You don’t have to be a foodie to wonder why new restaurants open in one location versus another, or why they choose to open at the time of year they do.
At one point, most of the new restaurants, almost all of them individually owned, served up their grand opening along Main Street or Palm Avenue in downtown Sarasota. Then there was the slew of new joints out by UTC, almost all being large national chain restaurants. Throughout the rest of Sarasota is where it gets interesting, especially when a new restaurant takes over a location where others have previously failed.
Throw in the decision to open during the summer or (!!!) at the end of the tourist season, and I often wonder . . . Have these folks ever experienced the mass exodus that marks the end of “snowbird season” in Sarasota?
For months now, the folks opening Grillsmith have piqued my curiosity. I’ve driven past the old Square One Burger Bar for well over a year now, knowing the location had hosted several other restaurants in previous incarnations. So when the sign for Grillsmith went up, I wondered how the team of Grillsmith, a small chain restaurant originating out of Tampa, could turn the tides of fortune and make this location the winner it really should be. Located on South Tamiami Trail just north of Stickney Point Road (and the south bridge to Siesta Key) Grillsmith has free parking, great visibility and very little competition surrounding it. So it’s not what is outside the building that will matter, but what guests experience when they step inside.
With an invitation to visit during the soft opening, I grabbed my gal pal, Nora, and stopped in for a “Friends & Family” dinner. These invitations offer a free taste of select items from the kitchen and allow the staff to work out any kinks they may have before opening to the public. Grillsmith trained their staff for ten days before opening, so I fully expected great service. And, making sure the kitchen staff practiced virtually everything on the menu, each table received a unique menu that gave us a choice for a shared appetizer, an entrée each, and a shared dessert. No table had the exact same menu, so the kitchen was on their toes!
After a friendly welcome at the door, our server did a fine job of introducing the restaurant’s claim to fame, Grillsmith’s scratch kitchen. That means all their sauces, dressings, marinades, spice rubs, and condiments are made inhouse, as well as desserts. Anything brought in from another source is clearly noted on the menu as an exception to their scratch-made rule.
Nora and I started with a shared appetizer, a 10-piece serving of Wings & Drums, served Asian style with a side of Ranch dressing. (Grillsmith wings come in buffalo or blackened as well.) Both the wings and the drums were jumbo in size, meaty and well-seasoned, fried to a crispy crunch. The Asian sauce just glazed the skin, allowing for plenty of the juicy chicken to remain on the bone for dipping into the housemade Ranch dressing. You could clearly tell this was a scratch recipe! The Ranch dressing was on the “thin” side, not so thick that it clung to the chicken, which left a few drips here and there. Ultimately, this was NOT an issue, since the flavor was spot on and no doubt less fattening than a thick, sticky dressing. Nora and I both felt the 10-piece appetizer was large enough and tasty enough to be an entrée.
For her entrée, Nora chose the Pork Chop Marsala, a large bone-in Smithfield chop sautéed in a mushroom Marsala wine sauce and topped with Fontina cheese. It was a beautiful dish, however, pork chops can be hit or miss, depending upon how you order it. I grew up hearing that pork always had to be medium well or well done, but that isn’t true. The secret learned over time is to order it medium-rare or medium, looking for a hint of pink on the interior. Pork chops are such a lean cut they continue cooking for a good three minutes or so while resting, resulting in a medium-well chop. (I don’t like any cuts of meat medium-well or well done, so if you do, ignore this advice!) Grillsmith’s Pork Chop was greatly enhanced by the Marsala wine sauce and sharp nutty taste of the Fontina cheese, but while I liked it, I would have loved it if it had come off the grill a minute or so earlier.
For her sides, Nora was quite pleased with the kiss of smokiness infused in the zucchini and yellow squash, nicely seasoned and served slightly al dente off the grill. These were the seasonal veggies on the current menu, so I’m anxious to see what will be the veggies in late fall/winter/spring. Additionally, Nora selected a side of Grillsmith’s creamy mashed cauliflower, that needed only a sprinkle of salt and pepper to go well with the Marsala wine sauce. Healthy and yummy!
I had ordered the Aged Ribeye, an 18-ounce bone-in beauty that I knew I would never be able to finish. I tend to go with a smaller portioned steak, but ribeye was on our Friends and Family menu, and who am I to turn down one of the most flavorful cuts of steak available! Ribeye has a higher fat content to it, allowing it to cook in its own juices, resulting in a more tender and delicious steak. The fat is easy to cut off, leaving a fire-grilled steak that Grillsmith’s grillmasters seasoned to perfection, and served a perfect medium-rare. Served with a side of Grillsmith’s
Also served with Grillsmith’s grilled mixed veggies, my second side was the seasoned Parmesan Garlic French Fries. Little things matter in the service industry, so I greatly appreciated that the fries were served in a wire basket lined with parchment. This kept the fries hot and crisp and well protected from the juiciness of the ribeye.
Both Nora and I gave up early on any hope of completing our entire entrées. Grillsmith isn’t stingy when it comes to portion sizes and our server knew quickly that the white flags of surrender were being raised. Out came another server to box up our left-over entrees, even offering fresh portions of the creamy horseradish sauce, which was very much appreciated!
It’s hard to even think about dessert when your taste buds are happy and your tummy is full, but there was a Key Lime Pie to share, compliments of the Friends and Family experience.
Now I know I wasn’t kind about the pork chop, but this . . . this dessert was an OMGx3!!! moment for this foodie. Grillsmith’s scratch-made key lime pie is infused with Nellie & Joe’s® key lime juice and served in a pecan graham cracker crust . . . let me repeat that . . . pecan graham cracker crust. (That’s a tie for the 1st OMG of the dessert!) This flavor punch is presented on a grid of kiwi-lime sauce (2nd OMG) and topped with a sublime scoop of fresh whipped cream (3rd OMG!) It’s been a long time since I’ve been surprised by a key lime pie. So many Florida restaurants treat key lime pie like it’s something they have to serve, and after a while, they all taste the same with nary a standout. Grillsmith’s Key Lime Pie definitely raises the bar in flavor and presentation! Give that pastry chef a raise because this key lime pie is elevated to a level where it alone is worth a trip to Grillsmith! (Am I overdoing it? I don’t think so!)
Closing out our first visit to Grillsmith, I am encouraged . . . in fact, I’d put a lot of faith in the future of their new Sarasota location. I also give them big props for opening late in the summer, training their team for almost two weeks, and opening well before the snowbirds return. They answered any questions I had about opening this time of year.
You’ll be happy to know that Grillsmith is open for lunch as well as a nice brunch on Sundays. I suggest you give them a try while you can still get a seat without waiting.