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Since you asked ...

What's new? Where's sushi? Who grills the best steak in town? Restaurant critic Sally Fine's frank answers to questions about dining out in Sarasota.

One man's oyster is another's abomination, but that doesn't keep friends and readers from besieging me with questions about dining out in Sarasota. They don't always agree with my answers, and they've told me so in more than one irate letter or morning-after phone call. That's okay; controversy comes with the job, as I've learned in nearly 20 years of writing about Sarasota food and restaurants. But despite occasional disagreements and culinary disappointments, it's a job I find more delicious every year, thanks to the growing number of creative restauranteurs and gifted chefs who call this city home.

But enough about me. What you really want to know is...

Where can I dazzle out-of-towners with a spectacular view?

For beautiful city views that include lots of water, try Nick's, the Top of The Quay or the Royal Marine Ballroom. For a more tranquil scene, visit Ophelia's on Siesta Key; the restaurant faces a peaceful lagoon teeming with wildlife including tame gray herons that thrive on gourmet leavings from the kitchen. At the Beach Bistro on Anna Maria Island, the waves seem to lap against the floor of the building, and there's nothing between diners and the sky except the lovely Gulf of Mexico. The Colony on Longboat Key offers a similar view. The stylish dining room and sandy beach is peopled with out-of-towners, red from too much sun and sore from lobbing tennis balls. For a look at bayside living, the Phillippi Creek Village Oyster Bar offers tranquil views of the creek, the docks, and flocks of begging seagulls (which you are asked not to feed). It's rustic Florida at its best. And for a look at Intracoastal traffic, there's no better spot than Coaster's at the Stickney Point bridge, where craft line up to await the scheduled bridge openings. Boat watchers will also enjoy Marina Jack's dining room overlooking a dock where the craft (and crew in skimpy bathing attire) are often spectacular. Finally, The Chart House on New Pass offers a comfortable dining room with sweeping views of the Pass and the shimmering Gulf beyond.

Where can I rub elbows with celebrities?

The Colony on Longboat Key is a haunt for politicos as well as entertainment types. Sandy Duncan is a regular; so are the Smothers Brothers. Cafe L'Europe is a favorite dining spot of the rich and famous and, for a slightly different type of celebrity, visit Shaner's, a local sports pub owned by Shane Rawley who pitched for the Yankees and the Phillies.

What about kosher restaurants?

Sorry, no milchedig or flayshedig eateries yet. But for a close second, try the New York Deli, where the corned beef is cooked on the premises, or Nellie's Deli where the chopped liver is like Mama's. If it really must be kosher, Morton's Market carries a line of frozen kosher foods.

Bagels and lox?

My favorite is the Bagel Inn, where the hectic scene behind the counter is reminiscent of a New York deli. Their best bagel is onion, but salt or poppyseed are winners, too. Raisin bagels are just too goyish for me! Bagel Inn also stocks adequate smoked salmon and chubby, moist and delicious chubs, as well as a full line of other deli delights.

How about sushi and sashimi?

Sarasota has gone from being a veritable wasteland of Japanese food to having an abundance of choices; but if you thought that all temperamental chefs were French, guess again. The best sushi and sashimi is at Yoshino downtown in Burns Court, but be forewarned: Paul Yoshizawa is a mercurial chef who has good and bad days. On good days, he's delightful; and on bad days, he's just plain awful. His sushi, however, is always nonpareil. At Kyoto on Main Street, the atmosphere is always serene. Jo-To on the North Trail also has good sushi and sashimi.

Are there any Vietnamese restaurants?

No, but there are three good Thai restaurants. At Bangkok, the roasted duck is luscious and the curry sauces thicker than usual, a plus on my plate. My favorite is the red curry with potatoes and onions with shrimp or chicken. Pad Thai is a winner at Siam Orchid, and the Thai barbecued chicken is a close runner-up. And on the North Trail, is the first, and many believe, still the best, Chada Thai, where the whole fish is hauntingly delicious.

What's available for vegetarians?

The Wildflower is a perennial favorite with the veggie and tofu crowd, but insiders are flocking to both Fandango's. The one on Siesta serves wonderful breakfasts in addition to a menu of Middle Eastern favorites. On Hillview, the extra feature is classic Indian fare. Much of this cuisine is vegetarian. Try the okra in curry sauce or, if it's available, saag paneer. And for the non-vegetarian, beg for the vindaloo, maybe the best I've ever had in this country! And although I haven't tried them, Guadalajara advertises vegetarian menu items.

What about for those nights we want to lose ourselves in a crowd?

The Patio Bar at the Columbia features music by Omni and a sophisticated crowd. On the south side of town there's the Whisper Inn. Brenton's Reef draws a young crowd in the bar as does Coley's on lower Main. Equally popular is the Downunder Jazz Bar in the Quay where the young and beautiful can be seen dancing the night away.

What's good for after a show?

