Curtain Up

By staff March 1, 2008

I like Maison Blanche on Longboat Key almost as much for the theater of the place as for the ambrosial haute cuisine it serves so beautifully six evenings a week. Think of it as a play.

Act I: Setting

All the machinery of this fine restaurant is offstage. The kitchen, for example, is the sanctum sanctorum in which chef (and owner) Jose Martinez, late of Paris and the South of France, works his wonders out of sight. In an age of open kitchens and bars situated close enough to the heat of the burners to flush diners’ faces, Maison Blanche practices the magician’s art of misdirection and surprise.

The sleight of hand begins at the entrance, where diners must cross the low arch of a steel footbridge under canvas draperies before so much as setting a foot inside. The feeling of having left the everyday world behind is heightened in the soft curves of the dining room, with its subtle design motif of circles within circles. Pale sheer billows drape all the walls and windows. Table linens are white and the chairs sleek and comfortable black leather. The contemporary soundtrack is both soothing and upbeat. The waiters’ shoes make no sound on the soft finish of the wood floors. The lighting is discreetly indirect but ample for menu reading. Votive candles glow softly in small pearlescent globes on the tables, set off on our recent visit by a scattering of light-catching crystals on the tablecloths.

The effect is serene, meditative and spa-like in its tranquility.

Act II: Menu

The evening’s menu can be as simple or as complex as you like. Choose à la carte from two tempting pages of appetizers, soups and entrées or opt for prix fixe tasting menus of four, six or eight courses ($55 to $95 per person).

Concealment reigns on paper, too, beginning with the tradition of shielding Madame from the prices; in two-sex couples, at least, only Monsieur’s menu bears dollar signs. Find it charming or insulting, but the practice has a long history in restaurants of the first rank.

If you dislike the fad of waiters introducing themselves and announcing that they’ll “be taking care of you,” you’ll be delighted to discover the black-clad staff at Maison Blanche eliminates the chat in favor of action. You’ll know from the moment you’re seated that you’re in good hands.

And if you too often find yourself worn out from reading even before your aperitif arrives, you’ll be relieved to find that the description of each dish here provides just enough information to whet the appetite and allow you to make an intelligent choice. A given dish may well contain a list of ingredients as long as the chef’s arm, but he’ll not tax you with the catalogue. Instead, he’ll do his job, which is to apply his alchemical skills to the ingredients he’s so painstakingly chosen, and let you do yours, which is to savor the result and help spread his renown far and wide. Very French.

Act III: Performance

Sweetbreads are for me a guilty pleasure, one I indulge only rarely and then only in a restaurant where I have good reason to believe I can trust the chef completely. Most of us either love the dish or hate the very idea of it. I’ll confess to fence straddling in the matter, but it is my ultimate test of a kitchen’s prowess. Execute this one with all the considerable delicacy required and you’ve earned your stars.

That was the case at Maison Blanche, where the tasty but challenging calf’s thymus gland was braised to a golden brown without and to a firm and tender white within. It was served on a bed of caramelized endives and asserted by a pretty swoosh of what the menu modestly describes as beet juice. Lovely—but that’s my sweetbreads quota for the next decade or so.

Now let’s back up a bit and take in the broader view. As my wife Colette and I luxuriated in the room’s quiet elegance, an amuse-bouche arrived: a soupçon of chilled puréed lentils topped with snips of tiny chives, a dot of olive oil and a crunchy micro crouton. A miniature delight, it did exactly what it was supposed to do, which is to excite the taste buds.

And so we were ready when Colette’s divine baked tomato tart, the tomatoes naturally sweet on a thin pastry crisp and accented by fresh basil juice, was served opposite my big, pillowy mushroom raviolis in foie gras sauce with asparagus. We were in heaven. We sipped a Renwood Zinfandel Grandpére 2004 ($59), wallowing in its rich briar, dark chocolate and tobacco flavors, while the appropriate interval passed before the main event.

Mine, of course, was the sweetbreads ($27). Colette’s was a deceptively simple organic prime rib eye ($39), not grilled but roasted to a perfect medium rare and drizzled with black pepper sauce. The trick here began with the beef, to the selection of which the chef obviously had devoted considerable care, and finished with a subtly complex sauce hiding behind its homely black pepper label. It was served simply with savory roasted fingerling potatoes. Nothing about it could be improved upon.

Because we were so pleased with the performance so far, we recklessly ordered dessert. Both my chocolate confection with yogurt sorbet and Colette’s caramelized banana with a crisp cocoa lattice cookie were excellent, but before they arrived we were treated to another round of unbidden taste bud amusers: a thimbleful of coconut tapioca, a little caramel square robed in dark chocolate and, believe it if you dare, a small hand-cut marshmallow flavored with rose petals.

