Rim

Take the biggest ocean. Look at the edges. Call that something. Oh, right. Let’s call it the Pacific Rim.

Why didn’t the Greeks do this with the Mediterranean? They sailed the length and breadth of their aquatic back yard, but saw no need to unify it. Ditto Romans. Carthaginians. Moors.

Maybe the ancient peoples of our world lacked a marketing dept. Or PR people. That’s really what they needed, someone to pitch an idea to Socrates or any of the Roman lads. Or Zeus. I understand he had this corner of the universe sewn up, all to himself. He saw no need to unite what were pretty fractious people. At least their rulers were.

So to the Indian Rim. That would be all of eastern Africa, the sub-continent, parts of south-east Asia, and Perth. Perth, Western Australia, not Perth, Scotland, as much as I’m sure they’d like to be somewhere a bit warmer. The Indian Rim makes a deal more sense, but no-one refers to it. As a foodie (sic) agglomeration, it would have few peers. Think Arabic, Afghan, Indian, Thai and all the delicious African wonderments. Plus beer and pies from Australia.

Or the Atlantic Rim. Wouldn’t that be a treat? From Iceland to the Falklands. One big beautiful coastline.

Unsocial

One meal was enough here. The memory is enough to trigger internal hemorrhaging, not just because the food and service were ordinary, but because of their bloated website claims. Simplicity and quality are the rarest elements in the restaurant periodic table. Humility and honesty are the next couple. Places like this survive on what they think is cool. Blech.

When a tort lawyer, a flight attendant and a ski bum decide to open a restaurant in Sarasota together, Social is the result. From this unlikely combination a carefully understated mission arose:

“By…taking a creative and innovative approach to Italian-American cuisine, we hope to provide unforgettable cuisine…”

“Our goal in creating such a restaurant…features this new approach to Italian comfort food, as well as incredible specialty drinks…”

“Social Eatery & Bar takes an inventive and original approach to traditional Italian-American comfort food…”

This story reminds me of Salvador Dali. Dali, like many artists, was only partially accepted in his lifetime. All that dreamlike surrealist imagery confronted people, offended some and downright puzzled others. The point about Dali is that as well as being visually visionary he was an accomplished draftsman, a master of perspective and quite able to draw in the traditional style. He could create crazy because he had the foundation from which to build.

Social is no Dali. When you expound (at length) about your adoration of Italian food, serving a “ragù bolognese” that a fellow diner compared (unfavorably) to Chef Boyardee dings your credibility. Likewise, a salad of arugula with salmon was almost absurdly unbalanced, with a minnow-like chunk of fish perched on a gargantuan pile of green. All of our dishes had some kind of bum note. Maybe the kitchen really was aiming for Dali, but there isn’t one restaurant south of the Gotthard Tunnel where you’d find such an indelicate touch.

Italian food (or Italian comfort food, which varies from the other, uncomfortable version I know not how) doesn’t need fixing. Or if you absolutely must charge punters for a “…creative and innovative approach…” then please find someone who knows the fundamentals of cooking, plating and serving.

Social, perhaps; better called Dilettante. Worthy of two stars. One removed because the plaintiffs’ bar costs us all billions.

Tinsel the Salmon

You don’t want to know what I ate for dinner.

No. I do. Tell me.

You’ll be horrified. You’ll mock me.

No I won’t. Was it broccoli and rice again?

No. Well, you’re partially right.

Oh no. Rice. And sardines.

Nope.

Rice and salmon.

Crap.

Urrrrrghhhh. Rice and salmon. Tinned salmon.

*sound of exhalation

You had rice and tinned salmon for dinner. That’s so bland and boring and disgusting.

No, actually, it’s very good for you. Salmon is chock full of Omega fatty acids. Omega threes. And it was brown rice, which is excellent for your vowels.

Yes but canned salmon is slimy and gross. And it’s so bland.

I had one other ingredient.

What?

*sounds of being strangled. Onions.

Onions. So for dinner you had onions, brown rice and canned salmon.

Errrrrkkkkkkk.

Well you didn’t have to eat it.

No. It’s bad enough listening to you talk about it.

But I offered not to not reveal the details.

I had to know.

I’m willing to drop the whole topic. How was your day?

Salmon. From a can. Not even real salmon.

It’s real enough when it goes into the can. I have moved on from the salmon. I caught it, now I have released it. You have caught it and put it in an aquarium. It’s in there swimming away, trying to get upstream. And you’re there poking it with a stick and tapping on the glass.

I don’t understand why you eat such boring food. What’s the point of living?

