Downtown Delights

By staff October 1, 2007

It’s a question of balance: local or exotic, sweet or tart, luxe or casual. Canvas Café, which anchors the northwest corner of the Towles Court arts district in downtown Sarasota, manages the trick very well. Let’s take these contrasting pairs in reverse order.

Luxe or casual: Canvas Café’s little blue house with the big porch and intimate wine bar and gallery out back goes for welcoming and casual. Luxe is reserved for the cooking.

The café’s main room is small but comfortable and nicely appointed with work mostly by emerging artists. Tables are unfussily bare, as are the wood floors, which can ramp up the noise level on a busy night, but the hubbub comes across as more convivial than distracting.

Outside, ample seating is offered on the fan-cooled porch or at patio tables under umbrellas. Both are good options in this leafy neighborhood.

Around back, what might once have been a guest house hosts a small wine and coffee bar in a gallery setting. The hip factor is a trifle higher here, but staffers are as friendly and helpful as are their counterparts in the restaurant.

The wine list, served either in the café or the wine bar, is compact but well considered and offers a good selection of wines by the glass, including the value-priced French brut sparkler François Montand Blanc de Blancs.

Sweet or tart: Here’s where the chef, Stephen Phelps, formerly of Mattison’s Steakhouse on Longboat Key, first asserts his talent. It’s evident in his handling of an ingredient that in lesser hands can lead to culinary disaster. That ingredient is fruit.

Anyone can pair fresh seasonal fruits and berries with vanilla yogurt in a dessert parfait (as Canvas does, and nicely), but Chef Phelps ventures beyond such trifles to enter the realm of alchemy. A prime example of his success is a chicken breast elevated nearly to the sublime by the chef’s perfectly nuanced cherry barbecue sauce. There’s a hint of sweetness, as there should be, but the dominant note is a robust tartness that combines with barbecue spices to bring out the best in the chicken rather than smothering it.

His even but inventive hand is seen, too, in the Robert Salad, which combines greens with cherries, green apples, oranges and goat cheese under a Spanish sherry vinaigrette, and even in a lemon “dust” version of potatoes gratin. When it comes to dessert, the parfait is fine, but the best fruit offering is the Meyer lemon and Florida blueberry sour cream cake. Blueberries were made to be set off to perfection by the cool and understated tang of Meyer lemons. The sour cream cake that contains these two is no slouch, either.

Cherries play a small but essential role in another dessert, this one a chocolate Guinness stout cake stuffed with rich caramel dulce de leche and sauced in a cherry pistachio cream. Again, the cherries add the tartness that keeps this extravaganza from being just another monument to sweet excess.

A question chefs are beginning to ponder: Given a growing understanding of the true cost of importing foods, including the cost of petroleum-based fuels to transport them and the carbon footprint of that transportation, which exotic delicacies are most worth the price?

I, for one, would be hard pressed to do without Parmigiano Reggiano or several of the New Zealand sauvignon blancs or the superior green chiles grown near Hatch in New Mexico. Still, a Turtle Creek Florida chevre is a wonderful cheese, and we’re lucky that oranges grow at our back door. But I’m not a chef and have only to satisfy myself.

Chef Phelps rises to the greater challenge. His preference is for local, organically grown ingredients in his “global fusion cuisine,” but he balances that preference with an understanding that no single locale can produce the best of everything.

When it comes to seafood, which he does extremely well, he balances his Kissimmee-farmed barramundi, a river and estuarine fish (native to Australia) with delicate and toothsome pure white flesh, against the uncontested king of lobsters from Maine and firm cold-water halibut from Alaska. The succulent scallops he served in a daily special on one of our recent visits were wild-harvested from the Gulf.

The barramundi is served with a tomato-mustard seed jam and those lemon “dust” potatoes gratin, both perfectly suited to this mild but full-flavored fish. A pan-roasted beef filet, on the other hand, is more assertively garnished. The nicely crusted steak is topped with a heavenly Gorgonzola flan and served on a muscular smoked bacon and chanterelle mushroom concasse, the whole further asserted by a powerfully good reduction the chef calls mushroom syrup.

The cherry barbecue chicken is likewise perfected by just the right accompaniments, in this case a purée of Okeechobee-grown sweet corn and fingerling potatoes in a salad.

