Summer is the season for dining out. On steamy Southwest Florida evenings, who wants to hang over a hot stove? Even a fabulous outdoor kitchen positioned next to an azure pool can't summon the reluctant chef. And, best of all, we have our restaurants to ourselves!
Last year, a friend's summer holiday plans fell apart at the last minute. Rather than scrambling to put together an alternative, she and her husband stayed put and enjoyed a different restaurant every night, just as if they were traveling. She didn't turn on her dishwasher for an entire week. If I were to use a similar strategy, I might start at the Island Time Grill.
The newest addition to the retail center at University Parkway and Cooper Creek, the Island Time Grill was a mob scene from the moment it opened this season until the cars started heading north. Folks got wind that the Caribbean-themed eatery was populated with employees from the ill-fated Summerhouse Restaurant, and diners followed in droves. I don't know exactly how many former employees of the Siesta Key favorite are employed at Island Time, but I do know that a very important one, chef Dave McConaghy, is in the kitchen and creating some exciting food.
Take the salmon, obligatory on any menu these days. McConaghy sautés his with pine nuts, cranberries and green onions-an interesting combination of tastes and textures. The coup de grace is the accompanying polenta, cooked with pistachio nuts that elevate this dish from cooked corn grits to an elegant and delicious side dish.
A similar transformation raises the rainbow trout from so-so to sublime. This mild-mannered fish is usually prepared to emphasize its sweetness, ergo the appearance of almonds or a simple sauté in butter. McConaghy takes the plunge and sautés the trout in olive oil, topping it with a rich and sumptuous Madeira sauce.
The preparation of the Chilean sea bass is appealing, too. Wild mushrooms and ginger make an out-of-the-ordinary couple, especially in a ménage à trios with a more docile partner like the sea bass. But it works.
Lest you think that Island Time Grill is a fish house, a full selection of meat and poultry awaits. We sampled the lamb chops and found the lamb prepared rare as ordered and the mélange of herbs in the sauce appealing. The filet of beef with a fresh sage sauce almost captured my order, but we'll save that for a return visit. Price-wise, entrées clocked in around the high teens and low $20s.
Actually, a substantial meal could be concocted from the appetizer list, ranging in price from $5 to $10. I liked the ubiquitous crab cakes, because they're different here. The succulent crabmeat is rolled into a shape more akin to a small ball than a cake-bite-sized for sure-and deep-fried in the style of the Chesapeake. The remoulade sauce is killer.
Salads are a staple for summer dining, and Island Time Grill offers both tossed and composed ones. A refreshing version, called "heart," combines hearts of palm, artichoke hearts, asparagus and baby greens. The Greek salad introduces slices of lamb to the usual mix, and the spinach salad features a bit of prosciutto.
Owners Bruce and Evan Dawson moved here from New York, where Bruce was chief operating officer of Dean and Delucca's, and aren't afraid to make a design statement. The walls are a brilliant teal blue, softened a bit by the polished wood floors. Plantation shutters and artwork create a mellow tropical ambiance. A flat-screen monitor on the wall behind the bar offers a "window" to a view of waves washing up on the sandy beach. Sand is also incorporated into the bar, creating the illusion of bellying up to a sandbar. All of these could be trademark elements if the restaurant concept became a chain. Mum's the word on that rumor, although Dawson Enterprises is scheduled to open another restaurant across University, in the new shopping center anchored by the Super Target.
In the meantime, enjoy Island Time Grill, either the restaurant or the bar (which has a casual, burger-dominated menu), or the outdoor patio, where either menu is available.
ISLAND TIME GRILL
8225 Cooper Creek Blvd., University Park
Parking in shopping center lot
Sunday-Thursday, 4-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 4-11 p.m.
FAR EAST ARRIVALS In the 15 years I've called Sarasota home, downtown has never been a destination for Asian food. I'm happy to report that has changed. Main Street now sports two new good Asian restaurants within a block of each other, and on recent visits, both were robustly busy.
Taste of Asia, in the 1500 block of Main, is multicultural. Elements of Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian cuisines are deliciously mingled in the intimate restaurant, decorated on a modest scale with some lovely Asian artwork, including the symbol of the business, the three-headed elephant.
