Chef Paul Mattison has been so successful in regional restaurant enterprises that his signature approach to dining (relaxed atmosphere, exceptional food) has almost reached the franchise stage. In Sarasota, he made his reputation at The Summerhouse and then moved on (with partners) to Sarasota Bread Co., a catering company, Mattison's City Grille in downtown Sarasota, An American Bistro in St. Petersburg, Mattison's Steak House & Wine Cellar on Longboat Key, and now Mattison's Siesta Grille on Old Stickney Point Road just over the South Bridge to the island. This newest venture has been accomplished in concert with Clayton Thompson.
Mattison's Siesta Grille is a happening, Mediterranean-flavored bistro. The space is organized for a seamless flow between indoors and the outdoor covered and raised brick patio. At night, tiki torches form a glowing barrier between the restaurant and the road. For most of the year, this is just the way you want to experience dining in Florida. The large linear bar is at the back of the room; and from that bar, tables progress toward the street. Outside tables are bare; inside they're cloaked in burgundy tablecloths. There's jazzy music in the background, ceiling fans on the patio and blue glass pendants suspended over the tables inside. The whole place is youngish and lively.
The menu isn't extensive, but it's well thought out, playing to just the kinds of snacks and full meals you'd want at a place like this. You can have four kinds of pizza, one just for children. Salads are meal-sized, especially the lamb-chop Greek salad and the grilled ocean Caesar, which sends salmon, shrimp and crab out to play among fresh greens. The dozen or so appetizers, which range from $9 to $13, include such nice surprises as shrimp Rangoon and oysters Rockefeller along with the more familiar crab cakes, chicken wings, duck and mango spring rolls, and flash-fried sushi and sashimi for a touch of Asia. Entrées average $25.
Daily specials depend on what's in season and local. You can also have an appetizer converted into a full meal, which is what I did with the crab cakes. Steaks, rack of lamb, seared duck breast, mahi mahi, diver scallops, tuna, trout, wild salmon and grouper are all here. There's one pasta dish (linguine with chicken for $18.95), and the entrée sides are tantalizing-roasted vegetable risotto, sweet potato pommes frites or rustic mashed potatoes. All dishes can be prepared Atkins or South Beach friendly, and some already are.
Although Mattison is the inspiration behind the restaurant and his name is all over the place, he isn't the chef at Siesta Grille. That's Rita Tyler, who's owned three restaurants of her own and moved to Sarasota to work at the Bijou Café and teach at Mattison's culinary training institute on Longboat Key. Chef Tyler is at Siesta Grille every night, and she makes it a practice to come out of the kitchen to meet and talk to dinner guests. But Mattison stops in several times a week and will jump into the line if the place is really busy and the kitchen's short on help.
Both Mattison and Tyler are up to date on the latest international food trends, so for dessert, instead of offering an ordinary key lime pie, they invite you to try key lime panna cotta, a comfortable old Italian dessert whose time has come again. Chef Tyler tops the shimmering light bite with berries and a lacy dust of graham crackers ($5.95). The Siesta Grille crème brûlée is called Tahitian to keep it from sounding tired, while the chocolate macadamia nut brownie cake and the flourless chocolate espresso torte are rich, satisfying and just right for sharing.
When you want modern, imaginative (though always recognizable) food served in a comfortable but gently sophisticated atmosphere, you won't make a mistake by picking a Paul Mattison restaurant; and Siesta Grille is no exception. It's a hit.
Mattison's Siesta Grille
1256 Old Stickney Point Road, Siesta Key
Sunday-Thursday, 4-10:30 p.m. and until 11:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday
Valet or street parking
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I've lived in Sarasota since 1970, and for as long as I can remember, there's been a restaurant where Carpe Diem now welcomes guests. The Tamiami Trail location, near the hospital and small businesses as well as a row of fast food emporiums and gas stations, seems like the ideal spot for a large all-purpose eatery; but the site isn't fail-safe. The restaurant that preceded Carpe Diem spent a fortune on renovation and lasted only about two years in spite of good food and lots of customers. In today's highly competitive food industry, sound financial management and keeping a talented chef and well-trained staff are as vital as the menu. But Carpe Diem seems to have a handle on the management part as well as the food.
The attentive staff, smartly attired in white dress shirts, neckties and dark slacks, knows the menu. Owner Thierry Riahi originated C'est La Vie, a tiny award-winning French breakfast pastry and luncheon cafe in downtown Sarasota. He sold that popular enterprise two years ago to create with his brother a full-service restaurant that would offer fine food at moderate prices. He says that when Carpe Diem guests enjoy dinner and then are pleasantly surprised by the bill, he knows he's been successful.
