When we arrived at Derek's, there seemed to be an overabundance of neatly attired waitstaff standing about in black pants and shirts with long bistro aprons tied trimly around the waist. But it wasn't long until they were bustling around the restaurant, shuttling from open kitchen to table, shouldering a constant stream of interesting-looking dishes. Within 20 minutes the restaurant went from almost empty to not quite full. No doubt about it, Derek's has arrived.
It's a noteworthy entrance on the local restaurant scene. Derek Barnes developed legions of fans as chef at 5-One-6 Burns. The new digs, smack in the middle of the burgeoning Rosemary District, is described as upscale casual, serving contemporary progressive cuisine. While that sounds more apropos to a style of art or jazz, it fits with the mission, printed on the menu, "to introduce you to new flavors, textures and techniques." And that it did.
The ambiance is minimalist. Walls are two-toned, the top half painted to give a silky, fluid impression that merges seamlessly with the tall ceiling. This design works well with the more architecturally structured elements of the front windows and doors. Tables are clothed in white napery, and the chairs are an updated schoolhouse style. Derek's energetically buzzes with the crowd, but the noise never annoys. It's a comfortable and agreeable feeling.
We began our exploration of "new flavors, textures" with the foie gras torchon. I unabashedly adore foie gras, and Barnes procures his from New York's Hudson Valley, which has become the capital of force-fed geese in the United States. For those uninitiated, the torchon technique entails rolling the liver in cheesecloth, poaching and then serving. (The menu provides a full page of "Derek's Foodnotes," a thoughtful and handy primer reflecting the chef's emphasis on methods of preparation.)
The foie gras is presented in a cascade of orderly slices sandwiched with bits of wilted arugula. The pieces de resistance are little balls of pomegranate gelée scattered about the plate, which give a refreshing burst of flavor.
The signature appetizer is the tuna gnocchi. As any aficionado of Italian food knows, gnocchi are usually yummy little dumplings made from potatoes. How creative of Barnes to make these from tuna. Other elements on the plate included some peppers and greens and a beautifully fried duck egg-sunny side up-sitting in the middle of it all.
Derek's offers a pair of lovely salads. We enjoyed both-a country spinach and a "Caesaresque," meaning the dressing is in the style of a Caesar. Both benefit from the house bread, a delectable biscuit-like roll flavored with cheddar cheese. One could feast on just salad and bread and be quite satisfied.
"Principal Dishes" are an array of interesting entrées. There are several seafood selections (including a shrimp fricassee and yellowfin tuna), plus short ribs served with a medallion of beef, a vegetable galette-it's difficult to settle on just one. A surf-and-turf ensemble, here called "Land and Sea," caught my eye for its unique pairing-monkfish and pork confit. This is a dish for the venturesome. The pork is sumptuous, the richness almost too overwhelming for the austere monkfish.
We also feasted on a duck dish that my husband, Jack, pronounced "best duck ever." The breast is lean, with a pleasantly gamy taste juxtaposed with a fabulously crispy, lush leg. This is served with a spaetzle done in a cream sauce alongside Asian-like seasoned greens, providing a spiciness that cut through the opulence of the dish. Here's where we really began appreciating Barnes' promised new flavors and textures.
That admiration extended to dessert, where literally everything appealed. Don't miss the ice cream sandwich, a concoction of chocolate ice cream and chunks of peppermint packed in between wonderfully thin, delicious cookies. If that seems extravagant, opt for the day's frozen trio. On our visit, the pear granitas were a standout, although I finished all the chocolate ice cream, too. Our waitress told us Derek managed to procure a machine that makes the ice cream fabulously thick and creamy. It's on my Christmas list!
The wine list offers a smattering of bottles from across the globe-Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as well as more established California and Old World offerings. The wines are reasonably priced (most between $25 and $35) and several are available by the glass.
Finally, all the waitstaff makes the service at Derek's exemplary. Food comes out of the kitchen quickly, so tell your server if you prefer a more leisurely pace. And you probably will want to linger over a cup of the excellent cappuccino as you savor this exciting new entry to Sarasota's restaurant scene.
514 Central Ave., Sarasota
Lunch: Tuesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.
Parking in street and Fifth Street lot
DOWN BY THE RIVER
The newest addition to Manatee County's evolving restaurant landscape is the Snook River Grill. Owned by Hillview and Madfish Grill owner Miles Milwee, the Snook River Grill brings a new level of casual dining to Bradenton, a breakout from the chains that line the main thoroughfares. Previously the Fumble Inn, an often booming sports bar, the Snook River Inn is indeed close to two rivers, the Braden and the Manatee, and has a dressed-up roadhouse feel-whitewashed walls with tidy booths and various items of fishing paraphernalia on the walls. There's a pair of dining rooms, connected by a large bar that's also equipped with a wall of booths, handy to watch the action at the bar or catch a glimpse at one of the televisions. An ample space for alfresco dining seems like wishful thinking; I'm hard-pressed to find the nearby roar of S.R. 64 desirable.
The menu is loaded with comfort dishes, Southern style. We're talking cheese grits, country fried chicken, catfish and biscuits. While it may appear to be a dressed-up Cracker Barrel, the food is much, much better.
We began with gator tots, a grown-up hush puppy strewn with bits of alligator. Served with a spicy horseradish sauce, these tots are addictive in a deep-fried kind of way. In addition to the gator tots, the appetizer list has the usual suspects of wings, peel-'n'-eat shrimp, calamari and the like. What elevates the menu is the Southern theme; for example, the calamari is tossed with andouille sausage and Creole sauce. That's conceptually creative, even if the andouille is a bit overpowering for the milder-mannered calamari.
