At Cork and The Bottle Shop, the first grace note sounds soon after you’re seated. It’s in the butter.
Whether you choose the informal cafe/brasserie/bar downstairs (The Bottle Shop), where the butter might be alive with the tang of fresh orange, or the more formal restaurant upstairs (Cork), where the butter might owe its pop to cardamom and orange blossom honey, that little surprise will put you at ease, confident that you are in good hands.
The fresh breads are very good, too, but that’s to be expected in any establishment worth its salt. It’s the small things—like the butter—that signal a kitchen’s intention to attend to every little detail of menu and preparation.
In this case, make that kitchens. Chef Mac deCarle, formerly of Beach Bistro, oversees not one line of sous chefs and cooks but two—one downstairs and another upstairs. Each venue in the old Bottle Shop’s newly renovated building on the north spoke of St. Armands Circle has its own menu, decor, bar, wine list and service staff, too.
Sarasota architect Guy Peterson oversaw the redesign, which resulted in a harmonious mix of two versions of modern style under one roof. Downstairs is all terrazzo, glass, metallic surfaces and right angles. The design upstairs is just as cool and clean, but with softer edges. The bar downstairs is straight out of The Jetsons, while the upstairs bar is clubbier and features a pair of upholstered horseshoe booths. The kitchen downstairs is open to the main seating area; the kitchen upstairs is out of sight (and earshot). Bare tables downstairs, fully dressed tables upstairs. You get the idea.
Both approaches work because well thought-out, varied menus and wine lists take their appropriate places center stage. Our only quibble after three visits was uneven service, but then Cork and The Bottle Shop opened at the height of season, when experienced wait staff can be hard to come by. Given the young enterprise’s culinary chops and design flair, we feel sure the service will sort itself out.
Soups, salads, brick oven pizzas and familiar brasserie/bistro fare reign downstairs. We especially liked a fall-off-the-bone-tender braised lamb shank with leeks, orange and rosemary served on soft polenta. Just as good were the moules frites, in which a mound of shoestring fries topped a bowl of fresh, sweet mussels steamed with shaved fennel and garlic and accented by the anise-flavored snap of pastis liqueur. The fries were less successful in steak frites, but the beef, grilled medium rare and topped with maitre d’ butter, was a winner.
A superb starter that appears on both menus is the crab bisque. Generous lumps of blue crab, flown in live from the Maryland shore and other East Coast waters, are the strong foundation of this creamy delight, the crab’s rich flavor and texture spiked by good sherry and brandy. Just as delightful is a cool, chunky gazpacho of fresh, locally grown heirloom and hothouse tomatoes, served downstairs.
Chef deCarle has a thing for tomatoes. Fresh local Romas are the starting point for what the menu declares, truthfully, to be “double-strength tomatoes.” The ripe red fruit first gets a dusting of salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil and is then slow-roasted in the cafe’s brick oven.
Those heat-fortified tomatoes play a central role in a pizza and a Niçoise salad downstairs and in the orange- and coriander-crusted tuna served upstairs, which combines them with braised fennel, olives and pine nuts in a savory main dish. A good starter with this one is the breakfast radish salad, which combines the mildest of crisp radishes with a bit of goat cheese, tarragon and dried cherries.
Another gorgeous crust, this one the result of an assertive smoked salt-and-sugar rub before grilling, encases Cork’s prime New York strip. This beautiful steak is nicely set off by the profoundly dark and earthy flavor of roasted mushrooms and Jerusalem artichokes.
Is red meat your go-to dish? Then you might opt for Cork’s over-the-top, bone-in filet Rossini with foie gras and sliced truffle. This extravaganza may not slim your waistline, but at $64—by far the priciest item on a varied menu (the next highest price point is $39)—it certainly will do that to your wallet.
Upstairs offerings featuring fish include a Livorno-style fish pot, which mixes fish and shellfish in a tomato-based broth, as well as a starter of pomegranate gravlax. In this cool variation on a Scandinavian appetizer of ancient pedigree, wild ivory salmon is skillfully house-cured with cardamom and the dish’s namesake fruit, then served with a smooth goat cheese crema and a relish that features enough caper berries even for a fiend like me.
