Most world-weary travelers will tell that hotel food is hotel food, and the hotel restaurant is a place where you flop when you're too tired to explore a strange city. But the Ritz-Carlton restaurants have a mystique all their own.
Eating at the Ritz is all about context. You walk through the imposing doors and are greeted by an army of perfectly groomed staffers; suddenly, your expectations start rising like bread dough. You expect the food to be superb, the setting to be refined and the service superior. You look for candlelight, crystal glasses, a wine list that weighs five pounds and a sommelier who can suggest a vintage while making you feel smarter than you actually are about grapes.
The Ritz long ago set just such benchmarks and has standardized them around the world. And though the rush to meet the Sarasota hotel's deadline for the grand opening last November stressed the lovely Vernona Restaurant, any initial problems have been solved, and now everything about the restaurant is up to persnickety Ritz standards. (By the way, if you were one of the diners complaining that you had to struggle to get reservations even though the dining room was far from full, be advised that the Ritz always keeps one quarter of the room available for hotel guests). The Vernona is a charming place to enjoy a pricey lunch or dinner; and executive chef Frederic Morineau, Vernona chef Virgile Brandel and pastry chef Stephane Cheramy (all Frenchmen) can hold their toques high.
Chef Morineau has already made a culinary stir in town, after preparing the January induction dinner for the local chapter of the international society of food lovers known as the Confrérie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs. Morineau, who was inducted into the society himself that evening, whipped up six courses-including pheasant stuffed with truffle mousse-that won a standing ovation from the 110 members.
The Vernona dining room is named for the hotel that once stood on the property. "Vernona "was the name of the wife of Owen Burns, who sold the hotel to his business partner John Ringling. The dining room that bears her name is decked out like a sunny garden room in an Italian villa, in yellow and hues of rose with graceful arched windows, floral murals and a floral patterned carpet below and crystal chandeliers (with accent colored prisms) above. Notice the pale blue- and-green water goblets-by far the prettiest in town. Feminine and inviting, the dining room is also fairly intimate, seating 100 inside and another 27 outside.
Lunch is about $26 if you have a beverage and dessert in addition to your entrée. There are salads (Caesar, Nicoise, avocado crab meat), soups, some sandwiches (burger, chicken, Cuban), and hot meals such as a wonderful free-range chicken (two pieces) served on a bed of couscous enriched with raisins, green olives, pearl onions and bits of tomato. This dish is on the dinner menu, too. In our lunch party of three, the seafood salad-more about seafood than salad-and the fish of the day also won rave reviews.
Dinner entrées average about $24 and top out at $33 (for the lobster). The entrées include a vegetable and accompanying starch, which might be anything from a barley and pumpkin "risotto" to carrot and thyme ravioli. Appetizers are creative and include Greek-style grilled calamari; a mild (some would say bland) Provencale fish soup; mussels cooked with sherry and chorizo sausage; and a terrine of chanterelle mushrooms, fennel and artichokes ($10).
The menu expresses a Mediterranean spirit, with influences of Spain, Italy, Southern France and Morocco. It isn't extensive, including about nine entrées and a daily special. The bourride El Vernona ($26) is a less soupy turn on the more familiar bouillabaisse and features seafood both in and out of the shell. Crispy ahi tuna in pastry looks like a big egg roll cut on the diagonal into five pieces, with the mildness of the fish and pastry offset by a fennel emulsion with a little bite.
Heartier choices include a lovely hungry-man tenderloin, a veal chop and rack of lamb with white bean purée-it's like a cassoulet. Presentations are artistic and original, stopping short of over-the-top foolishness. Four tossed salads are in the $10 range, and all the single-serving desserts are $7. The tarte tatin has great apple flavor, and the Armagnac plum ice cream on top is an inspiration. The chocolate concoctions are rich, smooth and toothsome. Most desserts come with a dollop of ice cream or another topping. Coffee is served in surprisingly generous cups; and, yes, you can get espresso.
The wine list is vast. If you don't want to go there, ask for help or order by the glass. In general, by-the-glass prices range from $7-$12. If you are in a celebratory mood, you can choose from no fewer than 17 champagne/sparkling wines, which range between $32-$350 a bottle. Our choice was a 1999 Louis Latour Geverey Chambertin at $78. Although a bit young, it held up well to the diverse entrées our table savored.
Whether you're staying at the Ritz-Carlton or a year-round resident, you must visit the Vernona for at least one meal. From the surroundings to the food, everything is up to standards. It is, after all, the Ritz.
Vernona, The Ritz-Carlton
111 Ritz-Carlton Drive, Sarasota
Breakfast: 6:30-11:30 a.m.
Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner: 5-10:30 p.m.
Sunday Brunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
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BASIC KNEADS. When you bite into a piece of bread made by Nick Bergbauer of Bavarian Breads, you're tasting seven generations of great bread in Munich, Germany. That's because when Nick came to Sarasota four years ago, he brought his family's bread starter, a foamy ball of yeast bacteria, vinegar and sourdough flour that is the basis for every loaf that comes out of Bergbauer's ovens. The fermenting starter, which needs to be fed daily, is 200 years old and yet as fresh as this morning.