Convenient for Longboat Key residents is the recently opened dessert room and lounge at Euphemia Haye, where Ray and Darcy Arpke now offer desserts without dinner. It's perfect for cognac and coffee or samples of the kitchen's sublime sweets, including crepes and such flaming favorites as bananas Foster. Nearer town is Beasley's, where the kitchen stays open late and desserts as well as more substantial late night fare are always satisfying. On the Circle, try Cafe New Orleans for beignets and coffee. Then there's Caffe Classico on the South Trail, where you can enjoy great gelato and a cup of intense and aromatic espresso.

Where can I find pretty surroundings?

The classy Chophouse Grille in Sarasota Quay has an assortment of dining rooms with living room appeal. Getting there is part of the show. You leave the car with the valet and ride the escalator past seahorses and bubbling waterfalls to the upper level shopping and dining area of the Quay. Michael's on East offers a smartly garbed, well-trained staff in a stylish contemporary setting. The Summerhouse on Siesta Key is one of the prettiest restaurants anywhere, designed so that each table is a private haven overlooking the luxurious gardens. At Cafe L'Europe on St. Armands, the warm, rosy brick walls, the banks of flowers and soft lighting make everyone look and feel beautiful. I also like Pompano Cay at the Hyatt, where the waterside view, the rosewood entry floor, the high ceilings and the tropical fabrics create an atmosphere of tropical luxury. The Chart House makes this list, too, primarily because of the intelligent arrangement of tables in the dining rooms and the wonderful sculpture.

Where can we find the pizza of our dreams?

Here's an ever-expanding subject. Let's just hit two new places. The Italian Oven below Sarasota Square has an oak-fired oven and a machine that squishes the pizza dough into a gossamer-thin shell that bakes up crisp. Chose a tony topping like pesto and cheese or a trusty standby like sausage and pepper. California pizzas are a hit at Augie's Front Burner, where the fresh jalapeno pizza is searingly sensational.

Is there any sturdy, middle-European food around?

If you want to take the fixings home for a rib-sticking meal, visit Geier's, a market south of Gulf Gate. The sausages are freshly made and wonderful. Karl Ehmer's also stuffs a lot of skins; you can eat in their restaurant or cook at home. The Vienna Waltz recently moved to larger quarters in Bradenton Beach (try the dumplings or the smashed potato salad appetizer). Nearer to home is an often-overlooked treasure, Cafe Vienna behind Gulf Gate Mall, where Continental service and wonderful food lure me back for many a lunch and dinner. In fact, it's one of the best luncheon spots in the area.

What about California fare?

Sarasota has its share of these inquisitive chefs whose experiments can flirt with disaster but often yield captivating successes. Ophelia's comes immediately to mind. Chef Charlie Brown did his time at Mustard's in California and continues to challenge palates here. Pair him with the equally talented co-chef Dennis Cronin and the result: to-swoon-for grilled salmon with ancho chili butter, bourbon- and molasses-glazed pork chops, fruit salsas, ethereal desserts. Tied with this daring duo is Jeannie Pirola, who owns Tia Lena. Oh, how I wish it were closer than Bradenton Beach; her charred chateaubriand for one, the trio of soups appetizer and the various fish preparations are things that sweet dreams are made of. Her Cuban heritage creeps into the cuisine, in creations like the award-winning pepper-enhanced turkey sausage served with aromatically spiced turkey breast. Or how about a creme brulee rich with the flavor of mango?

What do you consider the best Italian around?

Too many of the Italian restaurants in this area are little more than adequate, with menus overloaded with tired, unimaginative dishes. But pick and choose, and you'll find some worth sampling. Downtown, Bellini's offers pleasant atmosphere and luscious grilled veal chops. Ristorante La Terrazza has great gnocchi and minestrone. The foccaccia is yeasty and delicious and the pasta dishes authentic but unimaginative at Bradenton's Piccirilli's. Nick's on The Water has good veal, and Primo's oak-grilled Maine lobster and pastas are wonderful. Cafe Baci, where the home-made mozzarella with basil and tomatoes lures diners with its siren song, was voted best new restaurant in our annual "Best of the Best" contest; and Siesta Key's Bella Roma gets good marks for its pasta with seafood and straticella. Caragiulo's on South Palm has the look of New York's Village trattorias and good pizza. For the very best, however, visit Casa Italia, an Italian grocery, and take home the fixings for your own feast.

Forget about what's trendy. I want a great steak.

I like the Santa Fe Steakhouse's New York strip steak. Ordered black and blue, it arrives perfectly done with a sumptuous beef flavor, and the price is easy on the digestion. Try their salt-coated baked potatoes, too. For a splurge, visit The Colony; the steaks are brought in from The Palm restaurant in New York. Guests often overlook steak at the Chophouse Grille because of the innovative menu, but try one of their aged, oak-grilled, mouth-watering and delicious beauties.

How about Chinese food?

Like most small cities in the United States, Sarasota now had a wealth of neighborhood Chinese restaurants, usually mom and pop operations that can sate a palate hungry for the foreign tastes of this flavorful cuisine. (Among the best: Ho Ho, the Dragon and Shang-Hai.) My favorite, long before I formed a catering partnership with May Lee, one of the restaurant's owners, is China Palace in Bradenton. I'm happiest there, whether it's with a kitchen lunch of pork rib trimmings stewed in black beans or a banquet dish like lobster in a hot pot with cellophane noodles.

