The Saltwater Cafe has lots of things going for it-comfort, variety, value and size. It also has a nautical theme, including a long, colorful aquarium that parallels a line of booths. A dark, handsome bar (complete with old-fashioned black-and-white tile floor and brass boot rail) separates the two main dining areas from a private, glass-enclosed dining room with a cheerful undersea life mural on the wall.
In all, the place seats 350; but it's artfully divided so that it doesn't seem that vast. Although it's noisy at peak hours, both from chatter and live music, the atmosphere feels relaxed and convivial. Those enjoying dinner appear to be in no particular hurry, although those standing in the parking lot with beepers waiting their turn probably wish they were. The outdoor front courtyard includes a fountain, and green market umbrellas give the redwood tables a feeling of intimacy.
The restaurant is owned by Rolf Zahnd, the 35-year-old Swiss chef of the establishment, and his mother, Katherina Zahnd. They bought the restaurant six years ago, keeping the name and expanding the menu.
Printed tabloid-style on an 11 x 15-inch size newspaper, the menu includes eight color pages of food descriptions and nautical art. It's a big menu with lots of seafood and plenty of other choices, too. If you go without knowing what you want to eat, you'll either be delightfully surprised by where your taste buds can take you or too confused to decide. The varied menu appeals to inter-generational families who need to find something children will eat as well as choices that accommodate special diets, allergies, or vegetarian requirements.
If all else fails, order a pizza, either a quarter, half or whole pie. The Saltwater ovens bake up excellent pizza crust, and you can order traditional red sauce varieties as well as 10 white pizzas, including one made with blackened grouper. You can even build your own personal pie, specifying ingredients from mozzarella to mussels. Prices range from about $8 for a quarter pie up to $20 for the Boscaiola, which incorporates heavy cream and fresh wild mushrooms into the mix.
What else? Anything from a burger of ground sirloin ($5.99) to crab and lobster ravioli to Spanish paella or bouillabaisse, pan-fried soft shell crab ($14.99) or key lime salmon ($16.99). Entrées come with homemade Swiss bread, fresh vegetable, and either potato, rice or pasta of choice. Entrées average about $16, and it takes a big appetite to finish what's set before you.
Chef Zahnd likes to experiment, and he's inspired by many cultures. His concoctions can be pretty unorthodox. One is called Kathrin's pasta; it combines kielbasa sausage, shrimp, snow peas, shiitake mushrooms, tomatoes in a light garlic butter and Cajun seasoning atop your choice of pasta ($15.99). It tastes better than it reads.
While Saltwater Cafe primarily targets the frequent diner who prizes big portions, budget prices, and plenty of choice, the restaurant also appeals to gourmands with a monthly six-course dinner that honors a specific nation or region and features about eight accompanying wines. A wine expert extols the unique characteristics of each of the labels, supplies some history of the winery and suggests harmonious wine pairings.
For these occasions, Chef Zahnd gets out the fine china (the modernistic square green glass plates with dots of gold are simply grand) and indulges his taste for artistic constructions. The wine dinners are held the last Thursday of each month and cost $50 a person. Reservations are accepted up to a few days in advance.
At a recent wine dinner that celebrated the gastronomic glories of Spain, I thought the Saltwater's spicy gazpacho had much more kick and depth of flavor than anything I encountered in Spain. These wine dinners showcase a whole different side to what is possible at Saltwater Cafe, and it is probably what the young chef takes the most pride in orchestrating. Rolf Zahnd deserves encouragement and admiration for periodically elevating a popular budget restaurant to a higher cuisine experience.
1071 N. Tamiami Trail, Nokomis
Easy parking in restaurant lot
Lunch and Dinner: Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-late night. Sunday brunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
ASIAN TERRITORY: In a strip mall on Washington Boulevard in Sarasota that used to house the venerable Walt's Fish Market and Restaurant lie two new destinations for the curious gourmet. One is a storefront Vietnamese eatery called Miss Saigon; and right next door, in an all-encompassing Asian market called Vung Tau (owned by the restaurant family), you can find the ingredients that make up the lunch and dinner menu on the other side of the wall. A trip to one establishment really should include a browse through the other. The food store is open from 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. on Sunday.
The market is more like a general store of olden days. Shoppers come in for Asian CDs and videos, cigarettes, party supplies, even plastic and ceramic plateware and beautifully decorated short-handled serving spoons. I bought three of the plastic ones (99 cents each) to use on my Teflon pans, and I'm satisfied with the way they perform. They'll also be useful for serving up casseroles, since they look as pretty on the table as they do stoveside.
Besides home entertaining necessities, the shelves, produce bins, freezer and refrigerator cases are laden with all kinds of mysterious-unless you're Asian-products. Bring an Asian friend or consider the journey up and down the aisles as an adventure. Don't expect the pleasant woman who sits at the counter to be your guide. Her English is limited. Holding up a tubular melon-like thing, I asked what it was. She said "vegetable," and nothing more. But I could easily figure out the fresh beef, eel and whole fish, and I noticed that a generous can of sesame oil was only $2.39, a bargain compared to the price in health food stores.