I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it now, with feeling: The goddess is in the details.

Maison Blanche

2605 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key

Reservations recommended: (941) 383-8088

Dinner: 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday

Cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express

Handicap accessible and ample lot parking

Extensive list of wines and aperitifs

Hidden Pleasure

On 26th Street West in Bradenton, a short block north of Cortez Road, look for a down-at-the-heels strip center anchored at its south end by a diamond in the rough. The name above the door is El Warike, and its secret is superb Peruvian cuisine with a strong accent on seafood.

The quality of the food will come as no surprise when I tell you this new venture is the creation of chef Jorge Corzo, who also owns Red on Hillview Avenue in Sarasota. The place may look like a hole in the wall, but its chef-driven menu is deliciously sophisticated.

We began by sharing two appetizers, a succulent pork tamal Peruano wrapped in a banana leaf ($5.50) and a heavenly ceviche mixto ($12.99) that artfully combined corvine (a mild white fish), squid, shrimp and a mussel on the half shell in a classic marinade of lime juice and red pepper with just the right snap. On the side were warm, soft whole kernels of white Peruvian corn and sliced sweet potato. Both appetizers were accompanied by refreshing strings of sliced raw onion cooled with lime juice and garnished with cilantro.

With our starters, Colette sipped a nice Chilean chardonnay and I quaffed a couple of Cusqueña beers from Peru, which I’ve now added to my list of favorite international brews.

Corvina figures prominently on the entrée list, too, so we decided to sample two wildly different preparations, both of them huge in both portion size and flavor.

Colette chose pescado a lo macho ($13.99), which bathes the fish in a sauce disarmingly described on the menu as yellow pepper and seafood. First, the pepper sauce is rich and oh-so-creamy. Second, the seafood in the sauce is not little bits puréed for their flavor but whole fresh shrimp, tender bites of squid and mussels. Will you think me inarticulate if I just say wow?

I decided on the seco de corvina ($13.99), which starts with the same tasty fish and sauces it in a heady purée starring fresh cilantro and studded with whole green peas, the whole overlaid with strips of roasted red pepper. This time, for the sake of variety, I’ll say yum.

Colette’s choice came with fluffy white rice, which she put to good use soaking up some of that delectable seafood sauce, and mine came with roasted yucca, a veggie I sometimes don’t much care for. So I ordered a side of sweet, fried platanos maduros and ended up taking most of them home when the yucca turned out to be as good as everything else we tasted.

Service was friendly and excellent on our midweek visit. When our waiter noted that the chocolate cake on the dessert list is made from the chef’s mother’s recipe, we faced a dilemma. We really wanted to try it, but we were stuffed. The solution: Box it up, please, and we’ll have it for a midnight snack. Good plan, as it turned out.

El Warike

4226 26th St. W., Bradenton

(941) 755-4222

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; until 9:30 p.m. Friday; noon-9:30 p.m. Saturday; noon-8:30 p.m. Sunday

Cards: Visa, MasterCard

Beer and wine

Handicap accessible and ample lot parking

Ask John

Cheese is my passion. Is there a shop that shares my obsession?

Yes. Its name (and I find this as charming as its proprietor) is C’est Cheese, the baby of amateur photographer Sherri Krams. Her ode to milk’s apotheosis shares digs with the new home of Flanagan’s Wine Market at 4114 S. Tamiami Trail. This is convenient, given how naturally wine and cheese go together. Krams really knows her cheeses, an expertise she serves up with friendly authority. So browse, abetted by her helpful placards offering intelligent, mouth-watering descriptions and wine pairings provided by her father, who’s a wine maven, then talk to her. Tell her what you like, what you’re planning—cocktails, a dinner party, devouring your purchase in the car on the way home?—and she’ll offer the expert guidance you deserve. On a recent visit I confessed an affection for goat cheeses. She fed me tastes of Midnight Moon from California, cut from a firm wedge, “dense and smooth with the slight graininess of a long-aged cheese”; Morbier Mobay from Wisconsin, whose central vein separates a goat cheese and a sheep’s milk cheese; and, my favorite, Red Cloud, a raw goat’s milk cheese from Colorado, soft with a rinsed reddish rind and “a powerful flavor that is balanced and complex.” Dreamy. Pair it with an Alsatian pinot gris, a Riesling or a Gewurtztraminer, her helpful father’s label note suggested. I went for the Riesling. Rapture. Call Krams at (941) 924-3374 and she’ll tell you about her next scheduled tasting. I’ll probably see you there.

