Ever notice the strange mélange that people assemble at brunch buffets? You're apt to witness piled-high pairings of eggs, hot chicken, smoked salmon or carved roast beef, starchy salads, surprise vegetable casserole creations hidden under molten cheese-and then there's all that raw shellfish. You suspect those paying the bill are simultaneously fueled by desire and anguished by indecision. Happily, Fred's Restaurant allows us to avoid the missteps of our worst culinary selves. There is no buffet at Fred's.
At the sophisticated but relaxed Sunday jazz brunch at this modern American bistro, you order off the menu, which isn't long or complicated. Additionally, a rolling breakfast pastry cart roams the room often enough for you to add some mini-muffins, croissants and assorted buns.
With your meal come zingy mimosas and modern jazz played by a talented combo that keeps the music light and upbeat. You'll find fresh flowers on the table, your silverware will be changed out between courses, and coffee is poured as often as you like, although it's an extra charge. No fuss, no rush, no fixed-price meal. Just kick back and enjoy all the decisions you don't have to make.
The appetizers are well worth sampling because they include things you probably wouldn't whip up at home. The country paté plate ($9) is a grand success of a rough chopped duck liver and pork paté, served with pickled green tomatoes and those must-have tiny cornichons. The attractive platter comes with a basket of baguette slices for assembling each mouthful. Other good choices are the avocado and crab Napoleon with mango-pineapple salsa or the salmon skewers that have a sweet-spicy glaze and come with a tangle of tabbouleh salad. For $90 you could spring for an ounce of Beluga caviar glistening on a plate with crostinis, red onion, egg, capers, lemon and Absolut Citron-chive cream. A luxurious mouthful.
On the entrée side of the menu, the salmon skewers as well as chicken ones appear again, this time with side dishes. There are a couple kinds of omelets and Fred's twist on a traditional eggs Benedict, which features poached eggs on a house-made buttermilk biscuit with your choice of crab cake, smoked salmon or beef tenderloin and then Hollandaise sauce, fresh fruit and a side of potatoes Dauphinoise. Except for the poached eggs and the Hollandaise, I don't see much Benedict in this stacked breakfast treat. But the Fred's version is exceptionally tasty and good value at $13. Eggs à la Fred's (also $13) brings back those poached eggs and the biscuit but pairs them with sliced roast pork loin, wild mushroom and a demi-glace. Absolutely first rate, and bravo to those flavorful mushrooms. This meal is kind of supper-ish.
If you're looking for something sweeter as a main meal, choose the passionne French toast ($9), which is accompanied by a mango compote, good quality caramelized bacon and fresh fruit. The trick with French toast is to enjoy it hot and to insist that the syrup is heated. Otherwise your meal runs the risk of turning into a damp sponge before the fourth bite.
At peak hours Fred's will be noisy. If this bothers you, request a table outside. There are plenty. There's a separate children's menu if you've got toddlers in tow, and most items from the sandwich or weekday lunch menu can be ordered at the Sunday brunch hours, too.
The service at brunch can be gracious and deft or sub par, depending on whose table you are assigned to and how crowded the restaurant is. The food, however, rarely misses a beat. Sunday brunch at Fred's is rapidly taking on the qualities of a weekend tradition for many seasonal visitors and year-round residents. It's a tradition I very much encourage.
1917 S. Osprey Ave. (Southside Village), Sarasota
Sunday Live Jazz Brunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
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After 11 years on St. Armands Key, chef Frank Caldwell has relocated his eponymous restaurant to Main Street in downtown Sarasota. It's a smart move, since the restaurateur is now perfectly positioned to take advantage of the new army of downtown food enthusiasts who've moved into (or will soon inhabit) the chic new high-rises dotting Sarasota's urban landscape. More dwellers, more diners.
