When I wrote my first column about a summer vacation in Florida a few years ago, I thought you might think I was a bit crazy. It was just the opposite, receiving positive comments about summer visits to the Sunshine state. A suggestion I received was to publish the feature earlier, so that people can make plans. Remember, this is the time of the year that a trip to a Florida oasis is easier on the wallet, since airfares are lower, and staying at a luxury resort is a fraction of in-season rates. Other perks include less traffic with the snowbirds gone and restaurants aren’t jam-packed. I especially enjoy the calmer pace.
Nestled about mid-island, along the Gulf Coast side of Longboat Key, Zota Beach Resort (941-383-2451, www.zotabeachresort.com), nominated for the Conde’ Nast Traveler 2019 Readers’ Choice Award, is an oasis waiting for fun in the sun, relaxing and dining. Whether you’re looking to get away from it all or use it as a base camp to explore nearby Anna Maria Island, Sarasota or Bradenton, the resort is ideally located. From the crystalline beach to the beautifully appointed pool area, complete with palm trees and cabanas, you’ll want to spend time here swimming, kayaking, eating and sipping both poolside and upstairs at Viento Kitchen + Bar, where you can take it all in from the balcony seats
The resort, named after Sarasota’s indigenous name, Zara Zota, is easily accessible to upscale shopping, entertainment and restaurants at the famous St. Armands Circle. Before you begin your exploration outside of the hotel, check out Viento Kitchen + Bar. Chef Jeremy White and his culinary team showcase modern American Floribbean fare inspired by Florida, Caribbean and Mediterranean cooking techniques and flavor. For dinner, a variety of marinated olives with feta and Spanakopita (phyllo dough stuffed with creamed spinach with a side of tzatziki were the starters. Gulf Snapper was pan-seared, drizzled with a citrus and red pepper vinaigrette, accompanied by roasted vegetable couscous and asparagus. The sweet ending, Raspberry Limoncello Tiramisu, is prepared with Limoncello tiramisu cream, raspberry mousse, ladyfingers and fresh raspberries; light and refreshing. Its presentation is as beautiful as it is heavenly.
When I met with Chef Jeremy, he suggested, on a return visit for dinner, to order the signature dish, the espresso-rubbed ribeye, served with fingerling potatoes, grilled asparagus and a cocoa demi-glace. When asked what his signature dessert is, without hesitation he said the flourless chocolate cake, served with seasonal berries and chocolate fudge sauce — and to top it off ask for a scoop of pistachio gelato! Check out these recipes below and watch Chef Jeremy prepare these dishes online at https://bit.ly/2HXRzCH.
In between dips in the pool and gulf, I enjoyed the resort’s Cascades Pool bar, the perfect reprieve from the sun and place for a light bite. The Insalata Della Casa (field greens, baby heirloom tomatoes, sweet cherry peppers, Kalamata olives, feta cheese, pine nuts and balsamic vinaigrette) was topped off with grilled shrimp. It’s perfect on a warm afternoon. At another poolside lunch, the Grilled Chicken Cabana sounded like an interesting combination of ingredients, and they all worked together well: chicken topped with mango barbecue sauce, Applewood bacon, grilled pineapple, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, Bermuda onion, served on a toasted kaiser roll. Sip a signature cocktail such as the Zota-Rita (Bacardi coconut rum, Sauza signature blue 100 percent agave Tequila, pineapple juice, margarita mix, garnished with lime and pineapple) as you watch the sun set on another day in paradise.
While in Longboat Key, you must visit Euphemia Haye. This fine-dining restaurant has been touted as one of America’s top 200 most romantic restaurants and named by Frommer’s as the area’s most extraordinary restaurant. Named for the original owner’s grandmother, who was an excellent cook, it has been under ownership of Chef Raymond Arpke and his wife, D’Arcy, since 1980. Begin this culinary experience with their well-known Caesar salad, made fresh for each order. You can see it being made in the large salad bowl at a station in the dining room. The banana walnut bread is addicting, so be careful, it is like dessert before dinner. The fried green tomato fusion is large enough for sharing. It is on the top of the list of the fried green tomatoes I have tried on my culinary travels. They are panko and cornmeal crusted, pan-fried, served with a spicy roasted red bell pepper sweet chili sauce. It is topped off with pecan pesto and feta cheese; the appetizer could be a meal in itself. I ordered one of the evening’s specials, grouper and snapper chowder, a delicious fish stock enhanced with tender pieces of fish, garden-fresh vegetables and herbs, and finished with cream. The restaurant has a few original dishes. The one I tried lived up to its popularity: Euphemia’s Peppered Steak, a trimmed, boneless strip steak rolled in cracked peppercorns, pan-fried and served with a sweet orange, brandy butter sauce. Each steak is flambéed in the dining room so you can see the magic; and the aroma, the sweet smell of the brandy sauce and cloves. After dinner, experience The Haye Loft Lounge & Dessert Room for award-winning desserts, featuring famous pies and tantalizing cakes and treats. When I saw the display, I felt like a kid in a candy store, so difficult to choose. I settled on the peanut butter mousse with Meyers’s rum and dark chocolate ganache. Each night they feature a flambe dessert for two: Bananas Foster or Cherries Jubilee. The Haye Loft also serves lighter dinner fare as well as vintage ports, eclectic wines and exotic coffees, with live music playing in the background.
