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Food & wine: Hyde Park steakhouse sizzles! Plus super sushi at JPAN, a good deal at Rotten Ralph's, and Sarasota's best ice cream cone.

HYDE PARK PRIME STEAKHOUSE in downtown Sarasota is a practitioner of the art of team service. Our team of waiters on a recent visit constituted a comedy duo, but that detracted not one iota from their thorough knowledge of the menu and wine list, nor did the entertainment undermine alert and attentive service.

We were seated, at our request, in the comfortably clubby main dining room in a slightly elevated booth that maximized people-watching opportunities. There are smaller side dining rooms and they're cozy, but the big room, lorded over by a pair of monumentally voluptuous overhead light fixtures, is our first choice The bar is quite inviting, too, and serves an excellent menu of light bites and admirable martinis. Two happy hours on weekdays, early and late, constitute a double-barreled bargain.

We started with a couple of beautifully dry Grey Goose martinis (SI 1 each), hers with blue cheese stuffed olives and mine with the old-fashioned pimiento stuffed variety. For appetizers, Colette chose a quartet of the days oysters on the half shell ($10.50), while I opted for a bountiful steakhouse chopped salad ($8). The oysters were fresh and tangy fat Blue Points accompanied by a cocktail sauce enlivened with freshly shaved horseradish. The tasty salad tossed fresh greens, cheddar, hearts of palm, bacon tidbits, cuke, tomato and red onion in a creamy vinaigrette and was more than I could possibly manage.

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This is a good place to note that servings of everything here are more than generous, so be sure to accurately gauge your appetite or be prepared to take home the fixings for a delicious day-after lunch.

The steaks come a la carte, but there's a fine selection of sides on offer, most hovering in the $8 range and all enough to share. We were tempted by the potatoes gratin with Gruyere and the creamed spinach, which we had enjoyed on an earlier visit, but went instead for our all-time fave hash brown potatoes ($7.90) and a special that day, a yummy creamed corn with bacon and scallions (S8). The hash browns have changed a bit since opening day and now come in two crispy pancakes instead of one huge one, but thankfully they are still topped with sour cream and caramelized onions. What a treat!

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For the main event Colette plumped for the 18-ounce Kansas City bone-in strip steak ($37), a delicious monster grilled to a perfect medium rare. It was gorgeous on its own, but Colette gilded the lily with a side of creamy Bearnaise ($3) and was glad she did. I'm a fan of ribeye and so chose the 16-ounce wet-aged steak from the standing menu ($42), although on that day a dryaged version also was available for a premium of about $10. At our waiters suggestion, I ordered my medium-rare steak in a prep featuring roasted garlic cloves, garlic butter and sauteed mushrooms, which was powerfully good. In both cases the meat itself was exceptional and the embellishments well -thought-out complements.

We had to laugh when asked if we would like dessert, groaning as we were in carnivorous satiety.

And then there's the wine list, which must be a stunner at a prime steakhouse at this price point. Hyde Parks measures up, offering an excellent range of wines both modest and killer by the bottle and 40 selections by the glass. We chose a great steak wine, a Joel Gott Zinfandel from California ($45), and loved it.

SUSHI STARS AT JPAN

FOR SOME SUSHI HOUNDS, sushi means "give me the composed rolls and you can have the nigiri sushi [a lozenge of sticky rice draped with a piece of raw or cooked fish] and the sashimi [skip the rice]." At JPAN on Sarasota's South Trail, both tastes are amply rewarded.

The design of this little jewel of a restaurant is spare and clean. The prices are remarkably modest for such high-quality fare and service, which begins with a smile and a hot towel and is super friendly and attentive. You'll feel like a regular even on your first visit.

Although we started with a sampler of hot appetizers ($7) and enjoyed the shrimp and veggie tempura, the pork pot stickers and the fried spring rolls, our mouths were set and watering for sushi.

That portion of a varied menu of Japanese favorites is wonderfully abundant, with 22 tasty fish bites available as nigiri or sashimi and an amazing 34 JPAN specialty rolls, plus 14 rolls described as traditional and a handful of vegetarian rolls for good measure. Counting is not usually part of our critical approach, but you need to know that at JPAN there truly are many choices for every taste. It's a big part of the restaurants considerable charm.

We chose four favorites from the sushi list (two pieces per order), although we could have opted for three pieces of sashimi at the same price. Most of these delectables are priced in the $4 to $5 range, with the top end being uni (sea urchin) at $7. Fortunately for our pocketbook, sea urchin has always been too exotic for our taste. On the other hand, we adored the unagi (smoked eel), the little seaweed boats of massago (smelt roe), the escolar (also known as white tuna) and the hamachi (yellow tail) that we ordered. Every bite was perfection and as prettv as can be.

From the specialty rolls list we chose a red diamond roll ($9), which wrapped sticky sushi rice around a superb filling of spicy tuna, kani (crab), cucumber and scallops and garnished the whole with a dusting of red tobiko (flying fish roe). This roll is a stunner and not to be missed. We also sampled and very much liked the playfully named Godzilla roll ($11), this one also featuring spicy tuna but combining it with cooked asparagus, smoked eel and avocado. Appropriately, where the red diamond roll is delicate and a bit shy, the Godzilla roll is robust and in your face. Two different approaches, same happy result.

