Sometimes the most luxurious things in life are simple. Take, for example, the enticing new menu of the Vernona Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota. Most of it is organic, featuring locally grown produce and meats from animals that have been organically fed and humanely raised. The menu reflects fresh, seasonally appropriate selections-peas in the spring, root vegetables in the winter. It's a menu that makes sense but shows great sensibility in imaginative presentation and pairings. And of course, the flavors are sovereign-bright, clean, authentic and so fresh.
Bravo to Vernona chef Yves Vacheresse for his research and for his commitment (he drives to one of his suppliers every few days and loads dew-soaked fruits and vegetables into the back seat himself). And bravo to executive chef Frederic Morineau for encouraging and promoting the experiment. The Sarasota Ritz is pioneering a type of menu that other restaurants in the haute hotel family may well want to emulate.
Chef Vacheresse, who's working on a cookbook based on his philosophy of nourishment, says his current approach to ingredients and cooking takes him back to his childhood in France. "We went to the market daily and bought what was fresh and in season," he says. "And we cooked simply, allowing the fresh flavors to come through. When you have fruits, vegetables, meats and seafood that are absolutely fresh, you want to do very little to them. And when you realize that you are enjoying something-fresh strawberries, maybe-that you can't have at any other time of year, it makes those tastes that much more special. To this day, I only eat apples in the fall." He likes to support local organic sources; his suppliers are listed on the menu in case you want to patronize them, too.
Recently two of us booked a table at the Vernona with the intention of eating an organic meal from appetizer to dessert. We found plenty of choices to put together an original and satisfying dinner, starting with a surprise amuse bouche, a sliver of wild salmon with a light sauce. For the appetizer, one of us opted for the Vernona salad ($10), which was baby field greens, shaved beets and fennel, Florida sweet onion, orange zest and pistachios dressed with aged sherry-hazelnut vinaigrette. It was crunchy, sweet-sour, cleansing and entirely pretty, too.
We also sampled the spicy Lake Okeechobee organic shrimp, paired with roasted mango and avocado cream for a rare tropical taste treat at $14. This is a tourist must. Also on our table was the warm Vidalia onion tart ($12), arranged atop field greens tossed with artichoke purée, Gorgonzola and fig balsamic vinegar. Rich and hearty. We might also have tried the chilled heirloom tomato cream soup ($9), which sported a top hat of a basil-Parmesan crisp.
For the main course, one of us had the grilled veal chop, thick but delicate, juicy and flavorful, served atop a bed of silken organic stone-ground whipped grits unlike any grits you've ever tasted. To the side was a mound of bright-green flat Romano beans. My dining partner chose beef tenderloin with heirloom potatoes and creamed spinach. Uncomplicated and soul-satisfying at $39.
Since Florida grouper supplies are being depleted, Vacheresse is promoting wreck fish, a firm-fleshed member of the grouper family. He serves it with celery root purée and ginger crisp and a little mound of red onion-rhubarb marmalade for $26.
Dessert is the most challenging in terms of choosing organic, because the Ritz's chocolate confections are made with imported dark chocolates from Belgium and France. And all of award-winning pastry chef Stephane Cheramy's chocolate creations are worth sampling. So we went with the bittersweet chocolate tart with vanilla ice cream and pistachio foam, meandering from our organic route with no regrets. But if you decide to stay pure, order some of the house-made sorbets, such as mango, grapefruit, blood orange or coconut. These colorful and refreshing sorbets, made with organic fruits, are paired with almond meringues or other surprise shortbread cookies or cake morsels.
The Vernona organic menu changes seasonally (and sometimes daily), depending on harvest and dependability of chef's local suppliers. But while the ingredients may vary, you can be assured that the commitment to sustainable farming and the culinary expertise at the Vernona will always measure up to the high standards of the Ritz-Carlton. And the service will be outstanding.
VERNONA DINING ROOM AT THE RITZ-CARLTON, SARASOTA
111 Ritz-Carlton Drive, Sarasota
Lunch: daily 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. (on Sunday it's the champagne brunch, same hours)
Dinner: nightly 5-10 p.m.
MICHAEL'S MAGICThere it sits in an unfashionable part of town, no view of water, nature preserve or even a golf course. Its neighbors are a food market and drug store, and it shares parking space with a behemoth medical complex on the other side. Who would think from just driving by that Michael's On East is one of the key restaurants in this city at which to eat, as well as to see and be seen? The place is a triumph of interior style, fine food and superior hospitality over location, location, location.
From the day that Michael Klauber opened his eponymous restaurant in 1987 it's had the reputation for lively American-Continental food paired with an eclectic wine list picked by a pro with a curious nature. An adventurous wine connoisseur, Klauber founded the Florida Winefest & Auction in Sarasota and guided it through its first few years. When Klauber partnered with catering genius Phil Mancini and they added the Ballroom, the whole complex on East Avenue swiftly morphed into a venue that a huge chunk of this town's population has been to as a guest, volunteer or worker at some charity gala, civic luncheon or family occasion. It's a Sarasota institution.
But the word "institution" often implies stuffy and dull, two things Michael's has never been. The menu changes frequently to keep current with global food trends. Right now chef John Zottoli is in love with the tastes of Brazil and Argentina. About a half-dozen items on the dinner menu (you'll know them by the sun icon next to the names) show the spicy influence of those nations.