Take a short drive (7 miles from Zota Beach Resort) to St. Armands Circle, where there are many restaurants to choose from. One of my favorites is Café L’Europe, where many of the dishes are prepared tableside, adding a touch of drama to an epicurean dinner. Established in 1973, in John Ringling’s (of circus fame) original real estate office, the continental cuisine strikes a delicate balance between tradition and innovation. The French onion soup gratinee is a wow, arriving inside a massive “onion bowl.” Piquillo peppers are stuffed with jumbo lump crabmeat and served with mixed greens and Dijon mustard beurre blanc. Dover Sole Piccata is a whole Dutch Dover sole, sautéed in brown butter with capers, mushrooms and lemon beurre blanc, and carved tableside. For dessert, Bananas Foster flambe, prepared tableside, is a banana lovers’ dream. The dinner for two special menu offered during the summer is so inviting; a select bottle of wine, two starters and two entrees for $69.95 per couple. At this price, you might be making a few visits to enjoy the ultimate dining experience.
Also located at St. Armands Circle , 411 St. Armand’s Circle is one of the locations of the famous Columbia Restaurant, the original being in Tampa’s historic district of Ybor City and founded in 1905. The restaurant has been recognized with some of the highest awards in the restaurant industry. It is indeed a gem, as its tagline states, “Gem of Spanish restaurants.” From its humble beginnings as a small café called the Columbia Café, serving cups of Cuban coffee and bowls of Spanish bean soup. Columbia’s Original “1905” Salad was selected as “One of America’s Top 10 Best Salads” by USA Today. In the 1970s, this flavorful salad was the Columbia’s answer to the ubiquitous salad bar. Created by waiter Tony Noriega in the 1940s, it was adapted by the Columbia. The Columbia kitchen designed a new dressing that features Worcestershire sauce.
The area provides a diverse mélange of dining possibilities as well as beautiful spots to enjoy libations with breathtaking views.
Melt half of the chocolate with the butter using a double boiler. Take off of the heat and add in rest of chocolate to temper. Place eggs in a bowl with the vanilla bean seeds or extract, and sugar and whisk together. Slowly add the melted chocolate to the egg mixture, constantly stirring. Pour mixture into buttered oven-proof ramekins. Fill a pan half filled with hot water. Place ramekins in the pan and cover pan with aluminum foil. Punch a few holed in the foil to allow steam to escape. Place pan with the ramekins in a preheated 350-degree oven and bake for 11 minutes. Rotate pan and bake for another 11 minutes. Remove pan from oven and take off aluminum foil and allow to cool. Remove the cakes from the ramekins. Makes 4-6 depending on size of ramekins.
Combine all ingredients and store in an air tight container.
Tex Mex Cooking Class: June 14, 6:30-9 p.m., Chef’s Emporium, 449 Boston Post Road, Orange, $55. Reservations 203-799-2665, $70. Learn how to make homemade tortillas and a deliciously seasoned chicken to make soft tacos and top it with pineapple salsa that you will make from scratch. Learn how to make smoked ribs with chipotle lime BBQ sauce and Mexican street corn. Save room for dessert because you will also learn how to make churros with chocolate sauce. Tickets at https://bit.ly/2QSOxT0.
Consiglio’s Demonstration Cooking Class: June 13, 6:30 p.m., Consiglio’s Restaurant, 165 Wooster St., New Haven, 203-865-4489 (reservations required), $75 (beverages, tax and gratuity not included), https://bit.ly/2Nd0xAg. Menu: fresh figs with gorgonzola and prosciutto, angel hair with garlic, lemon and pine nuts, veal tenderloin with fingerling potatoes and broccolini, strawberry shortcake.
“Wonder of the Cocktail:” June 19-21, Foxwoods Resort Casino, 350 Trolley Line Blvd., Ledyard, 1-800-FOXWOODS. Features wine and spirits tastings, master class seminars, a chefs’ dine-around tasting, pop-up bars throughout the resort, a cocktail party by the Fox Tower pool and a grand tasting on June 21. Visit foxwoods.com/cocktail for pricing information and full schedule.
Consiglio’s Murder Mystery Dinner: “On the Cusp” June 21, 7 p.m. (doors open at 6 p.m.), Consiglio’s Restaurant, 165 Wooster St., New Haven, reservations at 203-865-4489 https://bit.ly/2O3TQzQ, $65 includes dinner and show (beverages, tax and gratuity not included).
Kids Culinary Camp — Cooking 101 (ages 5-11): June 24-28 10 a.m.-noon. Chef’s Emporium, 449 Boston Post Road, Orange, $55. Reservations 203-799-2665, $250. During this five-day camp experience, your young chef will participate in hands-on classes under the guidance of our expert chef instructors. We will be creating and eating recipes each day that focus on knife safety and techniques; they will practice essential kitchen skills, learn about kitchen equipment and master the fundamentals of cooking. For the week’s agenda and tickets, visit https://bit.ly/2My4HT9.