Italian Interlude

By staff November 1, 2008

One of our favorite things about St. Armands Circle is the wealth of options for dining al fresco. Sidewalk tables abound, not just on the circle proper but along the avenues that branch off at the four points of the compass. The variety is exciting: traditional and pop Cuban, European haute eclectic, Florida fish and coldwater oysters, French-inspired fusion, pub grub and more, including caffeine in many delectable guises and enough ice cream to cool a steamy Southern night.

And now we have a new favorite to add to our list. Colette and I were out for a stroll the other evening, trolling for dinner, when we decided to walk south along Boulevard of the Presidents. A half block along we found ourselves in the midst of an agreeable hubbub. At tables under big tan umbrellas along the curb and at more tables sheltered by a porch, families, cooing couples, the chic and the down dressers, some speaking in lively Italian, were putting a fine evening kissed by a Gulf breeze to its highest and best use.

They were enjoying food, wine and one another’s company under the welcoming auspices of the friendly staff at Le Colonne, an exemplar of unpretentious Italian hospitality. We studied the menu, rich in homemade pastas and classic comfort food, for maybe 30 seconds and asked for a table. Lucky us.

Not surprisingly, all the outdoor tables were full of convivial patrons who had had the good sense to arrive in time to claim the coveted seats. We were shown to a table inside, where we found the atmosphere to be every bit as agreeable. Two big connected rooms, anchored by a colorful long bar, are painted in Tuscan golds, terra cottas and black lacquers, with accents of natural wood and strategically placed mirrors to further open the space. Tables are dressed in white linens. Waiters wear ties, but stuffy they are not. Diners tuck into just-right portions of Mediterranean-style mussels or wood-oven pizza or sweet cannoli and happily pour wine all around. Colette and I just about decided to move to be within walking distance. Le Colonne is exactly what a neighborhood watering hole should be, although it’s also worth a drive.

Our first discovery of the evening was that the bar makes a refreshing pomegranate martini with Level vodka, the martini set’s current darling. We sipped appreciatively as we devoted proper attention to the menu, including the day’s fish and other specials, and then studied a wine list nicely balanced between Italian and other wines. We opted for a swoony Cloudline pinot noir from Oregon’s WillametteValley ($48), but there are many choices both more expensive and less.

First to table was a yummy carpaccio all’Albese ($10.95), the paper-thin raw filet mignon redolent of olive oil and lemon and topped with fresh baby arugula, plenty of salty capers and slivers of good Parmesan. We shared the starter; but if, like us, you really like this treat, you might want to order one each.

Having dispatched the appetizer with gusto, we sampled the wine and looked forward to our entrées. Colette, who can’t resist fresh homemade pasta, chose tortellini Monte Rosa ($18.95), the tiny pasta doughnuts stuffed with cheeses and laved in a light tomato cream sauce aswim with peas, mushrooms and morsels of terrific country ham. If this be peasant fare, call us peasants.

I went for a favorite of long standing, pollo alla Rusticana ($19.95), which sauces tender filets of chicken breast in a carefully calibrated white wine reduction chunky with artichoke hearts and mushrooms. Excellent. I could have stopped there, but being greedy I also ordered a side of gnocchi ($5.95) and was glad of it. The adorable little cloud-light potato dumplings came on the same plate as the chicken, but a clever lettuce dam kept the wine sauce of the Rusticana from mingling with the incredibly rich gorgonzola-dominated four-cheese sauce on the gnocchi. Splendid. Colette likes gnocchi as much as I do, so when I saw her fork hovering over my prize I was hardly surprised. Generous soul that I am, I shared, and thus was domestic tranquility preserved.

The capper was a very fine, freshly made tiramisu ($7.95), that miraculous alchemy of lady fingers soaked in espresso and rum combined with cool rich mascarpone cheese and equally rich powdered cocoa. Mmmm!, I say, which is as close as I can come, in print, to purring.

Le Colonne 22 S. Boulevard of the Presidents, St. Armands Reservations: (941) 388-4348 Hours: lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and dinner 5-10 p.m. daily. Cards: V, MC, AMEX, Discover Full bar and wine list Handicapped accessible: yes Parking: on street or in nearby public lot

Adventurous Ezra

I’ve frequented Ezra almost from the day it opened five years ago in a shopping center on Manatee Avenue

in Bradenton. It’s gone through some changes, but one thing has remained constant: chef Dave Shiplett’s steady hand at the helm in the kitchen.

Shiplett has an interesting history, including a long-ago spell cooking with now legendary San Francisco chef/restaurateur Jeremiah Tower, whose original Stars remains one of the best restaurants I’ve ever had the pleasure of reviewing. Locally, Shiplett was chef at Poseidon on Longboat Key when that venerable fish house closed in May of 2003 to make room for condos that have yet to materialize. His response was to found Ezra, A Café, rendering the key’s bad luck a boon to

Bradenton, which was much in need of imaginative cuisine.

Personnel have come and gone, of course, and the seafood-heavy menu changes often in response to the seasons. There’s even a full bar now, after years of sticking to wine and beer, but the place feels much the same as it did when it opened. An open kitchen, where the chef performs his pyrotechnics in more or less full view, anchors the dining room. Well-spaced tables are crisp in their white cloths. Art, more understated now than the wildly colorful mix in the room’s early days, adorns the walls. It still adds up, as it always has, to a stylish but laid-back ambiance that suits Gulf CoastFlorida to a T.

We’d been away for a while when we recently revisited, sulking over some temporary service problems, which thankfully have vanished without a trace. We were seated at one of our favorite two-tops by a sheer-draped window opposite the kitchen, which gave us good seats for the show.

