Gifts from the Sea

By staff January 1, 2008

Marina Jack has always been about the view. In fact, it sometimes feels as if the Sarasota bayfront fixture has been around as long as Sarasota Bay itself. For years it’s been the first place many of us have taken visitors for a taste of coastal living, as well as for that staple from the dawn of time, Captain Jack’s Fried Seafood Platter.

But Marina Jack has grown up over the last several years. The upstairs Bayside Dining Room takes even better advantage of the harbor, bay and distant Gulf views than before it was rebuilt; its menu has matured and acquired a welcome diversity; and it has earned three consecutive Wine Spectator awards of excellence, beginning in 2005. You still can order that good old fried combo, too.

The dining room, with its curving wall of towering floor-to-ceiling glass, is grand. Tables on three levels multiply the opportunities for seduction by an expansive bayscape that changes by the minute with subtle shifts of light. The room’s décor is neutral, which makes good sense. Why compete with the watery vision beyond the window?

Once you’ve drunk in a first big gulp of the view over an aperitif, the black and blue tuna, featuring thinly sliced, blackened but rare yellowfin served with a Dijon soy dipping sauce, is one of the best bets among the 10 appetizers ($9.95 to $14.95) regularly on offer. It is also a stalwart on the more casual menu at the open-air Portside Patio Bar downstairs.

A close runner-up among dining room starters: the mussels steamed in white wine and garlic and finished with parsley butter. Unless your appetite has been sharpened to a fine point by a long day on the boat, you may want to share this bountiful bowl with a friend.

Florida stone crab claws usually are available in season (through March 15) as either an appetizer or an entrée, both at market price. If stone crab is out of season, I’d go for the old-fashioned chilled prawn cocktail; nothing fancy, just half a dozen big, fresh beauties served with lemon, cocktail sauce and a dollop of shaved horseradish, just in case.

Don’t ask me why, but I habitually skip the pasta portion of the menu in a restaurant specializing in fish. If your taste runs that way, though, you might consider the spicy Creole seafood pasta with its inviting combination of crayfish and langostino tails, scallops and mushrooms tossed with linguine in a Tabasco cream sauce. Let me know what you think. Maybe you’ll convert me.

My mouth really begins to water when I get to the fresh fish and other main dishes, which range from chicken in a Boursin cream sauce ($23.95) to a pair of Canadian lobster tails ($42.95). Two of the fresh fish offerings, Gulf grouper and certified wild salmon, come chargrilled. The salmon I sampled was fresh, firm and rosy, perfectly cooked and nicely set off by a restrained dill sauce. Red snapper and rainbow trout come sautéed, the snapper with a choice of Amaretto beurre blanc or fruit salsa and the trout pistachio-crusted and served with pesto.

Other seafood dishes include pan-seared diver scallops, crab cakes with an ancho chile remoulade and, of course, that famous fry-up of shrimp, scallops, grouper nuggets and a crab cake.

Terrestrially sourced offerings include three steaks—New York strip, filet mignon and top sirloin—as well as duck medallions in a honey glaze with mango butter and New Zealand rack of lamb. As it happens, my constant dining companion and consultant—my wife Colette—is a fiend for rack of lamb. Marina Jack serves it with the classic Dijon and herb crust and sauces it in a rosemary-infused demi-glace (with a cup of mint sauce on the side, for the misguided). Colette’s verdict on this rendition? Definitely toothsome, cooked precisely to the correct medium rare, not out of place among the best she’s tasted in her extensive researches. This is high praise.

Main dishes come with various sides and salads or soup of the day. Colette chose yummy garlic mashed potatoes to accompany the lamb, and I opted for dirty rice with the fish. Both came with expertly sautéed green beans, fresh and full of flavor. Colette began with a mixed house salad dressed in a balsamic vinaigrette remarkable for its balance. I tasted a seafood chowder thick with ingredients (and right salty).

The wine list, while not over-long, packs a lot of variety in both price and style. Many sparkling wines, from Australia’s modest Seaview Brut to bold and beautiful Veuve Cliquot champagne, signal the restaurant’s popularity as a celebration place. Several pages of red and white varietals follow the sparklers. Among them we were delighted to find a favorite pinot noir, a full-bodied exemplar of its kind from Oregon’s Bethel Heights ($56).

Service is professional and attentive without being overbearing. A telling detail: When I mentioned to our waiter that I thought there might have been a mix-up in the bar, resulting in something else being inadvertently substituted for Grey Goose vodka in my martini, he whisked it away without quibble, returned with the right thing and stood by as I sipped. Little misfires can happen anywhere. It’s how the staff handles them that matters.

Marina Jack’s Bayside Dining Room

2 Marina Plaza, Sarasota

(941) 365-4232

Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner 5-10 p.m., both daily

Credit cards: American Express, Visa, MasterCard, Discover

Parking: Complimentary valet

Make Ours Sushi

The vibe at Ocean Star Japanese Restaurant in Holmes Beach is relaxed and friendly. That’s a good thing, but it’s not enough by itself to rate space in this column. In Ocean Star’s case, it’s the superior sushi that does the trick.

