Celebrity chef Paul Mattison is spreading himself as thin as demi-glace these days, what with a popular downtown bistro in Sarasota, another thriving one in St. Petersburg, a successful catering business, cooking demonstrations, television appearances, a restaurant training institute and culinary tours of Italy. Now the indefatigable, 39-year-old Mattison, who also donates huge amounts of time and product to charities, has picked up a gauntlet that others before him have regretted touching. Some insiders wonder why he wants the hassle; others understand his yearning to have a big, splashy classic restaurant with his signature all over it.
I speak of The Plaza on Longboat Key, a fine-dining restaurant that when it opened in the late '80s was as much praised for its lavish decor as for the food, which was excellent indeed. But the elegant building has slogged through disappointing times. Its secluded setting off Gulf of Mexico Drive and lack of signage make it hard to find and impossible to stumble upon. Summer is a killer. Over the years the restaurant has seen several owners. They all moved the furniture and walls, one added a wine cellar and revved up wedding business and others just tried to make enough money during season to carry the place through the lean months.
Now the ebullient Mattison is on the scene with Mattison's Steak House & Wine Cellar. He's left the interior of the restaurant unchanged; and the design scheme still has a gracious Belle Époque quality with romantic paintings on the walls, roomy banquettes and tables with flowers and soft lighting. Thankfully, the original handsome and plush armchairs, chosen by interior designer Judy Graham (whose late father, Jack, was the founding owner of the place) survive from the restaurant's opening. The color palette of cream and burgundy adds richness, enhanced by wall sconces and crystal chandeliers. Piano music wafts through the dining rooms (there are several) from the cozy bar.
An iron gate in the bar opens to stairs that lead into a wine cellar set up for intimate dining. This room (yes, it's a bit chilly) can be reserved for about a dozen guests for a full dinner or wine tasting. It should be popular with oenophiles out for a night on the town. For true wine lovers, you know, an evening spent in a dimly lit hole in the ground surrounded by dusty bottles really is a pretty thrilling event.
The meat menu at Mattison's is traditional and will surely satisfy a discriminating carnivore with its New York strip steak, six-ounce filet, a hefty 16-ounce rib-eye, steak au poivre and steak Oscar. Chateaubriand for two ($59.95) is carved tableside. The steak Longboat is a bacon-wrapped charbroiled filet crowned with a Dijon hollandaise, caramelized brown sugar and grilled asparagus for $32.95. Nothing at all wrong with that. I'd recommend the tournedos Rossini since it's a Mattison signature dish. Beef tenderloin medallions are paired with foie gras, fresh sage and a port wine sauce. Rich and delicious.
The New Zealand baby lamb chops are tempting at $27.95, and the Mattison duck is finished with a sour cherry merlot sauce and a dusting of pistachio for $24.95. Most of the meats come with truffle mashed potatoes (unexciting) or sweet potato au gratin (much sexier) or a plain baked potato, which is pretty hard to beat with a perfectly cooked steak, a side of sautéed mushrooms and a Caesar salad or the Mattison salad, made special by toasted pine nuts and Gorgonzola cheese.
Since his days at the Summerhouse, Paul Mattison has always loved doing seafood. So his new steak house chefs shake more than a passing fin at Florida grouper (served with citrus caper butter), and also slash and burn tuna with honey ginger créme fraîche or goat cheese and wild mushroom crusted salmon. The seafood side of the menu (and I include the appetizers of crab cakes, sashimi tuna and smoked seafood cocktail) is the more exhilarating portion and will entice a thrill seeker who wants to save the steak option for another time. Usually, it's not smart to order seafood at a restaurant specializing in beef. But Mattison's is the exception to that rule. Seafood is as sovereign as steak in his kitchen.
Not that Mattison is the chief chef in his kitchen. He checks in daily, writes the menu and sets the standards, but the lead cooking is done nightly by chef Steve Phelps.
The wine list is extensive (more than 150) and growing, but already impressive under the management of sommelier Ann E. Howells. Bottles range from about $23 to $174; and Howells orchestrates a pleasing harmony among the chardonnays, French whites, sparkling wines, pinot noirs, zins and merlots. Some, but not all, of the wines are displayed in the downstairs wine room. Desserts are substantial and well executed, so save room to indulge in the bread pudding, seasonal cobbler or flourless chocolate torte, which is the house specialty big finish. Bananas Foster is composed and flamed tableside for $9.95. The old standby créme brulée is here, too. Also on the dessert menu are 10 single malt scotch brands and a lovely 40- year-old port, as well as specialty coffees.
If you know Paul Mattison's work and admire his determination and cuisine know-how, you won't wait for my invitation to search out his latest fine-dining project. Mattison's Steak House & Wine Cellar is hard to find, but it's worth the search.
Mattison's Steak House & Wine Cellar
525 Bay Isles Parkway, Longboat Key
Dinner nightly from 5 p.m.
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Ritzy Al Fresco
One of the best-kept secrets in town is out in the open, literally. It's Bay View eating at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Here you dine either on partially covered stone terraces or out on the Ritz lawn with a close-up view of the bay or the swimming pool. Bay View has its own kitchen, in the capable hands of chef James Hettinger, who towers at 6 feet, 11 inches (over 7 feet in his toque) and just may be the tallest chef in the Ritz empire.