Chef Caldwell's new place has a prominent street presence, meaning he'll snag walk-ins during tourist season as well as capitalize on business people always on the lookout for an additional reliable lunch spot. Not that Chef Caldwell is a casual eatery; it's a fine dining experience and always has been. Expect tablecloths, fresh flowers, napkins and your water served in a goblet. Jean Caldwell expertly runs the front of the house as well as tending to the family's successful catering enterprise. The restaurant seats nearly 100 inside and another 20 on the sidewalk if you want to smoke.
Chef has used the move to make a few selective changes on his menu, most notably to jettison some of the pasta dishes that were being (sadly) rejected by the low-carb crowd. But the homemade lasagna ($16.95) remains, as does the bowtie pasta made with chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms and pancetta in a creamy bath for $17.95. As a home experiment, chef Caldwell tried a batch of hand-whisked cauliflower as an alternative to mashed potatoes and enjoyed the dish enough to put it on the official menu. So far the response has validated his research. Mashed cauliflower is served with a grilled veal T-bone and roasted vegetables for an Atkins or South Beach special for $28.95. The grilled maple mustard-glazed salmon is also served with the mashed cauliflower for $21.50. His poached salmon, fresh conch chowder, chilled gazpacho and blackened scallops are "heart-smart" selections.
Not for dieters but a really toothsome treat is Caldwell's silky, sautéed calf liver crowned with a nest of wispy-crispy fried onion rings ($18.95). Instead of purchasing pre-cut and portioned liver, Caldwell buys the best quality whole calf liver and does the cutting and preparation himself. It's a labor-intensive process that many cooks won't bother with, but Caldwell knows it's the only way to put top quality liver meals on the table. Another house specialty is wiener schnitzel at $19.95. Temporarily missing from the new menu is Caldwell's pork loin with his homemade raspberry sauce. He's had so many requests for its return that I bet it makes a comeback during tourist season.
Wines are global and well paired with the food, with many selections available by the glass as well as by the bottle. The house-made desserts average $5.75 and range from simple vanilla ice cream or fresh seasonal berries to warm apple crisp, rich chocolate ganache, Amaretto bread pudding and the ubiquitous Key lime pie and crème brulée.
For a little over a decade, Caldwell was off the main street on the chic Circle. Now he's front and center near Five Points on the mainland. It won't make a difference in the quality of his food, but this new location should expose his talent to a whole new crowd.
1435 Main St., Sarasota
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 5-9:30 p.m. Closed Sunday until November.
Unassuming and casual, Kingfish Cafe is the restaurant serving the Veranda Inn in Venice. It's across the street from the city's hospital and near enough to downtown to attract business people for breakfast and lunch besides dinner. Offering both inside and outside seating, the place is leased and operated by 37-year-old Alan Laskowski, a Culinary Institute of America graduate with 18 years in the food business. He was running a restaurant inside a flower shop in Philadelphia when he began escaping to Florida to visit family and to fish. The lure became too great, and he eventually relocated for good. Mom and Dad help run the front of the house, sister Dawn did the decor and a cousin from Virginia crafted rustic little signs that dot the walls and are for sale.
Inside Kingfish are two dining areas, a genial front room and a more private back one, which features a beadboard ceiling and distressed white furniture you might find in a cottage kitchen. Seating is at booths and tables. The paint colors are tropical blue and lime green. Colorful print cloths cover the tables, the napkins are paper and the plates are periwinkle blue. This is not a dress-up restaurant, but the food is far from mundane.
One of the most popular meals at night is a New Zealand rack of lamb encrusted with an herb and feta cheese breading ($17), followed by crab cakes (no filler), which are pan seared and come to you pretty much unadorned and relying on their own seaworthy flavor for $16.50. Sides include rolls, potato or rice and two fresh vegetables. Seared sea scallops are served with polenta, salmon is stuffed with spinach and the mahi-mahi is grilled with red curry coconut. Chef says that every two weeks he adds and subtracts from the menu to keep his interest up and to use local fresh produce and seafood.
