This summer is shaping up as a budget-conscious season for just about everybody I know, regardless of tax bracket. Still, the soul and the belly demand to be fed, so what’s a diner accustomed to the best to do?
Here’s our advice, wrapped up in a thrifty package we’re calling our Summer of 2008 Good Deal Special Edition.
The Good Deal Special stars three notable restaurants that excel in the art of paring down price without compromising their usual high quality. Other excellent establishments offer value-priced three- or four-course prix fixe dinners, too, but these stand out.
Our picks for purveyors of the best of the bargains are Harry’s Continental Kitchens on Longboat Key, Roy’s in midtown Sarasota and Café L’Europe on St. Armands Circle.
The idea of a prix fixe menu was borrowed from the French, of course, but these guys have run with it and made it their own. Bon appétit.
The Place: Harry’s Continental Kitchens, 525 St. Jude’s Drive, Longboat Key; reservations (941) 383-0777; prix fixe dinner served nightly.
The Deal: $34 per person for a four-course dinner (soup, starter, main course and dessert); pair your choices for second through fourth courses with an excellent glass of wine for $15 per person more.
The Details: It may be trite but it’s true: I’m wild about Harry’s and have been for years. The old stand just off Gulf of Mexico Drive is looking particularly spry of late, having spruced up its paint job and expanded and upgraded its outdoor dining area. The menu has been perked up, too, and the regularly changing prix fixe offering is a great way to get acquainted with a restaurant that is a perennial on my Top 10 List.
The items available prix fixe will be seasonal but often include standards from the full menu in gently reduced portions. On a recent visit, for example, a fine main course of grilled salmon in a palate-cooling blood orange emulsion featured a seven-ounce filet instead of the standard nine ounces. Perfect. I want to be dazzled at table, not foundered. Even if you order from the outstanding full menu, feel free to order the light version of most entrées and knock four bucks off the price.
Another plus is that the prix fixe soup course frequently offers one of two chilled cups that Harry’s does as well as anyone in town ever has: a silky vichyssoise with just the right tang of leeks and a zesty gazpacho chunky with tiny shrimp. Both are perfect for a summer evening.
And one last note. If you’re a wine drinker, go for the pairing option. The wines will be excellent and thoughtfully selected to complement your choice of appetizer, entrée and (hallelujah!) even dessert. You’re on your own for the soup course.
The Place: Roy’s, 2001 Siesta Drive
(corner of U.S. 41), Sarasota; reservations (941) 952-0109; prix fixe dinner served nightly.
The Deal: $35 per person for a three-course dinner (starter, main course and dessert); no wine pairing option.
The Details: Roy’s, the local purveyor of chef Roy Yamaguchi’s celebrated Hawaiian fusion cuisine, shares a building with Fleming’s, its sibling at the high end of the OSI chain of restaurants. Don’t hold its chain status against it, though. Roy’s has earned its reputation the hard way, by serving up impeccable, inventive dishes in a stylishly comfortable setting.
You won’t miss a thing by ordering from the seasonal prix fixe menu. Every bite of every dish is of the same high quality demanded of everything else the kitchen sends to table, regardless of price. No wine option is offered, but the wait staff at Roy’s is well schooled in the list and will guide you conscientiously, whether your pleasure is a terrific wine at a small price or The Big Wally.
Expect variety in available prix fixe choices: two lovely appetizers (if the seared misoyaki butterfish is on the list, don’t fail to choose it), usually four formidable entrées, nicely balanced between fish and meat, and two delightfully over-the-top desserts (if Roy’s melting hot chocolate soufflé is offered, you’d be just plain crazy to order anything else).
Another great value option for two is to take a seat at the bar, order a cooling beverage and share the canoe appetizer ($26), a gorgeous boatload of lemongrass poached shrimp, gorgonzola beef wontons, beef satay, spicy tuna sushi and tempura tofu.
The Place: Café L’Europe, 431 St. Armands Circle
(on Lido Key), Sarasota; reservations (941) 388-4415; prix fixe dinner served nightly, except on holidays.
The Deal: $34.95 per person for a three-course dinner (starter, main course and dessert), including a bottle of house-selected wine.
The Details: For 35 years Café L’Europe has been among the best of the many food and drink options available on St. Armands, offering diners first-rate traditional Continental fare either in the coziness of a dining room accented by Old World brick or at plentiful sidewalk tables perfect for people watching. But Café L’Europe also can lay claim to another distinction: It was a pioneer of the value-priced summer special.
Its prix fixe menu likely will offer at least a couple of the restaurant’s signature dishes, like a crisp-roasted duckling in Bing cherry and cognac sauce and whatever the day’s fresh catch may be, as well as dishes selected especially for this abbreviated menu. Among the latter is a real old-fashioned treat: calf liver sautéed with bacon and onions. I’m willing to bet you haven’t see that one on an ambitious menu in a while, but don’t be surprised if it catches on. Retro is always big in uncertain times.
Throughout the short list your choices will be ample. Appetizers might range from Café L’Europe’s unbeatable lobster bisque to Caesar salad; fish, fowl and red meat each will be well represented in the main course list, and for dessert you won’t go wrong with either the Key lime pie or the strawberries sabayon.
And given the crowds St. Armands can draw even in summer, the complimentary valet parking is a value-added feature worth factoring into the deal.