Most cities of any size and substance have restaurants that have become institutions; think of the Four Seasons in New York or Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia. Sarasota is similarly blessed with Café L’Europe, a continental jewel located in a prime spot on St. Armands Circle. Café L’Europe is 34 years old, and in that incredibly long restaurant lifespan has served countless meals to locals and tourists alike. Locals will tell you that it has always been a destination restaurant, too—for anniversaries, engagements and, of course, the prom. In fact, during one visit to the Café, our waiter regaled us with his personal prom story, which was the first time he set foot in Café L’Europe. His date is long forgotten, but he’s back at the Café.
While institutions can draw guests based on years of reputation, they can also fall prey to relying on that status, letting service and quality of food and preparation slip. We wanted to determine if that were the case with the Café.
First stop on our mission was the appetizer list. It presents a wide range of cuisines and tastes, from tapas to bison carpaccio, with an Asian and classic French stop in between. We were hooked by the tapas, a plate of seafood that featured sweet lump crab presented rather drably in a bowl, and an enticing pile of pastrami-style smoked salmon. The salmon had a smoky, briny flavor and texture that screamed for a slice of rye bread. But the buttery crostini on hand makes a delicious foundation for either crab or salmon. This is a must-have, if only to take the leftover salmon home for a bagel breakfast feast. Appetizers run from $10-$32.
The bourbon pecan salad comes highly recommended, and for good reason. The pecans are toasted to a lovely sweetness, and the croutons are an ingenious toast of cornbread squares. Those two elements added to a mix of greens and other veggies should make for a standout salad. Unfortunately, the salads were overdressed, and as any fashionista— food or otherwise—will assert, nothing causes a quicker downfall than overdressing.
“Are there any entrées that are original, that have stood the test of time for 33 years?” we inquired. Our waiter pointed us to two—the potato-crusted grouper and the brandied duckling. Of the two, my vote goes to the duckling. This is about as classic as it comes. The duck is served crisp (although not at the temperature we requested) on a bed of wild rice, flavored with a creative sauce of Bing cherries and cognac. Satisfying in every way.
Back to the grouper. While I loved potato-crusted grouper in the ‘80s when it reached its apex of popularity, by 1990 it already seemed overdone. It may be showy, but the potatoes can weigh down the light-textured and unassertive fish. However, if you desire a blast from the past (and obviously lots of guests do), here’s your opportunity to experience what was once a culinary rock star.
My recommendation for seafood goes to the sea scallops. The plump, sweet scallops are pan-seared and served with a sweet potato hash that works surprisingly well with the seafood. The sweetness of both fundamentals in the dish is balanced by a tart citrus sauce. Most entrées fall between $24 and $30.
Desserts seem less creative than the other menu items, including the ubiquitous crème brǔlée and Key lime pie. I did sample the Key lime, reasoning that many tourists probably look forward to indulging in one of Florida’s most famous additions to the culinary repertoire. I was disappointed that it didn’t rise above the hordes of Key lime desserts found in thousands of restaurants across the state.
Café L’Europe provides a sense of hospitality and historic charm (the brick-walled front of the restaurant is said to have been John Ringling’s original office when he developed St. Armands). It also delivers the other essentials of fine dining—good food, outstanding service and an engaging wine list—which should keep this restaurant’s status as a Sarasota institution.
431 St. Armands Circle, Sarasota
Lunch daily 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner daily 5-10 p.m.
VISA, MC, AMEX
Valet parking, parking on street and municipal parking lots
My Recovery Cookbook
I was racing (not over the speed limit, of course) down I-75 to meet SARASOTA Magazine associate food editor Judi Gallagher for lunch at a new potential hot spot in Nokomis (we check out everything, dear reader) when I noticed I was running on empty.
What was intended to be a quick pullover for fuel turned into a month’s long convalescence. An out-of-control driver at the service station rammed into my car, which in turn pinned me between it and the pumping island. Voila—broken ankle, complete with pins and plates and instructions to stay completely off my feet for a month. Judi, colleague and wonderful friend, quickly organized a “Feed Kristine and Jack” schedule. For weeks friends dutifully arrived with pots of soup, casseroles, brownies and cookies, along with warm wishes that raised my spirits and surely accelerated my healing. I have never felt so blessed.
