Food & Wine

By: John Bancroft

Here’s Looking at You, Kid Chef Ammal beamed as an order of bisteeya was delivered to our table at Morocco, his winsome restaurant on the South Trail. “In Morocco,” he said with an infectious smile, “we call this dish happiness.” Our first bite of the delicacy showed us why. In fact, happiness pretty well summed […]


Here’s Looking at You, Kid

Chef Ammal beamed as an order of bisteeya was delivered to our table at Morocco, his winsome restaurant on the South Trail. “In Morocco,” he said with an infectious smile, “we call this dish happiness.” Our first bite of the delicacy showed us why. In fact, happiness pretty well summed up our condition as, some 90 minutes later, we picked at the crumbs of our dessert and settled the bill for an exceptional meal.

The dining room that the chef toured frequently during our recent visit hides, as seems so often to be the case for fine small restaurants around town, in a nondescript strip center. Once you step through the door you are transported to a separate reality. Windows dressed in gauzy red filter a parking lot view. Under a black ceiling, which seems magically to recede into invisibility, linen-draped tables, both freestanding and in swagged booths, are comfortably spaced. A handsome bar lends visual interest, as do decorative Moroccan lanterns. The service practiced in this soothing setting is congenial and professional.

Chef Ammal’s version of bisteeya, an appetizer ($7) of chicken, eggs, onion and crushed almonds flavored with orange blossom water and baked inside a round phyllo pastry crust, was absolutely authentic in every detail save one: Traditionalists would have expected pigeon rather than chicken. The substitution was fine with us. We devoured this delicacy with a nearly ferocious delight.

We enjoyed a second appetizer alongside the bisteeya. Zaalouk ($8) stars chunks of roasted eggplant and slivers of onion sautéed in garlic, cilantro, ginger and cumin, a ubiquitous spice in Mediterranean cooking, the whole set off by slim crescents of salty, savory preserved lemon. This dish went down as easily as the bisteeya.

Even before the fine starters, we had been pleased with the complex hummus and fiery harissa that accompanied a small loaf of warm bread. Dollop a bit of bread with the chickpea spread and dot that with the North African chili sauce and then grin as your taste buds sit up and take notice.

For her main dish Colette chose a tagine, a slow-cooked stew served in the traditional ceramic vessel with a conical lid. I was not at all surprised that the version she chose was tagine du mouton ($21), given her taste for lamb, which is featured in a variety of scrumptious ways on Morocco’s menu. In this dish, the meat was cubed and braised until tender in a broth robustly flavored with saffron, ginger and honey and studded with sweet prunes and carrots. Yum!

I opted for filets mignonettes ($29), a trio of petite filets, not because I’m such a steak guy that I can’t see anything else on a varied and exotic menu but because of the treatment I suspected these tender, medium rare morsels would receive at chef Ammal’s hands. I liked all three, but my favorite was the one sauced in a cumin-scented Bearnaise, a small tweak that turned a steakhouse staple into an adventure. Next on my hit parade was the miniature steak rubbed with a smoky mélange of Moroccan spices before cooking, a prep that ramped up the meat’s inherent savor. The third steaklet was prepared au poivre, its searing in a jacket of loosely crushed mixed peppercorns sealing in its juices. This one was served in a luscious pan sauce studded with whole red peppercorns that delighted the eye as well as the tongue.

To complement the rich red meats, we chose from the satisfyingly varied wine list one of our favorite mid-priced reds, a Louis M. Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($29) that practically stands up and sings in harmony with steak and lamb.

For dessert, we sampled two confections (both $6) more often associated with other cuisines but here given a distinctive Moroccan twist. The flan that Colette ordered was rich but light and sauced not in caramel but in a rose water bath, which yielded a vividly flavored custard considerably less sweet than the standard Spanish flan. We’ve always loved the Cuban style of flan, and now we’ve added a new fave. I chose baklava and found it to be quite a different species from the version I’m used to. In the Moroccan take, the many layers of honey-drenched phyllo pastry that figure so prominently in Greek and Turkish baklava are something of an afterthought, constituting only a light jacket for a dense, flourless nut cake. Again, the Moroccan version is not nearly as sweet as its better known cousins, relying not on honey or syrup for sweetness but on the more tempered, natural sweetness of chopped nuts.

