Thursday, June 25, 2009

Woot! Indian food!

I may have mentioned before that I really like spicy food. Since I’ve been in southwest Florida the cuisine I’ve missed most is Ethiopian, which generally has a great mixture of strong flavors. I haven’t found an Ethiopian restaurant yet. The other cuisine I’ve really missed is Indian which is also known for full-flavored food and can usually be made spicy. Driving home last night I passed an Indian restaurant and I couldn’t resist giving it a try.

Tandoor is the name of the place which is on Clark, just west of Beneva. I drove into the strip mall around 9:15pm and I suspected it might be closed. The parking lot for the whole mall was empty as the nearby Publix had closed. I drove by slowly and there didn’t seem to be any lights on. I did see a sign that said Open, but it was hard to tell if it was Tandoor or the place next to it. Feeling a little adventurous (you can think of me as the Indiana Jones of strip mall dining) I decided to park my car and investigate further.

The Open sign was indeed theirs and it even had the hours listed on it… they close at 10:00. I opened the door and peeked inside. It’s very dark in there and it took a minute to adjust. Other than a waiter and two employees at the bar the place was completely empty. Not a good omen, usually. But remembering that Sarasota is more of an Italian food sorta place, and Indian cuisine is almost as far away as you can get from Italian, I figured I’d give it shot anyway.

Service starts out reasonably good. I manage to get seated right away (one nice benefit of a completely empty restaurant). The waiter was courteous and very chatty. However, he is an authentic east Indian fellow with an extremely thick accent… I couldn’t understand a word he said. I just nodded, assumed he was taking a drink order, and asked for water.

The menu looks pretty normal for an Indian place. Various meats are available in 5 or 6 types of sauces plus a bunch of vegetarian dishes. Having been deprived for almost 9 months of Indian food my eyes looked for, and found, my all time favorite dish… Chicken Vindaloo. My mouth started watering immediately.

The waiter came back with my water and said some things. Again, having been through this routine before, I imagined he was asking what I wanted so I ordered the Chicken Vindaloo and some Nan. After he said something else and wandered away my brain finally translated what he was asking and it wasn’t food related. Apparently he had noticed that the candle on my table was unlit and would I like him to light it for me. When he came back by I smiled and pointed to the candle and he obliged.

Right about the time my order arrived some more customers came in. It was close to 9:40 now. The owner (whom I had mistaken for an employee earlier) came out and greeted them. As an afterthought she greeted me too. I don’t blame her for being less than enthusiastic when I arrived with on 45 minutes to close… but now her business had quadrupled, something to get a little excited about. She seems very nice and was much easier to understand than her wait staff.

(BTW, my inability to understand Indian accents is notorious in some circles and should in no way reflect negatively on the folks at Tandoor. I’m sure the waiter spoke perfect English, I’m just terrible at understanding that accent.)

Now, finally for the food. The Chicken Vindaloo was really, really spicy, which is just how I like it. For the average diner in Sarasota I wouldn’t recommend it… it will blow your mind. Vindaloo is an extremely spicy curry and more than likely the hottest dish they have. This particular Vindaloo had a slightly different flavor than what I’m used to having, but it was good nonetheless.

The nan was ok. If you’ve never had nan before, it is an excellent flat bread baked in the tandoor oven. This nan had a good flavor but was very fluffy… a characteristic I’d never encountered before in other nan. This made the texture much less appealing to me but was good for toning down the fire that the vindaloo had created in my mouth.

My strongest criticism is reserved for cleanliness. There may have been a good reason to have the light dimmed so low, it a little hard to tell. But one thing I did notice is that the cloth napkin was definitely pre-used. At most restaurants it would be sort of shocking to find big smears of red sauce on your napkin. For some reason this is par for the course with Indian restaurants. Jesting aside, I’d say that 3 out of 5 Indian restaurants seem “dirty” to me. Tandoor was in good shape until I unfolded the napkin to wipe off some stray vindaloo.

The other criticism is the price. While I was overall pretty happy with my food I felt my dinner check was about 20% higher than average Indian restaurants. Typically I’d walk out having spent somewhere around $16, but this tab was $20 without the tip.

Will I eat here again? Yes. Probably not too often as it’s a little further than I like to go for supper, and the price is a little higher than I’d like, but the food is good and I definitely don’t want to wait another 9 months before I have Indian food again.

Here are some particulars:

Tandoor Fine Indian Cuisine
3440 Clark Rd
Sarasota, FL 34231
The web site is nice and informative, and appears up to date.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Mediterraneo: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

On Monday we went to Mediterraneo for lunch. I’d been there a couple of times before and found the food to be “pretty good”, but a tad overpriced for lunch. (90% of downtown Sarasota restaurants are overpriced for lunch, so I guess this is nothing new.)

This time I took a recommendation and ordered the fettuccini with the sausage ragout (I don’t have a menu with me so I don’t recall the actual fancy Italian name, but fettuccini with sausage ragout will get you the right item). We also ordered a veal dish and a salmon dish. Again… no menu on hand so I can’t give you the correct names.

The bread brought out to snack on was standard fare and contained no surprises. We mowed through it and the waitress noticed and mentioned she’d bring some more. We had to remind her after she brought our entrĂ©es and she pulled the old, “Oh, I thought somebody else brought it to you” in a weak attempt to cover up her mistake. While I was slightly annoyed about the tardy bread I was more annoyed that she didn’t just say “oops”.

Does my previous statement seem a little persnickety to you? Well, maybe so. I think I was a cranky at the time because the chairs are so uncomfortable that it was souring my mood. In my humble opinion, Mediterraneo has the worst chairs in restaurant history. By the time we were ready to leave I was thinking I might need a visit to a chiropractor to fix this lunch.

