Want to eat like you're in New Orleans without leaving town? Then investigate Bayou Bleu, a new Sarasota chain restaurant that pledges a New Orleans experience-and they don't just mean the food.
The culinary adventure starts by climbing stairs, because this eatery is above the street level. Sometimes there's even a staffer on the sidewalk, dressed in Mardi Gras yellow and purple and wearing beads. The dining areas are visually entertaining and a lot to absorb the first time around. A dimly lit brick dining room faces Main Street and recalls the courtyard restaurants of the French Quarter such as The Court of Two Sisters. It's cozy, quiet and perfect for a romantic dinner for two. Mama Bleu's Kitchen is a whole other story. Set with farm-style tables and mismatched chairs, the big room is filled (stuffed, actually) with decorative china, pots and pans, vintage stove and fireplace and various kitchen items that appear to have been collected over time. This is the place for eating with a boisterous group.
A more sophisticated "Pardi Gras" room done up in carnival decor seats 12-24. This room can be closed off and is available for large private parties. Other eating niches, including the bar, convey a convivial New Orleans tourist ambience.
Bayou Bleu's menu is lengthy, descriptive, picturesque and at first, a little intimidating. Take the time to read it through carefully; otherwise you might miss some of the side dishes and house specialties (signified by a fleur-de-lis next to the item). The menu focuses on food that made the Crescent City world famous (Cajun, Creole and French) and alludes to some of its celebrity chef,s such as Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme and Justin Wilson. While you study the menu, you can enjoy hot biscuits and cornbread that come to the table in a black iron skillet.
New Orleans food means lots of seafood, much of it spicy. The chicken and andouille sausage gumbo is heavy on the okra and has plenty of kick. I didn't need to use the bottles of the Justin Wilson Jalapeno sauce or the Louisiana Gold Pepper sauce next to it.
Look for red beans and rice, boiled crawfish, blackened redfish, shrimp remoulade, jambalaya, Louisiana crab cake, oysters Bienville, and New Orleans shrimp, a house specialty. It's Gulf shrimp sautéed in wine, lemon, chicken stock and various other ingredients plus a touch of Prudhomme's tasso (Cajun sausage), and it's served over cheese grits. This dish is a lot milder than you might anticipate. With it comes a fresh baguette to sop up the sauce. ($16.95). The crawfish etouffé is considerably more flavorful ($13.95), and it's served over popcorn rice.
There are also five different steak preparations, as well as barbecue chicken with cornbread stuffing and chicken pasta. If you want to pass up the New Orleans experience, you can order the pan-roasted salmon, tuna Niçoise or even the seafood crepe. With your entrée comes a choice of more than a dozen side dishes, including Justin Wilson's wicked Cajun pickles, dirty rice and sweet potato fries. If you order them separately, sides average about $3 each.
The dessert menu includes peach Melba, pecan pie and bananas Foster pie. My choice was the Bayou Bleu white chocolate version of bread pudding, served nice and hot and studded with nuts instead of the usual raisins. Quite tasty if you want something really sweet and filling. The presentation of the dessert menu is clever; I won't spoil the surprise. You can have chicory coffee or French roast; and beignets are available, too.
There's an abbreviated wine list on the back cover of the main menu, but another separate beverage sheet is inserted inside. This is where you'll find party libations such as Pink Creole, the Sarasota daiquiri (spiked with lemon juice) or the Hemingway. The bartender also mixes a New Orleans Hurricane, made famous at Pat O'Brien's restaurant in the French Quarter. This dark rum concoction is a Mardi Gras must for tourists; and at the original restaurant the drink price always included the signature glass as your souvenir.
The staff at Bayou Bleu maintains the party atmosphere. They're upbeat, attentive and will give you the Mardi Gras beads they're wearing should you show any interest. The food and the atmosphere at Bayou Bleu promise a good time and deliver the fun.
1359 1/2 Main St., Sarasota
Lunch: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m. Sunday, noon-9 p.m.
