If there were any doubt that Sarasota is a stone's throw away from big-city dining, two new restaurants show how close we're getting. Both The Rustic Grill and MT's would be equally at home in Manhattan, Chicago or D.C., and they're upping the ante for the rest of the field.
Even before it opened, people were checking out the new Rustic Grill in the trendy Rosemary District. A sister restaurant to the popular lunch spot Sierra Station, which is just an alley away, the handsome stone and brick building seemed to take forever to finish. Workmen labored away on the interior for months, giving tantalizing glimpses of the space through the arching doorway. And now we know: The wait was worth all the anticipation.
The space is drop-dead mesmerizing; every element is beautifully appointed with something interesting to look at. The bar has an aquarium-very cool indeed-which might seem out of sync with the mostly Mediterranean motif, but it absolutely works, creating a splash of movement and brilliant color. An antique sculpture of a mermaid, at one time slated to be in John Ringling's Ritz Hotel, completes the aqua theme.
Gigantic copper domes provide ceilings over the bar and the open kitchen in the large dining room. Huge Etruscan-looking vessels lining the hallway made us wonder whether the Ringling Museum was selling some castoffs. In fact, the painting that dominates one wall would look quite at home in the Ringling. But what else would you expect from a restaurant owned by antique dealers Al and Monika Tomlinson? The Rustic Grill creates a feast for the senses before the menu even arrives. And when it does, it's stashed in a burnished metal folder that's so beautiful to look at, it's hard to look in.
Executive chef Clinton Combs, formerly of Christopher's, holds up his end of the sensory bargain, however, and the food does not disappoint. A brown paper bag arrives at the table full of yummy little cornmeal rolls spiked with a bit of pepper. Seared day boat scallops ($12) are so fat and juicy it doesn't seem possible that the companion creamed corn could improve the taste, but it does.
The lime vinaigrette on the fried green tomatoes and mixed greens ($7) has that piquant quality all chefs strive for, adding a layer of flavor and complexity to what is essentially a bland dish. The baby arugula salad ($8) is a sweet and tart little symphony, with the roasted garlic and parsley vinaigrette a perfect foil for the ripe tomatoes, spicy greens and rich crumbles of Gorgonzola.
And there are more "little plates" and salads from which to choose. I was intrigued by a tuna tartare ($13) featuring wasabi tobikko and citrus-ginger ponzu (a light-yellow Japanese sauce), and the rustic fries ($7) sound heavenly. They come with homemade ketchup prepared from grilled tomatoes, garlic and Parmesan.
The "big plate" page puts the "grill" in Rustic Grill. Most of the entrées are either grilled or seared. The grilled duck breast ($24) sits amicably next to incredibly rich and inviting white cheddar and caramelized onion risotto. A dressed-up Bing cherry glaze ties the flavors together. The grilled filet of beef tenderloin ($31) is a standout, with a delicious cream sauce created from roasted beets. Mashed potatoes, enhanced with melted boursin cheese, are the starch on this dish. Other temptations include grilled pork tenderloin, a New York strip and braised lamb shank. Seafood is not forgotten, with an herb-dusted salmon and five-spice-rubbed seared tuna rounding out the menu.
Desserts delight, too. The Bing cherry brioche bread pudding ($8) is unequivocally the best bread pudding in my taste memory. The chef brings a bit of dark chocolate to the sauce and mixes white chocolate Anglaise into the brioche. Nirvana.
On our visit there were a few snafus typical of any newly opened restaurant. The music seemed too loud, and wine service could have been smoother. But those were minor notes in an exciting and rewarding restaurant experience. Kudos to chef Coombs, who has raised the bar on Sarasota's restaurant scene.
400 N. Lemon Ave., Sarasota
Monday-Saturday 5-10 p.m.
Parking in Sierra Station lot next door
Catering and private parties
TIME FOR TAPAS Yes, you can be young and hip in Lakewood Ranch-just look at the crowd at the newly opened MT's (shorthand for martinis and tapas). An offshoot of the neighboring Chef's Table, MT's is clearly a see-and-be-seen venue. The bar is at the front of the house, creating a bottleneck in traffic but a runway for über-slim women with traces of pouty smiles. Has West Palm Beach moved to Lakewood Ranch?
The back half of MT's provides a great vantage point from which to watch the posturing at the bar. The noise level allows conversation, and the warm, earthy colors and engaging art surround like a cozy cocoon. You can experience around 15 different tapas, plus salads, soups and main selections for those not inclined to march through multiple courses. And let's face it, that's the beauty and the bane of the tapas experience: Some people love to experience an onslaught of different little dishes as the waitstaff struggles to figure how to squeeze the next round onto the table; others find it to be the culinary equivalent of attention-deficit disorder-too much, too little, too disorganized.
The staff at MT's handles it all with cheerful aplomb. And the chefs from the Chef's Table make periodic rounds and chat up the crowd. Bottom line: It's a dynamic atmosphere, humming with energy.
