Originally published in The Observer
Date: March 5, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist
+ Derek’s is different
We were up in Bradenton recently to speak with the Bradenton Opera Guild about Verdi’s rarely performed, “Jerusalem.” That worked up a hunger and, since we finished talking at lunchtime, Sheila and Joe Varady, who put the Opera Prologues together, generously suggested we have lunch in the new incarnation of Derek’s. The restaurant recently moved from Central Avenue, in Sarasota, to Manatee Avenue West, in Bradenton.
Derek Barnes is a hands-on chef and he was very much in evidence, greeting patrons as they entered, stopping by tables and letting us know he was around if we needed anything extra.
As you’ll remember, Sarasota’s Central Avenue, in the Rosemary District, is a sort of funky neighborhood with quirky boutiques, groomers (of humans and dogs), and antique shops that remind me of SoHo in downtown Manhattan. It’s a relaxed, fun area with a wonderful individuality that sets it apart from other downtown Sarasota neighborhoods. Derek’s, when it was on Central, stood out as an upscale restaurant with a reputation for excellent food and a romantic chic that made it a great spot for quiet dining after 6 p.m.
Derek’s on Manatee Avenue West is different. Now open for lunch and dinner, the food remains terrific but the setting is more adventurous and fun. In fact, it looks more now like the Rosemary District than it did when it lived there.
Derek’s lunch menu is modern, featuring popcorn, in various flavors and guises, popping up in soups, salads and sandwiches. It’s good, adding texture to standbys as in their “Cracker Jack” salad, a spinach salad that goes out of the box with country ham cracklin’, caramel corn, peanuts, farmer cheese and a roasted apple vinaigrette. Derek’s flatbreads are thinly crusted with unusual toppings, from smoked pulled pork with rustic peach barbecue, to roasted vegetables with a popcorn pesto.
The lunch and dinner menus are small but inventive and, while they change almost daily, they’re always packed with good, casual, rustic cuisine. Warning: you may need reservations. Even for lunch.
+ Michael’s On East: The best for gala dinners
We all know Michael’s On East. The dining room is elegant but comfortable. And the food is always beautifully prepared, making it the go-to place for a great meal. But, especially at this time of year, we find ourselves attending big, somewhat fancy, fundraising dinners.
In season there are lots of them but the ones that truly stand out have been held in Michael’s ballroom, just down the atrium from the regular restaurant. Of course, when you have a sit-down dinner, complete with speeches and entertainment, you have a planned menu. And the one put together by the Artist Series Concerts of Sarasota last week was positively memorable.
We had to make our choice in advance and, being rabid carnivores, we went for the beef, which turned out to be exceptionally tender, beautifully seasoned, medium rare, tasty, juicy filets that cut with a fork. The dessert, which we usually skip, was positively smashing.
Consistently great food is a given at Michael’s. What was a revelation was Michael Klauber, himself, acting as the best auctioneer I’ve ever heard. Zesty, smart and wily, he knew how to cajole, tease, threaten, and time the evening’s live auction so perfectly, he brought in a ton of money for this worthy music organization. I used to do that kind of thing in New York City for little groups like the New York Philharmonic and the Center for Contemporary Opera. The other night, I learned a thing or two from Klauber about good timing and great taste, in food and auctions.
+ Station 400 takes a stand in two venues
We love Station 400 and go there quite often, when we can get in. Living equidistantly between its two venues — the one on Lemon and Fourth, and the one on Main Street, Lakewood Ranch — we favor the one downtown simply because we love the outdoor garden with its flowers and fun sense of going to a party for breakfast, brunch or lunch.
Station 400 has some great specials but, because it relies more on fresh ingredients than publicity, it doesn’t plan ahead more than a few days. Specials or staples, it always does great things with eggs, like the corncake benedict it featured recently: two poached eggs, roasted tomato, arugula, pesto Hollandaise on savory corn pancakes.
The restaurant’s salads are fresh and crisp, and you can get them the way you want them. We’re partial to the chicken cobb salad, but we like ours chopped and tossed. Occasionally, I change and get the cobb with crabmeat and ask them not to chop or toss it so I have a heaping mound of fresh crabmeat to glom into.
The only downside to Station 400 (and, hey, it’s not down for the owners) is that it’s so popular — especially in season — we sometimes can’t get in. But that’s the cost of fame and great food. Our trick is to get there after 1 p.m. when the brunch and lunch crowd is leaving. Then we relax amid the flowers and listen as they pipe in Sirius/XM channel 4, with its old standards, and have a good time catching up with the friendly, welcoming staff.
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