Fort Myers restaurant reviews: The most interesting restaurant in Estero? Marlins Brewhouse
The bowl of ramen came on the same tray as my IPA.
Painted in a dainty teal print, the bowl cradled a trove of add-ins, from the traditional (wavy wheat noodles, herbs, soft-boiled eggs, glistening hunks of chashu pork belly) to the wholly untraditional (braised collard greens, fat chicken wings).
A French press, the kind used for morning coffee, sat next to the dish, filled with a murky, mahogany-hued broth. Our server pushed the plunger, pressing the aromatic bits of onion and garlic to the bottom, clear of the spout. He poured the broth into my bowl, set my IPA at its side, then went back to his beer-toting duties, leaving me slack-jawed and frozen in awe.
What the how?!
I’d been to Marlins Brewhouse before. The original one in south Fort Myers and this new, 2-month-old one in Estero’s University Village south of FGCU. I’d eaten at the adjoining Caliburger. I’d snacked on massive, salt-strewn pretzels with pints of Palm City San Carlos Proper, watching the cars go by on Ben Hill Griffin Parkway.
But a fusion take on ramen, served table-side, that looked as stunningly good as this one?
I repeat: What the how?!
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It wasn’t just a pretty bowl of soup. It was a masterful one: the noodles lithe and springy, the sunny egg and soulful broth, the complex spice of the collards, the chashu pork with its tantalizingly wobbly chew.
Two bites in, I grabbed the Marlins menu and pored over it with forensic precision. Dishes I’d overlooked before jumped out now, one after the next: a cauliflower Caesar salad with tapenade and Parmesan crisps; a hot pot loaded with diver scallops, Gulf shrimp and Antarctic salmon in buttered dashi; thick-cut, fried-to-order potato chips dusted in house barbecue seasoning.
I’d been going about this taproom all wrong. Marlins Brewhouse might be the most interesting new restaurant in Estero.
And all the credit goes to executive chef Noel Willhite (with a nod to Marlins’ owners Tim Frederic and Jeff Burns, who had the smarts to hire him).
Willhite got his start locally as the garde manger at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point. His resume includes stints at the former Spago in Chicago and Las Vegas’s Tao — which explains his love for ramen and hot pot, and his knack for the tomato sauces that underlie some of Marlins other great dishes.
Like its bistro steak frites.
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Willhite takes a 10-ounce hangar steak, sears it till juicy, then teams it with charred cauliflower florets and thinly shaved pommes frites atop a tomato-cream sauce deepened by a touch of sherry. It is steak frites as I’ve never known steak frites. And yet, I loved it. Almost as much as I loved Willhite’s blue-cheese laced Buffalo chicken dip, his pimiento-cheese pretzel bones, his behemoth tray of beer-battered Gulf shrimp and pickles.
This Deep South mashup was brilliant: the curls of shrimp, pink and briny-sweet; the pickles, tangy, bright, almost palate-cleansing. There were more collards, still spicy, still tender. Plus a twice-baked potato and two cups of house-crafted dipping sauces. It was an actual smorgasbord. All for $17.
The true genius of Willhite’s Marlins work is its accessibility. It is, in essence, elevated beer food sold at beer-friendly prices. It’s food that tastes good with fruity daiquiris and honey-tinged hefeweizens. It’s food that begs to be shared.
It’s food that’s fun.
Even when the server spilled a quarter of my beer across the table, giggled, then walked off one night. Even when I was left waiting (and. waiting.) for the check another.
The fun of this menu overrides things like that. And really, how often do I get to call a place fun? Fancy restaurants are a dime a dozen, as are tasty dishes and classically trained chefs. But fun — as in taproom-french-pressed-chicken-wing-ramen fun — is rare.
Unless you’re at Marlins Brewhouse.
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Jean Le Boeuf is the pseudonym used by a local food lover who dines at restaurants anonymously and without warning, with meals paid for by The News-Press and Naples Daily News. Follow the critic at facebook.com/jeanleboeufswfl or @JeanLeBoeuf on Twitter and Instagram.
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Marlins Brewhouse Estero
University Village, 19800 Village Center Drive No. 235, Estero
JLB’s stars AREN’T like Yelp stars, here’s why…
• Call: 239-790-6573
• Web: facebook.com/marlinsbrewuniversityvillage
• Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Sunday to Tuesday, 11 a.m.-12:30 a.m. Wednesday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Thursday to Saturday
• Noise level: Conversationally loud to just plain loud
• Etc.: Full bar, outdoor seating, live music on weekends
• Everything pretzel, $11
• Pineapple-salmon lettuce wraps, $12
• Lobster shrimp mac, $15
• Bistro steak frites, $22
What the symbols mean
★ – Fair
$ – Average entree is under $10