And while you’re ordering, be sure to advise your waiter that you’ll somehow manage to save room for pastry chef Heidi Nelson’s pitch-perfect rendition of the classic chocolate soufflé, punctured tableside and ladled with crème Anglaise. Trust me: you won’t be sorry.
For dessert downstairs, take a chance and go for the peanut butter and banana griddle cakes, a twist on Elvis’s favorite sandwich but a whole lot lighter. The main ingredients are grilled between slices of brioche, drizzled with chocolate and plated with whipped cream on the side. Two of us happily shared this unlikely creation, but it could easily have served four.
Downstairs, we were impressed with the “Thirty Under Thirty” list of thoroughly likable bottles from most of the major wine regions, all chosen for their value. The choices upstairs are equally pleasing but a bit pricier; we selected a nicely nuanced Bethel Heights pinot noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley from the middle of the list at $51.
Both lists offer a good selection of wines by the glass and both venues feature full bars. If you’re going from dinner to a party you can even pick up a well-chilled bottle or two of Veuve Cliquot’s Yellow Label on the way out the door.
Now that’s full service.
Upstairs: CORK (formal dining)
Downstairs: THE BOTTLE SHOP (cafe/brasserie/bar)
29 N. Boulevard of the Presidents, St. Armands Circle, Sarasota
Continuous service downstairs 11 a.m. -10 p.m. daily
Dinner upstairs 5:30-10 p.m. daily
VISA, MC, AMEX, DISCOVER
Parking on street and in municipal parking lots
Breakfast at Eight
Here’s an idea for an early summer Sunday morning: Rise in the cool of the day and cruise north along Longboat Key to Anna Maria Island for breakfast at Ooh La La! Continental Bistro. The trip is serene at this time of year, and the destination is worth the drive.
It’s Sunday at the beach, so why not start with a refreshing mimosa and chase it with coffee in an oversized cup? Go straight to the eggs, if you like, or detour to an appetizer from the “brunchier” portion of the menu. We were delighted with the sautéed black bean cakes with salsa, guacamole and sour cream, but then we were in a certain mood. Perhaps the mimosas had something to with it.
Eggs come in wonderfully varied guises here, from fluffy three-egg omelettes to satisfying French toast made with house-baked bread and topped with Vermont maple syrup.
Of particular note are three of the house variations on poached eggs. My favorite is a dish chef Damon Presswood calls Ooh La Garlic. Start with a pair of poached eggs and nest them in a bed of wilted spinach. Finish with a sauce based on red wine vinegar and featuring plenty of garlic and tomato. Serve with a fresh house-baked croissant or baguette slices. Heaven.
Eggs Mornay situates the eggs on a croissant and tops them with asparagus, applewood smoked bacon and a lovely, cheese-rich sauce Mornay. Eggs Benedict switches the expected English muffin for one of those addictive croissants, pairs the eggs with Neuske’s Canadian bacon, and finishes the dish with a creamy Bearnaise. (If you prefer salmon in your Benedict, they’ll happily accommodate you.)
If you arrive a bit later, brunch selections are ready when you are. You might start with the smoothest of lobster bisques or a rich, house-made black truffle and goose liver paté. Move on to an ample salad Niçoise with fresh grilled tuna or to one of the open-faced sandwiches on a croissant or French bread. My favorite is the Anna Maria, which combines smoked salmon, cream cheese, onions and Boursin cheese to satisfying effect.
If your appetite is bigger, a handful of regularly offered lunch dishes and specials should fill the bill. Chopped sirloin with sauce Bordelaise, calves’ liver with bacon and onions, grilled tuna with beurre-blanc wasabi sauce, or garlicky sautéed scallops all come with bread, a green salad, potatoes and a veggie.
Breakfast is exclusively a Sunday treat, but dinner is served every night. In the evening you’ll find a long list of appetizers (don’t even try to resist the French fries crisped in duck fat and served with truffle ketchup) and main dishes (traditionalists will applaud Chef Presswood’s authentic beef Wellington), as well as chalkboard specials.
