There's a table for six in the southeast corner of Avenue5. One end borders the plaza in front of Sugden Community Theatre, while another side parallels the walkway along Naples' posh Fifth Avenue South.
Glass doors and giant, retracting windows separate it from the outside. With the windows pulled back on a recent afternoon, the table was exposed to perfect January weather, complete with refreshing breezes.
By Chef David Nelson's estimation, there aren't many better spots in town to enjoy a meal.
"That's one of the best tables in Naples," said Nelson, who joined the upscale eatery as executive chef in early October, with the goal of rejuvenating the restaurant's reputation, "but they just didn't have the food to complement it. So that's what I'm really trying to do: just complement what's already here."
Avenue5, which is connected to the Inn on Fifth, opened to much anticipation in February 2014. It boasts an airy interior decorated in a glam neutral palette with pops of orangy red and plenty of gleaming metal accents. Aesthetically, it is the antithesis of the beloved McCabe's Irish Pub and Grill, which operated in this location for 15 years, ending in 2013.
Nelson left Truluck's, a well-known seafood and steak establishment just around the corner, after Avenue5's first chef, John Welch, just didn't bring the quality and "wow factor" diners expected.
Nelson is working hard to reshape the restaurant's culinary identity.
"I know a lot of people around town, and Avenue5 did not start off on the right foot, reputation wise," he said. "A lot of people gave it a chance. I know I ate here after they had been open three or four months, and I mean it just — it wasn't good."
Whipping up a new reputation for Avenue5 is all about the basics, the former Army Ranger food service specialist insists. He relies on having the right equipment, teaching and executing solid cooking fundamentals and leading by example. Behind the scenes, much has changed in Nelson's first three months at the restaurant.
At his request, McCabe purchased a new grill so the kitchen could turn out better steaks. Inventive masterpieces by Avenue5's recently hired pastry chef, Anthony Valerio, have replaced frozen desserts purchased from a supplier. The menu has been completely redesigned.
Though Nelson maintains that his culinary approach, for now, centers around delivering well-prepared, high-quality, recognizable dishes, his food goes beyond those basics. At Avenue5, creativity and expertly designed flavor and texture combinations are on full display.
For Nelson's grilled Colorado lamb chops, a simple pan sauce isn't enough. Instead, you'll find his topped by horseradish and goat cheese crème fraîche, along with vibrant chimichurri that gets an extra kick from rosé vinegar.
At a private tasting and wine dinner Avenue5 hosted in the first week of 2016, butter-poached lobster tail — cooked sous vide in tarragon, butter and lemon, then dressed with corn-tarragon zabaglione — accompanied the lamb chops for an imaginative take on surf and turf. Corn and lemon notes lifted the buttery lobster. The plate also held a serving of perfectly executed dauphinoise potato.
The dish was a pleasant surprise for diner JoNell Modys, public relations and communications manager of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau. She called the lamb chops and chimichurri "an unexpected combination with great flavor."
The restaurant team paired this dish with a 2012 pinot noir from Domaine Serene, a winery established in Oregon's Willamette Valley by part-time Naples residents.
Most people wouldn't see this as just "simple food," but that's how Nelson views it.
Many restaurants "forget simplicity is sometimes what's best," the chef told diners at the private event. He emphasized that building the restaurant's reputation requires mastering dishes that people relate to, not focusing on culinary trends.
The tasting and wine dinner opened with a Maine lobster cocktail that included Champagne dressing, heirloom tomato, grapefruit, avocado and a custom blend of micro herbs with citrus notes. The herb blend, put together by the local Colusa Farms, is known as the "tangerine blast."
Next, tender bay scallop shone through in a refined ceviche, accented by pickled ginger, lemon grass, lime and cilantro. Wonton crisps and creamy avocado mousse were superb foils for the heat and bright, sweet notes of the ceviche.
The third course offered ricotta and mascarpone gnudi (a dumpling-like, cheese-filled pasta), served with a tender meatball and deeply flavored golden garlic tomato sauce.
Then came the luxurious and nuanced surf and turf, followed by a three-dessert sampler featuring a chocolate pot de crème, key lime cheesecake and a six-layer chocolate cake built on a base of chocolate chip cookie.
A wine from the restaurant's dazzling glass wine walls complemented each savory course and mini dessert.
"I think Chef Nelson has hit on a flavorful and interesting combination of dishes that will bring in the tourist crowd, as well as appeal to local diners," Modys said in a statement after the event. "His enthusiasm for the menu is contagious and I think he and his team will bring a new energy to the Fifth Avenue South dining scene."
Nelson himself makes no secret of the fact that after years without the freedom to create his own menu items, he finds the challenge of breathing new life into Avenue5 immensely enjoyable.
"I have not had more fun cooking in a long time than I have the last few months here," he said.
Contributor: Laura Mize