The meals are not complicated or overly orchestrated in presentation; and chef Karim Hassene, formerly of the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, and San Francisco, definitely aims for wide-ranging appeal. It's hard to say what Carpe Diem is, since it's a little of everything. For instance, on any given night you might choose from wild mushroom ravioli, citrus grouper, rack of lamb, shrimp Provençale, jerk ribs, sea bass or champagne chicken penne. Then there's a special section of grilled items, where guests pick their meat or seafood, decide on degree of doneness and mix and match from several sauces such as peppercorn or red wine. Vegetables are à la carte with the grill option; and so are the side potatoes, which include an indifferent mound of French fries or the more interesting potato galette, a garlic-seasoned and breaded mashed potato cake.
Vegetarians can find happiness at Carpe Diem. Besides hearty creative salads, there are soups and a number of appetizing meatless entrées. The sweet tomato tart at $9 is particularly appealing. Entrées average about $17. Additionally, there's a thoughtful children's menu; but although I sometimes see youngsters in the place at night, I don't think of Carpe Diem as particularly kid-friendly. It's decked out as city-sexy, with dark polished wood, low-level lighting and sensuous red accents in voluptuous faux flower arrangements and the pendant lights above the cozy booths. If you choose the way-back dining room, you can have an intimate dinner-maybe even a tryst.
The menu itself, a long, laminated sheet of paper with clunky typeface and poor organization, doesn't properly convey the casually elegant tone of the establishment. A cosmetic makeover of the menu would help support the ambience.
Silverware is weighty, and the wine glasses are nicely oversized. And there's plenty to pour into those big glasses. Choose from nine reds and whites by the glass ($4.50-$8) or more than 220 varieties from California, Washington and counties including Italy, Germany, Australia and New Zealand. The wine list is well-priced, offering labels from $19-$60 or so.
Speaking of spirits, Carpe Diem has a handsome, welcoming bar (with the ubiquitous television) to the immediate right of the entrance. It takes up a lot of space and is an obviously popular place, with a chatty buzz that can be heard in the dining area closest to it. It's plain that many locals regularly meet and greet at this comfortably classy watering hole. And a lot of the smart ones end up staying for dinner.
1737 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota
Dinner: daily, 4-9 p.m. (until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday)
Parking in restaurant lot
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California girl Dakota Weiss' avocado soup.
The 28-year-old executive sous chef at the Ritz-Carlton Members Beach Club on Lido says her name, Dakota, was a torture growing up; but now she thinks it's cool. "My parents were California hippies," she explains. "My sister's name is Ocean." A graduate of Scottsdale Culinary Institute, Weiss came to Sarasota from the Buckhead Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta. To audition for her job at the Beach Club, she had to prepare a five-course meal for hotel executives.
Weiss discovered the recipe for her chilled avocado soup in a cookbook by Rick Baylis, and even though she didn't like avocado, she says, the soup made her a fan. She's tweaked it over the years, and now often makes it at home as a first course. "It's on the menu at the Members Beach Club," she says, "and the response has been positive. I think you'll like it, too."
Ritz-Carlton Members Beach Club
1234 Benjamin Franklin Drive
Chilled avocado soup with crab salsa and spiced tomato oil
1 pound crab meat
1 bunch cilantro (chopped)
1/2 cup red bell peppers (roasted, peeled, small diced)
1/2 cup corn
1 lime (juice and zest)
Mix ingredients together and refrigerate.
5 cloves garlic
1 quart chicken stock
1 quart heavy cream
1 quart spinach/arugula mix
2 bunches cilantro
1/4 cup white vinegar
teaspoon white pepper
Add all ingredients to a blender or food processor and purée. Strain and season to taste.
Spiced tomato oil:
2 cups tomato paste
1 tablespoon cardamom
1 tablespoon cloves
5 each cinnamon sticks
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
2 cups grapeseed oil
Cook tomato paste with the spices until fragrant. Whisk in oil and let it slowly come up to s simmer (whisking always). Cover and set it aside for 24 hours. Strain through cheesecloth.
To serve: Ladle soup in a bowl. Top with a dollop of crab salsa in the center and drizzle a little tomato oil in a circle around the outside of the salsa. Garnish with blue corn tortilla spears.
Q. I've sacrificed my hamburger bun on the Atkins altar, but the same old bare burger is getting to be a bore. Can you find me a burger that delivers a bonanza of taste?
A. Sarasota University Club executive chef Greg Howe had you in mind when he dreamed up his Kobe burger plate. He tells me that "old-style" hamburger eaters at the club now say they'd never go back. Chef starts with a 10-ounce patty of ground Kobe beef, which he pan sears in clarified butter. He finishes off the rare burger in a hot oven. Then chef tops the beef with a wild mushroom ragout, a little veal jus and a slice of pont l'eveque cheese, which immediately softens from the heat of the meat. He places the beautifully marbled burger on a mound of fresh sautéed seasonal vegetables and borders the square white plate with a rim of balsamic reduction. $14.95. If you don't belong to the University Club, ask a member friend to take you to lunch. This one is a genuine winner, rich in flavor and high in protein.