About as much point as that salmon you’re annoying in that tank.

Exactly.

We should name him.

Who?

Your salmon. How about Tinsel?

No. I don’t like it. How about Dick?
I think Tinsel the Salmon is festive. Gives him hope.

What about SalMON Rushdie?

You’re a fan of magical realism? Actually, given your fetish with my food, you might be.

What does that mean?

Salman Rushdie? Satanic Verses? Magical realism as a type of fiction?

Whatever. Tinsel is a stupid name for a fish. He’s Salmon Rushdie.

Lassi finds Timmy

Ah, Indian food, the wonder that makes our hearts beat a little faster. This Main Street jewel keeps the competition for the best Sub-Continental food alive.

 

Put yourself in the place of the new restaurant owner. Before you open the doors, an enormous thicket of regulatory and financial palmetto must be negotiated; there are leases to be signed, checks cut, fit-out…fitted. Then, after all the pain of gestation and birth, you stand proudly at the front of house and await the hungry.

I wonder sometimes how these folks do it. How to maintain a six-days-a-week show of welcome, keep the kitchen sending out quality food and maintain your enthusiasm for it all?

Well, maybe that enthusiasm will slip a little, especially on a Sunday night in Sarasota. You look at your dining room and note that you have a total of four patrons. Why, you wonder, are hungry hordes not lining up to eat your food; why are you not over-run with appreciative, adventurous Sarasotans and S-Birders?

Which might explain the slightly dour reception I received at the Palace. Not unfriendly, mind you, just serious, with a whiff of exasperation. Did our host let slip his fear that here was another group of timid, flavor-fearful Americans? *Please, no more of these curry wannabes*

And then something changed. One of our party ordered Indian beer. I had lassi. Every one of our dishes we wanted genuinely hot, spice-wise. Our choices weren’t mainstream. Somewhere in there the entire mood changed; I think we made their night.

The Palace made ours, too. A case can be made that a community milestone exists – in a culinary sense – when a quality,  competitive Indian restaurant battle is joined. That time appears to be now.

Eeny, Meany, Donut-Ho

This place baffles me. It’s a domestic-style operation with the tiniest frier you have ever seen making mini-donuts. Then they add sugar and spice.

It’s magic. It’s miniscule. It makes a mountain of money. It’s Meaney’s Mini Donuts on Siesta-bleeding Key.

 

Overview: Donuts are deep-fried batter. Donut batter is fat, flour and sugar.

Having deep-fried your batter, add more sugar with a glaze or by direct sprinkling.

Carefree about your health? Then go ahead. Fill your deep-fried batter-objects with cream or custard ie: more fat and sugar.

User Tip: Eat donuts whilst they are fresh.

Let’s review: Fat tastes great. Sugar tastes great. Everything deep-fried tastes great.

Is there any way to screw this up?

Life in the Wild

Some people think this is the best place in Sarasota for breakfast. That might be true, but there are more reasons to eat at the Oasis than the food.

 

The interregnum between summer and Season means we can observe native Sarasotans undiluted by exotic species. Just as in the Masai Mara, prime wildlife spotting coincides with sun-up and sun-down, and for guaranteed success be near a water-hole.

Apropos then is a place called the Oasis. At opening time on a Sunday you will likely bag the following big game:

~ The lone octogenarian man who has just finished his egg on toast and single mug of decaf. How did he order and eat so quickly?

~ The Ferrari-driving sixty-something who knows all the staff by name (and their net worth and that of everyone he lays eyes on.)

~ The fussy grandparent-types who decades ago gave up on original conversation and now limit themselves to wondering – aloud – whether that is milk or half-n-half in the jug.

~ Golden-aged couples grateful for early church services so they can get down to the real business of winter Sundays: breakfast and football.

Hemingway territory this is not. All our meals might have been made more lively had he busted through the door with a loaded elephant gun clutching a recently dead wildebeest…but no such luck. Instead, everyone ate their oatmeal and eggs, sipped their tea and coffee, and quietly broke their fast.

Eye-talian or Italian?

Co-incidentally, I ate here last night. We had the kale caesar salad and two pizzas. Everything was A-OK, but then how to you mess up such a simple supper?

This, from July 2014.

 

The difference between eating out and dining out is a kitchen that tastes the pasta to check for done-ness.

The difference between an experience and satisfying a need is that same kitchen informing wait staff of the unavailability of gluten-free pizza dough before service, not after a customer orders.

The difference between wanting to return and searching elsewhere is a sad old tarted-up cheesecake dessert.

