Friday, December 30, 2011

Beef, Barley & Wild Mushroom Soup with Port

A hearty and satisfying winter meal, Beef, Barley and Wild Mushroom Soup is a perfect dish for the coldest of days. I love making this recipe when I have leftover Roast Prime Rib of Beef or Braised Oxtail, so I can make excellent use of the flavourful bones and tender morsels of beef. Browning the bones adds a delicious complexity to the stock, and simmered together with the leftover beef, sautéed leeks, fresh shiitake mushrooms, pearl barley, fresh herbs and a lashing of Port, it evolves into a richly aromatic and soul satisfying winter soup.

Beef, Barley & Wild Mushroom Soup with Port
Serves 6-8

2 tbsp canola oil
3/4 lb leftover roast beef, cut into soup size pieces, plus the rib bones
2 leeks, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 carrots, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp tomato paste
1/3 pound shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 cup port or red wine
8 cups beef broth
1 cup pearl barley
3 bay leaves
6 sprigs thyme
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

In a large pot, brown the beef bones in 2 tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat, until they're roasted on all sides. Remove and set aside. 

In the same pot, sauté the leeks and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the celery and carrot and sauté for another 5 minutes. Add the garlic and tomato paste and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the wine or port and simmer for a minute or so, scraping up the brown bits from the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. 

Add the beef bones and leftover meat to the pot, then add the broth, barley, mushrooms, bay leaf, and thyme. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for an hour, until the beef and barley are both tender. 

Remove from the heat, discard the bay leaves and thyme sprigs, and skim off any fat from the surface of the soup. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Ladle into warmed bowls, garnish with a sprig of thyme and serve immediately with some hot crusty bread.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Beach House: Overlooking the Gulf of Mexico

The BeachHouse Restaurant
is located on the south end of Anna Maria Island, just west of the quaint and historic Cortez fishing village in Bradenton Beach — the perfect place enjoy the sunset, a tropical drink and fresh Florida seafood at your own beachside table on the pristine white sand beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. Owned by the Chiles Restaurant Group, The BeachHouse is one of a family of three waterfront restaurants, each with a unique waterfront atmosphere. The BeachHouse, Sandbar and Mar Vista Dockside Pub each embody the feel of unspoiled Florida, serving fresh Florida seafood with breathtaking views of the water, and all at affordable prices.

Dining at the BeachHouse is as close to the water as you can get

In 1993, Ed Chiles purchased what was then, the old Harbor House, remodeled it and changed the name to the BeachHouse. It was set on 650-feet of pristine beachfront and was a perfect setting for the enormous covered deck that now extends from one end of the restaurant to the other. The vision for the restaurant was simple: moderately priced fresh seafood served in a stunning waterfront location. It's no wonder that the BeachHouse became a big hit with tourists and locals alike.

The Sandbar on Anna Maria Island

The original Sandbar in the days when Anna Maria Island was only accessible by boat

The quaint Mar Vista Dockside Pub on Longboat Key

The dock is convenient for mooring your boat at MarVista

The BeachHouse on Bradenton Beach

On a warm sunny day, there's no better place to soak up the sun, and an 'umbrella drink' at the same time, than the BeachHouse. The cocktail list is as long as the dinner menu, with cocktails such as a Classic Margarita with tequila and fresh squeezed lime juice, Bahama Mamma with coconut rum, light rum and dark rum all mixed together with a blend of tropical fruit juices, or a Latitude 44° made with Huckleberry Vodka and pink lemonade. 

BeachHouse Margarita with Tequila, Triple Sec and their signature cocktail mix

The Bahama Mamma with Coconut rum, dark and light rum, and tropical fruit juice

Latitude 44°, a heady concoction of Huckleberry vodka and pink lemonade

The menu is a seafood lovers dream, with appetizers such as Ceviche, Coconut Shrimp, Calamari and plump Conch Fritters to entrées like the fresh Char-Grilled Gulf Grouper Sandwich, a whole Soft Shell Crab served with a smokey chipotle mayonnaise, the famous Lobster Roll made with lobster, shrimp and blue crab blended with diced celery, scallions and a hint on mayonnaise, or the Crispy Flounder Sandwich served on a bun with lettuce, pickle, red onion, tomato and crunchy french fries.

