Soulful Seafood — in the City of Fado

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It’s on everyone’s list. The best place in Lisbon for seafood, they say. It’s loved by locals. And it’s a favorite for travelers and, yes, tourists.

Cervejaria Ramiro — sounded ideal for our first night in Lisbon. Nothing fancy, just an authentic spot with possibly the best seafood the city could offer, simply cooked, in a bustling, no-frills setting.

So after waiting in queue outside for about twenty “hungry” minutes (they don’t take reservations) we were ready to find out if the accolades from our guy, Anthony Bourdain, and others were warranted.

To get right to the point, yes, they were. And we too were taken with the impeccably-prepared, straight-forward kind of food that ended up on our plates as well as the frenetic, high-energy vibe of the place.

Much like the Fado music of Lisbon, that hauntingly-soulful music of the streets that always gets to you emotionally, satisfying something deep within — the seafood at Ramiro effortlessly manages to do the very same thing. Take just one bite and it finds that same sweet spot.

Briney little Portugese clams. That’s how we started. Then, succulent langustinos, Trulee’s new favorite food. Followed by some spectacular tiger prawns a la plancha that surpassed even the best of lobsters.

We couldn’t have been happier — even at a big-deal, Michelin-rated restaurant. And it seemed to me most everyone sitting around us at the crowded, paper-covered, communal tables felt the same way.

It didn’t take long before we were chatting with other happy campers about what we all had ordered, what we were drinking, eventually, trading personal stories. We even made some cool new friends.

Ok, maybe the wine had something to do with it. But Cervajeria Ramiro turned out to be exactly what Trulee and I had wanted for our first dinner in the city of Fado — a simple meal of first-rate seafood, interesting dining companions, some stellar Portugese wine.

And speaking of wine, have you tasted any from Portugal? We hadn’t. Or if we had, it certainly didn’t make much of an impression. Sad to say, what we knew about the wines on the list was less than limited.

But we were in for an exhilarating surprise. A very drinkable one.

Thanks to our server, we ordered a seafood-friendly white — an Alvarinho, produced from a grape of the same name grown in the Vinho Verde region, north of Lisbon. It reminded me of a Spanish Albarino, only a bit more complex. (yes, they’re both made from the same grape) Turns out, Alvarinho is one of Portugal’s most prized varieties.

What made the teasingly-tart Alvarinho we had been drinking even more intriguing was the aristocratic-looking, Portugese gentleman seated at the table next to ours. “Excellent wine choice,” he told us.

Not only that, he went on to say the winery — Palacio Da Brejoeira — was started by his grandfather. What are the odds! But then again this was Lisbon. And Cervejaria Romiro. I guess this is what happens.

Cervejaria Ramiro / Avenida Almirante Reis 1, Lisbon, Portugal
www.cervajariaramiro.pt

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First Class food — in the Second City!

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Yes, it’s the Second City, but that didn’t stop us. Too many good friends have waxed poetic over Chicago’s architecture, galleries, museums, parks, public art and impressive culinary scene.

Even some of those those jaded souls from NYC.

So when a favorite couple of ours suggested a weekend trip to that much-maligned midwestern city — to do a dinner at one of the world’s most respected three star restaurants, that’s all I needed.

We had just watched a “Chef’s Table” Netflix episode featuring the chef — Grant Achatz — and his restaurant Alinea and all four of us were completely overcome by the sensual artistry of his cuisine.

It wasn’t easy getting the reservation. And it wasn’t inexpensive. But we decided to do the culinary splurge and go for it. Then the doubts settled in. Would everything live up to our expectations?

Wow! The magic began, once we were served the first course of the 14 course tasting menu. And it didn’t stop. Course after Michelin-blessed course (accompanied by wines paired to the flavors on the plate) continued to seduce us for the rest of the awesome evening.

This was creative New American Cuisine at the highest level. Not over-the-top, “molecular gastornomy” craziness created simply to amaze. This was accessible, inventive and incredibly delicious.

