Archive for the ‘Tidbites’ Category

Tidbites

April 17th, 2014Posted by admin

Originally published in The Observer
Date: April 16, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

+ Café Americano Offers La Prima Colazione (aka breakfast)
Café Americano, located at 1409 Main St., has long been a great place for lunch and dinner — inside for quiet and good food and outside for good food and people watching. Recently, owner Ambrish Piare added some new items to his extremely successful breakfasts.

According to Piare, “Too much of a good thing is the right approach to take when creating the ideal breakfast menu.”

So, in addition to all the great frittatas he’s been serving, he’s added a “Meat Lovers” frittata with sausage, prosciutto, mushrooms, roasted red peppers and provolone cheese.

Not satisfied with simple pancakes, Americano has four varieties of them, three kinds of Belgian waffles, French toast and at least five different omelets a day. Sound like too much for your diet? Americano is now offering a Paleo-power breakfast with grilled sirloin steak, tomato, avocado and two egg whites.

There’s even a way to dream up your own custom breakfast with a choice of 11 different sides and lots and lots of lattes.

Inside or out, diet or too much, prima colazione, colazione or pranzo, Americano has it all in a fun, cosmopolitan atmosphere within walking distance of just about everything downtown Sarasota has to offer.

+ Pre-theater Dining
Mattison’s on the Bay is the restaurant in the Van Wezel. Offering spectacular views, sunsets to write home about and a buffet you can always count on to get you through the performance, this is the most logical, most convenient and best deal you can find for a pre-concert dinner. (You can even get a parking space up close and within steps of the front doors.)

We enjoy a drink before dinner and the wait staff is always eager to accommodate our orders. For an 8 p.m. curtain, we usually make a 6 p.m. dinner reservation so we may have a drink and sample the great variety of cheeses, veggies and salads before we start our dinner.

The buffet’s main table always includes one of the most tender cuts of beef we’ve had. We like ours rare, but the ends are seared medium-well for all tastes. There’s also always a chicken, fish and pasta dish with lots of vegetables and sides.

Going downtown to FST or the Gompertz for an evening of theater? Make a reservation for dinner in The Green Room. The simple pub setting offers great drinks and a menu of well-prepared salads, sandwiches and heartier dishes in a calm, unrushed atmosphere that reminds me a little of a quiet version of Sardi’s in New York. Photos and posters set the scene for the scenes you’ll see inside the theaters. Wood-paneled windows look out onto a porch that’s straight out of the Berkshires. It’s a simple, straightforward, fun way to go to theater downtown without the hassle of parking twice and rushing to your seat.

+ The Easter Bunny is confused by too many choices
Easter brunch has become so popular, it has expanded to an Easter weekend brunch at several restaurants. Want to celebrate Sunday at home? Great. Go to either Libby’s or Louies Modern for an a la carte brunch on Easter Saturday. Or, take advantage of dining out on the holiday with Libby’s special holiday buffet. You could never have a groaning board like its at home. Prime rib, omelets, yogurts, boatloads of fruit, bacon, sausage, gravy, pancakes, waffles, fried chicken, hash browns, salads, pastas, deviled eggs, quiche … I’m getting too full to type and I haven’t even mentioned the desserts.

Meanwhile, The Francis is going to be open to the public for a special Easter Brunch with seatings available by reservation. As you know, The Francis is adjacent to Louies Modern but is usually open only for special events: parties, receptions, weddings, meetings and other affairs for large groups. This is a great chance to see and sample The Francis and make Easter your special occasion. It’s going to present a variety of stations featuring salads (from artichokes and couscous to pasta and sweet potatoes), seafood (oysters, shrimp, ceviche, crab and salmon), carved meats (rib roast, baked ham, leg of lamb), pancakes and waffles (fruit pancakes and pecan wild rice waffles), eggs (benedicts, omelets, scrambled) and desserts (OMG!).

The Table Creekside combines one of the best brunch opportunities in town with a view you won’t want to leave. Sit inside and be surrounded by glass walls looking over the water. Outside, you’re on a dock hanging over the creek with envious pelicans and duck families celebrating their own harvest from the water.

From delicate trios of seafood to caviar amuse bouche, The Table always manages to come up with something different, delicate and delicious. I’m particularly fond of the swoop of the bar as you walk in.

Love the colors and the lightness of it all.

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Tidbites

April 3rd, 2014Posted by admin

Originally published in The Observer
Date: April 2, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

+ A new Peruvian restaurant
What is it about Sarasota and Peruvian restaurants? New York, San Francisco and several other cities have a China Town and Little Italy. Many cities — including Sarasota — boast of a restaurant row. But Sarasota seems to have more Peruvian restaurants than any place except Lima. And they’re good ones.

Inkanto, located at 4141 S. Tamiami Trail, seems to be one of the more recent to pop onto the scene and, although its menu is always changing, depending on the market, it seems to set itself apart from the other excellent Peruvian restaurant choices we have by bringing us truly authentic delicacies we can’t find easily — especially when it comes to fish. Recently it had some special dishes featuring corvina, a firm-fleshed, flaky, mild fish that is found in the Pacific, along Central and South America. On one evening it was serving it pickled, over a bed of quinoa stew: fried with a creamy saffron sauce, or flambéed and diced with red vinegar and soy sauce. See what I mean about different?

