Stephen Starr, the famed restaurateur and designer who came up with innovative concepts like Buddakan, Continental, Barclay Prime and Morimoto, may have more national recognition, but here in Sarasota, we know the restaurant guru as Mark Caragiulo--the likable guy who's got an incredible knack for developing a concept that leaves you wanting more.
As promised, I waited nearly a month to check out the buzziest new place in town, and it was everything I hoped for (if a bit noisy).And as if he heard our pleas for a Southside Village location of one of his restaurants, we've now got Veronica Fish & Oyster, Mark's newest concept and as big a winner in its own right as his Owen's Fish Camp, Shore Diner and more.
First thing you notice: the rooms are so Mark. From a bar area with soft, comfortable plush chairs and coffee tables to a dining space with the industrial-chic look of a posh Denver eatery, Veronica nails it on decor. And as for the food--well, Mark clearly knows how to find good chefs.
On a recent Thursday night, the place was buzzing with several large tables, mostly families gathering for dinner and shared plates. Food editor Marsha Fottler and I began our dinner with two small plates: Maine lobster toasts with avocado and saffron aioli, and a sliced smoked sturgeon toast with pickled onions. Simple, elegant and a good start.
On the right side of the menu you will find a daily specials list. Thursday happened to be yellowfin tuna, and this dish delivered. Set on a bed of creamy farro, the tuna was simply seared to a perfect rare, then drizzled with orange chili sauce. Meanwhile, our friends Linda and Thomas Doan raved about their wood-grilled grouper with lobster giardinera and confit fingerling potatoes.
Now, I confess I am still dieting, so I ate sparingly, and although tempted, I declined any alcohol. Note to self: try a craft cocktail, the chicken and dumplings and the desserts when I lose 10 more pounds. So many wonderful-sounding options still to try--and trust me, I will.
And speaking of Mark's restaurants, the quality of the food has been raised at Shore Diner, as well. While I have always loved the space, I've often felt the food was inconsistent or lacking flavor. Not anymore--and hats off to the kitchen. On a recent visit we dined at the bar and noshed on pork belly tacos, oak grilled veggies and tuna tartare. All were spot on.
So, it seems we have what the big cities claim to have in Mark Caragiulo--a truly great restaurateur. All you have to do is replace the Armani suit with a faded baseball cap--just the way we like it here.