For example — imagine a luscious corn broth presented in a beautiful ceramic bowl topped with delicately thin, wide, pasta ribbons. But they’re not really pasta, they’re made with a puree of scallops.

As the flavors come together in that first bite, you realize that this is actually an elegant corn and scallop dish. But one like you’ve never had before. Deep, intense corn flavor from the broth. Sweet succulence of scallops from the “pasta.” You don’t want it to end.

Chef Achatz amazed us that night with his culinary creativity. As he’s done consistantly for so many others — making Alinea one of the most praised restaurants in the entire world. But that’s only a part of what makes his story so fascinating. And so inspirational.

After receiving his first Michelin star the chef was diagnosed with stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth. Life looked bleak.

Even so, he persevered. Found the right doctor, escaped surgery, and is now cancer free. His autobiography, “Life on the Line” tells the tale and then flashes back to his journey to Michelin stardom.

If you can’t get to Alinea to experience his award-winning cuisine, you might want to read this very special chef’s personal story.

ALINEA / 1723 N. Halsted, Chicago, Il 60614 / www.alinea.com

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Wood-Fired Delights — at Miami’s KYU

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Something new is going on amidst the spray-painted walls of Miami’s Wynwood Arts District — that area best known for its concentration of contemporary art galleries, cafes and eclectic bars.

Something I really care about — good food.

It’s happening thanks to a number of talented chefs who are showing up to join the dynamic neighborhood’s creative mix. And these adventuresome chefs are expressing themselves with just as much originality and fervor as the local grafitti artists whose striking work in the hood simply can’t be overlooked.

That’s certainly the case with Chef Michael Lewis. His restaurant, an inviting Asian inspired place with an open kitchen featuring smoky, wood-grilled delights, is called KYU. (Pronounced “Q”)

You guessed it, “Q” — as in barbecue. But to me, what Michel is doing is much more than Asian barbecue. He’s turning out nothing less than beautiful, nuaunced, sophisticated dishes.

Exactly what you’d expect from a CIA grad who’s trained under Chef David Bouley at Bouley Bakery in NYC and Chef Eric Ripert at NYC’s top-rated Le Bernedin. Michael was also Chef de Cuisine at Jean Georges, another iconic, award-winning NYC restaurant.

And it shows on the plate! My dinner at KYU a few weeks ago was one of the best meals I’ve had in Miami for a long time.

Of course, I’m partial to this kind of cuisine. Deceptively simple, artfully-conceived dishes with a remarkable blend of subtle smokiness, a hit of heat and the complex flavors of Asian spices.

Our table of four blissed out sharing bites of crispy softshell crabs on steamed buns, one-of-a-kind pork and shiitake gyoza taken to another level by smoked truffle ponzu sauce, luscious wood-charred octopus, and an elegant beef shank with sweet soy and garlic that may have changed my mind about eating meat.

Wow! What a dish it was. The shank’s killer presentation was so surpisingly original and seriously impressive — that it was only surpassed by the beef’s incredible, deeply-haunting taste.

The charred meat, succulent from a pre-grilling, 10-12 hour slow smoking, comes to the table atop its large bone, almost imperceptively sliced and ready to be lifted with chopsticks and placed, bite by bite, into bibb lettuce leaves along with fresh shiso and cilantro. Then just before you tuck the morsel into your mouth you drizzle on spicy sauces that have been waiting in tiny vials.

So simple. So engaging. So Japanese.

Aesthetics abound at KYU. You’re aware of them as you first walk into the restaurant’s hipster-cool, minimalist interior. Raw concrete walls are softened with a painterly patina. Stacks of wood appear curated and arranged just so waiting for the fire. Even the Parsons-like tables couldn’t be more appropriate.

Then there are the servers. Casual, professional and charming. They seem to be just as appropriate and appealing as the surroundings. Ours certainly was as he guided us seemlessly through what became a more-than-memorable Miami evening.