The restaurant is known for its ceviche and, from the choices on the menu, we can understand why. From the samplers that offer you a multiple choice of tastings to the elegant and cool temptations that are “cooked” in aromatic lime juice, Inkanto’s ceviche creations are suited to every palette, ranging nicely in spiciness and piquancy.

The restaurant is appealing, with warm, inviting orange-red walls and lots of dark wood that make you feel as if you’re in a charming clubby atmosphere somewhere in South America. That and the food make it a great place to escape for a fun and relaxing evening of great food, good wines and happy company.

Inkanto is only for dinner, and becoming more and more popular as the word spreads; it’s a good idea to have a reservation.

+ Cooking for a cause
Many restaurants set aside time to close their doors to the public and open them specifically for groups with a mission. For example, CasAntica, the wonderful Italian restaurant located at 1213 N. Palm Ave., is hosting a dinner for an organization called Selah Freedom, a group that helps young women pull their lives back together after they’ve been abused by predators dealing in human trafficking.

At 6:30 p.m. April 10 there will be a special fundraising dinner at CasAntica that owner Peter Migliacco is putting together to help this worthy organization. The dinner will feature a guest speaker and raffle. And the food — oh the food. After a mouth-watering phone conversation with Peter, who had me drooling over his descriptions, I’m happy to report that, along with a selection of hot and cold appetizers and a choice of chicken Florentino or Sole CasAntica, the pasta course will feature a choice of any of the amazing al dente pastas served at the restaurant with either a luxurious tomato sauce or a creamy white sauce.

Tickets are $125. For more information, call 545-3874.

Two days later, at 6:30 p.m. April 12, Grapes for Humanity Global and Chef Christian Hershman of State Street Eating House will hold a fine wine dinner at the charming State of the Arts Gallery, located at 1525 State St. This is a fascinating group. Arlene Willis, whose brother was killed in the Vietnam War, conceived Grapes for Humanity. The idea is to raise funds for those injured by landmines, through wine tastings, dinners, auctions and other wine-related functions.

Hershman’s State Street Eating House offers clever combinations of comfort food and Epicurean creations such as braised pork shoulder with veggies, and chicken broth with dumplings and kale. His inventive menu is perfect for wine pairings you might not dream up on your own. The idea of this special evening is to “Turn a passion for wine into the power to soothe a troubled world.”

Tickets are $200. For more information, visit gfhglobal.org.

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Tidbites

March 20th, 2014Posted by admin

Originally published in The Observer
Date: March 19, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

+ Verdi’s ‘Jérusalem’ meets MoZaic
The Sarasota Opera has been offering prelude dinners: three-course meals at choice restaurants within walking distance of the Opera House, with friends who are attending that evening’s performance and want to get together for a good dinner before the curtain. One of this season’s choices was MoZaic, just around the corner from the opera, and a destination, in itself.

We joined about 25 other opera fans recently before the opening night of Verdi’s “Jerusalem,” and Dylan Elhajoui, MoZaic’s master chef who specializes in continental cuisine with a Moroccan twist, went all-out with a made-to-order menu just for us. The choices for our first course included sautéed escargots and mushrooms in boursin gougère or pumpkin and mascarpone ravioli in a brown butter-sage sauce with a Bailey’s Irish cream “owl” of golden hubbard squash potage. The entrees included salmon with a goat cheese soufflé, glazed Cornish hen or jasmine tea duck breast. And, how do you choose just one from a dessert menu that gives you a choice of bittersweet chocolate espresso pot de crème or lavender-scented buttermilk panna cotta with Moscatto d’asti-apricot soup and vanilla bean ice cream?

Elhajoui set us up in the room to the side of the front door, and it couldn’t have been a more auspicious way to set the scene for the rarely performed opera we were going to hear a couple of hours later. Bravos were being voiced at MoZaic, as well as the Opera House.

+ The Honey Tree Café offers dining all day
Fun, relaxed restaurants that open for breakfast and lunch are a dime a dozen in Sarasota. But eateries that serve food starting in the early morning and continue through dinner are not that easy to find. The Honey Tree Café, located at 8315 Lockwood Ridge Road, reminds me of a combination of a New Jersey diner and a Manhattan coffee shop. It offers an enormous array of food, from eggs and waffles, to hot and cold sandwiches, salads and entrees such as steak, meatloaf and stir-fries.

We’ve gone there primarily for lunch and, seeing that its specialty sandwiches and wraps came in the form of pitas and gyros, we assumed the owners were Greek. Not so.

The Quni family came to Sarasota from Kosovo, by way of Michigan. They’ve been around for almost 50 years and, as File Quni (pronounced as if it were short for Phyllis, which it’s not), says, “We thought it was temporary, but we stayed.”

Good thing, too, because File, her husband, Zef, and their four children — three boys and one girl — turn out some pretty fancy food in a setting that’s as informal and relaxed as you can get. Even their menu speaks for them: “Welcome to the Honey Tree Café,” it says. “We take pride in our food and preparing it the way you like. We are family owned and operated. So, sit back, relax and let us do the cooking and serve you as family. Enjoy!”

We like our eggs, whether they are omelets, scrambled or fried, on the soft side. Many restaurants refuse to serve them softer than a hard ball. But, at the Honey Tree, they do our bidding without an argument or even that look that says, “Are you crazy?”

