I have a confession. For too long and on no evidence I considered Tommy Bahama’s Restaurant & Bar on the west spoke off St. Armands Circle as just another way to cash in on the Tommy Bahama brand. Then my sister-in-law, Anita, set me straight.
“Their Loki-Loki Tuna Poke is really good,” she informed me over a lunch of black bean soup and Cuban sandwiches at nearby Columbia.
“Their what?” I asked, thinking I might not have heard her correctly.
“It’s a kind of sashimi stack with guacamole and capers,” she said. “It’s an appetizer, but it makes lunch for me.”
Ahi tuna! Capers! Guacamole! The hook was set.
Diners at the local outpost of the tropically themed chain have the option of sitting downstairs near the convivially noisy bar or upstairs, where the tables are dressed in white linens and the bar chatter is a distant rumor. There is a great skinny terrace overlooking John Ringling Boulevard from above, a perfect—and often jam-packed—perch for cocktail sipping and people watching or admiring a sunset over the Gulf a couple of blocks away.
We chose the quieter upstairs option and were seated at a table with a nice view of the rosy glow swelling and fading in the west. Paddle fans turned slowly overhead as our waiter—sporting a Tommy Bahama shirt, naturally—took our aperitif orders and recited the day’s specials with a pleasantly understated enthusiasm.
We were in a fine mood and started with glasses of toasty Piper Sonoma sparkling wine ($10 the glass) from California as we inspected the menu.
The appetizer list is varied and tempting. There was the Loki-Loki ($16.50), of course, but Anita had already given that baby the stamp of approval.
Many menu items here come in either small or larger portions, an option I am always pleased to see, and the smaller route is the way both Colette and I decided to go.
She started with the Cooper Island crab bisque ($9.50/$6.50), a creamy smooth and crab-rich soup spiked just so with sherry. I chose crab, too, in the form of an eminently crabby grilled cake in a demure coconut crust that the restaurant evocatively calls Crab Calloway ($16.50/$9). The crab was fresh and succulent and nicely set off by a sweet chile mustard and a haystack of deliciously crunchy Asian slaw. Just right.
The entrée list is nicely varied and well balanced between the expected fish and other fare. On the finny side, I’m given to understand that the Shoal Bay snapper ($29.50), a macadamia-crusted treat from the Gulf, and the Old San Juan shrimp and scallops (28.50), which are sautéed in a coconut curry, are crowd pleasers.
Having started with shellfish, we chose from the land side of the menu. Colette’s choice, Tommy’s rib rack ($29.50/$19.50), was absolutely terrific. A half rack of tender baby back ribs came to table celestially cloaked in the chain’s proprietary blackberry brandy barbecue sauce and accompanied by the same Asian slaw I’d sampled earlier, plus chive-flecked, baked, then whipped potatoes. Yummy.
An entrée that immediately caught my eye was something Tommy’s calls The Island Cowboy ($34.50), an eight-ounce tenderloin filet grilled and sauced in a red wine demi-glace asserted by both caramelized roasted garlic cloves and Maytag bleu cheese crumbles.
On the side are brightly al dente spears of lemon garlic asparagus and potatoes. On the evening we visited, the restaurant was offering a three-course prix fixe menu ($33) that included among the main course options a smaller portion of this dish featuring medallions of the filet instead of the full steak. This was the scaled-back version I sampled. I found it superbly rich and satisfying.
For dessert, Colette couldn’t resist Blackbeard’s butterscotch ($10/$6), a swoony confection teaming vanilla pudding flavored with Scotch whiskey with chocolate ganache, caramel sauce and whipped cream. Oh, my! Were she a cat, Colette would have licked her whiskers and purred as she pushed the empty bowl away.
I fared quite well, too, with my piña colada cake ($10/$6), a moist and mile-high slice of vanilla cake layered and iced with caramelized pineapple, white chocolate mousse and coconut, all flavored robustly with Myers Dark Rum. Oh, and a dollop of whipped cream for good measure.
Tommy Bahama’s Restaurant & Bar on St. Armands purveys well-executed island-themed fare in a comfortable and convivially noisy double-decker building a couple of blocks from the beach.
Tommy Bahama’s Restaurant & Bar
300 John Ringling Blvd., St. Armands
Reservations: (941) 388-2888
Bar: full bar and well-priced wine list
Hours: opens for lunch at 11 a.m. daily and dinner kicks in about 4:30 p.m.; closing is at midnight Friday -Saturday and at 11 p.m. the rest of the week
Cards: VISA, MC, AmEx, Discover
Handicapped accessible: yes
Parking: on street or in nearby parking lot
Tastes of Tuscany at Salute!
Salute!, a traditional white tablecloth Italian restaurant, bar and café with Tuscan roots, has moved into and significantly upgraded the space briefly occupied by Café & Restaurant Suzette next door to Mattison’s City Grille downtown. It’s a promising newcomer.
For starters, the place looks smarter and fresher inside and out. An inviting wine room and glass-fronted cellar have been added to the dining room, and handsome tiled floors are now the rule throughout. Outdoors, the awning-
shaded, iron-railed patio is considerably more inviting than it used to be. The bar just inside the front door now offers excellent happy hour deals on food and drink or a vivifying mid-afternoon espresso.
We visited a couple of weeks after Salute! opened, when the wait staff was still finding its legs. The food and wine, however, were first rate, and it’s not at all unusual for a restaurant to smooth out a few wrinkles during an initial shakedown period. Overall, promise easily outweighed any little inconsistencies.
The menu is extensive. Bruschette come in six variations and appetizers number 10, including a sampler of three pastas ($10) to share around the table, a very nice idea. If you’re dropping in for a drink or at lunch, a fine option is your choice of three Italian cheeses and three Italian cured meats for $14.95. Panini in seven variations also make excellent lunch fare.
At dinner at a window table in the stylish main dining room, we accompanied our first course with bubbles, pink ones this time, from Domaine Chandon ($8 the glass). Colette chose the savory soup of the day, a creamy marriage of white beans, earthy mushrooms and bits of prosciutto ($6.95). It boded well for the dishes to come. I chose an appetizer trio of tapenade, hummus and olives with toasted bread ($6.95) and found it just right as a starter, tasty but not filling.
The pasta list is a beauty, and I struggled to choose just one. My affection for gnocchi finally won out, this one in a Florentine style: little green dumplings stuffed with spinach and ricotta in an understated cream sauce ($13.95). I’m not sure why it was served in a skillet, but it’s OK with me.
Since it was a cool evening, Colette went for a very autumnal dish called filetto di maiale ai funghi ($16.95), which translates as pan-seared pork tenderloin with grilled apples, Gorgonzola and mushrooms. Call it what you like, it was a winner with plenty of substance and robust flavors.
The restaurant serves several wines from its own vineyards in Tuscany, including its 2006 Casali di Bibbiano Luminoso ($40), a sterling 100 percent Sangiovese that we enjoyed very much. Your host will be proud to walk you through the choices.
Salute! Ristorante & Enoteca
23 N. Lemon Ave., Sarasota
Reservations: (941) 365-1020
Bar: full bar and nice wine list
Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; dinner 4-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Cards: all major
Handicapped accessible: yes
Parking: on street or in nearby city garage
An editor, writer and online publisher, John Bancroft has reviewed restaurants, books, movies and music for many magazines, websites and newspapers, most recently for the St. Petersburg Times.