Conch Fritters with cocktail sauce and a wedge of lemon

Fresh Char-Grilled Gulf Grouper Sandwich with tartar sauce and frites

Crispy Flounder Sandwich

Whether you decide to have a meal overlooking the Gulf of Mexico at the BeachHouse or Sandbar, or dining dockside at the Mar Vista Pub on Longboat Key, you'll get a taste of old Florida with fresh local seafood in a choice of three unbeatable settings, each with sugary white beaches, emerald clear waters and glorious Gulf Coast sunsets — compliments of the 'house'.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Beach Bistro: La Dolce Vita on Anna Maria Island

Beach Bistro is one of the finest restaurants in South Florida. Overlooking Holmes Beach on beautiful Anna Maria Island, Beach Bistro, which is owned and run by Canadian Sean Murphy, has received more awards for their outstanding cuisine than perhaps any other restaurant in the area, and for good reason. The Bistro’s focus from inception was perfection. The Bistro’s relentless pursuit of culinary and service excellence has earned Sean regional and national acclaim from the Sarasota Herald, Tampa Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times, in addition to being deemed one of the Top 20 Restaurants in Florida and consistently being awarded the highest Zagat ratings in the state.

Warm Duckling Salad with arugula and watercress

And the cuisine is excellent, from their Warm Maple Leaf Duckling Salad with arugula and watercress in a cognac citrus-bacon vinaigrette with apples, red onions, mangoes and candied walnuts, or the Nova Scotia Smoked Salmon on parade with capers, caviar and key lime crème fraiche as starters to entrées like their outstanding signature Bouillabaise with lobster tails, jumbo shrimp, shellfish and calamari with garlic toasts and aioli, or Herb Rubbed Pan Seared Rack of Lamb finished with a port rosemary demi-glace to the over-the-top 'Food Heaven' — Beach Bistro's rich marriage of Colorado lamb, butter-poached Nova Scotia lobster and Hudson Valley foie gras, all on a brioche bread pudding and served with a port, demi-glace and a sip of Essensia, which Sean christened — "a Dionysian vision from the end of a pier in Maine." 

Nova Scotia Smoked Salmon with capers and caviar

Beach Bistro's signature Bouillabaise

Rack of Lamb

It's understandable why many dinner guests might not have the stamina to embrace one of Beach Bistro's "Happy Endings" — an inspired and artistic selection of desserts and specialty coffees. Culinary confections such as Praline Alexandra with French vanilla ice cream and Frangelico; Chocolate Truffle Terrine made with intense Callebaut bittersweet chocolate; Florida Key Lime Pie made with fresh lime juice and garnished with fresh berries, creme anglaise and berry coulis; New York-style Cheesecake made with a gingersnap crust and a caramalized pineapple compote; or The Hat Trick — three delectable flavours of crème brûlée presented in small pots garnished with a flotilla of rose petals.

New York-style Cheesecake

The Hat Trick — three flavours of crème brûlée

Incredibly, after complimentary amuse-bouches, delicious starters and superb entrées, we boldly ordered a selection of desserts that were a feast for the eyes, as well as the palate, with garnishes that made each confection an edible piece of art. 

Beach Bistro overlooking Holmes Beach at sunset

And the restaurant is like a painting, with it's spectacular setting on Holmes Beach, complimented by the finest food in the area, an extraordinary wine list and a dedicated and professional staff that have been with Sean for years. No one ever leaves, and a stream of steady clients return year after year, earning Beach Bistro top honours as the culinary doyenne of the Gulf Coast. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Crab and Fin on St. Armands

The Crab and Fin, which used to be called Charley's Crab, is one of the most popular outdoor dining spots on St Armands Circle, especially when the sun is shining and the resident pianist is playing softly in the background, under his outdoor arbor. Perfectly situated on a picturesque corner on the 'Circle' The Crab and Fin is always busy, and understandably so. The ambiance is upbeat and friendly, the menu caters to many tastes, and the food is always very good and reasonably priced.

The outdoor dining at the Crab and Fin in St Armands Circle

With a name like Crab and Fin, one would expect a menu that reflects all the flavours of the sea, and with a raw bar selection of fresh clams, oysters, gulf shrimp and three kinds of crab, including Alaskan Red King, Florida Stone and Dungeness crab, as well as raw tuna, the choices are difficult to make.

Crab and Fin menu

As our group looked over the menu, our server Alfredo brought sangria for everyone and a plate of Crispy Fried Calamari with wedges of fresh lemon and a delicate sesame dipping sauce for the table to share.

Red Sangria 

Starters included a lovely light Shrimp Bisque seasoned with diced shrimp, tarragon and a shot of sherry for good measure, as well as Charley's Chowder, a classic Mediterranean fish chowder, Fried Oysters, Portuguese Grilled Octopus as well as a selection of four caviars with traditional condiments and tasting notes for each, available upon request. Curiously, there was no price listed for the caviar — I guess if you needed to ask the price, you probably couldn't afford it! We weren't feeling like caviar anyway...

Shrimp Bisque seasoned with diced shrimp, tarragon and Sherry with a slice of lime

On a more reasonable level, Crab and Fin's entrées include a selection of freshly made pasta, steaks, surf and turf dishes, grilled fish and a nice assortment of luncheon-size salads, as well as a comprehensive wine list from which to choose. Our table decided on the Shrimp 'Po-Boy' with cajun dusted and crispy fred gulf shrimp served with a creole mustard sauce, house-made slaw and frites; a Shrimp Chimichanga topped with montery jack and cheddar cheese with a garnish of fresh guacamole and sour cream; a toasted Smoked Salmon and Brie Grilled Cheese served with a crunchy apple slaw; and my favourite, the Yellowfin Tuna Tartare served with chili lime aioli and guacamole topped with a nest of crispy filo.

