Silver Cricket, a chic downtown establishment formerly serving Asian fusion meals, has repackaged itself as a gourmet tapas bistro. I stress the "gourmet" word in the restaurant's self-description, because this is a place where beauty and originality of presentation are just as important as culinary ingredients. If we eat with our eyes, we are eating well at Silver Cricket.
Playing to the hip crowd that wants designer martinis and snack foods, Silver Cricket takes its tapas seriously, reaching into many cultures for a panoply of elegant light bites. I love to eat this way. Why settle for a single entrée when you can sample five of six preparations and set real challenges for the kitchen? The cooks at Silver Cricket are up to the menu, and through the glass at the back of the restaurant guests can peer into the stainless steel kitchen and observe the unflappable chef/artists at work.
The menu is helpfully organized into categories of dips and spreads, soups, salads, pizzas, seafood sushi, and tapas of the poultry, meat and vegetable varieties, as well as petite entrées, which are as close to a regular restaurant meal as you're going to get.
The petite entrées (small plates of hearty fare) are in the $13 range and include such offerings as seared scallops with Hawaiian pesto and champagne sauce or rack of lamb, chicken penne pasta, or bronzed tuna with a Thai red curry and coconut cream blanket.
Tapas selections are Euro-Asian, but, surprisingly, none are authentically Spanish, although Spain invented tapas and brought them to America's front burner. For genuine Spanish tapas, you must go to Fred's in Southside Village, where the Spanish regional range is toothsome and spicy as well as educational. For Asian and Mediterranean-inspired tapas, Silver Cricket excels.
Tapas are the most fun when shared among friends, at least four. This gives you the best overall evaluation of what's cooking at the restaurant. We were just two people and so ordered five tapas. Four would have sufficed, since portions are generous and we coveted dessert, too; but we wanted to take our server Eric's advice about the crab sushi and we were glad we did. This amazingly flavorful roll is tempura fried with blanched asparagus. Some people order all their tapas at once; others order in stages and lengthen the evening (and the bar bill).
I've only good things to say about the pyramid lump crab cake ($6.95) that came to the table on a dark triangle plate decorated with puddles of colorful dipping sauce. The calamari arrived in a tall paper cone rolled from a Chinese newspaper. How clever and smart-looking. The squid is served with a mild marinara sauce that could have used a little more kick, especially in the company of the more dramatically flavored Asian tapas.
With experience you begin to mix and match tapas for maximum flavor and diversity. I wouldn't order the Italian prosciutto stuffed with artichokes and smoked gouda again unless I was putting together a more gently flavored grouping. The veal medallions ($8.95) with smoked tomato demi-glace might be nice with a mild Med arrangement and also the scallops on the half shell. There are dozens and dozens of tapas offerings at Silver Cricket and endless combinations for eaters with a sense of adventure.
The respectable wine list is perfectly adequate to the menu; and since the lounge is a big part of Silver Cricket's appeal, fancy drinks abound at the bar. Guests will appreciate that many wines are served by the glass. This is useful with tapas, because you'll probably want to taste at least two different kinds of wines with such a mélange of dishes.
House-made desserts are off the menu and your server will list them. Most are bountiful enough to share. This is especially true of the beggar's purse, an embarrassment of riches served on a white rectangle plate and highly decorated. Inside the puff pastry is a rich chocolate cream. Surrounding the purse are mounds of vanilla ice cream as well as banana chunks (slightly seared), kiwi slices and berries. Colorful dollops of fruit coulis are yours for dipping the banana into. This is a lovely dessert and tastes as good as it presents itself.
If you haven't had the tapas experience yet, Silver Cricket is a fine introduction to a way of dining that's well suited to our Florida lifestyle. Gather up a few friends and make a fun evening of seeing how well you can play the mix-and-match tapas game. And best of all, every player is a winner.
Silver Cricket Gourmet Tapas Bistro
1923 Ringling Blvd., Sarasota
Dinner: Daily, 5-10 p.m.
Late night menu in the lounge: Sunday and Monday, till midnight; Tuesday-Saturday until 2 a.m.
Wheelchair accessibleThe white cottage next to Burns Court Cinema is a restaurant again and goes by the simple name of 5-One-6. But while the place has a relaxed and gently vintage disposition, the menu is anything but quaint. It's quite exciting, in fact, really snappy. Neither too ambitious nor overly fusion-fussy, the presentations are modern and knowing, keying on fresh ingredients assembled in imaginative ways.
