Sarasota Food Orgy 2015

There’s beaches. There’s circus. There’s the inimitable Ringling Estates, for god’s sake. So why is it that each time I venture to the Sarasota area, all I think and write about is the food?

Surf Shack Coastal Kitchen

Surf Shack Coastal Kitchen

Because all the rest – the zip lining and treetop base-camp adventures, the tennis, the shopping, the sunset drum circle at Siesta Key – it’s all just stuff I did between eating for four days last week.

Day One: Killer Turtles and Pie in a Jar

I planned my arrival to Sarasota County just in time for lunch at Snook Haven, east of Venice in a county park on the wild Myakka River. I had heard that the funky indoor-outdoor restaurant had been rescued from closure by the same folks who operate the ever-popular Sharky’s at the Pier in Venice. And even better news, now barbecue is on cue.

How appropriate: This place is all country with its legend of Killer Turtles, left over from the filming of a Tarzan episode. It has designated motorcycle parking. And the Gulf Coast Banjo Society performs Thursday afternoons in season.

On my smoked pulled pork taco with cheddar and pico de gallo, I tried each one of the restaurant’s four barbecue sauces as I watched kayakers paddle by. The Carolina Style sauce won, but old Spicy Whiskey placed a close second.

After checking into the Resort at Longboat Key Club, I headed to Siesta Key with some new friends to distract myself at the surprisingly robust drum circle (many circus performers participate, I hear), until we made our way to the famous Siesta Key Oyster Bar (SKOB) in the village.

Packed on a Sunday evening, SKOB was hosting an energetic band and slinging raw oysters and other briny treasures. Our raw oysters were a little subpar on the chilled level. But the grouper bites with remoulade compensated and then some.

The sea scallops on my main course were perfectly cooked, but honestly the creamy crawfish tail meat risotto stole the show. You also can’t go wrong with any fish prepared key lime style, including the tacos with cilantro cream.

You can’t blame a place for trying to be novel with its key lime pie. Personally I prefer it classic when it is done right.

One of my new friends from Atlanta was surprised to hear both the waiter and I say “I love key lime pie.” I guess she didn’t, and this version in a “Mason jar” (actually a jelly jar), probably didn’t convince her.

It layered crumb crust, pie filling, whipped cream, repeat. A little difficult to get the full effect of pie. And not nearly tart enough.

Day Two: Lobster Roll and True Ceviche!

If there’s one way to work up an appetite for Sarasota, it’s TreeUmph – a radical adventure course east of Bradenton that has you hooking up your own zip lines, walking cables and other unlikely bridges between tree tops, and praying.

I rewarded myself at Dry Dock Waterfront Grill back on Longboat Key. It just so happened that the 15-day Savor Sarasota county-wide promotion had kicked in that day, so I took advantage and ordered an iced tea, lobster roll, and key lime pie for $15.

This is a yachties dry dock, so the ambiance is tasteful with two floors overlooking Sarasota Bay.

Huge chunks of lobster meat brimmed out of the sandwich’s bun. This key lime pie? Traditional and creamy. But still short on pucker.

A tennis lesson – make that an excellent tennis lesson – at Longboat Key Club helped me sweat off some calories and temper my impatience for dinner at one of my top three favorite Sarasota restaurants. Selva Grill does Peruvian, and does it right.

I had dined there a few times, but this time was on the tails of a trip to Peru a few months earlier. How would it measure up now?

My answer came in the form of the Selva Wild Ceviche. It’s totally authentic when there is Cusco corn involved. Selva, however, adds a little more fire than Peru; I like that.

The La Buena Causa potato-based tapa – Wow! Did you know there are more than 3,000 varieties of corn and 2,000 types of potatoes grown in Peru?

Selva Grill Osso Buco with Quinoa Risotto

Selva Grill Osso Buco with Quinoa Risotto

Quinoa is another staple, and Peruvian cuisine is greatly influence by Italy (and also Chinese, random as that may seem). So my entrée from the specials made perfect sense: osso buco with quinoa risotto and a red wine demi. It was a clear highlight of my latest Sarasota food orgy.

Day Three: The Cornbread of All Cornbread and Crazy Snapper

After the requisite visit to the campus of the Ringling Art Museum, a five-ring lunch was in order. No clowning around at the new Surf Shack Coastal Kitchen at shopping mecca St. Armands Circle.

Kudos for a brilliant beach bum setting downstairs. But more so for Catie’s Corn Bread. We threatened owner Steve Bishop with an elevator hostage situation in an effort to extract the recipe from him. Stay tuned, I just may get it yet. I’m not above extortion.

All I know at this point: It comes in a miniature cast iron skillet with the texture of a good carrot cake and the bite of jalapenos. Surf Shack prides itself in its creative $4 tacos (try the yellowfin tuna), but do not miss the seafood S’Mac & Cheese. At dinnertime, you can kick it up a story and enjoy a different ambience, separate menu upstairs.

An operatic shuttle driver named Richard delivered us to dinner at Portofino at the Longboat Key Club. Yes we were serenaded.

As the sun set we noshed on an excellent sequence of pear salad, spaghetti squash parmesan pomodoro, and house pizza. My Snapper Aqua Pazza (translation: crazy water) was a triumph of local snapper and Cedar Key clams. Note: Only guests of the club and resort have access to Portofino and other club restaurants.