I’m partial to their albacore tuna pita because, when asked, they serve it in a fluffy gyro wrap with diced tomatoes, shredded lettuce and a hint of what tastes like pickle relish mixed in with the tuna salad, making it just a little more interesting than your run-of-the-stream tuna. We had a smoked turkey club pita the other day with bacon, cheese, lettuce, diced tomatoes and just enough mayo to make it juicy, rather than dry. We asked that they press the pita when they grilled it and, voila, they did it. Just right.

Oh, they also serve “Detroit Coneys and hot dogs.” Maybe we’ll try one of those one of these days when our waistlines give us a nod.

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Tidbites

March 7th, 2014Posted by admin

Originally published in The Observer
Date: March 5, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

+ Derek’s is different
We were up in Bradenton recently to speak with the Bradenton Opera Guild about Verdi’s rarely performed, “Jerusalem.” That worked up a hunger and, since we finished talking at lunchtime, Sheila and Joe Varady, who put the Opera Prologues together, generously suggested we have lunch in the new incarnation of Derek’s. The restaurant recently moved from Central Avenue, in Sarasota, to Manatee Avenue West, in Bradenton.

Derek Barnes is a hands-on chef and he was very much in evidence, greeting patrons as they entered, stopping by tables and letting us know he was around if we needed anything extra.

As you’ll remember, Sarasota’s Central Avenue, in the Rosemary District, is a sort of funky neighborhood with quirky boutiques, groomers (of humans and dogs),  and antique shops that remind me of SoHo in downtown Manhattan. It’s a relaxed, fun area with a wonderful individuality that sets it apart from other downtown Sarasota neighborhoods. Derek’s, when it was on Central, stood out as an upscale restaurant with a reputation for excellent food and a romantic chic that made it a great spot for quiet dining after 6 p.m.

Derek’s on Manatee Avenue West is different. Now open for lunch and dinner, the food remains terrific but the setting is more adventurous and fun. In fact, it looks more now like the Rosemary District than it did when it lived there.

Derek’s lunch menu is modern, featuring popcorn, in various flavors and guises, popping up in soups, salads and sandwiches. It’s good, adding texture to standbys as in their “Cracker Jack” salad, a spinach salad that goes out of the box with country ham cracklin’, caramel corn, peanuts, farmer cheese and a roasted apple vinaigrette. Derek’s flatbreads are thinly crusted with unusual toppings, from smoked pulled pork with rustic peach barbecue, to roasted vegetables with a popcorn pesto.

The lunch and dinner menus are small but inventive and, while they change almost daily, they’re always packed with good, casual, rustic cuisine. Warning: you may need reservations. Even for lunch.

+ Michael’s On East: The best for gala dinners
We all know Michael’s On East. The dining room is elegant but comfortable. And the food is always beautifully prepared, making it the go-to place for a great meal. But, especially at this time of year, we find ourselves attending big, somewhat fancy, fundraising dinners.

In season there are lots of them but the ones that truly stand out have been held in Michael’s ballroom, just down the atrium from the regular restaurant. Of course, when you have a sit-down dinner, complete with speeches and entertainment, you have a planned menu. And the one put together by the Artist Series Concerts of Sarasota last week was positively memorable.

We had to make our choice in advance and, being rabid carnivores, we went for the beef, which turned out to be exceptionally tender, beautifully seasoned, medium rare, tasty, juicy filets that cut with a fork. The dessert, which we usually skip, was positively smashing.

Consistently great food is a given at Michael’s. What was a revelation was Michael Klauber, himself, acting as the best auctioneer I’ve ever heard. Zesty, smart and wily, he knew how to cajole, tease, threaten, and time the evening’s live auction so perfectly, he brought in a ton of money for this worthy music organization. I used to do that kind of thing in New York City for little groups like the New York Philharmonic and the Center for Contemporary Opera. The other night, I learned a thing or two from Klauber about good timing and great taste, in food and auctions.

+ Station 400 takes a stand in two venues
We love Station 400 and go there quite often, when we can get in. Living equidistantly between its two venues — the one on Lemon and Fourth, and the one on Main Street, Lakewood Ranch — we favor the one downtown simply because we love the outdoor garden with its flowers and fun sense of going to a party for breakfast, brunch or lunch.

Station 400 has some great specials but, because it relies more on fresh ingredients than publicity, it doesn’t plan ahead more than a few days. Specials or staples, it always does great things with eggs, like the corncake benedict it featured recently: two poached eggs, roasted tomato, arugula, pesto Hollandaise on savory corn pancakes.

The restaurant’s salads are fresh and crisp, and you can get them the way you want them. We’re partial to the chicken cobb salad, but we like ours chopped and tossed. Occasionally, I change and get the cobb with crabmeat and ask them not to chop or toss it so I have a heaping mound of fresh crabmeat to glom into.

The only downside to Station 400 (and, hey, it’s not down for the owners) is that it’s so popular — especially in season — we sometimes can’t get in. But that’s the cost of fame and great food. Our trick is to get there after 1 p.m. when the brunch and lunch crowd is leaving. Then we relax amid the flowers and listen as they pipe in Sirius/XM channel 4, with its old standards, and have a good time catching up with the friendly, welcoming staff.

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Tidbites

February 25th, 2014Posted by admin

Originally published in The Observer
Date: February 19, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

+ Caragiulo’s is another family affair
Go to Caragiulo’s website and you’ll not only see family photos, you’ll hear a transcription of the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria” for piano and violin. Over the music, the text tells us that everything is made fresh, even the mozzarella, and “the biscotti is still baked by Mrs. Caragiulo, herself.”

