Monday, June 29, 2009

Sweet Melissa's Sanibel Restaurant Review

Sweet Melissa’s delights are apparent even before you enter. Arrive a few minutes early, and admire their beautiful butterfly gardens. I counted over a dozen different butterflies in a few minutes, and the floral bait, er, bounty is worth a look!

We ate at Sweet Melissa’s original site, where Pamela said, “It’s just like eating in a Chef’s own home.” The new location, right on Periwinkle, Sanibel’s main drag, is, for visitors, about 1.2 miles up from the bridge, and on the left. The restaurant is ~three times the size of the original tiny spot. Cute and homey have become casual elegance.

Former owner Gaye Levine, who passed away 2 years ago on May 22, would be happy and proud of Sweet Melissa’s butterfly-like metamorphosis.
Executive Chef Melissa Talmadge is very talented, and pretty much every dish she puts out is a keeper. Assisted by seasoned chef Mike Walnic, formerly at Toro, this duo is perfectionistic about putting out meals that make regulars out of first timers.

One of the best concepts they have is offering half sized portions of entrées for half price, only the portions are more than half! This is one of the best bargains in town-easy on the wallet, and it lets you try more entrees.

The floor plan is open; you can peek over the counter and see the chefs at the stoves. The restaurant’s décor is relaxing, with autumnal colors- golden brown walls, and tan tiled floor, with nicely padded wooden chairs, linen table cloths, and linen napkins. Melissa does it with style. A cozy full bar is to the right, as you enter. There’s plenty of seating indoors and on the screened in patio. People come dressed “nicer casual”, and fit right in-this is Sanibel. Think vacation. While it’s not for the wet bathing suit set, a man with a tie or jacket and his companions would feel right at home.
Wine pairings come in half glass and full glass portions, allowing you to try perhaps twice the wines you might have originally ordered. I like to have one wine for fish, another for meats and stews, so this really makes it easy, and the pricing is very good. There’s a nice mix of wines. The list is well thought out, and the markup is reasonable. Portions are generous-even a half portion is enough for most eaters. Our server, Chris, knows each dish's ingredients, (a former cook?) and is very good at wine pairing. He really makes for a wonderful evening’s experience

There are five salads-Grilled Romaine (9), Hearts of Palm (10), Grilled Octopus (12), Baby mixed Greens (9) and a Cheese Plate (14). The Watermelon salad is Melissa’s seasonal signature dish- with olives, spiced pecans and hazelnuts, finished with a champagne vinaigrette Refreshingly crisp, and naturally sweet. Recommended.

Warm bread slices, a dish of herbed olive oil, and slices of lemon and lime appear on the white tablecloth.

.An amuse bouche soon followed. It has a Duck empanada, red wine braised scallops. There is a separate drizzle of pickled-cherry demi glace and micro greens. The empanada is served hot, with “to die for” crisp pastry perfection, enclosing nicely spiced lean duck. The diver scallops are perfectly cooked. This wonderful trio sets the dining scene.
We went for the special Grilled Romaine Lettuce, wine, It’s delicious-the grilling really makes a difference when done right. The blue cheese dressing complements it nicely, it, and sprinkled hard cheese tops it off perfectly. It pairs nicely with a half glass of 2004 Nora Albarino Spanish white wine (5), served in a beautiful tulip-shaped glass.

There’s a Vegetable Tian for $8, with eggplant, zucchini, squash, tomato and a basil pesto.

The Grilled Octopus salad (12) has pleasing contrasts. The properly cooked mollusk’s curved arms cross on the plate, tender, with nice grilled accent. The green salad, with pine nuts and red pepper is tasty, and lets the octopus stand out.

Tuna Carpaccio (13) is perfectly cooked, with a delicate Chinese five spice crust. The bed of julienned cucumber and daikon radish adds a nice crispiness and touch of tartness. Each tuna medallion is bedecked with flecks of sea salt. Microgreen sprigs and black sesame seeds, with two sauces, make an attractive presentation.

The Gulf Fish Stew is ordered as a half order (12.50), and is as large as any full portion elsewhere, for $25-30! The properly cooked assortment of fresh fish, scallops, littleneck clams, and mussels are in a tasty tomato- saffron broth, with a drizzle of Pernod on top. The full portion may be too much for one person! A proper fish stew is all too easy for a chef to overcook some parts-not these chefs! Highly Recommended!

The Seared Arctic Char special is perched on black rice, with a pool of coconut curry. This special-half plate is enough for a full portion, and the black rice is great!

Crispy Sweetbreads, (14) are the richest tasting item on the menu, so have this toward the end of your sampling I like the wide pasta. The nicely cooked sweetbreads do lose their crispness in the sauce, so one might have sauce on half the serving, or on the side.

My Brown Sugar-Glazed Pork Belly is delicious – hot n tender, with a nice brown sauce on top, and slightly sweet red cabbage below. It’s a full portion, and pork’s versatility and the chef’s expertise shine here! The rich pork belly goes great with the Australian Torbreck Woodcutter’s Shiraz.

The Grilled Mahi Mahi is a favorite, served with banana, lentils and rhubarb gastrique. Others liked their Beef Tar Tar (15), with horseradish cream and pickled red onion. The Seared Scallops (14), with cherry tomatoes, black-eyed peas, corn and a bacon vinaigrette are highly recommended by guests, who say, “Even if you don’t like scallops, you’ll love these!”

The Grilled Shrimp and Grits (12) has three tender nicely grilled shrimp, perched on authentic, slightly coarse real grits, not the mushy instant grits served elsewhere; thickened with goat cheese. There’s a delicious peach-jalapeno salsa and a bourbon-molasses drizzle to bring it all together-the peaches are a surprise treat.

There’s no shortage of nicely priced desserts-they are each just $7, and well worth it! The seven items we were offered are: Trio of Pot de Crème, chocolate torte with Coconut Crème Anglaise; Frozen Mixed Berries with warm White Chocolate Ganache;. Lemon Tart, Banana Pecan Strudel with Caramel Gelato; Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Strawberry soup and Pistachio Brittle; and various Sorbets and Gelatos. We went for the Strawberry, Coconut, and the Grapefruit-Rosemary Sorbet Trio-Delicious! Our Chocolate, Vanilla and Butterscotch Pot de Crème trio is colorful. We like the butterscotch best, and the spoons are pastry! One of our party liked his Banana Pecan Strudel; it did not survive the journey past several desert forks to reach my fork- a good sign!

There is also a Caramel Gelato, Chocolate gelato with maple brown sugar, and all desserts are made from scratch by Melissa. There’s a good selection of dessert wines-my favorite is the Pineau de Charentes, a little known French aperitif with a touch of cognac brandy, full and sweet. The California Meeker’s Fro-Zin, is close behind.

Sweet Melissa’s portions are huge for the prices, and this it top quality food and service. Best deal on Sanibel, and one of my Top Five Restaurants in the Fort Myers area. All items are under $30. To get a huge half portion of this delicious cuisine for $14, it just can’t be beat! Everything is cooked from scratch. The freshness shines forth, like a butterfly from its chrysalis. Highly recommended.

1625 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, 472-1956

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