Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Afsona Restaurant Uzbek & European Cuisine -Naples, Florida


Afsona Restaurant is Naples’ newest restaurant, specializing in Uzbek and Eastern European cuisine. It opened Christmas Eve, Dec  24, 2020 in the cozy 900 square feet quarters at the south end of Trinity Plaza,  formerly  occupied by Maria D’Anna, who served Polish and Eastern European cuisine since 2013.

The coziness of Maria D’Anna’s remains, and Afsona’s cuisine features quite a few authentic Uzbek dishes such as Vinegret,  Morkovcha,  Hohnim, Olivier, as well as more well know dishes with salmon, Caesar salad, shrimp cocktail, etc., for the less adventurous.
I came for take out to bring to a Russian friend’s January birthday, and was told by several Russians that the food was both delicious and authentic. Social distancing is observed, and personnel wear masks.

I placed my order over the phone, and when I came to pick up, the restaurant had perhaps 30% occupancy inside. It was clear a birthday party was to soon occur there-it’s already a popular spot. The take out food was wonderful-double packed and insulated, with foil -wrapped food placed in Styrofoam containers, and then in plastic bags with handles. The soup-like portion of the Lagman was in a sealed plastic container, further bound by tape to prevent accidental spilling. Other restaurants should take such care of takeout. As a result, the food was still quite hot 20 minutes later when it got to the party!
Here’s what we had:

Beef Somsa
Start with Somsa ($6), house-made dough, stuffed with three different choices-Spinach with onion, arugula and oregano; beef with onions and seasonings, and squash with onions and herbs. These are baked crisp, and delicious with luscious fillings. Highly Recommended.

Lagman ($20) is classic Uzbek. Ours came in two parts to preserve the integrity of the noodles.  Here’s the bottled “soup” part, and the separate house-made noodles.  Add the “soup” of home made vegetables, seasoned with herbs to top off the tasty noodles.

Palov ($20) is the classic dish of Uzbekistan, rich with beef, carrot, onion, raisins and chickpeas in rice, with quartered dolma and quail eggs on the side, accompanied by an “achuchuk” salad of tomatoes, red onions and cucumbers with a light dressing. Recommended.

Chuchvara ($16) are house-made beef ravioli served with sour cream and dill. Highly recommended.

Not sure what to get? Get the Moshhorda soup ($8), and the  Afsona Combo ($55), a large platter with lula kebab, lamb chip, dolma, somsa, manti, fried chuchvara, lettuce, grilled tomatoes and red sauce. Wow!

The folks seated indoors and outdoors appeared very pleased with their meals, and one gave me the “thumbs up.”  I look forward to a second visit, to try more authentic dishes. Thank you for this treat, co-owners Gholibjon (Jon) Absamatov,  and Mamlakat (Maya) Tadjieva, who is also the Executive Chef.

(239) 263-6892         300 Tamiami Tr North, open Monday to Friday 11:30 a.m-2 p.m. for lunch, and  4:30-9:00 p.m. for dinner.   Closed Sunday

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Farmer Mike's U Pick in Bonita Springs

 Farmer Mike's U Pick in Bonita Springs is where I go to get my hands in the dirt, picking strawberries, and buying all sorts of produce and citrus. They are open every day 9 am-5 pm everyday, and at 9 am to get the freshest strawberries! Depending on the month, they offer dozens of different vegetables, fruits, and flowers.

Here's some offerings:
Acorn Squash, Butternut Squash, Spaghetti Squash, Zucchini, Yellow Squash, Green beans, Yellow Beans, Red Potatoes, Yellow Potatoes, White Potatoes, Haas Avacados, Florida Avocados, Broccoli, CauliflowerCarrots, Red Beets, Striped Beets, Yellow Beets, Round Tomatoes, Heirloom Tomatoes, Grape Tomatoes, Cherry Tomatoes, Limes and Lemons, Yellow Bell Pepper, Red Bell Pepper, Green Bell Pepper, Vanilla Bell Pepper, Purple Bell Pepper, Serrano Chiles, Jalapeno Chiles, Habanero Chiles, Poblano Chiles, Cubanelle Chiles, Hungarian Wax Chiles, Radish, Romaine Lettuce, Bib Lettuce, Red Leaf Lettuce, IcebergLettuce, Celery, Basil, Rosemary, Thyme, Sage, Cilantro, Parsley, KalePurple, Eggplant, Brussel Sprouts, Garlic, Red Onion, White Onion, Purple Onion, Red Cabbage, Green Cabbage, Corn, Lg Cucumber, Pickling Cucumber, Swiss Chard
Strawberries, Blueberries, Mangos, Papaya, Oranges, Grapefruit, Bananas, Apples, Pears, Plums, Canteloupe, Watermelon
26031 Morton Ave., Bonita Springs, FL Ph: 239-498-4576

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The French Brasserie Rustique in Naples- A Culinary Star, and Tops at Take Out

Now’s the time to enjoy restaurant home delivery or take out, and really support your favorite restaurants when it counts!

