(2006) The wait staff at Ezra wears blue jeans with white dress shirts, neckties and bistro aprons. Such counterpoint of high-low, casual-sophisticated makes this Bradenton cafe work as both a relaxed neighborhood hangout for locals and as a destination for Sarasota foodies.
The biggest surprise here is how ambitious the menu is and how reasonable the prices. Chef/owner Dave Shiplett doesn't compromise on quality ingredients and refuses to play it traditional, in spite of his humble address in a strip mall. The place isn't particularly classy, but the food certainly is.
Everything at Ezra basically takes place in one room that seats about 80. (There's patio seating for 30 more and a private function room for 50.) The open kitchen is at one end of the dining room, a bar is off to one side, and a small lounge area accommodates people waiting to be seated. The dining space is set with round and square tables. There are white tablecloths (covered with that laundry-saving butcher paper) and cloth napkins, candlelight at night and a little vase of lucky bamboo on each table. The atmosphere is unhurried and the lighting under the black painted ceiling comfortably gentle.
Seafood rules at Ezra. Born and raised in Bradenton as the son of a commercial fisherman, 46-year-old Shiplett has been filleting fish and shucking oysters since childhood. His attitude about seafood is to clean it and get out of the way. "When you start with a fresh piece of fish, do as little as possible to it," he insists. "The taste of that fish should be the taste in your mouth." Besides learning seafood basics young, Shiplett studied under Asian chefs in San Francisco, hence the menu's Asian influences.
At Ezra, I had one of the best preparations of Dover sole in my life. Light and meltingly delicious, the sole came with a side of squash risotto and sautéed spinach. And high praise to the lump blue crab cakes, which were rich in flavor. Chef serves the cakes (two to an order) with corn relish off to the side or with a West Indian cocktail sauce.
At a cooking demonstration a couple of years ago, I watched Shiplett prepare his pan-seared signature crab cakes. His recipe is deceptively simple, because the quality of the ingredients is what makes it so successful. With the cakes at Ezra I was served basil whipped potatoes that were quite green and more refreshing than you'd expect mashed potatoes to be. Jasmine rice, cheese grits, cucumber noodle salad and hash browns are other unexpected sides on the menu.
Seafood specials to try include pan-fried oysters, tuna sushi tempura, Caribbean spiny lobster bisque, grilled yellowfin tuna, Key West mahi mahi and wok-fried Gulf shrimp. Ezra's bento box is worth exploring. In it are a tuna tempura roll, calamari salad, fried oysters and Thai shrimp slaw. At $17, it's a grand global fusion meal.
Landlubbers need not whine. The New York strip steak, the skirt steak, burger, Asian grilled chicken with Mandarin orange, and the hoi sin roasted duck are first rate. Entrées average $19 (steak, more).
The wine list features mostly California product, with a nod to New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Northwest. Among some surprises are Redwood Valley's Lolonis Ladybug Re, an organic wine, offered at $26. Desserts, made by Dr. Donna Eason (the chef's wife), range from $4 to $6 and express creativity as well as a sense of humor. Look for Guava crème brûlée, root beer float, dark and light chocolate paté, and an apple pizzeta (a riff on a tarte Tatin) that's made to order and well worth trying.
If you live in Bradenton, you probably already eat at Ezra. If you live in Sarasota and are willing to make the trek to this delightful cafe, you'll be inspired to do it again.
5625 W. Manatee Ave., Bradenton
Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner: Monday through Saturday, 5:30-9:30 p.m.
Takeout, catering, Saturday live entertainment.
Parking in mall lot