Day Four: Farewell and One Restaurant Fired

I traveled to Bradenton Beach in hopes of trying the new restaurant at the pier, but alas it was closed. So I headed to old standby Gulf Drive Café – regrettably. I had had a less than stellar experience there about a year ago, but with a large group.

It’s a case of having outgrown its avid fanship with a major expansion. I see it all the time in the restaurant world.

Giving it the benefit of a doubt, I ordered my barometer breakfast dish, eggs benedict. This one Florentine style. Strike two. Now I’m wondering why I didn’t got to Island Creperie instead.

And with that it was farewell and back home and to the gym.

Get thee and thy palate to Sarasota by June 14 to take advantage of the special prix fixe lunch and dinner menus at more than 60 local eateries. But go any time for Sarasota delicious.

Longboat Key: The Island in Between

Pure fish shack-style at Mar Vista

Extremely Florida

Stretching 12 miles between Anna Maria Island and Lido Key, Longboat Key is the only of the Sarasota-Bradenton coast islands with no direct access to mainland. That keeps it mired in old Florida on one hand, and floating on cloud luxury at the other.

I experienced both extremes of its charmingly schizophrenic mood swings last week, staying at two different properties on two separate nights.

Ultra casual in north Longboat Key

LBK’s north end, which resides in Bradenton’s Manatee County, best reflects the island’s funky casual extreme. Exhibit A: Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant and Moore’s Stone Crab.

The former has that lovely lived-in, borderline ramshackle look on the outside, crowned by an appropriately rusting tin roof. Inside, tables don’t match, napkins are paper, boaters hoist beers at the bar, and a view of the harbor dominates the decorator’s scheme.

There’s also seating on plastic chairs on the patio, which has heaters when it’s cool and fans when it’s hot. The seafood is fresh, and the key lime pie is creamy, dreamy, and authentic.

Locals still refer to  this place as “The Pub,” its name in another century, but one that still comes first to the tongue.

Moore’s, too, occupies a time-bubble of another generation in seafood dining. Next door to Mar Vista with an even more expansive bayview, it hasn’t changed its plain old cafeteria décor since it opened in the 1960s. With its own crabbing fleet, it dares to name itself after Florida’s favorite shellfish.

Up the street, peacocks and peahens saunter and squawk. Along the gulf, the homes and resorts keep in the quirky, quiet theme.

Exhibit B: Rolling Waves Cottages, my home for one night on the Gulf of Mexico. I’m never happier than when no shoes stand between me and the beach. The words “beach cottage” send goosebumps up my arms, and I’m not kidding.

Colorful at Rolling Waves Cottages

I’ve been making semi-annual stops at Rolling Waves for more than 15 years for my Sarasota, Sanibel Island & Naples guidebook. The owners kept inviting me to stay, and finally I took them up on it.

Owner Kimberly had called me to let me know she wouldn’t be there to personally greet me, but that #6 (out of eight) would be open with the key inside. That’s exactly how casually things roll at Rolling Waves.

Dating from the 1940s, the cottages have a retro exterior and a rustic interior, but with all the comforts of home. The wood floor in #6 squeaked in certain spots, and the walls could’ve benefited from paint touch-ups here and there.

But on the other hand, it had colored sheets and towels instead of the typical hotel institutional white. The stove was gas-powered, and the gulf took maybe 30 steps to reach.

Guest families homesteaded the beach with pop-up awnings. The kids could have been poster children for happy childhoods, I mused as I literally walked into the sunset.

When I stopped to fill in a deep hole that dipped between a staked loggerhead sea turtle nest and the sea, some of my neighbors stopped to talk turtles as I explained that the hatchlings wouldn’t likely make it to the water with the hole en route. Or was it just my excuse to play in the sand?

When I went into my cottage for the night, I slammed the screen door behind me. As they say, you’re never too old to have a happy childhood.

Luxury landings on south Longboat Key

Sunset the next night looked entirely different. At the south end of the island, in Sarasota County, things get  higher and higher-end. Highest of all, the high-rise condos of Longboat Key Club and luxurious trappings of its resort make for a tidily manicured landscape and high-density man-scape.

High-rises replace cottages at Longboat Key Club.

How do I love this scene? Let me count the ways: 291 slips in the deep-water marina, 218 plush rooms and condo suites, 45 holes of golf, 25 Har-Tru tennis courts, nine miles of biking and walking pathways, seven restaurants, one organic spa, and zero toxic pesticides or herbicides used on the golf course. Did I mention seven restaurants?

Unfortunately, 10 hours gave me opportunity to eat in only one, but a fino one it was, and at sunset a golden cast glazed the yacht marina that Portofino overlooks — quite a different harbor from Mar Vista’s.

Decisions don’t come easily at Portofino. It’s known for its wood-oven pizzas. But how can you order pizza, pasta, and seafood all in one meal?

So I passed on the pizza, but the ricotta spinach gnocchi with fresh fava beans and yellow tomato pomodoro sauce; and grilled wahoo with tomato panzanella salad were plenty to convince me that Portofino has a lot more going on than sterling views.

Bottom line: You throw great food into the equation, and it’s going to sway me. Then there was the beach view from my fourth-story room and my sunrise stroll, where sand was the uncommon denominator of the two experiences.

So, don’t make me pick a favorite between my two extremely different days, because both experiences are so LBK. So old Florida and new Florida wrapped up in one long ribbon of an island.