Thanks to this time-tested leavener, which causes the breads to rise slowly and build flavor, Nick avoids using fat, oil, sugar, eggs or any dairy products in his breads. He calls them "hearth breads."
Besides turning out several hundred loaves a day (in six different varieties) for his retail bakery on the South Trail, Bergbauer bakes specialty breads for area restaurants, including Summerhouse, Morel, Ruth's Chris, Zoria, Colony Beach & Tennis Resort, Sugar Loaf, Michael's on East and Sarasota Bread Company. When Paul Mattison left the Summerhouse to establish Mattison's, An American Bistro in St. Petersburg, he couldn't find bread to meet his standards in that city. So now Nick makes American Bistro bread, too.
The 33-year-old German baker and his French wife Helene came to Sarasota two years after they married. "I was supposed to take over a German bakery near Leesburg, Florida, but the project fell through," Bergbauer explains. "Since we were already in Florida, we took a vacation. When we got to Sarasota, we fell in love with the city and decided to stay. I got a job as a baker's helper at the Summerhouse Restaurant and that was the beginning of our life here."
When the Summerhouse ownership realized they had a master baker in the house, Nick was sent to the Sarasota Bread Company in Southgate Plaza to manage the ovens. He stayed a year and then opened his own enterprise. Nick established Bavarian Bread in cramped quarters on the South Trail and says it took him four months to adjust his German recipes and kitchen equipment to the Sarasota humidity and heat.
A few months ago, a defunct 7-Eleven building became available around the corner from Nick's original Bavarian Bread. He acquired the lease and reconfigured the space for ovens, racks, and a folding table and cash box up front. During holidays and high season, Nick bakes between 800 and 1,000 loaves a day just to keep up with retail customers. The most popular varieties are the focaccia, which is flavored with rosemary, and the nine-grain multi seed, but the others-whole wheat, country white, French baguette and Black Forest rye-have legions of fans, too.
Nick Bergbauer's day isn't for the lazy. He's in the bakery at 3 a.m. and works nonstop until noon. Then it's home for a one-hour nap (he lives five minutes from the store), and then he helps care for the couple's two sons, Nicholas, two, and Eliot, nine months. The baker is in bed by 9 p.m. and up again at 2 a.m.
Helene helps with bakery sales; and between husband and wife, they can converse with customers in five languages-English, German, Hungarian, French and Spanish. If a customer can't make a bread preference known in any of those tongues, pointing works just fine. And all bread is the same price: $2.50 a loaf.
5758 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota
Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m.-noon
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New in town: Mario Martinez is the new corporate executive chef for Epicurean Life, the company that has under its toque Fred's, Morton's Gourmet Market and Catering, J.D. Ford Purveyor of Fine Wines, and The Tasting Room. Martinez is Basque and grew up all over Spain because his parents were flamenco musicians and followed the dancers. Mario himself started out as a musician (and still plays a mean blues guitar) but got sidetracked in a kitchen at Chez Vendomme in Coral Gables to earn extra money when his family settled in Miami. Because he spoke Spanish, French and English and looked great in formal wear, the restaurant management taught him to flambé and sent him tableside. "I discovered that setting fire to food was a real kick, and so began my professional life in food," he divulges.
Martinez has cooked in fancy South Florida restaurant kitchens and for a time owned his own catering business and a 200-seat restaurant, Harvest House, which got good reviews, a fact that meant nothing to Hurricane Andrew, which leveled the place. In 1996, Chef Mario went to the Disney Institute as full-time chef instructor, and Epicurean Life was able to lure him away from Mickey's stove in January. Chef Mario is a serious wine guy, too, having received his advanced-level sommelier certification recently. There are only 83 such experts in the country.
Although Chef Mario is thinking of adding a few Basque regional specialties to the Fred's menu (hearty stews and soups are culinary treasures of the Basque region), he isn't messing with the current favorites. Chef Mario reiterates what chefs and restaurateurs across the nation have been observing for months, that since 9/11, Americans are craving the soul-soothing carbs that they associate with happy childhood memories.
The most popular ones on the Fred's menu-and they've been on the bill of fare since it opened in 1999-are meat loaf and mashed potatoes, chicken pot pie, chicken soup with dumplings, and for dessert, bread pudding with warm whiskey sauce.
That line-up will stay unaltered, but the chef believes there's room for some adventurous new Floribbean preparations and for some investigation into new trends from Morocco and the new fusion of Latin American and Asian cuisines. Look for some interesting wine dinners and nightly specials to come from Fred's and count on sommelier Graham Thomson to pair some intriguing boutique wines with these meals.
For chicken pot pie, Thomson (who is the wines and spirits director at J.D. Ford) suggests a chardonnay with enough acidity to slice through the creaminess of gravy. For meat loaf, he says go for a California merlot, zin or cab with rich berry flavors and enough fullness to confront the meat. Choose a Riesling from Alsace with the chicken soup. It's dry and firm. With a thick slab bread pudding, order coffee and take your time. This could be the best 10 minutes of your day.