Other judicious pairings include a zesty gazpacho softened with a dab of creamy crab and sliced ripe avocado, a tart combining goat cheese with wild mushrooms, and, also from the appetizer list, a chunky lobster cake with roasted fennel in a tarragon-shallot emulsion.

If you believe, as I do, that balance is entirely too hard to come by in our contentious modern world, come soothe your frayed nerves at Canvas Café.

Canvas Café and Wine Bar

239 S. Links Ave. (in Towles Court)

(941) 366-2233

Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday

Dinner: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday

Wine bar: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday


Handicap accessible

Parking on street

Speaking French on Main Street

For the adventurous diner with eclectic tastes, the restaurants, bars and cafés that line Sarasota’s Main Street between Palm and Orange avenues constitute the mother lode. Tapas or sushi or pho, Peruvian or Italian or Mexican cooking, cheap or dear, clubby or utterly unpretentious: It’s all right there in three gloriously mixed-up blocks.

On the north side of the block, midway between Orange and Lemon, you’ll find a delicious little bite of everyday neighborhood Paris called C’est la Vie. And although French is the native tongue of most of the staff and of quite a few of the bakery-and-café’s regulars, English speakers will feel right at home. (As will your well-mannered dog, at least at the shady sidewalk tables.)

C’est la Vie serves breakfast and lunch and purveys its delicious baked goods from early morning to early afternoon. Let’s begin with breakfast.

Purists will go for le Petit Paris, a fresh baguette, about two-thirds of it sliced lengthwise and the rest in rounds, and a wonderfully flaky, buttery croissant, along with more butter, just in case, and jam. Add a cafe au lait and you’re ready for a postprandial stroll along our version of the Champs Elysées.

If your morning appetite is larger, you could opt for Breakfast in America, which combines the classic eggs, sausage, bacon and potatoes, or you could choose, as I would, an omelet, plain or with a choice of one to four ingredients, or crepes in 14 tempting combinations. Either comes with choice of salad or potatoes.

The omelet here is not the big fluffy folded kind but a thinner round one, echoing the shape of the pan it was cooked in. In this version, the flavors of the extras you’ve specified (bacon and leeks for me) really pop. When it comes to crepes, the thin pancakes are folded around fillings ranging from smoked salmon in cream sauce (the Norvegienne) to good old ham and cheese.

Morning is the best time to plunder the riches under glass and stacked in baskets behind the bakery counter. The sight of so many handmade loaves in so many shapes, sizes and textures warms the soul. Under glass you might find almond, chocolate or plain croissants, a highly recommended raisin roll, brioches large and small, perfect little single-serving kiwi or mixed berry tarts, brownies, cakes and—well, this list could go on and on. Your best bet is just to show up early and see what tickles your fancy.

For lunch, the choices are even more extensive and are complemented by a nice variety of wines by the glass. Sandwiches alone take up a menu page. There are toothsome baguette sandwiches served cold (the Marseilles is for tuna lovers), toasted sandwiches on panini (the Menton blissfully combines an assertive olive tapenade with creamy goat cheese and tomatoes), or even a Croq’ Monsieur (toasted ham and cheese sandwich with a bechamel sauce, or make it a Croq’ Madame with the addition of a sunny-side-up egg). Or choose from five quiches, a couple of cheese plates or 16 luncheon salads. No matter which choice your taste dictates, you will not go wrong at this authentic little gem.

C’est La Vie

1553 Main St.

(941) 906-9575

Breakfast: 7:30 a.m.-noon Monday-Saturday

Lunch: Until 3 p.m. Monday-Saturday

Bakery: Until 4:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday


Handicap accessible

Parking on street or in municipal lots

An editor, writer and online publisher, John Bancroft has reviewed restaurants, books, movies and music for many magazines, Web sites and newspapers, most recently for the St. Petersburg Times.

Ask John

Q. Where can I get the freshest stone crab claws?

A timely question, given that Florida stone crab season opens Oct. 15. Until this year's catch starts coming ashore, nobody can say what this season's price will be, but whatever it is you're likely to get the freshest claws at the best price in Cortez, a historic fishing village at the north end of Sarasota Bay.

At 12306 46th Ave. W. you'll find the Star Fish Company. Through the screen door is the packing house's retail shop, with the day's offerings displayed on ice under glass. The boiled claws, ready for cracking, will have come straight off the boat. The price will be better than at most other places, but maybe not quite as low as at A.P. Bell Fish Company, in the next building west. (Don't bother looking for an address. It appears to be a secret.)

