2014-03-06 / Cuisine

Cider Press Café’s allure firmly planted in flavors even a carnivore will love

How, you might ask, can a restaurant survive with nary a scrap of meat, seafood, dairy or soy on the menu? Oh, and no gluten, MSG, trans fat or sugar, either.

Johan Everstijn, the inventive chef at Cider Press Café, conjures up food so palatable and lovely that you likely won’t miss a bit of what’s not there. In fact, if someone didn’t tell you, you might not even notice that some of those ingredients were missing.

Welcome to Naples’ new bastion of “Florida inspired, modernist plantbased cuisine,” as Mr. Everstijn calls it. The description might be a mouthful that’s hard to swallow, but the food — all vegan and cooked to no more than 117 degrees — is downright delicious.

I’ve tried raw cuisine before, but it wasn’t this artful and sophisticated. What’s more, many of the raw foodists I’ve encountered in the past have tended toward the militant side — “Raw food is THE way!” — whereas the friendly staff at the Cider Press Café politely inquire as to your general diet — “Vegan? Vegetarian? Flexitarian?” — and they welcome all comers. I got the impression that the reason they asked was to acclimate those who might need explanations of ingredients such as cashew ricotta, zucchini noodles and jicama rice.

A Florida roll, above, is the cafe’s version of sushi, with jicama rice, watermelon “tuna,” mango, cilantro, lime ponzu sauce and pickled ginger. At right, Chipotle enchiladas contain walnut chipotle picadillo and salsa verda, accompanied by macadamia crema fresca and citrus slaw. 
KAREN FELDMAN / FLORIDA WEEKLY A Florida roll, above, is the cafe’s version of sushi, with jicama rice, watermelon “tuna,” mango, cilantro, lime ponzu sauce and pickled ginger. At right, Chipotle enchiladas contain walnut chipotle picadillo and salsa verda, accompanied by macadamia crema fresca and citrus slaw. KAREN FELDMAN / FLORIDA WEEKLY It’s clearly a different style of dining — but one for which there’s a hearty local appetite. So many people wanted to try the gorgeous dishes they’d seen pictured on Cider Press’ Facebook site for weeks that the cafe had to close for lunch two days after opening in late January to prepare more food and hire additional staff.

It’s a labor-intensive form of cuisine, but in the hands of someone as talented as Mr. Everstijn and his culinary team, the result is vibrant food that excites all of the senses.

The chef comes to us via Oklahoma City, where he was the chef de cuisine of Matthew Kenney OKC, an acclaimed restaurant in which raw food ruled. That’s quite an accomplishment in a place best known for meat-centric barbecue.

Having worked my way through much of the introductory menu, I understand the appeal.

Take the Seminole corn chowder ($6) for starters. A bowl of rich mustardcolored soup studded with tiny dots of orange, it was a velvety blend of cashew cream, sweet corn and salmorejo, a thicker cousin of gazpacho. Served cold, it was slightly sweet and full of corn flavor. We finished very drop, then moved on to an order of flatbread ($13) and a Florida roll ($14).

The flatbread wasn’t actually bread, although the two slices were flat and pliable with a firm, grainy sort of substance to them. Our server told us she thought they were a blend of flax seed and zucchini (dehydrated, perhaps). Whatever it was, it was pleasantly chewy and did a good job of supporting little mounds of intensely flavored tomato pesto, creamy herbed cashew ricotta, Meyer lemon olive tapenade, capers and fresh basil.

The Florida roll was even better. It began with a piece of watermelon “tuna” — watermelon cut into a thin stalk then marinated in tamari (yes, it contains soy, bu, unlike soy sauce, it contains little to no wheat). The result was a softer, slightly salty chunk that was then rolled with a similarly sized piece of mango inside shredded jicama made to resemble rice except that it was crunchier. Slices of ripe avocado were draped atop the roll, which was sliced in thick pieces for dipping into a cup of lime ponzu sauce. Not quite as sturdy as its traditional sushi cousins, it was nonetheless a bounty of textures and flavors, which we happily chased down with sliced of pickled ginger.

From the five entree selections, we tried the chipotle enchiladas ($17) and the churrasco ($22).

The enchiladas were popular — and justifiably so. The three enchiladas were stuffed with a lively walnut chipotle picadillo, which was both smoky and crunchy, tucked into spiced corn tortillas, topped with a squiggle of smooth salsa verda and another of macadamia crema fresca and garnished with a sliver of jalapeno pepper. A colorful citrus slaw accompanied it, adding a pleasant crunch and coolness to the plate.

The churrasco consisted of two quenelles, which resemble spoon-shaped dumplings often made of ground meats but in this case containing smoked nuts and portobello. One sat in a zesty chimichurri sauce, the other in a slightly sweet yellow aji-pineapple salsa. The sauces altered the quenelles’ flavor markedly, but both versions were tasty. Whipped garlic cauliflower trimmed with braised cauliflower completed the dish.

For dessert, we sampled tiramisu ($10). With two layers of creamy lemon something (nut cream?) and two layers of a coffee-flavored something, it was light and fluffy — as tiramisu should be, no matter what is was made of.

A chocolate ganache ($6) was less successful, however. The ganache, which is generally soft, was very firm, making it difficult to cut even with a fork and knife. Once we managed to break it apart, we enjoyed the flavor, and the chocolate sauce that accompanied it was excellent.

I also recommend trying the fresh apple cider, which tasted like pure, unadulterated apples in liquid form.

Another recommendation: Order a bit more than you think you’ll want to eat. Portions are small, particularly the lasagna, which is lovely but we heard at least two people nearby discuss the fact that the small round layered creation came with no sides for $17. The cost, I believe, comes from the amount of labor and the high-quality organic and, when possible, locally sourced, ingredients used in the creation of these dishes.

The staff was uniformly wonderful, attentive, charming and willing to answer whatever questions diners posed.

The Cider Press Cafe isn’t for everyone — just those who value flavor, beauty and healthy ingredients. ¦

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