Open for lunch and dinner seven days a week, Caragiulo’s is a familiar hangout for singers on their way to or from a chorus rehearsal, families who want a good, home-cooked Italian meal, and singles who are looking for a fun place, indoors and out, where they can catch up on some reading, people watch and have something cooked specially for them.

Last week, when the internationally renowned Curtis Institute of Music — the most selective conservatory in the country — brought a quartet of singers from its opera division for a concert at First United Methodist Church, there was a dinner and post-concert reception at Caragiulo’s for donors and Sarasota Friends of Curtis.

There’s something fun and relaxing about Caragiulo’s. The artful decorations are fun and the drinks are good. They have some interesting infusions like espresso and citrus bourbon, and caballero (Spanish orange liqueur) and rum. But it’s their pastas and sauces that really turn one’s head. Garganelli and lobster carbonara is tempting. So is the variety of linguine, penne, tortelloni and capellini. Every shape and size of pasta, but the texture is always al dente and the sauces are inspired. A good way to start, and end, a performance.

+ Jalea sent out a valentine
For reasons we’ve not yet understood, Sarasota seems to be a magnet for great Peruvian restaurants. Darwin’s on Fourth, Selva Grill, and now Jalea, at 1532 Main St., are serving up some incredibly inventive dishes that taste like a wonderful mix of Spanish and South American recipes with splashes of Asian je ne c’est quoi.

Last week, Jalea went all out in its celebration of Valentine’s Day with a prix-fixe dinner that was filled with love bites. From its creative salad that combined spinach, berries, garbanzo beans and pine nuts with a passion fruit dressing, to the pan-fried white fish with a seafood and aji Amarillo sauce served over white rice, and the luscious dulce de leche with whipped cream and strawberries, Jalea was one of the best bets for a heart-felt and loving celebration.

Fortunately, Jalea is always celebrating something in its intimate downtown space. There are hot and cold tapas running all day. Ceviche, paella, empanadas, slow-braised lamb and a great assortment of seafood are beautifully served with a great collection of wines. And happy hour starts at 3 p.m. and lasts until 6 p.m. Very happy hours.

+ The Serving Spoons serves up more than brunch
I’ve been going to the Serving Spoon almost since I moved to Sarasota, first to the branch on Clark and, after that restaurant closed, I followed it to its mainstay on Osprey, near Hillview. My husband and I love it, not just for the food — to which we’ve become addicted — but also for the friendship of the wait staff and the owners.

Natasha and Craig, who shepherd the place in the kitchen, out front, at the tables and, well, just about everywhere you look, are our friends away from home. When I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer two years ago, Craig was right there, sharing his experiences with cancer and, you should excuse the pun, egging me on with his wonderful courage and wisdom. And Tasha always has a smile and open arms for hugs, sitting with us when she has a few moments, and sharing stories, asking questions and telling us what’s new.

We’ve followed at least two of their kids as they’ve entered college and come home for holidays to work in the restaurant. And we’ve been grateful to them when they’ve posted flyers of our upcoming performances on their bulletin board and in the windows.

The Serving Spoon has been our favorite breakfast-lunch place because it feeds us —body and soul. When we’re not dieting, we go for its soft scrambled eggs with bacon, tomato and swiss rolled into a toasty tortilla. The menu calls it the B.E.S.T sandwich, and it is. We drool as pancakes float to other tables and are awestruck as others down those carbs and stay slim. (Someday …) We’re addicted to Craig’s New Favorite: soft scrambled eggs with feta and scallions, but we ask them to add bacon to the mix and revel in the textures and tastes.

The chicken club salad is also a favorite, but we ask for it chopped and tossed with toasted pita on the side. In fact, this is one of the best salads we know and, when we want something a little lighter, we get just a half and that does the trick.

The Serving Spoon is open only until 2:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m. on Sundays) and sometimes we wish, for a light dinner before a concert, it was open for dinner. But we’ll take what we can get: great mid-day meals served by dear friends.

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Tidbites

February 6th, 2014Posted by admin

Originally published in The Observer
Date: February 5, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

+ Pomona serves the Sarasota Orchestra
Pomona Bistro and Wine Bar has always been a foodie favorite but, now that they’ve added a full-service bar to their establishment, it’s become a beacon in Citrus Square. Located at 481 Orange Ave., this charming bistro, which feels more like an elegant home than a restaurant, is also a second home to musicians, especially those in the Sarasota Orchestra.

In fact, Arthur Lopes, one of the two proprietors with Ryan Boeve, has catered, both privately and in Pomona, many a great, relaxed but delicious dinner for several of the Sarasota Orchestra players. It’s a well-known fact that musicians are often associated with locusts, ravenous and rapacious when it comes to food. When great food is put in their path, watch out. A famished fiddler, clarinetist, flutist or percussionist seems to have a homing instinct for great eating establishments and, when they befriend a restaurateur like Lopes, they tend to move in, slide, bow and rosin.

Our experience a couple of weeks ago before a concert was like finding a new home. Small, cozy rooms filled with candlelight and crystal almost kept us from the music, but we managed to have a leisurely dinner and still get to the concert on time.

