Mangrove Grill is located in Palmetto, but with its casual island décor, relaxed waterside setting and breezy menu, it might as well be Margaritaville. The restaurant is owned by Michael Carter and Sean Murphy, the latter known for fine-dining venue Murphy's Beach Bistro on Anna Maria Island.
Mangrove Grill is a friendly neighborhood hangout for the upmarket enclave of Riviera Dunes Marina Resort, a burgeoning community of estate homes and high-rise condominiums on the Manatee River. I can't imagine anything more pleasant than relaxing on the Mangrove Grill deck, watching the boats bobbing in the marina, sipping a glass of wine and munching a grouper sandwich while the sun begins its showy descent. It's that idealized vision of what you thought living in coastal Florida would be like. Nice to have expectations realized, isn't it?
If you eat inside, your choices are two. You might be happy in the large lounge, with bar, cocktail tables and elevated table-seating pavilion. Two large televisions keep track of the sports scores. Overhead, you'll notice double rotating fans that are literally and figuratively quite cool. This section of the surprisingly spacious building also conceals a private dining room that resembles the bow of a ship. This intimate and handsome space, called Captain's Quarters, can be reserved for private functions for up to about 20 guests.
The main dining room (which affords a view to the wide deck and the river beyond) has a waterscape mural on one wall, carpet on the floor and light music in the background. Expect dark bare wood tables but white cloth napkins. A nice touch is coarse-grain salt and peppercorns in individual grinders at each table.
Some of the offerings will seem familiar, since they've come over from the Beach Bistro with a few tweaks towards informality. Gulf Coast paella with dirty rice is an especially good choice at $17.95. It's full-flavored and includes sausage and chicken in the mélange of fish and shellfish. Floribbean grouper (so called because it's encrusted with toasted coconut and pecans) is pan-seared and jazzed with sweet, red pepper and papaya jam. It's $23.95, and just sparkles with taste.
The spareribs, tender and spicy, are served with the house non-traditional coleslaw, which isn't creamy. Instead it's a tangy, colorful confetti of a salad, owing to several different cabbages in the mix. Sides with most entrées (and with the sandwiches if you want) include dirty rice or French fries. In addition to complete meals, sandwiches, meal-sized salads and small plates, the kitchen offers four varieties of pizzas for $11.95 each. The Mangrove specialty pizza combines grilled chicken, smoked cheddar, sweet onions and the kitchen's own barbecue sauce for a flatbread meal much more tropical island than Italian.
All four desserts are $6.95; the Beach Bistro praline Alexandra arrives tableside in a white boat-shaped bowl with two iced-tea spoons. (And there's plenty to share.) Intensely flavored vanilla bean ice cream balls are rolled in a homemade crushed praline. A little Frangelico is poured over the top, and fresh whipped cream crowns the creation. This is a fantastic finale, and it's also a dessert meal all by itself if you just want to stop in for something sweet at the end of the day.
The genius of Mangrove Grill is that it simultaneously satisfies cravings from simple bar food, pizzas, heavy snacks, salads and sandwiches to fully orchestrated meals from soup to dessert. The food is fresh and has a bit of pizzazz, with Caribbean, Creole and Asian accents enriching a coastal bistro bill of fare. First-time guests who find their way to Mangrove Grill either by land, sea or word of mouth will end up wishing they lived near enough to this restaurant to visit it more often.
102 Riviera Dunes Way, Palmetto
Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday, Saturday and Sunday, noon to 10 p.m.
No reservations (except for large parties)
Parking in restaurant lot
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On Sarasota's busy Hillview Avenue, Gitane, a cozy new French-inspired restaurant, just opened. The menu is brief, the wine list a work in progress, and the food just about perfect, being both authentic (the French dishes) and creatively rendered (the ones chef dreams up, such as prawns Jackson Pollock).
Gitane, or gypsy, refers to chef/owner Alan Dennis' nomadic life and adventures in the food trade. Five children ago in Manhattan, he was a 30-year-old food photographer when it clicked that he'd rather be cooking food than shooting it. He enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and after graduation held positions in New York, Chicago and Miami, eventually owning his own place in New Jersey. About a year ago the family had an urge to return to Florida and open a restaurant on our west coast.
They chose Tampa, and Dennis was three days from closing on a home when the clan took a Sunday drive to Siesta Key beach. That was it. Dennis found a building for sale, and Gitane was born. Besides the restaurant, he operates a wholesale bakery that supplies a half-dozen area eateries with their daily bread.
Gitane, which was formerly a bakery, still has display cases near the front door. Where the room fans out in the back, you'll find round tables and a bit more privacy. The place seats about 50; modern artwork and contemporary background music contrast with vintage plates and small bouquets of fresh flowers on each table. At night you can expect candlelight, starched white linens and low lighting. Ice water, an amuse bouche (ours was stuffed mushrooms) and fresh bread will be brought to the table by one of the waiters (men in black), who explain the daily specials not found on the printed menu, which is short and focused on French preparations, classic and modern.
