High Steaks

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Red and lots of it is the right shade for a steakhouse, as anyone who has made the pilgrimage to Bern’s in Tampa, the Bay area’s reigning homegrown, over-the-top exemplar of the form, knows full well. Hyde Park Steakhouse in downtown Sarasota (the mother ship is in Cleveland) employs a more subdued and varied interior […]


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Red and lots of it is the right shade for a steakhouse, as anyone who has made the pilgrimage to Bern’s in Tampa, the Bay area’s reigning homegrown, over-the-top exemplar of the form, knows full well. Hyde Park Steakhouse in downtown Sarasota (the mother ship is in Cleveland) employs a more subdued and varied interior design palette, but red is prominent, from the quilted ceiling in its reception hall through dining room and bar seating and accents. Fold in dark woods, artful lighting and jacketed waiters and you have an atmosphere plush enough to suit the opulence, and commensurate prices, of the aged steaks at the core of an agreeably varied menu.

The bar (see accompanying “Good Deal” for more) was doing its usual brisk business on a recent evening, and it took a few moments for our cocktails to make their way to table. They were worth the short wait. Mine was the classic chilled Grey Goose martini with three olives in an oversized glass, which was just what I had in mind, but Colette’s citrus mojito was a work of art, with the requisite mint truly muddled, not just smooshed around in the bottom of the glass. She anointed it her new fave.

Overall, service was as smooth and unobtrusively attentive as it ought to be but often isn’t in a luxe class restaurant. When I asked whether that evening’s oysters (a quartet of fresh bluepoints for $8.95) was accompanied by a mignonette or the more common red horseradish sauce, the waiter was momentarily perplexed but vowed to see what he could do. When the starter arrived it was accompanied by not one but two ramekins of the minced shallot and wine vinegar sauce, whipped up on the fly by the chef just for me. Bravo!

Colette started with a steakhouse staple, a simple salad of sliced beefsteak tomatoes and bleu cheese crumbles with a bit of sweet onion thrown in for good measure ($6.95). She found the tomatoes sufficiently tomatoey to declare her first course quite satisfactory. Hyde Park’s salad list is big on retro, with that dressed iceberg wedge that is so inexplicably popular again in the top slot.

The wine we chose that evening, a scrumptious Newton Claret ($56), arrived a bit ahead of our steaks (What? You thought we’d order the fish?) to breathe and give us a gawking interval. We were seated in a cozy side room that accommodated just four formally set tables. The agreeable sound level is typical of the larger main dining rooms, as well, which is all to the good. I hate shouting at waiters over the hubbub, don’t you? Oddly, the ceiling in our little nook hosted several horizontal pictures in ornate frames, which I’m guessing are meant as a goad to the conversation invited by the acoustics.

And now for the steaks. The list is divided into two columns, one headed Traditional and the other Specialty, plus a box to showcase “limited availability” Japanese Wagyu beef ($110 to $160, depending on portion size) for unreconstructed big spenders. We ignored the box and chose one steak from each column.

Colette went straight for the Big Wally of the traditional list, a perfectly gorgeous 22-ounce prime bone-in ribeye ($39.95). This mouthwatering wonder, served precisely medium rare with a dainty crust, completely covered its ample plate, leaving no room for a side dish. Just as well, since the sides are ordered separately from a longish list. At some places this strategy comes annoyingly close to nickel-and-diming the customer to puff up the bill, but Hyde Park carries it off. The accompaniments are of the same high quality as the meats, and the portions are generous.

We chose hash browns with sour cream and caramelized onions ($7.95) and were profoundly glad we did. Two super-sized potato pancakes (we split one and took one home, along with about half the ribeye, to devour with eggs the next morning) proved to be the apotheosis of hash brownness, crisp and brown without, moist and fluffy within. We were tempted by the asparagus béarnaise, a wild mushroom sauté and the “colossal” beer-battered onion rings, but really, where would we have put them? Best to try one item each visit, unless you’re feeding teenagers.

From the specialty list I chose a longstanding favorite, steak au poivre ($36.95). Hyde Park’s version features a luscious 14-ounce New York strip, pan-seared and, like the ribeye, precisely medium rare as ordered. The steak unadulterated would be fabulous, but the fresh peppercorn crust encasing the meat and the Cognac bordelaise saucing it rendered it celestial. This dish is highly recommended for those who like their steak with a bit of bite.

Were we foundered? Practically, but we soldiered on and ordered cheesecake ($7.50) for the finale. Lucky us. The high, pale-yellow wedge we shared was lighter than thistledown but full of flavor and with a texture light years distant from the gooey cream cheese stuff “cheesecake” so often turns out to be. Now that’s my kind of wedge.

Hyde Park Steakhouse

35 S. Lemon Ave., Sarasota

Reservations: (941) 366-7788

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; until 9 p.m. Sunday; bar opens at 4 p.m. weekdays. (The management tentatively planned to open for lunch beginning this month, but it would be wise to call and confirm.)

Cards: V, MC, AmEx, Discover

Parking: Complimentary valet

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Thanks for the Memories

 I was just dipping a toe in the menu when I realized Colette was mesmerized by something over my shoulder. I turned to see what had captured her and discovered that it was an exceedingly handsome lionfish, which seemed to be admiring itself in a handy wall mirror from inside the confines of its saltwater tank.

“Beautiful,” I said.

“Barbs are poisonous, though,” she said.

Isn’t that just the way life goes?