You'll also discover water chestnut starch, curry paste, tamarind, lychees, seaweed and hot bean sauce. Many of the canned and jar items have English subtitles, which helps if you're looking for something such as leeks in brine or shrimp paste. The store seems remarkably well stocked. If you're an avid student of Far Eastern cookery, this is your pantry source.
And if you're a devotee of Far Eastern eating, Miss Saigon is a satisfying destination. The menu is extensive, almost overwhelming, and all selections are printed first in Vietnamese with an English explanation beneath. Translations are approximate. I did not order "Pork internals with seafood rice soup" because I wasn't exactly sure what that meant; and the Vietnamese server, so pretty in her turquoise and black long dress and platform sandals, wasn't much help. You order by the number, and some selections are only available in the evenings. This was the case with a few of the broken rice entrées. To make the basis of these dishes, raw rice is cracked so that it cooks to a creamy grits-like consistency. Could this be what inspired risotto?
Lotus rootlets with shrimp pork salad is just one of several entrées that could conjure up all sorts of pictures. Broiled quail cooked in a fish sauce sounds intriguing, too. And crispy papaya salad with boneless chicken feet ($8) caused one person at our table to wonder out loud what could remain in chicken feet once the bones are removed?
The spring rolls are exemplary, with the translucent wraps revealing two pink, curled shrimp inside along with shredded greens and sticky rice ($3). There are dipping sauces on the table in squeeze bottles. The soy sauce is labeled, but you have to experiment with the others. One is hot chili; one has a molasses base; another was salty and smoky.
Besides combination plates of meat, vegetables and seafood made with noodles, rice or vermicelli, the wide array of soups will impress you. A bowl is about $5, and that bowl is the size of a serving bowl. It's probably more than you can finish. The soups are arranged on the menu by whether they are made with rice, egg noodles or macaroni. Another category advises that seven specialty soups come in a volcano pot. Clearly, one has to make several trips to Miss Saigon to become proficient at ordering. Fortunately, prices are so reasonable and the menu so exotic, you'll wish to schedule a return visit. With your meal enjoy an American beer or $2 thirst quenchers such as plum soda, a jackfruit milk shake, Thai tea, a soybean Pennywort or the more familiar Diet Coke in a can.
Miss Saigon Authentic Vietnamese Cuisine
560 N. Washington Blvd., Sarasota
Lunch Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner, daily 3-9 p.m.
Easy parking in strip mall
A GOOD JOINT. If Seinfeld episodes were still being filmed, Filippo's Pizzeria could be featured as the friendly neighborhood Italian joint. Filippo's has two locations-on Lockwood Ridge Road (it's been there five years), and at Webber Street in Sarasota, where it's been a popular fixture for about a year.
Filippo Pivitello, a 33-year-old family-taught chef from Sicily, is the owner and cook at the Lockwood Ridge Road Filippo's Pizzeria. He moved here about 12 years ago from New York (before that from Italy) and worked at Osteria before opening his own New York-style pizzeria and Italian restaurant. He picked a little storefront place that seats only 35 and does a rousing take-out business, too. Filippo's younger brother, 26-year-old David, is the chef at the new eatery on Webber. A third brother remains in Sicily, and they all learned to cook at a very young age in their father's restaurant. "But he didn't make any pizza," says Filippo.
The Webber Street Filippo's is the kind of place where the super-competent young waitress calls you "hon" and keeps up a constant banter with the chef (partially visible through the passthrough) while managing to talk to most of the customers at tables and still service the take-out counter, too. I love to watch her in action. If you want a soft drink, it's in a can in the cooler near the front door.
If you want wine, you're in luck because the list is pretty good. The owner takes cues from customers and adds labels that they suggest, so it's a work in progress. The food needs no improvement. It's all delicious and plentiful and reasonably priced. Some of the most popular dishes include the baked ziti special ($8.95), the tortellini, and gnocchi caprese. Most of the pasta dishes are available in the form of penne, angel hair, bowtie or linguine, and there are three basic sauces.
In addition to the pizzas (thin crust), the menu includes cold and hot submarines (about $4.95 each), salads and antipasti both small and large. Pizzas are available by the slice as well as the pie, small (about $12), medium, large and extra- large. The margherita with fresh tomato and fresh basil is the most popular. There's also a nice veggie pie, and the hungry man pizza combines pepperoni, salami, ham, bacon and sausage. A homemade soup of the day costs $1.95 a bowl, and both restaurants serve giardiniera, a pickled vegetable mix.
Whether you eat inside this bustling little neighborhood eatery or take your meal home, Filippo's is the real thing. You'll get great Italian food in an atmosphere so simple you could be at the brothers' family table in Sicily.
6360 N. Lockwood Ridge Road, Sarasota
3664 Webber St., Sarasota
Lunch and dinner: Monday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Thursday, Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Closed Sunday