Focus on Flavor

By staff June 1, 2005

Bob's Place, a small, unassuming hangout on Central Avenue, serves good, no-frills meals in a storefront setting full of framed circus photographs. But on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, Bob's magically morphs into Ray's, an intimate café of candlelight and decorous drapes where the chef serves a fixed-price supper of four courses for $34. He can accommodate only 30 people, so reservations are essential.

Dinner at Ray's is an adventure, and it works best for a group of four or six, because a large part of the fun is talking about the food, the wine and the whole unique approach to this funky shared space. Also, the place is so small that if you don't bring friends, you'll have to make friends with the people on either side of you.

You choose between two appetizers. The salad is the chef's choice. Select between two entrées (usually a seafood and a meat) and then you have a choice of two desserts. Bring your own wine. If you don't want what's on the menu, chef usually has a steak choice off the menu.

Behind this concept is Raymond Schilcher, who grew up in the hotel business in New York, graduated from France's prestigious Cordon Bleu culinary school and for the last 25 years has cooked at restaurants such as Feasts, Café Luna and Water on Martha's Vineyard. Now he and his partner, Melanie Haddock, have settled on Siesta Key (they have a three-month-old baby, Grace) and are determined to bring Schilcher's twist on coastal cuisine to the Rosemary District.

Schilcher layers many flavors to achieve unique versions of standards such as ribs, steak, even swordfish, which he glazes with wasabi mayonnaise. (He says that was one of Dan Aykroyd's favorites on the Vineyard.) If a recipe calls for a flavored oil, Schilcher uses two or three different ones, always looking for complexity and depth. He'll pair foie gras with pineapple slices in a rich reduction, steam local red snapper in coconut milk and lobster broth and then serve it with a combination of puréed yucca and sweet potato, garnishing it with a crispy wisp of plantain.

Schilcher says he's challenged himself never to repeat the same menu. And he presents the food beautifully, with color and thoughtful architecture, on oversized white bistro plates. If you want to know what the menu will be so you can bring the perfect wine, Schilcher will fax you the weekend menu if you phone him early in the week. Remember to bring cash or a checkbook, because he is not a man of plastic.

Ray's at Bob's Place

600 Central Ave., Sarasota

(941) 346-0683

Dinner: Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Two seatings, 6 and 8 p.m.

No bar or cellar. Bring your own wine, $5 corkage fee.

Reservations essential

No credit cards. Pay with cash or personal check

Street parking

Wheelchair access

Afternoon Delight

Now that the seasonal visitors have had their fill of the Columbia Restaurant, it's time for you and me to reclaim this St. Armands institution, prized for a premier comfort-food lunch of a Cuban sandwich and the 1905 salad, or the black bean soup and the sandwich, or the salad and the garbanzo bean and sausage soup. Decisions, decisions.

This restaurant, which exudes the maximum of Old World ambience, offers a wide-ranging menu of traditional Spanish and Cuban favorites, many quite fancy in their presentation and complicated in the cooking, such as two versions of paella, the red snapper Alicante or the Columbia's famous pompano en papillot, which is fish baked in a bag. But for a soul-satisfying lunch it's hard to surpass the simple joys of soup, salad or the Cuban sandwich served up Columbia-style.

The 1905 salad commemorates the year that Casimiro Hernandez Sr. opened his Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, Tampa. In years following, after sons-in-law came to the family business, the Gonzmart name became prominent. Today there are seven Columbias throughout the state; the St. Armands one was the second to come online, in 1959. At the helm today are Richard and Casey Gonzmart of the fourth generation.

The 1905 salad is so central to this restaurant that it's trademarked. The garlic-charged chopped mélange includes iceberg lettuce, strips of ham, tomato, olives, Swiss cheese and grated Romano cheese. It's assembled and dressed (and, oh, that dressing!) tableside by a courtly server in formal attire. The servers are so comfortable in this art that their amazing dexterity seems playful and offhand.

There are four soup choices, but the two you want to choose between at lunch are the vegetarian black bean and white rice (which you can enhance with a little clump of chopped white onion) or the Spanish bean, made with garbanzo beans, chunks of potato, chorizo sausage and smoked ham along with savory spices simmered in a ham/chicken broth. You get a cup of either when you order a combination plate. The Cuban sandwich is composed of smoked ham, pork, salami, mustard and dill pickle on hot, fresh and crusty Cuban bread that comes to the table wrapped in butcher paper.

The combination of the soup/salad or Cuban sandwich/soup comes to $7.95, making it one of the best deals in town for both quality and earthy good taste. If you choose another kind of sandwich or an entrée you can have the 1905 salad for an additional $3.95. If you want just a big plate of the salad (served with Cuban bread), that will be $7.95 with turkey and $9.95 with shrimp. A cup of soup is $3.95, with a bowl a dollar more. A Cuban sandwich solo is $6.95.

