(2008) Marina Jack has always been about the view. In fact, it sometimes feels as if the Sarasota bayfront fixture has been around as long as Sarasota Bay itself. For years it’s been the first place many of us have taken visitors for a taste of coastal living, as well as for that staple from the dawn of time, Captain Jack’s Fried Seafood Platter.
But Marina Jack has grown up over the last several years. The upstairs Bayside Dining Room takes even better advantage of the harbor, bay and distant Gulf views than before it was rebuilt; its menu has matured and acquired a welcome diversity; and it has earned three consecutive Wine Spectator awards of excellence, beginning in 2005. You still can order that good old fried combo, too.
The dining room, with its curving wall of towering floor-to-ceiling glass, is grand. Tables on three levels multiply the opportunities for seduction by an expansive bayscape that changes by the minute with subtle shifts of light. The room’s décor is neutral, which makes good sense. Why compete with the watery vision beyond the window?
Once you’ve drunk in a first big gulp of the view over an aperitif, the black and blue tuna, featuring thinly sliced, blackened but rare yellowfin served with a Dijon soy dipping sauce, is one of the best bets among the 10 appetizers ($9.95 to $14.95) regularly on offer. It is also a stalwart on the more casual menu at the open-air Portside Patio Bar downstairs.
A close runner-up among dining room starters: the mussels steamed in white wine and garlic and finished with parsley butter. Unless your appetite has been sharpened to a fine point by a long day on the boat, you may want to share this bountiful bowl with a friend.
Florida stone crab claws usually are available in season (through March 15) as either an appetizer or an entrée, both at market price. If stone crab is out of season, I’d go for the old-fashioned chilled prawn cocktail; nothing fancy, just half a dozen big, fresh beauties served with lemon, cocktail sauce and a dollop of shaved horseradish, just in case.
Don’t ask me why, but I habitually skip the pasta portion of the menu in a restaurant specializing in fish. If your taste runs that way, though, you might consider the spicy Creole seafood pasta with its inviting combination of crayfish and langostino tails, scallops and mushrooms tossed with linguine in a Tabasco cream sauce. Let me know what you think. Maybe you’ll convert me.
My mouth really begins to water when I get to the fresh fish and other main dishes, which range from chicken in a Boursin cream sauce ($23.95) to a pair of Canadian lobster tails ($42.95). Two of the fresh fish offerings, Gulf grouper and certified wild salmon, come chargrilled. The salmon I sampled was fresh, firm and rosy, perfectly cooked and nicely set off by a restrained dill sauce. Red snapper and rainbow trout come sautéed, the snapper with a choice of Amaretto beurre blanc or fruit salsa and the trout pistachio-crusted and served with pesto.
Other seafood dishes include pan-seared diver scallops, crab cakes with an ancho chile remoulade and, of course, that famous fry-up of shrimp, scallops, grouper nuggets and a crab cake.
Terrestrially sourced offerings include three steaks—New York strip, filet mignon and top sirloin—as well as duck medallions in a honey glaze with mango butter and New Zealand rack of lamb. As it happens, my constant dining companion and consultant—my wife Colette—is a fiend for rack of lamb. Marina Jack serves it with the classic Dijon and herb crust and sauces it in a rosemary-infused demi-glace (with a cup of mint sauce on the side, for the misguided). Colette’s verdict on this rendition? Definitely toothsome, cooked precisely to the correct medium rare, not out of place among the best she’s tasted in her extensive researches. This is high praise.
Main dishes come with various sides and salads or soup of the day. Colette chose yummy garlic mashed potatoes to accompany the lamb, and I opted for dirty rice with the fish. Both came with expertly sautéed green beans, fresh and full of flavor. Colette began with a mixed house salad dressed in a balsamic vinaigrette remarkable for its balance. I tasted a seafood chowder thick with ingredients (and right salty).
The wine list, while not over-long, packs a lot of variety in both price and style. Many sparkling wines, from Australia’s modest Seaview Brut to bold and beautiful Veuve Cliquot champagne, signal the restaurant’s popularity as a celebration place. Several pages of red and white varietals follow the sparklers. Among them we were delighted to find a favorite pinot noir, a full-bodied exemplar of its kind from Oregon’s Bethel Heights ($56).
Service is professional and attentive without being overbearing. A telling detail: When I mentioned to our waiter that I thought there might have been a mix-up in the bar, resulting in something else being inadvertently substituted for Grey Goose vodka in my martini, he whisked it away without quibble, returned with the right thing and stood by as I sipped. Little misfires can happen anywhere. It’s how the staff handles them that matters.
Marina Jack’s Bayside Dining Room
2 Marina Plaza, Sarasota
Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner 5-10 p.m., both daily
Credit cards: American Express, Visa, MasterCard, Discover
Parking: Complimentary valet