Menu and decor compete for attention at the new Main Street Bistro; and, happily for diners, both come up winners. Owner Michael Jacobson will tell you he's inspired by Vincent van Gogh. Jacobson (a 30-year veteran of corporate America, first working for American Express and more recently for The Zenith) especially admires the artist's Starry Starry Night. His passion for the particular painting is reflected in the glass star-shaped candle centerpieces at each table (done by glass artist Susan Kutno) and in the giant mural that dominates an entire wall of the restaurant.
Overseeing the décor were Norman Hervieux, head of the interior design department at Ringling School of Art and Design, and Anthony Ashford, an interior designer with the ADP Group of architects and one of Hervieux's former students. The ADP Group was the architectural firm for the project.
The acrylic mural of swirling bits of color is the work of Douglas Higgins, an instructor at Ringling; he designed the modern jazzy logo, too. The van Gogh-like mural is enhanced by color kinetic light that shifts from cool shades to warm by virtue of a computer program for a mesmerizing effect. This light treatment is used on the outside tile wall fountain, designed by Ashford. It's so simple and so appealing.
There are more artistic touches in the carpeting, which replicates the circles of the mural, and in the juxtaposition of lyrical red tear-drop glass pendants hanging over some of the tables and the industrial track lighting system in another portion of the room.
The restaurant seats 150, including the bar and outside, and just about all of the patrons can be heard when the place is full at lunch and dinner. Jacobson rather admires the din. He believes a good bistro should be boisterous and full of street chatter. He's not after a "fine dining" experience but something more along the lines of a classy neighborhood hangout. He's even added live music five nights a week starting at 7:30 p.m. to pump up the volume even more.
The menu is classic French bistro with a California fringe. There's a semi-open kitchen at the back of the bistro; but you probably won't catch of a glimpse of executive chef Thomas Schranz, a 42-year-old graduate of Johnson and Wales who formerly ran the catering kitchen for Morton's Gourmet Market. He's the brother-in-law of Main Street Bistro's owner, and the men collaborated on the menu.
Entrées average about $18 and include traditional bistro favorites such as steak, grilled veal rib chops, bouillabaisse, grilled duck breast, roast lamb and chicken fricassee. Entrées come with potatoes or rice but in a pleasant change, the game hen is paired with polenta and the grilled grouper is accompanied by ratatouille. A tender and quite juicy thick pork chop in a sherry reduction sauce studded with tiny split figs is excellently rendered and truly toothsome. It's presented with a creamy (if a little bland) macaroni and cheese, which is white, not yellow, and made with penne pasta, not the conventional elbow. Pizzas and a few pastas round out the dinner entrées.
The lunch menu revolves around a half dozen each of soups, salads and sandwiches including a burger ($7) and the classic salad Nicoise with seared rare tuna ($10).
For appetizers you can find what every honest French bistro cooks, French onion soup. This one is properly bubbly, sweet and medium-thick with the caramelized onion slices and that perfect big glob of crusty cheese blanketing the soggy crouton that rests at the bottom of the brown broth. It's a hefty and comforting portion. Or you might choose mussels, baked oysters or country paté at about $9. Pair two and make yourself a delicious and filling working man's French mid-day meal, or opt for a seasonal salad. The sweet and bitter greens plate comes with country paté ($7).
The wide-ranging wine list (and what a satisfying compilation it is) bears the stamp of seasoned professional Anne Howells, whose name you might know from Michael's Wine Cellar and J.D. Ford Tasting Room. Her choices for Main Street Bistro are remarkably well priced. It's clear the management wants to encourage customers to experiment with interesting vintages and labels by keeping most prices in the $20-$30 range. Nearly a dozen bottles are under $20. Cheers to you, Ms. Howells.
Desserts, which run about $7, are out of the ordinary. How nice to see a sacher torte with creme chantilly and current coulis on a local menu. And it tastes just right. Seared fruits with a cinnamon brioche provide another tempting dessert that I'd be just as happy to eat for breakfast with an oversized cup of the bistro's house brand, which is custom blended by Kaldi Coffee. The dinner bread (which arrives with olive oil dipping sauce) comes from C'est la Vie, a few blocks away, and is everything you'd expect in bistro bread-crusty, chewy and oh, so French.
Main Street Bistro
1345 Main St., Sarasota
Lunch: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. (Light bites from 3-5 p.m.)
Dinner: Daily from 5-10 p.m. (but light bites continue until 1 a.m.)
