Food & Wine

By John Bancroft Photography by Matt McCourtney May 1, 2010

Southern Comfort

A lot of thought went into the Caragiulo brothers’ latest venture, a casual restaurant under the big banyan tree next door to Burns Court Cinema called Owen’s Fish Camp. From the clever menu placemats to the equally amusing wine and beer list to the fishing shack decor to the food itself, the new restaurant fairly shouts Franchise me!

This is in no way intended as criticism. The food is good, the setting delightfully Old Florida and the service congenial. What worked for Bonefish Grill, which started as one independent restaurant in St. Petersburg, is likely to work for Owen’s Fish Camp. It has the feel of a winner.

That’s all speculation, of course. What we know for sure is that the down home concept deployed in the renovated cottage that Owen Burns built for himself in Sarasota’s infancy offers lots of Southern comforts, from the old-timey twang of the soundtrack to the best collard greens I’ve tasted in a long time. There are, alas, no hush puppies on the menu but you can—and should—get a fried pie with vanilla ice cream that will knock your flip flops off.

Let’s start with the drinks list, which offers a pleasant selection of beers on tap and in the bottle and a brief wine list divided into Cheap ($5 the glass/$20 the bottle), Decent ($7/$28) and Good ($9/$36). The wines are interesting and well chosen at each price point, mixing old faves with nice little surprises, all of them affordable.

The starters list contains an amazing bargain: a half dozen oysters of the day (they were from Alaskan waters on our recent visit), accompanied by a good, shallot-rich mignonette dipping sauce, for $7. We thought at first the price was a misprint, and when assured that it wasn’t, we had to try them, although we didn’t really expect much. Good oysters usually don’t go for just over a buck apiece these days. We were pleasantly surprised at first bite and wolfed down every one.

Also coming in at $7, from a menu section headed Jars, is a smoked fish spread appetizer enlivened with tiny specks of minced veggies and served with saltines. We devoured this delicious concoction with such dispatch we alarmed our attentive waiter. We could have gone for Bloody Mary oyster shooters ($4), but decided to save those for next time.

For a main course I chose a pair of pan-fried soft shell crabs ($18) from the menu box headed Naked Fish. You get your choice of several sauces (I chose lemon caper and was glad I did) and two sides from a fine list. That’s where I found the exceptional spicy collard greens spiked with bits of bacon and first-rate herb-flecked shoestring fries. The little crabs were perfectly fresh and delicious, just crisp enough.

Colette ordered from the Plates subheading, where the sides are chosen for you. Her seared scallops ($18) proved to be fresh and succulent under an unusual topping of tangy pulled pork braised to a tender turn.

The combination seemed unlikely to me until I tasted it; then I was sold. The scallops come with a tasty succotash (also available as a side dish for $3) that combined corn, baby limas, garbanzo beans and red onion to good effect. I don’t believe I’ve seen garbanzos in succotash before, but it works.

When it came time for dessert, our waiter was emphatic: Go for the fried blackberry pies and ice cream ($6). He knew what he was talking about. Two little crescents of fried dough stuffed with real blackberries, one for each of us, came to table flanking a scoop of chilly vanilla goodness. We were tempted to order another portion to take home for a midnight snack. Next time, maybe we’ll try the root beer float ($5), but odds are pretty good we won’t be able to resist the fried pies.

Also on our list to try on future visits are the buttermilk fried chicken ($15) from the Baskets section and the Fish Camp tacos ($9) with green salsa and something called Baja sauce from the Sandwiches heading. Or, if we’re in a certain mood, we might go for “a nice plate of vegetables with bacon” ($12). Our veggie sides were so good we could easily make a meal of them.

Owen’s Fish Camp

516 Burns Lane, Sarasota Reservations (only for 6 or more): (941) 951-6936 Hours: dinner 4-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday Cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover Handicapped accessible: yes Parking: small lot or on street


Morel’s Mastery

Classical style triumphs here.

Our favorite small hotel in Paris sits on a leafy avenue between l’École Militaire and Napoleon’s Tomb. Morel, an intimate little restaurant tucked into a Sarasota strip center, would be right at home in that affluent neighborhood of diplomats in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. It has the look and the feel, right down to Madame perched on her stool at the back of the house keeping a sharp eye on the till.

Morel’s dining room is small but comfortably arranged, its linen-draped tables agreeably spaced, its walls cozily decorated and discreetly mirrored, and its lighting both bright enough for easy menu reading and sufficiently golden to foster the mood of self-indulgence any good restaurant engenders. Service is low-key, informed and attentive. A quiet charm prevails overall.

But of course it is the kitchen, where owner and chef Fredy Mayer has reigned since 2000, that makes Morel worth seeking out. Mayer is a meticulous traditionalist with a gift for balancing texture and color, contrast and harmony. The composed plates he sends to table are studies in classic bounty.

