Food & Wine

By: John Bancroft

Tour de Force Lan’s smoked trout caviar on panna cotta and chive pancake. At Lan, every forkful is a delight, and the price makes it one of the best deals on food-fabulous Main Street. One of the pleasures of being a regional judge for the annual James Beard Foundation Awards is the opportunity to nominate […]


Tour de Force

Lan’s smoked trout caviar on panna cotta and chive pancake.

At Lan, every forkful is a delight, and the price makes it one of the best deals on food-fabulous Main Street.

One of the pleasures of being a regional judge for the annual James Beard Foundation Awards is the opportunity to nominate outstanding Sarasota chefs and restaurants. When the next round comes along, chef Lan Bradeen and her superb restaurant, Lan, will be high on my list of nominees.

At Lan,not only is every forkful a revelation and a delight, it is served with grace and at a price that makes it one of the best deals on our food-fabulous Main Street.

Sometimes Colette and I read through a beautifully constructed menu and are tempted to say, “Yes, we’ll have this. Start with the top of the appetizer list and polish us off with the last dessert.” That’s not very practical, of course, but at Lan we came as close to closing the deal as we have in years. The vehicle for our swoony ride through the chef’s astonishing repertoire was something called The Chef’s Tour, nine small plates of her choosing plus canapés, amuse bouche and desserts. At $40 per person, it’s an irresistible bargain.

The standard dinner arrangement is a superb value, too, a three-course prix fixe meal at $35 per person, offering appetizer, main course and dessert selected by the diner from a standing menu and daily specials. Dishes also can be ordered à la carte, and at 10 p.m. a special late night all a la carte menu kicks in.

But let’s back up a bit and take a look around. The dining room and cozy wine, beer and sake bar are at once glamorous and comfortable. Jewel-tone rose red walls, tables dressed in black and white linens, artful lighting and sheer swags symbolically separating tables along one wall add up to a feeling of being someplace special but not pretentious. There are patio and sidewalk tables, too.

And now, fasten your seatbelt as we embark on The Chef’s Tour. Be bold; say “feed me anything the chef likes” and get ready to be knocked out. And if you’re a wine drinker, do jump at the chef’s offer to pair this culinary bonanza with wines of her choice. Because her by-the-glass list is so well-priced, this is not an extravagance. It just feels that way.

Whatever option you choose, dinner is preceded by canapés, tiny squares of focaccia dotted with ancho-scented jack cheese kisses on our recent visit, and an amuse bouche of the day, which for us was a simply adorable mini quesadilla stuffed with fig, blue cheese and prosciutto on a gorgeous sauce-painted plate.

For the tour proper, Bradeen started us off with a hot and sour duck soup, the pungent broth poured at table over thin, rosy slices of duck on a bed of soba noodles. To say that it was savory is an understatement.

Next up were two appetizers: a light and aromatic foie gras custard with a little grape and Fuji apple salad and a surprisingly sweet and tender portion of beef tongue, first braised and then sautéed, served on a slice of braised daikon radish with a bit of dried fruit salsa. Another surprise was the chef’s wine choice for this course: a lovely Jekel riesling that proved to be the perfect foil for the rich meats.

A Liberty School chardonnay was the chef’s pick with a course pairing yummy pork belly (from a farm in Myakka) on a bed of sticky rice with another plate where two perfect diver scallops crowned with a subtle orange and mint salsa reposed on little pillows of spicy Yukon mashed potatoes.

Next up was the pièce de résistance in this gastronomic tour de force. On one pretty plate were arrayed four delicate portions of miraculously light and golden sautéed sweetbreads asserted by a charming and delicious salad of micro greens. On another plate, just as pretty, two mouthwatering rare lamb chops cut from a standing rack were arranged on a rich and fragrant pool of shiitake and shallot demi glace.

But wait; there’s more. Sharing the plate were spears of sautéed endive and a taro and Stilton croquette that rivaled the chops for goodness. With this stunning course the chef chose from her globetrotting wine list a wonderful Vale de Bomfim Reserva from Portugal.

A thoroughly reliable Mark West pinot noir was just right with a thick cut of fresh roasted halibut on Himalayan red rice and one of the tastiest little filet mignons we’ve ever eaten. We were so thoroughly satisfied at that point we wondered whether we could manage the dessert course. Silly us! For her finale the chef poured a delicately sweet botrytis semillon from Australia and sent it to table with a celestially understated vanilla lavender crème brûlée and sublime little scoops of crème fraiche sorbet. Thus was an evening of wonders capped in high style.

And now the part that will be hard to believe. The tab before tax and tip for this pitch-perfect evening at table, including aperitifs and the chef’s flawless wine pairings with each course, came to a flat $130!

If you can beat that value, you must tell me at once. I won’t believe you, but I’ll listen politely.

Lan
1568 Main St., Sarasota
Reservations recommended: (941) 953-7111
Bar: excellent wine list, craft beers, sake cocktails
Hours: dinner 6-11 p.m. Monday-Saturday; late night menu 10 p.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Thursday, until 3 a.m. Friday-Saturday
Cards:
all major
Handicapped accessible: yes
Parking: on street

Ciao, Bella Divino, long a favorite on Main Street, accomplishes the nice trick of being cool and refined and warm and inviting at the same time. What a pleasure it is to approach its glowing windows after dark! You can almost feel a tractor beam of hospitality pulling you inside.

The menu reads like a letter from an old friend’s fragrant Italian kitchen, and regulars know that several crowd pleasers, including osso buco and whole Dover sole, make regular appearances as daily specials. The bar is everything a good bar should be, and the dining rooms are comfortably relaxed and quietly elegant. The team service is appropriately attentive and thoroughly professional.

