The wait staff at Ezra wears blue jeans with white dress shirts, neckties and bistro aprons. Such counterpoint of high-low, casual-sophisticated makes this Bradenton cafe work as both a relaxed neighborhood hangout for locals and as a destination for Sarasota foodies.
The biggest surprise here is how ambitious the menu is and how reasonable the prices. Chef/owner Dave Shiplett doesn't compromise on quality ingredients and refuses to play it traditional, in spite of his humble address in a strip mall. The place isn't particularly classy, but the food certainly is.
Everything at Ezra basically takes place in one room that seats about 80. (There's patio seating for 30 more and a private function room for 50.) The open kitchen is at one end of the dining room, a bar is off to one side, and a small lounge area accommodates people waiting to be seated. The dining space is set with round and square tables. There are white tablecloths (covered with that laundry-saving butcher paper) and cloth napkins, candlelight at night and a little vase of lucky bamboo on each table. The atmosphere is unhurried and the lighting under the black painted ceiling comfortably gentle.
Seafood rules at Ezra. Born and raised in Bradenton as the son of a commercial fisherman, 46-year-old Shiplett has been filleting fish and shucking oysters since childhood. His attitude about seafood is to clean it and get out of the way. "When you start with a fresh piece of fish, do as little as possible to it," he insists. "The taste of that fish should be the taste in your mouth." Besides learning seafood basics young, Shiplett studied under Asian chefs in San Francisco, hence the menu's Asian influences.
At Ezra, I had one of the best preparations of Dover sole in my life. Light and meltingly delicious, the sole came with a side of squash risotto and sautéed spinach. And high praise to the lump blue crab cakes, which were rich in flavor. Chef serves the cakes (two to an order) with corn relish off to the side or with a West Indian cocktail sauce.
At a cooking demonstration a couple of years ago, I watched Shiplett prepare his pan-seared signature crab cakes. His recipe is deceptively simple, because the quality of the ingredients is what makes it so successful. With the cakes at Ezra I was served basil whipped potatoes that were quite green and more refreshing than you'd expect mashed potatoes to be. Jasmine rice, cheese grits, cucumber noodle salad and hash browns are other unexpected sides on the menu.
Seafood specials to try include pan-fried oysters, tuna sushi tempura, Caribbean spiny lobster bisque, grilled yellowfin tuna, Key West mahi mahi and wok-fried Gulf shrimp. Ezra's bento box is worth exploring. In it are a tuna tempura roll, calamari salad, fried oysters and Thai shrimp slaw. At $17, it's a grand global fusion meal.
Landlubbers need not whine. The New York strip steak, the skirt steak, burger, Asian grilled chicken with Mandarin orange, and the hoi sin roasted duck are first rate. Entrées average $19 (steak, more).
The wine list features mostly California product, with a nod to New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Northwest. Among some surprises are Redwood Valley's Lolonis Ladybug Re, an organic wine, offered at $26. Desserts, made by Dr. Donna Eason (the chef's wife), range from $4 to $6 and express creativity as well as a sense of humor. Look for Guava crème brûlée, root beer float, dark and light chocolate paté, and an apple pizzeta (a riff on a tarte Tatin) that's made to order and well worth trying.
If you live in Bradenton, you probably already eat at Ezra. If you live in Sarasota and are willing to make the trek to this delightful cafe, you'll be inspired to do it again.
5625 W. Manatee Ave., Bradenton
Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner: Monday through Saturday, 5:30-9:30 p.m.
Takeout, catering, Saturday live entertainment.
Parking in mall lot
Bacco's, which started out in a small space on Main Street in Sarasota, moved to Lemon Avenue about two years ago. Lately it's benefited from successful rehabilitation projects in the neighborhood of Whole Foods Market downtown. Always a good bet for traditional and modern Northern and Southern Italian specialties, this restaurant, owned by affable couple Claudia and Pietro Moschini, now is much more inviting from the outside.
When Bacco's first moved, the restaurant seemed hidden away and shy. Now it announces itself proudly as guests approach the front door through a pleasant brick plaza of young trees, container flowers, white stone benches and a handsome shell-shaped fountain. Inside the sexy bar room with its leopard-skin print overlays on black tablecloths, there's room for guests who want light fare while taking in live entertainment. The atmosphere is boisterous and fun.
The main dining room is more sophisticated with background music, pretty floral carpet, formal table settings and stately paintings on the faux-finished walls. These two spaces together seat about 160, with additional room for 40 outside in the informal courtyard.
Executive chef is owner Pietro. The menu expresses a Tuscan steakhouse attitude, including ribeye, which is marinated in garlic and rosemary and chargrilled ($21.95). All the beef is aged at least four weeks. Other beef specialties include a N.Y. strip and a filet done in an aged balsamic vinegar reduction and mixed mushrooms for $26. The gnocchi is home made and includes truffle essence, and there's always a risotto of the day.
The perennial favorite veal scaloppini is modernized at Bacco's with bits of sun-dried tomatoes and a topping of Gorgonzola ($19). King salmon looks lovely and tastes the same in its champagne-and-pink peppercorn sauce dressed with saffron fennel ($19). The menu includes seven pastas dishes, including rich mushroom ravioli in cream with walnuts and nutmeg sauce for $15. The usual suspects crop up in the appetizer and salad portion of the menu and include fried calamari, antipasto (for two), bruschetta, and carpaccio. The wine list is extensive and desserts (about $7) are predictable-tiramisu, berries in Marsala sauce, panna cotta and a puff pastry with cream and berries. Service is prompt and efficient.
