Eating in a restaurant kitchen at night is something gangsters do in B-movies. Now, it's a big, sophisticated deal. You can wait more than a year for a kitchen chair (or as it's now called, a chef's table) at Charlie Trotter's eponymous place in Chicago. The wait isn't that long at the Don CeSar Beach Resort & Spa on St. Pete Beach here in Florida, although don't think you can just breeze in without a reservation. Book at least two months in advance for the corner blue banquette at the end of the kitchen. The table seats eight, but smaller parties are welcome. There's just one table and one seating per night.
Recently seven of us from Sarasota and North Port crossed the Skyway Bridge to sit down in executive chef Eric Neri's kitchen at the Don CeSar. The group was organized by Jonathan Baltuch, a member of the Sarasota Chapter of the Chaine de Rotisseurs gourmet society.
In a kitchen meal, your party sits like a tiny island of calm amid choreographed chaos. Knives chop, pans sizzle, aromas rise and converge while waiters dart in and out balancing plates. Others hunt for wine bottles or slice bread. The pace is brisk; and, honestly, it all looks exhausting. That's why it is so nice to be able to raise a glass to the person across the table, take a deep breath and realize a lot of the high-energy fuss is being directed toward little old you. It's like having your appetite visit a spa.
Our dinner was in the experienced hands of chef Roger Brock, who orchestrates about 90 percent of the kitchen meals. The menu consists of six courses, and every one is a surprise. Brock divulged that he composed our menu at 2:30 that afternoon using fresh local ingredients and preparations that do not appear on the regular hotel menu.
Our foie gras and duck ravioli presentation was accompanied by roasted mission figs in a rich reduction sauce. Know why we had figs? Cher had been at the resort just days before and requested heaps of fresh organic fruit. The kitchen had brought in pounds of perfect succulent figs for her, and we were the lucky beneficiaries. Another course consisted of pieces of tender lobster perched atop a round of sea bass in mango sauce. Perfectly cut cubes of Yukon gold potato and kernels of fresh corn added crunch and texture. An Asian salad combined soba noodles, a fat Hawaiian prawn and slices of refreshing watermelon juxtaposed against red peppers. Every course looked breathtakingly artful. Guests are encouraged to walk around the kitchen between courses and chat with the line cooks, the garde manger and pastry chef. Servers are deft at sidestepping you and avoiding crashes.
A kitchen dinner at the Don CeSar costs $100 per person, not including wines and other beverages. Since the wine list is extensive and impressive, your final check can go as high as your craving for discriminating vintages. A 20 percent gratuity will be added automatically. If you have food allergies or are a vegetarian, notify the kitchen when you make your reservations so that all your surprises will be pleasant ones.
Near the stoves and grills the kitchen temperature is about 100 degrees. But where the banquette is located, you're a cool 78 degrees and there's a glass half-wall to cut down on noise. Dress is casual. Meals in our family kitchen can be hurried affairs. That's not the Don CeSar attitude. We sat down at 7 p.m. with a glass of champagne and many memorable mouthfuls later we waddled toward the valet parkers at 11:15. All the way home we talked about food. That's when you know dinner has been a success.
The Don CeSar Beach Resort & Spa
3400 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach
Sometimes a restaurant that beckons with creature comforts works even if the food can't compete with the ambience. Maybe it's the appeal of soft lighting and quiet corners, or the martini that the bartender gets exactly right. But what joy when palate and place come together in triumph. Then you've got complete bliss. Javier's is such a happy place, an intimate Siesta Key nook of home cooking Peruvian style with just a splash of Florida barrier island flair. Javier's is a comfortable place to kick back for food and drink. Meals last longer at Javier's, time slips away. You're likely to run into friends from the impressive crowd of regulars. The menu is expansive enough to encourage repeat business without bill-of-fare-boredom, and the daily specials help keep the kitchen perky and challenged.
The owner, Javier Arana, has been a restaurateur and chef since about the age of six, when he was tall enough to reach a counter in the kitchens of his family's three restaurants in Peru. He came to Sarasota in the '70s to visit friends and never left. Arana and wife Mary operated at The Surfrider for many years, but recently had to move down the road to Crescent Plaza when the old place fell victim to the general tear-down mentality that's afflicting so much of Siesta Key. But the new place is fine, indeed, with one whole wall devoted to a lively mural painted by Sarasota's Kathleen Carrillo after she returned from a trip to Peru. It's a robust village scene that puts you in exactly the right frame of mind for browsing the menu. In the kitchen is chef Greg Pettijohn, a 16-year veteran of Surfrider.
