A year ago, Tarpon Lodge Restaurant & Bar took a beating when Hurricane Charley slammed Pine Island. Wind and water caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to the complex. You wouldn’t know it if you visited today. If anything, the restaurant is better than ever. Despite Changing its menu very little and its decor not at all, Tarpon Lodge has matured into a very fine restaurant.

One previous visits, I found minor things lacking in food and lagging service. This time? Not a single thing to complain about.

Stepping into Tarpon Lodge is like entering another era. Dating back almost 80 years, it reflects the simple style and grace of old-fashioned sportsmen’s lodges: polished wood floors, clean white walls, mounted trophy fish.

It’s the real deal, though, not some phony corporatized tourist trap.

The wine list isn’t expensive, but we enjoyed glasses of Fat Bastard shiraz and Mirassou pinot noir while perusing the menu.

Our appetizers of goat cheese bruschetta and Portobello Napoleon arrived quickly. Both were colorful and neatly constructed.

The bruschetta offered a good twist on tradition, with a generous smear of creamy cheese on toasted bread topped by a Mediterranean salsa of tomatoes, green peppers and olives. My companion suggested it would make a satisfying meal on its own.

The mushroom cap was enriched by a balsamic vinegar marinade that punched up the flavor nicely. Then it was stuffed with sweet roasted red peppers and fluffy Boursin.

Meanwhile, the youngster in our party dug into fettuccini tossed with butter and pronounced it the best she’d ever had. I managed to steal a forkful and found the pasta perfectly al dente – nice to know Tarpon Lodge doesn’t give the children’s menu the bum’s rush.

Courses were timed perfectly even though several large parties kept the staff busy. Our server’s attention didn’t flag for a moment, keeping our beverages filled and checking on our satisfaction; the maitre’d even refolded napkins while my companion’s child made a foray to the restroom. Overall, the service was more refined than I’d experienced during previous visits.

I settled on one of two fish specials for my entree. Mild-mannered tripletail doesn’t pop up on many local menus but it should; even people who dislike strong-tasting fish would like it. This one was sautéed perfectly, the white flesh bronzed but moist within. It was topped with succulent shrimp and paired with a tomato-rosemary scampi sauce that achieved a good balance of garlic and rosemary. Even the vegetables served with both entrees – zucchini, yellow squash, broccoli and cauliflower – were expertly cooked a tender-crisp state.

My friend opted for beef tenderloin medallions, which were remarkably tender and cooked rare just as they were ordered. I’ve tried this dish before at Tarpon Lodge, and it’s never been better. A wrap of smoky applewood bacon complimented the beef nicely.

We were on a roll, and it continued with desserts of superb Key lime pie and triple chocolate cake. I’ve tasted many such chocolate creations – devil’s food cake, chocolate icing, chocolate chips – but this one tasted more fresh and more moist than most.

I don’t know what besides Charley happened at Tarpon Lodge since my last visit. But I am definitely hooked.

– Jean Le Boeuf is the nom de plume of a local food lover who dines at The News-Press’ expense. Send comments to Le Boeuf in care of Lifestyles, P.O. Box 10, Fort Myers, FL 33902, or fax them to 335-0265. Send e-mail to jleboeuf@newspress.com