First step is to choose a martini. The list is extensive, with everything from a "Girl Scout cookie" to the ubiquitous cosmopolitan. I gravitated to the wine list, which is interestingly composed, obviously leaning on the expertise from next door.
Beverages determined, we began ordering what became a parade of tapas. Let me say up front that there's nothing to knock your socks off-just a list of well-constructed appetizers you might experience at any suburban get-together. My husband, who begs me to no avail to serve meatballs every time we have a cocktail party, was in heaven. And why not? The meatballs here ($7) were delicious little morsels of beef, with maybe a little veal thrown in and surrounded in a spicy tomato sauce.
My favorite tapa was the spicy cheese wontons ($6). This is a blend of chipotle peppers and cheese, held together by a wonton wrapper and served with sour cream and another equally spicy sauce. Shrimp ($9) are served butterflied and swimming in butter and garlic. For those not inclined to nosh, a handful of main dishes include garlic chicken and medallions of beef, with prices in the $18 range. Or opt for a paella or pasta, all with a decidedly Spanish flavor, at the same price points.
Looking to balance our meal, we worked our way through a salad of tomatoes and manchego cheese ($8), which didn't hold a candle to the garlicky shrimp or to an order of empañadas that would have made Evita cry with joy. But no worries, this place is all about atmosphere and fun. (And MT's does take its version of a reservation, a "call ahead," which is very welcome for those of us who hate to wait.) It's really just what a tapas place should be about; the food is not the center stage, but rather an enhancement to the conviviality.
8473 Cooper Creek Blvd.
University Park (941) 360-0007
Tuesday-Saturday, 4 p.m.-midnight
Sunday 2-10 p.m.
Private parties, catering, call ahead
Q. I love the absence of crowds in the summer, and I hate the frigid environments of hyper-air-conditioned restaurants. Where do you recommend for outdoor dining?
I hear you; many restaurants make like a meat locker once the thermometer hits 85, and who wants to shiver through supper? Try outdoor summer dining at Selva Grill on Main Street, where the indoors blends into the out-of-doors on Selva's unique patio. The South American cuisine fits sultry summer weather, and the Main Street parade is fun any time of year. Or try Crab & Fin on St. Armands Circle. Situated on a corner perfect for stylish-people watching, the restaurant is also an unassuming bastion of outstanding seafood cuisine. The fish is impeccably fresh (the menu changes daily) and it's also a good choice for something light. The raw bar always has something fabulous, or just land on the gazpacho. This chilled raw vegetable soup is just the thing for summer, and it oozes healthfulness.
WHAT ARE YOU DRINKING?
Steakhouse confessions from Brian Lanigan.
Brian Lanigan, Fleming's wine manager, started working with wine in fine dining settings 15 years ago. He pulled his first corks in Boca Raton, then had stints in Las Vegas and Orlando. Brian has been in Sarasota at Fleming's for two years, where, he says, "I try everything I could possibly try," tasting about 50-plus wines per week in the process of keeping Fleming's wine list current.
"I really stress tasting to our guests. And keep your mind open," he advises. "I want people to extend their range. That's what's fulfilling about my work."
Like most of us, Lanigan finds his wine appetite driven by the weather. "If it's a nice warm evening, I'll open a sauvignon blanc, something like a Honig or from the Loire Valley or Kim Crawford from New Zealand," he says. "And a nice, crisp Riesling is terrific. Lately I've been drinking August Kessler Rieslings. They partner wonderfully with food, and you can drink them all night without any fatigue."
How can a steakhouse wine manager be so hooked on whites? "I like my share of reds, not to worry," he says. "I've been drinking a lot of syrahs and zinfandels; they're a great value for drinking on a daily or weekly basis. Some of the old-vine zins are great-Cline Old Vine from California. My first choice in a syrah would be a Hermitage, although I like Australia's Penfolds, including Penfolds St. Henri.
"But if I had only one region to drink from, it would be Champagne. Like Rieslings, they go with food and are always refreshing. You don't have to drink Dom or Cristal; a lot of mid-range champagnes are wonderful. Try a Veuve Clicquot. You won't be disappointed."
Wine of the Month: With their acidity and fruit a match for lighter foods, whites may be the natural choice during summer months, but occasionally only a red wine will do. For those moments, a light- to medium-bodied red that you can cool down is the ticket. Cooler beverages are more refreshing; and serving a red cooler not only fits the weather, it also enhances the fruitiness in the wine. Most people forget that the rule of thumb for red-serve at cellar temperature-originated with European cellars that are typically around 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. So put that red into the refrigerator or wine cooler and leave it there until the bottle is cool to the touch.
The fruity character and lighter body of a pinot work especially well with grilled meats and fish. Merry Edwards, one of California's pre-eminent winemakers, has released her 2003 Merry Edwards pinot noir, Russian River Valley, CA ($44 at Michael's Wine Cellar), and it is a fabulous bottle of wine. Look for a fruity nose-lots of berry and plum aromas that replicate in the tastes and an interesting and complex element of pepper. The finish will be smooth and long-lingering. This is also a wine you can cellar and pull out in a few years for a richer, more mature experience.