What makes a Sunday brunch cost $55 a person? Come with me to Sarasota's Ritz-Carlton hotel, where personal service, ambience and presentation have as much to do with the bill as the creative cuisine on your white plate. The hotel's luxury brunch is suitable for an important celebration, a first-day-of-the-honeymoon-meal, or that important "hey, we're on vacation in Florida" unhurried breakfast and lunch combination before you bliss out on the beach.
The Ritz brunch is all about elegant abundance. The buffet is organized in the main lobby (where tea is served in the afternoons) and guests take their plates back to the formal Vernona dining room, where your primary server and several helpers see to everything but the food gathering. Juice, coffee or tea, and jellies are on the table for you. Every time you leave the table for another round of tastings, used dishes are removed and silverware and napkins are replaced. The napkin is folded into a pristine mountain peak. Of course, there are snowy white tablecloths, flowers everywhere, and the room itself is plush and perfect in an Old World European way. You'll even be offered a guided tour of the brunch stations by your server if you desire the assistance.
The Ritz stages this brunch like culinary theater. Your eyes "shop" different elaborately decorated tables, each with its own theme. For instance, there's the caviar station offering three types (all of them American) along with blinis, minced hard-boiled egg, chopped onion, and capers. Another station tempts with Mediterranean fare such as eggplant, grilled peppers, and a lovely salad of cold black-eyed peas and marinated quail. Goat cheese and fresh tomatoes, Caesar salad, portobello mushrooms-it's all there.
Then you can browse the sushi and sashimi bar, as artistic an exhibit as you're likely to see outside of an Asian museum. The bread table uses long baguettes as art; and baskets are heaped with fresh mini-Danishes, croissants, brioche, rolls, muffins, whatever. The seafood station includes an intriguing salad of octopus and seaweed (unfortunately, the day we visited, the octopus was tough) as well as crab claws, jumbo boiled shrimp, mussels and plump (and delectable) raw oysters displayed on ice. At this station you'll also find about four smoked fish preparations, including the obligatory salmon.
Hot stations are on one end of the room and combine breakfast items such as custom omelets and eggs Benedict with luncheon fare, such as carved prime rib and baby lamb chops. A standout at this table is the ravioli (a large one) stuffed with ground venison and slathered in a huckleberry sauce. Soups are nearby. A lone chef rules the crepe table near the dessert exhibition. Discover individual ramekins of bread pudding, crème brûlée or strawberry cream pie. Hazelnut tiramisu is offered in champagne flutes, or take a piece of pear tart that's already been sliced for you. At least different 15 desserts are spread out.
In addition to the glorious food, each stations offers opulent visuals. Tables gleam with heavy hotel silver bowls, platters and tongs. Fresh, fat roses and ferns are tucked in among folds of lavish fabric. Bowls sit atop columns, platters rest on pedestals, baskets are on risers cleverly draped to hide the mechanics. The classic silver serving pieces are juxtaposed with other textures, such as rough-hewn basketry (a basket holds tender shards of Romaine lettuce for your Caesar salad) or thick, modernistic square glass plates that are delicately tinted.
This stylish brunch delivers food, theater and service in a grand manner yet keeps the surroundings relaxed and comfortable. Then why do so many regulars wait until noon to show up instead of arriving at 11 a.m. when the brunch doors open? Simple. You can't get your glass of champagne or your mimosa until after the noon hour on Sunday. It's the law. If an alcoholic beverage is an important part of your brunch experience, time your visit to the Ritz accordingly.
111 Ritz-Carlton Drive, Sarasota
Sunday brunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
More Than Moo
A charming historic bungalow on Palm Avenue that was Noah's (and Carmichael's before that) has been transformed into a sophisticated steak house by New York restaurateur John Zakarian and his partner, Lori Perkins. While the menu is certainly beefy, the descriptor "steak house" doesn't disclose the depth and breadth of the kitchen; nor does it convey the formality of the surroundings. Zak's is more than a traditional steak house. Careful attention is paid to a variety of seafood, fowl, and lamb choices. Given the extensiveness of the appetizers (which could convert into entrées) and the meal-type salads, a vegetarian could spend a pleasant evening at Zak's.
Entrées average $27, and supper comes à la carte, although your artfully arranged plate will arrive with a broiled tomato or some other colorful veggie and perhaps a tasty clump of fried onion shards. And the bread, either sourdough rolls or toothsome multi-grain small baguettes, is a treat; it's served with bowls of olive tapanade, salmon spread and both sweetened and unsweetened butter.
