The nation's No. 1 tennis resort has always focused on good food as much as it does on good tennis. That's why on any given night, The Colony's Gulf-front dining room will be filled almost equally with vacationers and locals. You'll often know which is which. Locals don't bring children; they consider The Colony a sophisticated dining experience. But tourists who arrive toting tykes are never disadvantaged. There's a special menu for little ones, and if they wander off to investigate the aviary of finches or check out what's happening on the patio, no one minds.
The food is fancy but the attitude is relaxed. After the sun goes down, the restaurant still offers the views of the Gulf and white sand by eschewing table candlelight in favor of tall torches that light up the beach and draw the eye outward.
Your server will replace a white napkin with black if you're wearing dark clothes and will prepare a tableside Caesar salad if you want intense personal attention. Details and service reign supreme right down to the bread basket, which contains flat, savory and sweet rolls as well as a toss- dried candied fruit. Appetizers favor the classics-foie gras, caviar, crab cakes, lobster bisque-as well as newer nibbles such as peppered ahi on jerk salad greens.
For a while, the kitchen seemed to include a revolving door with "chef" printed on it, but despite the turnover, the restaurant has remained remarkably stable in the 30-plus years that the Klauber family (first Murf Klauber and more recently daughter Katie Klauber Moulton) has run the show. But two years ago, The Colony hired Roger Hopkins as executive chef and he rapidly advanced to direct all food and beverage operations, including the property's casual Taste Buds eatery, two bars and catering events, which can range from small parties to lavish weddings and the three-day annual Stone Crab, Seafood and Wine Festival. Originally from New York but with an affinity for sunny islands, the 40-year-old Hopkins met Murf Klauber through Sean Murphy (chef and owner of Anna Maria's Beach Bistro). And although Hopkins interviewed at the Colony on an uncharacteristically gloomy day, he was enthused enough to relocate from Antigua, where he'd cooked for five years. The Colony's fortunes improved again when Michael Garey recently was hired as manager of restaurants. Sarasota diners know Garey from the many years he spent as Café L'Europe's gracious and knowledgeable general manager.
Many menu items have been on the bill of fare since the restaurant opened. The snapper Colony, lightly breaded, pan seared and topped with jumbo lump crabmeat, tastes as succulent as when it first attained star billing. But over the years, it's been updated. Today, the mild white fish is placed atop a mound of wild mushroom risotto. A decade ago risotto was barely on Americans' culinary radar. Another time-tested favorite is the veal Colony, the kitchen's turn on a classic veal Oscar. Medallions are crowned with shrimp, grilled asparagus and Bernaise sauce. Works every time.
A newer addition is tropical yellowtail snapper, macadamia-coconut crusted and paired with habañero-sweet plantain hash and a rum passion fruit beurre blanc. Jerk sea bass (with banana-mango brown butter sauce) and sesame tuna and diver scallops additionally demonstrate the chef's finesse with trendy fare.
Seafood and fowl (including a first-rate Long Island crispy duck) occupy the top portion of the menu. The other half is devoted to chop house specialties, because Murf Klauber is a big-time steak eater and insists on dry-aged, super-fine beef, which Hopkins personally cuts every day starting at about 3 o'clock. (Hopkins does the same with all the fresh fish that is either locally caught or flown in daily). The black peppercorn-encrusted filet mignon offers an embarrassment of riches, with crumbled Maytag bleu cheese and a candied shallot demi-glace. Murf's guilty pleasure is a 16-ounce center cut New York strip steak served with feta mashers and creamed spinach in a filo basket. The menu also lists two vegetarian meals, one pasta and one featuring the ubiquitous grilled vegetables. Beef entrées average about $34; seafood and fowl, about $26.
The wine menu is a Wine Spectator award winner and it's a pleasure to read. And the extensive list is poised for further expansion, to more Mediterranean countries and a few regions of France not formerly represented. By-the-glass vintages are about $8. The dessert menu offers an impressive assortment of cognacs and ports ranging from $6 to $187 per glass.
