Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Eating in Sarasota

Venice Beach

Greetings, dear readers!

Hope your January is treating you well. For me, I get through the winter with mentally focusing on how many days to Spring (as of today, 48!). But since that didn’t work so well for me this year, we escaped to Florida for a few days! 

Our base of operations for the week was Sarasota on the beautiful Gulf of Mexico. My previous trips to Florida’s west coast were for work so truthfully I never saw much besides airports and whatever hotel I was sequestered in. But this time, we saw a lot of this gorgeous coast, and had a lot of great food (which is really why I travel). 
Dinner night one was at Shore. A trendy spot smack in the middle of St Armand’s Circle on Longboat Key. Shore has a beautiful open air dining area overlooking the street, dotted with candles and heaters (for chilly evenings). I loved the soft glow created by the dimmed lights but I saw many guests pulling out their phones and powering up the flashlight to read the menu. I continue to be amazed at how many restaurants plan the dining environment without taking into account actually being able to read a menu in the near-dark! 

We dined at Shore on a Thursday evening and the place was hopping (it is the season in Florida), but that did not damper the enthusiasm or level of service from the wait staff. 
Martinis at Shore

Crab Cake - Shore
We began with a Tito’s Cosmo (for me) and a Tito’s martini with bleu cheese-stuffed olives (for my husband) - both done very well. From there, we enjoyed the Maryland lump crab cake with a jicama slaw and Old Bay aioli. 

I chose the Key West shrimp and scallops with lemon risotto, local greens, and tomato confit, which was a delicious combination. The shrimp and scallops were cooked perfectly but the risotto was slightly gummy. My husband, unfortunately, chose the St Louis “Jenga” Ribs with Mongolian glaze, chopped Chinese salad, and crushed peanuts. He is constantly searching for good ribs, but once you’ve had ribs in BBQ capitals like Austin, North Carolina, and Memphis, most restaurants can’t live up to that, and sadly these did not. They were overcooked. Enough said. 

Shore’s atmosphere struck me to be more about people watching than food. And that’s perfectly OK.

Sarasota hosts a terrific farmer’s market every Saturday and we spent some time enjoying the warm morning air checking out the vendors. Everything from fresh seafood to baked goods to gorgeous produce, were available. If I lived in Sarasota, I’d be there every week.

If you know anything about me, you know that breakfast is my favorite meal so I was anxious to visit some of the breakfast restaurants in the area. They ran the gamut from “eh” to “very good.” I won’t bore you with the “eh” options because I’m not in the business of bashing restaurants, so here are the two best venues we found:
Pancakes - Sun Garden Cafe

Sun Garden Cafe in Siesta Key - this cafe is located in a pretty little beach town and they have a nice outdoor courtyard. We loved the fluffy pancakes and very good sausage gravy. 
Perfect Biscuit - Buttermilk
Biscuit Egg Bake - Buttermilk

Buttermilk in Sarasota - for me, Buttermilk was the standout. They specialize in biscuits and man, were they good. I had the delectable egg bake biscuit with Benton’s perfect bacon - I was making yummy noises all the while! My hubby loved the biscuit with sausage gravy (so flavorful with nice chunks of sausage). 
Pastries at Buttermilk

While ordering, of course I had to peruse the baked goods case, which looked fabulous. I made a mental note to come back to try one of the pastries. And the day before we left Sarasota, I did. It was hard to choose only one item, but I restrained myself (fearing even more pounds to lose when I came home!) and picked the fabulous brown sugar-cinnamon coffee cake. OMG. This cake had a terrific light crumb and a crunchy buttery topping that was almost candy-like. Another place that would be on my weekly visit list if I lived here. 

Coffee Cake - Buttermilk
The next night we had dinner with friends at the somewhat touristy, but still good, long-time Sarasota venue — Columbia. Founded in 1905, and according to their web site, the oldest restaurant in Florida, it is now managed by the fifth generation of the founding family. Columbia features authentic Cuban cuisine at several locations around Florida. We ate at the Longboat Key site and it’s a good thing we had a reservation because this place was mobbed! It’s a huge restaurant with tables spilling out onto the sidewalks full of customers enjoying signature mojitos and daiquiris (yours truly enjoyed the Tango Mango Daiquiri). 