Live music Wednesday through Sunday starting at 7:30 p.m.
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Q. I used to enjoy a signature candy called Heavenly Hash made at all Maison Blanche department stores in and around New Orleans. Sadly, both the store and their famous treat are long gone. Any chance of finding a version of H.H. locally?
A. Your sweet tooth has divinely lucked out. At Chocolate, Nuts & More in Southside Village, owner Kelli Kamm makes a similar candy called Rocky Road. It's melted milk or dark Belgian Callebaut chocolate (depending on your preference) mixed with marshmallow and walnuts. It comes in one big slab and sells for $14.50 for about a pound. Once you get it home, break up the road into small pieces, arrange on a pretty serving dish and your incredibly rich "hash" is ready to savor. 1907 S. Osprey Ave., Sarasota. 906-8848.
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Sippin' into spring: The quartet of cute young bartenders at the J. D. Ford Tasting Room in Sarasota confide they're battling a serious bout of spring fever. Their cure? Four frivolous drinks that are either new creations or rejuvenated classics to accompany warm weather fun. All of them can be yours at the Tasting Room for about $6.75-$8. Or shake things up at your own home bar.
The Cucumber Martini is for those who relish a dry martini but with a nouveau attitude. Since most of the young revelers in Florida don't want gin in their martinis, make this one with vodka in the traditional martini way, skimping on the vermouth. Add a long curl of cucumber for garnish and drop tiny morsels of fresh cucumber (no seeds) into the bottom of the glass. Graham Thomson, director of wine and spirits at the Tasting Room, says the Cucumber Martini goes down clean with a crisp hint of melon.
For those who favor a sweeter martini, the bartenders suggest the Apple-Tini, made with apple liqueur, vodka, pineapple juice and a garnish of green apple. The drink has a refreshing color and a hint of a tang. The J.D. Ford bunch concurs martinis must be quickly shaken, not stirred. It has to do with not letting the ice melt and watering down your drink.
Planters Punch, an old country club standard, is making a comeback. "The party people who love a Mai Tai or the Tequila Sunrise gravitate toward Planters Punch, and it's a pleasant rum-and-fruit- juice drink for relaxing on the porch after the work day," says Thomson. "You serve it in a goblet or tall hurricane glass over ice-and don't pair it with food. Planters Punch is something you enjoy on its own." The Tasting Room garnishes its with an orange slice and a cherry.
But the four bartenders and Thomson agree that the mixed drink destined to be the most sensational sip of the spring season is the mojito, already the toast of South Beach bars. Invented in South America and a huge favorite in Cuba, the mojito is concocted with rum or cachacca (a sugar cane alcohol), sugar, lime, mint and a splash of club soda. The garnish is a tall stick of sugar cane and fresh mint leaves. From New York to Miami, the mojito is the choice of those who want something refreshing and good-looking to kick-start to a night of spring fling partying.
Seasonal sippers from JD Ford Tasting Room.
Pour 1 1/2 ounces premium vodka and 1/2 ounce sour apple liqueur over ice, shake and strain straight up into martini glass or over rocks.
Pour 1 1/2 ounces of premium vodka or gin and a few drops of dry vermouth over ice. Shake, the strain straight up or over rocks. Garnish with a cucumber twirl and add a few diced cucumbers to bottom of glass.
Pour the following ingredients over ice: 1 1/2 ounces silver rum, 1 ounce orange juice, 1/2 ounce pineapple juice, 1/2 ounce lemon juice, swirl of granadine. Shake and strain over ice, and add a swirl of dark rum on top. Garnish with orange slice.
For this tart thirst quencher, mix
1 ? ounces of premium Vodka
? ounce of Sour apple liqueur
Pour over ice, shake and strain straight up
Into Martini glass or over rocks.
Garnish with slice of Granny Smith apple
Savory and refreshing with a punch.
1 ? ounces of premium Vodka or Gin (your preference)
just a few drops of dry vermouth
Pour over ice, shake then strain straight up or over rocks
Garnish with Cucumber twirl and add afew diced cucumbers to bottom of glass.
3. Planters Punch
A refreshing Tropical favorite
1 ? ounce of silver Rum
1 ounce of orange juice
? ounce of pineapple juice
? ounce of lemon juice
Swirl of grenadine
Swirl of Dark Rum
Pour over ice, shake and strain over ice, swirl dark rum on top of drink
Garnish with Orange slice