We accompanied our sushi with a clean and citrusy Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand's fabulous Marlborough region, bargain-priced at $24.

For fun, we treated ourselves to bowls of palate-cleansing green tea ice cream ($3) before strolling to our car eminently satisfied but not even remotely overstuffed.

GOOD DEAL [much greater than] ROTTEN RALPH'S

The place: Rotten Ralph's, on the Bridge Street Pier, Bradenton Beach, (941) 778-1604.

The fare: Does it really matter what's on the menu for breakfast, lunch or dinner when you're comfortably seated in the shade on a pier over the Intracoastal Waterway enjoying the sea breeze on a fine Florida day?

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The bottom line: For some it's a cliche, but for most of us Jimmy Buffett's Cheeseburger In Paradise is an anthem, if not the foundation, of a certain way of life. The cheeseburger at Rotten Ralph's will set you back $7, a small price to pay for admission to a little slice of heaven. It comes cooked to your order, plump and juicy, topped with a choice of four cheeses (make mine Swiss) and the prescribed lettuce and tomato, sided with the requisite French fried potatoes (or chips, if you dare deviate from the song's script). At lunch or dinner, a cold beer goes down smoothly as the pelicans glide by and the sea gulls attempt to talk you into handing over your burger.

What I'm Drinking The perfect poolside pitcher.

My friends, a wife and husband, both trust fund babies, can afford Bordeaux by the case, so it isn't a matter of stretching a dollar. 1 won't name them because the behavior I am about to report will be considered by many a grave offense against wine, perhaps even against civilization itself.

When the summer heat sets in and their shaded pool on the edge of Sarasota Bay calls to them, they suit up skimpily, collect hers-and- his Kindle e-readers and prepare to loll poolside. An indispensable part of their preparations is to seat a pretty pitcher on a bed of ice and into it slice half a lime. From the fridge come two bottles: one of a good quality club soda and one of a moderately priced rose. For the sake of argument, lets sav its a Crios de Susana Balbo Rose of Malbec from Argentina. (Forgive me, Ms. Balbo.)

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Some of you may wish to avert your eyes as we watch them fill the chilled pitcher half and half with wine and soda producing a pretty pale pink sparkler some might call a wine cooler. Thev swear bv this concoction. It is marvelously refreshing, they say and keeps them cool as they read or swim or snooze in the breezy shade. What s more, they assert that it tickles the nose and the tongue and yields a pleasantly mild buzz, so that it can be drunk without worry over the course of a long summer afternoon.

I am not condoning their behavior. I'm just reporting it.

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 Tampa Bay Times.

HYDE PARK PRIME STEAKHOUSE

35 S. Lemon Ave., Sarasota

Reservations: (941) 366-7788

Hours: dinner 5-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, until 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, until 9 p.m. Sunday; bar opens at 4 p.m. daily

Cards: all major

Handicapped accessible: yes

Parking: complimentary valet or on street

THE VERDICT

Aged steaks and chops star on an unabashedly traditional menu in this clubby downtown showplace. Cocktails and wines keep pace nicely, yielding satisfying evenings for the carnivores among us.

JPAN RESTAURANT

3800 S. Tamiami Trail (in Paradise Plaza), Sarasota

Phone: (941) 954-5726

Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday, dinner 5-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, until 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Cards: all major

Handicapped accessible: yes

Parking: ample in lot

RELATED ARTICLE: SARASOTA'S BEST: ICE CREAM

BY MEGAN MCDONALD

The scoop on the tastiest cones in town.

With nominations from our 4.800 Facebook fans and judging help from food blogger ("Sticky Gooey Creamy Chewy") Susan Fiison, we set aside our better judgment and headed to five of Sarasota's ice cream shops to find the best scoop in town.

BEST OVERALL

Anna Maria's Joe's Eats and Sweets7 vanilla ice cream was luxuriously smooth, custard-like, and tasted of real vanilla. We tried it in a waffle bowl that was properly crisp. "It was all homemade, and you could tell," said Filson.

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BEST REPRESENTATION Of A CLASSIC: Kilwin's butter pecan ice cream, with big chunks of toasted pecans and deep buttery flavor with just a hint of maple, nearly stole our hearts for the winning title, though we may have been influenced by the tantalizing aroma of sweet treats that enticed us through the door.

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BEST SPECIALTY FLAVOR: Abel's spumoni consists of layers of cherry, pistachio and chocolate ice cream that are peppered with almonds and a blend of candied fruits. "It's like an Italian pastry, with a cherry on top," said Filson.

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BEST KIDDIE CREATION: Tyler's Homemade Ice Cream's Creamy Goodness flavor, a whirl of chocolate ice cream, Oreo cookies and marshmallow cream, would send any youngster to heaven.

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BEST BALANCE OF FLAVOR: Big Oiaf Creamery's kahlua crunch is the perfect combination of sweet, kahlua-flavored ice cream and salty mocha chips. "Salt always accentuates sweet," said associate editor Hannah Wallace.

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"You mean there are ice cream shops other than Olafs?! Who knew?"

- JULIE JOHNSON PAULETTO IN RESPONSE TO OUR FACEBOOK QUESTION ABOUT SARASOTA'S BEST ICE CREAM
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Author:Bancroft, John
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Article Type:Restaurant review
Date:Jun 22, 2012
Words:1942
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