No reservations, but call ahead to get on preferred seating list
Elevator for wheelchair access
Heinz and The Bean Stalk
The Gulf Gate Village area of Sarasota is evolving into a rich, jumble of small continental bistros, take-out treasures and sources for specialty food items and utensils that home cooks demand now that we're all addicted to the Food Network. The ambience of the crowded storefronts is still gritty, and parking isn't plentiful (at least not wherever it is you want to be); but searching out eateries and markets in this neighborhood is well worth the bother. And, you don't have to get dressed up.
One of the newest and most exemplary enterprises on the scene is The Bean Stalk, which multi-tasks as a tiny organic produce market, a delectable deli and a cozy cafe that seats about a dozen inside the impeccably neat and friendly space and a few more outside on the sidewalk-the new smokers' lounge for every restaurant in town that can claim three square feet of curbside real estate.
At The Bean Stalk (there really is one inside) it's all about fresh fruit and vegetables raised organically and meats from animals that are hormone-free and range-free. The fish isn't farm raised.
The cedar plank salmon you take home to eat is wild, not farm-raised. Or don't take it home, just sit down and enjoy that salmon grilled and served on baby greens with goat cheese and sweet-spicy pecans tossed with a flavorful sun-dried tomato vinaigrette. $8.25 at lunchtime. At night for $18, the salmon is glazed with a Clementine orange and red onion marmalade and served with fried leeks. What a successful pairing!
Or for something earthy and sensuous, you might opt for exceedingly succulent rotisserie chicken with figs, or perhaps pan-seared yellow fin tuna crusted with cumin, fennel, coriander and crushed mustard seed. Its plate mate is fire-roasted corn salsa, $16. Sounds like there's a genuine chef in the narrow open kitchen, doesn't it? There is.
Heinz Clausen is the real deal, a chef who has been in town for decades and is no stranger to gourmet menus. For the past few years, he's been in the wholesale produce business; but recently he got the urge for an intimate, manageable space where he could experiment with recipes and introduce himself to a new public. He's teamed up with chef Eric Brown and Bill O'Brien for a partnership that's has been a winning bill of fare for them and for us.
You could hardly ask for better than chef's grilled sea scallops over braised chard, lightly cloaked in a beurre blanc of ginger and scallion. It tastes so clean and refreshing. As an appetizer it's $7.95. The grilled lamb with pita, baby greens, cucumber, tomato and olives is similarly bracing and toothsome.
Actually, whatever you order in or take out (I'm sold on the tabbouleh, Spanish olives, pork loin and the salmon gravlax) is going to be reliably fresh and prepared with flair and a sure global reach of intriguing ingredients. And the exceedingly reasonable prices would make even Jack's mother stop complaining about her son's dubious talent for barter and mile-high adventure.
The Bean Stalk
2324 Gulf Gate Drive, Sarasota
Lunch: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner: Wednesday-Saturday, 5-9 p.m.
Market: Monday 10 a.m-5 p.m.; Tuesday 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
Reservations accepted at dinner for parties of four or more.
Q. I'd like to become a tea connoisseur, because I love the green teas, the black ones and the herbals. Is there a local resource that could quench my thirst with both knowledge and product?
A. Oh, have I got tea for thee. Well, actually I don't, but Lara Walker does. She's a 34-year old expert who grew up on her father's tea plantation in Kenya. Today her father, David Walker, is the agent for Kenya Tea Development and helps with quality control at Lara's Tea House, a family enterprise that sells retail to tea drinkers like you and wholesale to cafes, health spas and country clubs. Lara blends 200 different flavors, and she'll custom blend for adventurous clients, too. She invites the public to her tasting room on Saturdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. for complimentary sips of new blends.
Buy Lara's teas in quantities as small as two ounces; but typically folks want a half pound, and the price range is $5 to $30, the upper end for fancy exotics such as Dragon Phoenix Pearl, a hand-rolled jasmine tea or Gyokuro Assahi, a rare Japanese green tea. The house specialty is Keteada, a Kenya black tea that sells for $12 a half pound. Lara's Tea House, 1878 University Parkway, Sarasota. 358-6884.