Among them: roasted lamb or duck, grilled aged sirloin, Dijon glazed chicken with Gruyere cheese, roasted scallops with smoked bacon, and a honey-mustard salmon that's both sharp and sweet. These meals range from $19 to 28 and include potatoes and fresh vegetables. The one-half duck, with its crispy skin and cherry/sun-dried cranberry sauce, is exemplary. So is the lamb, which is served with a Dijon and garlic breadcrumb gratin. There are three appetizers, two soups and three salads. The Riviera seafood bisque, a standout, could be a meal unto itself at $9.
The wine list, which isn't where it should be yet, is currently a balance of California and French labels ranging in price from $24-$90. There aren't enough pinot noirs, and other bottles are missing; but Dennis says guests can look for continued adjustments. He does offer nine wines by the glass ranging from $5.50 to $12. Beer is the only other alcoholic beverage you can order.
Desserts are well worth considering, especially the tarte Tatin, which is among the finest I've eaten anywhere in Florida. This French twist on a one-crust apple pie takes about 15 minutes to prepare and arrives tableside hot with fresh whipped cream. If you intend to order this treat, tell your waiter about halfway through your meal so he can orchestrate its arrival accordingly. Other sweets well worth sampling include Dennis' warm brownie, Tahitian vanilla bean strudel or a baked stuffed apple swathed in flaky, light puff pastry. And I'm glad to say that Dennis and his crew know how to make a flavorful and strong cup of coffee.
Gitane is a quality addition to a street of fine eating establishments, with a menu different enough from its neighbors to impress locals and tourists. It will have no difficulty attracting a loyal following for lunch or dinner. In fact, it already has.
1960 Hillview, Sarasota
Lunch: Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sunday brunch, 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 6-10 p.m.
Street and lot parking
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CHEF CENTRAL: Benjamin Reef Wilkinson of Khrome
Making sure Khrome, a hip new motorcycle-themed spot on North Washington Boulevard, balances its fun atmosphere with fine food is 30-year-old executive chef Benjamin Wilkinson's responsibility. "The fine-dining crowd usually wants to eat before 9 o'clock," says Wilkinson, who keeps a reserve of Kobe beef for guests who know to ask. "After that the music ramps up and a younger crowd more into light snacking and dancing appears." This young set is sold on chef's lobster BLTs, pizzas and his signature foie gras sliders, an up-market nostalgic riff on the White Castle mini burgers. Guests at the UnGala After-Party couldn't get enough of them.
Wilkinson, who most recently worked for Ritz-Carltons in Maui and Sarasota, created his no-fail chicken and cheese ravioli out of necessity. "I needed a full-flavored party meal I could put together in 30 minutes, and I had to buy all the ingredients in one store," he says. "Guests love it, and I love how quick and easy it is to assemble." Khrome, 1120 N. Washington Blvd., Sarasota. 366-5545.
Benjamin's Emergency Chicken and Cheese Ravioli
1 roasted chicken (such as mojo-flavored from Publix deli)
3 tablespoons Spanish extra virgin olive oil
1 box fresh cheese ravioli (16 ounces)
1 box frozen artichoke hearts
1 bunch asparagus tips, microwaved for about a minute
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon minced roasted garlic
1/2 cup fresh peeled pearl onions (or can use frozen)
1/4 cup sherry
1/4 cup red pepper, diced
1 tablespoon white truffle oil
1 sprig rosemary
Sea salt and pepper to taste
Pull all chicken from bones. Heat large sauté pan to medium high and add olive oil. Sauté pearl onions until caramelized. Meanwhile, in a large pot of salted water, cook ravioli according to package directions. Drain and put aside. When onions are caramelized, turn heat to high and add garlic, rosemary, artichokes, red pepper and pulled chicken pieces. Sauté about 2 minutes or until hot. Add asparagus and sherry and cook for another minute. Add cheese ravioli. Toss with sea salt and black pepper. At the moment of serving toss with Parmesan cheese and truffle oil. Can be served hot or as a cold salad.
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Q. I'm an ice cream junkie. Got something new to tempt me?
A. You're ready to explore gelato territory; Gelato is Italian ice cream, and it's denser than U.S. ice creams because it's only 20 percent air by volume compared to 60 percent air in most American brands. With less butterfat and more salt than American ice creams, the best gelato has a super-creamy texture and intense flavors. Get educated at. Jolly, where you can taste 22 flavors such as mint, pistachio, coffee or bacio, a chocolate and hazelnut combination. A small cup of gelato at Jolly is $2.50. And for an additional 50 cents you can add a dry topping.
Jolly, 1298 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota. 906-1551.