The appetizer list offers both the expected, like polenta layered with sausage and mushrooms in tomato sauce or a fry-up of calamari, eggplant and zucchini, and some surprises, like a tuna carpaccio with a Florida orange mousse or timballo.

There are many regional variations on timballo, including one that might more properly be called timpano, the extravagant culinary centerpiece of the movie Big Night, which foodies will remember fondly. Divino’s less complicated version ($8.95) brilliantly blends strips of eggplant and zucchini with buffalo mozzarella in a sort of molten cake served on a sauce-painted plate. The result is a satisfying starter, guaranteed to get the tastebuds revved without being overwhelming.

Colette, after first being sorely tempted by a caprese salad, chose Divino’s take on traditional carpaccio ($11.95), which tops thinly sliced rosy raw beef with fresh arugula, shaved Parmesan, sliced raw mushrooms and slivers of steamed artichoke. This is a delightful twist on a classic and well worth trying.

The secondi portion of the menu ranges through a well-considered selection of pastas, fish and meats augmented by nightly specials. Ravioli is always del giorno, or “of the day,” so that a different prep is offered each night. Some, like the ravioli porcini ($20.95) that I sampled, recur often by popular demand. In this case, I was delighted that we had booked a table on a Thursday. The pasta pillows were nicely filled with minced porcini mushrooms, in and of themselves delicious, but the crowning glory of the dish was its sauce of sage brown butter drizzled with truffle oil. OMG! Lovely.

Colette also was glad that osso buco ($29.95) was offered that night. She loves this rich dish and pronounced Divino’s among the best she’s ever tasted. The chef braised the on-the-bone veal shanks to profoundly tender perfection in red wine and sprinkled them with gremolata (parsley, garlic and lemon peel) before plating atop a sweetly pungent lake of saffron risotto. If you share Colette’s passion for this classic Northern Italian specialty, you owe it to yourself to try it here.

Dessert for Colette was yet another of her faves, a limoncello flute ($6.95). Some versions are pretty much a straight-ahead sorbet of the tangy liqueur served in a champagne flute, but Divino’s sweetens the treat with the addition of lemon gelato. Did it work? Oh my, yes. I went, as I so often do, for tiramisu ($5.95) and found this version a bit light for my taste but still an agreeable finish to a fine meal.

Divino Restaurant & Bar
1766 Main St., Sarasota
Reservations recommended: (941) 330-9393
Bar: excellent wine list (heavy on Italian reds) and full bar
Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; from 5 p.m. seven days
Cards: all major Handicapped accessible: yes
Parking: on street

INSEASON   

Chef Judi Gallagher makes an easy and tasty tomato sauce.

The menu at Divino reads like a letter from an old friend’s fragrant Italian kitchen.

There’s an oval or pear-shaped tomato that goes by a variety of names: Roma, Italian and plum. It has more pulp and less water content than the round varieties, so it’s better for cooking, canning and making sauce.

The best-tasting tomatoes are those that are vine ripened. Most commercial tomatoes sold in the markets are picked just at the point when they are beginning to turn red, and then they are ripened in transit. They never have a chance to gain their full natural flavor.

Buying locally grown Ruskin tomatoes ensures a quality fruit, or vegetable, as some categorize them. If you are an earth box grower, start with a cultivar known as the window box Roma. When selecting Roma tomatoes at a local produce stand, such as Overholt’s, Yoder’s or the Farmer’s Market, look for firm tomatoes with smooth skins.

Roma tomatoes are not as flavorful as the round breed, such as a beefsteak, but they have a much longer shelf life and contain fewer seeds. One of my favorite ways to use them comes from chef Scott Conant (owner of Scarpetta in New York and Miami). I don’t think I have ever tried a better tomato sauce than this easy recipe that Scott shares in his cookbook, Bold Italian.

Fresh Tomato Sauce

  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 20 plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped
  • Pinch of crushed red pepper
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil over a medium-high heat until quite hot. Add the tomatoes and red pepper flakes, and season with salt and pepper. Let the tomatoes cook for a few minutes to soften. Then, using a potato masher, crush the tomatoes. Cook for 20-25 minutes, until the tomatoes are tender and the sauce has thickened. Use immediately on fresh pasta or refrigerate sauce up to two days. 

WHAT I’M DRINKING

The 20th annual edition of the Florida Winefest & Auction April 22-25, a charity weekend that has raised millions for children’s charities over the years, comes with a couple of twists.

The first is substitution of Party with a Purpose from 6 p.m. to midnight Friday, April 23, on the grounds of the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota ($250 per person) for the usual sit-down Gala Dinner & Wine Auction. The auction, which always rounds up some amazing trophies, will be incorporated into the garden party.

The second is the addition of a more budget-conscious event, styled A Taste of Winefest, scheduled for noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 25, at Phillippi Estate Park on South Tamiami Trail. Tickets will cost $15 and be good for six tastes of wine, beer and ale. Food coupons will be for sale separately. There will be music and a classic car show, too.

Otherwise, the drill will be familiar to those who’ve attended before.

On Thursday and Friday, wine and winemaker dinners will be hosted all around town in venues ranging from private homes to a cushy yacht. Tickets start at $100 per person. All the featured chefs are from Sarasota this year and are scheduled to include Fran Casciato of Libby’s Cafe + Bar in Southside Village; Paul Mattison, owner of a string of Mattison’s restaurants and culinary enterprises from south Sarasota County to the banks of the Manatee River in Bradenton; Chris Covelli of Cosimo’s Too; Lance Thompson of Sarasota Catering; and Christian and Julie Hershman of Ark Boutique Catering, among others.

On Friday and Saturday, at various locations and at various times and prices, food and wine seminars will teach us how to pair food and drink like the pros.

For tickets and information, call (941) 952-1109 or (800) 216-6199 toll-free.

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.