Euphemia Haye on Longboat Key is gloriously unreconstructed. Tucked away behind thick subtropical plantings and identified only by its understated signboard on busy Gulf of Mexico Drive, the restaurant epitomizes the enduring power of tradition.
The restaurant has grown from its original 28 seats since Raymond and D’Arcy Arpke took ownership in 1980, but its heritage of tranquil good taste continues to dominate both its atmosphere and its menu. Its fanatically loyal customers wouldn’t have it any other way. Why tamper with a formula that works so beautifully?
The greeting that awaits you when you claim your reservation—and you really need one in season—is warm and genuine. As you are conducted to table you pass the small downstairs bar (more about what’s upstairs in a moment) and are seated in one of two cozy rooms with comfortably spaced tables dressed in white linens. Floor-to-ceiling windows frame views of the garden. Nearly every inch of wall space is covered in framed pictures and mementos, creating a charming and eclectic mosaic. The far room is dominated by a presentation prep station featuring a huge wooden salad bowl that sees plenty of action.
The salad built in plain view is Euphemia Haye’s signature Caesar ($9.25), as fine an example of the form as I’ve ever tasted. Hand-ripped romaine goes into the big bowl first and then is tossed in an ambrosial dressing redolent of lemon, garlic and anchovies (add additional anchovies for $2 a pop) and finished with Parmesan and crisp croutons. Bypass this masterpiece at your peril.
Having tasted the Caesar more times than we can count, thereby confirming the salad’s impeccable reliability, Colette and I reluctantly ventured into new territory on our most recent visit. I chose a simple but bold grilled radicchio salad ($9.75) dressed in just enough balsamic vinaigrette, while Colette, Southern girl that she is, went for fried green tomatoes ($11.75) crusted in panko and corn meal, served on a slightly sweet red bell pepper sauce and topped with pecan pesto and crumbled feta. Our loyalty to the Caesar is unwavering, but these starters prove that the king of salads here is in good company.
A word about the wine list before we move on to the main event. It is varied and sophisticated, with wines at price points to suit just about every budget. While we could have spent $300 on a monument to the art of French winemaking, we were perfectly pleased with the Tierra Secreta Malbec from Argentina’s Mendoza region at a modest $35. This concentrated New World red went beautifully with everything we tasted, including a finishing cheese course.
Another icon on the menu at Euphemia Haye is Chef Raymond’s truly and justifiably famous crispy roast duckling ($34.75). If you have not tasted this fabulous bird, you are in the minority around these parts. The dish begins with the duck, of course, fresh and moist inside an admirable brown crust that at once adds zest and seals in the natural juices, delivering both a delicate crunch and succulent flesh with an alluring hint of wild game. The duck is partially boned, filled with bread stuffing and served under a seasonal fruit sauce. The chef’s favorite fruit is whatever berry is in season at a given moment, but on our most recent visit his choice was a beautifully balanced orange sauce, which, like the various berry sauces he concocts, somehow achieves the perfect balance of sweet and tangy to complement and never overpower the duck. Whatever the season, you won’t go wrong with this dish.
Colette chose lamb shank ($24.75), braised Greek style in a red wine garlic sauce accented with rosemary and a medley of Greek spices. The lamb was cooked to tender perfection and served with the day’s potato, speculation about which is always rampant among regulars. How will the chef present the spuds this evening? It’s practically a parlor game.
Other veggies are offered à la carte, including a toothsome creamed spinach ($6.25) and—the spuds of the night!—sinfully rich whipped potatoes with cream and white truffle oil ($10.25). On the evening of our review visit, however, Colette was in an impish mood and insisted on sharing the Brussels sprouts ($6.25), a vegetable I’ve never learned to love.
I’ll admit that these were nicely turned out, having been split and blackened in olive oil and garlic, but Colette, as she knew she would, had the lioness’s share for herself.
I got even on the finishing cheese course ($13.50), which served up a generous sampling of three artisanal cheeses, set off with some of the most gorgeous and flavorful table grapes we’ve seen in a long while. Because Colette had filled up on those sprouts, the lion’s share of this course went to me.
Instead of enjoying our cheeses at table, we could have taken the stairs one flight up, where we would have been faced with the choice of entering a dessert room practically screaming with the aromas of chocolate and mile-high meringues or turning instead to the Haye Loft bar, the big bar where jazz often soothes the senses. Even if we visit the dessert room to select one of the tempting pies or cakes or mousses on offer, we eat them at the bar. Our choice quite often, however, is a liquid dessert in the form of bartender Eric Bell’s unparalleled Irish coffee in a glass sporting a caramelized-on-the-spot sugar rim. Yum!
You also can dine in the bar, and we often do. There is a separate bar menu from which you can order the famous duck and an array of small plates and appetizers, but which also features delightful little crisp crust pizzas for one. My favorite is the spicy barbecue duck and shiitake mushroom ($10.75), although you can design your own, too. Start with a basic cheese and tomato thin-crust pie for $8.25 and add toppings like goat cheese, green olives, gorgonzola or pepperoni for $1 to $1.50 each. Start with a small plate version of the Caesar ($9.25), add a glass of good wine, and you have a satisfying meal that won’t stretch the budget or your waistline.
5540 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key
Reservations (recommended): (941) 383-3633
Hours: dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Sunday-Friday, ’til 10:30 p.m. Saturday; upstairs bar/lounge ’til midnight (pizza ’til 11 p.m.)
Cards: VISA, MC, Diners Club, Discover, Carte Blanche
Handicapped accessible: yes, for the ground-floor restaurant and bar; stairs only to Haye Loft
Parking: ample in lot
Bargains in barbecue and more.
The Place: Mr. Bones BBQ, 3007 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach; call for current hours, (941) 778-6614.
The Fare: The coffin full of iced beers in the foyer, the mostly grotesque but charming masks and the sign advising you not to ask for condiments because everything is already perfectly seasoned alert you that you’ve found one of those rare little places where a true original reigns. The fare is as quirky as the setting: BBQ, of course, but also East Indian dishes, Chinese-inflected goodies, Tex-Mex and crawfish gumbo.
The Drill: Peruse the fine selection of boutique beers (Abita Turbodog from Louisiana is one of our faves) in the iced coffin, pop the cap on the handy built-in opener and proceed to a table in the friendly and very entertaining dining room. Sip as you dig into the menu, and don’t neglect the daily chalkboard specials. Or you can get takeout.
The Bottom Line: The ’que is what keeps us coming back, particularly the baby back ribs, which are, as advertised, perfectly sauced and seasoned. The dinners featuring them, most accom-panied by veggie fried rice (!) and a choice of two more traditional sides, are bountiful. The hickory-smoked ribs come in five different sauces, from the straight-ahead (and delicious) version bathed in Mr. Bones’ secret sauce to Mandarin ribs, smoked then braised in an orange-ginger sauce. Choose your dinner with those delectable baby backs for $17.99 or go for regular spare ribs for three bucks less.