2018 was an interesting year of eating.
In May I joined the food writers at Naples Daily News, adding Collier stops to my usual Fort Myers-Cape Coral-beaches dining routine. That same month my rating system changed. I put more value in the stars, forcing restaurants to earn each and every one.
I’ve eaten more in the last 12 months than I have in a long time — maybe ever. And, being a food critic, that’s saying something.
Looking back on my five best News-Press reviews from the past 52 weeks I saw some trends. This wasn’t a year for fancy, fine-dining restaurants. Harold’s, the one arguably upscale place to make this list, opened in 2015. The other four are a mix of chef-driven and family-run concepts, where thoughtful twists mix with casual, accessible ingredients crafted by skillful hands.
If you’re wondering why your favorite restaurant isn’t here, please remember I compiled this list solely based on the 51 restaurants I reviewed in 2018.
Like I said, it was an interesting year. And these five places have kept my interest by doing so much so well.
5. Sicily Trattoria, Cape Coral
Every time I walk in here, I look to see if Mimi and Marie are in the kitchen.
The sisters always are.
They’re usually in house coats with aprons cinched at their waists. They’re usually speaking Italian, and they’re always (always) cooking. In a business where efficiency and speed are everything, Mimi Tumminello and Marie Consigliati are the exception that proves the rule. They putter. They futz. They make food their way. And sweet lord is it good.
In 2016 Sicily better than doubled in size, adding more tables, a wine bar, and a more spacious kitchen in which Mimi and Marie can tinker. They’re never alone in there. Mimi’s son Vinny Tumminello is Sicily’s ringmaster and chief pizza slinger.
The trattoria isn’t so much a restaurant as it is Mimi, Marie and Vinny’s place. It’s dining as you so rarely experience it anymore, painstakingly made food crafted from family recipes that are executed by the family themselves.
It’s food freed from the time-is-money burden shouldered by most restaurants. And we’re the lucky ones who get to eat it.
(Reviewed May 3; 1211 Cape Coral Parkway E., Cape Coral; 239-945-7285)
4. Silk Road, south Fort Myers
This place doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside Silk Road is beautiful.
Delicate plates line the front walls, arranged in neat clusters above red-velvet settees. Intricately carved screens separate the entry from the dining room where khaki linens and ikat runners line the 10 tables. Those tables overlook murals of Uzbek mosques, stunning structures built centuries ago when the area was a key stop along the actual Silk Road, the famed trade route connecting the Mediterranean with the far reaches of Asia.
That mingling of European, Middle East and Far East cultures can be tasted at this Silk Road — in blinchik and manti and a rice-based palov with an exotic scent that still lingers in the far reaches of my mind.
The family who runs Silk Road is as welcoming as they are eager to share a taste of their homeland. Their prices are fair and their hustle is genuine. It’s a recipe for an amazing meal, one I keep going back for again and again.
(Reviewed Jan. 25; 8646 Gladiolus Drive, south Fort Myers; 239-689-4845)
3. The Jac, Sanibel
The Jacaranda turned into The Jac in June, when new owners Eve and Alex Alves bought the restaurant. They’ve transformed it into something airy and light. Rustic details — crates of wine glasses, barn-style doors, cute jars of succulents — giving the space a homey feel that tricks you into thinking it might be a casual restaurant.
And I guess it is, in a Sanibel-way.
There are burgers, tacos and a grouper basket, sure, but the best of this menu is far pricier, far more creative and far more tantalizing. And it’s owed to Chef Phillipe Schroeder.
A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco, Schroeder cut his teeth working as a line cook and then bread manager at Jeffrey’s, an iconic fine-dining restaurant in the heart of Austin, Texas.
At The Jac, he’s brought a young and modern sensibility to the menu. His palate is worldly, his technique is solid. And he takes risks — a trendy but perfect cauliflower steak, for example, brightened by golden raisins and a soy-mustard vinaigrette — that more often than not pay off in spades.
(Reviewed Sept. 6; 1223 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel; 239-472-1771; thejacsanibel.com)
2. Artisan Eatery, south Fort Myers
Maybe it was the sous-vide machine whirling in the open kitchen, or the tray of yellow and ruby-red tomatoes looking all fat and juicy next to a bouquet of basil on the counter.
Maybe it was the domed-glass trays showcasing a banana cake shingled in vanilla wafers, and delicate house-baked croissants, and flaky pastries smeared in scratch-made jam.
I can’t pinpoint it exactly, but when I walked into Artisan Eatery I was giddy. School-girl giddy. Kid-in-a-candy-store giddy. Food-critic-in-what-looks-to-be-a-fantastic-chef-run-restaurant giddy.
Owner Tim Yoa is a classically trained chef who left the Naples resort scene to start a little place of his own. His wife, Healy, mans the front, pacing the narrow dining room, making sure everything, from the fresh flowers on the tables, to the free diapers available for youngsters in the restrooms, is as it should be.
Artisan is completely unique. It’s foodie friendly and family accessible, two things that are all too often mutually exclusive in this area. It’s genius and delicious. And it still has me giddy.
Full review: Artisan Eatery in south Fort Myers is giddily delicious
(Reviewed Jan. 18; 8951 Daniels Parkway, south Fort Myers; 239-887-4844; artisaneatery.com)
1. Harold’s, south Fort Myers
I drove past Harold’s in September and the south Fort Myers restaurant was closed. I thought our time had run out. I thought one of the area’s most talented chefs had left us for greener pastures.
And I wouldn’t have blamed him.
In October 2017, Chef Harold Balink had his world upended. He lost his wife/friend/colleague, Julie, to a brutal case of ovarian cancer. Ready for a change of — well, everything — Balink applied to the Peace Corps and I was certain we’d lose him.
When I drove by on that September Friday night, I figured we had.
Turns out: Balink was just on vacation. The purely selfish side of me couldn’t have been more grateful. I vowed to go back as soon as his vacation ended, and I’m thrilled I did. Harold’s is as amazing ever.
This intimate restaurant is the summation of Balink’s decades in the kitchen. It’s South Seas, Tetley’s, Cru, H2 and the original, far more grandiose Harold’s all jammed into one tidy and tiny package. Service is stellar, with a menu that’s deliciously approachable in parts — cauliflower fried like Buffalo wings and served with Balink’s blue-cheese dressing; roasted local chicken with whipped potatoes in a light gravy — and that’s a culinary wonderland in others.
That menu changes constantly, based on Balink’s whims and those of local farms. It’s rare to see the same dish here twice, but it’s easy to trust that whatever he’s making will be delicious.
I don’t know why Harold Balink decided to stay. I don’t know that he won’t change his mind in a month and head to East Timor to dig sewer trenches.
But right now he’s still ours. And for that I remain grateful.
(Reviewed Oct. 18; 15250 S. Tamiami Trail unit 107, south Fort Myers; 239-849-0622; haroldscuisine.com)
Jean Le Boeuf is the pseudonym used by a local food lover who dines at restaurants anonymously and without warning, with meals paid for by The News-Press. Follow the critic at facebook.com/jeanleboeufswfl or @JeanLeBoeuf on Twitter and Instagram.
*This article was originally posted on the News-Press. To view the full article, click here.