The Bijou is Back, All Hail
When the Bijou Café recently re-opened after a nine-month renovation, customers starved by the long hiatus rushed to dine there again. Interior decorator Matt Overstreet ate there seven nights in a row, several times joined by his pal Steve Seidensticker, who drove up from Boca Grande where he manages the Gasparilla Inn. Bob Buford, developer of the new Ritz-Carlton Hotel, was one of the first to show up; he ordered a plate of the restaurant's signature Dauphinois potatoes as an appetizer, saying he couldn't wait until the main course for those creamy grated potatoes threaded with Gruyere cheese. The Joy Luck Club, a luncheon group of seven media women who meet monthly to ostensibly trade books (i.e.: insider gossip), were among the first to reserve a table and breathe a collective sigh of relief. And opera ticket holders quickly snatched up all the early seatings for the months of February and March.
"Frankly, I haven't had to advertise about our new features [a separate bar and smoking dining room, outdoor patio, a private function room and some additions to the menu]," says the somewhat astonished owner, Jean-Pierre Knaggs. "Everybody in town seemed to know what was going on, and they told the few who didn't."
The fire devastated the restaurant. "We had to go right down to the dirt and start over," explains Shay Knaggs, who runs the business side of the restaurant from an office across the street from where her husband puts on a necktie and greets regulars. "What wasn't burned up melted. Smoke damaged the rest along with water. When the fire was out, there were five inches of standing water in the dining rooms. The mess was unbelievable."
The owners engaged architect Michael Epstein of Seibert Architects to pull together ideas they had for converting the former gas station into a larger space with a sensible floor plan. Tandem Construction was the contractor. The restaurant used to be 1,800 square feet and is now 4,800. Seating increased by 50 percent, including some tables in the outdoor walled patio. Landscape architect David Young added tropical color and soft leafiness to every nook and cranny of the outside of the restaurant, providing diners with charming vistas through the new French doors (Matt Overstreet's idea) and enhancing the curb appeal of this downtown landmark. And, of course, there's a Jack Dowd sculpture on the property. The whimsical statuary changes a few times per year courtesy of the artist.
The bay of the old gas station used to be the cramped kitchen. The new room is more than twice its former size and the equipment has been installed for the maximum convenience of the staff. The seating has been reconfigured in the dining rooms, but the biggest change is the bow-shaped cherry bar in the smoker's dining room. Designed by woodwork artist Paul Adam, it's quietly glamorous and super efficient. This room accommodates regular hour eaters and night owls, too, with a limited menu. It's fast become a place for theatergoers (and actors) to snack or have a nightcap after the performance.
The Bijou opened with its old menu, because J.P. felt that radical change scares. He did, however, add more soups to the daily offerings, and a salad mélange is new. It's a chopped lettuce salad fortified with radicchio, spinach, sweet onion, mushroom bacon, hard-boiled egg, hearts of palm and Maytag bleu cheese. Everything is tossed in a creamy herb dressing, and it's definitely a luncheon meal unto itself at $8.95.
The most popular sellers continue to be the crabcakes, lamb shank, roasted stuffed duck, and the veal dishes. That's exactly what we had on a recent visit. We also ordered the shrimp piri-piri (a cayenne pepper seafood recipe from Mozambique) and one of the signature soups, shrimp and crab bisque liberally laced with cognac. I'm always tempted to order a small salad and make that soup (with a hot roll) the whole meal. The rack of lamb, which was previously offered as a special, is now permanently on the menu. Dinner entrées average $22; luncheon dishes about $10. The Dauphinoise potatoes are $6 a serving, but that will feed three as a side dish.
The dessert menu is the same-the lofty Neapolitan ice-cream pie on the brownie crust just as you remember it and the hefty bread pudding a meal in itself. Desserts are about $6.
The wine list (wines by the glass and bottle) is an ever evolving adventure. As a nod to his South African homeland, Knaggs recently added a dry, fruity red wine from South Africa called Goats do Roam, a send-up of the French wine Côtes du Rhône. The French red is made with 13 grapes, the South African with 11; and you won't find any of the varietals listed on the yellow label that features a bold white goat. But the $24 wine is quite nice and it held up respectably to our veal, lamb and duck. For his Florida Winefest & Auction wine dinner last month, Knaggs built a Continental meal around South African wines, and the Goats winery owner came to pour.
Is there anything wrong with the new and improved Bijou Café? Yes-you can't get in. At least not when you want to. Making a reservation means having your calendar near the phone and going to your third or fourth alternative date or seating time. The place has been that popular all season. But now with the seasonal crush behind us, the situation will undoubtedly improve, and some of those 130 seats could be ours.
