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Belgian seduction: great frites and other treats at Brasserie Belge, plus dining drama at DaRuMa and good pizza cheap at Whole Foods.

I IT'S ALWAYS A PLEASURE TO WELCOME A NEW STAR INTO THE FIRMAMENT of terrific restaurants that line Sarasota's food-fabulous Main Street. This time the newcomer is a very fine Belgian restaurant and bar, Brasserie Beige. It shares a courtyard with another of our favorites, Mediterraneo, across the street from the Hollywood 20 cineplex.

The brasserie took over the space once occupied by Buddha Belly Donuts and transformed it into an inviting urban watering hole. There are tables outside on the patio as well as inside near the handsome bar and in a curvaceous red room lined on one wall with a comfy banquette. You can dine at the bar, too.

Before we get to the outstanding list of mostly Belgian beers and ales and the signature mottles frites, a word about the mayonnaise in which one is invited to go native and dip the superior Belgian--not French, please--fries. For one thing it's homemade, and second, it really brings out the full savor of the crisp yet tender fries.

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I think you will be happy if you try it. If not, your waiter will graciously replace Belgium's preferred dip with ketchup.

The frites themselves come with several dishes, but perhaps most gloriously with main course moules frites ($18 to $22, depending on prep), a big steaming pot of perfectly fresh and tender little mussels steamed in your choice of a celery, onion and butter broth, in a creamy garlic sauce, simply in white wine, or done Provencale style with fresh tomatoes and basil spiked with pastis, the French anise-flavored liqueur.

The latter prep ($22) is the one Colette chose on our recent visit, and I feared she might swoon at first sniff, let alone first bite. The aroma of about two pounds of gemlike mussels in their open shells aswim in a delightfully fragrant bath was heady, indeed. The way-better-than-average fries came in a paper cone on the side and went wonderfully with the shellfish. If you have a smaller appetite, there's an appetizer portion, too ($8 to $13).

To go with the moules, Colette wisely chose a Belgian pale ale so concentrated and nuanced as to rival the luscious red Cotes du Rhone ($7) that I chose. Her bottled Orval Trappist Ale ($12.50) explains why Belgian ales and Trappist monks are so admired around the world. The bar offers many choices in the bottle as well as several choices on tap, including my old fave Stella Artois.

Now, let's back up to starters. Colette opted for carpaccio ($9.50) and was as happy as a little girl with the perhaps less than obvious choice in a Belgian restaurant. The thinly sliced raw beef was rosy and full-flavored and superbly complemented by generous shavings of good Parmesan cheese and fresh basil.

Across the table I enjoyed a more likely choice in the form of fondus au fromage, or cheese croquettes ($6). Two of the lightly battered and golden crisp lozenges were overstuffed with creamy white cheese and were thoroughly satisfying. If you prefer to share an appetizer, this is a fine choice.

While Colette purred over the mussels, I wallowed in the homey pleasure of onglet a lechallote, or hanger steak in red wine and shallot sauce ($15.50), a twist on the French bistro staple steak frites. The bargain cut of meat is among the most flavorful to grace a plate (be sure to slice across the grain), either in the more austere French version, often served either naked or with a pat of herb butter, or the richly sauced Belgian version. This is one of my favorite simple meals, and both the steak and the fries at Brasserie Beige were absolutely first-rate. I'll be back for more, and Colette definitely will order the mussels again.

We were thoroughly satisfied but, because ours was a working dinner and we honor the obligation to sample widely when working, we ordered desserts. (What won't we do for science?)

Colette's mousse au chocolat Belge ($6) was further testimony to Belgium's gastronomic chops, this time the excellence of its chocolatiers. I went for the more lavish crepes mikado ($7), which pairs two light and toothsome crepes, stuffs them with scoops of vanilla ice cream and sauces the whole extravagant confection in more of that wonderful warm Belgian chocolate. Yum.

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DINING WELL AT DARUMA There's a good reason why our readers consistently rate DaRuMa Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Lounge among the city's best dining destinations: The food, service and setting are all thoroughly enjoyable. Whether you choose to sit at the attractive sushi bar, at a traditional table or booth, or around the table-sized flat-top grills where high-hatted teppan chefs wield cutlery with unnerving aplomb, you'll have the best seat in the house.

The restaurant, named after the sage who long ago spread Zen Buddhism far and wide, integrates its varied service and cooking styles seamlessly. We chose a quiet booth for two at which we sampled from the superb sushi menu, the teppan grill and the kitchen, which for us was just right.

