September is typically one of the slowest months for dining in Southwest Florida, and while there is very little that is typical about 2020, many area restaurants are indeed feeling the late-summer lull.
With the Labor Day crowds dissipated, it’s a great time to hit Fort Myers Beach for some destination dining.
While restaurant options exist up and down these islands, most of the action is concentrated on the northern end near Time’s Square. Head south to Bonita Beach and the dining options sit on the southern end. What lies between is a coastal drive leading to one of the best hidden, waterfront gems in Lee County: Flipper’s on the Bay.
The restaurant sits across the street from Lover’s Key State Park in a small clump of high rises that’s home to Lover’s Key Resort and this foodie paradise.
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In a time when many are looking for open and airy spaces to dine, without sacrificing quality and creativity, Flipper’s fits the bill. The elevated, al-fresco restaurant overlooks Estero Bay where there are often dolphins at play. Depending on where you sit, there could also be a glimpse of the Gulf of Mexico, making it ideal for sunset. With capacity cut 50%, Flipper’s offers room to sprawl, with umbrellas added for shade and fans to enhance the island’s breezes.
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“Even if we are an outdoor restaurant, we still follow the rules as if we were indoors,” says Ajan Sathan, Flipper’s director of food and beverage. “We want to make people feel comfortable and safe, and they thank us for that.”
When dining rooms closed March 20 due to COVID-19, rather than open Flipper’s small kitchen for takeout, the team decided to gut it, giving executive chef Juan Cruz the state-of-the-art equipment he’d always dreamed of. When the restaurant reopened May 15, it did so with a full menu and a brand-new kitchen.
Cruz’s cuisine is global. Sathan describes it as, “food from his life journey. He picks the best flavors from his life and showcases them here.”
Born in El Salvador, Cruz worked his way through Latin America to California where he cooked in the kitchens of famous chefs the likes of Wolfgang Puck and Thomas Keller.
Nothing Cruz does at Flipper’s is ordinary. Take, for instance, the calamari. Mediterranean-style, it’s lightly breaded, fried until golden, tossed in Kalamata-olive tapenade, then topped with Asiago cheese and pepperoncini. A Spanish-style shrimp cocktail called campechana is another popular starter comprised of shrimp, jumbo-lump crab, avocado, jalapeno and cucumber, and served with house-made corn tortilla chips.
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While Flipper’s menu isn’t limited to seafood, it offers plenty of it. Bohemian grouper comes topped in citrus-mango relish on a plate drizzled with lemon beurre-blanc. Cruz says his Chilean sea bass is the indisputable champion of the entrees. Served in a citrus-miso sauce, “it melts in your mouth,” he says.
Cruz also puts his twist on the Italian classic linguine alle vongole.
“Chef had to fancy it up a bit,” Sathan says, laughing. “To the broth he adds saffron, the most expensive spice in the world. Chef spares no expense.”
The pasta is made fresh. Along with the clams traditionally found in this dish, Cruz adds large U12 shrimp.
And then there’s the ahi, which Cruz crusts in sesame seeds and lightly sears, slicing it thin and placing it over nori-infused jasmine rice with mounds of colorful wakame and pickled ginger, plus swooshes of sweet-Asian-chili and wasabi sauces. Its crowning jewel: a tower of crisply fried rice noodles.
“It’s like a piece of art on a plate,” Sathan says.
If you have a sweet tooth, Flipper’s signature desserts range from chocolate souffle, to creme brulee, to a wildly popular pineapple upside-down cake.
Flipper’s has a full bar with tropical cocktails and an adventurous wine list. Guests who have that extra drink at dinner can take the elevator to a suite rather than an Uber home. Lover’s Key Resort has 100 rooms, all of them suites. Sleep in and enjoy lobster-topped eggs Benedict in the morning. Flipper’s serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Dock space is available for boaters, and many call ahead for Cruz’s food and, to drink, a “Bucket of Fun.” The infamous 32-ounce plastic bucket is filled with four kinds of rum and Flipper’s proprietary, house-made blend of tropical fruit juices.
The drink now features Wicked Dolphin rums produced in Cape Coral. When the distillery hit pause on its daily operations to make hand sanitizer during the peak of the pandemic, it caught Sathan’s attention.
“We thought, let’s partner with a local company, take care of each other. I’m really excited about it,” he says.
Taking care of each other is a theme that’s kept this tight-knit restaurant and resort team together through the shutdown.
“It was a good experience,” Cruz says, “in a way that shows how much we appreciate each other.”
“We appreciated each other before, but this really made us open our eyes,” Sathan says, chiming in. “We also learned to appreciate our families at home. We became dads again instead of just fathers.”
At Flipper’s, family is not a description limited to home and co-workers. It also applies to customers at this dining destination.
“They feel our passion,” Sathan says. “They walk in as guests but come back as family.”
Flipper’s on the Bay is at 8767 Estero Blvd., Fort Myers Beach; call 239-765-1025 or visit flippersotb.com for more.
Gina Birch writes about food and wine for The News-Press and at thebirchbeat.blogspot.com. Follow her as @ginabirch on Twitter and find her on Facebook.
This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Fort Myers Beach restaurants: Seafood, waterfront views make Flipper’s a destination