Of course, he has key lime pie for dessert as well as cheesecake, chocolate mousse cake and ice creams. Chef Laskowski uses his days off to spend time with his young son and to fish. He only cooks his personal catch for family, and he has plenty of relatives around who want to keep him busy in the kitchen.
625 S. Tamiami Trail (at the Veranda Inn), Venice
Breakfast and lunch daily, 7 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday, 5-9 p.m.
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Q. What are the corkage fees in some area restaurants? Anthony Ackerman, Sarasota
A. As you know, a corkage fee refers to what a restaurant charges a guest to open and pour a bottle brought from home. Some establishments, such as Fred's (with 500 wines on its list), do not permit guests to bring wine with them. Bonefish Grill and Bayou Bleu also say no to BYO.
Marina Jack, Ruth's Chris, Mattison's, Roessler's, the Colony Dining Room, Fleming's Steakhouse and Beach Bistro don't mind if folks bring their own; the corkage fee is $15. Pattigeorge's on Longboat Key also charges $15, but on Sundays in the summer, there's no charge at all.
At Ophelia's the charge is $20, and it's the same at Cafe L'Europe and at Bijou Café, where the bottle has to be something not already available on the restaurant list. The Vernona Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota charges $25 per bottle. Caragiulo's on Palm Avenue says bringing your own is no big deal, and the corkage fee is a mere $8.
Chic and intimate Morel and Christopher's on Lido Beach, as well as cozy Marion's in Gulf Gate Village, all charge $10. At Michael's on East, wine connoisseur Michael Klauber also charges $10, and he encourages guests to bring interesting bottles into his dining room. He'll even prepare a menu around a guest's special bottle. Klauber told us that when he brings a bottle of wine into another restaurant, he always orders an additional bottle from the restaurant's wine list, as a courtesy and also because he's ever curious about wine. Cheers!
Big, affable Damian Mandola was in Sarasota recently to tape cooking shows with Judi Gallagher, do a cooking demonstration at the University Parkway Publix and help promote the successful chain of Italian-American restaurants that he and his nephew, Johnny Carrabba, founded in Houston in 1986. The restaurants, now up to 160 and owned by Outback, are just part of the Carrabba's empire, which includes cookbooks, TV shows and even a winery and cooking school he's establishing on 265 acres outside of Austin. His Italian wine will be called La Stella Sola (The Lone Star) and will be available in about a year.
Mandola logs in more than 100,000 miles a year for Carrabba's, but at home in Austin, he keeps it simple. For dinner, his no-fail favorite is Mamma's Pork Pot Roast. He serves it with a squash casserole and a spring salad. For more of his specialties, turn to Ciao Y'all, one of several cookbooks authored by Damian and Johnny.
Mamma's Pork Pot Roast
1 three- to four-pound bone-in pork shoulder
8 large garlic cloves, peeled and cut into thick slices
24-30 Italian parsley leaves
Kosher salt and black pepper
2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 carrot, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 celery rib, coarsely chopped
1 small yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
4 large garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 cups boiling water
1/2 cup Italian parsley leaves
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Pierce meat all over and insert garlic slices and a few parsley leaves into the holes. Season meat with salt and pepper, rubbing into meat. Let meat sit for 30 minutes. Heat oil in large roasting pan over medium-high heat. Flour meat all over and add meat to pan, browning all sides.
About halfway through the browning process, add the carrot, celery, onion and chopped garlic. Brown vegetables. Add water and parsley to pan and cover. Place pan in oven and roast for three to four hours, turning the meat occasionally.
Remove roast from oven. Remove cover and let rest for an hour. Heat gravy and strain to remove vegetables. Remove fat and spoon de-fatted gravy over roast, cover with foil and heat in 325-degree oven until warm. (Hint: This roast is best if made the day before. Slice the meat cold and arrange in a 9 x 3 baking pan. Remove the hardened fat from the gravy while it's still cold. Heat according to above instructions before serving).