Desserts are noteworthy, so save room for the rich flourless chocolate cake, key lime pie, crême brulée or strawberry shortcake. But for a truly fabulous finish, order a flaming dessert deftly flambéed tableside for two ($30). This is genuine culinary theater with a delicious finale, as your server/flame master takes a discreet bow. Bananas Foster, crepes Suzette, cherry jubilee, or Colony berries-choose your fruit and watch the sophisticated spectacle unfold. Look around and you can see vacationing parents giving their children a smile that indicates, "enjoy the fire and the fun of eating something so deliciously alarming because we will not be trying this at home."
Colony Dining Room
The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort
1620 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key
Dinner nightly: 5-9:30 p.m., on weekends last seating at 10 p.m.
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Now You're Cookin'
Recipe clubs are on the American front burner. The fad is fueled by celebrity chefs and their cookbooks, easy access to a world of cuisine experiences on the Internet, increased home entertaining and new interest in global culinary customs and traditions. People in this and every other home town across the nation are discovering that recipe clubs have all the right ingredients for forming friendships while swapping menus and tips that help transform every club member into a better cook. Lakewood Ranch alone has three recipe clubs, and they've maxed out on membership, meaning another will organize soon.
"You meet other people with similar interests, you share a surprise meal together once a month and pick up all kinds of practical information you can use right away," says Carol Turney, who belongs to one of the Lakewood Ranch clubs. "And not to be too sentimental, but the club members become kind of an extended family. When there's an illness or a new baby, they turn up at your door with a casserole or a great dessert."
A club should cap at about 20 since that is probably all that a hostess can handle, she advises. "But not all members will come to each meeting," she observes. "We usually have between 12 and 14 out of our total of 17."
Every month, a different member hosts the group, setting a theme and sending invitations. The host also supplies beverages, place settings and nametags for people and their dishes. The monthly hostess is not required to cook. Each member brings a dish and a recipe for each member to take home. Members arrive at 7 p.m., set out their food and the group enjoys a meal. Afterwards they go over each recipe and discuss what they might serve with it, what ingredients could be substituted and other details. The recipes come from cookbooks old and new, from the Internet, from other friends and relatives or from magazines. The club keeps a master book that contains every theme, invitation and recipe generated by the group.
Since forming a year ago, Carol Tumey's group has explored themes such as High Tea, Ethnic Background, Under 500 Calories, Childhood Favorites, Brunch and Romantic Meals. "No one in the club is required to tell the hostess what she's bringing," says Tumey. "That's the surprise. The night our theme was Side Dishes, we ended up with three different potato casseroles and two or three rice dishes. Part of the fun is that you just never know what you're going to be eating. It's a real adventure."
Lakewood Ranch club member Andrea Junghans, who is from a large Italian family and loves to create her own recipes, offers this one. She says it's the best way to get her children to eat their vegetables.
5 small tender zucchini
1 large onion
1 cup mushrooms
2 pieces bread, fresh or stale (cut or ripped into small pieces)
1/2 cup tomato sauce
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
1 cup shredded Mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup grated Romano cheese
1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper
Slice zucchini lengthwise and remove insides with melon ball scoop. Microwave the scooped-out zucchini halves in a covered baking dish approximately 3 minutes with one cup water in a dish. Drain and set aside. Chop all vegetables (including the zucchini pieces you removed from the halves) and sauté in a little oil, butter or broth. Add the tomato sauce. Cool slightly. Season to taste. Add bread and cheeses. Mix well and stuff zucchini halves. Bake covered for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. "They're as good the second day as they are the first, and I even like them cold," says Junghans.
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Q. I'm crazy about soups both hot and cold, and when I entertain I always start the meal with a soup course. But I need to expand my repertoire. Any suggestions?
A. Chef Larry Gaddy of Madfish Grill waves his magic ladle and suggests you try mangospacho. This cold soup has been on the restaurant menu since 1999 and is a huge hit with regulars. Order it in the restaurant by the cup ($2.95) or take it home for $7.99 a quart. Here's the recipe. Madfish Grill, 4059 Cattleman Road, Sarasota. 377-FISH.
3/4 cup mango chunks
2 bell peppers, chopped
2 cucumbers, chopped
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
1 quart V-8 juice
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon hot sauce
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 quart chopped plum tomatoes
Whirl everything in a blender to a coarse consistency. Refrigerate until serving time. Garnish each bowl with a dollop of sour cream and a sprig of cilantro.