A lot of the family recipes that appear on the lunch and dinner menus used to be guarded secrets, but today the Gonzmarts share their culinary wealth with home cooks. You can buy the official Columbia Restaurant cookbook with 178 recipes for $24.95 in the gift shop that connects to the restaurant. So next year when visitors once again take over the Columbia for six months, you can concoct soup and salad for lunch in your own kitchen. But you're going to miss that wonderful wait-staff.

The Columbia Restaurant

411 St. Armands Circle

(941) 388-3987

Lunch and dinner, Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday, noon-10.

Credit cards

Reservations accepted and necessary during season

Street parking or valet

Wheelchair accessible

Ask Marsha

Q. On vacation I tour breweries the way oenophiles investigate wineries. But at home, it's hard to find interesting beers. Got a source for me?

Along with its meat, gourmet groceries and more, The Butcher's Block excels in weird beer and staffs an advisor to help you pair beers with specific foods. Charles "Boomer" Halstead organizes monthly Saturday beer tastings and stocks dozens of imported and unusual domestic craft beers sold by the single bottle. The oddest could be Delirium Tremens, a Belgian ale in a blue foil bottle decorated with grinning pink elephants ($3.89). The most expensive is Czar Imperial Stout at $7.19, but it's 22 ounces of full, rich flavor just right for beef Stroganoff or steak. For Asian or Indian recipes try Dogfish Head or Scottish Heather Ale, and with pizza a righteous choice would be Genesis, a kosher beer that calls itself "the chosen brew." Call to get the tasting schedule. The Butcher's Block, 3242 17th St., Sarasota. (941) 955-2822.

Nibbles 'n Sips

In Fred's new Florida Room and the private dining rooms, the management has clad the walls in luscious russet-red suede (officially called Fred's Red). The look is sophisticated and modern, but the primary reason for the upgrade is to reduce the level of buzz and good vibrations at peak hours. Panels of this suede have also been added to the back of the bar area near the kitchen to reduce noise spilling out from the cooking area. . . . It was only a matter of time and now it's happened. Starbucks (just like Godiva) has entered the spirits market with a coffee-flavored liqueur meant to be sipped straight over ice, to embellish ice cream or to form the base for designer martinis. Starbucks Coffee Liqueur (the official name) is not sold at Starbucks coffee centers, but in liquor stores, at about $30 for a 22-ounce bottle. For a brunch refresher called Coffee Blossom, take one part Starbucks Coffee Liqueur, one part vanilla vodka, one part half and half and a splash of Amoretti orange flower syrup. Shake with ice and strain into a chilled champagne or martini glass. Garnish with an orange twist. . . . The next big national food trends: Brazilian ethnic recipes and a renaissance of barbecue in restaurants and culinary publications. . . . Chef Paul Mattison's newest business venture, Mattison's Culinary Outfitters, features everything you need to set up a kitchen, including professional design advice. Pots, pans, graters, knives, bowls, plus Mattison's recommendation about where to place everything in your kitchen workspace. At 25 Avenue of the Flowers on Longboat Key; open Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Call (941) 387-2700.


Grilled vegetables from John Zottoli of Michael's On East.

Until the mid '90s, John Zottoli had never even worked in a restaurant. But on a ski vacation with wife Ellen to Vermont, he passed by a room at the resort where the chef was setting up a wedding banquet. "The food looked so beautiful I realized that was what I'd love to do with my life," says the 37-year-old. He enrolled at Johnson & Wales in Providence, R.I., and five years later was in Sarasota, first at Fred's and for the past three years, as executive chef at Michael's on East. At home, Zottoli cooks simply. "Often I'll share mac and cheese with my three-year-old son or fix myself scrambled eggs with white cheese and fresh black pepper. To me, that's comfort food," he says. These grilled vegetables are also often on the menu. "We use this recipe all summer long because it's light, easy and can be done on the grill," says Zottoli. "To make it an entrée, add strips of grilled chicken, steak or shrimp."

Grilled Vegetables

2 red onions, peeled and sliced about one-half-inch thick

1 zucchini, sliced one-half-inch thick

2 summer squash, sliced one-half-inch thick

2 tomatoes, sliced one-half-inch thick

1 red pepper, sliced about one-quarter-inch thick

2 tablespoons minced garlic

3 ounces fresh basil, roughly chopped

3 ounces oregano, roughly chopped

extra virgin olive oil to coat all vegetables

fresh cracked pepper to taste

sprinkle balsamic vinegar

Heat a charcoal grill. In a stainless steel bowl place all veggies except onions, and season with salt and pepper, fresh herbs, olive oil, and a little balsamic vinegar. Let rest for at least 15 minutes or up to 1 hour. When grill is ready, grill veggies, including onions, until caramelized. Do not overcook. They should still have some backbone. Season with salt and pepper if necessary.

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