I started with a curried spiny lobster bisque rooted in the Caribbean ($6), a starter distinguished by crispy chunks of shellfish swimming in a creamy brown miniature sea. This dish has been a staple from the start, and with good reason. My small side salad was as fresh and bright as they come.

Colette, adventurous soul that she is, chose something new. I had my doubts about this item, the chef’s take on that iceberg wedge currently in renaissance for no apparent reason, but I should have known better. Shiplett took something quite ordinary and transformed it by starting with perfect baby lettuce and laying on crisp bacon, ripe tomatoes and blue-cheese dressing, then crowning it all with some of the best thin-sliced onion rings on the planet. Thus was Ezra’s “wedgie” ($6 “small,” $9 large) born.

Those heavenly onion rings showed up again in my main dish, a grilled wild salmon ($21) exuberantly set off by punchy wasabi mashed potatoes, asparagus spears and a generous tangle of those rings. Shiplett has a real talent for pairing good fish with surprising and satisfying sides, a talent showcased in this simple dish.

Colette, her craving for adventure momentarily satisfied, plumped for an old favorite after the salad. For all his renown as a seafood chef, Shiplett also knows his way around superior red meats. His grilled bone-in rib eye ($25) is a case in point. He sears the naturally flavorful steak with just enough cracked pepper jus to add a welcome snap, then plates it with miraculously toothsome tiny roasted potatoes he calls hash browns plus a flourish of sizzling spinach. Perfection at dinner, and just as good in the next day’s lunch salad.

Desserts here are the domain of owner Dr. Donna Eason, like Shiplett a Bradenton native and graduate of Manatee High. She’s worked wonders in the realm of kitchen chemistry since she was a kid—she’s rightly famous for the little baby’s fist chocolate chip cookies that come unbidden with the check—but she also finds time for biochemistry as research assistant professor in molecular genetics at Children’s Research Institute in St. Petersburg. What a slacker.

Her bakery talents were on brilliant display in the dessert we chose to share, knowing full well those ambrosial cookies were still to come. Her guava cheesecake ($6), bathed lightly in a lively citrus and berry sauce, proved to be so satisfying we wound up taking the cookies home.

Ezra, A Café

5629 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton

Reservations: (941) 792-0990 Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday through Friday, dinner 5:30-9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Cards: V, MC, AMEX, Discover Full bar and wine list Handicapped accessible: yes Parking: ample in lot Return of the Stone Crab

It’s back, with star chefs and sipping at the Colony.

It’s hard to believe Florida stone crab season is here again—unless, like me, you were eagerly counting the days to Oct. 15. Now, with the young season in full swing, The Colony Beach and Tennis Resort on Longboat Key is inviting us all to celebrate with its 19th annual Stone Crab, Seafood & Wine Festival. This year’s bash, featuring a full roster of guest chefs and winemakers, runs Nov. 13 through 15.

Among the top draws on the kitchen portion of the card are chef Colby Garrelts, nominated in 2007 and 2008 for Best Chef Midwest honors by the James Beard Foundation, and pastry chef Megan Garrelts, owners of Bluestem in Kansas City, Mo., and chef Felicia Willett of Felicia Suzanne's in Memphis, who got her start with über celeb chef Emeril Lagasse.

Both Bluestem and Felicia Suzanne’s offer their own personal takes on American eclectic cooking, with heavy emphasis on fresh local ingredients and regional traditions. Bluestem definitely deserves the progressive label, specializing in three-, five-, seven- and 12-course (!) prix fixe dinners, with a caviar or two available as a supplement if you’re really hungry. There’s even a multicourse dessert tasting menu. Felicia Suzanne’s voice is Memphis through and through, offering such stalwarts of Southern cuisine as an appetizer of crispy Louisiana oysters in a New Orleans barbecue sauce and an entrée of wild Gulf shrimp and andouille sausage in Creole sauce over a stone ground grit cake. Forget Paula Deen. Chef Willet is the real deal.

On the vintner’s side of the bill, the place of honor must go to Frederick H. Schrader, proprietor of Schrader Cellars of Napa Valley, producers of single-vineyard wines from Napa and beyond. His wines are the darlings of collectors, especially his flagship Schrader Cabernet Sauvignon, which Wine Spectator vintage after vintage scores in the mid to high 90s. Now, that’s consistency. His value-priced Double Diamond cab is no slouch, either. Among my own favorite wines are zinfandels made from grapes grown on head-pruned old vines, which typically display greater depth and concentration than other zins. Schrader’s Vieux-Os Old Vine Heritage Estates zins from Hell Hole, Ira Carter, Tofanelli and Train Wreck vineyards are prime examples of their kind.

And that’s just for starters. The full card offers much more.

Stone crab lovers and oenophiles can sign up for the full-blown three-night package as guests at The Colony, which includes a welcome reception on the evening of Nov. 13, or buy individual tickets for three events:

Culinary Demonstrations, Nov. 14 and 15, $90 per person. These morning events feature chefs preparing signature seafood specialties for tasting in conjunction with paired wines from visiting vintners.

Festival Tasting On The Beach, Nov. 14, $200 per person. This is a biggie. Beginning at 7 p.m., The Colony’s restaurant, pool deck and tents on the beach serve up yet more food, with stone crab claws in a starring role, and wines. Live music and dancing on the beach keep the party moving.

Chef’s Collaboration Gala, Nov. 15, $245 per person. The crowning event features a seven-course meal prepared by all this year’s guest chefs and The Colony Dining Room’s team. Naturally, selected wines accompany each course. More music and dancing round out the festival’s capper.

The ColonyBeach & Tennis Resort1620 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key Festival info and tickets: (941) 383-6464

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