Shrimp Po-Boy with cajun dusted & crispy fried gulf shrimp

Shrimp Chimichanga topped with monterey jack and cheddar cheese

Toasted Smoked Salmon and Brie Grilled Cheese Sandwich with apple slaw

Yellowfin Tuna Tartare with fresh guacamole, chili lime aioli and crispy filo

After spending a lovely two hour lunch at "Charley's" it was time to move on the more pressing matters — a little bit of shopping along St Armands Circle and maybe a swim in the Gulf before sun set. I love Christmas in Longboat Key!

420 St Armands Circle, Sarasota, Florida

Monday, December 26, 2011

Pomona Bistro & Wine Bar in Sarasota

One of the hottest new restaurants in Sarasota this year is Pomona Bistro & Wine Bar run by two of Sarasota's most sought after chef-restaurateurs, executive chef Ryan Boeve and pastry chef Arthur Lopes, both formerly of Zoria. After a brief hiatus, both Boeve and Lopes have returned to create Pomona's inspired menu that's a wonderful blend of French and Italian influences. Their new location on Citrus Square has an inviting old world character, with an attractive exterior, large windows, and handsome wood doors. Inside, a tranquil elegance reigns. The room itself, lit by tall windows on two sides, is a charming and welcoming mix of modern and traditional influences. Its well-spaced tables are dressed in fine white table linens set very simply with classic modern wine stems and sleek contemporary flatware. At the back, a wine bar with black stools overlooks a picture window through which Chef Boeve and his sous-chefs can be observed creating culinary magic each evening in their small but meticulous kitchen. At Pomona, detail is king.

Pomona's maestro — the superby talented Chef-owner Ryan Boeve

An intimate private dining room with a perfectly-set round table for up to eight guests, christened The Kitchen Table, is another one of Pomona's culinary treats, offering an exclusive view into the kitchen and the opportunity to interact with Chef Boeve. Fare at The Kitchen Table changes daily and consists of chef-created four or seven-course meals, in addition to a full-time sommelier which is on hand to suggest wine pairings that complement the food selections and patron's tastes. "The Kitchen Table is a highly personalized dining experience that lets us be ultra creative and showcase our talents as chefs, " says pastry chef Arthur Lopes. "It's really an intimate experience. It brings us closer to our guests," he adds, "They get to watch everything we're doing in the kitchen while partaking in fine food and wine." 

Pomona's menu

And make no mistake, it's the cooking that continues to make Pomona the belle of Sarasota's culinary scene. Chef Boeve is a luminary, shining his culinary light on only the freshest seasonal produce and top quality ingredients — all prepared to his exacting standards and inspired by his creative vision. Chefs Boeve and Lopes have purposely kept their restaurant and menu small in size, to ensure that guests enjoy an optimum dining experience: perfectly prepared food and service in a relaxed, tranquil and beautifully appointed environment. 

The menu includes a series of small plates, salads or charcuterie to start followed by about eight main plates or entrées to follow. Our table of seven started with an assortment of small plates to start including a lovely Roasted Red and Yellow Beet Salad that was served with fresh bib lettuce dressed in a balsamic walnut vinaigrette and a small quenelle of tangy goat cheese; an outstanding duo of Smoked Salmon and Double Salmon Rillettes served with whipped cream cheese and delicate homemade melba toasts that seemed to melt in the mouth; and Mussels St. Germaine which came in an aromatic garlic, saffron, mustard and white wine broth.

Roasted Beet Salad

Smoked Salmon and Double Salmon Rillettes with whipped cream cheese and delicate toasts

Mussels St. Germain

For our main plates we decided on Sea Scallops served with squash ravioli, garnished with roasted squash and toasted squash seeds; a Roasted Whole Branzini stuffed with leeks, swiss chard, delicious buttery chanterelle mushrooms and baby roast potatoes; Squash Ravioli served with sautéed mixed wild mushrooms; and a new dish that evening, a Braised Pork Shank served with soft polenta and Epoise cheese which our server Natasha cautioned was a 'Barney Rubble' portion!  For those with smaller appetites, Pomona offers half portions for many of their main courses, which allows diners to save room for one of Pastry Chef Arthur Lopes decadent desserts.

Sea Scallops served atop squash ravioli and garnished with toasted squash seeds

Whole Roasted Branzini stuffed with leeks, swiss chard and chanterelle mushrooms

Squash Ravioli topped with sauteed mixed wild mushrooms

Braised Pork Shanks with soft polenta and Epoise cheese - 'Barney Rubble' size!