This little storefront restaurant’s extensive menu places a strong emphasis on fish, as you would expect, but beef, chicken, tofu and a variety of vegetables also have roles to play. Styles of preparation range from sushi and sashimi through tataki, tempura and teriyaki to noodle dishes and straight-up frying.

My wife and I eat there often, snagging a coveted pair of stools at the sushi bar when luck is with us. During peak dinner hours three chefs are usually displaying their knifework on the other side of low glass cases.

Our routine is to study, with single-minded focus, the sushi list (27 kinds of nigiri and 35 maki rolls, plus chalkboard specials) and to stubbornly ignore the proffered multi-page dinner menu. We can’t help ourselves. The sushi is that good.

By the time we’ve made our choices and placed our completed checklists atop the case in front of us, our wine or sake or beer has arrived and we settle in to watch the show. While it’s true that you can’t rush art, these chefs seem incapable of wasting either time or motion. By the time we’re ready for another round, two beautiful platters have replaced our lists atop the glass case.

We usually go for four or five (or six) nigiri selections (two pieces per order, $4 to $5.95; “Sashimi will be extra charge!” the menu warns) and a maki roll ($4 to $13.95). That’s for each of us, not to share. We’ve even been known to order a Black Dragon Roll, a fearsome creature with shrimp tails for horns and incorporating tempura shrimp, freshwater eel, cream cheese (yes, really) and avocado, for dessert.

Nigiri, of course, are the familiar lozenges of hand-formed sticky rice topped with raw or cooked seafood expertly parted from scales or shells and hand-cut with great precision. Every variety we’ve tasted at Ocean Star has been superb, but our favorites include buttery escolar, firm but not chewy conch, tuna (both the lean and the fatty), fresh salmon, and cooked and sauced freshwater eel with sesame seeds. The flying fish roe in its seaweed wrapper is positively psychedelic. Remember Pop Rocks, those candies that exploded on your tongue? Same with these little red fish eggs.

Favorite hand rolls, which generally have the rice on the outside, include these combos: eel and cucumber; salmon, tuna, avocado and scallion (the Green Bay); conch, cucumber, masago—a.k.a. Icelandic smelt roe—and spicy sauce (the Islander); tuna and cucumber (Tekkyu), and that extravagant set piece, the Black Dragon.

Sometimes, if we’re particularly hungry, we’ll preface the sushi with a bowl of warm edamame; those tender little soy beans are actually quite good once you’ve popped them out of their hairy pods. Sometimes, sticking with the soy bean theme, we go for the excellent deep-fried tofu with sweet-and-salty dashi sauce for dipping. The carrot-topped house salad is good, too.

On our most recent visit, mindful of our roles as reporters, we ventured far enough afield to actually request a table and to add an order of tempura shrimp ($17.95, with rice and salad) to our sushi fix, just for science. The result was positive. Fresh shrimp and assorted veggies arrived fried to perfection in a light, lacy batter, accented by a pretty fan of crisp-fried noodles. I’m surprised these virtually greaseless dainties didn’t float off the plate.

Absolutely lovely. Next time, however, it’s more than likely we’ll be back at the sushi bar, indulging our carefully nurtured bias.

The sushi is that good.

Ocean Star Japanese Restaurant

3608 East Bay Drive, Holmes Beach

(941) 778-1236

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; ‘til 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; ‘til 9:30 p.m. Sunday

Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover

Ample lot parking


I need chocolate. Fresh. Handmade. Beautiful. Now! Where?

“We’re all about the goddess here,” declares Deni Dreazen, who with Lynne Epstein runs Divinia Jeanne’s Chocolate Heaven at the corner of Lemon Avenue and Boulevard Of The Arts in Sarasota’s Rosemary District. Believe her. As I write this sentence my tastebuds are dancing a can-can and a warm glow suffuses my brain. If I were a cat I’d purr. The diagnosis? Ingestion of a single handmade, hand-painted dark chocolate truffle with a vivid rum center that just moments ago was a sleek dark brown with subtle tan accents on its gem-cut dome. It’s gone now, but I know where to get more. I might even drop in some Saturday morning and, for $20, join a chocolate devotee's tea party in the magic kitchen behind the shop (reservations suggested). Imagine: a rich chocolate waffle cookie, fresh from the iron, drizzled with dark chocolate, crowned with whipped cream and chased with a mug of rich Kona coffee. I hear you purring, too. What else can I tell you? Probably that Divinia Jeanne’s is open Tuesday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Saturday until 5 p.m.; Saturday’s chocoholic buffet is served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The goddess caters, crafts custom gift baskets and creates original sweet wonders to order. She’ll tell you about if you dial (941) 366-5888.