Whenever you drop in you’ll enjoy congenial service and an agreeable wine list in one of two comfortable rooms separated by the bar and open kitchen. Weather permitting, two or three tables are usually on the sidewalk, too.
And don’t forget to ask what’s for dessert.
Ooh La La Continental Bistro
5406 Marina Drive (Island Shopping Center), Holmes Beach
Breakfast/brunch 8 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Sunday
Dinner 5-9:30 p.m. daily
V, MC, AMEX
Q. I want fresh! How do I become a locavore?
Being a locavore (local eater) is simple: Eat as much locally raised, preferably organically produced foods as possible and get them into your kitchen within 24 hours of harvest when they’re at their flavorful and nutritional best. In Sarasota it’s easy to do that. Sarasota Farms will harvest your organic goodies on a Friday and deliver them either to your door or to one of two local farmers’ markets for pickup the next day. In addition to getting fabulous real tomatoes, salad greens, peppers, cucumbers, melons, eggplants, squash, beans and more, with the exact mix depending on the season, you’ll be supporting local farmers.
A 25-week membership will run you $550 ($22 a week), and 50 weeks will cost you $950 ($19 a week) for seven pounds of the freshest produce around. Current pickup locations are the Sarasota Downtown and Lakewood Ranch farmers’ markets, with more locations to come. Add $5 a week to either total for home delivery. To order, go to the www.sarasotafarms.org or call (941) 377-4375.
What I’m Drinking
Michael Flanagan, owner of Flanagan’s Wine Market in Sarasota, is my kind of wine merchant: enthusiastic, knowledgeable and not the least bit stuffy. He’ll help you stock your cellar with treasures, but he’ll also be glad to help you mix up a case of value-priced wines for drinking any time friends drop in for a summer sundowner or an impromptu meal al fresco.
This season is the perfect time for enjoying not only cool, refreshing, easy-drinking whites but also certain bright reds served slightly chilled. Flanagan walked us through a dozen of his favorite summer wines, beginning with an Italian sparkler.
Flanagan likes Prosecco not only for its light-hearted bubbles and not-quite-bone-dry finish, but also because its alcohol content, at 11 percent, is lower than most champagnes and other sparkling wines. His pick: Carpene Malvolti (NV) at about $17.
Skipping to the south of France, Flanagan picks a light, dry Prosper Maufoux Blanc de Blancs ($8), a non-vintage blend for the everyday table. In the same vein, but from California, he likes a crisp and tangy 2005 Pepi Pinot Grigio at about $10. His choice from Oregon is the racy 2005 Big Fire Pinot Gris from R. Stuart & Co. at about $18.
Like mine, Flanagan’s taste in chardonnays these days runs to unfussy unoaked or low-oaked wines, especially those from Australia. A favorite is the clean and crunchy Longview Blue Cow Chardonnay (2005, $15) from the cool Adelaide Hills.
Next up is a wine he discovered in Northern Italy. He immediately bought two cases of “one of the most exquisite blended whites I’ve ever tasted” for his private cellar. The wine, about $37, is Vie di Romans 2004 Flors di Uis.
Now for the reds, which Flanagan serves at a typical cool cellar temperature of 55 to 60 degrees. Again from Prosper Maufoux comes a wine simply called Cuvee Rouge (NV, $8). The next three are all from California: a 2005 McManis Petite Sirah ($13), the soft and approachable 2003 Costa del Sol Napa Valley Red ($19) and, surprisingly, a Burgundy-style 2003 William Knuttel Russian River Pinot Noir ($25), aged 18 months in French oak.
Our big finish comes in the form of a sparkling, low-alcohol dessert wine from Italy, the 2004 Villa Giada Moscatto di Asti ($13), which Flanagan describes as tasting like “fresh, effervescent white peaches.”
During a long career as writer, editor 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.
Cookbooks are about so much more than just recipes.