Do start with a tapas sampler ($7.95), a plate nicely composed of circles of Spanish chorizo sausage (milder and more juicy than most), bacon-wrapped sea scallops, olives and strips of Parmesan. Lovely with a cocktail or a glass of red wine. And if you like sweet appetizers, go for the fried plantains. Javier's look like little hush puppies and are squishy inside. The beef empañdas ($5.75) are toothsome and light. A batch of these would make a wonderful take-out dinner with beer at home.
Shrimp flambéed with tequila and lime and served with a cilantro-orange salsa is certainly Peruvian and may set up your palate to move on to the arroz con mariscos, similar to a seafood paella but with a ginger tomato sauce. At $15.50, this is the one for a shellfish devotee. Peruvian tamales, ceviche, Peruvian black beans with spicy chicken ($13.50) or the pepper steak ($19.95) are all full-flavored choices. Each dinner entrée comes with a house salad, vegetable of the day and potato or rice and the average price is $16.
The dessert side of menu reflects Arana's own sweet tooth. He loves to table-hop and talk about things his grandmother whipped up, including the pionono, a sponge cake invested with toffee, cashews and peanuts ($4.25). But the chocolate torte has its own dark and creamy, more sophisticated charms, and it's hard to resist the bananas Foster prepared for two. Many Latin restaurants skimp on desserts, relying on a simple flan (you can get that at Javier's, too) to carry the coffee course. That Javier's pays such close attention to the end of a meal is another example of how satisfyingly complete this little restaurant is.
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Javier's Restaurant & Wine Bar
6621 Midnight Pass Road, Siesta Key
Dinner served from 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday
Sunset Special, 20 percent off entire check if seated by 5:45 p.m.
Parking in strip mall lot
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Since smoking while dining is tres outré, most restaurants have discontinued dispensing free matches. But happily, not all. Matches as advertising are still a great way to provide a free souvenir that connects a pleasurable cuisine experience with a useful item. We all need to light our aromatherapy candles and birthday cakes. Locally, several savvy restaurant owners have well-designed matchboxes. The tropical yellow ones at Tommy Bahama are dead-on evocative of Tommy Bahama lifestyle. The classy Ritz Carlton blue and gold with the lion emblem is recognized the world over. The Bijou Cafe petite box is perfect for tucking into small places. But for sexy, understated sophistication, it's hard to top the black and gold boxes available in a basket by the door at Fred's American bistro. The box was designed by the company's Keily Salser and designer Scott McAdoo. Even the matches are cool-thin black sticks with brilliant saffron heads. So modern and elegant, you'll hate to see them go up in smoke.
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Q: Can a wine with a screw top possibly be any good?
Screw tops are replacing corks as vintners search for new ways to keep wine free of contamination. Still, many sommeliers seem embarrassed by them. They shouldn't be. Anyone who has ever dealt with a decayed cork knows how it can ruin a good vintage. Screw tops exist at all price points. New Zealand and Australian wineries are the most enthusiastic about caps. Locally, the Oasis Cafe has some screw top wines in its cellar. They know that screw caps on quality wines are just fine. Just don't expect the French to admit it.
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Not By Bread Alone
The five-year-old Sarasota Bread Company at Southgate Plaza has a new pastry chef/baker in Anne Lammers, 25 years old and most recently from a teaching assignment at the Northeast Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont. Lammers has already revamped the menu with five new artisanal breads (including pesto-flavored) and 22 desserts. Additionally, Lammers is creating glam gift baskets starting at $15 and is making sweet news in the catering category. The dessert department will also create custom cakes. A 10-inch beauty is $39 and serves 16.
The appetizer and entrée portions of the extensive menu are new, too, although some selections will look pleasantly familiar to Summerhouse Restaurant devotees. George Perreault owns both eateries, and Summerhouse executive chef Dave McConaghy directs culinary operations at both locations. At the Bread Company you can get macadamia nut jumbo shrimp (the most requested appetizer for private parties catered by Summerhouse), brie and wild mushroom strudel, salmon dill pot pie, lox and bagels, vegetable torte, grilled chicken with artichokes and nearly a dozen sandwiches. If you haven't eaten at The Sarasota Bread Company lately, you should. The Asian shrimp tempura salad alone is worth the trip to Southgate Plaza, and the popular Greek salad with shaved lamb is a holdover from the former menu because everybody loves it.