A FRENCH REVOLUTION
Fresh new changes at Café of the Arts, maximum pleasure at Maximo's-and more.
There have been changes at The Café of the Arts since Alain Taulere opened it in 1990 as a restaurant dedicated to classical French cooking. Over the years, the bakery disappeared, a bar materialized, the garden evolved and the interior acquired a more Provencal appearance. But recently, much more has been changing, from the menu to the mix of diners.
The agent provocateur is Jean Luc Taulere, the 22-year-old son of the restaurant's owner. A graduate of the advanced program at Johnson & Wales, Jean Luc has worked restaurants since the age of 12, starting as a bus boy and rotating to waiter, line cook, whatever job needed filling. After apprenticeships in Spain and France, he returned to Sarasota last year as executive chef for the Café.
But after a few months, he was itchy to chart a new directionfor the family business. So Dad asked old friend Jean-Pierre Pellet (formerly of the Summerhouse, Colony and the Bijou Café) to come reign at the stove. Jean Luc put on a shirt and tie and headed to the front of the house. There he helped supervise a renovation and expansion. What was the bar is now a private dining room. The new bar has a sleek, hip attitude with appeal to a younger crowd. There's tango dancing on Thursday night and you can order $5 martinis until closing.
In addition, the four main dining rooms now express an obvious connection to the visual and performing arts. Jean Luc works with gallery owners to ensure rotating installations of paintings, photography and sculpture. Additionally, the dining room, called Performing Arts, features colorful posters from the opera, ballet and local theater companies. Some of the new menu items are named for artists. The Dali Salad, for example, enshrines pepper-encrusted pan-seared tuna in a frame of shrimp, scallops, artichokes and tomatoes. By this time next year, the Café of the Arts menu will be 50 percent new. And while everything will have a French connection, not everything will be strictly according to Escoffier.
The menu modifications are the result of an ever-shifting balance of power between father and son, and negotiations haven't always been smooth. "We argue," says Alain Taulere. "I say I will quit, Jean Luc says he will quit. Big explosion. Later we split a bottle of wine and work things out. We both want the restaurant to grow and I am so proud and happy to be working with my son. But I am grounded in classic principles of French cooking and Jean Luc is interested in newer, fusion dishes."
"We are moving in the same direction, and the menu shows it," says Jean Luc. "The classic entrées remain because they are identified with the Café of the Arts. Bouillabaisse, sweetbreads and the duck with raspberry sauce will always be served here. New dishes come from countries where the French had a strong colonial presence, such as Indonesia, Vietnam, the Ivory Coast, the Caribbean. We're moving toward French and French-inspired food. That's a pretty good compromise." And it means that Jean Luc will be able to serve his peri peri shrimp with lime juice and hot peppers.
Jean Luc and his girlfriend are taking tango lessons. Alain, who had knee surgery not too long ago and celebrated his 60th birthday in December, is not. He would rather fuss with his wine cellar. He commands enormous respect as a connoisseur and he's the bailli (leader) and founder of the local chapter of the Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs, an international food and wine society that dates to 12th-century France. What's classically French is safe with Taulere pere, but about the big changes at his little parcel of France in Sarasota the father philosophically proclaims, "I accept the revolution."
Café of the Arts
5230 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota
Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Monday-Saturday. Sunday, brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner; 5:30-9 p.m., daily.
True adventure: Want a cuisine adventure without leaving town? Head to a pared-down restaurant in a bungalow just slightly off the main road into Siesta Key Village. It only seats 40. The tables are draped in black and the walls are a soft Kalahari Desert yellow. The background music is exotic. In its prior incarnation, the tiny place was a surf shop. But now the territory belongs to Maximo, and what a far-flung cuisine terrain it is!
In the small and aromatic kitchen, 30-year-old owner and chef Max Lazzari turns out fragrant and mysterious Ethiopian specialties as well as such things as ostrich, South African lobster tails and snails Casablanca. If it's your first time, go for the zighini, the traditional Ethiopian stew of either beef, chicken or vegetables. Essential to this stew is berbere, a red paste made up of many spices and herbs that Lazzari imports from Ethiopia (he shares the cost with another Ethiopian restaurant in Columbus, Ohio) and mixes with special butter called niter kebbeh.
The stew arrives at the table arranged on a big spongy thing that looks like the inside of a mushroom. This is injera, a soft flatbread made from fermented teff, the smallest grain in the world. You pull off a piece of injera and use it like tongs to grasp chunks of the stew. Don't worry-there are forks and spoons on the table if you want to enjoy this culinary oddity American style. The stew has a warm, nourishing, balanced and satisfying chorale of tastes going down. Then you begin to feel the tang of spices rise in the throat. Not really hot, but definitely spicy. In the middle of the platter rest a hard-boiled egg and a purple orchid. The egg absorbs and concentrates the zighini flavors. The orchid is because this is Florida, after all.
With your meal, order a South African wine suggested by the knowledgeable and personable sommelier, Arturo Gualdo. And before dinner, sample the lemon crab cakes, mussels in wine, or the escargot in a garlicky sauce so deliciously demonic you'll zip right through the basket of bread to sop up the liquid. The salads made with spinach and cheeses are a fine starter, too. Entrées average about $22; appetizers about $8. And you can experience a perfectly respectable wine for about $25 a bottle.