One of Pomona's most popular entrées is South Texas Antelope, which no one at our table had the moxie to order. We asked Natasha what the flavour was like and she said antelope was quite full flavoured and very low in fat — she felt it was even more delicious than beef. It might take some more convincing to get us to order the antelope, but there was no arm-twisting when it came to ordering dessert. Arthur's desserts are renowned, so some of us gave in and tried his lighter than air Maple Mascarpone Cheesecake and a new dessert on the menu, the Warm Apple Napoleon with creme Anglaise and caramel sauce.

Maple MascarponeCheesecake with maple syrup drizzle

The Warm Apple Napoleon with creme anglaise and caramel sauce

Pastry Chef Arthur Lopes and his Napoleon of fresh berries - the summer version of my Warm Apple Napoleon that I enjoyed - photo: courtesy of Herald-Tribune

For diners wanting to enjoy a more al fresco experience or a pre-dinner cocktail and cigar, Pomona has recently opened their warm and inviting outdoor courtyard complete with a handsome outdoor fireplace, twinkle lights, festive garlands and little Christmas trees for over the holiday season. It's just another small detail that makes Pomona one of the more exceptional dining destinations in the Sarasota area. Quietly refined with an understated elegance, inspired menu, exceptional kitchen and wonderfully friendly professional staff, Pomona was definitely the culinary highlight of our Christmas season.

The beautiful and inviting outdoor courtyard with gas-fired outdoor fireplace at Pomona

Friday, December 23, 2011

Venezia: Italian Cuisine on St. Armands Circle

Venezia is a charming family-run Italian bistro located on St. Armands Circle, just a short walk from the crystal-blue waters of Lido Beach and the bustling centre of Sarasota. Although it opened in 2009, Venezia's history goes back further than that. Since 1966, Rafael Miccio’s family has owned a successful Italian restaurant, also called Venezia in Mar del Plata, Argentina, a resort-style town on the beach very similar to the Sarasota area. So it's no wonder the family fell in the love with this part of Florida and decided to call it home. Today, Miccio’s father and uncle continue to operate the restaurant in Argentina, while Miccio carries on the family tradition on St Armand's Circle with much of the staff being family members and many of the recipes coming straight from the kitchen of Miccio's Nonna.

Venezia on St. Armands Circle - the menu

Although Nonna isn't still in the kitchen, Venezia takes the time to make their own fresh mozzarella, homemade tomato sauce, fresh pasta and pizza dough each and every day. With some gentle persuasion from our good-natured server Angel, we decided to start the evening with a glass or two of Sant'Elena Pinot Grigio, a lovely white wine with a curious pink hue. We followed with a plate of outrageously delicious Stuffed Mushrooms made with sautéed spinach, toasted Parmigiano breadcrumbs and homemade Mozzarella cheese, nestled in a rich and fragrant garlic-infused mushroom cream sauce and garnished with chopped parsley and a mound of diced tomatoes. We also enjoyed their Calamari Fritti which held hidden treasures of sweet flash-fried zucchini fritti. The Calamari were very good, but the Stuffed Mushrooms were outstanding. They could have been a meal in themselves.

Calamari Fritti topped with fresh arugula and tomato concasée

Known for their Napoletana-style thin crust pizzas and excellent home made pastas, we decided on sampling a little bit of both, starting with a tasty Mushroom Linguine topped with a generous serving of crimini mushrooms sautéed in garlic and olive oil, and topped with Parmigiano cheese and chopped parsley. As good as it was, it could have been great with a little less olive oil and more of a mixed selection of wild mushrooms, such as shiitake, oyster and chanterelle — but then it wouldn't have been just $12.95! 

Mushroom Linguine

The pizzas are always a popular choice at Venezia, with over 15 selections to choose from, they're cooked at a high heat in the gas-fired pizza oven and brought to the table perched on top of enormous empty plum tomato cans, for easy access to the hot and delicious slices. We tried two of their pizzas: A classic original — The Margherita, and the less classic — Hawaiian. One was large enough for two people to share, two was a bit daunting, however our server Angel cheerfully boxed up the leftovers and left it knowingly on our table — I think he'd seen it happen before.

The pizza station is always a blur as pizzas come in and out of the oven at lightning speed

Venezia's Hawaiian Pizza with tomato sauce, mozzarella, pineapple and ham

Margherita Pizza with homemade tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella and basil

A great place for a glass of wine and a homemade pizza - eat in or take out!

Angel, redefining 'service with a smile'

Venezia is a lively and friendly restaurant to enjoy a cold glass of wine, a homemade pizza or bowl of pasta while shopping on 'The Circle' without breaking the bank. The family of servers are charming and attentive — and with a little prompting — absolutely incorrigible!


373 Saint Armands Circle
Sarasota, Florida