Under the heading of "Cracker Food," we spotted "Not Yo Mama's Meatloaf." I confess I've always been a fan of a good meatloaf, and this is better than the recent crop of retro meatloaves appearing in many bistros. You must suspend any semblance of dieting in order to enjoy the bacon-wrapped slab of ground beef swimming in gravy. It's enough to make you wish Atkins were still in vogue.
My second confession is that I love the Carolina Pork Platter. The meat is beyond tender, and the sauce is definitely off the fat-gram chart. As you might imagine, a side dish of beans would be just perfect for this barbecue, and truly, the beans are topnotch. In fact, you could easily make a meal out of them alone-kidney and pinto beans, probably a black-eyed pea or two and pieces of pork. The green beans, seasoned with vinegar and a hint of sugar, are just like my grandmother's. There are many other side dishes, including sweet-potato fries and fried dill pickles, neither of which will make it into my culinary top 10.
Jack, deciding to watch his calories, gravitated to the "Buck Naked Fish" category with scarlet snapper. This was pan-seared and seemed shockingly bland and light in comparison to all the other rich slabs of food at the table. But the fat-conscious can choose from a selection of several other fish as well.
It was difficult to peruse the dessert menu while stuffed with pork and beans, but in the interest of displaying loyalty to the region, we settled on the Southern strawberry shortcake. The base is the restaurant's homemade biscuits, topped with vanilla ice cream, strawberries and piles of whipped cream.
There are enough different beers and a short list of reliable wines by the glass to accompany the food. Service is efficient and accommodating. The bottom line is: Snook River Grill is a casual, comfortable spot suitable for a quick bite with the kids or a spontaneous outing for the two of you.
SNOOK RIVER GRILL
2505 S.R. 64 E., Bradenton
Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, noon-9 p.m.
Reservations recommended on weekends
WORDS ON WINE
Spring brings change to our Florida climate, and while those variations are hardly dramatic, the subtle differences are worthy of celebration. I recently tasted the perfect wine for just that purpose: Pine Ridge Winery's 2004 chenin blanc-viognier. Before you dismiss this wine because of the reputation of California chenin blanc as hardly a serious wine, consider the origins. Pine Ridge has consistently crafted superior wines from its Stags Leap District in Napa since 1978, and this wine is right in line with its award-winning cabernet sauvignons and other varietals. What's special about this wine is the merging of chenin blanc's floral signature with the equally fragrant, although more delicate aroma of the viognier. In the mouth, the wine offers exceptionally refreshing tastes of citrus fruit and a hint of melon and peaches. The finish is bright with acid. This is a lovely wine for food; try it with more delicate, sweetish seafood like sea scallops or sea bass. It also works well solo. My recommendation: Stock up for lazy poolside afternoons.
Just in from a new study commissioned by San Francisco's Wine Institute (California's wine trade association): Wine drinkers are confident, savvy adventure seekers. The national survey of 2,442 consumers by Yankelovich and the Segmentation Co. also found that wine consumers stand out from the U.S. population in several ways and, in general, are more likely to be open to new experiences, follow their own path in life, be confident and information-savvy consumers, desire intangibles, experiences and emotions, have their life priorities in order and eschew brands as badges.
California wine ranks first in favorability and familiarity with U.S. wine consumers by a wide margin. The survey asked wine consumers about their familiarity and consumption of wines from 12 different U.S. and foreign regions. Nearly 40 percent of wine consumers reported receiving wine information from publications, including newspapers and lifestyle and wine magazines, in the past three months.
And wine surpassed beer as America's most popular alcoholic beverage, according to the latest Gallup Consumption Habits poll. The poll showed that 39 percent of those who consume alcohol preferred wine, while 36 percent chose beer. That's a change from 33 percent vs. 39 percent for beer in 2004. And not only that, according to scanning results of major supermarkets, red wines are now outselling white wines. That's a first.
WHAT ARE YOU DRINKING?
We asked Dana Cowin, editor in chief of Food and Wine magazine, about her latest wine passion.
"After years of only drinking red, I'm finally embracing all kinds of whites-a lot of Riesling from Australia [Grosset, Pewsey Vale] to Austria [Pilcher, Hirsh], French white Burgundies and Moscato d'Asti [Italy]," she said. Cowin likes to find new wines on her travels, and now, she says, "with the explosion of interest in obscure varietals from all around the world, there's lots to choose from. Two of my favorites are Aglianco, from Southern Italy, and Charbono, from California, especially Robert Foley."
Q. With summer's fresh fruits right around the corner, I'm wondering what's the difference between fruit pastries-crisps, crunches, cobblers and the like? A cobbler is a deep-dish, baked fruit dessert topped with a thick biscuit crust, usually sprinkled with sugar. It's an especially good technique for showcasing blackberries or blueberries, although a peach cobbler can be spectacular. A crisp is a simple pastry of flour, brown sugar and butter worked by fingertip or pastry blender into crumbles and placed atop an ovenproof bowl of fruit. While the classic fruit here is apple, I love this with rhubarb, peaches or pitted cherries. A crunch divides the pastry between the bottom and top of the fruit. The pastry is similar to a crisp, with the addition of oatmeal and baking powder and baking soda. It's fabulous with cherries.
Last but certainly not least is the shortcake. A shortcake is basically a rich biscuit, the classic version being split in half with fruit filling the middle. Use any recipe for a biscuit. (I've been known to resort to Bisquick on more than one occasion.) Strawberries are the traditional fruit for shortcake, although peaches make a delicious version, too.
The final touch to all of these quick, light desserts is whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, or both.