State of the Art

By staff April 1, 2002

Our readers love food and wine, and we know that for a fact. That's because we recently commissioned a survey of our subscribers by the nation's leading magazine research firm, who scrutinized everything from income levels and buying habits to which articles readers most enjoy. We'll share all their findings with you in a future issue, but what interested us most as we were working on this food and wine issue was your taste for those topics.

Food and wine are the best-read subjects in this magazine, outstripping politics, personalities, civic issues, the arts and social life. (And in Sarasota, one could make the case that most of those activities revolve around eating and drinking, anyway.) Not only do three-quarters of our subscribers say they regularly read our restaurant reviews, fine dining section and other food and wine features; more than 50 percent wish we'd do even more on those subjects. When you guys aren't reading about food and wine, you're enjoying it-dining out a dozen times per month (75 percent say you try places you've read about in our pages), and hosting friends at home every two weeks or so.

It's not easy to keep up with your zest for the good life, but dedicated journalists that we are, we try, covering restaurant openings, gourmet festivals, double-malt Scotch tastings, six-course (and six-vintage) winemaker dinners and much, much more. We've presided over chocolate contests, sampled eight different stone crab preparations in one glorious evening and introduced our palettes to paw-paws and pomelo at Pattigeorge's Citrus Festival. We've also assisted TV chefs, tried to hold our own on culinary panels, and in one recent Herculean effort, ate our way through three appetizers, four entrées and way too many desserts as a judge for Taste of Sarasota. Yes, we've endured some sleepless nights, self-recriminations and skirmishes about expense accounts along the way-but tough as the job is, someone has to do it. After another year in the trenches, here's our report on the state of Sarasota dining.

After reeling from 9-11, restaurants are starting to recover. At Café L'Europe alone, says general manager Michael Garey, close to 300 reservations were canceled in September, and local hotels and restaurants lost most of the convention business that normally carries them through October, November and December. Catering, which recovered by the Christmas season, helped some restaurants survive. Chains, which advertised heavily, and neighborhood places suffered the least; and by February, most say business was pretty much back to normal.

All over the country, people are retreating to comforting, homey favorites, and Sarasota is no exception. Bon Appetit recently named braised short ribs the "Dish of the Year," but that wasn't news to local restaurateurs. Michael Klauber put those rich and tender ribs on his Michael's On East menu right after the terrorist attacks, and diners also soothed themselves with them at Maureen and Steve Horn's Maureen's on Longboat. As Marsha Fottler notes in her "Food & Wine" column this month, comfort foods, from chicken soup to meatloaf, are also best-sellers at Fred's.

Gussied-up versions of down-home desserts are also "enormous," says Michael Klauber, who's selling lots of designer-style cookies (billed as Max's Cookie Jar, after his young son). Bread pudding (known to industry insiders as the "hot dog" of desserts because chefs toss in whatever leftover bread they have) is getting the royal treatment, too, with rich, creamy sauces infused with spirits. And the top-selling mail-order item from Internet food giant was "the ultimate cupcake," a basic black number with a molten chocolate center topped with caramel sauce and hazelnuts.

Asian food has gone from a trend to a staple. Asian addicts keep coming back to Sarasota's Silver Cricket and driving up to Tampa to try the new Roy's, part of the Hawaiian-born chain that also draws diners in the Naples area. We're also cooking Asian-Japanese bread crumbs sell briskly at Morton's-and taking sushi home for dinner from Publix.

Less is more, after what Florida Trend restaurant critic Robert Tolf calls "a retreat from the cutting edge." Michael Garey says that "overfilled, oversauced, overdecorated plates are out," and D'Arcy Arpke at Euphemia Haye (like Michael's, just named a Florida Trend Hall of Fame restaurant) agrees that her customers prefer "prettier, more traditional" presentations. And whether it's a reaction to all the innovation of the last few years, a post 9-11 thing or just the desire to lose a few pounds, many Sarasotans are ordering simpler, healthier dishes such as grilled salmon. (Much of that salmon, along with turbot and even caviar, now comes from farms rather than the wild.) Thanks to the miracles of modern air freight, we're also tasting fresh fish from around the globe, such as Australia's John Dory or Fiji's escolar.

Cheese is turning up all over, from deliciously smelly varieties crowding the shelves at specialty shops to Café L'Europe's cheese course, a selection of European artisanal products that diners enjoy as an appetizer or instead of dessert. There's even a special seminar on cheese at this month's Winefest.

Wine drinkers, smarter and more adventurous every year, are rejecting California's rising prices and trying great-tasting and affordable alternatives. Locally, they're uncorking bottles from New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, Italy and the South of France, especially Rhone Valley varietals.

Design stars in new restaurants, from the Ritz-Carlton's gorgeous new Mediterranean-themed Vernona Restaurant (check out the colorful chandeliers) to the oh-so-Asian, sculptural stone bathroom at Silver Cricket.

Moroccan cuisine has arrived. Spots like Sahara or Chutney's have featured Middle Eastern favorites for years, but now they're appearing on more traditional menus as well. Cous-cous comes with the free-range chicken at the new Ritz; and a fragrant Israeli version, with larger grains, accompanies the vegetable stew at Alley Cat.

Special events, festivals, classes and wine dinners continue to attract consumers, and not only the retirees who have traditionally had the time and inclination for self-improvement. Epicurean Life recently hosted a busload of members of Tampa's "Wine Brats" club for demonstrations and a luncheon at The Tasting Room. The group included physicians, executives and other professionals, and the average age was about 35.

But where's the spoon? Cuisine editor Fottler reports that from Mom- and-Pop joints to the newest Ritz in Naples, 60 percent of restaurant place settings now lack the teaspoon. Whether it's efficiency, economy or something more mysterious, the style-conscious Fottler laments the trend, and she insists it's not only because it makes it harder to steal a taste of her long-suffering husband's soup or sorbet.

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