Restaurants with staying power are owned by pros who are constantly gauging culinary trends, refining menus and changing with their patrons' changing tastes. Maureen's, a four-year old gourmet restaurant on Longboat Key, is owned and operated by two professionals who know how to keep things fresh. Steve (the chef) and Maureen (front of the house) operate in two locations-Longboat Key and Wildwood, New Jersey, the location of their summer restaurant.
When the Horns returned to Florida this fall, they renamed their restaurant Maureen's Palm Grille. The change reflects a more relaxed, bistro-like attitude. The dining room is still stunningly sophisticated in a restrained, big-city way. And the martini bar has retained its many offerings because customers here are crazy about odd and traditional martinis as well as those cute containers they come in. But the menu has expanded to include chicken and dumplings, braised short ribs, burgers and crabcake sandwiches-though it still includes such old favorites as the osso buco, bouillabaisse and the Vermont salad.
The biggest change is breakfast. The Horns are serving it. Eat inside or, better yet, choose an umbrella table out on the stone floor patio that used to display artwork from neighboring Corbino Galleries. Now a single statue in the garden is surrounded by glass-top tables and plastic side chairs. Settle back with the newspaper and order from a breakfast menu that is truly one of the best to be found on or off the island.
Russian eggs ($9.50), a turn on eggs Benedict using smoked salmon, Hollandaise and caviar, is a huge favorite and deserves to be. It's served with Lyonaisse home fries. You could also opt for the traditional eggs Benedict, sausage and biscuits, a shrimp omelet or one made with roasted mushroom and goat cheese. Steve's favorite omelet ($7.50) is a crepe-like egg stuffed with smoked salmon, red onions and tomatoes. It's crowned with sour cream and dill. Rich but light.
If you've got a sweet tooth that needs filling at breakfast time, try French toast made with challah ($6.25) or a stuffed version with banana, cream cheese and strawberries. Butter and warm syrup send this thick confection into a dizzying stratosphere of sweet indulgence. Purists may order two eggs any style with toast; if they wish to get risqué, Fontani sausage, Virginia ham, or applewood smoked bacon can be added. And, of course, the health-conscious can settle for cereal with skim milk, yogurt and fresh fruit, granola, even oatmeal with brown sugar and golden raisins.
Besides the usual juices and hot beverages, Maureen's serves up mimosas, bloody Marys or bloody-tinis-which combine Absolute citron and Pepar vodka with bloody Mary mix. The garnish is kosher salt and cucumber. Sounds nourishing to me.
Breakfast on Maureen's patio is relaxed, unhurried and pleasurable. You're apt to see lots of folks you know. No buffet lines here-everything is cooked in the kitchen and served with an eye toward presentation. Your server keeps refilling the coffee cups; and yes, you can have ketchup on your home fries. But you'll have to ask for the Heinz because aesthetically minded Maureen can't adjust to seeing the plastic bottles on her pretty tables. She's also made another concession to her clientele. She's relaxed the no-kid rule. In fact, she and Steve bought two artistically painted high chairs over the summer. Now you grandparents can show off visiting tots at breakfast on the patio or inside. Just don't try it at a late-night seating in the dining room. The regulars would not be amused.
Maureen's Palm Grille
5350 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key
Major credit cards
Dinner: Tuesday-Sunday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.. Reservations suggested.
Breakfast: Wednesday-Sunday, 8-11 a.m. and until noon on Sundays. No reservations for breakfast.
This town is reeling in ravioli and big house reds. New Italian restaurants, wine bars or gourmet markets open faster than we can gather a few friends together to experience them. Which may explain why 15 South Ristorante Enoteca escaped our radar until recently. This St. Armands Circle establishment combines a retail wine emporium with a relaxed neighborhood cafe and a bit of a cosmopolitan supper club atmosphere, too.
Make your entrance through a classy bar and retail wine area to the dining room, which is outfitted with bistro tables and attractive wooden chairs. Friendly greetings abound. With white tablecloths and napkins but no booths or banquettes and less-than-gentle lighting, it's comfortable inside but not intimate.
Instead, 15 South is a place to see and be seen, to table hop and chat with friends. The noise level is up there (it used to be higher until owner Joe Casadio lowered the ceiling and installed acoustic tiles). Color photos and prints that depict life in the port city of Genoa share space on the yellow walls with Venetian carnival masks. Waiters are clad in formal shirts and black bow ties, and the snappy bus staff wears logo T-shirts.
15 South attracts a regular clientele that lives on St. Armands, Lido Shores and Longboat; it also pulls in international tourists looking for authentic Italian food. That's just what they get. Expect hearty, comforting portions of well-prepared standards, such as fried eggplant layered with mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce or breaded veal chop, or cheese ravioli, or seafood risotto. Entrées average around $21.
My fatty-juicy little rack of veal encircled a white mound of dense scalloped cheese potatoes and was garnished with roasted red pepper strips and bits of carrot. A confetti of fresh parsley added extra color. Every bit of it was flavorful, and altogether it was more than I could polish off. A companion tackled the seafood risotto and found the rice a bit more gummy than creamy but flavorful. The portion of mixed fruits from the sea was more than generous and cooked just right.
