Few things are perfect, but Maison Blanche, a new French restaurant within the Four Winds Beach Resort on Longboat Key, comes pretty close. The restaurant is the work of Pascal Feraud, 28, and Moroccan-born Jose Martinez, 38, both fresh from a restaurant of the same name at the top of the Theatre des Champs-Elysées in Paris.
Wanderlust struck, and two years ago, Martinez sold the Paris restaurant and headed to Sarasota with wife Victoria, who works the front of the house. Feraud soon followed, and the friends asked their French architect to help them create a sophisticated modern design for the new restaurant. In smart black and white, the interiors are furnished with sleek furniture and accessories. The silverware includes knives shaped like letter openers, and even the salt and pepper shakers are striking. If Feraud and Martinez would open a gift shop in the Four Winds and sell some of the things they set their tables with or furnish the restrooms with, they'd have a second winning enterprise in Sarasota.
But the best thing about this restaurant is the imaginative food, from the homemade bread to the intensely flavored ice cream swirled in their kitchen. The owners' take on classical French cuisine is to lighten up and use fresh (local, when possible) seafood and meats. No cassoulets, no French onion soup, no sweetbreads. Instead you can enjoy a lovely gazpacho and one of the finest slow-broiled sea bass preparations you're likely to encounter anywhere. It's served with garlic spinach and a condiment sauce that includes capers. ($28). The grouper, a specialty of the house, is simply cooked but paired with a cider-braised apple and porcini mushroom risotto. ($31). Lamb shank, another house specialty, is served in its own juices, while the roasted noisettes of lamb come in a madras curry.
Entrées average $29 and include about a half dozen seafood and meat dishes. Appetizers are in the $16 range, and the selections are unusual. There's a red mullet served with a tomato jelly and fennel Bavarian cream or a salad of green asparagus and fava beans with a white truffle infusion. The duck liver ravioli with a porcini mushroom sauce is silken and sensuous. In addition to the regular menu selections, two people can select the fixed-price ($70, not including wine) degustation menu and sample seven or so courses. For a first visit to Maison Blanche, this is a good way to get an overview of the menu. Because seafood and meats are fresh from local suppliers, the menu changes with the seasons. An exception to the local-only-ingredients rule is the imported French chocolate. Martinez says he couldn't manage without it.
The wine list is balanced between French and American, including four each of whites and reds offered by the glass ($7-$13). The list includes a half dozen sparkling wines topped by Roederer Cristal Brut, (no vintage listed) at $323. There are 11 Côtes du Rhone, six Alsatian, 11 Bourgogne, and four Loire offerings. Given the variety inherent in our degustation meal, a Bourgogne or Rhone pairs better than most, so we chose a 1998 Guigal Cotes du Rhone at $27. It retails for about $12, which indicates the restaurant's fairly moderate mark-up.
The restaurant's small, well-trained waitstaff glides through the dining room in perfect rhythm with the kitchen. Getting the timing right for a degustation menu is tricky, but this crew knows exactly how it is done. Silverware is replaced between courses, water glasses refilled, fresh bread appears-everything is accomplished with such skill that you don't realize how well you've been treated until the meal is over. Victoria Martinez seats the guests and comes around to say hello during the meal. Many Europeans and Americans who have eaten at the Paris Maison Blanche restaurant have already discovered the Longboat Key dining room and are making it a regular reason to dine out.
All in all, Maison Blanche is off to a brilliant beginning. Now, where can we buy the silverware?
Four Winds Beach Resort
2605 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key
Dinner: Monday-Thursday and Sunday, 5:30-9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10:30 p.m.
Major credit cards
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Top of the market: You could tell by Pátria's glamorous newspaper ads-lots of white space and very little information-that this place would be expensive. And it is. A dessert of tiramisu is $12. But it is artfully configured into a giant teardrop. A green bean salad will set you back $16, and rack of lamb with polenta is $39. For $4 you get coffee, but it's French pressed coffee served in Rosenthal china cups.
