(2010) Our favorite small hotel in Paris sits on a leafy avenue between l’École Militaire and Napoleon’s Tomb. Morel, an intimate little restaurant tucked into a Sarasota strip center, would be right at home in that affluent neighborhood of diplomats in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. It has the look and the feel, right down to Madame perched on her stool at the back of the house keeping a sharp eye on the till.
Morel’s dining room is small but comfortably arranged, its linen-draped tables agreeably spaced, its walls cozily decorated and discreetly mirrored, and its lighting both bright enough for easy menu reading and sufficiently golden to foster the mood of self-indulgence any good restaurant engenders. Service is low-key, informed and attentive. A quiet charm prevails overall.
But of course it is the kitchen, where owner and chef Fredy Mayer has reigned since 2000, that makes Morel worth seeking out. Mayer is a meticulous traditionalist with a gift for balancing texture and color, contrast and harmony. The composed plates he sends to table are studies in classic bounty.
The strategy employed by Morel is time tested and just right. It starts with a compact standing menu of favorites like an endive, radicchio and watercress salad, a ragout of mushrooms and fresh herbs (the place is named after the king of mushrooms, after all) and grilled filet mignon. This single-page list is the anchor, something to count on at every visit. But because it is short and sweet, the standing list gives the chef plenty of leeway to survey the market on any given day and produce specials tailored to the season and his mood. The result is fare that both consistently pleases and regularly surprises.
A don’t-miss appetizer from the standing menu presents a quartet of petite potato and leek latkes ($5.95) so skillfully constructed that the green savor of the leeks shines through in every crispy bite. Sour cream and apple sauce on the side let you garnish the little pancakes or not, as you like.
A special appetizer on the evening of our recent visit sauced gorgeous tender snails ($9.95) in an ambrosial liquor of butter, white wine, garlic and herbs accented with bits of fresh tomato and mushroom. Two buttery warm croutons were perfect for sopping up more sauce when the escargots themselves were fond memories.
For the main course, Colette and I chose very different dishes, which is where an excellent list of wines by the glass proved invaluable, since hers cried out for a light and lively red while mine needed a cool dry white. So, a sturdy Mark West Pinot Noir ($7.25) for Colette and a really terrific Lurton Fumées Blanches ($6.25) for me. There also is an extensive list of bottles at many price points from wine-producing regions worldwide.
From the standing menu Colette selected a pan-seared duck breast (a whole breast, not a half) with red cabbage and a cranberry-infused duck sauce ($25). Half the breast was sliced and fanned and the other was served in two crispy-skinned chunks, yielding two distinctive ways to savor a single prep. That’s the kind of kitchen economy that’s easy to understand and applaud.
I again went to the day’s specials, where I could not resist lemon sole paired with sea scallops ($26). The delicate sole came to table perfectly cooked in a jacket of crisp crumbs, while a trio of scallops was simply sautéed in butter and white wine. Sole is an easy fish to destroy by overcooking or an overly fussy prep, but chef Mayer’s hand was sure, and the result was heavenly.
Both main dishes came with a pretty mélange of whipped potatoes, asparagus spears and al dente root vegetables, the ensemble as thoughtfully well prepared as were the stars of the show.
When it came time for dessert, both of us were tempted by the bittersweet chocolate terrine with toasted pecans and vanilla sauce ($6.50), but in the end we were seduced by two of the day’s specials, a fabulously nutty pear belle Hélène for her and a vibrant, buzzy chocolate espresso torte topped with whipped cream for me (both $7.50). The fresh whole pear was a knockout, having first been poached in red wine and then robed in chocolate studded with sliced toasted almonds and set off with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in the same swoony coating. Both were delicious ends to a flawless meal, but the pear was quite spectacular.
3809 S. Tuttle Ave.
Credit cards, no American Express
Parking available off-street