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Strip dining.

Between the grocery and the video store, you can find some fine Sarasota restaurants.

Shopping centers may not be the most glamorous spots to dine, but more and more restaurants, lured by the acres of free parking and steady flow of customers, are setting up shop between the video store and the Publix. Here's how some newcomers and old favorites manage to stand out from the crowd.

Gecko's Grill and Pub in The Landings recently opened and was attracting enough diners to keep the restaurant busy even on the August weeknight we visited. A problem for the former tenants was that the space was just too small for the scale of the furnishings. Gecko's owners have fixed that by knocking out a wall and the banquettes to add square footage. Decor is still minimal, unless you count several television sets for the loners at the bar and the new fluorescent lights.

The menu has a California/grazers' appeal. But be forewarned, appetizers -- as in most of these shopping center eateries -- are so large they'd take the edge off the appetite of a hungry horde or, at the very least, provide dinner for two. Take the Gecko's super platter, a combination of lightly breaded and fried chicken fingers (actually, the chicken tender), overstuffed potato skins filled with real bacon and cheese, fried mozzarella and a mass of crispy fries. Calamari is also included but was luckily unavailable, since sensational blackened mahi-mahi fingers were substituted. It all comes with several sauces, and each of the items is available individually for less than the $7.95 charged for the platter.

Homemade soups and chili, salads, including a crisp Caesar with real croutons, sandwiches, chicken grills ranging from sandwiches to kebabs, burgers, pasta and nightly specials round out the loaded menu. It's tough for a chef to maintain quality with a list as large and varied as Gecko's but, judging from a wide range of sampling, Gecko's has a pro at its range.

A pasta dish called Chicken Rich was nothing short of sensational, with a fresh-tasting tomato sauce that really did contain basil, moist and flavorful breast of chicken, black olives and artichoke hearts tossed with al dente linguini in a portion large enough to take home leftovers. Quesadillas stuffed with cheddar, bacon and minced grilled chicken with a tomato and red pepper salsa were wonderful, and an enormous filet of blackened mahi-mahi on a burger bun needed a knife and fork to handle its girth. A cheeseburger was big but boring; choose the tasty coleslaw for your side instead of the mayonnaise-drenched pasta salad. Gecko's menu offers two desserts, a brownie with ice cream and chocolate sauce or key lime pie. But if you've grazed through Gecko's menu, I dare you to order either.

J.J. Starbuck's Silver Bullet Saloon in Pelican Plaza is enormous, a common reason why restaurants fail. It's tough to turn the tables enough times to pay for the air conditioning, let alone pay the employees and make a profit. But this one may win where others have failed, thanks to a lively Western theme complete with country music and an accent on steaks.

A large central bar separates the smoking and non-smoking areas of the restaurant and a bandstand and dance floor are used for late night entertainment. Tables lined up in symmetrical rows offer no privacy. Starbuck's is not a place to dally over dinner. But the chairs are comfortable and the food above average. When we've visited, service was enthusiastic, but uninformed.

This menu offers interesting appetizers, including a smoked salmon plate with bagel chips, cream cheese, red onions and capers or fried cheese with prosciutto. Nachos should be called Mexican pizza: fried tortilla quarters topped with excellent beanless chili, melted cheese and lots of jalapeno peppers substitute for a stack of chips. Sour cream, pureed avocado and a salsa accompany this filling appetizer. Self-help salads full of greens, tomatoes and broccoli are scaled to the number of diners at the table and dressings are served individually. A honey ranch spiked with liquid smoke was a pleasant change. Honey laced the butter served for the crispy, hot sourdough rolls, too.

Prices for the appetizers and entrees are reasonable -- a grilled tuna steak is $10. The best steaks to order in these moderately priced restaurants are the New York strip or a filet; T-bone and porterhouse have much of their weight in the bone, so you end up with a thin slab of meat that can't be charred and served rare. We discovered that with our 20-ounce Kansas City porterhouse; still, it was tender and redolent with the flavor of the grill.

Two large, loin pork chops were moist and wonderfully smoky. A heavily battered fried cinnamon apple accompanied them. Barbecued ribs were equally pleasing. Starbuck's is another restaurant where I defy you to eat dessert after a dinner. But sweets are there if they make your meal complete. You'll find the standard key lime pie, cheesecake and ice cream, including Ben and Jerry's flavors.

Also in Pelican Plaza is Danny Wong's, a place that's proven its staying power. Along with an appealing menu of good Chinese food, you'll find a host who is genuinely glad you chose his establishment from the hundreds of local possibilities.

My favorite place for ribs has moved from a freestanding restaurant with an overcrowded parking lot to a shopping center with plenty of room for cars. Alday's is now at Beneva Plaza, and judging from the lunch bunch crowds on several occasions, nothing has been lost in the transition. Although I've sampled most of the offerings at Alday's -- and it's all better than average -- I can't pass up the pork ribs. Pair them with the seasoned fries, a side of slaw or smoky baked beans and a slab of grilled bread and I'm in hog heaven. For the record, though, Alday's offers all your smoked favorites: chicken parts, shredded pork or shredded chicken and turkey. I don't know about dessert; I never want anything more than a final sip of iced tea after an Alday feast.

Beneva Plaza is also home to a successful spot for Italian pub-style foods, Shaner's. This serviceable restaurant is owned by baseball player, Shane Rawley, hence decor is baseball memorabilia. Shaner's is the place to go for Philadelphia-style calzone, bursting with cheese, tomato and sausage. The pizza's good, too, even if it's cut into squares rather than wedges. For fare with a less ethnic bent, there's also a variety of sandwiches and salads and daily specials.

New to some, but not to Surfrider fans, is the recently opened Javier's in Crescent Plaza on Siesta Key, a location that must hold the record for percentage of space occupied by restaurants. Besides Javier's, there's the immensely popular City Pizza and another fine dining spot, Miguel's. Javier Arana is the inspired owner of this new namesake and the Surfrider, a few blocks north on the key. He's from Peru by way of New Orleans; hence dirty rice and deftly seasoned Peruvian chicken, laced with tomatoes and red wine, appear on the same plate. Blackening is another skill he learned in New Orleans, and a favorite entree of mine is his blackened shrimp or scallops on a bed of cream-laced fettucine. I also love his moist and meaty rack of lamb, though other friends insist on fish when they visit Javier's.

Appetizers are exciting at Javier's. My favorite is the Siesta sampler, delicate shrimp cakes with blackened scallops and a taste of two soups. Soups are the mark of a great kitchen and they excel at Javier's. Perfect for steamy nights is the gazpacho or cold leek and potato; best of the hot is the creamy saffron-laced corn chowder.

Desserts change daily, but Javier is always willing to whip up a zabaglione for fresh berries; it's perfect for ending one of this talented restaurateur's dinners. Locals turn up for Javier's sunset specials, served from 5 to 6:30 p.m., when a complete menu featuring signature dishes is $9.95. Regardless of when you go, you'll find Javier (and his staff) to be among the most skilled restaurant professionals on Florida's west coast.
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Title Annotation:Sally Says; restaurants in Sarasota shopping malls
Author:Fine, Sally
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Article Type:Column
Date:Nov 1, 1992
Previous Article:Siesta Key shopping.
Next Article:Ringling school's most excellent adventure.

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