At Sean Murphy's Beach Bistro on Anna Maria Island, the stunning water views take center stage. But when the food arrives, drag your gaze from the setting sun and enjoy the riches on your plate. Eating at the much-awarded, 17-year-old Beach Bistro is like dining in Eden, both for the unparalleled sand 'n' surf real estate that this tiny, rambling cottage occupies and for the divine hands at work in the kitchen.
The food has a New Orleans disposition, probably because Murphy's first job upon arrival in America from Nova Scotia in 1978 was at the famed Arnaud's in the Crescent City. He moved to Florida and worked at The Colony Beach and later put in five years at L'Auberge au Bon Vivant before opening the Beach Bistro in what was a coffee shop in decline.
The menu reveals Murphy's relaxed and humorous take on sophisticated food. For instance, in describing his "Bistro Bouillabaisse, Famous" he wants us to know that he had to "hire a bunch of pros to build a killer broth" and assures us that "Martha Stewart cannot do this." At $41 for the hungry-man portion and $34 for the lighter one, this traditional French Provencal seafood with Pernod and saffron in the aromatic broth lives up to its billing. The recipe took two years of tweaking to reach perfection, says Murphy. Among the adjustments: The broth is lighter and less dependent on tomatoes than many, and the dish features fresh herbs and top-quality fresh fish. He uses Maine lobster because it's the best for poaching.
Another French favorite, foie gras, fits right in with the current fashion of combining conventional dessert and entrée ingredients. Murphy says he and his chefs worked on the dish for three months until they decided it was just right. "Death By Foie Gras" ($19) is an embarrassment of riches that includes three sauces. A slab of silky Hudson Valley goose liver is laid on top of a sweet bread pudding brioche with apples. The initial conflict of flavors soon ends in blissful harmony; if you have this appetizer, you may not need dessert.
Other Beach Bistro classics on my list to sample are the pan-seared Floribbean grouper, crusted with toasted coconut and cashews and finished with red pepper papaya jam ($34), and the rack of fresh domestic lamb made with a port rosemary demi-glace ($36). The Caesar salad is exceptionally well balanced and enhanced with very fine grated cheese ($10). Or you might want a bit more kick and order the "Caesar After Cleopatra-Blue," made with Maytag blue cheese for just $2 more.
If it's your first visit and you're dining with a group of friends, consider the tasting menu, six courses for $60. This degustation menu is available from Sunday through Thursday, but because the timing of serving the courses is critical, the whole table must dine this way or no one can.
Desserts are classical-bananas Foster (invented in New Orleans), key lime pie, fruit crepes, and a rich chocolate truffle terrine that's made with bittersweet chocolate and cognac ($10.) The house dessert specialty, this intense truffle terrine was invented by Murphy's wife, Susan Timmins (a baker), when she was three months pregnant and craving chocolate.
The wine list at Beach Bistro is geared to serious oenophiles as well as casual experimenters. With practically no area to store bottles, Murphy has been clever about stealing space where he can find it. Look up in the dining room and you'll see simple racking systems tucked into the canvas-draped ceiling and along the walls, while some bottles are showcased at the bar as part of the decor. The cellar numbers about 4,000 bottles and ranges from American boutique wines to French and Italian labels.
The Beach Bistro is a long drive from much of Sarasota, and some diners may think twice about making the trek, consuming quantities of wine and then making that long, dark drive down Gulf of Mexico Drive. For those customers, Murphy offers limousine service. Call the restaurant and request a car to pick you up and bring you home. From Sarasota round-trip is about $75. Now you can feel secure about asking your server to pull down some of those vintages that Murphy has squirreled away in the ceiling.
6600 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach
Dinner: Daily from 5:30-10 p.m.
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A Taste of New England
When I crave a flavorful heaping basket full of fried Ipswich clams, I don't have to feel deprived because I no longer live in New England. I zip on down to The Dry Dock on Longboat Key, slide into a seat overlooking Sarasota Bay and, surrounded by a gloriously non-New England setting of palm trees, pelicans and bobbing sailboats, I tuck into those crunchy critters with gusto.
