Restaurant Rant: Marcello’s Ristorante

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Is it that they just don’t know what they’re talking about? Or that they have questionable taste? How can most of the restaurant reviews in Sarasota, Florida where I live be so far from the truth?

Do you feel that way? Or is it just me?

I recently read a review of an Italian restaurant in Edible Magazine, a publication I had up until now the utmost respect for, that actually — made me mad. Ticked me off. Got under my skin. So much so I wanted to call the publisher. Maybe I still will.

Here’s what did it. These words. They hit me like a bad press release. “Some people are just born with talent. Whitney was born to sing. Ernest was born to write. Marcello was born to cook. Period.“

Not only was it weird to see “Whitney” and “Ernest” in the same paragraph, it was even stranger to see Marcello given this kind of overblown praise. Especially since I had dined at the chef’s namesake restaurant three times prior to reading that glossy, misleading review. On each occasion, I had a mediocre meal. My thoughts and those of my food savvy tablemates were basically the same. Heavy handed. Over sauced. Nothing special. Bayonne, New Jersey.

Our fearless reviewer had this to say: “ If you’ve already eaten at Marcello’s … you don’t need one single word of this article to convince you how special this nine-table Italian eatery is. “ And she went on to comment “ The servers are also spectacular.”

Was this the same place? On each of my visits, our server (we, unfortunately, had the same sorry fellow every time) was not only inept and overly gratuitous, he became flustered, irritated, belligerent and difficult to deal with when asked questions he couldn’t answer or when we offered suggestions about how to improve the meal.

I don’t want to be too mean spirited here. My point is — unless restaurants are given honest reviews by thoughtful, knowledgeable individuals, we have no hope of improving the quality of the dining experience here in Sarasota. We deserve better. Don’t you agree?

When someone asks “how did you like the meal?” Let them know.

Hopefully, they’ll listen.

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Crispy Snapper with Mango Sauce

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Like mangoes? If you do, here’s a light summer dish you should try. Especially, if you can find the mango variety called Valencia Pride.

While most mangoes are sweet and tasty, the Valencia Pride is so much more — with its surprising spicy notes and hints of coconut and vanilla. It’s seductive. Addictive. Truly exceptional.

But don’t stress if you can’t find any. Most mangoes will deliver the sweet, unique flavor needed. And when you pair the fruit with a little heat and white wine you can elevate even the simplest of dishes.

If you’d rather have meat instead of fish, try this recipe with pork tenderloin. Maybe dusted with smoked paprika and cumin. Grilled or seared to get a nice smoky char and cut crosswise into medallions.

Crispy Snapper with Spicy Mango Sauce. That’s what ended up on our plates last night. I pan seared the fish and used Valencia Pride mangos. Did I forget to mention that we have tree on the property?

Well, as luck would have it, I happened to have a “less-than-ripe” mango, as well as a few lusciously soft, ripe ones, just begging to be eaten. The tart one, I diced up to add bursts of contrasting flavor to the sauce I made from the sweeter, golden-fleshed, ripe mangoes.

Here’s what you’ll need to make the dish:

Red snapper fillets
Two ripe mangoes
One tart mango
Sauvignon Blanc
Orange juice
Sriracha sauce
Fresh cilantro
Red bell pepper
Smoked salt
Fresh ground pepper

The preparation:

First to the sauce. Peel and pit the mangoes. Then roughly chop the ripe ones and cut the tart one into ½” dice. And you might as well cut the red bell pepper now too. Into dice about same size. (Save the mango and pepper dice in separate bowls for later, to plate the dish.)

Next, in a blender, puree the two chopped mangoes with ½ cup wine, 2 TBS orange juice and ¼ tsp siracha. Taste to see if you’d like more heat and add additional siracha accordingly. Then strain through a medium-fine-mesh strainer and gently warm before serving.

Now it’s time to sear the fish. It has to be room temp. and very dry to get the crispy skin you want. And you need to have a very hot, oven-safe, non-stick skillet. Filmed with olive oil. When the oil is smoking, add the fillets skin side down. Pressing continually with a fish spatula to keep the skin in contact with the pan. When the skin is crisped and a bit charred, flip the fillets to finish for a few minutes.

To plate the dish, spoon the mango sauce on each plate. Add a sprinkle of red pepper and tart mango. Along with a few sprigs of cilantro to satisfy your artistic sensibilities. Top with the fish, skin side up. Give it a pinch of smoked salt and a twist of fresh black pepper, along with a touch of the best olive oil you’ve got. That should do it.

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Simply Grilled Swordfish

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To me the tastes of summer have to include some sort of grilled fish and a handful or two of just-picked basil from that prolific pot out on our patio. And, as with most of what I cook during the warmest months of the year, the preparation has to be fast and simple.

So in that spirit, this is not actually a recipe; it’s more like an idea — grilled swordfish with yellow tomatoes and fresh basil sauce. I love the way it tastes. And I love the way it looks.

Do you remember the first time you tasted grilled swordfish? I certainly do. It was at a small restaurant on the California coast near Los Angeles that specialized in grilling fish over fire, long before Chez Panisse changed the way we thought about California Cuisine. Well, that experience made me think about fish in a new way.

