Sometimes the most luxurious things in life are simple. Take, for example, the enticing new menu of the Vernona Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota. Most of it is organic, featuring locally grown produce and meats from animals that have been organically fed and humanely raised. The menu reflects fresh, seasonally appropriate selections-peas in the spring, root vegetables in the winter. It's a menu that makes sense but shows great sensibility in imaginative presentation and pairings. And of course, the flavors are sovereign-bright, clean, authentic and so fresh.
Bravo to Vernona chef Yves Vacheresse for his research and for his commitment (he drives to one of his suppliers every few days and loads dew-soaked fruits and vegetables into the back seat himself). And bravo to executive chef Frederic Morineau for encouraging and promoting the experiment. The Sarasota Ritz is pioneering a type of menu that other restaurants in the haute hotel family may well want to emulate.
Chef Vacheresse, who's working on a cookbook based on his philosophy of nourishment, says his current approach to ingredients and cooking takes him back to his childhood in France. "We went to the market daily and bought what was fresh and in season," he says. "And we cooked simply, allowing the fresh flavors to come through. When you have fruits, vegetables, meats and seafood that are absolutely fresh, you want to do very little to them. And when you realize that you are enjoying something-fresh strawberries, maybe-that you can't have at any other time of year, it makes those tastes that much more special. To this day, I only eat apples in the fall." He likes to support local organic sources; his suppliers are listed on the menu in case you want to patronize them, too.
Recently two of us booked a table at the Vernona with the intention of eating an organic meal from appetizer to dessert. We found plenty of choices to put together an original and satisfying dinner, starting with a surprise amuse bouche, a sliver of wild salmon with a light sauce. For the appetizer, one of us opted for the Vernona salad ($10), which was baby field greens, shaved beets and fennel, Florida sweet onion, orange zest and pistachios dressed with aged sherry-hazelnut vinaigrette. It was crunchy, sweet-sour, cleansing and entirely pretty, too.
We also sampled the spicy Lake Okeechobee organic shrimp, paired with roasted mango and avocado cream for a rare tropical taste treat at $14. This is a tourist must. Also on our table was the warm Vidalia onion tart ($12), arranged atop field greens tossed with artichoke purée, Gorgonzola and fig balsamic vinegar. Rich and hearty. We might also have tried the chilled heirloom tomato cream soup ($9), which sported a top hat of a basil-Parmesan crisp.
For the main course, one of us had the grilled veal chop, thick but delicate, juicy and flavorful, served atop a bed of silken organic stone-ground whipped grits unlike any grits you've ever tasted. To the side was a mound of bright-green flat Romano beans. My dining partner chose beef tenderloin with heirloom potatoes and creamed spinach. Uncomplicated and soul-satisfying at $39.
Since Florida grouper supplies are being depleted, Vacheresse is promoting wreck fish, a firm-fleshed member of the grouper family. He serves it with celery root purée and ginger crisp and a little mound of red onion-rhubarb marmalade for $26.
Dessert is the most challenging in terms of choosing organic, because the Ritz's chocolate confections are made with imported dark chocolates from Belgium and France. And all of award-winning pastry chef Stephane Cheramy's chocolate creations are worth sampling. So we went with the bittersweet chocolate tart with vanilla ice cream and pistachio foam, meandering from our organic route with no regrets. But if you decide to stay pure, order some of the house-made sorbets, such as mango, grapefruit, blood orange or coconut. These colorful and refreshing sorbets, made with organic fruits, are paired with almond meringues or other surprise shortbread cookies or cake morsels.
The Vernona organic menu changes seasonally (and sometimes daily), depending on harvest and dependability of chef's local suppliers. But while the ingredients may vary, you can be assured that the commitment to sustainable farming and the culinary expertise at the Vernona will always measure up to the high standards of the Ritz-Carlton. And the service will be outstanding.