Beyond the aquarium runs the short bar at Déjà Vu Bistro, and on the evening we visited, a couple, evidently with preferences akin to our own, was dining there despite a handful of empty tables. Other tables were full of people and all of them seemed to be in a very good mood, whether they were pondering that week’s menu, the evening’s specials, eating something nice, or just laughing over wine.

Good sign, as was the warm French bread that arrived at our table soon after the ice water. When a restaurant pays attention to the bread, as Déjà Vu emphatically does, it’s always cause for optimism. The stock of the sparkling aperitif we ordered turned out to be down to a final glassful in a final bottle, so our waiter kindly split it for us, on the house. The hopeful signs were piling up fast.

As hinted above, the menu changes every week, and there usually are a few daily chalkboard specials, especially those that qualify as the catch of the day. Our enthusiastic waiter noted with evident pride that all fish at this cozy place in a strip mall on Gulf Gate Drive is fresh, never frozen, and cut precisely to his liking by chef and co-owner Wesley Duval, who 23 years ago graduated from the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA). Tough to go wrong there, we figured.

From the week’s starter menu Colette and I chose to share a small plate pairing meaty shrimp-accented crab cakes with lightly fried calamari ($12.95). It was a fine choice. Both the cake and the squid rings were delicious naked, but the richness of the crab was beautifully brought out by a zesty chipotle mayonnaise, while the calamari was well served by a Dijon mustard sauce.

Entrées come with a salad before the main event, and we both chose the house salad over the Caesar, figuring it would be lighter and thus help us save room for dessert. It was. Fresh and spare greens, a few modest bleu cheese crumbles, a little sliced red onion and a judicious sprinkling of pine nuts cleared our palates nicely.

As we were finishing the salad, a female presence blew through the front door, deftly collecting an empty salad plate on the fly and turning all heads as she headed full-tilt toward the kitchen. This, our ebullient waiter noted with some small trace of awe, was co-owner Ceci Duval, whose domain is the dining room. She certainly animated the place as she table-hopped, chatting with regulars and beaming with approval at first-timers like us.

We settled down when the main course arrived. Colette had chosen from the daily specials list lightly seared, deep purple Ahi tuna prepared two ways ($31.95). The one she liked best, although both were toothsome, was served au poivre in a lively peppercorn crust asserted again by a Dijon mustard sauce. Neither the crust nor the sauce eclipsed the superb rare fish. The second prep was simpler, the same fine fish simply seared and served with a Mediterranean relish of tomatoes, olives and capers. (Leftovers made a very fine cold lunch the next day.)

My choice was scallops ($25.50) from the printed weekly menu, five fleshy little white sautéed domes under a sprinkling of tomato confetti. I’m a fiend for scallops, as constant readers will know, and these stood up well, although they weren’t the best I’ve tasted in recent memory. Still, they were very fresh and obviously selected with care by the chef.

Sides were a mixed success. The star on my plate was a wonderfully fresh and refreshing lemon-dill potato mash, the pluperfect accompaniment for shellfish. Colette’s tomato risotto was thoroughly agreeable. The problem on both our plates was the veggie of the day, which proved to be that rather tired mélange of broccoli florets and julienned summer squash. I do wish this combo would retire from menus everywhere.

We finished the wine, a nicely balanced La Crema Chardonnay ($36), as our unflaggingly effervescent waiter told us about the two desserts on offer that night. One was a classic fruit tart, which tempted us, but we decided to split an order of Déjà Vu’s celebrated bread pudding instead. Our invaluable waiter confided that the chef whips it from actual Danish pastries and by some alchemy turns them into an impossibly light, slightly moist, discreetly sweet little miracle served with a generous dollop of fresh whipped cream. Oh, boy! I can’t think of a better way to send a guest out the door with fond memories and a vow to come back for more.

Déjà Vu Bistro

2164 Gulf Gate Drive, Sarasota

Reservations: (941) 926-2994

Hours: lunch 11 a.m.-1:45 p.m. Monday and Saturday, until 2:15 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner 5-9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Cards: V, MC

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Parking: Ample in lot

Good Deal

The bar at Hyde Park Steakhouse opens at 4 p.m. for a double-whammy happy hour that runs until 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Here’s the double deal: Martinis, good ones, are just four bucks a pop! If you like a nosh with your silver bullet, half a dozen offerings under the Small Plates heading on the bar menu are available for $5 each, and not only during early happy hour but also late, from 9  p.m. until closing.

My favorites are a brace of tasty little aioli-sauced sliders served with wide boardwalk fries (normally $7.95) and a rack of mini mahi tacos in cute-as-a-button wonton crisps ($8.95 outside happy hours), which are almost as good as the mini burgers. Definitely worth leaving the office early, but also good for rewarding yourself for working late.

Tidbits

A curiosity has appeared at 1528 Main St. It’s a franchise called Tastings, which can’t seem to decide whether it’s a wine bar or a retread of the old Horn & Hardart Automats. Instead of inserting a nickel in a slot in return for a cup of Gilt-Edge Coffee, Tastings customers insert a prepaid card and part with anywhere from $1.70 to $15 for a “taste” of one of several dozen wines. And I do mean a taste. If you like the small sample, you can debit your card for a half glass or glass, the latter running as high as 30 bucks and change.

Some will hail this pricey gimmick as more fun than a penny arcade. Others will repair forthwith to the quaint precincts of their favorite human bartender for a full glass of that scholar’s current favorite from Bordeaux.

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.