The Table opened in July with little fanfare, but it was like a bolt of summer lightning for the diners who quickly crowded the compact space on Hillview that most recently housed Zoria. The owners intended to take things slowly, but by the third day, they were doing 100 meals. We're still reeling from the electricity generated by Rafael Manzano and Pedro Flores, two friends in their mid-30s who moved here from Miami to specialize in Atlantic Rim cuisine.
The partners met 14 years ago in a commercial kitchen; between them, they have years of experience in major hotels and the Disney empire. They settled on Sarasota because Manzano's sister-in-law lives here, and Manzano and his wife, Carol, fell in love with the city when they visited her.
They call their food Atlantic Rim to distinguish it from fusion, a term they dislike. "Our dishes are not a mix of cultures; each is authentic," insists chef Manzano. "We concentrate on foods from countries that touch the Atlantic Ocean." Many of the menu items express some Latin flounce, such as the crispy shrimp flamenco or the mixed green-mojito melon slaw.
The seared foie gras (served as an appetizer for $14), prepared with cinnamon-laced mashed plantains and mango jam, is outstanding. If you're partial to short ribs, summon The Table's variety of this gourmet comfort food, made with a ginger-root beer barbecue sauce and paired with gnocchi, which efficiently soaks up the sauce and adds flavor to the toothsome dumplings. ($14). A thyme-roasted chicken has the additional jazz of cured lemon and saffron, while the seared grouper ($15) comes with a tomatillo gazpacho for $15. The chefs insist their meats are so tender that guests ordering the filet mignon or the Argentinean mixed grill don't need steak knives. They're right.
All desserts are house made. The chocolate sampler is a rewarding option if you want to share a bite of chocolate in several textures and intensity levels of cocoa flavor. The apple crumb is also deeply satisfying and not overly sweet.
The Table's wine list has been thoughtfully composed to fit with the eclectic menu. There are quite a few labels from Chile and Argentina, and it's possible to choose among many pleasant bottles in the $20-$30 range. That's always a nice surprise.
Carol Shannon Manzano is a graphic artist who supplied the business cards and menu design for The Table. She also worked stylistic magic on the awkwardly shaped dining room, a narrow, shotgun space that also has acoustic problems. Using scrim, gauze and heavier fabric in shades of ivory and gold, the designer sectioned off areas of the dining room for more intimate arrangements. The textiles also have had some good effect on sound absorption.
Carol also managed to install an intimate lounge at the far end of the room. Colorful international artwork, flowers and pristine, ivory-cloaked tabletops render the room chic, contemporary and relaxed. The white plateware and good quality silverware are worth appreciating. The wait staff (all in black) is knowledgeable about the menu and wines list and completely accommodating. The Table was lucky to find such sharp people so fast.
What impresses guests most is the total confidence evidenced by chefs Flores and Manzano. Their passion for creative food imaginatively realized is evident in everything they do, from setting the table to dreaming up a nightly amuse bouche, composing the entrée plate or serving the dessert.
1934 Hillview St., Sarasota
Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Monday through Friday 5-11 p.m. and on Saturday until 1 a.m. with special menu. Closed Sunday
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Bless the little pocket restaurant that provides inexpensive breakfast and lunch solutions and does it fast enough so we can get back to work on time. These tiny treasures represent the best response to the fast food franchises that have all but ruined the way Americans enjoy (or don't enjoy) everyday no-frills foods.
My new favorite pocket eatery is Carr's Corner Café, an unassuming white lattice corner fixture on the North Trail that caters primarily to the Ringling Museum neighborhood. It seats about 35 inside and a few more outside.
The food is simple and good, and word-of-mouth advertising among the regulars so effective that downtowners are zipping up the Trail to see what the buzz is about. It's about home cooking and considerate treatment.
The chef/owner is Sharon Carr, a North Trail native. Her mother, Juanita Sasser Carr, and maternal grandmother, Mildred Sasser, have owned (and periodically leased out) the café property for 40 years. Sharon lives two doors down from the business in a dwelling her mother resided in as a young girl. On the paternal side of the family, Sharon's grandfather, Charles Carr, ran the Ringling Hotel (the now demolished El Vernona that's part of the Ritz-Carlton property); and her dad, Thomas Carr, was in charge of the Viking Room at the old Azure Tide on Lido Beach.
"Grandmother Sasser taught me to cook," says Sharon, "and I've collected recipes over the years with the idea of having my own place. Probably our two most popular dishes are my South of the Border salad ($7.95) and the tofu wrap ($6.95). The chicken salad ($6.95) is a big hit, too. I learned to make it at age 12 from a cook at the Azure Tide, and it has a secret ingredient that I'll never divulge. Our Italian split pea soup is a customer's recipe, and my butternut squash bisque is a recipe I got from my aunt, Kathy."
The Bay Haven burger on a whole-wheat bun is Sharon's tribute to the local elementary school where her parents met in second grade. The café is additionally locally famous for Sharon's quiches and her Reuben sandwiches. She pickles the corned beef herself.
The café's Key lime pie recipe belongs to Juanita; it's been in the family for a half century. Sharon is the cook and 75-year-old Juanita is the baker for her daughter's establishment. Some years back, Juanita used to bake for Charlie Carr at his Sherwood Inn, a Robin-Hood-themed restaurant that once stood where the park across from the Sarasota Opera House is now.
