Several years ago, Maison Blanche opened to great debate. People loved the food, hated the service. Some thought it was too expensive; some claimed it was the bargain of the century. Some decried the fixed price menu; others sang its praises. Like most momentary controversies, talk about the restaurant faded away, except among those who keep their eye on great food and rarely follow the fads.
Of course, the nature of a restaurant critic is to follow the fads. That’s why I appreciated a loyal reader sending this not-so-gentle nudge: “Why don’t you write about Maison Blanche? For us, it’s the best restaurant in town.”
Mea culpa. Our trip back to Maison Blanche was heavenly. In fact, the predominance of white in the interior—white walls, ceiling, napery and so forth—does give the impression of resting in a pristine—well, celestial—backdrop. The design slant towards the contemporary saves the diner from anticipating servers with wings and halos, but you get the picture.
The dining room is über comfortable. Tables are placed far enough apart to throw caution to the wind and engage in intimate conversation or uproarious gaiety. No one is sitting in your down draft—such a relief in these days of squeezing pennies out of every square inch of floor space. Maison Blanche affords every opportunity to settle in for an evening of fine food and service.
The menu is deceptively simple. The descriptions do slim justice to the richness of taste, preparation and presentation. Take a simple mesclun salad. The menu reads “field greens,” but the salad is a sensation of several types of greens, including refreshing mint. All the greens taste just-picked sweet and are cleaned and dried so that the vinaigrette makes a mere air kiss of a statement. Some shaved, aged Parmesan adds a welcome salty richness to the dish.
Calamari—all parts of the squid—is a science project pinned to a poster board. The body and tentacles might put off those used to plates piled high with fried rings of the body. But the whole squid provides a tenderness and taste of the sea not often discovered. And the red pepper sauce hints at a squirt of squid ink with its earthy authenticity. There are earthy strikes again in the lushness of the foie gras sauce, served with a ravioli of wild mushrooms. Here the plate is saved from a forest of brown with brilliant green spears of steamed asparagus forming a coat of armor across the little ravioli pillows.
The entrées are equally delightful. A lobster ravioli special was unbelievably light in texture, with a topping of lobster foam that enhanced the impression of buoyancy. On the opposite side of the scale, short ribs, braised until they fell off the bone, glistened with a rich, mahogany sheen and tasted complex yet sturdy.
Swordfish takes an Oriental turn, the thick loin crusted with peppercorn and sesame seeds and served with a soy sauce the consistency of caramel sauce. Moist and satisfying, it’s simultaneously fiery and sweet. Red snapper, rarely one of my favorite fish, is treated to a lively sauce of citrus that balances the pan-frying and slyly boosts the herbaceous flavor of thyme in the accompanying potatoes.
The leisurely pace of the service precludes any refusal of dessert. Of course, true to any fine French dining establishment, Maison Blanche offers an amuse-bouche, in this case an aperitif-sized glass of chilled arugula soup. And following the entrée, a tray of truffles appears in preparation for the dark roasted coffee.
Chocolate cake is a warm dome of lusciousness, served with an icy ball of sorbet and dribbles of orange sauce across the plate. Pineapple is roasted, the juice melding with the flavors of the accompanying vanilla bean. Of course, it’s served with coconut ice cream to create a tropical fantasy.
The wine list offers French reds and whites as well as a solid inventory of New World and California contributions. They’re reasonably priced. The rest of the menu is up there, as they say, with entrées inching toward that $40 mark (the organic prime rib) and others more moderately marked in the mid to high $20s.
The wait staff is efficient yet measured in their manner, with charming French accents; all in all, the dining experience belongs near the top of the list of the region’s finest.
2605 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key
Closed Monday; Tuesday–Sunday, 6-10 pm
VISA, MC, AMEX
Parking on premises; handicapped accessible
Five Points is quickly becoming the epicenter of activity in downtown Sarasota. With The Grape drawing an evening crowd and Patrick’s the quintessential standby, the addition of a decidedly Italian trattoria makes the area even more appealing. Brought to you by the owners of Epicure, just a block further west on Main Street, Americano offers a more substantial dining experience. The atmosphere is more upscale, whether you dine comfortably outside under the loggia of the new high-rise or within the chic interior, a monochromatic mix of steel gray colors and textures punctuated with red.
Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as any trattoria worth its espresso should be, Americano puts an international twist on eggs and bacon. The bacon here is pancetta, and your fried eggs come with leeks and speck. Frittatas, the oven-baked omelets, sound divine: smoked salmon, potatoes and chives or bufala mozzarella, tomato and basil. And the starches include very American pancakes (buttermilk, blueberry or whole wheat for the health-conscious) or bagels and brioche.
Lunch fills up fast, and well it should. We devoured an appetizer of wild mushrooms nestled in a Parmesan basket. The succulent, earthy mushrooms are a perfect complement to the cheese basket’s salty richness. A bowl of stracciatella with chicken soup is the Italian version of comfort food. The broth was flavorful without the burden of too much fat, and the little pasta perfectly suited to the bits of chicken and vegetables.
It’s hard to pass on pasta here. Ricotta and spinach crespelle with radicchio and scamorza is difficult to describe, but delicious to consume. It’s a layered affair, the crespelle akin to crepes and reminiscent of lasagna without the heaviness of that dish. The roasted radicchio punctuated the dish with a bitter bite that was irresistible. A deceptively simple panini of prosciutto, mozzarella and tomato lured us back to the plate, even though we were absolutely gorged. The creamy mozzarella tastes so good with the exquisitely aged prosciutto that it overpowers all self-discipline.
There are a variety of sweets to sample, and we settled on a panna cotta. This is the hottest dessert going right now. Treviso, at the Ringling Museum, has a lovely version, although it might not match the exquisite smoothness of this blend of heavy cream flavored with unadulterated vanilla bean. Panna cotta usually has a bit of fruit with it, but in my opinion it’s just a cover-up to justify your divulging in the incredibly rich confection. (There was even a quasi panna cotta at the Ritz recently, served at one of those huge ballroom affairs. I say quasi because it looked like a panna cotta, but one bite revealed some telltale cream cheese. It was cheesecake in disguise.)
Prices are reasonable at Americano. Lunch items are in the $5-$9 range, and the rotisserie items that form a core of the offerings for dinner are in the lower double digits. There’s bar service, and the coffee and espresso are divine.
While we’ve always dined inside at Americano, I’m waiting for the perfect day or night to settle into a café table and watch the world—or at least Sarasota—go by.
1409 Main St., Sarasota
Monday–Sunday, 7:30 a.m. -10:30 p.m.
VISA, MC, AMEX
Parking on street; handicapped accessible
What I’m Drinking
Derek Barnes, chef-owner of the popular Rosemary District eatery bearing his name, is looking forward to the New Year and especially celebrating Dec. 31. “I’ll be drinking some J. Schram from Schramsberg in Napa,” he declares.
“That’s their tête de cuvée and a very special bubbly. For the restaurant, I’m going to bring in little split bottles of a non-vintage champagne Duval-Leroy from France.”
We couldn’t resist asking Derek if he has any wine prognostications for 2007. “We’re pouring some different things at the restaurant,” he replied. “We just got in an Albariño from Spain, and I’m trying some gewurtzaminers on the dry end. I try to focus on our wines being food-friendly. That’s our philosophy.”
That, of course, means educating the staff to help customers choose the right wine for the food. “Our wine purveyors come in and do classes to keep everyone up to speed,” says Barnes. The staff can expect to be doing a lot of learning, as Barnes intends to add up to 35 new wines to his list during 2007.
READY TO BLOW
All I asked was that he check the propane before our barbecue party.
I’m sure that you’ve said it a few times yourself. No. 1: “Honey, have you checked the propane tank before the company comes for our weekend cookout?” No. 2: “Honey, I’m sorry, I forgot whether I asked you if you checked the amount of propane in our gas grill tank.” And, of course, No. 3: “Honey, I know you said you checked the propane, but I’m worried because I have 12 large bone-in chicken breasts and three big flanks steaks marinating for our barbecue party.”
Fast forward to 5:30 p.m. on the day of the party. My friend Bob Siccone and I sip frozen mango margaritas while we settle the youngsters down with visions of the cheeseburgers and butter-laced corn that are to come. “Now don’t fill up on tortilla chips, everyone, we have quite the selection of grilled specialties tonight—Paul has been preparing all weekend for his step up to the grill. Right, Paul?”
No answer. Hmmm. I notice that he went inside for fireplace matches—the electric starter must not be working. I hear some banging, notice a confused countenance. More banging and a desperate look, much like that of an actor walking on stage and forgetting his lines.