I’m jazzed! Now there’s another good reason to wind up in Miami’s Wynwood Arts District: The outstanding food at KYU.

KYU / 251 NW 25th Street, Miami, FL 33127 / 786-577-0150 / www.kyumiami.com

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Pomona Bistro & Wine Bar

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Somebody has to say it. Sarasota isn’t a restaurant town! No matter what the reviewers write. Oh, there are a few places that deserve praise. And some that merit a positive nod now and then. But for the most part, not!

So it’s always surprising to me when a restaurant here manages to hit all of the right notes – bringing together delicious, satisfying food; provocative, nuanced wine; and subtle, seamless service. That’s what happened the other night. Yes, it did! The place was Pomona Bistro & Wine Bar.

How can I give you a feel for the evening? Well, it was utterly engaging. I’m thinking it was similar to a gypsy jazz tune by Django Reinhardt. There was an underlying sensibility that evoked Paris. There was a precise, but casual, expression of professionalism reflected in both the food and the service. And there was that difficult to explain feeling of delight.

OK, OK, specifics. Let’s start with the service.

When was the last time your wine glass wasn’t over-filled? That happens too often in Sarasota restaurants — and it really drives me crazy. Doesn’t anyone train these people? Well, at Pomona Bistro & Wine Bar it’s obvious that some knowledgeble soul did. Here the wine is poured exactly as it should be — a scant 1/3 of a glass for white and 1/2 of a glass for red.

And the rest of the service was equally spot on. Friendly. Unobtrusive. Prompt. And professional. It was some of the best I’ve had in town.

There were four of us at the table on this night. My wife and I and two good friends who just happen to be Napa Valley wine professionals. Besides being enjoyable dinner companions, they always make sure the wine selections are intersting and appropriate. Their picks for the meal: a flinty Sancerre to start and then a light, delightful, Oregon Pinot Noir.

Now for the food. When you look over the menu, there’s no question Pomona is a Bistro. But a very refined one. Not unlike a lot of those little places popping up around Paris these days. The ones that are wowing diners with what could be called “Ethnic-Accented New French Cuisine.”

The dishes that ended up on our table should give you an idea of what I mean. If they don’t, it doesn’t much matter. All you need to know is that each and every one of them was delicious. And that’s no exaggeration.

Seared sea scallops over Asian greens, with blood oranges and avocado. Duck leg and thigh confit with Brussels sprouts, bacon, mustard and a sunnyside up egg. A salad of beets, goat cheese, walnuts, arugula, with walnut vinaigrette. Branzino stuffed with mushrooms, garlic, and arugula. Red snapper in parchment with ginger, turmeric, coconut water sauce, and sauteed greens. Thank you Chef. Not one dish was off key.

But enough. I don’t want to rave any more than I have. It’s what happens next time, and the time after that’ll make me shout — that is, if Pomona keeps hitting those same “le jazz hot” notes. And with pros like Arthur Lopes and Chef Ryan Boeve in charge, chances are good, it’ll do just that.

Pomona Bistro & Wine Bar / 481 North Orange Avenue, Sarasota, FL / 941-706-1677 / www.pomonabistroandwine.com

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Art Basel Miami — A Cypress Tavern Brunch

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Finding a quiet place for a civilized brunch amidst the madness and bustle of Art Basel Miami is not an easy thing to do. It is, after all, the world’s largest art fair. And this year it set another attendance record.

Luckily, I decided to see if a small restaurant called Cypress Tavern was a possibility — a number of things about the place appealed to me. It’s owned by Chef Michael Schwartz. It’s in Miami’s Design District. And the dinner my wife, Trulee, and I had there last year was more than praise worthy. So was the service and the ambiance.

Calling for a reservation two weeks in advance is a must during art fair week. At least for the better tables in town. So that’s what I did.

Yes, brunch was being served on Saturday. And they had a table for us.