It took a while for the lunch entrĂ©es to make it to the table. They weren’t especially busy on this day, so make sure you have plenty of time for your lunch. In light of the chair issue you might want to take this time to get up and walk around a bit.

I have to say that I really liked my fettuccini. It qualifies as a “very good”. It completely surpassed my expectations. Most surprising of all was that it was spicy! I don’t know how many readers have eaten in Sarasota before, but finding food with strong flavor in this town is a lot like finding a Marriott Suites on the moon--unexpected and a little daring.

The veal dish was one that had been ordered many times before. I’ve personally never had it, but since it gets re-ordered I have to assume it’s a decent item.

The salmon deserves some special attention. The first words uttered were, “Zoria makes a better a salmon.” Now, I don’t want any readers to get fooled into thinking I’d ever recommend Zoria, but if you do go there the Salmon was the only decent thing I ever ate there. The fact that Zoria makes a better salmon does not bode well for Mediterraneo.

The less-than-proud owner of the salmon did not appear to enjoy eating his lunch at all. That also says a lot because this guy is never without a grin on his face.
However, the real review came a few hours later when he got sick and left work early. The following morning I heard some pretty gruesome stories best left unwritten. Remember the grim warning in “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life”? Don’t eat the salmon!

Even with the salmon incident we’ll probably end up going there for lunch again. With summer approaching we find ourselves less willing to make long treks from the office, and Mediterraneo is pretty close to us. It was never a first choice for us though, and I’m pretty certain we won’t be ordering seafood.

Here’s their info:

1970 Main Street, Sarasota
(941) 365-4122

PS: I found a menu online but unfortunately it is not the current menu. It has similar dishes to the ones we had above but it doesn’t have the lunch version of the veal and it doesn’t have the fettuccini version of sausage ragout. I suspect it is a really old menu because the actual prices are somewhat higher than what’s listed on this site.

Here it is:

Friday, June 5, 2009

Lunch at Bella Gente

Thursday lunch for my co-workers and I is generally at Esca, on Links and Main. However, when we arrived yesterday we found the place closed with a sign saying no more lunch service for the summer. This is a disturbing trend. In the short time I've been in Sarasota this is the third place that closed for lunch, and another has closed entirely for the summer.

However, some one knew of a place that opened not far away so we walked to it. This place is called Bella Gente.

Bella Gente is, of course, yet another Italian deli. I can think of 8 other Italian cafes on Main between Washington and 41, but apparently there's always room for one more. At least these folks are open for lunch.

The cafe is fairly small and well lit. The place has an airy feeling about it. It was fairly attractive and looked clean. Service was very prompt. We had barely been seated when the waitress came over and took drink orders.

When asked for unsweetened tea we were told they don't have that. This is the first place I've ever been that didn't serve plain ole iced tea. However, they have a wide assortment of extremely sweetened tea if you're in to that sort of thing. They do carry some sort of sparkingly water that is not Perrier or Pelegrino. I ended up drinking "Sarasota water".

In a bid to be different Bella Gente doesn't bring bread to the table... they bring a plate full of mozzarella. I added some oil and pepper and it was tastey. It was like a caprese without the tomato and basil.

Their menu is primarily salads and focaccia breads. They have fancy Italian names for them but I like calling a spade a spade. Almost every item on the menu is made with Italian meats (porchetta, prosciutto, salame, etc) and cheese (mozzarella, mozzarella, and mozarella). At first glance the menu seems reasonably priced. In fact, I'd say its inexpensive by normal downtown Sarasota standards.

The three items ordered were: Porchetta focaccia (with artichokes and lettuce), Lasagna (with a bolognese sauce), and the Pasta al Forno.

I ate the lasagna. It was pretty good. I'm a huge fan of bolognese sauce and this was as good as most. The chef added some sort of dry, crunchy thing on top... I couldn't tell of it was bread or something else. It made for interesting texture but definately detracted from the overall taste of the dish. The portion was smallish, but well suited for lunch. All in all, this dish gets my approval.

The Porchetta focaccia got a resounding "it's ok".

The owner of the Pasta al Forna was a little disappointed. Apparently this means "mac and cheese" in Italian. Literally this was a bowl of elbow macaroni covered with various melted (and unmelted) cheeses. The description on the menu mentioned "seasonal vegetables", but I'm guessing Italy has no veggies in season right now since none actually came with the mac and cheese. It looked pretty good for mac and cheese so we'll nudge the score up a little and call this "ok+".

It appears as though my lasagna was the big winner here. As well it should since it was the most expensive thing on the lunch menu coming in at $12.90. The other dishes were significantly less.

All told I'd give a thumbs up to this place. The low cost (for downtown Sarasota) combined with the above "ok" average rating for the food makes this a nice value.

Their menu has some breakfast items on it which appear to be bread covered with sweet things. Its not really my cup to tea so I'll pass on it. If anyone tries this be sure to leave a comment. They appear to have lots of nice deli meats and cheeses (including cheese that is not mozzarella).

Here are the details for place:

Bella Gente
32 S. Osprey Ave
Sarasota, FL 34236

(Note: the URL above doesn't seem to work even though its listed on their menu. Maybe its just not working yet at the time of this review.)

Happy eating.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A new dining blog

I eat out a lot. In this blog I'll share my opinions about the places to eat in Sarasota. I'll also include what others think about the same places. I'll have my first post tomorrow wherein the Bella Gente gets the opening kick-off.