When I moved from Boston to Sarasota, the first thing I did was lighten the load. Away went the four food processors (left over from my own restaurant days), two dozen sauté pans, multiple boxes of wine glasses, decanters and, oh yes, stockpiles of old Gourmet magazines and various cookbooks. At the time it seemed powerful to proclaim that my lugging of cookbooks from house to house was over. I knew all that there was to know, and I looked forward to wrapping my arms around some new, trendy cookbooks. Little did I know: The stained pages of Joy of Cooking and the fallen, ripped pages of the Silver Palate Cookbook were big losses. I never should have left them behind in the recycling bins.
The Sisterhood cookbooks from Temple Beth Shalom were another perfect example of my loss. It wasn’t that I would venture to try someone else’s matzo ball recipe or, God forbid, a non-family member method for noodle kugel. It was the names and memories of the women who contributed the recipes that I miss. Myra Scott’s prune Danish was a staple when certain holidays came (page 36, I believe, in the 1972 edition). McCall’s Cookbook had sent me on baking sprees in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s; pages matted with oatmeal and brown sugar marked my favorite spots. There was some cookie cookbook—I remember it as a paperback that housed the world’s best recipe for sour cream cookies sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. The Betty Crocker Step by Step Cookbook was a classic for my mom, who didn’t learn to cook until she was married. I recall the Chinese pepper steak page adorning the counter on many a night. My mom, a literal cook, read each ingredient with effort and care, measuring carefully, while years later I used the recipe as a source for a grocery run. But I held the book close to my heart on many nights when Mom fell ill several years back.
Since I recently remodeled my office, I can now enjoy the comfort of having all my cookbooks gracing the shelves of built-in bookcases. There may be weeks that go by that I don’t reach over and open one, but I’ve begun new memories with the hundred or so that I’ve collected since relocating. If I had been an athlete, this would be my trophy case. While I may have forfeited all those older cookbooks, I do still embrace all the recipe cards from my mother’s collection. The handwritten recipes and cooking tips stir up memories of my childhood and bring comfort knowing that some day my son will be the keeper of these treasures. While he’s beginning his culinary career with the newest books from Mario, Giada and Bobby Flay, I have no doubt that the old recipe card with Grandma’s sweet-and-sour cabbage rolls will someday be on his own trophy shelf.
Chef Judi Gallagher makes a run for wild salmon.
While temperatures in Sarasota may be soaring, in cool Alaska it’s time for the salmon run. June and July are optimum months for salmon fishing, and no doubt these Alaskan beauties will begin to adorn the specials list at many local fish markets and restaurants. Captain Brian’s offers an alderwood-smoked salmon that’s both sweet and earthy, while Bonefish Grill usually selects a fabulous cedar-plank version of the freshest Alaskan king (also known as chinook) and coho salmons. Loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, fresh wild salmon will lower cholesterol and increase intelligence, concentration and mood. Here’s how to fix your own planked salmon.
First, go to a hardware store and purchase untreated lumber. Cut planks into any size you desire. (The best wood choices for planking are cedar, alder and oak.) Presoak the plank in water for two hours, then pat planks dry with paper towels and spray-coat or lightly oil one side of the plank. Season seafood lightly with an herb blend or just with salt and pepper. Go easy, as you don’t want to overpower the flavor you will get from the plank. Preheat the grill to medium-high (see oven instructions below). Place the planked seafood on the grill over indirect heat and close the lid. Turn the heat down to medium. Seafood changes from translucent to opaque as it cooks and will continue to cook after it is removed from the heat. Cook just until opaque throughout.
Cedar Plank Salmon
2 pounds wild salmon filet
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon brown sugar
¼ cup fresh squeezed orange juice
2 tablespoons Kentucky bourbon
1 tablespoon ponzu sauce
Pinch of kosher salt and black pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients and pour over salmon. Marinate in the refrigerator for 30-60 minutes.
If using the oven rather than the grill, preheat to 420 degrees. Place cedar plank directly on the oven rack and “toast” for 10 minutes. Remove the plank and brush with olive oil while still hot.
Add salmon to plank and roast in the center of the oven for 8-10 minutes.