When it comes to the farm-to-table movement, you’ll find the few brave souls who make a go of it here in Lee County are as down-to-earth as the products they use and serve.
“We work on bringing you the freshest, most seasonal food in the area. Presented creatively with some good juice on the side!” is how chef/owner Harold Balink describes what he does at his cozy Fort Myers restaurant, Harold’s.
Rose O’Dell King and her husband, Gary, bought 100-plus acres of land in North Fort Myers to create Rosy Tomorrows Heritage Farm, where they raise heritage breeds and organic vegetables that they serve at their on-site restaurant.
“We believe the best dining experiences are ones that connect us to each other and to the surrounding land,” she says. “Every meal at our farm represents the story of the season.”
They’ve even been known to wander by boat in area waters to harvest salt they then use in recipes.
Buckingham Farms in – where else? – Buckingham in eastern Lee County, uses hydroponic methods to grow its vegetables that are served on-site as well.
And to the north, straddling the Lee-Charlotte county line at the solar-powered Babcock Ranch, the chefs at Table & Tap are working with their on-site gardeners to produce just the right amount of microgreens, herbs and vegetables to keep the restaurant stocked.
Executive chef Julian Cardona is coordinating schedules to ensure that vegetables are planted in stages to avoid the onslaught of particular crops that occurred last year. (The 500 pounds of cauliflower he faced one challenging week made him realize that he needed to implement a different system.)
“Now we’re planting in stages,” he says, “so we have enough, but not too much, at a time.”
South in Bonita Springs at the new Harvest & Wisdom in Shangri-La Springs, the five-acre organic garden is just gearing up to produce such items as black-eyed peas and greens. Nonetheless, executive chef Allen Fisher has big plans for this ambitious restaurant in the historic building that was originally the Heitman Hotel in 1921, Villa Bonita hotel during the Depression and various incarnations of Shangri La health spa since 1964.
What this means for diners is that they can expect fresh, seasonal dishes with many ingredients harvested yards from where they dine. In some cases, when ingredients aren’t readily available, these restaurants will reach out to other area farms – or establishments that may be further afield but close in philosophy – and procure what they need.
And, of course, they also take advantage of the bounty of fresh seafood locally available.
A place such as Fish Tail Grill, you can be assured you are getting fresh fish because it’s owned by and adjoins Merrick Seafood, a retail and wholesale fishmonger where the fishermen deliver their catches daily right through the back door.
Here are the details on the choice spots in the area where food makes a short trip from the earth to your dinner dish.
Buckingham Farms: This 50-acre hydroponic farm and country store offers American fare using ingredients grown on-site. Closed Sunday and Monday. Breakfast and lunch served on-site; you can order dinner for pickup on Fridays. Open 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday, until 6 p.m. Friday.
Caffe Toscano: The menu here is small but the special list is long because chef/owner Antonio Durante sources his ingredients locally or from his native Italy. You might find wild boar, fresh-caught hogfish or Pine Island clams on the menu the night of your visit.
Harold’s: Sourcing as much local fish, meat and produce as possible, with additional food coming from sustainable farms. Local seafood used as well. Open Wednesday through Saturday for dinner only. Reservations strongly advised.
Harvest & Wisdom: Starting out with lunch service only, offerings might include purees, terrines, beet and carrot tartare, salads and French dip made with locally sourced Circle C duck. Open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday.
Rosy Tomorrows Heritage Farm: Farm-grown vegetables and herbs, plus organic produce and honey from neighboring farms. Proteins raised on side include longhorn cattle, pastured Red Wattle pigs and silver-laced Wyandotte chickens raised organically, holistically, sustainably, humanely and as close to nature as possible. Meals served Thursday through Sunday. Call for reservations.
Sanibel Fresh: Chef/owner Amy Visco Schmicker reigned in the Sunset Grill kitchen on Sanibel for more than a decade, but this place feeds her passion for super-healthy local fare. Tuna poke, fresh vegetables, veggie burgers, cashew slaw, homemade blackberry jam and acai bowls are among the made-from-scratch items on the menu. Open for breakfast and lunch daily.
Table & Tap: The primary restaurant at the new development serves fresh, locally sourced ingredients with a modern, artisan flair. In addition to growing vegetables, herbs and microgreens, thy also use their own honeys, including palmetto, citrus, blueberry and orange blossom. Other menu items are sourced from local and national farms that promote sustainable and responsible farming. Open daily for lunch and dinner.