 

Morocco

7119 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota Reservations: (941) 922-4741 Hours: dinner 4-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday

Cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover Handicapped accessible: yes Parking: ample in lot

what i’m drinking

It’s June and the pool is calling your name. Splash. Lounge. Repeat. Between dips, few things cool and quench better than a well-chilled, light and crisp white wine. Here are some particularly agreeable bottles to keep on ice poolside.

Sauvignon blanc, with its distinctive grapefruit snap, is the undisputed champ among warm-weather wines. The grande dame of New World sauv blancs, and arguably the wine that started the vogue for New Zealand whites, is the Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Its popularity has elevated its price (the 2008 goes for about $15 to $18 locally), but it’s still the exemplar of its kind. For about six bucks less, the 2008 Cupcake Vineyards sauv blanc, also from New Zealand’s Marlborough district, adds a distinct gooseberry zing to the citrus twang and gives the dowager a run for her money. Drop down another dollar or two and try a contender from South America. The 2008 Gracia de Chile sauv blanc subs grass and mint for that first blast of grapefruit, but a baseline of astringent gooseberry keeps it lively.

Next on my list of faves for poolside sipping is pinot gris. The 2007 Chehalem pinot gris (about $18) from Oregon’s celebrated Willamette Valley is as cool and crisp as a tart Italian citrus ice. This is a great food wine, but it sips quite agreeably all on its own. The same is true of the 2007 Firesteed Oregon pinot gris (about $13). Its bright flavors of apricot, lavender honey and lemon ice cream pair brilliantly with grilled salmon, but a kiss of flint makes it a superb cooler, too.

Slightly less dry but still eminently refreshing is a new breed of riesling. The 2007 Undone dry riesling (about $11), which we first brought to readers’ attention last January, easily lives up to its advertising pitch: “unoaked, unadulterated, crisp, dry ‘naked’ flavor.” The 2008 Dr. L riesling (about $15), by contrast, is a textbook non-estate Mosel Valley riesling with a postmodern snap. There’s a hint of sweetness, but the overall flavor profile is crisp, clean, light and floral. This impudent pup came in at No. 62 in the 2009 Wine Spectator Top 100 Wines list with a score of 90 and also was rated a best buy.

Bubbles are always good, of course. Tosca Prosecco, a nonvintage sparkling wine from Northern Italy’s Veneto region, is priced for casual summer sipping at about $10 to $12 the bottle. Lemon, the predominant note in this elegant, minimalist sparkler, gives it its chill factor.

Finally, we’ll leave you with a recommendation straight out of left field, a wine neither white nor red. The 2008 Crios de Susana Balbo rosé of Malbec (about $10) is a delightfully flirty pink wine meant to be drunk in the exuberance of its youth. This rosé comes on in an irresistible rush of ripe strawberries, raspberries and cherries tempered by just a hint of astringent gooseberry, a sort of cream soda for the grownup palate.

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.

InSeason

Chef Judi Gallagher says June’s the month for salmon on a bed of fresh watercress.

Watercress is a grassy, peppery plant that grows in wet places like streams and river banks. Look for watercress sold with live roots still in water. Store with the bottom wrapped in paper towel and use as quickly as possible. Historic note: Greeks and Romans ate watercress because they believed it helped them make clear decisions.

While watercress is a common ingredient in Chinese soups, I prefer eating it uncooked. Watercress makes the perfect bed for fresh grilled salmon, scallops and halibut.

Serves 4

½ pound shitake mushrooms, stemmed
            and sliced thin

1 leek, washed and split, trimmed, white
            and light green part only,   then sliced

3 tablespoons olive oil

Kosher salt and black pepper to taste

4 6-ounce skinless salmon filets
            (I love Maggie’s seafood at the
            Saturday farmer’s market downtown
            for fresh salmon)

Zest of 1 lemon

3 cups washed and chopped watercress

Olive oil

Fresh squeezed lemon juice (about 2 teaspoons)

½ cup toasted slivered almonds

4 ounces goat cheese, sliced

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Toss the mushrooms with leeks, seasoning and add grated lemon zest.