I have also realized that I have the foundation for a recovery cookbook. Already I’ve begun to collect some of the recipes, and I share one for this delicious soup that friend and gifted cook Karen Richardson adapted from one of her favorite cookbook authors, Nigella Lawson.
Karen Richardson’s Black Bean Soup
Four cans of 16-ounce black beans, rinsed
Two bay leaves
One cup of extra-virgin olive oil
Two large red peppers, cored, seeded, chopped
Two or more shallots, diced
Two medium onions, chopped
Eight garlic cloves, minced
One tablespoon cumin
Two tablespoons ground, dried oregano
Zest of one lime
½ teaspoon of light or dark brown or Muscovado sugar
One tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons dry Sherry or Marsala
2-3 tablespoons fresh coriander/cilantro
One medium red onion, diced for serving
One cup of sour cream
Use sauté pan and heat cup of oil. Sauté peppers, shallots and onions over medium heat until onions are translucent; add garlic, cumin and oregano and lime zest and sauté for additional five minutes. Transfer to food processor and puree until smooth.
Place beans in a large pot. Add the puréed mixture and bring to a simmer. Add bay leaves, sugar and salt. Add enough water to cover. Slow cook for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, and adjusting seasoning. Adjust amount of water to reach consistency desired.
Remove bay leaves. Add warmed sherry right before serving. Serve with red onion, sour cream and Tabasco.
Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat.
When our larder ran lean, which was not often, Jack stopped at various spots for takeout, and my favorite dish quickly became the chicken soup from Morton’s. This soup is a dead ringer for one my grandmother would make when we were ill, with the exception that Morton’s adds a touch of ginger that prickles the taste buds and soothes the psyche at the same time. It also contains loads of chicken, rich broth and a sprinkling of wholesome veggies. Four-star chicken soup, for sure.
What I’m Drinking
Anna Pohl was recently named one of the top 20 event planners under the age of 40 in Florida by Biz Bash Flash, an industry trade publication. Pohl, who’s been catering director for Mattison’s for three years, says, “I always had an interest in food and wine. Event planning is a great mix of the two.”
She groups her events into three categories: brides, clients who want the hippest, trendiest food and drinks, and the classic crowd.
"Right now, brides want a signature drink,” she says. “Mojitos are a very big drink in the bride world. The champagne toast is still big, but with fruit infusions like raspberries or strawberries—the pink colors are really popular. Bellinis are especially popular, too. At the Ringling Museum, it’s our most-requested drink, because the Ringlings themselves favored Bellinis.”
Anna says so many people are knowledgeable about premium liquors that it makes planning the cutting-edge party fun. “With vodkas there are many premium brands and brands with infusions, like pomegranate vodka for a pomegranate martini,” she explains. “If you’re having a themed party, you need to think about what matches the theme. If it’s a tropical theme, you might want to explore a special rum drink—there are so many different kinds of rum—or a frozen daiquiri, which is making a huge comeback.”
And for that classic crowd, she says, “wines are always the best choice. Pairing food with a great wine makes for a perfect party.”
And what does Pohl drink? “I rarely sway from Diet Dr. Pepper,” she admits. “For a cocktail, I’m a traditionalist. I’ll always select a vodka and tonic. I like Ketel One and Rain Vodka.”
FOR LOVE OF GREEN
I’ll celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with my Irish husband. Eating the food is a different matter.
Every year just before March 17, my Jewish mother would begin making her grocery list for St. Patrick’s Day.
“But Mom, we’re not Irish!” I would protest. “Why are we having corned beef and cabbage?”
“On March 17, everyone is Irish!” she would reply. Well, maybe, but even though a fatty pastrami on rye can tickle my taste buds, corned beef has never been on my list of favorites. In fact, I have an aversion to mushy food altogether. Mashed potatoes? Do not see the point. Boiled vegetables? If it doesn’t snap and crunch, I don’t eat it. Besides, well-done—or worse still, boiled—meat leaves me cold. So falling in love with an Irishman was a culinary challenge.