Lazzari is Italian but was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. His nanny was a Zulu tribeswoman, and he has a strong connection to Ethiopia; his family helped to colonize Eritrea in the 1850s. Many of the artifacts displayed around the restaurant are from his personal boyhood collection. Since he opened the restaurant, a few friends have added things. Maximo adds dimension to the local dining scene, and for a night of rich, adventurous tastes, this place gets my vote.
Maximo Restaurant & Wine Bar
149 Avenida Messina, Sarasota
Open daily. Lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner, 5-10 p.m. and until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday
Deli delight. If you let your Too Jay's cup of lentil soup cool, the spoon will stand up in it, a pretty good indication of the rib-sticking, peasant-pleasing, New York-style Jewish deli food the Florida chain is known and patronized for. The booths and tables are roomy, the portions generous, the sandwiches mile-high, the drinks big, and the desserts large enough to share. The only thing not outsized in this bustling shopping mall restaurant is the bill.
Do I need to warn you that Too Jay's almost always has a line during peak breakfast, lunch and dinner hours? It's as if all the transplants to Sarasota have been waiting for just such an informal, ethnic eatery; and when the doors opened, they materialized, many of them hauling friends and urging them to try the cold salami, potato knishes, the hot pastrami sandwich or the tongue, chopped liver, or corned beef. Take a half-pound of nova home for tomorrow's bagel breakfast ($12.99) along with some whitefish salad at $6.99. Chicken noodle or matzo ball soup is always on the menu. A cup is about $2.80, a bowl, $3.50.
Those with less of a craving for the zest and heft of say, stuffed cabbage, can always opt for a char-broiled burger, tuna or meatloaf melt or any one of a number of salad plates. I've become a fan of the Dijon chicken and dill chicken platters ($6.99), served with a large slab of thick fresh-baked rye bread. And for those who insist on healthy food, there are California wraps of roasted turkey and tabouleh, fruit salad or a genteel veggie pita pocket. A dollop of low-fat cottage cheese is $1.29. Won't that make you feel virtuous and maybe a tad sad you didn't just surrender to the blintzes?
Debate among 15 desserts (all at about $2.99) including cheesecake (of course), chocolate layer cake and even rice pudding. They're all toothsome, except for the rugalach, which I wouldn't bother with again. Pretty good pastry but lacking in enough filling. All the breads and pastries are baked on premises. So many people want to order from the deli and take food home after their meal that the management has placed order forms on the table. You just put a check next to the items you want, and they'll be ready to go (and added to your bill) when your server brings your check. Convenient and efficient.
Too Jay's is owned by Jay Brown, who established his version of the New York Jewish deli concept in 1981 in Palm Beach and lives there today near corporate headquarters. There are 18 restaurants in Florida. The Sarasota one seats 140 and serves about 1,000 meals a day. There are 365 items on the menu; so if you leave Too Jay's hungry, it is certainly not the management's fault.
Too Jay's Restaurant
3501 S. Tamiami Trail, Southgate Plaza, Sarasota
Breakfast, lunch and dinner: Monday -Thursday, 8 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 10 p.m.; Sunday until 8 p.m.
Takeout, deli, catering, party planning and gift certificates available
Parking in the mall lot
Best-dressed: Several years ago, Margaret Hoskinson met Ed Bell at the local Harley-Davidson shop. The two were married, and the groom came with a dowry of sorts. The 44-year-old Bell had owned three pizza shops in the Cleveland area, and one of the favorite things on his menu was salad tossed with Bell's special raspberry dressing. When Bell sold the business and moved to Sarasota six years ago, he kept the recipe for the dressing. Soon after they were married, Margaret asked her husband to find the recipe. He did, they made some, served salad and quickly realized they had the beginning of a business.
Margaret used her background in marketing and special events (at Ringling School of Art and Design and the Ringling Museum) to have the secret recipe prepared in quantity and bottled. The name Wild Irish Red is a combination of husband and wife. She is Irish and has red hair. The "wild" refers to his Harley-loving lifestyle. The Bells had planned to sell the dressing at Sarasota's downtown farmers' market, but the waiting list for space discouraged Margaret and she eventually decided to make the rounds of local grocery stores. Now Wild Irish Red can be found at Morton's Gourmet Market, The Butcher's Block, Geier's Sausage Kitchen, Taylor's Produce and Phillippi Creek Fishery. A bottle retails for about $4.
With a consistency somewhere between a creamy dressing and a vinaigrette, the dressing works on tossed greens and as a dipping sauce for raw vegetables. As a bonus, it has a lovely color in the bottle. In addition to the original recipe, the Bells are now producing three more dressings-mango, strawberry and pepper cream. That last one is made with crushed red pepper and sparks a roast beef sandwich perfectly. Mango and strawberry give a little thrill to cole slaw or a mixed fruit brunch platter. The Bells test out all their recipes on friends at dinner parties, making Wild Irish Red a true homegrown company.