 Vincenzo Betulia , co-partner and Executive Chef at Naples’ The French Brasserie Rustique,  prepared the most luscious Cassoulet of my life-so flavorful, so rich with concentrated flavors, and served so hot! While your humble home setting  may not have the rustic  atmosphere of  the dining room at The French, your dining room would be honored to host  such a dish.
Chef Betulia  (photo from 2019)
Some restaurants are still open for take out or pick-up, staffed by skeleton crews ( ahem!..). Some others offer delivery within a few miles distance. The French offers both options.

Naples' 5th Avenue South, looking West to the Gulf
I placed my order for this and for fish ‘n chips easily online, just a few hours before my desired pick up time. It took no time to drive down Tamiami Trail North, as I caught nearly every green light. Naples’ 5th Avenue South looked more ready for a drag race-empty of cars. Bicycles ruled the road, along with skateboarders.  There was perhaps one car per 1-2 minutes; some came to marvel at the empty street, some to park and walk, and some to pick up  meals.

I arrived on time …only there was no “line” as people stayed in their cars, or walked within earshot of their name being called, until their order was ready, and their name was called out. Think more like 40 foot “social distancing”. 

As one approaches the take out station, there’s tape showing where to stand.  You could even call as you head down, to see if they are running early or later on your order.  Easy-peasy.  
Chef Betulia’s riff on Cassoulet de Toulouse ($38) is unique, with a plump duck thigh and leg baked till wonderfully crisp. If you like roast duck, you’ll love this presentation. 

Cassoulet de Toulouse

With just the touch of a fork’s tines, the skin shatters into flakes of avian goodness. The  overall  portion is large enough for two people. It has abundant meats;  sliced Toulouse sausage,  a shredded meat (duck rillette?) chunks of pork belly (pancetta or bacon),  garbanzo and other stewed beans, and is enriched with, onion, carrots, tomato, and herbs.  A signature dish from a top chef.  Highly Reccommended.

The Grouper “Fish & Chips” ($38)  has a crispy coating on the tender  fish; the tartar sauce is house-made.   Hmmmm…I might bring a picnic blanket and possibly find a secluded spot nearby, or bench to dine (I never said that).
Fish & Chips (there's far more chips than I placed here!)
The thin frites/ fries are also crisp at the restaurant, so don’t delay in eating them! The cole slaw is a very good side dish.

The separate box of sliced baguette, and a separate container of butter with cooked garlic and oil was an unexpected, and a very appreciated treat. I smeared the garlic butter on the slices, gave them a minute in a hot sauté pan, and had a wonderful  lightly browned toasted baguettes.
I am guessing that both orders come with the side of cole slaw, and sliced baguette with butter and baked garlic.
Other options at The French are caramelized Brussels sprouts, French-style mac & cheese, hanger steak & frites, creamy risotto, and roasted Faroe Island salmon. Desserts include The French éclair, and the baba au rhum.

You can also order batched cocktails, steaks, seafood, croissants, cheeses and fruits for one-stop shopping.
Certain wines are Buy one, Get one Free for a limited time.  Check it out!

365 5th Ave S, Naples;   (239) 315-4019,  www.

Friday, February 21, 2020

The Founder's Market + Bistro

Executive Chef Don Splain commands attention as he walks in a room with his bearded visage, appearing much like a Biblical prophet-he stands, 6 feet, ten inches.

 He, General Manager Axel  Rios, and others on The Founder’s team share an inspiring culinary vision that is now a reality. 
Executive Chef  Don Splain and  Axel Rios
  These passionate people, including four CIA-trained chefs,  have a focus, a mission, and their enthusiasm and knowledge are both inspired and inspiring.  They don’t just talk the talk…they deliver, and you taste the healthy benefits of “from scratch” cookery, starting on the Grand Opening, February 21, 2020.