A nice surprise is the octopus and white bean salad spiked with ribbons of red onion peeking out of mixed field greens. ($8.95). Want to split an appetizer or salad? No problem. There's a small fee but the presentation is well worth it. Other salads and starters include crab cakes, oysters Rockefeller, calamari, Caesar salad, and salad Leopardi, which combines arugula, artichokes, prosciutto and Parmesan cheese for $10. This would be a nice lunch.
The fluffy, light focaccia is baked not in the small 15 South kitchen but at its sister eatery Cuoco Matto on North Tamiami Trail. (Owner Casadio is also the proprietor of Osteria, which has been a fixture on the circle for 16 years.)
In addition to the items on the printed menu, your server will describe nightly specials in delectable detail without ever revealing the price. This is not playing fair. If prices are printed on the page, they ought to be included in the servers' pitch. Why the secrecy, and why are so many otherwise accommodating restaurants (such as Michael's On East) guilty of this?
I'm glad to report that the well-informed servers are not interested in pushing bottled water on barely seated guests. They're much more focused on helping you select a wine. With a retail wine shop in the front of this restaurant, offerings are extensive: The handwritten wine list includes about 100 wines, and "by the glass" listings are also impressive. Although all major wine categories are respectably represented, the emphasis is on Italian wines. For example, five chiantis and two sangioveses are offered by the glass. Our choice was a '98 Cambria Julia's Vineyard pinot noir, priced at $38.
Whether you're in the mood for wine and some antipasti or a full meal of Italian favorites, 15 South will give you as many choices as the number of its address. So eat!
15 South Ristorante Enoteca
15 S. Boulevard of the Presidents, St. Armands Circle, Sarasota
Open daily for lunch and dinner from 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. and midnight on weekends
Major credit cards
Bar bills are a pleasant surprise at the new Ritz-Carlton.
Here's some spirited economic news. You can enjoy fine wines and cocktails in one of the prettiest bars (Ca d'Zan) and one of the most lavish dining rooms (Vernona) in town and pay less than you would in many ordinary area restaurants of lesser élan. The new Ritz-Carlton has structured its wine and liquor prices to be-well, downright friendly.
The traditional martini-your choice of premier gin or vodka-is a reasonable $7, and you get to enjoy it in plush armchairs with live music in the background. You can even light up a cigar and kick back on one of the cushy sofas if you want to move into the cigar bar. The ashtrays are elegant, and deep-blue matchboxes bear the golden Ritz-Carlton logo.
If you order the Ritz-Carlton signature martini, add another $3.50, but for garnish you'll get a fat olive stuffed with blue cheese. And the salmon martini is certainly more than just a drink. It's food. A martini glass is lined with thin shards of smoked salmon. Add Fris vodka and top with caviar. The price is $12.50. The bar menu also includes a dozen or more single malt scotches, rums, beers, grappas, cognacs, and specialty coffees. Most hover at just under or over $10. a glass. But if you are truly intent on being a big spender, you can spring for a shot of Remy Martin, Louis XIII for $190. The most popular drink? Martinis, the before-dinner ones and the dessert ones, such as chocolate, banana, key lime or crème brulée.
If you want food with your cocktail, the bar servers can oblige with artisan cheeses, foie gras terrine, smoked salmon, oysters and a variety of imported or domestic caviar.
The wine list is a pleasant surprise. The average bottle is about $60-$70, although you can impress a date with a bottle of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild '84 for $1,050. If you want to make a more serious impression, you'll have to imbibe at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, where the dining room stocks a bottle of 1921 Chateau d' Yquem Sauterne for $25,000.
At the Sarasota Ritz-Carlton, you won't find wines that stock the shelves in area supermarkets or wine stores. Beverage manager Nigel Zweck is creating a cellar (it's a work in progress) that includes mostly boutique wines from small vineyards from all over the world. But a healthy sampling of the big names is there, too.
The cellar currently includes about 146 labels and is focused on Italian, Spanish, Australian and California vintages with a lesser number of French. That's because the dinner menu in the Vernona dining room is mostly Mediterranean, and the wine was chosen to pair with the food. Currently, the trendy choices are the pinot grigios and fume blancs. Zweck notes that the average markup per bottle is about 30 percent, a little higher on the lower-priced wines than on the expensive ones.
If you choose a glass of the house wine, you'll get Steven Kent cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay. The price range is $7-$12.50. That's the standard house pour not just in Sarasota, but in Ritz-Carltons all over the United States. The Ritz Champagne is bottled exclusively for the hotel chain by Charles Heidsieck. At $15 a glass, it is the single most requested beverage in all Ritz-Carlton establishments in the country.
The Ritz-Carlton Hotel
1111 Ritz-Carlton Drive, Sarasota
Major credit cards
Ca d'Zan Bar & Cigar Bar
Monday-Thursday: 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Friday: 1 p.m.-1:45 a.m.
Saturday and Sunday: Noon to 1:45 a.m.