But some classics have been there from the start and will probably never go away. I think of the Chinese chicken salad with Thai peanut sauce ($10.50 at lunch) or the bowtie pasta, a sophisticated bowl of haute comfort food consisting of strips of grilled chicken, bits of crunchy pancetta, snow peas, shiitake mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes in a light cream sauce enlivened with shaved Parmesan. It's $13.50 at lunch and $18 at night, and you really can't say you're a Michael's regular until you've had the bowtie pasta. The mild and juicy rack of lamb is another must-have, and it's equally as good on the catering side as it is in the restaurant. Louisiana lump crab (practically no filler) with remoulade sauce is a seafood winner; so is the Chilean sea bass.
Desserts are lavish and carefully composed on snowy oversized plates that vary in shape for another level of visual interest. Sweets change seasonally. This past winter I had a pumpkin spice cake with cranberry ice cream and a side dollop of mascarpone cream that hit every delectable taste note of a cold-weather treat. The Key lime tart and the chocolate lava cake are favorites year-round. Desserts are generous enough to share. Service is efficient, considerate and discreet. The pace of dining is unhurried at night, and if guests linger to listen to the piano music or to have another cordial, no one at the reservation desk seems flustered.
The décor, originally done by Anne Folsom Smith and refreshed by this interior design star a few years ago, really sets the tony ambiance for the restaurant. The interior space is conceived as an Art Deco luxury liner, and you're a guest cruising to some exotic port while being royally entertained en route. The curving shape of the room puts you right on board, and a huge poster of the Normandie is at the entrance, leaving no doubt about where you're headed. Seating at tables and banquettes bends around a bar that's slightly separated from the dining room with a transparent black curtain. A circular platform dining area at the back of the restaurant can be closed off with crimson velvet drapes to make a small private dining area for parties up to about 15. The décor scheme is rich in comfortable, opulent fabrics, deep colors and art works that favor the heavy use of gold and copper metal work. It all enhances the concept that you're being pampered on a glamorous cruise ship.
Then there's the hospitality aspect. Few people in this town can work a room like Michael Klauber. Guests love to be recognized by him, chatted up, made to feel special and singled out, and Klauber cheerfully complies. The best part is that you can sense he's sincere and genuinely glad to have you at his restaurant, experiencing his food. And doesn't it always raise your comfort level when you see the owner on site personally maintaining standards? Klauber's pride and his personal enjoyment of fine food and wine are infectious. That's why sooner or later, we all go to Michael's On East.
MICHAEL'S ON EAST
1212 S. East Ave., Sarasota
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m. (closed Sunday)
Ivo Scafa's Shrimp della Casa.
Born in Pesaro, Italy, trained in Switzerland and Germany and fluent in four languages, Ivo Scafa is the model of a worldly chef. But rather than cook in grand hotels or lofty pedigree restaurant kitchens (which he has done in his 30-year career), chef Scafa came to Sarasota in 1978 from Toronto with the intention of having his own small signature restaurant. He started at the Surfrider on Siesta Key, headed to Four Winds resort on Longboat Key, and for the last three years has been the chef/owner of Ivo's across from Southgate Plaza. Devotees praise his simple pasta dishes with fresh tomatoes and handfuls of fresh basil, Dover sole, rack of lamb, veal chop with porcini mushroom, duck and beef Wellington. He says this recipe is a favorite because it's quick, easy and full of flavor. Ivo's Ristorante, 2085 Siesta Drive, Sarasota. (941) 951-9200.
SHRIMP DELLA CASA
(Serves two. Preparation time 30 minutes)
2 shallots, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup leaf spinach, blanched
1 cup quartered crimini mushrooms
12 jumbo shrimp, shelled and de-veined
1 cup fish stock
1/2 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
Preheat skillet, add butter and olive oil and lower heat. Add shallots and garlic. Sauté until translucent. Add fish stock and bring to boil. Add mushrooms, spinach and shrimp. Lower heat and simmer to 10 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.
NIBBLES & SIPS
When Peter Garza, general manager of the Ritz's Vernona Dining Room, arrived in Sarasota last year, he realized that the Vernona did not have a signature drink. So he invented The Carlton. The light and refreshing pre-dinner cocktail combines champagne, Florida ruby red grapefruit juice and a splash of lemoncello liqueur. It's garnished with a triangle of the pink grapefruit. You can vary the proportions to suit your own taste buds. This Mediterranean cocktail is a lovely sunset color that matches the mood and décor of the immediate surroundings. You'll want one at the Vernona, and you'll want to serve a tray of them at your next brunch. Cheers to Mr. Garza.
If you haven't had the wild mushroom bisque at Ray's at Bob's Place on Central Avenue in Sarasota, you want to. It's rich, deep, and each of the various mushroom varieties holds its own. Some are spongy, some are meaty, some silken, but all taste of the earth. This is a stellar soup.
The bar at the Beach Bistro is tiny but charming, and now it's even more inviting (and crowded) since owner Sean Murphy added a piano and hired the talented Skip Cook to play several nights a week. From jazz to show tunes to romantic ballads, Cook weaves a dreamy ambiance while Murphy supplies incomparable food and drink. It's worth the drive to Anna Maria Island.
White tea is the next trendy brew, because it has a subtle flavor you can customize with your own enhancers and because it's being touted as having a higher concentration of antioxidants than either black or green teas. And it's lower in caffeine, too. Celestial Seasonings and the Republic of Tea already sell white tea if you want to give it a sip.
Look for big changes at the corner of Siesta Drive and U.S. 41. Fleming's Prime Steak House is expanding (their success in this town has really been something) as Roy's rises out of the ground right next door, giving us a new playground for Asian fusion food from Hawaiian chef Roy Yamaguchi. Roy's in Sarasota might be open by the end of summer.