For example, the grilled yellowfin tuna is not encrusted in anything. That in itself is a new twist and a relief. Chef Derek Barnes, 31, who has experience at Sean Murphy's Beach Bistro and Emeril's in New Orleans, sears the surface of the fish, leaving the center barely warmed by the flame. Then he serves this refreshing thick slab with Yukon gold potato chunks made into a hash with crispy pancetta. He finishes the dish with a mound of warm, roasted peanut cabbage slaw. This is indeed a meal to rev up taste buds. At $19.95 it's nearly at the top of the price structure, surpassed only by a 12-ounce New York strip steak with walnut and blue cheese crust, roasted garlic potatoes and asparagus sautéed in a red wine reduction. That will cost you a dollar more.
For something lighter and more like snack food, you could use your fingers to pick at grilled Gulf shrimp paired with smoked fish and basmati rice tamales and served with ancho crackers. See what I mean? Unusual but accessible. Sea scallops glazed with vanilla bean nestle up to citrus-scented spaetzle and yucca root, while a Burns burger ($10.95) is only slightly gussied up with roasted shallots, mushrooms, fontina cheese and a little splash of balsamic vinegar.
At the bar, located in a corner of the long screened porch, is a wood-burning brick pizza oven. Dan Taylor, the 21-year-old son of the owners, reigns over the fire. Have one of four varieties right there, or your pizza can be served tableside either indoors or out. The pizzas are basic-plain or basil pesto with a little grilled meat-and range from $7.95 to $11.95. Dan turns out about 35 a night. Appetizers number about a half dozen and include field greens salad, grilled salmon Niçoise, sea scallops in a truffle emulsion, even black bean hummus and fresh pita bread.
Desserts are house made by chef Barnes. As a nod to tourists (many of whom dine after seeing a film at the art movie house next door), there's Key lime pie ($4.95) as well as a banana cream custard with a little shaved chocolate on top, or a rich and dark molten chocolate cake that rests in a puddle of blackberry coulis and is capped by créme anglaise.
The wine menu is Beth Taylor's work in progress. She and her husband Gary own the restaurant and have a history in food service in Stowe, Vt., as well as at the Hyatt in Sarasota. The couple moved to Sarasota in 1990 and have been working toward the goal of opening their own place since then.
Presently, Beth Taylor has five house wines by the glass for $4.94 as well as a nice collection of California, Oregon, Washington and Australian labels. But we couldn't resist the Goats du Roam from South Africa, a rosé that's refreshing and light and only $19 a bottle. She intends to increase the by-the-glass selections and expand the cellar with good global values.
The Taylors' restaurant seats 60, in two yellow-and-white interior rooms and the screened porch. They've started taking reservations, which is a good thing because this little American bistro has enjoyed a terrific buzz from satisfied customers who praise the food, the service, the comfortable ambience, even the beautifully lit enormous banyan tree in the tiny front yard. 5-One-6 is a fine cuisine addition to a charming neighborhood of cinema, art galleries and antique boutiques.
516 Burns Lane, Sarasota
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5-9 p.m. and until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Closed on Sunday.
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Q. I've been invited to a spring brunch and I'd like to bring a wedge of cheese, something different but suitable as part of a light buffet served early in the day.
A. Mary Ellen Coleman, one of the fine cheese experts at Morton's Gourmet Market, has three suggestions, all of which I enthusiastically endorse because the rinds are pastel-colored and look so right on a spring brunch buffet table. Choose any one of these or take a wedge of each. Of course, you have tasting privileges when you purchase any cheeses at Morton's, and it's always a good idea to bite before you buy. English Sage Derby is pale yellow with a greenish vein. It's light, clean tasting and has slighty minty low notes. $13.99 a pound. English Royal Windsor at $16.49 a pound has an Easter egg pink rind but is a blue cheese with a cherry and wine flavor that's soul satisfying. And for a dessert cheese, consider a creamy white Stilton flavored with ginger and bits of mango at $16.49 a pound. It's a bit crumbly, sweet and melts on the tongue. Serve with ginger snaps for a lovely finish to a meal. Morton's Gourmet Market, 1924 Osprey Ave., Sarasota. 955-9856.