Enter the attractive restaurant from the rear parking lot, walking past the indoor/outdoor speakeasy-style bar, and the wood-fired oven.

The pizza oven doubles as a great way to make perfectly browned U10 scallops in 2-3 minutes- order some!

Look at the exclusive vegan preparation area on the left, in front of the open kitchen (right).

Pasta at Founders is never  “bought”; it’s made from scratch, as wheat berries are milled into flour before your eyes, then moistened and  turned into delicious gnocchi, spaghetti, and other pasta forms, to be  served al dente to you. 
Have you ever had that experience?. Chaff, the dry husk from wheat,  comes out of the other side of the machine, and is used in graham crackers and other pastry products, as well as given back to farmers as feed. Yep, here you do can see “the wheat separated from the chaff!”
Wheat berries, to be turned into fresh flour for baking

Lisa Best and other bakers will bake anything from a plum kuchen that’s a cross between cake and pie, clever 'smores,  to comfort desserts that your grandparents might have enjoyed  a century ago. Christian, another baker, never baked professionally before.  Dan brought him in “cold” to teach him his style of baking from scratch, so Christian would  have no “bad habits” to unlearn!
Plum kuchen

Damon Roseberry, CIA graduate, crafts unique drinks at the bar, like “Green + Serene” with Beefeater Gin, ginger, kale lemon juice, turmeric and Myakka honey;  Myakka Smack” with curry and grapefruit on the rim, and “Founders Club” with gin, purple carrots, and dry vermouth.
Damon Roseberry, right, making Old Fashioned with Old Forester
Myakka Smack beverage
Fresh food is sourced locally when available from farms like Naples’ highly regarded organic  Inyoni Farms. Greens are additionally grown hydroponically on premises. In time, In time, Chef Splain will have pork and beef raised on Founders’ own organic fields.

I and others sampled superb charcuterie,  vegan desserts, prosciutto, and  Iberico ham, served tableside from a moveable meat slicer that’s a work of art.

One high point for me was a fresh beet juice drink-I could drink this breakfast it by the gallon, with its refreshing blend of celery, carrots and ginger!

A tour through a kitchen tells all. The kitchen is HUGE, super clean, and stocked with tools and machines that other chefs could only dream of having access to. If I was an aspiring chef, this is THE place in SW Florida I’d want to spend a year or two at (doing an unpaid internship, or  “stage”) , just to be with 4 CIA trained chefs, dozens of other professionals , and a vast kitchen with equipment that seasoned chefs could only dream of having in their own restaurant kitchen.

Pasta maker

The menu will change day to day, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Make reservations now. The four course Valentine’s Day Dinner was $95, plus tax and tip, pricing is not yet available for regular dining.

The Founders is by the Southwest corner of Vanderbilt and Airport-Pulling Road, at the former site of Calistoga Bakery. 
 7941 Airport-Pulling Rd, Naples, Phone 239-635-9353

Passion fruit sorbet on chocolate

Vegan Gazpacho with Lorenzo olive oil and house-made almond-based “ricotta cheese”, sprinkled with cracked black pepper

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Grappino-Regional Italian Cuisine in Naples, Florida

Your curiosity (and Googling skills) got you this far- so make reservations for Grappino now,  then read on!
 You, may also soon rave about the veal-stuffed ravioli;  the tenderest branzino…the luscious seafood bruschetta; a heaping bowl of Tuscan seafood stew, not to mention the Meringata meringue dessert with lemon curd and raspberry preserve. Yep.  Treat yourself to lunch or dinner at Grappino, before the line’s out the door-Grappino’s food is just that delicious. (P.S.  It’s far easier to get a table at lunch, or at 5 pm for dinner!)
There's even a fireplace 
 I infrequently visit the same restaurant twice in a year- and rarely dine a second time let alone less than a week apart. Perhaps when you have lunch or dinner at Naples newest restaurant –Grappino- you too will have the same desire to quickly return to try these, or other dishes! There’s five different settings for dining-outside on the  intimate back patio with bar; 
inside at the stylish bar; or seated in front of  the adjacent charcoal and gas-fired pizza oven.
During my visits, I sat at the larger open dining room,  as well as at the more intimate small dining room with its plush chairs and smaller round tables-ideal for couples or trios.
The two dining rooms are separated by the partially glass-enclosed central kitchen.

