Mark Caragiulo designs restaurants as if he’s constructing a Hollywood set for a movie you want to be in. You don’t need to be the star, just an extra sitting at a table, maybe caught for a moment on camera nibbling an artistic crudo made with strips of raw tuna or sipping a St. Vincent cocktail fragrant with strawberries. At Shore on St. Armands, Caragiulo created a midcentury modern vibe, while his Owen’s Fish Camp captures the long-ago days when the town was home to winter fish camps that offered minimal luxury and a sportsman’s Nirvana of fresh-caught seafood.
At Veronica Fish & Oyster, his new venture in Southside Village, the movie is about an alluring young woman who presides over a restaurant that attracts a stylish set of residents and visitors in a modern beach resort town. It could be the Hamptons or Martha’s Vineyard, but in this case, it’s Sarasota, Florida.
Caragiulo says he took the name “Veronica” from an Elvis Costello song he’s always loved, one that was inspired by Costello’s grandmother’s descent into dementia. But the Veronica of his restaurant is a young woman who’s depicted in the lounge in an arresting, wall-sized painting by local artist Joseph Arnegger. The space she dwells in is both nostalgic and fresh.
The dining room has a view to the semi-open bistro kitchen, but it’s flanked by tall bookcases outfitted with books, plates and odds and ends that make it look like a real living room, one that’s been there for several generations. The seating is paisley-upholstered banquettes, booths and tables, some topped with metal, others with wood.
On the other side of the restaurant, the lounge has a beautiful white marble bar. Across from the bar, nestled in the windows facing the Hillview street side of Veronica, a row of facing plush green vintage-style settees should be the first seats taken when cocktail hour arrives. Exposed duct work and metal accents create an industrial chic ambiance softened with upholstery, art and a beguiling hanging light fixture of a mermaid. Veronica seems intimate, but it seats 175, with a few tables outside on the Hillview side.
The menu reflects the way people like to eat now: small plates, light bites, raw seafood, trendy salads (roasted beet is still with us), sandwiches and sides such as crispy Brussels sprouts, triple-fried fries and a piquant house slaw made with cabbage, broccoli, sugar snap peas and thin coins of beautiful watermelon radish. Sides average $8.
There’s a short-rib burger with aged Gruyere and shitake mushrooms for $14 that’s exactly right and a Maine lobster roll that has the untraditional but well-advised addition of caper aioli ($24).
A big shellfish platter of 12 oysters, six clams and six Ruby Red shrimp is $45. And if you go bigger, say to $75, you also get lobster salad, Low Country ceviche and mussels enriched with 50-year-old sherry vinegar. Fish and chips ($17), wood-grilled grouper ($29) or a 14-ounce Black Angus ribeye steak ($36) are all there, plus a comfort-food entry, chicken and dumplings with smoked bacon for $21.
I’ve seen quite a few families with young children at Veronica before 7 p.m. After that, it’s the crowd that orders small plates and experiences what the bar has to offer, which is a big wine list (plenty of them by the glass for about $9), and an impressive array of beer and signature seasonal cocktails, all for $10.
The young serving staff is friendly, prompt and knowledgeable about the menu and the bar. The kitchen is efficient and gets attractively plated food out in a kind of choreography that’s nice to see, and the food itself is varied and well prepared. Some of the dishes are unusual and creative, including Indian Punjabi, a whole fish prepared with chermoula (a Moroccan marinade), naan, preserved lemon yogurt and harissa. It represents the kind of ambitious reach both the kitchen and the concept at Veronica exhibit.