The staff seems just as loyal to the Bijou as local diners are. Virtually 100 percent of the Bijou kitchen and serving staff returned and took up exactly where they left off before the blaze sent them scattering. Our server Kris was one. "I worked at J. Ryan out at Lakewood Ranch and at the Ritz-Carlton in the interim," she revealed. "But as soon as we opened here again, I came right back. There's no place like home." Amen to that.
The Bijou Café
1287 First St., Sarasota
Reservations a must
Lunch: Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner: Nightly from 5 p.m. Closed on Sundays during the summer.
Lovely Lavanda: Lavanda, which is the Italian word for the gently scented purple flower, lavender, is the latest in a parade of eating establishments to attempt to succeed in the Towles Court area. Unfortunately, despite the charming location-a white house with a welcoming front porch-those restaurants were unable to attract many diners besides the artists and gallery owners in the immediate area.
Lavanda might suffer the fate of its predecessors-out of sight, out of mind-except that the restaurant has had excellent word of mouth advertising, most of it from customers of the catering and private chef services provided by Dino and Heidi Basaric. The couple ran that business for the past seven years in Sarasota, having relocated here from Martha's Vineyard where they worked in a French restaurant. Pastry chef Heidi now mostly works the front of the house in the couple's new 60-seat enterprise. Dino is the chef and the wine buyer. His wine list is excellent, with plenty of nice surprises and a low mark-up.
The decor of Lavanda is Provencale and charming. The food is Mediterranean but not French. Chef Dino doesn't cook with butter and he doesn't even serve it with the Italian bread that comes warm to the table. Instead, he offers a small bowl of olive oil flavored with balsamic vinegar and herbs de Provence. No bread and butter plates, though; and if you want water, you'd better ask for it.
There are eight items on the dinner menu and a special of the night. One of the most popular entrées is the osso buco ($19), which is prepared Roman style, which means no tomato but a little anchovy for depth and snap. I didn't know the anchovy was even there until they told me. The rack of lamb ($23) is cooked medium with a nice red wine demiglace, and the skinless duck breast is sliced into medallions and plated with red currant sauce. Shrimp ($18) is sautéed with tomato and saffron; and the salmon ($17) is roasted with herbs and garlic. Besides three familiar salads, there are three desserts, a lemon soufflé, cheesecake, and the gianduia, which is a Tuscan chocolate hazelnut cake that is creamy, fudgy and satisfying indeed. All desserts are $6.
The food and wine at Lavanda are well-priced, and the atmosphere is relaxed and pleasant. Dine inside or on the porch among the stars and Towles Court sculpture. More dinner-hour customers need to discover Lavanda (the lunch trade is going well) for the restaurant to operate at peak potential. For now, Dino and Heidi Basaric aren't giving up the catering business; and they plan to keep the restaurant open all summer knowing that business will be slow but that every satisfied customer will tell a friend.
1938 Adams Lane, Towles Court, Sarasota
Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Dinner 6-10 p.m., Monday through Saturday
Parking on the street and in the Towles Court lot
Banana coins. It's kind of an Asian riff on the old (and beloved) Elvis Presley fried banana and peanut butter sandwich. But crunchy banana coins at Tropical Thai Restaurant on Sarasota's Main Street are definitely prettier and easier to eat, because each one is just a bite. It's amazing how many you can pop with a cup of hot green tea.
Here's how they do it. Chef takes a firm banana and slices it into rounds. Each circle is wrapped in paper-thin rice flour dough to form a square package. The little package is deep fried in hot oil, removed and drizzled with honey and sprinkled with sesame seeds. A warm cluster comes to the table on a celadon-green pedestal plate. The outer coating is crisp, and the sesame seeds give an extra crunch. The inside is cloud-soft, and when the honey hits the banana and the whole mélange combines on the tongue at the same time, you've got one great taste. $3.25. Alternatively, you can order your banana coins atop homemade coconut ice cream for $3.95. They're delicious both ways.
If you're doing dessert at Tropical Thai, there's no reason not to start with lunch or dinner. This pleasantly furnished downtown eatery has an authentic menu and a calming Asian ambience. The kitchen turns out rich coconut-milk curries, spicy seafood and chicken dishes (some with peanut sauce), a full range of vegetarian specialties and the usual noodle platters such as pad Thai and five different fried rice preparations. Starred menu items are mildly hot and spicy. And you can ask your server to turn up the heat if you're going for the burn.
Tropical Thai Restaurant and Sushi Bar
1420 Main St., Sarasota
Monday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Sunday through Thursday, 4-10 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, 4-11 p.m.
Take out, catering and banquet available