The appetizers are wonderful. The satay is authentically Thai, with the chicken marinated in spices and coconut milk before roasting. The accompanying peanut sauce is sweet with a flash of heat cooled by the cucumber salad. The fresh spring rolls are delightful as well, with sprigs of mint hidden in the vermicelli and shrimp.
A meal is easily made with a salad and soup, and you can choose from at least a half-dozen of each. We devoured the Yum duck, which features strips of fried duck with plenty of succulent meat under the crispy skin. Tom Yum Goong is a hot and sour soup redolent with lemon grass and with lots of pieces of mushroom and shrimp floating in the broth.
In all, close to 100 different dishes are served at Taste of Asia. They include a full complement of noodle soups or pho, vermicelli or rice noodles known as bun, plus a number of entrée specialties (I loved the panang curry). The owners also offer the golden banana coin dessert, a fried banana rolled in sesame seeds and served with honey. It's a must-have.
TASTE OF ASIA
1535 Main St.
Lunch: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 4-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 4-10 p.m.
Some credit cards
Parking on the street
HELLO, VIETNAM Just east of Taste of Asia is Pho Cali, which takes its name from the noodle soup that's a staple in Vietnam. The close proximity in geography and style of food has created a natural comparison between the two, and each now has its allies and detractors. (First we had none, now we have rivals!)
But the truth is the two are quite different in scale and focus. Pho Cali has a larger space, a big room accommodating a range of seating arrangements, and it's devoted exclusively to Vietnamese dishes. As with Taste of Asia, you'll find multitudes of items from which to choose. We began with the pancake appetizer, banh xeo tom thjt, a mix of shrimp, pork and vegetables folded into a rice-flour pancake. This is very large and extremely good. It's also very popular. Personally, I go for the crispy eggroll appetizers, which should be eaten with a sprig of fresh coriander and dipped in fish sauce.
The noodles are the thing here-you can hardly go wrong with any of the pho. This traditional Vietnamese soup is really not a soup, but a bowl of noodles cooked in a beef, chicken or fish stock that gets its character from the meat and vegetables added. It's all good.
Like pho, bun relies on gelatinous rice noodles, without the liquid in the dish. There's more emphasis on the vegetables and seasonings-mint, coriander and cucumber as a side relish add a freshness that's the essence of Vietnamese cooking for me. My favorite here is No. 78, or bun tom nurong, thjt nurong, cha gio. It includes both shrimp and pork, although sometimes the pork can be a bit greasy.
Pho Cali gets busy, and service ebbs and flows with the crowds. But there's hardly a friendlier place in town, regardless of the intensity of the house. Wine and beer are available at both places, and both restaurants are modestly priced.
1578 Main St., Sarasota
Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Most credit cards (no Amex)
Parking on street
What I'm Drinking
A Down-Under discovery
Australian shiraz in summer? Yes, indeed-it's winter in Australia. The 2003 vintages of shiraz are just now coming into the market, and they're spicy, but not bitingly so. They show an appealing berry characteristic and taste wonderful with grilled foods or a plate of cheeses. Look for The Penfolds Shiraz Koonunga Hill ($12 to $14) or the Greg Norman Estates Limestone Coast Shiraz ($16 to $18). I'm sure glad Greg took up wines, where he's a pretty consistent winner.
Where can I get a taste of European café life without leaving home this summer?
Look no further than the new 100 Central building, where Pino's has relocated from its former habitat at the end of Main Street. While it seemed that Main and Gulfstream was a perfect locale, this one is even better. From an outdoor café table at Pino's, you can admire lovely Five Points Park, the fanciful Selby Library and a continual stream of luxury vehicles in the turnout at the condo building. Pino's prix-fixe lunch is only $12, and that includes a soup or salad, entrée and the most delicious bread-for $12! We feasted on a cream of broccoli soup and amazing warm rosemary bread. Then the salad di mare arrived, fabulously appointed with mussels, littleneck clams, scallops, shrimp and tender calamari. My girlfriend indulged in a crab cake and pronounced it "all crab, no filler." If anything, it needed more bread crumbs to give it some stability, but the taste is, as they say in Pino's native Capri, molto bene!