Sea Foam Margarita - Fins
We ventured a bit outside the Sarasota area to meet friends for lunch on different occasions. One day, we soaked up the warmth in Venice Beach at Fins - a waterfront restaurant with a million dollar view. Loved the sea foam Margarita!

Another day while in the North Port area, we had a fabulous lunch at Nan’s Thai Noodle. The pork with Thai spicy noodles was killer! It’s in a nondescript strip mall and the restaurant has no atmosphere at all, but the food was outstanding.

Back to “serious” dining: all the top restaurant lists mention Indigenous. Owned by Chef Steve Phelps, he opened this restaurant in a beautifully restored home in 2011. The atmosphere is warm and comfortable, like having dinner in a friend's home. It’s a rather rambling house (again, with almost no lighting), and we were seated in the wine bar dining room, where our server also happened to be the bartender. Even though the bar and the other tables in this room were full, we never felt neglected. He answered questions about the menu and the evening’s specials, and guided us to a great wine choice. 
Cheese Crackers - Indigenous

Our waiter brought us a small basket with delicious cheese crackers as we pondered the menu (these reminded me of traditional Southern cheese straws). We both chose one of the soups for the first course and switched halfway through so we could try each of them. My favorite was the thick and creamy wild mushroom bisque with truffled rye croutons. Not far behind though, was the gazpacho with crunchy chickpeas, basil yogurt, and garam masala. This was so refreshing on a warm evening.
Pork Belly - Indigenous

For the main course, after much debate, my husband settled on the pork belly with white cheddar drop biscuit, tomato jam, Everglades hollandaise, and pickles. Tender, juicy, flavorful - probably the best pork belly we’ve had.
Thai Lamb Meatballs - Indigenous

My choice was the Thai lamb meatballs. Practically shouting with the bright flavors of lemongrass and ginger, subtly painted with garlic yogurt, and surrounded by marinated cucumbers, carrots, shallots, and basil, these were absolutely delicious. We enjoyed the dinner with a wonderful Italian red that complemented both dishes perfectly.

Our last dinner in Sarasota took us to Veronica Fish and Oyster - a very cool place in the Southside Village section of town. Their tagline is “a modern oyster bar with a nod to classic supper clubs of past.” From the warm greeting when you enter, to the attentive service from our wait person, it was a delightful evening. Of course, great drinks and delicious food must figure into that equation for a restaurant to be somewhere I would return to, and they did. 

Since we were in a  supper club of sorts, I thought I’d take a step back in time and try their whiskey sour. I’ve never been a whiskey drinker, but this one made with Templeton rye and citrus and served over ice, could make me a convert. This was a perfect sipping cocktail. 

Potato rolls - Veronica's
Dinner was a home run all the way through, beginning with the warm house made potato rolls served with sea salt butter. Think about the standard-issue potato rolls you might buy at the supermarket and ramp up their fluffy texture and yeasty flavor by about 100%. Slather on the perfectly spreadable sea salt butter. Then try not to eat all of them before your dinner comes. Good luck with that!

Fried Shrimp - Veronica's
Well, I didn’t eat ALL the potato rolls so I had room for my dinner, which was fabulous. Starting with the Szechuan fried shrimp with snow pea slaw and pickled pineapple. Light, crisp shrimp with a delightfully refreshing slaw and just-enough-tart pineapple to bring all the flavors together. A winner!

Gumbo - Veronica's
Given my (some would say) overeating of the aforementioned rolls, I opted for a smaller entree. The Chef’s Momma’s Chicken Gumbo with Andouille Sausage and Jasmine Rice had caught my eye weeks earlier when I was deep into restaurant planning. This rich, spicy soup brought me right back to traditional gumbos from the New Orleans area that I love.

Even though the desserts proffered sounded wonderful, and you know I am all about dessert, there was no way I could manage it. Next time!

This is owned by the Shore Diner team, but for my money and time, Veronica’s would be my choice between the two. 

