Tasty treasure at Pino’s, plus the new Lido Beach Grille and hot Ceviche.
Pino’s in downtown Sarasota is more than a good restaurant. It’s a treasure. It’s named for its chef and owner, Giuseppe (Pino) Luongo, who hails from Ischia, an island in the Bay of Naples not far from Capri. From the delights he serves here, it’s obvious that from the cradle he was steeped in the culinary ethos that demands nothing less than the finest ingredients cooked with a clairvoyant’s timing and sauced with an artfulness that verges on the alchemical.
But Pino is not just a gifted and meticulous chef. His whole operation, from the warm greeting at the door through the gracious service at table to a goodbye as cordial as the hello, runs with the precision of a Swiss chronometer. The energy and attention to detail extend to the decor as well, which is traditional without being overdone, cozy without being overcrowded. Sidewalk tables draped in white linen complete a pretty picture.
Colette and I suspected we were in for an exceptional evening from the moment we were seated at a table by a window overlooking the renovated Sarasota Opera House across the little park at Five Points. Our water glasses were filled, our menus and the wine list delivered, our aperitifs on the way, but we hadn’t yet lifted a fork. The silken vibe of the place was just that strong.
We soon confirmed our suspicions. The aroma preceding Colette’s appetizer of gorgeous sautéed shrimp and fresh artichokes finished in an exquisitely refined white wine sauce ($13.95) was ambrosial. The burst of perfectly balanced flavors on the tongue, however, was even better than its perfume promised.
I opted for the calamari, which as constant readers will know is one of my litmus tests for any restaurant with ambition. Do this simple but difficult dish well and you’ve won your spurs. Pino’s version ($12.95) executes the trick with panache, lightly dusting slim tender rings of squid in flour and frying them for about a heartbeat. They come with a righteous marinara for dipping, but they sing with just a squeeze of lemon.
On to the next test. Might we share a pasta as a first course before moving on to secondi? Of course. But how would it be divided and would there be an additional charge? The answer to the first question is “beautifully,” and to the second a simple “no.” Our tortelloni stuffed with earthy mushrooms and sauced in a heavenly blend of butter, sage and Parmesan ($16.95) arrived on two full-sized sauce-painted plates, the housemade pasta pockets divided evenly so that Colette and I wouldn’t have to fight over the last little prize. Perfect. Score thus far: 100.
The preliminaries we’d devoured with such gusto, combined with an excellent 2005 Ravenswood Old Vines zinfandel from Lodi, heightened our anticipation of the meat course.
We weren’t disappointed. Only more superlatives will do when describing the roasted half duck in a merlot reduction, brandy and demi glaze ($23) and the New York strip steak sliced, topped with Gorgonzola and crunchy walnuts, and sauced in a savory red wine reduction tinctured, I believe, with pan juices ($24).
As in all we sampled, quality and balance ruled these dishes. The duck leg confit was as tangy-sweet and slightly crisp as anyone could want, and the sliced breast was firm, juicy and tender. The medium-rare steak was buttery without sacrificing the resistance to the tooth that makes this cut a favorite. The sauces in each dish did nothing more (nor less) than bring out every molecule of flavor the meats had in them. Fresh green beans bundled in bacon and roasted potatoes provided just the right accompaniment for both entrées.
But wait; there’s more. For dessert I ordered profiteroles, feather-light choux pastry with a custardy center smothered in creamy chocolate, and loved them. Colette, however, went for a limoncello ice cream served in a champagne flute ($7.95). I thought she might pass out after the first spoonful. “How was it?” I asked when she recovered. “This is not dessert,” she said. “It’s crack, and I want more. I’m ordering this first the next time we’re here.”
And we will be back, as often as we can manage. You can bet the fattoria on that.
100 Central, Sarasota
Opens at 11 a.m. Monday-Saturday for lunch and closes at 10:30 p.m.; dinner only on Sundays from 4 to 10 p.m.
V, MC, AMEX, Discover
Full bar and excellent wine list
Complimentary valet parking or in nearby public garage
Dining at the Top
The makeover that turned Christopher’s on Lido into Lido Beach Grille was, in the main, a success. And if views figure prominently in your plans for an evening out, you’ll swoon over this restaurant’s lofty perch on the eighth floor of Lido Beach Resort.
The bar, staffed by affable pros, looks north through a wall of glass along a grand sweep of beach. At sunset, this is a very fine place to be. The drinks, including good wines by the glass, are well priced, too.
The dining room shares some of the bar view, and its big east-facing windows overlook treetops, a slice of bay and a pretty impressive array of high-rise architecture downtown. If you haven’t seen Sarasota from such a vantage lately, you may be surprised to see how urban our town looks these days.
At table, we found uniformly excellent service and uneven execution of dishes from a fairly ambitious menu. First, the standouts.
From the appetizer list comes a bright idea called a tasting of lump crab martinis ($13). This delight features three miniature martini stems, each brimming with fresh crab meat sauced in a different way: citrus chive, tomato horseradish and mango lime. All three sauces are light and lively, performing their roles as enablers flawlessly.
