Longboat Key diners sulked when creative chef Steve Horn and his energetic wife, Maureen, retired from their popular restaurant at the Centre Shops (Maureen's Palm Grille) and decided to sell real estate instead of cooking on it. Thankfully, the restaurant didn't shut down. Instead, it's been purchased by a British couple, Richard and Elaine Sawyer, who made the transition to Sawyer's Brasserie seamless and pleasant for all.
In the early days of their reign, the new owners have kept some of the most successful menu items from the previous chef, such as the braised short ribs, which are marinated for 24 hours and slow roasted with a red wine currant sauce. Steve Horn's bouillabaisse lingered, too. And the martini bar remains intact, with new designer drinks infiltrating the menu as Manhattan bar trends trickle down to Longboat.
But chef Richard Sawyer, who owned a restaurant south of London, means to put his personal stamp on his eponymous place. So there are new things to discover, and one of the most delectable is on the appetizer menu. Grilled quail (sometimes it's duck) and foie gras terrine juxtaposes two textures, the smoothness of the liver terrine and the rough-cut chewiness of quail chunks. This rich treat is plated with poached pear and toasted brioche for $8.50. It's altogether wonderful.
Sawyer's take on the classic Caesar salad is housemade lobster oil. Poached pears appear again in a cold green bean and Roquefort cheese salad. Toasted walnuts finish it off for $7. The seafood risotto, quite good on the night we tried it, included fresh clams, shrimp and scallops and is available in a small plate for $13.75 and in a bigger portion for $24.75. The small portion is not quite enough for dinner, unless of course, you order a heavy appetizer and either soup or salad. Grouper, grilled salmon, cod, monkfish, scallops and tuna should keep the seafood-craving tourists content, while meat eaters can luxuriate in beef filet (with mushroom and foie gras ravioli), flatiron steak, pork tenderloin, rack of lamb and veal spiaggi. There's not too much for vegetarians here.
The confit of duck leg is especially satisfying. It's honey-glazed and cooked with Szechuan pepper, celery root, prune and Armagnac au jus for $18. A sweet-potato purée comes with it. This one is intense, and so very toothsome. Sawyer is also interested in rotating rabbit, venison, whole duck and even pheasant through the menu. He intends to have the bill of fare reflect seasonal abundance and dishes that intrigue him personally. Entrées run from $18 to $30.
The desserts are housemade and include such hearty sweets as bread pudding as well as crème brûlée, along with lighter ones such as sorbet and marinated strawberries. Look for off-the-menu nightly specials, too.
Sawyer's retains the classy atmosphere of the former establishment in spite of the brasserie in its name. It's more formal than a traditional brasserie. Expect white cloths and napkins, candlelight, experienced service, a good wine list, mood music and sophisticated décor. That said, everyone on management side promotes a relaxed ambiance. Sawyer's is comfortable, with a grown-up menu that's both varied and exciting.
5350 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key
Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday from 5:30 p.m.
Parking in Centre Shops mall lot
ROCKING THE BOAT
Ever since the Hyatt opened in the '70s, The Boathouse (originally called Billy Bowlegs Banana Patch) has been a popular casual dining destination with both hotel guests and locals who love that the place is open late at night. They can attend an Asolo or Van Wezel performance and then duck into The Boathouse for a drink or to enjoy dessert with friends. Sometimes the performers drift in, too, for the very same reason.
While the menu isn't meant to impress in terms of the latest culinary trends, The Boathouse is reliable for simple Florida favorites. You can always get a decent burger ($8.25), grouper or Cuban sandwich, soup or salad from the semi-open kitchen with its bright striped awning. The fried coconut shrimp with its piquant dipping sauce is actually as good as you can find anywhere in town ($9.50). For entrées there's filet mignon for $16.50 or a mixed seafood grill at $19.50, both agreeably prepared with a generous hand.
The bar is a main attraction at The Boathouse, and that's the way you enter this restaurant. Many folks never make it past that spot, since you can eat, drink and socialize on high stools in a convivial environment. Besides the main dining room with views to the water, there's a small covered deck where you can connect with the immediate aquatic surroundings even more fully.
I've always liked the way you have to cross a weathered plank bridge to get from the hotel back yard to The Boathouse. There's a real sense of arrival to the place, which looks like a glorified hut. The inside is fairly dark, with wooden beams everywhere overhead. Recently the Sarasota design firm Tidmore-Henry & Associates updated the look of the dining room while keeping its nautical attitude intact. The small blue-and-nickel sconces mounted on beams make the place more welcoming and comfortable, with a soft glow. Tables are bare and the napkins are paper. And your fork will have to last from appetizer through the entrée, because no one is refreshing silverware between courses at this informal restaurant.
For years The Boathouse made its sweet-treat reputation on an incredible mud pie. That sinfully opulent dessert disappeared from the menu about five years ago, and frankly nothing on the sweet side of the bill of fare makes up for the loss, although both the chocolate volcano cake and the peanut butter pie do a good job of trying. If you're a tourist, you'll want to sample the Key lime pie. And if you're staying at the hotel, The Boathouse is a dependable place to dine with children, both in terms of ambiance and cost. The serving staff is kind and patient and you can eat dinner quite early if you have toddlers to tuck in.