Our first week-long vacation together was actually over St. Patrick’s Day and, coincidentally, was my first visit to Sarasota. On St. Patrick’s Eve, we sauntered into an Irish bar downtown (Coley’s, now long gone) for a pint, song and something well-done and soggy, as I recall. Next, it was on to Patrick’s for a pint and corned beef for him, Diet Coke and rare cheeseburger for me. The next day, in full green, he paraded me to every possible corned-beef-and-cabbage watering hole in Sarasota County, or so it seemed. First, there was the lunch of corned beef and cabbage at a local Moose Lodge. (I recall Paul reaching over to say something about not wanting to waste what was on my plate, which had not been touched.) A few hours later, we were at Sullivan’s on North Beneva—for him, something mushy with vegetables, mashed potatoes and white bread on the side to smear up the last of the brown gravy; for me, a salad with lemon—at least it was green. Our night ended at Geckos with a hot corned beef on rye and potato salad for him, and a grilled chicken sandwich for me.
Upon returning to Boston, Paul proudly took me to his neighborhood watering hole in Brookline—The Corrib. Now there was a deal! You could find unlimited overcooked meats and canned vegetables, cash a check, and buy a lottery ticket all at the same bar. The following week, when Paul asked me to meet him at the Corrib, I declined. But he was so persistent I finally agreed—with the condition that I would not stay for lunch. When I got there, Patrick, the bartender, recognized me and invited me to the bar, where he set out a knife and fork.
“Thank you, but I won’t be staying for lunch,” I said politely.
“Ah, my lassie,” he responded, “perhaps today you will.” With that, in walked Paul—carrying a take-out bag of Chinese food from across the street. We were engaged within a week.
So come March 17, I will don my Irish-green apron and serve up a helping of corned beef and cabbage and then open a carton of moo goo gai pan as we toast to another happy St. Patrick’s Day together.
For more from Judi Gallagher about Sarasota food and dining, go to her blog, Foodie’s Notebook, on our Web site: sarasotamagazine.com.
Pancetta, cheese and pine nuts dress up grilled asparagus.
Although fresh asparagus from Mexico is available almost year-round, March is the kickoff to asparagus-growing season in the United States. A sure sign of spring, asparagus is often served with Easter lamb.
Asparagus is traditionally prepared by steaming a bunch upright in a tall, narrow pot, but it’s even sweeter when roasted in the oven or grilled. (Try grilled asparagus with grilled and marinated lamb this Easter.) Aged balsamic vinegar marries well with this garden stalk; serve the grilled asparagus with a julienne of roasted red pepper and some shaved aged Parmesan.
Always select fresh asparagus held together with a band (remove before cooking). Choose fatter stalks—they tend to be more tender—and check for freshness by feeling the stalk and bending to ensure a crisp break. Peel the bottom portion with a vegetable peeler to remove any tough layers. (If you are preparing an asparagus soup, however, peel two-thirds of the stalk to avoid stringy pieces in the soup.) Do not cut the bottoms; merely snap where the stalk naturally bends.
Asparagus with Pancetta, Blue Cheese and Toasted Pine Nuts
2 pounds asparagus, peeled and trimmed
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Fresh ground pepper
Approximately 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 ounces pancetta, chopped
½ cup pine nuts, toasted
½ cup Maytag blue cheese
Prep fresh, large asparagus spears. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Lay spears on a cookie sheet and sprinkle with olive oil, then season lightly with kosher salt and ground pepper.
Roast in the oven, turning once after 5 minutes, for approximately 10 minutes or until the asparagus is crisp but cooked. Remove from the oven and cover the cookie sheet with a clean, dry dish towel.
In a medium pan, add pancetta and cook until brown and slightly crisp. Sprinkle over asparagus, then sprinkle blue cheese over the pancetta and asparagus, and top with pine nuts. Return to oven for 2-3 minutes, until cheese begins to melt. Remove from the oven, place on serving plate and season with fresh ground pepper (do not add any more salt, as the pancetta is quite salty). Serve immediately. If you like, you can add a drizzle of balsamic reduction—add 1/2 cup sugar to one cup of balsamic vinegar and reduce by half, or you can buy balsamic reduction at Williams-Sonoma or other specialty stores.