Some shake-ups and a shutdown around town
fby Nanci Theoret
You could almost hear the collective sigh when foodies first learned former Trabue executive chef and GM Keith Meyer was returning to Punta Gorda. His escargot and classic French culinary expertise were sorely missed after the restaurant’s demise in January. When his Facebook followers found out Chef Meyer was returning as co-owner of Jacks on Marion, along with established restaurateur Chris Evans, they insisted and persisted that several of their favorite dishes return, including the delectable escargot crostini with its oh-so savory garlic, butter and white wine sauce.
“So many people were asking the same question,” he said. “That’s the one thing we changed during the first week.”
The next addition was the PEI mussels Provençal prepared with garlic, white wine and herbed butter. The dynamic duo took over the restaurant May 1 and a month later introduced the new menu as the precursor to a name change to F.M. Don’s, in tribute to Mr. Evans’ late grandfather, the developer behind Fishermen’s Village.
“It tastefully tells his story and provides a factual picture of Punta Gorda’s history,” said Mr. Evans.
Blown-up black-and-white newspaper photos and clippings recall F.M. “Don” Donelson’s vision and determination to build a mall, marina and apartments on the site of the city’s former docks, fisheries and packing plants.
“The restaurant will be known for the delicious food no one else in the area can do like Keith, as well as my grandfather’s development and civic side and the controversy he faced,” said Mr. Evans. “It took him five years to get Fishermen’s Village approved through the city. Can you imagine the history of Punta Gorda without Fishermen’s Village?”
“It’s a pretty good situation,” says Chef Meyer. “Chris is operational and analytical, and I’m the hands-on people guy. We didn’t close a day; the transition was seamless.”
Mr. Evans, who successfully reopened the Turtle Club Coastal Tavern & Claw Bar in fall 2014, has been talking to former Jacks owners Bill and Janet Minerich about a buyout for 1½ years — about as long has he’s been trying to entice Chef Meyer from Trabue.
“Frankly, I couldn’t afford him,” he said of the French Culinary Institute-trained chef.
The pieces started falling into place when Trabue closed in January because of an unstoppable real estate deal.
“Keith has a great technique and mind,” said Mr. Evans. “He’s worked at Michelin-rated restaurants in New York City.”
At F.M. Don’s, Chef Meyer has introduced a style of French cooking he calls “approachable” and describes the menu as “elevated comfort food with a level of sophistication. The French have always been way ahead of the science behind cooking food. For me, there’s a meticulous difference between making food good or making it great. If you have a really fresh piece of fish, you don’t want to kill it with heavy, old-style French sauce. It’s about not masking the flavor but taking the extra step. Instead of a traditional batter for our fish ’n’ chips, we’re going to do it tempura style. Even if it’s a simple application, we’re going to do it the best we can.”
Some of the new menu highlights include a watermelon-and-arugula salad, pork chop with white bean ragout, lunchtime roast beef and chicken salad sandwiches and pimento cheese spread. There’s also braised short ribs, steaks and scallops.
Chef Meyer is also commanding a larger kitchen and dining room. At Trabue, he had six burners and a small dining room; at F.M. Don’s there are 16 burners and seating for 260. His sous chef from Trabue will soon join him.
There will also be some of Jacks’ mainstays, such as coconut shrimp and a few fried foods, but properly prepared.
“We want the experience to be fun, casual and fresh with food cooked the right way,” said Chef Meyer. “There were items on the menu I couldn’t look myself in the mirror if I served that food.”
The new restaurant will also maintain Jacks’ tradition as a popular indoor/ outdoor bar gathering area with a menu of bar bites.
Chef Meyer is happy to return to Punta Gorda, proudly announcing on his Facebook page: “It’s good to be home.”
“I love Punta Gorda,” he said. “Patrons of Trabue had a going-away party for me, and 100 people came. It was humbling and touching and so great to be back. This is so much more than a job.”
F.M. Don’s, 201 W. Marion Ave., Punta Gorda, 637-8800