Bay View is the spot to enjoy full-out Ritz pampering for as little as $10, the price of a sirloin burger (on a fresh house-baked bun), crispy fries, a fat juicy dill pickle and a mound of red onion slices, lettuce and tomato. If you want your choice of cheese on the burger, that's included in the price, too. To my mind this is a bargain lunch given the setting and the amount of personal attention that's standard at any Ritz restaurant.
Want something else still in that price range? A traditional Caesar salad served with focaccia croutons is only $8. Add grilled chicken breast meat and you've got a hearty lunch or light supper for $12. The jerk marinated chicken quesadilla is $10, and so is the Bay View fruit plate, which includes a honey mango yogurt dressing and a banana muffin. And the presentation is so appealing.
The Caribbean Sampler at $16 is generous enough to share and includes coconut shrimp, conch fritters, calamari and ahi tuna cubes arranged on little sugar-cane skewers with pineapple chunks. For dipping sauces you're served Thai curry, spicy pineapple salsa and a tamarind tartare sauce. This dish is a standout. Order it as an appetizer to share, or a filling lunch for one. This is fun finger food that really delivers on flavor.
With your meal, you can order wine by the glass (20 selections) or if you choose a bottle, you've got 200 to select from. Desserts are all $8 and include such diet wreckers as Mississippi mud pie, Key lime pie, bittersweet chocolate mousse and a selection of homemade sorbets and ice creams. My favorite dessert at Bay View may be the Jamaican pineapple upside down cake, which is enriched with a piña colada coulis and mango sorbet on the side. Wonderfully toothsome.
Just because you're eating casual and budget-minded at Bay View, don't expect any diminution of the renowned Ritz-Carlton service. Recently, a friend and I stopped at Bay View for a light lunch and a long chat. The overcast afternoon was nippy, and management didn't really intend to serve outside that day. But we insisted, so ever-congenial server Sam Franzone (wearing a jacket over his uniform) settled the two of us on the lawn near the water and brought us hot tea with our menus. A few minutes later, he returned with two fluffy white blankets that he had heated in a clothes dryer and wrapped us while we made our luncheon choices. Think about Bay View as an al fresco dining destination where the meals are inexpensive but the quality of the food and service is exactly what you want from a world-famous resort hotel.
1111 Ritz-Carlton Drive
Lunch: daily from 11 a.m.-5:50 p.m. (weather permitting)
Dinner: Thursday, Friday and Saturday 6-10 p.m.
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Today's neighborhoods tend to be gated communities, and you must usually ride, not walk, to your favorite local culinary hangout. The partners of the new Stonewood chain of casual upscale restaurants realize this, and are positioning their American grill eateries near upper-middle-class gated communities. One opened in Naples two years ago, and now there's one in our town on University Parkway near sprawling Lakewood Ranch, University Park and Palm-Aire. Two more Stonewood Grill & Tavern restaurants in the south part of Sarasota are already under construction. The owners of Stonewood have about a dozen locations in Florida and two in North Carolina.
I like this chain. It's family-oriented, but lots more comfortable and classy than you might expect. The booths are roomy, and both the natural wood and stone accents to the interior and exterior decor give the rooms a masculine, den-like quality that's cozy and sophisticated. The lighting is at a pleasant low level. The servers are quick and efficient, and the menu covers all the bases for snacking or a full dinner.
The kitchen specializes in grilled items-steaks, chicken, pork chops, shrimp and fish in the range of $14-$23. With the entrées comes salad, choice of vegetable and potato. The kitchen does a really satisfying creamed spinach. But Stonewood also does well with its comfort food preparations, such as a justly popular chicken pot pie ($10.95) and a pot roast platter for $11.95. Sandwiches, a few pastas, and plenty of appetizers and salads round out the menu. Desserts are routine but rich and satisfying.
Nearly all the wines (mostly California) are available by the glass as well as bottle, and a perfectly decent bottle of wine can be enjoyed here for $25. Of course, there's a full bar, too.
In all, Stonewood is good value for the money, a comfortable place to enjoy a casual meal well prepared and efficiently served. But because it's casual dining, there's no reservation policy. You've got to accept one of those beepers and wait at the bar or join the throng milling around the parking lot. There is, however, an option to call ahead and get on the seating list. This is an excellent idea because Stonewood, although fairly new in town, is already crowded at dinnertime.
Stonewood Grill & Tavern
University Parkway, Sarasota
Dinner: Monday-Thursday 4-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.; Sunday, 2-9 p.m.
No reservations (but call ahead seating)
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Q. I have several favorite downtown places to stop for morning coffee. Anyplace new and different I should know about?
A. Wake up and smell the house-blend at Sierra Station, a quaint restaurant and coffee bar on Lemon Avenue. Dressed out like an old-time train depot and named after the toddler daughter of owners Al and Monica Tomlinson, the cafe offers morning sweets, luncheon sandwiches and a whole coffee menu as well as gourmet teas and juices. The building really is an old train depot that Tomlinson (an antiques dealer by profession) found in Indiana, dismantled and reassembled here in Sarasota. Catering and take out available. Sierra Station, 400 N. Lemon Ave., Sarasota. 906-1400.