The strategy employed by Morel is time tested and just right. It starts with a compact standing menu of favorites like an endive, radicchio and watercress salad, a ragout of mushrooms and fresh herbs (the place is named after the king of mushrooms, after all) and grilled filet mignon. This single-page list is the anchor, something to count on at every visit. But because it is short and sweet, the standing list gives the chef plenty of leeway to survey the market on any given day and produce specials tailored to the season and his mood. The result is fare that both consistently pleases and regularly surprises.

A don’t-miss appetizer from the standing menu presents a quartet of petite potato and leek latkes ($5.95) so skillfully constructed that the green savor of the leeks shines through in every crispy bite. Sour cream and apple sauce on the side let you garnish the little pancakes or not, as you like.

A special appetizer on the evening of our recent visit sauced gorgeous tender snails ($9.95) in an ambrosial liquor of butter, white wine, garlic and herbs accented with bits of fresh tomato and mushroom. Two buttery warm croutons were perfect for sopping up more sauce when the escargots themselves were fond memories.

For the main course, Colette and I chose very different dishes, which is where an excellent list of wines by the glass proved invaluable, since hers cried out for a light and lively red while mine needed a cool dry white. So, a sturdy Mark West Pinot Noir ($7.25) for Colette and a really terrific Lurton Fumées Blanches ($6.25) for me. There also is an extensive list of bottles at many price points from wine-producing regions worldwide.

From the standing menu Colette selected a pan-seared duck breast (a whole breast, not a half) with red cabbage and a cranberry-infused duck sauce ($25). Half the breast was sliced and fanned and the other was served in two crispy-skinned chunks, yielding two distinctive ways to savor a single prep. That’s the kind of kitchen economy that’s easy to understand and applaud.

I again went to the day’s specials, where I could not resist lemon sole paired with sea scallops ($26). The delicate sole came to table perfectly cooked in a jacket of crisp crumbs, while a trio of scallops was simply sautéed in butter and white wine. Sole is an easy fish to destroy by overcooking or an overly fussy prep, but chef Mayer’s hand was sure, and the result was heavenly.

Both main dishes came with a pretty mélange of whipped potatoes, asparagus spears and al dente root vegetables, the ensemble as thoughtfully well prepared as were the stars of the show.

When it came time for dessert, both of us were tempted by the bittersweet chocolate terrine with toasted pecans and vanilla sauce ($6.50), but in the end we were seduced by two of the day’s specials, a fabulously nutty pear belle Hélène for her and a vibrant, buzzy chocolate espresso torte topped with whipped cream for me (both $7.50). The fresh whole pear was a knockout, having first been poached in red wine and then robed in chocolate studded with sliced toasted almonds and set off with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in the same swoony coating. Both were delicious ends to a flawless meal, but the pear was quite spectacular.

Morel Restaurant

3809 S. Tuttle Ave., SarasotaReservations (recommended): (941) 927-8716 Hours: change seasonally; call for current schedule; dinner only.Cards: major Handicapped accessible: yesParking: ample in lot


What I'm Drinking

One flight up from Main Street between Palm and Pineapple you’ll find Stairway to Belgium (there’s an elevator, too), a casual restaurant with two bars and 10 beers on tap, not one of them Bud Light. And if one of those serious brews doesn’t do it for you, feel free to order from a list of 156 lagers, wheat beers, ales and lambics in bottles large and small. If you’re a serious beer lover, you’ve stumbled into heaven.

One of the beers on tap is the notorious Delerium Tremens, a Belgian strong ale (8.5 percent alcohol content) that has developed something of a cult following around the world. In fact, the cult has a name: Confrerie van de Roze Olifant, or Brotherhood of the Pink Elephant, a chimerical creature those afflicted with the DTs are said to behold. In his 1996 guide to The 50 Greatest Beers in the World, Stuart A. Kallen ranked this sweet bruiser No. 1.

For the less adventurous there also is that old reliable pale lager Stella Artois in draught, as well as Victory Prima Pils, a pint of which went down nicely with a bowl of mixed olives, and Cigar City Maduro Oatmeal Brown Ale, a dark beauty brewed in Tampa.

Now for that staggering list of bottled beers. On it you’ll find schwarzbier and white beer, strong ales and pale ales, hoppy ales, porters, stouts, bocks and doppelbocks, a handful of fruity lambics, even an American barleywine weighing in with an 11 percent alcohol content and going by the probably apt name Weyerbacher Blithering Idiot. The majority of the beers come from Belgium, of course, but U.S. craft breweries, Germany, Poland, Austria and the Czech Republic also are represented, and there are cameo appearances by the brewers of England and Scotland.

For hours and info, give Stairway to Belgium a call at (941) 343-2862. And be sure to ask whether Harviestoun’s Old Engine Oil (a porter), Skullsplitter (a Scotch ale) or Smuttynose Old Brown Dog (an ale) are in good supply in the cold case. You might not want to drink them, but I predict you’ll get a little buzz just pronouncing their names.

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.

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