(2006) There it sits in an unfashionable part of town, no view of water, nature preserve or even a golf course. Its neighbors are a food market and drug store, and it shares parking space with a behemoth medical complex on the other side. Who would think from just driving by that Michael's On East is one of the key restaurants in this city at which to eat, as well as to see and be seen? The place is a triumph of interior style, fine food and superior hospitality over location, location, location.
From the day that Michael Klauber opened his eponymous restaurant in 1987 it's had the reputation for lively American-Continental food paired with an eclectic wine list picked by a pro with a curious nature. An adventurous wine connoisseur, Klauber founded the Florida Winefest & Auction in Sarasota and guided it through its first few years. When Klauber partnered with catering genius Phil Mancini and they added the Ballroom, the whole complex on East Avenue swiftly morphed into a venue that a huge chunk of this town's population has been to as a guest, volunteer or worker at some charity gala, civic luncheon or family occasion. It's a Sarasota institution.
But the word "institution" often implies stuffy and dull, two things Michael's has never been. The menu changes frequently to keep current with global food trends. Right now chef John Zottoli is in love with the tastes of Brazil and Argentina. About a half-dozen items on the dinner menu (you'll know them by the sun icon next to the names) show the spicy influence of those nations.
But some classics have been there from the start and will probably never go away. I think of the Chinese chicken salad with Thai peanut sauce ($10.50 at lunch) or the bowtie pasta, a sophisticated bowl of haute comfort food consisting of strips of grilled chicken, bits of crunchy pancetta, snow peas, shiitake mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes in a light cream sauce enlivened with shaved Parmesan. It's $13.50 at lunch and $18 at night, and you really can't say you're a Michael's regular until you've had the bowtie pasta. The mild and juicy rack of lamb is another must-have, and it's equally as good on the catering side as it is in the restaurant. Louisiana lump crab (practically no filler) with remoulade sauce is a seafood winner; so is the Chilean sea bass.
Desserts are lavish and carefully composed on snowy oversized plates that vary in shape for another level of visual interest. Sweets change seasonally. This past winter I had a pumpkin spice cake with cranberry ice cream and a side dollop of mascarpone cream that hit every delectable taste note of a cold-weather treat. The Key lime tart and the chocolate lava cake are favorites year-round. Desserts are generous enough to share. Service is efficient, considerate and discreet. The pace of dining is unhurried at night, and if guests linger to listen to the piano music or to have another cordial, no one at the reservation desk seems flustered.
The décor, originally done by Anne Folsom Smith and refreshed by this interior design star a few years ago, really sets the tony ambiance for the restaurant. The interior space is conceived as an Art Deco luxury liner, and you're a guest cruising to some exotic port while being royally entertained en route. The curving shape of the room puts you right on board, and a huge poster of the Normandie is at the entrance, leaving no doubt about where you're headed. Seating at tables and banquettes bends around a bar that's slightly separated from the dining room with a transparent black curtain. A circular platform dining area at the back of the restaurant can be closed off with crimson velvet drapes to make a small private dining area for parties up to about 15. The décor scheme is rich in comfortable, opulent fabrics, deep colors and art works that favor the heavy use of gold and copper metal work. It all enhances the concept that you're being pampered on a glamorous cruise ship.
Then there's the hospitality aspect. Few people in this town can work a room like Michael Klauber. Guests love to be recognized by him, chatted up, made to feel special and singled out, and Klauber cheerfully complies. The best part is that you can sense he's sincere and genuinely glad to have you at his restaurant, experiencing his food. And doesn't it always raise your comfort level when you see the owner on site personally maintaining standards? Klauber's pride and his personal enjoyment of fine food and wine are infectious. That's why sooner or later, we all go to Michael's On East.
Michael's On East
1212 East Ave. S. (Midtown Plaza)
Sarasota, FL 34239