THE BOATHOUSE AT THE HYATT SARASOTA
1000 Boulevard of the Arts, Sarasota
Breakfast: Daily, 6:30-11 a.m.
Lunch and dinner: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Late night menu: 10 p.m.-midnight
Parking in hotel lot or valet
Q. The best part of my recent stay at a spa was the food. The flavors were all so light and bright. Any place here serve spa-type food?
Chef Mac deCarle became inspired by a recent trip to New York, where he indulged in spa food. Once home at the Beach Bistro, he began to experiment with fresh local produce and fish to craft lighter, health- and calorie-conscious dishes. They're ready for you to sample. Expect a fish dish for sure, made with sauces low in carbs and sugar with no trans fats. Chef uses reduction techniques and emulsions made from fresh citrus juices. The fish is finished with fresh braised chard and a pineapple and heirloom tomato relish. $34. He's also doing miso-marinated red Baha sea scallops fixed with a mixture of mirin and local orange-blossom honey. He flash infuses the scallops and then grills them on a sugar-cane skewer and serves with orange-juice sauce. Plus you get wild rice and maybe a little mound of pesto-roasted, organic purple and gold cauliflower on the side. 6600 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach. (941) 778-6444.
Lobster ceviche from Patrick Quakenbush.
Growing up in Europe in a military family gave Patrick Quakenbush access to a world of flavors. "I was eating escargot and calamari by age six," he remembers. A degree in restaurant management led first to kitchen supervision positions before he followed his passion for cooking. He opened All Star Café in Las Vegas and Planet Hollywood enterprises in Toronto and Melbourne, moving to Florida to take the sous chef job at Planet Hollywood at the Universal Studios theme park the year the restaurant was named the world's busiest, serving 6,000 meals a day. Last year he became chef-partner at Fleming's in Sarasota. The recipe he shares is a personal favorite. "Whenever I make this, I think of the beach," he says. "It has all the flavors so right for this part of the country, and there's no cooking." Fleming's, 2001 Siesta Drive, Sarasota. (941) 358-9463.
1 pound lobster tail meat removed and diced into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 cup lime juice (about 4 limes)
1 cup (5 ounces) hearts of palm cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 cup orange segments (from 2 small oranges) with juice
1/4 cup red onion (sliced paper-thin)
1/2 of 1 jalapeno seeded and fine minced
1/4 cup red peppers, finely chopped
1/4 cup cucumber (skin removed and seeded), finely chopped
1/4 cup Roma tomato, seeded and finely chopped
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
4 each flatbread crackers
1 English cucumber
1 (3-inch) cookie cutter (optional)
cilantro sprig and lime twist
Chop raw lobster meat into 1/2-inch cubes. Combine the lobster and the lime juice in a nonreactive bowl. Cover and refrigerate for 1 1/2 hours. The lobster will cook in the acidic lime juice. After 1 1/2 hours, add the remaining ingredients (except the garnish) and stir. Taste and add more salt and pepper if necessary. The lime taste will be very tangy. Add a pinch of sugar if it's too astringent for you. Cover and refrigerate for another 1/2 hour.
To serve the ceviche, use cucumber strips and a cookie cutter as a mold. Using a mandoline, slice 1/8-inch-thick slices of cucumber. After slicing cucumber, cut in half lengthwise. Line a 3-inch cookie cutter with a strip of cucumber on a 9-inch plate. Remove hearts of palm and reserve. Mound 4 ounces of ceviche inside. Place about 1 tablespoon of excess juice from ceviche with bits of vegetable for color on plate. Place 5 pieces of hearts of palm around ceviche. Remove the mold carefully and garnish with cilantro sprig and lime twist. Serve with flatbread crackers.
NIBBLES & SIPS
One of the newer national food trends focuses on a very old food tradition, eating kosher. A few months ago the 17th annual kosher food trade show showed lots of all-natural and organic kosher foods.
What else is in store for the kosher kitchen? More whole-grain products, low-salt and low-sugar selections and convenience foods. One of the new to-go foods is Sabra portable hummus snacks packaged with crackers. Manischewitz offers a honey apple butter spread and a creamy horseradish in four flavors. Mimi's will sell you 100 percent organic chili, and The Snack Factory is making fat-free deli-style pretzel crisps. From Israel comes Halutza organic extra-virgin olive oil, and Rue Lafayette's rice crackers (wasabi flavor) and foie gras should help satisfy party-platter needs. For the cook who wants to cook kosher but is unsure, there's a good new book out called Kosher for the Clueless but Curious by Shimon Apisdorf (Leviathan Press).
If you're traveling to New York this winter and want to experience only Michelin three-star restaurants, then start making reservations now at Alain Ducasse, Jean Georges, Le Bernadin or Per Se. Sometimes it helps if you're willing to eat at an unfashionable hour, meaning very early. Usually these haute restaurants are booked months in advance.