Pine Island, the barrier island that lies west of Cape Coral, may first appear to be a sleepy fishing village, where smoked mullet, beer and locally grown tropical fruit are considered primary food groups. While it’s true that all of those items are abundant in Pine Island, there’s a serious amount of upscaling going on as property values rise and savvy investors discover its charms and potential.
An early visionary was Rob Wells, an entrepreneur who turned a former drug rehabilitation center into a charming restaurant and inn. Tarpon Lodge in Pineland is ensconced in an historic complex of wooden buildings overlooking Pine Island Sound.
Designed for ultra-tranquil getaways and fishing vacations, the restaurant affords day-trippers an interesting lunch or dinner opportunity.
The dining room, with its hardwood floors, framed prints of hunting and fishing scenes and the occasional small trophy animal mounted on the wall, creates a convincing country gentleman ambiance. It’s a place where outdoorsmen feel at home and can count on hearty, forthright fare.
As you might expect, the menu is as far from fusion as it’s possible to get. Traditionalists may find it refreshing to recognize all the items in a dish.
The food is straightforward American, featuring simple but well-prepared seafood and meat and an abbreviated wine list, from which we still managed to select a lovely accompaniment to our meal a Whitehaven sauvignon blanc, from the Marlborough district of New Zealand. Crisp, light and not quite as citrusy as some, it complemented both the appetizers and entrées well and, at $40, was a good buy, too.
Lunch is particularly casual, with cheese steaks, crab cake sandwiches, shrimp po’boys and salads that range from $5.95 for a jumbo hot dog to $14.95 for the fresh catch of the day.
Dinner selections scale upward a bit, with veal piccata, aged filet mignon and skewers of bronzed Gulf shrimp.
The shrimp were large, sweet and fresh, given a lively little bite from the seasonings that also imparted a bronze hue, and served with a mild cilantro crème fraéche. The house specialty crab and roasted corn chowder lived up to its billing. It was a thick, rich cream soup loaded with savory corn and mild crab. Although bowls are available, a cup was plenty.
Given our proximity to the fish-laden waters of Pine Island Sound and Charlotte Harbor beyond that, the evening’s fish entrées seemed more appealing than meat.
A sautéed grouper with mango curry sauce was generously portioned, moist and flaky. The sauce, which was a restrained version of curry sauce, imparted Eastern-influenced spices and sweet mango without drowning out the fish’s subtle flavor.
The Asiago-encrusted tripletail with artichokes had a bolder taste but, again, the fillet was moist and fork-tender, with a tangy crust.
For a sweet finish, the vanilla crème brule was a fine choice. Another classic, the custard, was creamy and lush with an oh-so-light crust of sugar fired over the top.
A cozy bar, complete with fireplace, was far quieter than the main dining room. But even when the volume climbs, Tarpon Lodge remains a lovely throwback to the days of Old Florida, when gracious service and rustic elegance went hand in hand.
Tarpon Lodge Restaurant 13771 Waterfront Drive, Pineland. (239) 283-2517. Open 11 a.m.- 9 p.m. daily. Reservations recommended. Credit cards. Wheelchair accessible. Self-parking in lot.