expectations of the amusing ultra-creamy Americanized lobster bisque. Chef Kang prepares his bisque classically, but adapts it with a little kick and mild coconut. It’s very unique, and like a great sauce, the complexity might throw you at first but with each sip, nuances of flavors emerge.
If the grouping of dishes at Veranda E feels like California to you, both Kang and Garcia are from Laguna Beach, Calif., recruited by Mary Brandt, who is the sole owner of Hotel Escalante and Veranda E. Chef Kang came out of retirement to work for Brandt, who says she tried to get him for a year. A Naples local referred Kang to Brandt, and their personalities and quest to be the best hotel/restaurant destination in Naples jibed.
Brandt took over as owner of the Hotel Escalante in January, and Veranda E opened Feb. 22. Before accepting the job last summer, Kang had never been to Florida. So foodies have Brandt to thank for his welcome infusion into the Naples culinary scene. Because Veranda E is an accessory to the hotel; reservations for dinner are required. Brandt is conscious of accommodating guests in such a unique dining environment, hence Veranda E caters to members of the Hotel Escalante. There is no fee to become a member.
As Veranda E makes its home in the Naples dining landscape, Hotel Escalante remains one of the most beautiful places to dine in Florida. The courtyard is arguably the most romantic spot to dine — against the backdrop of the fountain, festive lights strung overhead, incredible wines poured throughout the night — one can’t help but think of diners from ages past dining here, sweet nothings whispered amid the hanging vines, tropical flora (and ice cream).