Place the salmon on a piece of foil that has been sprayed with Pam. Turn edges slightly up. Place on broiler pan. Top the salmon with zested leek and mushroom mixture and drizzle with olive oil.

Cook for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and cover with a clean kitchen towel and let steam for 4 more minutes.

Toss watercress in a bowl with goat cheese and toasted slivered almonds. Season with salt and pepper, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a splash of olive oil. Place on a dinner plate and serve fish on top of watercress salad.

 

 


Lobster Love

 

The Lazy Lobster made its reputation for excellent and affordable fish and shellfish at its original location just off University Parkway. Now denizens of Longboat Key, who might have hesitated to make the drive inland, are discovering how richly deserved the restaurant’s rep is. And the Lazy Lobster couldn’t have chosen a better island venue.

Those with longish memories will recall with fondness Maureen’s Palm Grille in The Centre Shops on Gulf of Mexico Drive: the superior bar, the sophisticated, many-windowed dining room, and the serene patio with shady umbrellas. The Lazy Lobster takes excellent advantage of these assets. The dining room may be more quaint than cutting-edge these days, but the food and service are just right. The bar and patio still shine, and the wine list bubbles with excellent bottles intelligently presented and very well priced, many under $30.

The menu, as you will have guessed, offers Maine lobster in many guises: steamed, broiled, baked, in the shell and out, nicely sauced (Thermidore or Newburg) or simply paired with drawn butter. There’s even a lobster roll for those who grew up with the Down East fave, which combines chunks of the signature crustacean with celery and mayo on a grilled buttered roll and arrives with warm potato chips and a pickle on the side.

A fine starter is a velvety lobster bisque fragrant with sherry and cream ($5.95 for a cup, $7.95 for a bowl). The question I always ask myself when sampling this classic first course is: Would my brother like it? He is, to be frank, a freak for bisques of every kind, but the lobster variety is his passion. He would be well pleased with this rendition. In fact, he’d order a second bowl.

One of the house specialties is lobster mac and cheese, which combines hunks of steamed meat with white cheddar and elbow pasta, all baked under a layer of toasty bread crumbs. It is a savory dish and a rich one, which is why the restaurant is smart to offer it both in a small plate version ($12.95) and as a main course ($23.95). Colette, a mac and cheese maven, opted for the small plate as a main course and found that it fit her appetite perfectly. She loved it, but at least half of the full-sized version would have gone home with us.

The menu goes well beyond lobster, offering a fine selection of fresh fish and shellfish dishes and combos, as well as a short but tasty list of white and red meats.

Colette prefaced her mac and cheese with a small spinach salad and declared it without a doubt the best $3.95 salad she’s ever tasted. Start with farm-fresh spinach, add tomato, onion and chopped egg, set the ensemble off deliciously under a warm bacon dressing, and you have the perfect foil for the rich dish that followed.

After a cup of the bisque, I tucked into another house specialty, scallops Breanne ($20.95). Constant readers will know how picky I can be about sea scallops. They must be absolutely fresh, firm enough to make a knife useful, and sauced with intelligence and restraint. The Lazy Lobster hit each of my marks squarely. The large plump scallops were perfectly pan seared and sauced in a toothsome citrus cream that was much lighter than its name implies. But wait, there’s more! The scallops circled a portion of some of the best squash-stuffed ravioli it has ever been my pleasure to taste. In short, a brilliant dish and a bargain at the price.

More bargains are to be found on the wine list, which was constructed by someone savvy enough not only to break out selections by varietal but also to separate a dozen or so agreeable chardonnays into drier, less oaky versions and the big buttery ones with lots of vanilla. We chose one of the former, a light and lively 2007 Sonoma Vineyards chardonnay for a mere $27 the bottle.

It’s worth noting, too, that the bartender here knows her way around a real martini. Hallelujah!

For dessert we split a wedge of mango pie ($4.95), which the Lazy Lobster serves in place of the more common Key lime. It was a treat, cool and creamy and mangoey with a nice dollop of whipped cream for good measure.

 

The Lazy Lobster

5350 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key

Reservations: (941) 383-0440 Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 4-9 p.m. every day Cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover Handicapped accessible: yes Parking: ample in lot.

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