What I’m Drinking

Laurent Vasseur

It’s a shame aperitifs like Lillet, Campari and Ricard aren’t more popular in this country. When it comes to sharpening the appetite and preparing the palate for the delights of the well-laid table, they beat cocktails hands down.

We asked Laurent Vasseur, manager of The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota’s Vernona restaurant, to chat with us about aperitifs. They are much more popular in Europe than in the United States, so Vasseur’s background at Maxim’s in Paris and at the Ritz Hotel in London make him the perfect source.

In France, he says, the aperitif of choice is Ricard, a pastis distilled from star aniseed, licorice and Provençal herbs. It usually is served diluted with plenty of water (about five to one), which reduces the alcohol concentration and turns the stuff from a dark translucent yellow to a milky soft yellow. Add ice if you like, but only after the water. This aperitif’s predecessor was the storied absinthe, the Green Fairy, which got its dominant flavor from the medicinal herb wormwood, now banned in liqueurs, and its kick from an alcohol content as high as 72 percent.

Campari, an Italian red bitters whose formula for maceration of 60 ingredients in distilled water and alcohol is a closely guarded secret, and Lillet, an herbed aperitif wine in either white or red from Bordeaux, also are popular in Europe, as well as among the few here who prefer an aperitif. Both typically are served over ice, alone or with soda, and garnished with a slice of orange.

But the very best aperitif, bar none, Vasseur says, is champagne. Who are we to argue? Nothing tickles the tongue and perks up the taste buds like a clean, crisp, dry sparkling wine. Whether a true champagne or a sparkler from elsewhere, make sure it’s a Brut. In the $50 to $70 wine list (as opposed to retail) range, Vasseur’s top picks are Nicolas Feuillate Brut NV (“a beautiful champagne”) and Taittinger Brut NV (“a great and undervalued champagne”).

Finally, especially if you’re a cosmo drinker, why not try an aperitif cocktail called a Negroni, an artifact from the 19th century that may be poised for a renaissance. Or maybe not. “The last time I served a Negroni,” Vasseur harrumphed when I mentioned the name, “was in New York City, and the year was 1993!” Here’s the recipe, anyway:


1 ounce gin

1 ounce sweet vermouth

1 ounce Campari

Combine all in an ice-filled shaker. Shake (some say stir; suit yourself) until cold and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a slice or twist of orange.

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 whips up tasty tempura with sweet, succulent Gulf shrimp.

While fresh shrimp are available year-round, the luscious pink shrimp living in the Gulf of Mexico are especially abundant from March through May and again from October through December. Tender, sweet Florida pinks, also known as Gulf shrimp, feed on the clean coral sand off the west coast that gives them their namesake color and a sweet, almost creamy flavor. Since they reproduce rapidly, there is no shortage, and wild-caught shrimp are clearly the healthiest way to enjoy these succulent crustaceans.

Shrimp are sized and sold by count. Store in the coldest part of the refrigerator at 32 degrees, and cook within 24 hours to ensure freshness. Shrimp can be grilled, broiled, boiled and sautéed. The key is to not overcook, so remember: As soon as they turn pink, the shrimp are done.

Shrimp Tempura

Tempura batter:

1 cup rice flour, plus 1 cup for dusting

1 cup cold seltzer water

2 large egg yolks

1 teaspoon sesame oil

Sea salt to taste

White pepper to taste

Dash hot sauce

Peanut oil for frying (you may also use canola oil)

Dipping sauce:

½ cup Ponzu sauce (available at the ethnic section of most supermarkets)

3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

¼ cup fresh squeezed orange juice

2 tablespoons sesame oil

1 ½ pounds large fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined

Place the rice flour in a bowl and quickly whisk in the seltzer until batter is smooth. Add the egg yolks and blend well. Add salt, pepper and sesame oil and dash of hot sauce.

Heat about 2 inches of peanut oil to 375 degrees in a wok or deep skillet. Dry the shrimp well. Dust them with flour to soak up any remaining moisture and shake off the excess. Dip them into the batter one by one. Drop 4 or 5 pieces at a time in the hot oil; do not overcrowd the pan. Fry until golden brown, turning once, about 3 minutes. To keep the oil clean between batches, skim off the small bits of batter that float in the oil. Remove the fried shrimp from the oil and drain on paper towels; season with salt and serve with the dipping sauce.

This recipe also works well for fresh tempura vegetables such as sweet potatoes, fresh green beans and asparagus.

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