The Cypress Tavern was just what we needed after an intense morning immersing ourselves in the monumental art of Anselm Kiefer at the Margulies Collection, a short, cab ride away. Sitting in the Tavern’s cheery, club-like space was a welcome counterpoint to the dark, monochromatic tones of Kiefer’s beautiful, but unsettling, Neo-realist work.

Brightening things even more was the artful brunch menu. Wood-grilled mushroom salad. Lobster- avocado toast. Wood-grilled giant prawn. Soft polenta, grilled mushrooms and poached egg with truffles. Yellowfin tuna Nicoise. Buccatini carbonara with poached egg.

A James Beard Award-winng chef, Schwartz has been a favorite of mine ever since he opened one of the first restaurants in Miami’s Design District, Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink. His dishes are simple bistro-like fare — but a lot more. Carefully thought out and delicious.

As much as I wanted to try the buccatini carbonara with the poached egg, my choice on this drizzly, art-filled Saturday was the tuna Nicoise. I needed something “salad-light” after the crazy, multi-course meal with friends the night before that was way too rich for my taste.

Some Sancerre seemed to be the right thing to do while we waited to see if what we ordered would live up to our expectations. (Trulee had decided on the polenta, mushrooms and poached egg with truffles.)

Well, the Nicoise was a colorful rendition of the classic dish with perfectly seared tuna and a boiled egg that was possibly the best I’ve ever had — a soft, but not-too-soft, golden center begging to be eaten together with a bite of potato and haricots vert. Lightly dressed with a vinaigrette that must have been made with the best of olive oils, just the right amount of acid and a touch of Dijon, the salad would have satisfied the most demanding of Francophiles. It certainly satisfied moi!

And the poached egg on soft polenta, with mushrooms and truffles?
It was just as good as it sounded! Maybe better.

I guess we could have eaten at one of the uncomfotable, over-crowded, food venues conveniently tucked into Art Basel, itself. Lots of people do. But the more civilized experience at the Cypress made more sense. At least to us. And in addition to the first-rate food, it was quiet enough to eavesdrop on the table next to us where an art consultant discretely counseled a couple on investment opportunities and emerging artists.

Cypress Room 3620 NE Second Avenue / Design District – Miami
305-520-5197 / www.cypresstavern.com

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State Street Eating House — Get the Grilled Sardines

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When I can’t decide where to go for a casual dinner here in Sarasota, I usually end up at State Street Eating House — to sit at the bar for a plate of their exceptional, grilled sardines. And a few glasses of wine.

There’s something about eating at a restaurant’s bar that just feels good. (This one is no exception.) And in a town where so many places are doing too much to their food and charging too much for it, those sardines with their pleasantly-assertive taste always seem to satisfy.

Discretely listed on the menu under appetizers, the dish features two perfectly-grilled sardines, simply dressed with nothing more than a sprinkling of salt and a touch of olive oil. Keeping them company on the plate are a toss of baby arugula, some lemon and a slice of grilled peasant bread that’s most definitely addictive. To complete my rustic, yet very civilized, meal at the bar, I add an order of charred broccolini.

This little dinner would be nothing out of the ordinary in, say, Montreal. Or Barcelona. But in Sarasota, it certainly is. And when you consider those lovely sardines only set me back $11.00, it’s even more so.

But to me it’s all about taste. These are uniquely flavorful fish. Not “fishy” tasting at all. And they take to the grill like they were concieved for the fire because of their ultra-high oil content. Charred, smokey and super-savory when they come off the heat, grilled sardines are one of those simple culinary pleasures that I just can’t get enough of.

OK. I know some of you are saying, two little sardines — that can’t be enough for a meal. Well, the ones at State Street aren’t the same size as those little guys you find packed in a can. They’re a whole lot larger.

If you’re into esoteric cocktail conversation: The average weight of a fresh sardine is 3 to 6 ounces. It’s packed with protein, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids. And the delicious little fish is mercury free.