Walk up the concrete steps and through the open overhead door. You'll be on Bell’s packing house floor. No retail counter here; just look for someone who looks like he or she belongs there and ask if they have what you're looking for. If they do, they'll quote a price. And, as at Star Fish and its Dockside open-air fish restaurant and beer bar next door, only cash or check will do. Call ahead for this season's hours: Star, (941) 794-1243; A.P. Bell, (941) 794-1249.

What I’m Drinking

Shaken or stirred? Before we answer this martini lover’s question, let’s get one thing straight: No matter what kind of barware it’s served in, a drink that includes chocolate, cranberry juice, prickly pear syrup or some unlikely something called Blue Island Pucker is not a martini. It may be a perfectly serviceable cocktail, but a martini it is not.

A martini is either vodka or gin, chilled, strained into a chilled stemmed glass and served with either a large pimento-stuffed olive or a twist of lemon peel. (No vermouth, you will note, and as for the garnish, neither a rosemary sprig nor a candy corn may be substituted, ever.)

To answer the question of whether a martini should be shaken or stirred, we went to Eric Bell, who for the last 14 years has presided over the Haye Loft bar upstairs at Euphemia Haye on Longboat Key. We discovered that the question really is not to shake or to stir, but rather: Do you want that with gin or vodka? If vodka is your pleasure, “Shake the hell out of it,” Bell advises. This will result in a very cold cocktail with nanochips of ice incorporated into the liquor.

If it’s gin for you, then stir—but not just any old way. No, Bell is quite firm on this point: Stir precisely 23 times in one direction (clockwise or counterclockwise is up to you) and then 23 times in the opposite direction. The result is an unbruised gin cocktail, not as cold as the vodka version but also sans ice chips.

The traditional garnish for the vodka model is an olive and for the gin a twist. The thing is, almost nobody specifies gin any more. “Ninety to ninety-five percent of the martinis I make these days are vodka,” Bell confirms.

And if the martini drinker should happen to specify dry, very dry, extra dry, bone dry or even as dry as the Saharan sands, what then, Mr. Bell?

“When somebody says dry and I use no vermouth, which is the norm, then they usually say something like, ‘Eric, that was the perfect amount of vermouth,’” he says.

Our sentiment, exactly.


In Season

Chef Judi Gallagher welcomes fall’s fresh, tart cranberries.

ctober symbolizes the autumn harvest. Winter squash begins to appear in produce sections, along with fresh pumpkins and juicy, tart Macintosh apples. My personal favorite, however, are the fresh cranberries. They may be stored in the refrigerator for up to four weeks. While Southwest Florida heat may discourage turning the oven on to bake cranberry muffins this time of year, here’s a delicious recipe for cranberry ice cream ( that is luscious by itself or on top of another seasonal favorite, pumpkin pie. And remember—cranberries are loaded with health-promoting properties, so enjoy.

Cranberry Ice Cream

2 cups heavy cream

1 1/2 cups plus 3 tablespoons sugar

6 large egg yolks

1/8 teaspoon salt

4 cups fresh or frozen cranberries

1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick

1 tablespoon lavender

1 teaspoon cardamom, ground

Bring cream and 1/2 cup sugar just to a boil in a saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and keep hot, covered. Beat together yolks, salt and 3 tablespoons sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at high speed until tripled in volume and thick enough to form a ribbon that takes 2 seconds to dissolve into mixture when beater is lifted.

Reduce mixer speed to low and add hot cream mixture to the yolks in a slow steady stream, then transfer back into the saucepan. Cook over moderate low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until custard is slightly thickened and registers 170 degrees Fahrenheit on thermometer (do not let boil).

Pour custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a large heatproof bowl, discarding solids. Let custard cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally.

While custard cools, combine cranberries, remaining cup of sugar, lavender, cardamom and cinnamon stick in a saucepan and bring to a boil over moderately high heat, stirring. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until cranberries have burst, about 10 minutes. Remove and discard cinnamon stick, then carefully transfer the cranberry mixture to a blender and purée until smooth. Force through fine-mesh sieve into bowl of custard, pressing on solids with the back of a spoon and then discarding them. Cool, stirring occasionally, about 45 minutes.

Freeze custard in an ice cream maker. Transfer to an airtight container and put in freezer to harden, at least 4 hours. Serve frozen. Yields 1 quart.

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