Potato is extra; and if you choose the au gratin, know that the ramekin is plenty generous enough to share. That goes for all the Zak's portions, which are American-sized and doggie-bag appropriate. The steaks are of fine quality and prepared just the way you order them. We were especially impressed with the filet mignon coated with a spicy mustard infusion. Expect traditional Caesar salad, French onion soup and a flavorful red seafood chowder for first courses, as well as Zak's specialty ground beef dumplings, steamed mussels, shrimp cocktail or crab cakes. Besides leisurely dinners in pleasant surroundings, Zak's does lunch for an average price of $14, although the burger is $9. Many dinner items appear on the luncheon menu.
There are some interesting features to Zak's. No vintages next to the wines on the wine list. No pepper on the table. The salt shaker stands alone; and the only way you'll get pepper is to allow your server to wield one of those massive wooden grinders. The person who seats you will thoughtfully match napkin color to attire so your clothes won't show lint.
Also, there are no steak knives. The omission is meant to convey the tenderness of the product; and indeed we used dinner knives without complaint. Finally, Zak's logo chargers (bordered in deep burgundy) are left on the table for the proper amount of time -through the entrée course and then whisked away for the dessert course. Many restaurants don't know what to do with chargers, but Zak's does.
Lori Perkins accomplished the interior redesign, creating an environment of comfort with grown-up luxury touches. Besides the two intimate dining areas downstairs, there are two cozy upper-level enclaves, one with banquettes. The other, smaller room is just right for a family celebration-private, sophisticated and snug.
Zak's Steak House
1213 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota
Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday
Dinner: nightly from 5-9:30 p.m. and until 10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday
Reservations strongly suggested
Parking: valet, street or at the bank across the street
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A site that used to house a budget beef house has been transformed into something straight out of the Italian hill country by the same father-and-son duo that brought you the thriving Sugar Loaf restaurant and bakery. The newest Sarasota enterprise by Peter and James Liakakos is Reggiano's, a comfortable and handsome 265-seat restaurant and lounge plus an al fresco patio that seats 40 near a fountain. It's all done in a relaxed Tuscan mode with tile roof, the right amount of wrought-iron trim and a welcoming Mediterranean paint color on a building designed by architect George Palermo.
Inside, a long, open kitchen clad in copper, Italian ceramic tiles and brick dominates the space. The kitchen houses the pizza ovens, plus enough grill space for several cooks to put on a show and keep the orders coming on schedule. Raised booths hug the perimeter of the room and are sheltered by vine-covered pergolas for privacy. More booths and tables fill the center; and there's a bar area complete with TV for those who need to know the scores while they eat or drink.
Faux finish artist Vanessa Finelli has given a pleasant Old World treatment to the interior walls; and muralist Connie Buckler contributed vignettes consistent with life and good times of the Mediterranean region. The floor tiles were imported from central Italy.
The lunch and dinner menu focuses on excellent thin-crust pizzas (about $9), wood-fried steaks and chicken, wood-grilled seafood, and pork and pasta favorites such as fettuccine Alfredo, penne with chicken and broccoli, tortellini, linguine with clam sauce, manicotti, chicken parmigiana, or a plate of classic spaghetti with either meatballs or Bolognese meat sauce. No fusion fuss, no surprise ingredients-in itself a nice surprise. Entrées average $11 and most include either a house or Caesar salad or a cup of soup. The cabbage-rich minestrone is particularly tasty and a change from what you're used to at the chain restaurants.
The mostly Cal-Italia wine list is a work in progress but already has enough in the reasonable $20-$60 range to pair well with everything on the menu. Nothing wrong with a Chianti Classico at $26, which we liked just fine with our pasta and meat dishes. The young waitstaff, in bistro aprons and neckties, is neat-looking and eager to please, making a meal at Reggiano's a no-hassle good time-with a doggie bag as a bonus, because the recipes may be Italian but the portions are American big.
Reggiano's Brick Oven Grill
4041 Cattlemen Road, Sarasota
Daily for lunch and dinner 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
Q. My boyfriend and I are addicted to the "s" word-sushi. Got any new places for us to experience?
A. OK, you sexy beasts, check out Utamaro on St. Armands Circle. The exterior is nothing special, but you'll find sensuous pleasure inside, from luncheon bento boxes (about $12) and Japanese udon (noodle) dishes ($10 or so) to tempuras and sukiyaki specialties. Sushi and sashimi options include special house roll creations with names like "caterpillar," "dancing eel" and "thunder." But I bet you'll choose the "love roll" ($7.75); the shrimp and avocado roll is coated with tiny red crunchy flying fish eggs that make each morsel a Valentine on a plate. Behave, concentrate on the erotic thrill of raw fish and think of that other "s" word to complement your meal-sake.
Utamaro, 474 John Ringling Blvd., St. Armands Circle, Sarasota. Lunch and dinner. 388-0095.