Initially, you may confuse Going Bistro with a lot of other local eateries that have "bistro" in their name. But once you taste the appetizers, soups, salads, sandwiches, entrées and desserts streaming out of the little kitchen in the storefront Gulf Gate restaurant, you will remember this place. Chef Keith Doherty knows how to make a tasty impression.
Confident without being cocky, the 31-year-old, nearly native Sarasotan (he moved here in the fifth grade) knows his niche in the local cuisine scene. He aims to offer simple, hearty Mediterranean (mainly French) fare in a relaxed, no-fuss atmosphere. He isn't interested in artful, mile-high constructions, he says. But he does insist on fresh ingredients, fine sauces and creativity. Restless and inquisitive, Doherty likes to experiment and surprise. And he's able to do that with engaging results. While his food is honest and recognizable, it's never boring.
The restaurant portion of the enterprise can seat about 30 at the bar or at wooden pedestal tables that accommodate two or four. The eclectic mix of chairs that appear to have come from home dining rooms or upscale patios is a nice touch. The walls are white stucco, jazzy music plays in the background and pleasant prints hang on the wall. Going Bistro has all the makings of a comfortable neighborhood hangout for gourmet food devotees, including a small table near the wine racks that usually holds an open bottle or two with little plastic cups for wine tastings.
Across from the bar, refrigerated cases display the take-out goodies, including a child's-sized portion of homemade macaroni and cheese. Doherty says this is as popular with grown-ups as it is with youngsters. Each take-out item comes with microwave instructions for heating in its own container. All the meals are fully cooked. Complete take-out meals are about $11. Side dishes such as risotto cakes or primavera jasmine rice are packaged to serve two or four and are priced between $3 and $6.
The restaurant (and take-out) menu changes with the seasons and Doherty's whim. Look for innovative preparations along with chicken, pork and beef standbys. He does a really nice beef and wild mushroom Beaujolais stew with risotto-stuffed roasted sweet onion for $15.95; I'm also a big fan of his sweet-potato corn chowder with basil-ginger mascarpone for $3.95 a serving. Dotted with colorful bits of red and green pepper, the chowder is as smooth and comforting as a chenille shawl around your shoulders. Pair it with his Mediterranean salad (chicken, greens, olives, artichoke hearts, tomato, pine nuts, provolone cheese and balsamic vinaigrette) at $7.50, and you have a satisfying meal that pops with flavor.
Doherty grew up in the food business. His family had restaurants in New York, and by the time he graduated from Sarasota High School, he had worked in enough kitchens to know that he wanted a career in cooking. Educated in California, he apprenticed for a time at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco (as a pastry chef) and at the famous Stars bistro. After a stint in Seattle, he returned to Sarasota and was the executive chef at Michael's on East for three years. He opened Going Bistro last December (in the former location of Word of Mouth) and has a business plan for careful expansion that keys on the catering division, which he established in partnership with Sam Lastinger.
Relying primarily upon referrals, the duo already has a thriving business that caters to small and mid-size corporate and private events. Their most ambitious job recently satisfied 250 partygoers, but Doherty says they usually cater for 15 to 100 guests. The seven-page catering menu is a luxurious read of delights such as caramelized red onion and fresh thyme tarts; duck liver mousse and raspberry crostini; white truffle Parmesan risotto; or chicken stuffed with sausage, pine nuts and currants and crowned with pesto sauce. Does anything sound more decadently delicious than raw oysters in a champagne sabayon topped with Oscetra caviar? Bring it on, please.
2164 Gulf Gate Drive, Sarasota, 926-2994. Credit cards. Angle parking in the strip mall. Monday through Saturday. Lunch: 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Dinner: 5-9 p.m. To-go market open from 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
GRANDE GRILLE: Busy Miller's Marina is a Boca Grande landmark, exactly the backdrop you'd expect for a laid-back little Florida resort and fishing village. Although most of Boca Grande is tony and trim, Miller's Marina is a sprawling working dock that serves serious fishermen (the name of the person who catches the biggest fish is posted during tarpon season), wealthy residents and curious day trippers.
The Tarpon Tide Grille on the upper deck attracts all those types for casual lunches or comfort-food suppers. Jack Harper has owned the marina and the restaurant for 25 years; but until three years ago, the restaurant was leased out. Now, Jack is back in control. He also owns the water taxis that take boaters to and from their big vessels when they want to come ashore to eat and shop.
The Grille is on the far side of fancy, the opposite of that other Boca Grande landmark, the Gasparilla Inn. Expect paper napkins, basic booths or tables, and no-frills friendly service. Folks dress accordingly. Lunch averages about $10; the house favorites are an excellent fresh grouper sandwich (fried or blackened or grilled); a big messy-juicy hamburger; and the bayou salad, which is a fresh local tomato stuffed with tuna on a bed of greens. The Caesar salad is a good choice, too.
Dinner is about $18, with a menu that turns to chicken pot pie, pot roast and the inevitable grouper served several different ways with various side dishes. Big portions, basic recipes, unpretentious preparations. Don't even think about fusion fare or a degustation menu in this place unless you want to be laughed at by people in baseball caps. But there is a full bar. After you've eaten, check out the boutique downstairs for an impressive selection of Tommy Bahama wear and other surprisingly upscale beach 'n' boat togs.
Tarpon Tide Grille
Miller's Marina, Boca Grande, 964-0232.Hours: Daily, 11 a.m-9 p.m. Closed Tuesday evening. Ample parking. No reservations
Isle Style: If you live in Venice, shop in Venice or visit the charming Isle as a tourist, sooner or later you will stop for lunch at Le Petit Jardin. Located at one end of an historic arcade, it's an island institution. After your meal, it would definitely be worth strolling the length of the enclosed decorative building, which is lined with specialty shops. Originally the building was the San Marco Hotel and later the winter quarters for the Kentucky Military Academy. In 1975 the structure was transformed into the Venice Centre Mall, a retail venue that has been quite successful. Le Petit Jardin opened a year after the mall and has remained basically unchanged.
The double-decker restaurant has a Country French feeling- mustard-yellow walls hung with French prints, lots of greenery and a wire replica of the Eiffel Tower on the counter. The upper story is like an intimate chalet in the French Alps, right down to the ladder-back chairs with rush seats and red checked pads. Downstairs the atmosphere is open and garden-like. You'll get lacy paper placemats, paper plates, background music, and faux flowers on the table.
The menu is French and centers on quiches, crêpes, ratatouille, and pigalle (smoked ham shaved, wrapped in a crepe and topped with asparagus and cheese) along with hearty salads and standard American sandwiches such as roast beef and the ubiquitous hamburger, which in this case, turns out to be a veggie burger made of brown rice, grains and ground nuts. Average price for an entrée is $6. The soups are homemade (although the traditional French onion is sadly indifferent in flavor); and the desserts (about $2.50) include such nice confections as a French apple crêpe, key lime pie, banana split and something called a crêpe royale, which combines ice cream and chocolate sauce in a warm crêpe topped with whipped cream and walnuts. Beer and wine are offered and there are free refills on coffee and iced tea.
The motherly waitresses go a long way in establishing the relaxed atmosphere that is a hallmark of the cafe. If you come in toting shopping bags, they're apt to ask you what you purchased and whether you got a bargain. If you want to use your cell phone, they'll ask you to go out into the hallway. How civilized! Lunch at Le Petit Jardin is both a bargain and a pleasant respite.
Le Petit Jardin
218 W. Tampa Ave., Venice, 485-4449. Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m.-2:45 p.m. Credit cards. Street parking. For take-out, call 15 minutes ahead