The décor is simple and whimsical. The central kitchen is cleverly housed in a white wood-beamed cottage set within the glass-walled modern building.  Wide light brown wood plank floors add to the homey warmth. Wine and grappa bottles line one wall in the smaller dining room.  Murano colored glass balloons float high over the beautiful wooden tables.
Savvy diners may spot a real live mermaid.

Timeless, the previous restaurant at this stylish, welcoming setting, closed suddenly in June. Ingrid  Aielli, and her husband and Chef, Venice, Italy native Fabrizio Aielli, already co-owners of three of Naples’ highly regarded, and quite different restaurants- Sea Salt, Barbatella, and Dorona- took over the Timeless just months ago. They crafted a warm Italian trattoria setting, paired with a fitting casual  menu, that lets you try various Italian regional specialties. The pricing is quite reasonable for the quality and service.
Grappino  Co-owner Chef Fabrizio Aielli
This is as “Mom and Pop” as it gets with meals prepared from scratch.  Ingrid is “front of house” and Chef  Fabrizio ,and  Executive Chef Jason Goddard, are initially at the helm in the open kitchen.  Chef Fabrizio uses flavorful  garden-fresh herbs and local produce when possible. If you look carefully in the front window, you’ll see his house-made grappa infusions-they’ll be ready to drink in a month!
Chef Jason Goddard and Chef Fabrizio Aielli 
After talking separately to my dentist, a community leader, a lawyer, and especially  strangers  at adjacent tables at Grappino over the last week, I’d venture that 10% of the diners are there for their second time-and Grappino’s  been open less for barely two weeks. The word of mouth network works fast!

The staff’s warmth, knowledge and attention to small details is apparent, from your first being greeted, being given sage advice (if requested) on choosing dishes from the menu, through the changing of silverware and plates when appropriate, with folding of napkins when you leave your seat. I noticed that someone even took time to cut heirloom carrots into six, and seven sided football-shaped forms (tournée cut)!  I’ve appreciated the menu and wine suggestions from Eva, and then from  Damajna on my two visits; others have similar praise for their server/guides.

There’s many food, wine, and grappa choices! The menu has seven sections. Nearly all items are priced and portioned for sharing or sampling. There are but five more typical entrees (plus daily specials).  That’s a good thing for you-it encourages flexibility in sampling a variety of appetizers or small pizzas, instead of filling up on one main entree.

First, Cold Cuts. There are currently seven different thin sliced cuts paired with their region of origin: Prosciutto (di Parma); Culatello (Emiliano); Speck (Tirolese);  Mortadella (Bologna);  Salame Felino (Baganza Valley); Sopressata (Veneto); and Bresola (Valtellina).  Each portion is served with a  ramekin of a uniquely Italian  mixed dried fruit-mustard preserve (mostarda di  Cremona) , along with varied olives, mild green peppers, a rosemary twig, and grilled bread triangles.
I tried the Prosciutto ($16) , and the Speck ($12), and both are of the highest quality. Recommended.
Prosciutto di Parma
Next are Cheeses, with at least six offered ($9-12) ; Parmigiano Reggiano (Emilia); Pecorino Toscano (Firenza); Gorgonzola (Italy); Caciovavallo (Puglia); Burrata (local); and Buffalo Mozzarella (Campagna.) Your choice!

The Bruschetta selections ($9-14)  are luscious-don’t even think of comparing these large offerings to “bruschetta” you’ve had elsewhere!  Any of these bruschettas would be  a meal for a light eater, and the pricing would be much higher elsewhere.  I rave about the $14 Alta Marea’s crab, several shrimps, and ample pieces of Maine lobster, with a light olive oil and balsamic dressing. Highly Recommended!
Alta Marea Seafood Bruschetta
 The Campagnola Bruschetta’s ($9) grilled eggplant, zucchini, peppers, caramelized onions and Greek yogurt is addictive. Adding the yoghurt makes this “over the top” luscious.  Highly  Recommended.
Just one piece of the Campagnola Bruschetta
Fritto means crispy, and the Calamari, broccoletti with provola, bell peppers is lightly fried, and served with  a side of ratatouille aioli ($14). This is much lighter, crispier and flavorful than what you’ll find at other restaurants. Highly Recommended.
Calamari Fritto
Over a dozen Pastas can be ordered separate from, then combined with over a dozen sauces, so there’s almost 150 combinations. We liked the al dente spaghettini ($9) combined with the amatriciana’s rich pancetta, onions and tomatoes ($8).  
Spaghettini with amatriciana sauce
Perhaps  the real star of Grappino's pasta world is the large and generously veal-stuffed ravioli pillows ($12)-WOW! We paired it with the roast chicken, green peas and Parmesan cream sauce ($10). I could  have that combo again, and again. Highly recommended.
Veal stuffed ravioli with roast chicken Parmesan sauce
Pizza is crafted Roman-style rather than thin crust Neapolitan- style, so it has a crisp outer crust, and thicker underlying dough/crust with a light texture. There are three sizes- to serve 1, 2-3, or 4-5 persons. It’s fun to to try three different styles small pizzas, instead of just one big one. We had the ($9) Zucchini and zucchini flowers, burrata cheese, and mint without tomato sauce- it’s a full meal for one person.
Zucchini and zucchini flowers, burrata cheese small pizza
There’s 20 different rectangle pan pizza’s to try, half are with tomato sauce, and half are Bianca-without tomato sauce. Recommended.

