Photo credit to Cgrape Chef.

Vietnamese-born chef Mai Harkness has proven she is versatile and creative in her cooking, from amazing Asian entrées to all-American breakfast favorites. “I cannot follow a recipe,” she admits. “Food is fun. It’s being creative.” She worked for Darden Restaurants and several hotel chains in the Orlando area before opening a coffee and wine bar in Bonita Springs.

Eager to get back into the kitchen, she launched a breakfast and lunch spot at the Flamingo Island Flea Market, offering an extraordinary dining option in an unusual location. Nowhere else in the market can you find a lobster croissant, pot stickers or smoked salmon. Mai shortly followed up with the opening of a fine dining restaurant in North Naples. Keeping the original name, Cgrape Chef also does catering, offering healthy menu items which are both flavorful and eye-catching. About 90 percent of the menu is gluten-free, using rice instead of wheat-based ingredients.

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“We’re very health conscious, and we don’t like to over season,” says partner chef Paul Brenner. He uses minimal salt and pepper, choosing in- stead to flavor meat and veggies with herbs, butter and wine. Cgrape Chef is in its second season, tucked away on Imperial Golf Course Boulevard off U.S. 41 just south of Wiggins Pass. It’s a small, quiet locale, ensuring the first-class service. The chef cooks to order, working with any dietary concerns and scaling up the heat as desired, for those who like it hot.

Although Mai is a culinary genius at Asian cuisine, she also knows her meat and potatoes, being married to an Irishman. Most dishes have an Eastern flare, but you’ll also find pot roast and pork medallions on the menu. Cgrape Chef is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. The Flamingo Island location serves breakfast and lunch Friday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Stop by to treat your taste buds to something special and step away from the ordinary.

OUR FAVORITES

01. STEAMED CHICKEN POT STICKERS

Beautifully presented in a bamboo wicker box, these traditional Chinese dumplings are flavorful – and addicting. Our server, Tammy, confessed to devouring a dozen in one sitting! Also try the Oven Baked Spinach and Artichoke Rangoon, a deep-fried dumpling filled with creamy veggies and served with cucumber-wasabi sauce.

02. VIETNAMESE VEGETABLE SPRING ROLL

Wrapped in transparent rice paper, these spring rolls are gluten-free, making a tasty and healthful snack. Spring rolls are served with a wonderful, hot-and-sweet peanut dipping sauce. Add chicken, shrimp or lobster meat to make a meal.

03. MONGOLIAN BEEF

Stir-fried filet and fresh vegetables are served over brown jasmine rice, saturated with a lightly spicy sauce to pleasure the palate! The chef cooked the beef to our desired doneness and offered four levels of heat for the sauce (We chose medium, which seemed to satisfy all at the table). Topped with bean sprouts, this dish is simply delicious.

04. CHICKEN PAD THAI

This dish is a favorite among fine food aficionados, with its signature peanut satay sauce. Peanuts give flavor and texture to this dish, while the sauce presents just the right amount of heat while also adding sweetness. Pad Thai can be prepared with chicken, beef or shrimp. A must try!

05. WABASAKI SWORDFISH

Swordfish is an unusual find on local menus, so we took advantage of this chef’s special. Cgrape likes to vary its menus frequently, as the chef enjoys culinary creativity. The swordfish was well seasoned with a saki and wasabi sauce combined with melted butter for a succulent, melt-in-your-mouth seafood dish. Another popular from-the-sea dish is the Seafood Imperial, featuring shrimp, scallops and lobster meat over creamy mushroom risotto.

06. PEANUT BUTTER PIE

Don’t miss this finisher for a fine meal at Cgrape. The peanut butter pie is unlike any other I’ve tried. It’s denser with rich flavor – and it’s even healthier than most because it’s made with honey instead of sugar. So you don’t have to feel bad about the drizzled chocolate or sweet whipped cream on top! Also try the Fudgy Brownie Mudslide for a truly decadent dessert. Crafted after Mai’s favorite drink at the beach, the Mudslide features a gooey brownie topped with tiramisu ice cream and drizzled with white and dark chocolate sauce. Sweet tooth satisfied!

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