(2003) At Sean Murphy's Beach Bistro on Anna Maria Island, the stunning water views take center stage. But when the food arrives, drag your gaze from the setting sun and enjoy the riches on your plate. Eating at the much-awarded, 17-year-old Beach Bistro is like dining in Eden, both for the unparalleled sand 'n' surf real estate that this tiny, rambling cottage occupies and for the divine hands at work in the kitchen.
The food has a New Orleans disposition, probably because Murphy's first job upon arrival in America from Nova Scotia in 1978 was at the famed Arnaud's in the Crescent City. He moved to Florida and worked at The Colony, and later put in five years at L'Auberge au Bon Vivant before opening the Beach Bistro in what was a coffee shop in decline.
The menu reveals Murphy's relaxed and humorous take on sophisticated food. For instance, in describing his "Bistro Bouillabaisse, Famous" he wants us to know that he had to "hire a bunch of pros to build a killer broth" and assures us that "Martha Stewart cannot do this." At $41 for the hungry-man portion and $34 for the lighter one, this traditional French Provencal seafood with Pernod and saffron in the aromatic broth lives up to its billing. The recipe took two years of tweaking to reach perfection, says Murphy. Among the adjustments: The broth is lighter and less dependent on tomatoes than many, and the dish features fresh herbs and top-quality fresh fish. He uses Maine lobster because it's the best for poaching.
Another French favorite, foie gras, fits right in with the current fashion of combining conventional dessert and entrée ingredients. Murphy says he and his chefs worked on the dish for three months until they decided it was just right. "Death By Foie Gras" ($19) is an embarrassment of riches that includes three sauces. A slab of silky Hudson Valley goose liver is laid on top of a sweet bread pudding brioche with apples. The initial conflict of flavors soon ends in blissful harmony; if you have this appetizer, you may not need dessert.
Other Beach Bistro classics on my list to sample are the pan-seared Floribbean grouper, crusted with toasted coconut and cashews and finished with red pepper papaya jam ($34), and the rack of fresh domestic lamb made with a port rosemary demi-glace ($36). The Caesar salad is exceptionally well balanced and enhanced with very fine grated cheese ($10). Or you might want a bit more kick and order the "Caesar After Cleopatra-Blue," made with Maytag blue cheese for just $2 more.
If it's your first visit and you're dining with a group of friends, consider the tasting menu, six courses for $60. This degustation menu is available from Sunday through Thursday, but because the timing of serving the courses is critical, the whole table must dine this way or no one can.
Desserts are classical-bananas Foster (invented in New Orleans), key lime pie, fruit crepes, and a rich chocolate truffle terrine that's made with bittersweet chocolate and cognac ($10.) The house dessert specialty, this intense truffle terrine was invented by Murphy's wife, Susan Timmins (a baker), when she was three months pregnant and craving chocolate.
The wine list at Beach Bistro is geared to serious oenophiles as well as casual experimenters. With practically no area to store bottles, Murphy has been clever about stealing space where he can find it. Look up in the dining room and you'll see simple racking systems tucked into the canvas-draped ceiling and along the walls, while some bottles are showcased at the bar as part of the decor. The cellar numbers about 4,000 bottles and ranges from American boutique wines to French and Italian labels.
The Beach Bistro is a long drive from much of Sarasota, and some diners may think twice about making the trek, consuming quantities of wine and then making that long, dark drive down Gulf of Mexico Drive. For those customers, Murphy offers limousine service. Call the restaurant and request a car to pick you up and bring you home. From Sarasota round-trip is about $75. Now you can feel secure about asking your server to pull down some of those vintages that Murphy has squirreled away in the ceiling.
6600 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach
Dinner: Daily from 5:30-10 p.m.