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Garden Whisperers

Secret garden serves diners in Naples’ most romantic hotel By Kelly Merritt Buzzwords 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 […]

Garden Whisperers

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.

he_02

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.

Hungry for SWFL: Valentine’s Day ideas

As posted on news-press.com

I know it seems like a long time away, but if you’re hoping to take your sweetheart out for dinner at one of Naples’ most romantic restaurants, you have to start planning now. Valentine’s Day is one of the busiest restaurant days of the year. Of course everyone’s idea of romance is different, but a quiet atmosphere, an attractive view, soft music and candlelight are all elements I look for when recommending a romantic restaurant. For me it also means a professional attentive serving staff, no big boisterous parties at the next table and no children running around underfoot. Here are a few smaller restaurants with romantic atmosphere that you may not have heard of yet. Mereday’s Fine Dining opened at Naples Bay Resort this summer. This […]

Hungry for SWFL: Valentine’s Day ideas

As posted on news-press.com

bilde

I know it seems like a long time away, but if you’re hoping to take your sweetheart out for dinner at one of Naples’ most romantic restaurants, you have to start planning now. Valentine’s Day is one of the busiest restaurant days of the year.

Of course everyone’s idea of romance is different, but a quiet atmosphere, an attractive view, soft music and candlelight are all elements I look for when recommending a romantic restaurant. For me it also means a professional attentive serving staff, no big boisterous parties at the next table and no children running around underfoot.

Here are a few smaller restaurants with romantic atmosphere that you may not have heard of yet.

Mereday’s Fine Dining opened at Naples Bay Resort this summer. This spot has been at least two other restaurants in the last few years but chef Charles Mereday is working hard to create a unique restaurant concept for Naples. His prix-fixe menu features unusual items and preparations.

This is a beautiful, elegant space and not a meal to be rushed.

Veranda E is a very small, beautiful restaurant in the equally beautiful Escalante Hotel in Old Naples. This tiny hotel hides on one of the busiest corners in Naples, behind a wall of greenery. Veranda E is an Asian-inspired restaurant nestled in the garden next to the hotel pool.

Executive chef Michael Kang was lured out of retirement last year and has created a menu with some of the most amazing dishes in Naples.

Wyld’s Café in Bonita Springs doesn’t have any curb appeal (at all) but it’s actually a lovely romantic restaurant on the inside. Sitting in a very unromantic strip plaza on Bonita Beach Road, just disregard the outside and park around back. The main entrance is located on the back parking lot.

Big strong flavors and larger portions make this restaurant a favorite of lots of men I know.

Preston’s Steakhouse may be Naples’ smallest and most elegant restaurant. This is a dress up nice, no jeans, no shorts classic steakhouse that is the pick for many Neapolitans on all special occasions – significant birthdays, anniversaries and especially Valentine’s Day.

The steaks are cooked on the charcoal grill and are delicious, but I love the appetizers and side dishes as well, plus the homemade chocolate layer cake for dessert.

French restaurants are always a good choice for a romantic meal. There’s just something about the French and romance. There are a number of great French restaurants in Naples, but Bleu Provence and Le Lafayette, both in Old Naples, have the right combination of romantic atmosphere and great food. They are also both open for lunch if you can’t get a table at the dinner hour.

Cote D’Azur in North Naples is also a lovely romantic French restaurant, especially if you can get a booth along the side.

May’s Best Bite

As posted on www.gulfshorelife.com

Vanessa Rogers Diver Scallops with Foie Gras and truffle Risotto at Veranda E. Naples’ top new romantic dining spot is Verande E’s secluded courtyard garden hideaway in the Hotel Escalante. And Chef Michael Kang is up to the task of creating food worthy of the setting. Feast on succulent seared diver scallops with a generous portion of Hudson Valley foie gras, with reduced Port wine and truffle sauce. Listen to the relaxing fountains as you sample the luxuriously smooth risotto’s classic Carnaroli rice laced with wild mushrooms, truffles, organic English peas, minced shallots and fresh thyme. 290 Fifth Ave. S., Naples, 659-3466, hotelescalante.com.

May’s Best Bite

As posted on www.gulfshorelife.com

May'sBestBite

Vanessa Rogers

Diver Scallops with Foie Gras and truffle Risotto at Veranda E.

Naples’ top new romantic dining spot is Verande E’s secluded courtyard garden hideaway in the Hotel Escalante. And Chef Michael Kang is up to the task of creating food worthy of the setting. Feast on succulent seared diver scallops with a generous portion of Hudson Valley foie gras, with reduced Port wine and truffle sauce. Listen to the relaxing fountains as you sample the luxuriously smooth risotto’s classic Carnaroli rice laced with wild mushrooms, truffles, organic English peas, minced shallots and fresh thyme. 290 Fifth Ave. S., Naples, 659-3466, hotelescalante.com.

Veranda E is downtown dining aphrodisiac

As posted on www.naplesnews.com

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 […]

Veranda E is downtown dining aphrodisiac

As posted on www.naplesnews.com

Aphrodisiac

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

Veranda E

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.

Veranda E Executive Chef Michael Kang and Hotel Escalante Owner Mary Brandt pause for a photo in the indoor dining room. KELLY MERRITT<br /><br /><br /><br /><br />

Photo by KELLY MERRITT

Veranda E Executive Chef Michael Kang and Hotel Escalante Owner Mary Brandt pause for a photo in the indoor dining room. KELLY MERRITT

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).

© 2013 Naples Daily News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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