One of the things Lopes told us while we were having exceedingly dry martinis and snacking on a salad of tender romaine lettuce with quail egg, brioche and parmesan cheese, was that the restaurant’s new bar service is now offering specialty aperitifs called “$6 before 6.” Chris Braun, who has more than a dozen years’ experience as a bartender and cocktail composer, is now creating all sorts of specialty drinks. He loves “educating our guests, increasing their knowledge” and loves creating new concoctions that complement Pomona’s great food.

You don’t have to run to Zagat’s to find out about a restaurant. Just ask your local professional musician. You’ll get a mouthful.

+ JPan offers specialties in their houses and yours
Although it’s been there a while, we recently discovered JPan, one of the best restaurants around for fresh, inventive sushi. With two branches, one at 3800 S. Tamiami Trail, and the other at 8126 Lakewood Main St., you have a choice of venues. But in either place, you’ll find sparkling, fresh, delicious raw fish, sizzling teriyaki and crunchy tempura.

We tend to go to the Lakewood Ranch restaurant for convenience, and we’ve found some spectacularly tender white tuna sushi that simply melted in our mouths. The Dynamite Roll, with tuna, yellowtail, scallions and wasabi is spicy and hot, while the smoked salmon, avocado and cream cheese roll made a terrific, and different, dish for brunch.

I think what I like most about JPan, next to the food, of course, is the setting. The modern design of the restaurant gives it a sleek but comfortable atmosphere with extra cushions for your back and nicely spaced tables for quiet conversations.

However, if you prefer having an evening at home with all the comforts of great Japanese food, JPan offers delivery by phone (941-365-EATS) and online at DoorStepDelivery.com.

+ The Elixir of Tea
A new tea house has opened on Hillview, one of several restaurant rows in Sarasota, but Elixir is different.
Like some recently established coffee houses in the same neighborhood, Elixir is a place to hang out and enjoy local music while you’re sampling loose teas that are brewed to your specification. There are “orthodox” black and green teas. But, if you like tangy, unusual flavors, there are also leaves like apricot, chocolate truffles and orange cookie black teas, along with Cranberry rose, Japanese cherry and something called “Red Riding Hood” white teas, not to mention white, decaffeinated and flavored fruit blends.

If that’s not enough to whet your appetite for a Cup-a, there are “Wellness Herb Teas” such as Feng Shui, and even tea cocktails: ice tea punch and piña colada.

Of course, most of us think sweet when we think it’s tea time, and Elixir offers a bevy of pastries from cocoa croissants to raisin rolls. For those who prefer their brews in different categories, there are also numerous choices from espresso and cappuccino to hot chocolates and even a slurpy, molten chocolate fondue.

Elixir is the brainchild of Gyula, a Hungarian who knows what a tea (or coffee house) should be. He, his wife and a few of the other employees are new to the U.S. and they seem to love what they’re doing on Hillview. It’s that love that makes their tea house extra special.

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January 25th, 2014Posted by admin

Originally published in The Observer
Date: January 22, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

+ Savor your time at MoZaic
Five years ago, when MoZaic, the excellent continental-with-a-Moroccan-flair restaurant on Main Street opened, we were doubly thrilled because, not only were we getting a new upscale restaurant on a par with Daniel’s in New York City, we were also celebrating a new enterprise by master chef Dylan Elhajoui, the son-in-law of my dear friends, Lynne and John Meskey.

I met Lynne when I first came to Sarasota in 2002 because she was the person to speak with about auditioning for Gloria Musicae and Key Chorale. She sang with both groups and, just speaking with her on the phone — a first conversation that lasted about an hour — made me realize I had a new best friend in my new hometown. She turned out to be not just a best friend, but also a terrific singer whom I brag about to singer friends from New York. She also loves to cook and eat. So that sealed the deal.

Dylan and his family — talented, artistic wife, Anne, and four exceptional kids — had moved here from Colorado where Dylan had cooked for thousands in one of the state’s biggest resort hotels. MoZaic opened with Dylan ruling in the kitchen just before Christmas 2008. I know because the first real date I had with Ed was Christmas Eve of that year. I sang at the candlelight service across the street at First United Methodist, and then Ed and I walked over to MoZaic, where we were seated in the window-side table for a candlelit dinner that we’ll never forget. Ed and I were married about five months later, my first marriage, and the romance of MoZaic didn’t hurt our cause.

Ever since then, when we’ve spent the holidays in Sarasota — we’ve made a practice of going on Christmas/New Year’s cruises every other year — we’ve made reservations at MoZaic for Christmas Eve and requested that very same table. This year we were here, and our celebration was a delicious treat of Dylan’s finest fare, along with a couple of special delicacies he brought just for us to taste: a cold fruit-and-herb soup and a small bite of a bastilla — a Moroccan specialty that uses succulent squab in a sort of minced pie that’s both savory and sweet.

MoZaic is that special treat place where we dine — and it is dine, not eat — when we make an evening of dinner. It must be savored, never rushed and, although we have, occasionally, gone there before an opera, we like it best when we can make an evening of it, luxuriating in every bite and taste.

+ Romancing the scone
Simply Gourmet, a local catering firm, is inviting us to, um, “Get Sconed.” Taking afternoon tea to a whole new level, it’s doing a traditional royal English tea service at 2 p.m. Tuesdays in February and March in the exclusive upstairs living room of the Powel Crosley Estate, 8374 N. Tamiami Trail.

A traditional afternoon tea is unlike your grandma’s cup of tea or anything you’ve experienced before. According to Chef Larry Barrett, “Every year, the royal family hosts an afternoon tea for about 8,000 guests at Buckingham Palace.” This tradition started in 1860 with Queen Victoria.