And just what in the name of Thor is “Italian-American Soul Food”, their tag-line printed on the pizza boxes? Whatever it is, I left with my soul veering towards applying to join the Mob. Their food at least has a beating heart.

Knick of Time

Knick’s Tavern is a mainstay of the southside Sarasotan restaurant scene. Over ten years I have eaten there numerous times. The consistency and quality of food and service is remarkable, and quite worthy of some praise.

Some mysteries will last forever. Why did Yoko marry John? Does Bigfoot really only drink IPA? And just what is all the fuss about soccer?

One easily solved mystery is that of what makes a successful restaurant. A long-lived and well-regarded restaurant will have the following:

~ food of consistent quality prepared from fresh ingredients,

~ competent, thoughtful service, and

~ clean and inviting premises.

Easy, right? Well, no. The rise of the celebrity chef, the celebrity restaurateur and the celebrity sommelier (!) pushes the journeymen-style eateries back into the shadows.  Food Network stars cash in while the people who actually cook our food day-to-day receive less and less attention.

I blame that IQ-shrinker, the television. The big-named restaurants get all the glory because of their marketing machines. Most of us will never set foot in one of them, let alone eat food prepared by The Big-Named Chef. After all, they’re off making yet another tv show. (A theme at work here?)

So how can you turn your back on the glitz and focus more clearly on your own neighborhood? Start by having a meal or a drink at Knicks. As others noted, this place is the kind of solid local restaurant that deserves more of the limelight.

For example, whomever is in the kitchen manages all the fundamentals – that consistency thing. No, the menu’s not flashy, but frankly, neither are you.

Wouldn’t you prefer a caesar salad that you know has been thoughfully prepared every time instead of some weird molecular globule? Can we put a price on a juicy prime rib that’s done just so on every visit? And only when you don’t receive it (at that fancy place) do you notice how seamless and calm the service is here, and how the folks listen to what you’re saying.

Food preparation is a bespoke production line, if you follow me. The same dish might go out thirty times in a night, but the truly great kitchens manage to make each one taste as if it’s made just for you.

So while big city joints might be deconstructing bacon and eggs into dessert, Knick’s will welcome you with a smile and a drink, a table and a menu, and your dinner just as you remember it. Oh, and they’ll get all seven of your dining companions’ plates to your table simultaneously.

It’s not easy, but they make you think it is.

Charmed

Ugh. Haircuts. All that looking in mirrors. Blech.

Along with doing laundry, cleaning the bathroom and paying taxes, having a haircut is on a list of charmless life chores. Oh, add shaving into that mix. How do we have time for anything interesting or creative or – hells! – profitable when there’s all this boring stuff to get done?

Outsourcing is the way most of us minimize the snooze factor of personal drudgery. Hair maintenance is the most obvious candidate. Cutting your own hair seriously makes no sense.

If you’re like me, you have some clear requirements of your hair professional. They should be:

1. Inexpensive.

2. Perceptive.

3. Silent.

4. Available without (much) waiting.

All four are available at the Cattleman.

Whale Meat Again

Venice is sleepy and old. It is a hotbed of nothing, although there are slivers of reality there. Trying the Upper Crust felt like a mistake, but it was not.

The bridge from the Floridian mainland to Venice Island is, in fact, a time machine. You begin your morning in 2014 and *bing* one hundred yards later, you’re back in 1920.

No, Hortense, there are no penny-farthing bicycles nor are there gas lamps. The cars look modern. I see Nike footwear and smartphones. It just feels old, like a kindly uncle’s cable-knit sweater vest, worn but well-loved; calm and reassuring.

And if you’re looking for breakfast on Memorial Day, you could walk into the Upper Crust and feel like you were in a restaurant from between the wars…the World Wars, that is. The room is long and skinny, two tables and a walkway wide, and the ceilings – the ceilings stretch all the way to heaven. This might be why it feels olde worlde. Ceilings are so much lower thesedays, all the better to A-C you with.

The wait staff is mostly mature plus, the decor is decidedly shabby chic (as others here described), and you really feel like you’re peddling back a few decades.

But don’t be lulled into daydreams of doing the Charleston or meeting a flapper. The food is decidedly not antique, servers are pleasant and efficient, and the coffee strong enough to tell you they cater to modern taste.

The interesting kicker to breakfast here is the regular passage of trays of fresh-baked wonders from the bakery out back to the shopfront. Scones. Then macaroons. Then muffins, and more scones. Simple cooking theater like that completely makes a place, setting it apart from plastic corporate food troughs. It gives a place life. Oh, and my favorite, they have cloth napkins.

Ask nicely and they might even tell you how to find a speakeasy.