All in all, a delicious, sunny week on Florida’s Gulf Coast! If you’ve been to the Sarasota area lately and want to share your restaurant finds, please leave a comment below. Until next time: eat well, stay warm, be happy.

Siesta Beach

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Bella Sicilia: Parte Sesta (part six) - Ristorante Duomo, Ragusa

Chocolates at Duomo
Happy New Year, dear readers, I hope you had a wonderful holiday season!

Well, here we are at the end of my Sicily travelogue. Writing this for you has helped me relive how beautiful this trip was. I saved something special for my last Sicily post: the extraordinary lunch we had at Ristorante Duomo in the charming hill town of Ragusa. I hope you enjoyed this virtual journey as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Helmed by Ciccio Sultana (chef/owner), Duomo is everything you might expect at a Michelin starred restaurant: exquisite food, gracious service, beautiful surroundings (a food stall in Singapore earned a Michelin star in 2016 so remember fabulous food can be found anywhere).

Terry and Chef Ciccio
As you may know, when I travel I spend a great deal of time researching food and restaurants at my destination, and Sicily was no different. To me this is not drudge work, I love reading about the foods and restaurants at our upcoming destinations. A search turned up many good possibilities in the area, including four Michelin starred locales in the 2017 guide. After deciding on Duomo, I asked our tour leader to make a lunch reservation for us, and that morning during a walking tour of the city, we happened to pass by the restaurant. To my delight, Chef Ciccio was outside making a phone call and he kindly took a picture with me. I’m sure it was no big deal to him, but it made my day!

The lunch menu at Duomo is prix fixe, and quite the bargain 
 I think. For 59 Euros, you get five courses (with a couple of extra surprises), and three glasses of wine/champagne. The full menu is below. From beginning to end, this lunch was outstanding, and must go on my “top five” list* of memorable meals.
bread basket

Duomo Lunch:

smoked swordfish
  • Smoked swordfish with cantaloupe melon salad and pistachio sauce, with an olive stuffed pistachio marzipan and mock pit
  • spaghettone
  • Homemade spaghettone with moresca sauce “taratata” with tuna bottarga and carrot cream
  • truffle ice cream
  • Sicilian scorzone truffle ice cream
  • amberjack
  • Amberjack with Hyblean caper blossom powder, “Fiore” black olives stuffed with Pizzuta d’Avola almond, green beans, smoked sauce
  • cannolo
  • Cannolo stuffed with Ragusa ricotta on lukewarm San Cono prickly pear soup served with Pizzuta d’Avola almond sorbet
  • Housemade chocolates

As I mentioned in Parte Due, one of my reasons for wanting to go to Sicily was to seek out any ancestral ties on my mother’s side. In corresponding with our trip leader, Alessio, before the trip, I told him that I was looking for connections to my mother’s family who had emigrated to the US from Palermo in the early 1900s. I told him the family name was Librizzi and perhaps he could help me research it when we got to Sicily. A short time later, Alessio responded that his wife’s maiden name is Li Brizzi, and he would be happy to introduce us. I nearly cried when I read that! What are the chances that our tour guide’s wife would have the same last name (albeit with a slightly different spelling) as my mother’s family? Pretty slim, I think. 

On our last evening in Palermo, Alessio invited the entire group to join him, his beautiful wife Cristina, and their two adorable boys for dinner.  I didn’t get to spend much time talking with Cristina, and most likely we are not related, but when Alessio said “no matter, we are “cugini" (cousins) and you will always have family here in Sicily,” I felt like the connection that I have always felt to this beautiful island was more real now than ever before. 

Ciao, bella Sicilia, fino al mio ritorno! (until I return).

* My “top five” (in no particular order):

Chez Panisse, Berkeley, CA
Vetri, Philadelphia, PA
Duomo, Ragusa, Sicily
Steireck, Vienna, Austria
The Lost Kitchen, Freedom, ME

Upcoming in early 2017: lunch at NYC's Bouley and the food scene in Sarasota, Florida! 

Stay warm, eat well, be happy!