The day boat has two new ports of call on upper Main Street in Sarasota: The former Zoria has been reworked by its owners into a whole new enterprise called Main Street Oyster Bar, while across the street Urban Reef has moved into the space once occupied by Esca. Both are welcome additions to the fresh fish long offered by Barnacle Bill’s and Selva Grill further west along Main and by Marina Jack on the bayfront.
Main Street Oyster Bar retains a few touches from Zoria, but overall it’s distinctly new in both feel and menu. The air is more casual after a redesign that puts one in mind of a comfortably classic fish restaurant and bar in New Orleans. The reds and golds that dominate set off a mix of tables both bare and dressed in white in a big room anchored by the requisite raw bar. To the left as you enter is a plushy, sunken lounge area just off the main bar. Shaded tables beckon outside.
In addition to the menu and a very fine and varied wine list, you’ll be offered a printout of the day’s raw bar selections and a pencil; make your choices, enter the number of pieces you want of each and hand the tally to your waiter, who will advise if some of the coldwater oysters on offer are new to you. Interestingly, at least on the evening of our review visit, Gulf of Mexico oysters were offered only fried.
We chose two each of briny Bristol Bays, cucumbery Gartlin Beaches and sweet Quilcene Bays (prices vary day by day). Despite the arrival of an ominous caddy of condiments we’d never subject a good oyster to, we were delighted that the iced shellfish themselves came to table accompanied simply by a dish of vinegary mignonette for dipping and lemon wedges for squirting. We were well pleased with our choices, which were perfectly fresh and properly shucked.
With the oysters we drank a lovely Monmousseau sparkling wine from the Loire Valley, a bargain at $7 the glass. Once we’d made our dinner selections, we smiled over the extensive and intelligent wine list, discovering a goodly number of old favorites and many surprises, all extremely well priced. We took a flier on a 2006 Chateau Gaubert Graves, a white Bourdeaux that was new to us and irresistible at $25 the bottle. As with the oysters, we’d made a happy choice.
Florida stone crab season is with us through May 15, and the Main Street Oyster Bar is a good place to satisfy your appetite for them. They come in a half-pound appetizer version ($15), but I ordered the full pound dinner portion ($29) and was delighted with four perfectly fresh meaty claws served cold, as I requested, expertly cracked and accompanied by the classic mustardy dipping sauce. Two sides from a list of nine come along for the ride, and I chose nicely al dente cauliflower gratin and a short stack of crisp and yummy onion rings.
Colette couldn’t resist the snapper ($25), grilled whole, head, tail and all. This is a great way to prepare a noble fish, preserving as it does all the natural juices and its full flavor. It makes a nice presentation on the plate, too, but a whole fish in need of dismembering can be intimidating. Our waiter prudently offered the option of delivering the fish cleaned, leaving just the edible parts, which Colette accepted. For her side dishes she chose creamy smashed potatoes and just-right rounds of roasted beets.
Amazingly, we were tempted by dessert and succumbed to a shared seasonal berry shortcake under a mound of whipped cream ($8) that featured shortcake worthy of the name. With that we sampled a lovely, complexly sweet 2005 Chateau Guiraud Sauternes, a good deal at $8 the glass.
Across the street, Urban Reef features fish and other dishes with a Caribbean beat fired by a battery of cooks in an exhibition kitchen. The downstairs bar makes a mean freshly muddled mojito, while the upstairs bar and rooftop terrace cater to mingling singles animated by a DJ’s tunes. The main dining room has been redecorated in the bright watery colors of the Caribbean and hosts a school of sculpted fish. Big windows bring in a view of strolling couples and kids splashing in a fountain in the vest pocket park out front.
Starters here tend to be more than ample, which is both good and not so good: good because they’re delicious and less so because if you each polish off your own, as we did, it’s hard to do justice to your equally savory main dish—unless, of course, your capacity exceeds ours.
I heeded our waiter’s advice and started with the jumbo lump crab cake ($8), which proved to be all succulent crab and no filler accented by a sweet chile corn relish and garlic aioli. And although jumbo was no exaggeration, every bite disappeared as if by magic. Colette chose a trio of what the menu calls tamale cakes ($11), featuring tasty little massa corncakes under a heavenly topping of pulled pork, chipotle chocolate sauce, sour cream and pineapple salsa. Wow! We’ll come back for these with a glass of wine on our way home after work one day soon.
Thanks to the creativity of executive chef Ash Tucker and sous chef Danny Ittleman, the seafood main courses are served with considerable flair and consummate skill. It was my turn to try the snapper this time, that excellent fish prepared here not whole but with crispy skin intact ($21), asserted by cool pineapple slaw and sweet mango salsa, all served over rice infused with a bright coconut red curry. Colette opted for grouper ($22), pan seared and served under a peppercorn beurre blanc atop coo coo cakes (that’s Caribbean for polenta) and a lusty lump crab stir fry. Both dishes married their carnivale of flavors beautifully, producing a surprising harmony.
As we leaned back in our chairs, replete, we watched a mountainous portion of banana rum bread pudding served at the adjacent table and were tempted, but really, where would we have put it?
