Crêpes are back, you know. Not that they were ever far away. Fillings both sweet and savory encased in a light, flat pancake can always be found on some restaurant menus from New Mexico to Maine. But French-style crêpes have been absent for more than a decade as heartier bistro fare claimed our attention.
Now crêpe pans are occupying pride of place in restaurant kitchens across the U.S. and especially at Provence, a small, pleasant cafe and crêperie on Main Street in Sarasota. Pretty soon brides-to-be will be registering for crêpe pans again.
The crêpes at Provence are big, delicate, and in most instances neither rolled or folded. The chef spreads the feather-light and surprisingly large crêpe flat so that it almost covers the surface of its white plate. Then the filling is piled in the center and the edges of the crêpe are slightly crimped to keep the filling from escaping. For some crêpe preparations, such as the ham and cheese, the crêpe is folded. Chef Alex Gosetto, who is also the owner, likes his guests to see what went into his creations.
Gosetto owned a restaurant in Washington, D.C., when he came to America 25 years ago and has operated Alex's Bistro in Columbus, Ohio, for 18 years. With Provence only eight months old, Gosetto and manager Joe Giannetti are still tinkering with the menu, adding and subtracting dishes that appeal to locals. Look for soufflés soon and some seasonal preparations that take advantage of Florida fruits and vegetables. But there's little fooling around with the crêpes. Residents and tourists already like them just the way they are. At lunchtime select from 10 crêpes that range from $6.75 to $8.50 and include a simple ham and Swiss cheese crêpe, a vegetarian ratatouille, a goat cheese and spinach crêpe, three chicken variations and a seafood crêpe that combines shrimp and salmon in a whitefish lobster sauce.
I particularly like the chicken curry. Made with apple chunks and white wine, it's a mild curry leaving just a hint of heat at the back of the throat. Besides the crêpes, the menu features about a half dozen sandwiches, a quiche of the day, and several soups and salads including the classic Caesar.
At dinner, expect the same crêpe and soup selections augmented with appetizers such as escargot in a garlic butter casserole and a house-made paté. All entrées come with vegetables and a starch. Average price is $20 and takes in a flavorful salmon bathed in lobster dill sauce, crab cake snapped to attention with a creamy Dijon mustard sauce, a filet mignon with béarnaise sauce, tarragon New Zealand lamb chop and a chicken piccata.
The dessert menu is framed around crêpes, with classic crêpes Suzette, a crêpe banana Foster, a strawberry and cream crêpe and such. The wine list is brief, French and economical, with most bottles in the welcome $16-$30 range and wines by the glass at $4.75. The young servers, crisply attired in white shirts and neckties, are cosmopolitan, friendly and capable. Service is European-paced, which means somewhat slow for Americans, especially those who work and are on a lunch break.
Provence is comfortable and informal in its arrangement of tables and booths laid with French blue paper mats and white paper napkins. French music in the background and colorful prints on the wall help to transport you to where the menu will take your palate.
Provence Cafe and Crêperie
1532 Main St., Sarasota
Lunch: Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
breakfast on Saturday starting at 7:30 a.m.
Dinner: Monday through Saturday from 5:30 p.m. Closed Sunday.
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Sweets for Summer
Arthur Lopes has owned Zoria with partner Ryan Boeve for the past four years, first on Hillview Avenue and more recently on Main Street. The two have been food friends since they met in the kitchen at Ophelia's some years ago. Lopes, an executive chef for 17 years before he ventured into pastry, is probably at the top of his game in the realm of sweets. His apple tart (made with almond flour and dark rum) is so popular that local rock star resident Brian Johnson (of AC/DC) ordered a huge one with seven scoops of ice cream instead of a birthday cake this year.
Lopes says that the perfect summer dessert should take advantage of seasonal fruits. "Lemon and berries are a natural," he says. "Berry tarts garnished with candied violets, preserved ginger, a strawberry sliced like a fan look as good as they taste. How about a lemon and kiwi tart with a fresh blueberry sauce and garnished with fresh blueberries?
"Chocolate is always a favorite and certainly works in the summer, but maybe in a light mousse form for the hot days," he muses. "But my favorite summer dessert combination is strawberries and rhubarb. I frequently make a big strawberry-rhubarb pie for the staff here at Zoria. There's never any left. For a quick and easy at-home dessert I'd go with an uncomplicated cobbler. Serve it warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. That's the right hot weather finish to a summer meal."
Arthur Lopes' Summer Strawberry Rhubarb Cobbler Crumb Topping:
4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 pinch salt
1 pound unsalted butter, cubed
6-8 tablespoons milk
6 cups fresh strawberries and rhubarb pieces, mixed
1 1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
For the topping, combine the flour, sugar and salt. Cut the butter into the flour mixture until it comes to a crumb state. Add milk and combine lightly.
For the fruit filling, combine the fruit, sugar, cornstarch and flour in a large bowl. Place the fruit mixture in an 11 x 13 baking dish.
Crumble the crumb topping over the mixture and sprinkle sugar over the top. Bake at 350-degrees for 40-50 minutes. Serve warm with ice cream.