At Carr's Corner Café, the conversation runs to local history and current events as well as up-to-the-minute food news, because Sharon Carr loves to scour the weekly Farmer's Market for enticing, fresh and intriguing ingredients. Some of her regulars eat both breakfast and lunch at Carr's every day, and they like to be surprised a couple times a week.
Carr's Corner Cafe
3025 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota
Breakfast and lunch: Monday through Friday, 7 a.m.-2 p.m.
Parking in restaurant lot
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Greer's is a neighborhood joint in Gulf Gate Village that upholds the good name of the genre. The menu is long on imagination and fresh ingredients that make for meals both simple and complex. The atmosphere is pared down and family friendly, despite the long, imposing bar that dominates the spare storefront of booths and tables. Lighting is low, colors are dark and amenities are minimal, although you will get a big cloth napkin at your bare tabletop.
Credit the congenial atmosphere to the popularity of the place and its mellow owner, Greer Goldflies, who's usually around to check on customer satisfaction and chat up the regulars. Greer is a pro, having owned several area eateries over the years; and he grew up in the biz. He dad had restaurants in Tampa.
In the kitchen is 38-year-old Karl "Kip" Werder (originally from Buffalo), who's had experience at both Crab & Fin and Euphemia Haye. He has a wonderful way with easy meals such as steak frites, an old French bistro favorite. What makes the combo so satisfying here is that chef cuts the French fries by hand, so thin that they're between a fry and a chip; and he cuts the New York strip steak himself, too. Favorites with the regulars are the pork tenderloin with a mustard vinaigrette ($13.95), apple salad ($8.95), tacos with either snapper or chicken, and the crawfish cakes ($15.95). With each entrée you get a vegetable and a potato, rice or cole slaw choice. Once in a while, duck quesadillas with brie will show up on the daily special chalkboard. You definitely want to order these.
Lately Greer is raving about his new seafood supplier, who has inspired several specials not currently on the menu. I say, trust him, because I haven't been disappointed with a Greer meal so far. The breads are from a Bavarian baker, and desserts change with whatever fresh ingredients are in season. Wines by the glass or bottle.
Whether your hunger dictates a snack with a beer, a sandwich, pasta plate, salad or a full meal, Greer's can gratify both plain and fancy palates. His dark little haunt is informal, but there's nothing relaxed about Greer's standards concerning quality food and efficient service. This place is a neighborhood jewel.
6566 Gateway Ave., Sarasota
Dinner: Monday through Saturday, 4:30-10:30 p.m.
Angle parking along the strip mall
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Q. My husband and I look for at least one public wine event every month where we can learn something new and add to our growing cellar. Any suggestions?
A. We'll see you at the third Annual Suncoast Winefestival, Saturday, Nov. 13, at the Sarasota Polo Grounds at Lakewood Ranch from 1-4:30 p.m. The organizers promise 300 wines and at least 20 area restaurants supplying wine-friendly samples from their menus. Expect live music, a silent auction and the chance to talk to various winemakers (domestic and international) about their vintages. Tickets are $35 at the door and onsite parking is free. The Polo Club is located 3.5 miles east of I-75 off University Parkway at Lorraine Road. This wine event is a fund-raising project of the Rotary Club of Lakewood Ranch. As you probably know, you cannot purchase bottles or cases of wine at a charity wine festival in Florida. So take a notebook and write down the wines you want to add to your cellar and then shop your favorite wine boutiques when you're ready to expand your inventory.
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Fredy Mayer's reputation as a classical chef is so firmly established in this part of Florida that his small and charming Morel Restaurant thrives in spite of its unfashionable location in a humble strip mall. Once inside, you forget the street address and are enveloped by an intimate European dining experience where expert personal service, amiable ambience and exemplary cuisine combine to transport you to just where you want to be.
Coming from a German family in the restaurant business, chef Mayer trained first as a pastry chef and then expanded his expertise. The Mayer family moved from New Jersey to Sarasota in 1997, when he was asked to be corporate head of the Longboat Key Club culinary enterprises. Four years ago, Mayer bought Morel. Paula Mayer, who's British, runs the front of the house, greets guests and sees to every special need. Chef and his manager share a 34-year marriage, and Paula says the secret of marriage success in the food business is, "One hand on the grill, one hand on the till."
This Mayer family favorite chicken recipe was perfected by chef Mayer's mother, a professional chef in Bavaria. Now it's into the third generation as the Mayer daughters Alexis (a veterinarian) and Marina (a culinary arts student) prepare it often for their parents at home.
Chicken with Sherry Vinegar and Tarragon Sauce
3 1/2 pound chicken, cut into eight pieces
5 ounces sherry vinegar
15 ounces medium dry sherry, such as Amontillado
12 whole peeled shallots
4 whole peeled garlic cloves
2 tablespoons fresh tarragon leaves, torn into small pieces
1 tablespoon crème fraîche
Salt and pepper to taste
Season chicken with salt and pepper and fry until golden brown. Add shallots and garlic and brown. Turn down heat; add tarragon, sherry and vinegar. Simmer for about 45 minutes. Rotate chicken to allow for even cooking. Once cooked, remove chicken, shallots and garlic from pan. Add crème fraîche to pan drippings. Pour sauce over chicken pieces. Garnish with whole tarragon leaves or Italian parsley. Serve with roasted potatoes and a fresh vegetable. Morel, 3809 S. Tuttle Ave., Sarasota. 927-8716.