And then: “Sweetheart, the grill is clogged.”
“Honey,” I say, “how could the grill be clogged? We just barbecued last night and I saw you clean it before we went to bed.” Bob senses the inevitable and offers me another frozen margarita, in the hope of defusing someone’s tank from blowing.
“Honey, I did ask you if you checked the propane tank—didn’t I?”
I begin to preheat the oven. I’ll deal with Mr. Grill Master later. In the meantime, I have a hungry horde to feed. But there’s a problem.
“Honey,” I call, “the oven door isn’t closing again!” He must not hear me while he’s crunching on crackers filled with brie, or perhaps he’s afraid to turn around and respond for fear of dropping the tray of jumbo shrimp cocktails in his lap. Bob comes to the rescue again, with a mango margarita in one hand and his hip firmly planted against the oven door to keep it closed. We wait for the preheat signal to give way. We wait…and wait…ah, the oven must be clogged as well!
So the cast-iron pans come out. I sear and season, maneuvering around Bob, who is still pressing his hip into the oven door, but to no avail.
The flank steak is tender enough. The chicken and burgers? Well, something gets lost in the translation without a few black edges—and grilled vegetables just don’t crisp quite the same way in an electric wok. We finish our un-barbecue party and Paul and I load up the dishwasher, gingerly avoiding direct eye contact. Later, as we get ready to turn in for the night, I gently tap his hand.
“Honey, I know you think I’m angry at you because I asked three times if you had checked the propane, but I’ve decided to forgive you.”
My husband relaxes and suggests that it was a little comical, wasn’t it?
“Sure was!” I exclaim. “And it will be even funnier tomorrow morning when you take me shopping for a new, state-of-the-art flat top range and oven with all the bells and whistles, and then to the kitchen store for a new set of Circulon pots and pans, and then out for a burger before you go to the gas station and load up our propane tank!”
And that, dear readers, is exactly what happened.
Chef Judi Gallagher celebrates January’s Mineola tangelos.
Mineola tangelos, a cross between the Duncan grapefruit and the Dancy tangerine, make a brief but glorious appearance this month. Sweet and incredibly juicy with a hint of honey, the fruit is also called “honeybell” because of its bell-like shape. I love to slice fresh fennel and toss it with honeybell segments and a splash of rice wine vinegar and sugar to make a refreshing base for a piece of grilled salmon. Because of the fruit’s brief season, I often plan a month’s worth of recipes: orange-glazed roasted duck breast with honeybell purée, honeybell crepes suzette with orange whipped marscapone cheese, and honeybell gingered beef with orange sesame noodles. But after all the holiday eating, I most prefer a simple, peeled honeybell, sliced and topped with orange blossom honey and chopped macadamia nuts.
HONEYBELL ORANGE BEEF WITH GINGER
2 ½ teaspoons low sodium soy sauce
½ teaspoon pure sesame oil
3 tablespoons fresh squeezed tangelo juice
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
1 teaspoon toasted crushed red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons cornstarch or arrowroot
Beef and sauce
3/4 pound beef tips, thinly sliced across the grain
1/4 cup fresh squeezed tangelo juice
2 tablespoons oyster-flavored sauce
1 tablespoon orange blossom honey
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon zest of orange
1 cup fresh snap peas, uncooked
2 Mineola tangelos, segmented
To make the marinade: Combine soy sauce, sesame oil, fresh-squeezed juice, ginger, toasted red pepper flakes and 1 teaspoon cornstarch. Toss in beef tips and marinate for 15 minutes.
To make the sauce: Combine orange juice, oyster sauce, orange blossom honey, minced ginger and 1 teaspoon cornstarch. Mix until the honey is well blended into the sauce and the cornstarch is dissolved. Set aside.
Place a stir-fry pan over high heat until hot. Add the oil, swirling to coat on all sides. Add the marinated beef and stir-fry until caramelized on the edges and still slightly pink in the center, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the sauce and cook, stirring, until the sauce boils and thickens slightly, about 20-30 seconds. Stir in the orange segments and fresh sugar snap peas and cook for 30 seconds to heat through. If the sauce seems too thick, you may add a teaspoon of Grand Marnier, or simply add the Grand Marnier for an enhanced orange flavor. Garnish top with zest of orange before serving.