At this relaxed, family-owned grill you can eat inside (there's seating for 85) like most of the locals who have grown accustomed to air conditioning, or you can dine dockside on a brick patio that seats 30 under market umbrellas. It's usually breezy out there, but tourists love it; and once in a while I do what they do just to reconnect with how pleasant Florida al fresco dining can be, especially in the winter months. You'll hear German, French and American Midwestern accents in surround-sound. Sports nuts cling to the busy inside bar so they can catch the latest play on television.
The Dry Dock is spare and snug and excels in simple seafood and burgers. The tables are bare wood (plastic outside) but the napkins are cloth and the chatty waitstaff is super-efficient. Our server replaced silverware between courses, something you hardly anticipate, but certainly applaud, in a casual eatery.
Order chowder, crabcakes, littleneck clams steamed in a vegetable broth, hot dogs, fish & chips, broiled Maine lobster tails, grilled or fried fish and a comforting array of pasta/seafood dishes served in big soup bowls. There's a selection of steaks, burgers, veal and chicken dishes for landlubbers. And tots are offered chicken or grouper bites with fries or the ever-popular grilled cheese sandwich. What would parents who dine out with their children do without grilled cheese?
Entrées (served with a house salad and starch) average $18, while the sandwiches come in at about $8. Pasta selections are about $12, but the clams and the Florida grouper are market price. The Ipswich clams are flown in from Massachusetts, and the grouper is fresh local catch. It's the most popular item on the menu, followed by the grilled or fried shrimp. At lunchtime, the burger rules.
There's a petite wine list, but most folks order a cold beer or soda, and cocktails are available too. Sides include onion rings (they are excellent), coleslaw, fries and pretty good tartar sauce for your fish or clams. Of course, there's key lime pie for dessert.
Comfortable and reliable, the Dry Dock is a dandy little neighborhood hangout even if you have to drive five miles from downtown Sarasota to get to that little neighborhood.
Dry Dock Waterfront Grill
412 Gulf of Mexico Drive (at the Boathouse Marina), Longboat Key
Lunch and dinner: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Monday through Saturday; 4:30-9 p.m. on Sunday
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WELCOMING BACK THE WALDORF
Remember the Waldorf salad, that good old standard our mothers served to the bridge club or presented at family picnics? I hadn't thought about it in years when a waiter at Citrus offered it as the daily special recently, this time with chunks of chicken and mounded on a bed of raw baby spinach leaves. Two slices of dark banana bread book-ended the salad of small, crisp apple chunks, walnuts, raisins and chicken, all held together with a light mayonnaise dressing enlivened with a little lemon juice ($7.95). What made owner Michael McCormick think the old-fashioned classic would appeal to contemporary foodies? "Our tiny cafe kitchen is more suited to preparing cold dishes than hot, and I had a feeling people were ready for the Waldorf again," he relates. "I added my own touches, and every time we offer it as a special, it sells out immediately." Waldorf salad was invented in 1896 at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York by the dining room's maitre d', Oscar Tschirky. His simple recipe included apples, celery and mayo. The nuts and raisins came later. And now, chicken. Citrus, our mothers thank you and so do we. Citrus Cafe, 543 S. Pineapple, Sarasota. 957-0432.
Michael's Waldorf Salad
(Citrus Café; serves six)
Mix the following ingredients in a large bowl:
3 cups cooked diced chicken
1/2 cup diced celery
1/4 cup diced red onion
2 cups diced apples with peel (we like Granny Smith and Mackintosh)
1 1/2 cups mayonnaise
1/4 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 cup honey
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup walnuts
1 teaspoon dill
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
Serve over fresh baby spinach or mixed greens and garnish with red seedless grapes and an extra sprinkle of chopped walnuts.
