2011-12-28 / Cuisine

Book Tarpon Lodge for an island restaurant getaway

WHEN WE LONG TO GET AWAY FROM THE city traffic and the sea of chain restaurants, savvy Southwest Floridians take a leisurely drive to the islands.

There’s nothing like wending your way through the tree-lined curves of Sanibel- Captiva Road or crossing the Matlacha Pass bridge into the Old Florida wonderland of Pine Island to make you feel like you’ve left the workaday world far behind.

Such is the singular charm of a destination like Tarpon Lodge, which is even more thoroughly steeped in history and the authentic Florida experience than most coastal landmarks. Dating to 1926, the lodge and restaurant sit on the edge of Pine Island Sound, a renowned angling hot spot and storied commercial fishing hub.

Just across the narrow road lie pre-Colombian shell mounds amassed by Calusa Indians that offer a peerless view over the waters plied by the tribe for 1,500 years. Be sure to arrive well before sunset in order to have time to explore the grounds.

Seared sea scallops with a blackberry brandy reduction are paired with jasmine rice and sautéed vegetables. Seared sea scallops with a blackberry brandy reduction are paired with jasmine rice and sautéed vegetables. Tarpon Lodge is owned by the Wells family, stewards of another well-known island treasure, the Cabbage Key Inn and Restaurant. Tarpon Lodge is less casual than its sister resort, where boatloads of tourists disembark in swimsuits and cover-ups for burgers and fish sandwiches. At Tarpon Lodge, white linens cover the tables. Although patrons may wear shorts, they are likely to tuck in their Columbia Sportswear shirts when they sit down for dinner.

Naturally, the menu emphasizes seafood. Blue crabs are harvested in nearby waters, so one might reasonably assume the several crab dishes on the menu are a nod to local catch. It’s surprising not to see Pine Island Sound clams on the menu, as well as more indigenous fish options; grouper Oscar was the fish special of the night.

Grilled shrimp skewers are a good way to start a meal at Tarpon Lodge. 
DREW STERWALD/FLORIDA WEEKLY Grilled shrimp skewers are a good way to start a meal at Tarpon Lodge. DREW STERWALD/FLORIDA WEEKLY Piped-in jazz wafted through the dining rooms when we arrived on a recent weekend. It was a tad too chilly for sitting on the patio, so we stayed indoors. The interior decor is tastefully restrained when it comes to stereotypical fishing lodge trappings; the white walls bear Florida landscapes, while the wood floors creak with the history of decades of fishermen’s footsteps.

The wine list offers a decent variety of by-the-glass options, including a crisp Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand ($8.50) and a plummy organic malbec from Santa Julia in Argentina ($6).

If it’s your first visit to Tarpon Lodge, you might want to start with the blue crab and roasted corn chowder, which I have enjoyed several times in the past. This time, we started with shrimp skewers ($11.95) and Tarpon Lodge pork sliders ($8.95).

Tarpon Lodge serves a classic Key lime pie with graham cracker crust. Tarpon Lodge serves a classic Key lime pie with graham cracker crust. The half-dozen plump shrimp were perfectly grilled — nicely charred on the exterior, still juicy within. They had a flavorful spice rub tasting primarily of cayenne and thyme and were served with a cooling cilantro creme fraiche as well as remoulade and black bean-tomato salsa. (I guess they want to appeal to all possible tastes.)

Sliders, of course, are as ubiquitous as cupcakes these days. I’ve seen Kobe beef sliders, crab cake sliders and lobster sliders. These were sweet little brioche buns stuffed with succulent smoked pulled pork served dry with two sauces on the side, smoky-sweet barbecue and zesty mojo. I preferred the barbecue sauce, but it’s a matter of taste. Creamy cole slaw completes the classic barbecue experience. These would make a great bar snack after a day on the water or a hike on the Calusa Heritage Trail across the road.

Appetizers were quickly dispatched, along with a basket of various breads served with butter and olive oil. The dishes still needed to be cleared when the entrees arrived; service otherwise was fine — silverware was replaced and water glasses refilled quickly. When our server couldn’t answer a question about a scallop dish, she returned with the information (never frozen, came from North Carolina).

The sea scallops ($28.95) were on special, and they were special indeed — bigger than any I’d seen, tender as butter, perfectly bronzed and just this side of raw. A crust of toasted slivered almonds gave them a nice crunch, and a blackberrybrandy reduction added a heady splash of color and flavor. The four scallops were served with jasmine rice and tender-crisp sautéed green beans, julienned carrots and red onion.

The shrimp and crab fettuccine ($15.95 half-portion, $22.95 full) has been on the menu for some years, and it’s easy to see why. Sautéed shrimp, roasted red peppers and spinach mingled with noodles drenched with a lush crab-garlic-cream sauce. I do think they could go a bit easier on the rich sauce to let the other ingredients shine better, but I’m always complaining about over-sauced pasta dishes in American restaurants. In contrast, the balance seemed better with the gulf shrimp scampi ($18.95), which had a lighter, wine-butter sauce on linguine. The large shrimp were plentiful and plump.

If seafood isn’t your thing, you can’t go wrong with Tarpon Lodge’s filet mignon

($31.95). It might seem a bit pricey, but the 8-ounce slab of nicely marbled beef was completely satisfying — nicely crusted but deep red and juicy inside. The brandy peppercorn sauce seemed watered down and didn’t add much to the dish. The mashed potatoes, though, were above average, and the steak came with more of those crisp sautéed veggies.

We finished with a classic, tart rendition of Key lime pie and a decadent triple-layer chocolate mousse cake ($6.50 each).

Good to know that after all these years, Tarpon Lodge is still a good catch. ¦

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