The Vietnamese spring rolls ($8) served across the table were perfectly OK, if not memorable.
When it came to entrées, which we paired with a fine Albariño nicely priced at $30, the hands-down winner was half a perfectly pan-roasted, succulent free-range chicken served prettily on a plate washed in a yummy whole-grain mustard demi glace ($20). Along for the ride came adorable little lemon spaetzle dumplings, warmed whole teardrop tomatoes and crisp green beans. Bravo.
Again, across the table the results were not quite so pleasing. The idea behind the vegetarian “Zen Palate” ($20) is laudable, but its execution fails to live up to its inspiration. Half the collection of veggie-based morsels arrayed in a compartmented bento box were excellent (light and puffy sweet potato croquettes, grape leaves stuffed with herbed rice and alive with mint, and a wedge of “B-B-Q” tofu with a fiery dipping sauce) and half were forgettable (soggy triangles of vegetable bits that aspired to the status of terrine and blandly stuffed gyoza dumplings fried to a tooth-chipping hardness along their seams).
Dessert was a ricotta cheese fritter under stewed blueberries ($7) that Colette liked better than I did. Me, I was happy that I opted for a very good Irish coffee ($8.50) instead.
Lido Beach Grille
700 Ben Franklin Drive
in Lido Beach Resort (ask for directions in the hotel lobby or you’ll never find the right elevator bank)
Dinner 5-10 p.m. every evening; Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
V, MC, AMEX, Discover, Diners Club
Full bar and wine list
Parking on street or in hotel garage
Where I’m Drinking
It’s Hot Downtown
The new Ceviche Sarasota is more a four-story bar than a restaurant, although a goodly variety of tapas favorites, the ultimate bar food, are on offer if you’re hungry.
Mostly it’s a scene, a big, noisy, well-oiled party spilling from the front door through the main-floor bar, up the stairs past the dining rooms and out onto a rooftop bar notable for its sunset views. There’s a patio at ground level, too.
The food ranges from the pretty darn good (the lively ceviche de la casa and the addictive housemade potato chips) to tired (rubbery fried calamari). The stone-cold reception I got at the front desk almost made me turn and leave before I’d sampled so much as a cocktail. Still, the place has two big positives going for it: its venerable building at 1216 First St. and the booze.
I couldn’t be happier to see the 1925 TimesBuilding, designed by Dwight James Baum, the same architect John Ringling commissioned to create Cà d’Zan, preserved and turned to a new use. It stood empty for a long time, and I held my breath every time I passed it, afraid I’d see a wrecking ball about to do its worst. Ceviche gets big points for its restoration of this fine old landmark.
The wine list features Spanish wines, of course, from the bargain-priced and nose-tickling Cristalino brut, a non-vintage cava, to the equally well-priced Torre La Moreira 2005 Albariño, both well matched with ceviche and other light dishes. The list also offers a Naia 2006 Verdejo, a fresh, crisp white made from a grape with a long pedigree that had all but disappeared before its current revival. There are some good rosés on offer, too, and among the reds the standout probably is a Viña Ardanza La Rioja Alta Reserva 1999, a tempranillo/garnacha blend from 30-year-old vines that’s gotten good noise in the wine journals.
But enough wine talk. The drinks we saw most often served in stemware were martinis (traditional and neo incarnations) and good old cosmos. The wine we saw the most of speeding past our table was in big clay pitchers of sangria. Beers, including our old favorite Negra Modelo from Mexico, are popular, too.
In short, bang for the buck would seem to be the order of the day. Party on, dude.
The Place: Pho Cali Vietnamese Noodle House, 1578 Main St., Sarasota; closed Sunday; (941) 966-2863.
The Fare: The delicious noodle soups called pho (made with beef broth) and hu tieh (made with chicken broth), which are a meal all by themselves, plus a full assortment of appetizers, daily specials and Vietnamese specialties like fish or pork in a clay pot with rice and pickles.
The Drill: I owe this Good Deal to my colleague, chef Judi Gallagher, who has been raving about it for months. (She’s always on the cutting edge of our town’s lively culinary scene. Keep up with her at her blog, Foodie’s Notebook, at sarasotamagazine.com). Just as she’s been saying, the people who run this neat-as-a-pin little place couldn’t be nicer, and boy, are they fast! Dine in or take out, but if you’re going for the noodle soup I’d recommend savoring it on site. It’s a big bowl of big flavors best eaten straight from the kitchen.
The Bottom Line: My weekday lunch set me back $8.03 with tax and I tipped 2 bucks for the fine service. For this pittance I got not an empty-calories-on-a-bun combo “meal” but trim slices of roasted pork, tender wontons, crunchy veggies and a bountiful serving of rice noodles, all aswim in a housemade chicken broth accented with fresh cilantro and scallions. A side plate gave me the option of adding in a heap of bean sprouts or slices of jalapeño pepper and finishing it all with a squeeze of lime. I was seated, fed and on my happy way in 30 minutes.