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With a little more than a year under his toque as pastry chef for the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, 27-year-old Frenchman Stephane Cheramy understands what local diners and hotel guests do and don't want from a dessert menu.
"They don't want my cold, spicy fruit soup," he admits. "It was on the menu when we opened the Vernona dining room, and not a single person ever ordered it." They do want "familiar, classic desserts such as strawberry shortcake, key lime pie and chocolate cake," he adds. "But they want the presentation to be stunning and they don't mind a little twist to the basic flavors."
Chef Cheramy says the "twist" is his challenge, and he rises to it like puff pastry. His crème brûlée, for instance, is chocolate and is served with a fresh macaroon and five-spice ice cream ($10). His chocolate cake has a molten center blasted with pistachios.
"You cannot confuse a diner," Cheramy stresses. "My rule is no more than three easily identifiable flavors in any one dessert."
The chef and his staff of 11 start their day at 7 a.m. and are responsible for pastries for catering services, the dining room, tea room, weddings, the pastry shop, as well as a lavish spread twice a day in the guest lounge on the eighth floor.
Each pastry chef in the Ritz worldwide corporation has the freedom to assess the local market and choose his own menu offerings. There are no standard Ritz desserts. Pastry chefs can choose menu offerings that reflect local tastes and ingredients.
"I like to use fresh figs, pineapples, bananas, mangoes, blood oranges, coconuts and other ingredients that guests associate with a tropical destination," says Cheramy. "I change the dessert menu every season, and I experiment with new things for the Sunday brunch. We have to make about 20 desserts for that buffet every week, and I can gauge the success of possible menu items this way. This season, I'm trying out pineapple fritters with passion-fruit jelly and an apple and quince pie."
In July, Cheramy and his team will travel to Las Vegas to compete for three days in the National Pastry Team Championship to vie for the chance to represent the United States in the 2004 World Pastry Cup. Cheramy's last competition, which was in Atlanta, earned his Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota team 98 points out of a possible 100. Does this confidence-builder give the pastry chef hope for the return of his cold fruit soup? "Actually, I am considering it for the Ritz Spa when it opens," he muses. "It might be a better spa dessert than a dining room one."
Cold fruit soups (nationally, if not in Sarasota)
* Dramatic presentations.
* Less sweet desserts. Look for sharp, clean, tart flavors with unexpected ingredients such as pink peppercorns and Chinese five-spices.
* The use of tea, especially green tea.
* Including vegetables (squash, pumpkin, corn) in desserts.
* Spicy ice creams and sorbets.
o Oversized and unusually shaped plates and bowls.
* Asian ingredients and presentation.
* Gelatins are back, but mainly for structure-tasteless gelatin in panna cotta, for example, or grapefruit jelly as part of a tasting platter.
Tasting platters of about five mini-desserts, creatively balanced for color, flavor and texture.
* Polenta sweetened and used with fruit bits and coulis as a dessert.
Q: I'm going to contribute the dinner wine to my granddaughter's wedding for 175 guests. The meal is an early evening buffet. There will be champagne for the toast, but what I want is a reliable, medium-priced red wine and a white wine to pour during dinner. Any suggestions? And how much do I need?
My suggestion for a red is a Guigal Cotes-du-Rhone. Priced at about $11 a bottle, it's compatible with a wide range of food. For a white, I'd pour two. Since chardonnays are so popular, a Clos du Bois Chardonnay is dependable and fairly priced; for those who prefer a wine with more food-friendly flavor, a New Zealand Brancott Sauvignon Blanc has fine citrus flavor and good balance. Both are about $10 a bottle. As for quantity, Graham Thomson, wine director at J.D. Ford, The Tasting Room and Fred's, says that you probably want more white than red and you should figure about 1/2 bottle per person. And don't forget to give the happy couple a bottle of each of your wine choices as a keepsake. Sign and date the bottles for a wedding memory they can taste again.