2010-11-11 / Cuisine

IM Tapas remains secret treasure among Naples food devotees

How is it that I’m still met with blank looks by so many people when I mention IM Tapas? The distinguished Spanish small-plate restaurant has been serving exceptional food and intriguing wines a stone’s throw from U.S. 41 for more than two years.

It’s one of the places Emeril Lagasse chose to dine when he was here for last year’s Naples Winter Wine Festival. And it’s one of my favorite places to dine in a city that has no shortage of excellent food.

The problem, if you want to call it that, might be that it’s on Fourth Avenue North, just far enough removed from the high visibility of the downtown dining scene to go unnoticed. That slightly out-of-the-way location has a plus side: You almost never have to circle the block searching for a parking spot.

When we headed there for dinner recently, we parked just feet from the door and waltzed in for a superb dinner — without reservations (although making them is a good idea, especially during the winter season).

Large scallops sit atop tender strips of octopus, then are topped with an intensely flavored citrus vinaigrette and blood orange infused oil. KAREN FELDMAN / FLORIDA WEEKLY Large scallops sit atop tender strips of octopus, then are topped with an intensely flavored citrus vinaigrette and blood orange infused oil. KAREN FELDMAN / FLORIDA WEEKLY The smartly appointed dining room is long and angular, the walls painted a soothing golden yellow and adorned with enough art to keep the room from looking barren without stealing attention from the food. A few pieces are the creations of co-owner and executive chef, Isabel Pozo Polo — the “I” in IM Tapas. On most nights, she’s joined in the kitchen by partner Mary Shipman (the “M”), but we happened to visit on a night when Ms. Shipman was called away on a family matter.

Although dishes came out a bit more slowly than normal, everything was still painstakingly prepared and plated. The biggest drawback to the kitchen help shortage was that Ms. Pozo Polo wasn’t able to spend as much time in the dining room with guests as she normally does. She did pop out a few times, however, to greet new arrivals, hug regulars and give newcomers her customary warm welcome.

From a list of well-chosen Spanish wines, we ordered a bottle of Paco & Lola albarino, which arrived perfectly chilled. It was refreshingly fruity but not sweet, with notes of green apple and orange, and was delicious on its own as well as with food.

It’s hard to know just how many dishes to order here, so I recommend starting with three or four to share then ordering more if you still have room. Dishes come out as they are ready, which makes it best to share so that no one at the table has to watch the rest of the group dine. One way to ensure that doesn’t happen is to try one of the exceptional artisanal cheese plates (five cheeses for $30, eight for $40). We didn’t have one this time, but it was a highlight of a previous trip and I watched enviously as a nearby party of six polished one off.

Each of the dishes we ordered looked lovely, was appropriately cold or hot and consisted of impeccably fresh, vibrant ingredients. Ms. Polo Pozo has an innate sense of balance, crafting gorgeous, intensely flavored dishes. Here’s a look at our culinary adventure:

 Beets Napoleon ($12): A vertically

constructed salad composed of sliced roasted beets, Catalunyan Capri chevre, lardons (crisp, salty bits of pork fatback), toasted pine nuts and balsamic reduction.

 White anchovies ($8): If you’ve never had a fresh anchovy, you haven’t had anchovies. These were tender, delicate in flavor and bathed in garlic. A simple, delicious presentation.

 Chorizo in cider ($9): Sliced chorizo sausage and onions gently simmered in apple cider make for a satisfying dish that’s salty and slightly sweet.

 Blackfin tuna tartare ($17): One of the nightly specials, it featured tender

bits of tuna studded with crunchy pomegranate seeds in a lightly savory sauce paired with microgreens and pomegranate air, a light pink foam with pomegranate essence.

 Spinach wilted a la Catalana ($10): A mound of barely-steamed organic spinach came studded with shallots, dried cherries, pine nuts and a sprinkling of sea salt.

 Diver scallops on octopus slivers ($19): Two plump scallops, seasoned and sautéed to perfection, sat on strips of tender octopus, all of which was drizzled with a heavenly citrus vinaigrette and blood orange infused olive oil.

 Pork tenderloin with Moroccan spices ($10): These pork chunks were liberally coated with zesty Moroccan spices, grilled so the spices formed a light crust and served with red and yellow pepper sauces.

 Piquillo peppers stuffed with cod ($15): This might not sound all that enticing, but it was an excellent, subtle dish. The tender peppers contained a creamy mixture of salted cod topped with a delicate tomato coulis.

 Crèma Catalana ($8): This is a Spanish version of crème brulee, made with milk. It had the traditional burned sugar topping beneath which lay soft, smooth cream with a subtle lemon flavor.

Our server was not just pleasant and accommodating; he knew the menu thoroughly and was able to discuss the wines as well. His competence and expertise enhanced an already excellent meal. 

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