We started our evening with a really good deal from a list of $5 appetizers. What we got for $10 were not scaled-down portions or pale imitations of real starters but rather five superb gyoza, those heavenly little pan-seared dumplings stuffed with pork and veggies, and a full-sized and delectable spicy tuna roll with the expected trimmings. We were impressed and think you will be, too. Plenty of other hot and cold starters are available at a wide range of prices.

Meals--whether petite entrees, bigger combination boxes, or sushi platters--come with a superior miso soup with plenty of tender tofu cubelets and greens and a refreshing green salad with the ginger dressing familiar to habitue's of sushi bars everywhere.

Colette's sushi dinner, Maguro Delight ($19.95), was a stunner and a bargain at the price. It paired five absolutely gorgeous raw tuna filets draped artfully over lozenges of seasoned rice plus her choice of spicy tuna roll (which we had already sampled) or the aptly named dynamite roll. A lovely single orchid blossom graced the plate, and in addition to wasabi, thin-sliced ginger and soy, a nifty peanut dipping sauce came along for the ride. Absolutely first-rate in every particular.

I opted for a combination box pairing deep-fried tempura shrimp with grilled New York strip steak sliced and served in a semi-sweet teriyaki sauce ($25.95). Both were very good and the accompaniments were equally good: steamed broccoli and cauliflower florets, a dab of tangy seaweed salad and steamed rice with veggies. Most satisfying.

DaRuMa Japanese Steak-house & Sushi Lounge

5459 Fruitville Road in Sarasota Crossings Center, Sarasota

Reservations: (941) 342-6600

Full bar, Japanese beers, wine and sake

Hours: 5-10 p.m., 7 days

Cards: all major

Handicapped accessible: yes

Parking: shopping center parking lot

Brasserie Belge

1990 Main St., Sarasota

Reservations: (941) 706-1944

Full bar, excellent Belgian beer and ale list, wines by the glass

Hours; 11 a.m.-1 a.m. (kitchen closes at midnight), 7 days Cards: all major

Handicapped accessible: yes

Parking: free in attached garage entered from Ringling Boulevard

WHAT I'M DRINKING

PEOPLE CELEBRATED OR CRIED for all sorts of reasons after the fall of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, but wine lovers have special reason to rejoice: Franco's death in 1975 signaled the rebirth of the centuries-old but by then stagnant Spanish wine industry.

Nowhere is that renaissance more evident than in the Rueda denomination of origin, where the tough but ebullient verdejo grape has come gloriously into its own over the past few decades.

This grape now produces a very modern, clean and crisp white wine sold in this country at a highly attractive price, making it a perfect summer sipper as well as an admirable food wine.

One that is readily available here--I picked it up at Whole Foods Market downtown for $10.99--is the 2009 Naia Rueda Verdejo from Bodegas Naia, whose stony, high and dry vineyards are strung along the hilly left bank of the Duero River.

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Its nose is very light, yielding barely a hint of herbs and meadow flowers. But right up front this wine unleashes a tsunami of harmonious flavors dominated by grapefruit, white peach and green grass with a zingy lime kicker. Peach is big through the mid-palate, and a sniff" of white pepper chimes in on the medium-long ultraclean finish. The effect is refreshing verging on bracing, making this verdejo a superb palate cleanser. Drink it well chilled by itself or pair it with cold tapas or chilled shellfish.

what Naia Rueda Verdejo from Spain price $10.99

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GOOD DEAL

A classic cheese slice of pizza at a great price at Whole Foods.

The Place: Whole Foods Market, 1451 First St., Sarasota; (941) 955-8500.

The Fare: We're zeroing in on one item in one location in this dazzling foodie theme park of a market: cheese pizza.

The Drill: If you're doing your weekly shopping, you'll be good and hungry by the time you reach the prepared foods area at the south end of the store. If you're popping in for lunch, detour past the juice cold case for something wholesome en route.

The Bottom Line: Our pick from among many tasty lunch possibilities, including a food bar, a bountiful cooked food counter and sushi packaged to go, is the pizza that comes from an open-fire oven beginning at about 10:30 each morning. There usually are several varieties, including a super Margherita, but we're focusing here on the classic cheese slice, glorious in its simplicity: good cheeses, good sauce and admirable crust all kissed by fire. The cheese slice has been "on sale" for as long as I can remember at $1.99, and I've probably eaten my weight in them over the past couple of years. If juice is not for you, there's a coffee bar as well as a case near checkout with individual bottles of beer. Don't forget to nab some napkins on your way to one of the very agreeable sidewalk tables out front.

An editor, writer and online publisher, John Bancroft has reviewed restaurants, books, movies and music for many magazines, websites and newspapers, most recently for the St. Petersburg Times.
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Title Annotation:FOOD & WINE
Author:Bancroft, John
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Article Type:Restaurant review
Date:May 1, 2011
Words:1708
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