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Sweet Melissa’s Cafe: Anything but ordinary

By Staff | Jun 28, 2017

Melissa Talmage, executive chef of Sweet Melissa’s Cafe opened her restaurant on 1625 Periwinkle Way eight years ago. PHOTO PROVIDED

Melissa Talmage, executive chef of Sweet Melissa’s Cafe, said her fascination with fine dining began when she was living in New York City. She and her father would go around the city and try out all of the new, top-rated restaurants.

After becoming pregnant with her first child, Talmage opted out of law school and pursued culinary school instead.

“I was lucky enough that Michael Romano who was the executive chef at Union Square Cafe, it was one of the best restaurants in the city, offered me a job. I worked there until Sept. 11,” Talmage said.

Eventually, Talmage and her family moved to New Orleans. While there, she did her on the job training at Commander’s Palace for nearly four years.

“You can see that in my menu – those southern creole influences,” Talmage said.

After Hurricane Katrina, Talmage moved with her family to Washington D.C. While living there, she became friends with the owner of Redfish Bluefish on Sanibel.

“She called me to come down and be her chef and that’s how I landed,” Talmage said.

In 2009, she opened Sweet Melissa’s Cafe, at 1625 Periwinkle Way on Sanibel. Talmage said her eclectic dishes change with the seasons and availability.

The restaurant, which is known for its small plates, sources local and organic ingredients as much as possible.

“The clams are from Pine Island and the crab is from Island Crab (in St. James City),” Talmage said.

All of her fish are either local or domestic.

“The two fish purveyors I have will call me when they have anything local, so it’s nice. They know I look for that,” she said.

When asked what some of her popular items on the menu are, she answered quickly: fish stew and grilled romaine.

“I heart fish stew is our personal joke among each other,” Talmage said. “I actually took it off the menu for a couple years and so many people were saying they were going to leave because they couldn’t get fish stew.”

The stew she said, “has a million, thousand different ingredients.”

“We usually use red fish or mahi mahi, mussels, clams, Gulf shrimp, scallops, chorizo fennel, shallots garlic, tomato concasse, tomato water, saffron wine, lemon juice, fume, salt, pepper, butter and pernod aioli” Talmage said.

Her signature grilled romaine, which never leaves the menu, is topped with Caesar dressing, parmesan and truffle oil.

Since her grand opening eight years ago, Talmage has garnered countless awards. Some of those include placing first for Best Appetizer at CROW’s Taste of the Islands in 2010 and being named “Best Dining in Lee County’ by Gulfshore Life Magazine. Most recently, Sweet Melissa’s Cafe caught the eye of USA Today which ranked the restaurant as one of the “10 Best Restaurants in South Florida” last month. Sweet Melissa’s Cafe came in at No. 5.

The announcement came as a complete surprise to her. Talmage didn’t know about it until a customer came in and handed one of her employees a newspaper.

“We had no idea,” Talmage said. “We were so thrilled. Everyone was so excited all night. The restaurant industry is so hard and you give up so much when you’re running a restaurant so when you get those accolades, it’s rewarding. It’s nice for the staff too that they can have something that they can be proud of.”

Talmage credits her work ethic and her staff to her success.

“It’s all of us continually striving to get better,” Talmage said.

Talmage believes it is just as important to give back to the community which has helped her restaurant become so successful. She regularly gives back to Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, F.I.S.H. and “Blues on the Bay” which benefits the Heights Foundation.

Lunch is served Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner is served Monday through Saturday from 5 p.m .until close. Sweet Melissa’s Cafe is closed on Sundays. For reservations, call (239) 472-1956 or visit sweetmelissascafe.com.