Main Street Oyster Bar
1991 Main St., Sarasota Reservations: (941) 955-4457 Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 3-10 p.m. every day; late night menu 10 p.m.-midnight Monday-Saturday Cards: VISA, MC, AmEx, Discover
Handicapped accessible: yes Parking: on street or complimentary valet
Urban Reef Restaurant and Bar 1888 Main St., Sarasota Reservations: (941) 365-3722 Hours: lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner 5-10 p.m.; upstairs bar 4 p.m.-2 a.m., all Monday-Saturday Cards: VISA, MC, AmEx, Discover Handicapped accessible: yes Parking: on street or free in garage
What I'm Drinking
The classic and most lavish of the many possible pairings of France’s sweet Sauternes wines is that of the celebrated product of Chateau d’Yquem with foie gras. If that’s your dish, I say go for it. I’ll take mine with a nice assortment of powerfully aromatic cheeses after dinner or all by itself, dessert in a glass.
As only the sparkling wines of the Champagne region can rightly be called Champagne, only the wines made from grapes in which botrytis cinerea, or noble rot, has turned them to intensely sugared near raisins in the vineyards of the small wine commune of Sauternes can properly be called Sauternes. (Beware a New World wine confusingly called sauterne, without the final s.) Within the appellation are plenty of variety and many a price point, but Chateau d’Yquem is undeniably the Big Wally. Bottles go for as little as $150 for the insignificant 1994 to more than $15,000 for the venerable 1900, if you can find it.
Much more plentiful but less versatile than any of the Sauternes wines are the sweet icewines of Canada. Although some of the varietals made into icewines may be touched by botrytis, the noble infection here is not at all a prerequisite. What is required is that the grapes, whether they be riesling, vidal and other whites or even the red cabernet franc, must be frozen on the vine. In fact, Canadian law requires that the hanging grapes be subjected to a hard freeze at 17 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. The temperature concentrates the sugars.
While Sauternes wines commonly are sold in full 750-ml bottles, icewines more often come in 375-ml half bottles, a point to consider when comparison shopping. Although a small handful of Canadian icewines can bring more than $600 the half bottle, and very rare half bottles might go in the thousands, you can pick up a perfectly drinkable icewine like the 2007 Jackson-Triggs Vidal Icewine for about $20. Many more, including the output of Canadian icewines pioneer Inniskillin, fall in a mid-range of about $40 to $150.
Whatever your choice, both French Sauternes and New World icewines make a lovely choice at the conclusion of a long romantic dinner with your Valentine. z
An editor, writer and online publisher, John Bancroft has reviewed restaurants, books, movies and music for many magazines, Web sites and newspapers, most recently for the St. Petersburg Times.
Lunchtime, Indian style.
The Place: Daawat Indian Cuisine; 239 S. Links Ave., Sarasota; (941) 366-4433.
The Fare: This ambitious Indian restaurant and wine bar has taken over the charming cottage at the northwest corner of the Towles Court arts district once occupied by Canvas Cafe. The extensive menu features specialties from the subcontinent ranging from tandoori dishes done in the traditional clay oven to curries, vindaloos, bhunas, vegetarian dishes and a mouthwatering array of traditional Indian breads like naan and tandoori roti. A short but well-chosen list of wines by the glass and bottle is a welcome touch.
The Drill: Dinner is served every day and lunch is offered Monday through Saturday. We’re focusing here on weekday lunch, specifically the specials. Dine in one of two small rooms or outside on a welcoming porch or patio. For takeout, call ahead and get a 10 percent discount!
The Bottom Line: The weekday lunch specials are a really good deal, offering a reduced portion main dish plus soup or salad, rice, naan and the day’s vegetable. They’re divided into four categories, each offering four choices. Chicken specials are $8.95 each and range from a mild but robust chicken tikka masala to a fiery vindaloo. Lamb specials are $9.95, including a superb bhuna featuring tender chunks of meat simmered with fresh tomatoes, onion, ginger, garlic and spices. Seafood specials—two curries and two bhunas, with your choice of shrimp or fresh fish—are $10.95. Vegetarian specials are $7.95 and include one of my all-time favorites, saag paneer, which pairs cubes of homemade “cottage cheese” with fresh spinach in a spicy sauce.
Chef Judi Gallagher heeds the call of cauliflower.
Cauliflower, a winter favorite that thrives in cooler temperatures, has long been the elusive cousin of broccoli. The white bouquet gained fame during the low-carb run of the 1990s. Since cauliflower doesn’t contain starch, it’s a natural substitute for mashed potatoes. Low in fat (until you add the cheese sauce) and high in fiber, it’s considered a cancer-fighting food.
While traveling last year, I overheard a flight attendant sharing her cooking technique for grilled cauliflower. As soon as I returned home, I tried it; and it’s been a hit as a side dish when we’re barbecuing. Cut the cauliflower down the middle. Remove the stem (stalk). Split the cauliflower into quarters. Rub with extra virgin olive oil and kosher salt and black pepper. Grill over medium heat until dark grill marks appear and the vegetable begins to soften. Turn often.
While I love the healthier version of grilling cauliflower, I also adore a cream-laced cauliflower purée. Use the purée more as an underlying sauce for grilled meats, such as grilled lamb chops or grilled duck breast.
1 head white cauliflower, cleaned, stemmed, cut into large pieces
Kosher salt to taste
Fresh ground white pepper
Pinch of saffron
1 cup light cream
Season the cut cauliflower with kosher salt and pepper to taste. Place the cauliflower in heavy-bottomed saucepot. Add a few saffron threads and cover with cream. Cook on a medium-low heat until tender.
Remove from heat and strain, reserving cream. Blend cauliflower in blender until very smooth, adding some or all of the cream if needed. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper if needed.