Here was a flavorful fish that could stand up to the fire like a fat marbled steak or, if you were cooking out with my Greek dad, a thick lamb chop. Seasoned with just olive oil, salt and pepper, maybe some fresh herbs, a thick swordfish steak became my idea of the ideal summer dinner. Having my first taste while looking out over the Pacific Ocean as the sun was setting might have added just a bit to the mystique.

Here’s what you’ll need to make this non-recipe:

Swordfish steaks, one inch thick, enough to yield 6oz per person
A bunch of small yellow tomatoes
A few handfuls of fresh cut basil
A lemon
Red wine vinegar
Very good extra virgin olive oil, preferably Greek
Kosher salt
Fresh ground pepper

The preparation:

To start, take the fish out of the fridge so it comes up to room temperature by the time you take it to the grill. I like to cut the skin off the swordfish steaks at this point. But you could leave it on.

Next, cut the tomatoes in half and toss into a bowl. Splash with vinegar, a little olive oil and sprinkle on some salt. Let them soak it all up while you have a glass of wine, make the basil sauce and grill the fish.

For the basil sauce, blanch about a cup of basil leaves in a pan of boiling water for 15 seconds then transfer with a slotted spoon to a bowl of ice cubes and cold water to stop the cooking. Drain the leaves, squeeze out the excess liquid and puree in a blender with 3 TBS Olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. And a bit more olive oil if you like.

At this point, you want to have ready a hot, oiled grill and a pre-heated 400 degree oven. So depending on how long it takes to make that happen, you might want to have them both heating up while you work on the tomatoes, make the basil sauce, maybe set the table.

Then just before you put the swordfish on the grill, lightly rub it with olive oil and generously season with salt and fresh black pepper. Once it’s on the grill, the trick is to let the fish cook with out moving it for about two minutes. Then, if you can’t easily lift a piece with tongs, leave it on the grill a bit longer. When the fish releases easily, turn it over and grill for about two minutes on the second side.

If you were wondering about the oven, this is when you’ll use it. Take the fish from the grill directly to the oven. Put it on a foil-lined sheet pan. After 5 minutes at 400 degrees, check to see if it’s done. Just push a toothpick down through the fish. If it offers no resistance, it’s ready.

Time to eat! Out by the pool, if you have one. Or at least, outside.

To bring it to the table, arrange some tomatoes on your plates, add a piece of grilled fish and drizzle on the basil sauce. A good squeeze of lemon on the fish, with a touch of olive oil at the last minute is always a good thing. Also, I’ve been using a sprinkling of smoked salt.

You can make this summer treat with smaller pieces of fish as a starter, as I did in the photo above. Or with 6 oz portions as a entree.

Grilled olive bread would be good with it. So would some Greek potato salad. You know the kind, made not with mayo, but with vinegar.

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Finding Blu Kouzina

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It’s not easy finding a good Greek restaurant. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been disappointed by what’s been served to me in the name of “authentic Greek Cuisine.“ Seems like nobody in charge of the kitchens at these all too plentiful, mediocre-at-best restaurants seems to care. Especially, here where I live in Sarasota.

There’s a simplicity about Greek food. So, it demands care in the kitchen. To me, the standard was set a while back by pioneering restaurateurs in New York City — Steve Tsolis at Peryali and Costa Spiliadis at Milos. They not only brought a new respect to what they were doing, they also elevated Greek Cuisine in this country to a new level. They sourced the very best ingredients. They prepared them with the utmost care. Now others are following their lead.

Just like all successful chefs and restaurateurs, Effie and Dennis Tsakiris really care about food. They’re the inspired owners of Blu Kouzina, a very special Greek restaurant that arrived in Sarasota not too long ago like a bold breeze off the Aegean Sea.

And after talking with the couple for only a few minutes I knew Blu Kuzina was going to be one of my regular dining destinations. Or, at least, I hoped it would be. In the end, it was the authentic food from their open kitchen that actually did it for me. Yes, I’d be back.

On that first night, my wife, Trulee, and I felt like we should order just the way we do whenever we’re in Athens or in the Greek Islands, sharing bites of everything. And just like there, we were glad we did.

Smoky eggplant spread (melitzanosalata), bright with herbs and flavored by fire. One of the best we’ve had. Classic cured cod spread (taramosalata) with its distinctive taste of the sea. Also first rate. Greek village salad (horiatiki salata) topped with seriously good feta. Better than most. A perfectly grilled whole branzino. Delicious. The fish, featuring just enough char to make things interesting, was served with a tangy olive oil-lemon sauce to drizzle as needed.

Bringing all of this together was a crisp, white wine, an Assyrtiko, from one of Santorini’s most famous vineyards, Segalas. One of our favorites. Coincidentally, this morning I was reading the NY Times Food section and noticed an article by Eric Asimov about Santorini Assyrtico. You might want to take a look. NYT, D4, July 8, 2015.

And here’s a bit more about Blu Kouzina. After subsequent visits, my wife and I have added langostino and grilled octopus to our list of favorite dishes there. Yes, they had langostino. Real langostino.

My kind of restaurant.

Blu Kuzina / 225 N Blvd of Presidents, St Armand’s, Sarasota,FL
941-388-2619 / www.blukuzina.com

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