“It’s a grand and colorful affair. Men wear suits or military uniforms, and women wear dresses with hats and gloves. The 500-foot buffet table is set with a feast, and there’s tea, of course.”

Sometimes I’ve wondered about that because, although tea is the focus of these affairs, it can get lost amid the scones, tartlets, Devonshire cream and royal tea sandwiches. I did a so-called traditional tea at my home some years ago, and it lasted almost eight hours. Teas were poured at first but, a bit later, we switched to Veuve Cliquot and, well, I don’t remember much about who was there or when they left. (Maybe they’re still there.)

Simply Gourmet’s royal English tea has not included champagne in the past. But the teas are terrific, as are the parfaits and turkey/tomato pinwheels. So, take a Tuesday and get sconed right here in Sarasota. And remember to look around the estate while you’re there. It’s almost as spectacular as Buckingham Palace.

+ Libby’s does brunch
Libby’s Café + Bar, on Osprey, has always been a great place to meet for lunch and treat for Sunday brunch. Now the restaurant has added a Saturday brunch, which includes its famous, award-winning 60-plus ingredient bloody Mary and mimosa bar.

Libby’s has always reminded me a little of a west side bistro in Manhattan, N.Y. If it weren’t across from Morton’s on Osprey, I’d think I was someplace on Broadway, sharing a meal with friends before a Lincoln Center performance. It just has that west side ambience. If you’re from NYC, you know what I mean. You can sit inside, at a table or in a plush booth, or outside, watching the parade of Morton’s (like Zabar’s) buyers and cars on their way to and from Siesta.

Oh — Libby’s also has music. Now, DJ Russ Deep is there to spin funk and Motown and take you deep into a food/music experience on weekends. It’s a great way to lay back and enjoy Sarasota.

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Tidbites

January 9th, 2014Posted by admin

Originally published in The Observer
Date: January 8, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

+ ‘Downton Abbey’ comes to town
The “Downton Years” are being celebrated at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 17 with a glorious four-course wine dinner in the traditional English style at the magnificent Powel Crosley Estate, 8374 N. Tamiami Trail. Love the TV series? Eat like a Downton lord and lady with smoked duck breasts on puff pastry (with cranberry and mint relish, of course), leek and Stilton cheese soup and a choice of several other sumptuous dishes, including a classic beef tenderloin and Guinness stout demiglace served with a puff pastry crust that will have you untying your corsets and loosening your knickers for a few days to come.

Be sure to make a resy, deah, at localwineevents.com/events/detail/511731/sarasota-taste-magazines-downton-abbey-wine-dinner or 366-7950, or the butler won’t let you in.

+ Sarasota wins coveted awards
We’re sure you’ve heard that Business Insider recently named Sarasota as the No. 1 city, for its size, in music and nightlife. Now we’re pleased to report Florida Trend magazine honored 10 Sarasota restaurants with accolades in its annual Golden Spoon Awards, which recognizes the culinary and dining leaders in Florida.

Writing about Louies Modern’s Best New award in Florida Trend, Chris Sherman said it “… is hip casual and slamming. Bang into short rib burgers, 48-hour pork chops, wood-oven duck or ease into sweet potato taquitos or spaghetti squash pomodoro. Very smart drinking.”

Meanwhile, LM’s older sister, Libby’s Café + Bar, also earned a top honor when it was awarded its fifth Golden Spoon. Writing about Libby’s, Sherman said it is “the (Hillview) neighborhood’s staple for nouveau comfort foods, from sliders of Kobe meatloaf and Velveeta, truffled fries and pork filet mignon, to Gulf grouper and Mote caviar.”

We weren’t aware there was a “nouveau comfort food,” being old-school comfort, ourselves, but we’re certainly willing and happy to try it. Perhaps everything old really is new again.

About Shore Diner, another Best New restaurant, Sherman wrote, “St. Armands gets a colorful shot of hip Southern California retro and a fresh take on shop-n-chew retail. Sip ruby-red cocktails and eat quinoa salad and lobster LGBTs à la Malibu on the patio after eying/buying harem pants, jams, tees and fedoras.”
In addition to Libby’s, Derek’s, Mozaic and Selva Grill also received Golden Spoon awards. After receiving numerous Golden Spoon awards throughout the years, Michael’s On East earned the Hall of Fame award. And Carmel Café, Fleming’s and Roy’s, which all have restaurants in Sarasota, were named Best Brands.

+ The Blue Rooster crows
One of Sarasota’s newest and trendiest restaurants, The Blue Rooster, at 1525 Fourth St., started a Sunday gospel brunch a few weeks ago and, between its authentic Southern food and the live, traditional and contemporary spirituals and gospel music, the place is really rocking. Fried chicken, brown-sugar glazed ham, sweet catfish fingers, biscuits and red-eye gravy, cheesy grits and fried green tomatoes are just a few of the tasty treats you’ll scarf down while you wrestle with TBR’s signature brunch cocktail, the “Hail Mary,” and swing to the beat of Sister Tsa and the Spirit Singers.

If Sunday brunch ain’t enough, ya’ll, remember there’s Southern comfort food and more music — blues, jazz, bluegrass and soul — seven nights a week. Again, make a reservation at blueroostersrq.com or those low-country shrimp and grits will be kissing you bye-bye.