Even so, occasionally my wife is up for something other than sardines. And she’s not been dissapointed here. At least, not lately. (Early on, some of the oven-roasted, fish dishes didn’t live up to expectation.)

Here are some of the stand outs we’ve enjoyed of late at this casually-cool, little “hot spot” of a restaurant — a beautifully-composed roasted beet salad, a luscious duck burger, an “entree-sized” roasted sweet potato and a variety of expertly-grilled, whole fish from local waters.

And what about the service? Just as it should be for a place like this. Professional, personable and fun. Especially the people behind the bar!

State Street Eating House / 1533 State Street – Sarasota, FL
941.951.1533 / www.statestreetsrq.com

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Restaurant Rant: Fandango Cafe

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How could any professional kitchen screw up a skewer? You know, a kabob. Well, I didn’t think it would be easy – so that’s what I ordered the other night at Fandango Café, a casual Mediterranean place on Osprey Avenue not far from where I live here in Sarasota, FL.

Having had a less than satisfactory experience not long after they opened last year, I thought I’d give them another chance. Why not?

That was a big mistake on my part.

Not inexpensive at $15.95, my chicken skewer, prepared, according to the menu, with “a saffron-lemon marinade and char-grilled” came with a small Greek salad, a side order of my choice (I thought baba-ghanoush would be good) and some warm pita bread.

Things started out, well enough. The Greek salad was predictably small but good. I have to admit, I’m easily won over with feta.

However, the moment of truth arrived when the skewer of pale yellow, chicken chunks (without a hint of char — or marks from the grill, for that matter) was placed on the table in front of me. A puddle of pureed eggplant kept the lack luster kabob company on the plate.

Not what I had hoped for. Even so, I could have overlooked appearances if something actually happened when I finally put a few bites of the stuff in my mouth. No such luck. Nothing that honestly could be called saffron was there. Neither was much else. Maybe some turmeric. The limpid yellow color had to come from somewhere.

And in keeping with the blandness of the ill-fated bird on the skewer, the baba-ghanoush, (spelled baba-ghanoosh on the menu) gave off none of the characteristic smokiness that makes this Mediterranean specialty, so special. No smokiness?! That’s exactly why I ordered it.

Things were shaping up like a dinner at an all night diner in Akron, Ohio. Yes, I’ve been there. Unfortunately, on both counts.

Self absorbed in serious disappointment, I almost forgot about my wife sitting across the table. Trulee had ordered the lamb kabob. Not a surprise, she loves lamb. Was it at least acceptable?

From the look on her face, I knew the lamb offered no redemption. After only one bite it was apparent she couldn’t go on to the next.

“Dry.” “Strange.” “Unpalatable.” That’s what she told the waiter when asked about the food. She then insisted he take a bite, to see for himself. I didn’t think he would. But to our amazement, he did.

And to his credit, the accommodating young fellow came close to the same conclusion. Maybe not quite as vehemently voiced. But enough to give us at least some satisfaction and to brighten our mood a bit.

Here’s hoping things will improve. It wouldn’t take much. Just some concern about how the food really tastes, and a willingness to listen.

I could suggest some excellent cookbooks too. No doubt they’d help.

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Cooking Octopus: It’s Easy

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As much as I love octopus, the idea of actually preparing it at home, seemed to me complicated, time consuming and even mysterious.

Well, not too long ago, I found out — that’s just not the case.

Forget those sun-creased Greek islanders slamming octopus against the rocks before they cook it. You can even disregard the advice of certain cookbook authors, including the irrepressible Mario Batali, when they tell you “octopus must be cooked along with a cork in the pot to guarantee its tenderness.” Taming the beast is much easier than you think.

Some seasoned cooks simply salt and pepper octopus and throw it in a pot after heating a splash or two of olive oil over medium-high heat. They’ll then let it simmer in the liquid it gives off for up to two hours. Others add a bottle of wine and a splash of red wine vinegar to the pot.

