711 5th Avenue South, Naples, FL
NAPLES — When I mentioned to a friend that I was reviewing Yabba Island Grill, he asked, “Why would you want to do that?”
Yabba has gotten a bit of an undeserved bad rap amongst the younger local set. Most of us tend to think of it more as a crowded late-night club than a restaurant. And even then, it’s associated with the touristy aspects of Fifth Avenue South.
But upon closer inspection you see a restaurant that, while styled toward the seasonal hordes, offers fine food in a pleasant setting. I have two complaints about Yabba. One is a product of environment; like most of Fifth Avenue South, it’s expensive. The other it brings upon itself — it’s too perfectly styled, with the colorful island motif too tightly packaged.
Those both melted away a few bites into the restaurant’s “Sugar Shack” shrimp ($10.50). A house speciality, these Caribbean-inspired spicy shrimp are a perfect example of what Yabba does at its best. A blend of jerk seasonings and Buffalo-style sauce, the dish offers a depth of flavor, thanks to some clove or nutmeg, not found in typical spicy shrimp. They are hot, although not so much you’ll reach for your water more than once.
I wish the jerk chicken entree ($18.90) would have been so bold. It is blackened with a light dusting of jerk seasoning and served with a sauce that relies a little too heavily on Worcestershire for flavor. After the sucker punch flair of the shrimp, I had raised expectations that weren’t met.
But that was really the only dish that didn’t strike the mark dead to rights.
On the appetizer front, the crab-and-potato cakes ($12.50) used extra starchy potatoes to hold the concoction together instead of the breading used in a lot of places around town. The addictive onion rings ($6.90 for a huge plateful) held together well with a crispy crunch that begged to be dipped in a smoky chipotle barbecue sauce.
Entrees are where Yabba’s casual side comes out the best. Half of the dishes are sandwiches or burgers, including the excellent mile-high burger ($11.90), so named for its big flavor, thanks to Anaheim and a tropical chile and the enormous stack of homemade potato chips on top. (When they offer you a side of tortilla chips, fries or slaw, say “No thanks.” Only Adam Richman of the Travel Channel's "Man v. Food" could make it through the burger, all those chips and fries.) The sandwich menu helps offer an affordable price point that a lot of Fifth Avenue restaurants are missing.
The rest of the entrees are a little on the high side, but what we sampled was spot on. The plantain-and-macadamia nut crusted grouper ($26.90) was well complimented by a tangy sweet and sour sauce. The accompanying bitter spinach greens represents one of the rare occasions in Naples dining where the side was an integral part of enjoying the dish as a whole.
The most interesting thing about the fried shrimp platter ($18.50) is the side of “crazy cool” slaw, which is a side on several of the entrees. With apples and marshmallows, it’s a sweet take on Waldorf salad that is pretty good in small doses.
Fairly or not, there’s little Yabba Island Grill can do to remove the tourist stigma from the minds of locals. Unfortunately, that means the locals who avoid it are missing good food and a fun atmosphere.
Cuisine: Island, American and seafood
Atmosphere: Ultra relaxed. Everything about this restaurant is casual, from its faux palm-frond ceiling fans and draped-fabric ceiling to the soundtrack screams laid back.
Service: We had the same server on both trips and she was pleasant and helpful both times. She was quick with a suggestion, but didn’t get in the way and she was attentive to our requests.
Beverages: Yabba has a pretty extensive list of signature cocktails among its bar options, there are also daily beer and cocktail specials. The wine list is undergoing a revamp. Because of that, you can find wine deals there right now. On our last trip they were offering a $200-plus bottle of champagne for $57, although that deal might not be available anymore.
Prices: This is probably the biggest black mark against Yabba. But it’s a mark shared by its Fifth Avenue South brethren. The costs of doing business is higher than anywhere else in town, but we’d like to see prices drop by about 10 percent or so. Appetizers run between $9 and $13. Burgers and sandwiches from $10 to $15. Entrees are in the $20 to $28 range.
Recommended dishes: Onion rings, $6.90; crab and potato cakes, $12.50; sugar shack shrimp, $10.50; mile-high burger, $11.90; and jerk chicken. $18.90
Verdict: Often avoided by locals for its touristy vibe, Yabba Island Grill really has a lot to offer. The food, while not particularly distinctive, is very well prepared. The highish prices are the only thing standing in the way of a wildly enthusiastic recommendation.