+ A special New Year’s treat for our readers
In this new year, as we all scramble resolutions and eggs with equal ardor, I thought I’d share with you part of an email my friend and WQXR colleague, Robert Sherman, sent to me last year. Although Bob loves food, he’s not what you’d call a seasoned chef. Here’s what happened when he attempted what he thought was a fairly simple recipe for banana bread by his late wife, Veronica, who was a fabulous cook.

“I warmed up the lemon juice and milk, set it aside, and then put the bananas, eggs, sugar and butter (I only had 3/4 of a stick, but who’s counting?) in the food processor. ‘Whirl for five seconds,’ it says, ‘adding soured milk through spout.’ The food processor, however, has no ‘whirl,’ only ‘pulse’ and ‘dough.’ Dough didn’t sound right, so I pulsed, but the thing kept turning on and off, so I couldn’t pour in the milk. Eventually I managed to do it, except nobody told me that there was a tube inside the spout preventing all but a few drops going through. I had to spoon out the soured milk, which by now looked rather curdled, and dump it in.

“I then read further: ‘Combine flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt, and sift over batter. That stumped me, since I assumed the batter was the glop still in the processor, and I had no idea what sifting meant. I intuited that it must mean putting the flour through some sort of strainer. So I used a pasta drainer, shaking the flour through it into a pie dish, and (tried to) put it into the processor. Maybe 2/3 of it went in, the rest landing on the counter, floor and my shirt. The next line said, ’Add fruit and nuts.’

“Whoops, I had already done that. So, I panicked, and seeing the remaining walnuts, threw those in. Next, it said, ‘Turn into a well-buttered loaf pan,’ but I couldn’t because I used up all the butter. So I sprayed some vegetable oil in the pan, instead, and started ladling in the goop from the processor, removing some globs of flour that had somehow escaped my sifting.

“I won’t bore you with the ghastly details of the mess I left behind, but I took the pan out of the oven, only burning myself slightly in the process, and it looks OK, except for being burned, and I’ll have to figure out how to remove another glob of unsifted flour at the top, that looks like a half-opened eye glaring at me. Maybe I could cover it over with whipped cream (if I had the cream).”

We don’t recommend you follow the above, but it works for a really good belly laugh and reminder that not everyone who loves to eat also loves to cook. Hooray for great Sarasota restaurants. Happy New Year!

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Tidbites

December 11th, 2013Posted by admin

Originally published in The Observer
Date: December 11, 2013
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

+ Roast is toasting around the corner from the Opera House
Many restaurants have tried the space on First Street, around the corner from the Sarasota Opera House, but none has stayed open long. Now, a new contender that just may put down roots there is Roast, a restaurant and full bar, that’s taken the neighborhood by storm. In fact, we ate there when it first opened about a month ago, and when we tried to make last-minute reservations for dinner before a concert, we couldn’t get in. When we walked by, we saw a line at the door and a lively crowd at the tables inside and out, in the beautiful courtyard.

Open for lunch and dinner, Roast features grilled and roasted meats, seafood, shareable plates, salads, soups and vegetarian and pasta dishes. It also offers catering — the main dining room downstairs and the courtyard area have a capacity of about 50 each — and it also has a cocktail lounge and a smaller dining room on the second floor that can seat up to 30. Combined it could host a charming cocktail party for as many as 100 people.

It’s a fun foodie place with beautiful surroundings. The chef/proprietor, Andrew Thompson, and General Manager Frank Zilleckis call it, “Modern American with a European influence.” Whatever they call it, it’s good and we hope it sticks around a long time.

+ Polo Grill reopens
The Polo Grill and Bar in Lakewood Ranch has not only refurbished and spiffed up its premises after a short closing this summer, it’s also hired a new chef. Tommy Klauber, the proprietor of Polo Grill, has brought in Stephane Pierre.

“His mastery of cooking and his big, warm personality have won over many of our frequent customers and staff. Anyone who has the chance to come out, meet him and try his foods will truly enjoy it.”

Pierre, 44, a Belgium native, has more than 25 years of experience in the culinary arts and fine dining. He started out as a fish cleaner at the Michelin-starred Devos Restaurant in Brussels and went on to receive an official appointment by the royal family of Belgium to serve the royal court. He’s racked up a bunch of impressive culinary awards from certified master chef to being named a disciple of the famous Auguste Escoffier and president of the Euro Toques Society.

The Polo Grill is a huge establishment. Aside from the dining room and bar areas, which have been made more beautiful than ever, there’s a huge banquet hall that can serve a variety of configurations and is used for many major events with sit-down capacity for hundreds of diners.

+ Half Shell Oyster has a name and place change
Our old favorite, the Half Shell Oyster House on Main, has packed up and moved to 5230 University Parkway and changed its name to The Half Shell Seafood House. But, what’s in a name when the food is better than ever?

It still has the best, freshest, largest oysters for the best price in town: One dozen raw oysters, perfectly shucked and glistening in their juice, are a mere $13. And, the other day when we were there for lunch, the oysters were a little smaller than usual (still huge, by most standards, though), so, without saying a word, four more were added to the iced tray, giving us an even 16 for the same price.

The restaurant also added some incredible dishes that are packing in the customers for lunch and dinner. Among them is a lip-smacking lobster macaroni, piles of steamed mussels, a whole listing of steamed crabs from king to snow, and to-die-for seared ahi tuna.