Ah yes, the grappa! There’s over 100 different grappas ($12-40/ounce)  to try.  I favored the Jacobo Poli Miele, a honey-flavored mild grappa. The Nardini Riserva, or the Jacobo Poli Pere (pear) are good and feistier grappas.  I’m eyeing some others to try on my next visit!
Grappa started as Italian “moonshine” and some varieties offer that raw kick for traditionalists.
There’s dozens of milder grappas to start with at Grappino. Grappa “sommelier” Barry is great at suggesting ones for you to savor.

Favor wine? There are generous pours for $8-14 by the glass, and about 100 reds and whites offered, from  Italian Pinot Grigio to big and bold Super Tuscans (my choice), Barolo, and Amarones,  too. Perhaps sip a Purple Hands Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley, or a Paul Hobbs California Chardonnay. There’s a full bar, too.

I’ve savored three of the five mains, or entrees.  The Beef Brasato ($34) offers large cuts of savory slow-braised Wagyu beef, simmered in Barolo wine.  Wagyu is THE tops in beef marbling and flavor-it’s not the usual choice, select or even prime USDA grades found in other restaurants). The braise is enriched by bok choy, potatoes, carrots, and other root vegetables.  I appreciated that some of the orange, red, and purple heirloom carrots were painstakingly cut into six, or even seven sided oblongs-a typically French haute cuisine feature! This is a carnivore’s comfort food! Recommended.
Beef Brasato
 You’ve perhaps had Branzino elsewhere. This boneless whole branzino ($42) may well be THE best you’ve had-it was the best I've ever had. The whole fish is baked in white wine with capers, olives, cherry tomatoes and broccolini. Your branzino is first presented whole at table side. It then goes back to the kitchen to be filleted, and returned to your plate.  It’s so tender, so flavorful, and truly worth the price. Highly Recommended!
Branzino before fileting and serving 
Seafood lovers will also enjoy the Cacciucco- a classic Tuscan seafood stew. This large bowl of tomato-based rich comfort food is amply filled with calamari, mussels, snapper, monkfish and octopus ($36). Its complex flavor comes from slow cooking, with hints of garlic, aniseed, various peppers, parsley, thyme, and bay leaves. It’s similar to a French bouillabaisse, Greek kakavia, or San Franciscan cioppino. Highly Recommended.
Tuscan seafood stew
Save room for desserts.  We were “over the moon” with Meringata ($9)-the Italian meringue  atop lemon curd, with a dollop of raspberry preserve. Highly recommended.
Meringata dessert
Chocaholics will swoon over the generous profiteroles ($9), topped with Gianduja chocolate sauce-it’s a traditional mix of chocolate and roasted hazelnuts, that fits between dark chocolate and milk chocolate. Highly Recommended! 
Profiteroles with Gianduja chocolate
There’s also Tiramisu with Amaretto cookies with Bailey’s liquor, and a daily selection or biscotti or pastry.
Yes, we took home some portions, and noted the boxes to be recyclable, not plastic or Styrofoam containers. Thank you.

Grappino has its own niche in Naples-its nicely differentiated by its location and offerings from Sea Salt, Dorona, Barbatella and other fine Italian/Mediterranean spots.

90 9th St N, Naples,  Hours: 11:20 a.m.- 10 p.m., Monday –Saturday, closed Sunday. Happy hour 3-6 PM. Phone: (239) 331-432,