What I’m Drinking

Even relatively inexpensive champagne can be wonderful, its pinpoint bubbles rising in a column of pale gold wine to tickle the nose and delight the tongue. But what if price were no object? Imagine the miracles you might drink then.

To assist us in constructing just such a fantasy, we consulted Jeffrey DiMaio, a certified sommelier who is wine director for the J.D. Ford shops in Southside Village and Lakewood Ranch. This is his list—all true champagnes, mind you, no mere sparkling wines from any other region—in descending order:

1. Salon S, a Cotes des Blancs from Les Mesnil. About $425 for the current release, “the fabulous ‘96 vintage, called one of the greatest of the century,” DiMaio says. This one could be hard to find, but try. “This wine is unique among champagnes,” DiMaio adds, “truly head and shoulders above the rest.” It’s made only in exceptional, declared vintage years, which means a vintage might be released only in one out of every three or four years. This wine drinks well right now, but it will age well, too. Give it another five years or so before ever so gently extracting the cork.

2. Krug Vintage Champagne. About $300 for that fabulous ‘96, the current release. Krug, DiMaio believes, “is the best all-around house in Champagne,” producing “one of the most full-bodied and longest lived” sparkling wines, harmoniously marrying power and finesse. It is barrel-fermented in oak.

3. Bollinger RD. About $180; vintage will vary. The RD stands for Recently Disgorged. In this technique, at which DiMaio says Bollinger is the most successful of the leading houses, the wine is aged many years on yeast in the bottle and the yeast is expelled just before the wine’s release to the market. This gives the RD “a distinctive complexity and taste.”

4. Sir Winston Churchill Cuvée. About $175 for the ‘95 vintage. This is Pol Roger’s prestige cuvée, the house’s top of the line. “Very lush fruit,” DiMaio says, “with a mature biscuit” finish.

5. Taittinger Comtes des Champagnes Rosé. About $250; vintage will vary. This is DiMaio’s favorite among the rosés from Champagne. Its style is light, but its flavor is intense, displaying “great fruit and freshness.”

6. Louis Roederer Cristal. About $260; vintage will vary. DiMaio was a little embarrassed about this choice, given its current status as a pop culture icon, “but it’s a very fine wine with fabulous, laser-focused fruit.” He believes the Cristal tends to be released a bit young, so he recommends laying it down for another three or four years.

An editor, writer and online publisher, John Bancroft has reviewed restaurants, books, movies and music for many publications, most recently for The St. Petersburg Times.


In Season

Chef Judi Gallagher stays warm with potato leek soup.

January is peek season for fresh leeks, and while leeks may have not gained full respect as a top vegetable in America until the 1970s, Romans considered the leek a superior vegetable (Emperor Nero got through so many he gained the nickname Porrophagus, meaning “leek eater”), while the Welsh adopted the leek as a national emblem after triumphing over the Saxons while wearing leeks in their hats to distinguish them from their enemy.

Classic potato leek soup is a perfect cool-evening dinner, but leeks are also delicious blanched and sautéed with olive oil and sea salt as a side dish, caramelized for mushroom strudels and quickly fried as a crisp garnish atop grilled pork loin. They’re best when cooked until just tender. Select small or medium-size leeks, as larger leeks tend to be tough. You’ll trim approximately 40 percent of the outer leaves, so it’s best to buy double the weight needed. Before using, wash leeks for a second time once they are cut, as sand tends to get trapped in the inner leaves.

Potato leek soup

2 large or 3 small leeks, about 2 pounds (reserve ½ cup of sautéed leeks for garnish)

1 bay leaf

1 tablespoon fresh ground black pepper

1 teaspoon thyme

2 tablespoons butter

4 strips bacon, chopped (2 strips for recipe and 2 strips cooked until crisp for garnish)

1/2 cup dry white wine

5 cups chicken stock

1 to 1 1/4 pounds russet potatoes, diced (or for a creamy texture try Yukon Golds)

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

3/4 teaspoon white pepper

¾ cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons snipped fresh chives

Trim the green portions of the leek and, using two of the largest and longest leaves and a sharp knife, halve the white part of the leek lengthwise and rinse well under cold running water to rid the leek of any sand. Slice thinly crosswise and set aside.

In a large soup pot over medium heat, melt the butter and add the bacon. Cook for five to six minutes, stirring occasionally, until the bacon is very soft and has rendered most of its fat. Add the chopped leeks and cook until wilted, about 5 minutes. Add wine, thyme, cracked black pepper and bring to a boil. Add the chicken stock, potatoes and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are falling apart and the soup is very flavorful.

Purée the soup in a food processor or blender, approximately one cup at a time. (If you own an immersion blender, you can purée the soup directly in the pot.) Stir in the heavy cream and adjust the seasoning, adding white pepper if needed. Serve immediately, with some of the snipped chives, crumbled bacon and sautéed leeks sprinkled over the top of each bowl of soup.

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