Jim Botsacos, chef of the much-respected Greek restaurant, Molyvos in NYC does it a little differently. And I especially like what he does.

So much so, it’s now one of my favorite ways to cook octopus. First you braise. Then, you marinate. Finally, you grill. The results are outstanding. It’s basically ready to eat and delicious after the braise. Spectacular after it has marinated over night. And even better once it’s been grilled.

Grilled Octopus

Here’s what you’ll need to make this Greek island delicacy:

For the braise:
2 gallons water
4 lemons, cut in half and squeezed
2 cups white wine vinegar
1/2 cup kosher salt
6 bay leaves
3 to 4 lb. octopus (just get the 8 tentacles)

For the marinade:
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 oz. white wine vinegar
1 tsp. dry Greek oregano
Juice of 2 lemons

The preparation:

Combine all the braise ingredients in a large pot, except the octopus. Bring to a simmer, cook 10 minutes, then boil. Next holding the tentacles with tongs dip them into the boiling water 3 times, leaving them submerged for 3-5 seconds each time. After the final dip, put the octopus back in the pot and cook uncovered for 45 minutes. It should be fork tender. If it isn’t, cook a bit longer. Transfer to a sheet pan to cool while you mix the marinade in a bowl large enough for the octopus.

Once the octopus is cool to the touch, cut the tentacles apart, toss with the marinade, cover, and refrigerate overnight — or until you’re ready to grill, anytime within the next 3 days. From here on everything is fast and easy. A real plus when you’re cooking for a dinner party.

Now all that’s left to do is bring the octopus to room temperature and grill over medium high heat, about 4 to 5 minutes a side, until the tentacles develop a nice char. Or you could pan sear them the same way.

However you do it, you won’t believe how good they taste when they get to the plate with toss of arugula and a gloss of your best olive oil.

How many will an octopus serve? That depends.

I like whole tentacles, one per plate as part of a multi-course dinner. But sometimes I plate two per person for a more substantial entree. I’ve also cut tentacles into bite size pieces, tossed them with olive oil, lemon juice and red pepper flakes for an appetizer plate along with olives and manchego cheese or used them to top a classic Greek salad.

But whatever I do — I always try to save a few of those amazing tentacles to grill for dinner the next night, I like them so much.

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LUNCH AT THE GUGGENHEIM

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Maybe it was the subtle touch of smoked paprika in the rice I made the other night. Or those pictures of my trip to the Basque country that I revisited on iPhoto. Then again, it might have been the Keith Jarrett CD I played for a relaxing Sunday brunch a few weeks ago.

Whatever the reason — I’ve been thinking quite a lot about an exceptional lunch my wife, Trulee and I experienced at The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. The delicious, minimalist meal was nearly as impressive as Richard Serra’s magnificent work in the gallery right next door or the iconic Frank Ghery designed building itself.

Impeccably seared rouget, minimally sauced, beautifully plated along with a crisp white Albarino made for a light, artful lunch. And then there were the sounds of Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert gently adding serenity and depth to the culinary experience.

Here we were in one of the world’s most iconic buildings. On our plates, highly-regarded rouget or red mullet. (In antiquity “one of the most famous and valued fish.”) And in our glasses, a bright, zesty, complex rendition of one of Spain’s most distinctive wines.

It was an appropriate prelude to an afternoon at The Guggenheim.

The elegant, spare-looking restaurant responsible for the magic is called Nerua. And its creative, young chef has been getting some well-deserved attention — a Michelin star, among other accolades. Not surprisingly, he worked under legendary chef Ferran Adria at the highly-praised, avant-garde (now closed) restaurant El Bulli.

His name is Josean Martinez Alija. And his impressive culinary artistry is yet another good reason to visit The Guggenheim in Basque country. Of course, you should book well in advance.

The surprise here is that Alija’s Nerua is not just another one of those convenient museum restaurants. It’s a destination unto itself.

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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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