Getting it Right
If there were a textbook titled How To Do a Restaurant Right, Zak’s Steakhouse in downtown Sarasota could be Exhibit A. The setting in a 1920s vintage house and terrace is intimate and charming, the service professional but with a friendly face, the cooking classic and satisfying, the wine list an intelligent study in depth and balance.
At the close of a fine evening at table, expect the bill to be hefty and to be happy to pay it.
The lesson in hospitality begins with the greeting at the door. The gentleman who confirmed our reservation didn’t mind at all that we wanted to wander through the cozy dining rooms, admiring the soft colors and smart decor, before being shown to the table on the terrace we’d requested. With low-key jazz on the sound system complemented by the splash of water in a small fountain, we settled in with menus and the wine list.
The heavenly aromas wafting from the kitchen had us purring before we’d so much as lifted a fork, but we didn’t wait long for the evening’s first gustatory delight, which arrived the instant our water glasses were filled. If a restaurant pays attention to the bread and butter, it’s already won half the battle for our hearts. Zak’s is textbook in this regard, too, offering a choice of a sublime white or hearty whole grain roll, both accompanied by rich butter, plain and with caraway seeds. The pride it was served with pleased us, too.
Before we get to the food, a word about the wine we chose, because it epitomizes the list. We knew that after seafood starters we would be ordering steak, and we were in the mood for a big but well-behaved red. Our lead waiter (we were well-attended by three waiters over the course of the meal) arrived as Colette and I batted some possibilities back and forth. When we came to a Louis M. Martini 2005 Napa Valley reserve cabernet sauvignon, he jumped in to recommend it with enthusiasm, having tasted the wine himself and recognizing it as an excellent buy at the price ($54). That it was listed in a section of the list headed Zak’s Personal Favorites sealed the deal. From the first sip this beautifully structured wine’s heady black currant and ripe black cherry fruit, underlain by a civilized hint of bramble for spice and grownup tannins, knocked us out.
We started with appetizers from the sea. Colette chose a daily special of deep red sushi-grade tuna rolled in smoked sesame seeds and seared in a flash ($17). Pickled seaweed studded with more sesame seeds and thin slices of ginger added an agreeable flourish. I couldn’t resist the chef’s Scallops Isabelle ($14), which presented three of the little beauties pan-roasted just so and served on a rich broth brightened by a confetti of red and yellow peppers.
We wrestled hard with the list of steaks on offer. All our favorites were there. Would we go for the classic char-grilled New York strip in 12-, 16- or gargantuan 20-ounce cuts or the equally humongous 20-ounce grilled T-bone? Perhaps we should be moderate and opt for the dainty 10-ounce filet?
In the end we chose the best of all steaks, a Chateaubriand for two with all the trimmings, carved tableside ($87). Zak’s execution was flawless. This thick loaf of a steak, cut from the ultra-premium tenderloin and broiled, combines a toothsome crust outside with a buttery texture inside, delivering a powerful one-two flavor punch unattainable by any other method. Carving produces the equivalent of two generous filet mignons for each diner, sauced in a tangy, egg-rich Béarnaise fit for a goddess (who, in this case, took home with her the makings of next day’s lunch, Béarnaise most definitely included).
While most sides for steaks and other entrées are ordered à la carte and sized for sharing, the Chateaubriand comes with a bundle of yummy green and white asparagus spears posed on a grilled tomato and a genuine baked, rather than steamed, potato, which is nearly as big as the steak and also is carved at table. It comes with plenty of butter and sour cream, too.
Hoping our groans of satisfaction and surfeit didn’t disturb other customers, we pushed back a bit from the table, relished the last of the wine and considered our duty to sample at least one dessert from the evening’s tray. Were we up to the challenge? We were. Zak’s finished as strongly as it had begun, capping our evening with a tart ($8) of tiny, delectable black and red forest berries on a pastry creme that might well redefine the term.
1213 Palm Ave., Sarasota
Reservations: (941) 906-7300
Hours: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; until 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Cards: VISA, MC, AmEx, Discover
Handicapped accessible: yes
Parking: complimentary valet or on street