+ Off the Hook rings a bell
If you’ve been to The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota since the restaurant became Jack Dusty, you know two of the people associated with the opening of J.D. were Patrick Bucko and Ruth Hardy. Now the pair is starting a new venture called Off the Hook Seafood Company with a trio of other foodies: Nick and Tracy Melone and Sean Dargin, who’ll oversee the bar.

Off the Hook opened about a month ago in the restaurant-happy Gateway Avenue — 6630 Gateway, to be precise — and they tell us the new venue is offering local seafood with weekly changes and a late-night menu.

Bucko, who was born in Sarasota, has already spent some 30 years in the restaurant business. In fact, he started working at The Pub out on Longboat when he was just 15. Since 1993, Bucko’s been a server, bartender and manager of such important Sarasota landmark establishments as Euphemia Haye, Horse Feathers and the Cork and Bottleshop Restaurant. He’s also worked for Sean Murphy’s group at not only the Beach Bistro, but also the other Eat Here restaurants in our area.

He got the Jack Dusty team going about a year ago, and now he’s got his own place with his friends. They are serving up seafood that’s, well, right off the hook. The new restaurant is open from 4 p.m. until close Tuesday through Sunday.

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Tidbites

December 1st, 2013Posted by admin

Originally published in The Observer
Date: November 27, 2013
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

+ A dream is a wish your heart makes

Here’s a tidbite that’s as irresistible as a song. A group of Sarasota restaurants is donating part of what we spend on their food to Make-A-Wish Foundation of Central of Northern and Central Florida, Sarasota region. Calling it “Dishes for Wishes,” MacAllisters, The Lobster Pot, Madfish Grill, The Table, Ophelia’s on the Bay, The Grasshopper and several other excellent local restaurants have each cooked up clever ways to give money to Make-A-Wish in the next several weeks. For example, Ophelia’s, the beautiful restaurant on the bay near the south tip of Siesta, will host a “Give Back Night” Monday, Dec. 16, donating a portion of the proceeds from that evening’s sales. Madfish has a different idea. It has come up with a gift card giveback and, for every gift card sold through the holiday season, Madfish will donate $1 to Make-A-Wish. The Lobster Pot in Siesta Village, which has some of this town’s most luscious lobster bisque, by the way, is selling “stars” for $1 throughout the holiday season. MacAllisters Grill on Main Street Lakewood Ranch has devised a signature dish it’s calling “Scotch and Salmon Delight” and, from every order, the restaurant will donate $2 to Make-A-Wish. (Maybe they should call this one “Make a Fish.” Or not … ) And The Table, which is about to reinstate its Sunday brunch (see right for more information), will donate a portion of every patron’s brunch check Dec. 8.

Every year, some 27,000 children are diagnosed with a medical condition that makes them eligible for a wish experience. Last year, the Make-A-Wish Foundation granted the wishes of nearly 14,000 kids. Those wishes have included everything from one child’s desire to “meet a real ballerina” to a trip to Paris. Allen, a 17-year-old with leukemia, said he wanted to design cars, so Make-A-Wish helped him and he presented that car to GM. Four-year-old Lauren, who had cancer, had only one wish: to give back comfort and hope to others, so, with the help of Make-A-Wish, she made and gave away a cozy bunny blanket.

Our local restaurants’ Dishes for Wishes benefits everyone. We eat beautifully, and part of the money we spend goes to make children’s wishes come true. Definitely a win-win situation.

+ The Table is bringing back brunch

Last year, The Table Creekside initiated one of the best brunches anyplace, anywhere. We missed it this past summer when the charming restaurant with great views and even greater food decided to forgo brunch and stick with dinners. But now, back by popular demand, is Sunday brunch. Starting Dec. 1, we can sit inside or out, hovering over historic, idyllic, peaceful Phillippi Creek, and enjoy the stuffed French toast panini we drooled over last season and attempt to choose among the six different variations on a theme of eggs Benedict. Or have them all because, this year, Chef Pedro is introducing an intercontinental buffet that will do amazing things for your waistline. Trust me. Amazing.

For us, the incredible part of Sunday brunch at The Table is the combination of great service, magnificent views and the enormous variety of tempting dishes Chef Pedro manages to invent, all at reasonable prices. They tell us we could eat Sunday brunch at The Table Creekside every Sunday, all season, and never eat the same thing twice. You do need reservations because last year’s brunches gained The Table a reputation among Sarasota’s brunch-of-foodies.

+ Eat Here opens for lunch

You’ve been reading in The Observer about the new roof-top lounge service that recently opened at Eat Here. Where is here? It’s on Main Street, downtown Sarasota. Well, now Eat Here is serving lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every Monday through Friday, and Sean Murphy, the heart and soul of Eat Here, is giving you a choice of eating inside at traditional or community tables (a great way to make new friends), on the covered deck or in the park patio around the fountain.

Wherever you choose to sit, though, the menu is perfect for lunch. From the double burger to the fish tacos, this is great food — comforting, fun and fabulous. If you’re one of those who likes to eat lightly for lunch but can’t stand wasting food, Eat Here has a clever doggie bag. The “Keen Wa” (aka quinoa) salad is served in a Mason jar. So, if you can’t finish your portion, just take it home, complete with the reusable jar. Do that often enough, and you’ll have a whole set for your homemade jams and jellies to give as Christmas and New Year’s presents.

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