Inside, the room gleams with rich cinnabar walls and glowing curvaceous copper arches over the banquettes. Modern pendant lights and pinpoint recessed lighting add to the glow. All those lights, however, make the room too bright, and the tables for two are too small. Our flowers had to be removed to make room for the butter. Later, when our server decanted our Chateau Boutisse St. Emillion Grand Cru, the vessel was banished to a sideboard since there wasn't room for it on the table. However, the tables are spectacular-looking when they're set with four different mix-and-match patterns of Versace china.
A server dressed in austere brown and black cruises the room, proffering a tray of dainty selections for diners to munch while perusing the menu. Another server wafts through with a bread platter holding three varieties. Unfortunately, she never materialized again during our visit, a shame because the focaccia was divine and I was anxious to sample the French and rye. When your entrée is ready, your server darts behind a scrim room divider and dons white gloves. The management wants all the entrées to arrive simultaneously. That means that for a table of four or six, a server has to round up other servers, tell them it's glove time and organize a parade. When not in use, these gloves poke out of uniform pockets like bit players waiting in the wings for their big moment.
The menu, which fuses Mediterranean, German and regional American selections such as root vegetable mashes and Maine lobster, lists a dozen specialties and responds to seasonal shortages and abundance. Most recently sous chef at Euphemia Haye, chef Patrick Falbo came to Sarasota from the legendary Inn at Little Washington in northern Virginia where he worked after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in New York. At Pátria, he uses only domestic and free-range meats. The quail is from Georgia, the Muscovy duck from California and the frog legs fresh from the Everglades. Falbo likes to buy top-quality products from small ranches and farms and pays extra per pound for center-cut, fresh fish filets because he wants the 3 1/2-inch sea bass to look as thick as a steak on your plate. Consequently, you pay more.
Is it worth it? At $35, the filet mignon served on watercress with tortolloni of Virginia ham and manchego cheese is everything you could want in a piece of beef. The duck entrée was flavorful, the leg more tender than the chewy breast medallions, and the date/pancetta stuffing was rounded out with a tangy passion fruit demi glace. It came with cloud-light whipped sweet potatoes. $36.
Other options include grilled sea scallops with orange-corn salsa and plantains for $33, pecan-rubbed rack of lamb with root vegetables and polenta at $39, or a veal chop with spaetzle, morels, and poblano coulis for $35. Instead of the ubiquitous garlic smashed potatoes, starches include risotto, polenta and orzo.
Desserts belong to pastry chef Michael Battista, a former instructor at Johnson & Wales culinary school in Rhode Island. He came armed with pastry rings that allow him to create a key lime tart cylinder that towers a full 5 inches tall. The three layers of lime curd are separated with lime macaroons, and it's all presented with chocolate coral (chocolate sprayed over ice so that it looks like a piece of coral), and passion fruit coulis. At $12, it's grand indeed.
Wine is a work in progress; Falbo intends to raise the cellar count to 500 making the restaurant eligible for recognition by The Wine Spectator. Right now, the list does not include vintages. There are a number of well-priced wines, including Lindeman's "Reserve" Chardonnay at $23 or a Sartori Pinot Grigio at $21. There are also gaps-for example, six French reds, but no burgundies. Five of the six American pinot noir choices are from Oregon, and none is less than $43. The five bubblies start at $63. If you're on a Barclay's expense account, there's a Chateau Petrus (indeterminate vintage) for $950.
In several languages, Pátria refers to home or fatherland. Pátria could become a classy neighborhood bistro for residents of surrounding upscale gated neighborhoods. And it definitely has tourist potential. But management should consider trimming prices, and the serving staff needs better training. Sarasota people love to eat out. But they're a practical breed, not impressed by a $29 chicken breast because the bird once roamed free and is now resting on the Medusa pattern of Versace china. Having it presented by a gloved one doesn't help. If Pátria makes subtle adjustments to suit the local clientele, it could find a happy home in this food-loving town.
8383 S. Tamiami Trail (Square South Mall), Sarasota
Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5-10 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Major credit cards