The Cheese Doctor
Several years ago, Dr. Stephen Rotman retired from medicine to make his 35-year avocation-cheese and wine-his new career. After academic study and apprenticeship, he worked in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, with a company that supplied boutique cheeses to the city's best restaurants. He moved to Sarasota four years ago and became the cheese expert at Morton's Gourmet Market, where his practice consists of some 250 international cheeses. Avoiding the industry term for a cheese guru, which is "cave master," the self- effacing former physician says he'd rather be known around town as Stephen, the cheese guy or maybe just cheesemonger.
Stephen favorss the idea of a cheese course, traditionally served before dessert and after the entrée or after the entrée and the salad if you're doing a meal European style. "Cheese dulls the palate so it's not the best choice to set your taste buds up for dinner," he explains. "And I don't serve cheese with crackers because crackers have too much flavor. I prefer a hard and crusty baguette. If you're serving cheese as an appetizer, choose low-fat cheese and a wine that cuts through any creaminess."
When doing a cheese platter, the expert says go for a balance of cow, goat and sheep cheeses and figure about two to three ounces per person. Any more than five cheese selections will taste confusing.
How about a cheese platter just right for summer nibbling on the patio after dinner or maybe instead of dinner? Dr. Stephen can deliver, while Graham Thomson, chief of wine and spirits at J.D. Ford, suggests the appropriate wines. For more information, Morton's cheese guy recommends the book Cheese Primer by Steven Jenkins. And what's Stephen's current favorite cheese? "A Swiss Gruyere that's been aging for two and a half years. And I like epoisses, a cow's milk cheese from Burgundy that really reeks."
Cheese Platter and Wine Tray
Petit Billy. A young French goat cheese that's moist with a silky texture.
Humboldt fog. From Cypress Grove Farms in Northern California, this is gentle goat cheese with true goat flavor. The name comes from the exterior of ash and white mold that's reminiscent of early morning fog.
Le chevrot. From the Loire Valley, this French firm goat cheese is best cut at room temperature when the texture is like velvet.
Perail brebis: From the French province of Rouergue, this raw ewe's milk cheese is the size of a small hockey puck and has a white textured rind.
For the above cheeses, which have relatively high acidity, choose a New Zealand Dashwood sauvignon blanc. It's crisp with citrus high notes. About $13. A Jean Paul Droin chablis would also be fine. It's bright with fruit and not oaky. About $17.
Gaperon: From France, this cow cheese is low-fat and flavored with black pepper and garlic.
Dry aged jack: From Ignazio Vella cheesemakers in Sonoma California, this hearty, somewhat sweet and nutty cow cheese is akin to parmigiano.
Cow's milk cheese works with a Pretale Chiati cassico reserve. Cherry and anise flavors, and made principally with sangiovese grapes. About $15. Also pleasant would be a Bishop's Peak California zinfandel. It's jammy and you can taste the raspberry. About $16.
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Hope for Australian Wines
Hope was at Michael's On East recently to chat about his life and times in the wine business. Over a two-hour sipping session (accompanied by fruits and breads from Michael Klauber) we learned that Hope Vineyards, in the Hunter Valley region of Australia, produces only about 45,000 cases a year and that most of it ends up in restaurants and small wine emporiums. To sample Hope wines in Sarasota, read through the wine lists at Michael's On East, Chutney's, Lavanda, Greer's Grill, or Ophelia's. Additionally, Michael's Wine Cellar carries Hope wines.
This husband and dad of three young boys came to the wine business in 1994 as the owner of a string of successful pharmacies. Since he was already a chemist, he understands the science of wine making. And he also had another ingredient for success as a vintner: sufficient start-up capital. Hope appreciates the adage which says if you want to make a small fortune in the wine business, start with a large one.
Hope says he's worked backward from the price point at which his wines would help to sell themselves, namely estate bottled wines under $15. The first we sampled was a 2002 Hope Estate Verdelho, a relatively uncommon wine in the States. This white, made from a grape employed in Portugal in fortified wines, yields a minerally and tropical beverage that would pair well with seafood. The other white we sampled was his 2001 Hope Estate Chardonnay. Whole bunch pressing, wild yeast fermentation, and 100% French oak barrels help produce this well-balanced and relatively complex wine.
Hope's reds begin with a 2000 Hope Estate Merlot. It offers cherry and blackberry notes with a hint of tobacco and earth. His 2000 Hope Estate Shiraz is an attempt to produce a compromise between the Rhone style and the new world style. It's reasonably successful and worth sampling.
Overall, Hope's wines offer just what wine drinkers love, a pleasant surprise at an affordable price. And that's a good deal, mate!
Q. With so many Italian restaurants both large and small in town, is there actually anything new or different on any menu?
A. Seek out intimate Ferrari's, a restaurant that enjoys terrific word of mouth among food groupies. The young chef from Bologna, Francesco Nucci, and his American wife, Vincenza, offer a traditional menu with regional twists that make a visit (and many return visits) worthwhile. We especially admire the incredible lasagna ($13). Chef prepares it with veal meat and a tender besciamelle sauce (no ricotta) and Parmigiano cheese. This leaves room to try the mussels in a wine and garlic broth that you will want to sop up with your fresh home-made bread. Then indulge in the tiramisu, which is also featherweight and oh, so flavorful. Ferrari's, 4155 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. 929-7900.