What do you like in Mexican?

We're lucky to have several good spots. You can go upscale at downtown's Guadalajara, while El Adobe is a great place to take the kids. So is Cafe Campestre on Bee Ridge, where the salsa verde and taco chips are the best in town. The Tex Mex Cafe in Gulf Gate and in a new location, also at 17th and Honore, has devotees, too.

Any place where they know how to cook game?

Because it's low in fat and cholesterol, game is cropping up on many menus but for a spot that specializes, Carmichael's is a must. Chef David Sprowles has a creative imagination that elevates dining to an exquisite high. Antelope is a favorite, as are quail and other game birds. You never know what's on the changing menu; just put yourself in David's capable hands and you'll be swept away. Only, make certain it has a sauce, for his are intense and memorable.

What about a decent Continental restaurant?

We have several where traditional European fare is available. Each reflects the personality and training of its owners. The Bijou is owned an Irishman and a man from South Africa. They met at Euphemia Haye and eventually yielded to a burning desire for their own restaurant. Their menu at the Bijou is classic, but there are grace notes from the pantry of each of the owners. Shrimp piri piri is a devilishly hot South African treat, while a pate of duck and chicken livers is classic in style but innovatively served in a Granny Smith apple. This duo's annual Nouveau Beaujolais dinner is a must for anyone who loves food and wine; I suggest you get your name on the mailing list, now.

Roessler's Flight Deck is owned by Klaus Roessler, who trained in Europe before journeying to New Orleans, where he worked at Commander's Palace and eventually opened restaurants for the Brennans in Texas. Finally, he yielded to the lure of his own restaurant. Everything is fresh in Klaus' kitchen, so Dover sole or venison are available only in season. While the sole is classically prepared, the venison may appear as a gumbo or with a Cajun sauce, reflecting his years in New Orleans. Sweetbreads are properly prepared and roasted; veal shank accompanied by pearls of white marrow is sublime. Desserts are a "don't miss," and the wine list is reasonably priced and intelligently chosen. The butcher-apron clad dining room staff is trained in European style and doesn't miss a cue, even when the restaurant is filled.

Siesta Key has several restaurants owned by Spaniards, each boasting a menu that could be called Continental. Miguel's is the most classic, with rack of lamb and a variety of veal dishes on its menu. The Inn Between has a similar menu, but it offers rustic fare, too, like braised lamb shanks and osso buco. Try the fried calamari as an appetizer -- it's the best in town. So are the potato croquettes and as a special order, the paella. Nearby is the Surfrider. Even though the owner is from Peru, there are no purple potatoes on the menu. There are lots of innovative dishes, including a great pasta with blackened shrimp and luscious soups. The corn chowder is hauntingly delicious.

Where's the best place to grab a sandwich?

Anna's on Siesta Key is legendary for its combination sandwiches. My favorite is liverwurst and onion with cole slaw and Swiss cheese. Nellie's Deli on Webber is the other hot spot for quick lunches, hearty, homemade soups and mile-high sandwiches, all at reasonable prices.

What we want when we come to Sarasota is marvelous seafood.

So do we all, but it's harder to find than you might think. Here are the things fishy I most trust in this town's seafood spots: steamed mussels and in-the-shell shrimp, raw clams and oysters at The Phillippi Creek Village Oyster Bar. Any fried fish at Walt's, and the seafood chowder. Any of the fresh seafood at Coaster's where the sauces often elevate the fish above the ordinary and the gumbo is addicting. And at some restaurants not known strictly for seafood (Ophelia's, the Colony, the Flight Deck) the fish can be an inspired choice.

What about stick-to-the-ribs comfort food?

Sarasota has a wealth of Amish restaurants, probably the best place for meat loaf, mashed potatoes and all that memory food. The newest one is Dutch Haas, where overflowing plates of food assure doggie bags for even the heartiest appetite. Don't miss the cereal bowls full of fruit cobblers for dessert; blackberry is my favorite, warmed just to the point that the vanilla ice cream on top becomes a chilly sauce. And for a real bargain, try Kissin' Cousins across from the hospitals.

I wake up in the night and think about barbecue.

Head to Hickory Hollow in Ellenton. Even a vegetarian can dine well on corn on the cob, corn souffle, sugar peas, black-eyed peas and an array of starches including macaroni and cheese and great hush puppies. Pork ribs are my destiny at the Hollow, but any of the barbecues can be called the best around. One of the oldest spots in town is the Old Hickory near the museum, where lunch is the best bargain in town with a complete chicken dinner with half a chicken for under $4. I also enjoy their steak with grilled onions and the ribs, but remember to ask for the sauce on the side.
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Title Annotation:Sarasota, FL restaurants
Author:Fine, Sally
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Previous Article:Life in the slow lane.
Next Article:Signs of life.

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