An evening at Bacco's is a comfortable and satisfying experience for those who enjoy Italian specialties with a bit of a modern European flair.
BACCO'S RISTORANTE ITALIANO
23 N. Lemon Ave., Sarasota
Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner: Nightly, 5-10 p.m.
Pecan pie salad from Robert Fracalossy.
Chef Robert Fracalossy, executive chef at Café L'Europe on St. Armands, grew up in a restaurant family in New Jersey and St. Petersburg, Fla., where he got a job as a dishwasher at age 13 in a pancake house. Like many chefs, Fracalossy, 48, chooses the simple approach on his days off. "A steak on the grill paired with a baked sweet potato with cinnamon and a drop of maple syrup can make me happy just about anytime," he says. His pecan pie salad is new on the Café L'Europe menu, created when he was experimenting with nuts and specialty dressings. He says this unusual salad is a fine accompaniment for duck or chicken and should be served with a light red wine. Cafe L' Europe, 431 St. Armands Circle, Sarasota. (941) 388-4415. Lunch and dinner.
PECAN PIE SALAD
assorted baby greens
1 large diced and seeded tomato
1 large skinned and diced cucumber
1/2 cup sliced black olives
8 ounces Stilton cheese, diced or crumbled
8 ounces large or giant pecan halves, caramelized
bourbon balsamic maple dressing
Toss all and add dressing to coat.
Use your recipe or box mix. Cut cornbread into large cubes, toss with melted butter, brown sugar and cinnamon. Bake until crisp (375 degrees).
food processor or blender
2 peeled shallots
2 ounces pecan pieces
1/2 bunch watercress
2 ounces bourbon
4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
5 tablespoons maple syrup
1/2 cup cup olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
Blend all ingredients except olive oil. While machine is running, slowly add oil. Season with salt and pepper.
Q. Can you tell me a little about the new gourmet salts? The current kitchen staple is French gray salt, harvested in Brittany. Celebrity chef Tyler Florence keeps his home kitchen well stocked with it and says you should, too. Here are some others: Hawaiian red salt is fruity and slightly peppery and tinted by iron-rich clay. French Fleur de Sel is often called the caviar of salts ($15 for about five ounces). It smells of the sea and lavender, and some chefs sprinkle a bit on chocolate cakes. Chardonnay salt is smoked using oak barrels (I'm not making this up) and Jurassic salt, harvested from an ancient sea, is supposedly perfect for salads. Sicilian white is delicate enough for fish, while Danish Viking smoked packs a real punch and makes an impressive dry rub for meat. It's about $10 an ounce. Pink Peruvian salt tastes of minerals and enhances sliced tomatoes. English flake is free of any bitterness. The pyramid-shaped crystals crush easily and are pretty as garnish. English flake is the salt you want to sprinkle on vegetables and meats before roasting for a slightly crunchy texture.
NIBBLES & SIPS
Fondue is a food trend that came and went and is now back again. Home sets are appearing on bridal registries, and Target has a great- looking Michael Graves-designed fondue set for only $40. But if you want to eat your fondue in a restaurant with all the work done for you, investigate the Melting Pot, which has operated for 20 years in Sarasota at Saba Plaza on Tamiami Trail at Bahia Vista. With a renaissance in this national chain's favor, our local Melting Pot has moved to a more upscale location at Courthouse Centre across from Hollywood 20. Now loft owners and the après-film crowd can meet and enjoy an interactive meal with friends. Expect a variety of cheese fondues, salads, entrées and several kinds of chocolate fondue for dessert. Practice your dipping technique at home; it's all in the wrist action.
The newest venture for antiques dealers/restaurateurs Al and Monika Tomlinson is the gorgeous Rustic Grill, a bistro/art gallery/wine bar/antiques showroom/catering place and party palace all combined into one luscious two-story sprawling space. Rustic Grill sits right across the alley from the couple's other successful casual restaurant, Sierra Station. At Rustic Grill, notice the sculpture of a winsome mermaid in the bar's center area. This piece of art by Paul Manship was commissioned by John Ringling in the 1920s and meant to be the centerpiece for a fountain that would grace the Ritz-Carlton that Ringling was building. His grand scheme never saw fulfillment, but isn't it nice that his mermaid finally found a home in Sarasota? We'll cover the food and wine side of Rustic Grill next month. The chef is Clinton Combs, most recently of Christopher's.
Need a nice gift for someone but don't have time to shop? Think about a gift card to Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar. The cards are available in denominations of $25, $50 and $100 and can be purchased at any Fleming's restaurant or on the Internet at flemingssteakhouse.com. The Sarasota Fleming's will soon be joined by Roy's, a popular Hawaiian fusion restaurant started in Honolulu by hotshot chef Roy Yamaguchi in 1988. The two restaurants will be side by side. Flemings and Roy's, you know, belong to the Outback chain, which also owns Carrabba's and Bonefish Grill. If you have a gift certificate that someone has given you to Carrabba's or Bonefish, you can use it at Fleming's.
Art and food are a traditional pairing, so now Titus Letschert, owner of Café L'Europe on St. Armands, is expanding his culinary interests to include a new fine art showroom called Abbott Galleries at 18 South Boulevard of the Presidents, not far from his continental restaurant. Art from the gallery will flow in and out of the restaurant, giving the rooms an even more sophisticated European aspect. Letschert's nephew, Jordan Letschert, is the restaurant's new manager.