2012-12-20 / Cuisine

Flipper’s food and view worth the trek to Lovers Key

“Where’s a good place to eat by the water?” is one of the questions that still flummoxes me after almost 25 years of living and dining in Southwest Florida.

People think there’s an easy answer, but there isn’t. In fact, the query raises more questions: How much do you want to spend? Are you looking for a quick bite or a memorable dinner? How far are you willing to drive? Do you want to get dressed up or go as you are? Are you willing to wait an hour or more for a table with a breath-taking view?

People end up looking at you as if you’ve tried to employ Newtonian calculus to figure out a 20 percent tip.

There are multiple correct answers to “Where’s a good place to eat by the water?” and one of them is Flipper’s on the Bay at Lovers Key Resort. If you are willing to drive the length of Fort Myers Beach and cross one more bridge — or motor up from Bonita Beach Road across Big Hickory Island — Flipper’s will reward you with a gorgeous Estero Bay view and delicious food. (Boaters can simply tie up at the dock behind the resort; kayakers can even pull up on a short stretch of sand.) The atmosphere is island casual, and the menu offers a remarkably affordable range for light and heartier appetites.

The chef at Flipper’s elevates even ordinary food such as pork chops. 
DREW STERWALD / FLORIDA WEEKLY The chef at Flipper’s elevates even ordinary food such as pork chops. DREW STERWALD / FLORIDA WEEKLY Executive Chef Juan Cruz trained (survived?) for four years each with Wolfgang Puck and Thomas Keller, so be assured that Flipper’s is serious about its food.

We did not have to wait for a table last Saturday evening, when we arrived early enough to enjoy the view of boats and birds whizzing by from our aerie in the second-story restaurant. A soft breeze soothed the stress of Christmas shopping and schlepping to this remote location, and a musician on steel drum added live pizzazz to recorded reggae music. No dolphin sightings on this visit, but I’ve heard they are common.

Save room for a decadent chocolate soufflé. Save room for a decadent chocolate soufflé. Like most resort restaurants, Flipper’s offers fruity specialty drinks. I decided to start with a Huckleberry Fin ($7.50). Served in a Mason jar, the electric-blue cocktail contained 44 Degrees North Mountain Huckleberry vodka, lemonade, pineapple juice and a handful of fresh blueberries. It was decidedly sweet but definitely had a kick.

The waiter said the wine list is in flux, so it’s hard to predict what you’ll find. My companions wanted a bottle of merlot, and the waiter brought Bogle ($30), a fine, widely available and versatile choice.

For appetizers, we opted for one Florida staple and one that should be.

Coconut shrimp ($10.90) are a culinary cliché in these parts, but in Chef Cruz’s hands they are once again exciting. The four jumbo shrimp were butterflied, hand-battered and fried to a crunchy crisp without overcooking the interior. The shredded coconut created a pleasing texture without adding too much sweetness, and a concentrated mango reduction added intense fruit with a tinge of heat.

An exemplary crème brulee. An exemplary crème brulee. The Black Island Clam Cakes ($7.90) were three fluffy orbs studded with strips of tender clam that were crisply fried and topped with a dollop of house-made tartar sauce. They were a nice change from crab cakes, which you see in practically every restaurant these days (including Flipper’s).

It’s hard to know how service is when Flipper’s is busier than it was during our visit. Our courses were well timed, and our server clearly took his job more seriously than most of the young servers you encounter at the average casual crab shack.

If $20-$30 entrees are not in your budget, Flipper’s offers an array of sandwiches from under-$10 wraps to a $14.90 lobster roll, all of which include fries or chips and cole slaw or fruit. The children’s menu is limited to three pretty standard items.

Main courses are a mix of seafood and meat dishes, and we sampled some of each.

The Bohemian grouper ($31.90 market price) is worth splurging on. Panseared, the fish had a nice crust but remained quite moist within. Although it was garnished with pineapple salsa and lemon beurre blanc, the grouper wasn’t overwhelmed by the double-teaming. It was served on a mound of mashed ripe plantains that would have benefited from more seasoning but were fine.

Equally delicious were pan-seared diver sea scallops ($29.90) with sautéed spinach and garlic mashed potatoes. The shellfish were huge and succulent, nicely bronzed and laced with a delightful honey-orange beurre blanc. Worth every penny.

As a seafood alternative, the double pork chop with mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus ($26.90) makes an excellent choice. The thick chop was perfectly grilled and juicy through and through, with a Basil Hayden’s Bourbon maple glaze that launched its heady aroma in the air as soon as the plate was set down. Caramelized pears made for an inspired variation on the usual pork-and-apple pairing.

Save room for house-made desserts such as a cakey-rich chocolate souffle ($6.90) or exemplary creme brulee ($6.90). You won’t regret the indulgence.

In fact, there is likely nothing you will regret about a visit to Flipper’s on the Bay — except the fact that eventually you will have to leave. ¦

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