Who is Jack Dusty? We asked ourselves this back in January of 2013 when the new restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota opened. And while we are no closer to garnering a complete picture of this particular legend, we are gaining a clearer perspective on his profound influence on Sarasota’s innovative craft cocktail and food scene. And let me say . . . we are most grateful for the mystery to continue.
We know one thing about Jack Dusty, this mythical character has inspired a crew of talented, creative, well synchronized, all-oars-in-the-water bartenders, chefs and pastry chefs extraordinaire. And several times a year, those talented creative souls take a new look at Jack Dusty’s legacy and create new menu and cocktail items inspired by good ol’ Jack.
Last week a number of your local “foodies” were welcomed into the private dining room at Jack Dusty, to explore and experience the culinary team’s newest revelations on the menu. I was so pleased to finally enjoy the private dining room . . . If you’re ever planning a private function, you’ll want to consider this room, which, like everything else at The Ritz Carlton Sarasota, it is elegant, classy, warm, and oh so inviting.
Every culinary voyage into the Jack Dusty phenomena has an epic story, and ours began with a quote from Ernest Hemingway – “Never go on a trip with anyone you do not love…” aaand with that our dinner began with a Grog Shot, a custom of seafaring souls before heading out to sea.
Served in a shot glass portion, our grog shot featured the new Rum Rations II cocktail, comprised of the perennially award-winning Siesta Key Distillers Reserve Spiced Rum, Plantation Overproof Rum, Banana Cordial, lime and egg white. Even with only a shot glass sized portion, I could tell this cocktail is simply exceptional on every level. There are two special blends that have been privately barreled for only Jack Dusty’s use, and this was one of them. So while I’ve told you what’s “in the cocktail,” you can only get the seasoned flavor this barrel-aged liquor delivers at Jack Dusty. In a word? Smoooooooth!
Because he’s fictional, Jack Dusty always has new stories to tell, inspiring exquisite new textures and flavors to the table, season after season, and year after year. The Lead Bartender at Jack Dusty’s, Kelly Conway, worked with his talented team to create 22 new cocktails for the new menu (!!!) keeping 4 staples, including The Siren, Smoking Jacket, The Cut and Rum and The Princeton cocktails. (You could hear a collective sigh of relief when our group was told The Siren was still on the menu.)
Big props go to Kelly and his brilliant “think/drink tank” (my words, not his,) for the creativity that went into these new cocktails. Pared with four superbly stellar new menu items created by Chef de Cuisine John Ford, and three new desserts from Executive Pastry Chef Lyndsy McDonald, this was clearly a well crafted evening.
Now, to be perfectly honest, each cocktail we sampled, each dish that was presented would be worthy of a blog of its own! These are only highlights, so I hope we can convey our sense of incredulity through our photos from this remarkable tasting.
First up for a “Best New Cocktail in Sarasota” is the Cat O’Nine Nails. Chili infused El Jimador Tequila is the base of this cocktail, which is graced with Grand Marnier, lime, cilantro syrup, muddled pineapple and served with a watermelon ice cube. The first sip is ever so slightly fruity, and then that chili infusion kicks in, delivering a pleasant spicy-hot poke to the taste buds. As the ice cube melts, the fruit flavor profile shifts from pineapple to watermelon, but never losing the heat of that chili. Really nice!
From the kitchen came our first new menu item, an Asparagus Salad, served with poached egg, watercress and cured pork jowl dressed in a truffle honey vinaigrette. Served family style to encourage our comments, we all were happy to spar over this dish, which featured both white and green asparagus. I’ll want to try making this dressing myself sometimes, but I’m guessing ahead of time that I won’t touch the nuances that Chef Ford’s team created. The truffle flavor was there, but not overpowering. Yum!
Next on the cocktail menu was the all-new Angels in a Barrel. This is a slow sipping drink, featuring Angels Envy Bourbon and an Allspice Dram. Dram is a liquid version of a spice, in this case, Allspice that really brought out the flavors of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Of the cocktails we sampled, this cocktail reminded me most of a cool weather cocktail. It really has that sense of warming you up. But maybe that’s just me and my relationship to the flavors of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
Following in short order was a beautiful Heirloom Tomato & Burrata Salad. Good golly, this was about as healthy and Floridalishious as it gets! Fresh, juicy red and yellow Heirloom tomato is served with locally sourced burrata cheese, microgreens, a dash of balsamic and a lemon tuile garnish. I just loved how the burrata almost melted to a cream when mixed with the fruit acid of the tomato, acting almost as a dressing for the tomato. It is so appreciated when simple ingredients become sublime.
Following that fresh flavorful salad was Jill’s favorite new cocktail, the second of Jack Dusty’s two Special Blends, the Shrubs in Time. Bartender Kelly calls this Jack Dusty’s twist on a Paloma, explaining how the grapefruit and rosemary shrub portion of the cocktail is made via the sous vide method. Featuring Maestro Dobel Diamante Barrel Select Tequila (Jack Dusty’s private blend) the shrub, Pamplemousse rose liqueur and Q Grapefruit soda, this cocktail was not only crisp and refreshing, but several of us noted how smooth the tequila was on the palate. The propriety blend liquor is the magic in this cocktail.
Our mythical Jack Dusty no doubt enjoyed a trip or two to the islands, so the bar staff created the Rio Tiki to celebrate the tropical flavors he might have enjoyed at those locales. Leblon Cachaca Reserve with Acai Liqueur, lemon, pomegranate juice and a dash or two of a few other sweet and bitter flavors give this cocktail a tropical flair, and the cocktail glass alone is worth a photo op, but please . . . don’t try to take the glass home with you!
On to another new menu item from the culinary staff comes Chef John Ford’s Grilled Grouper with forbidden rice (black rice with a nutty flavor,) braised cabbage with ginger salsa verde, and dragon fruit gastrique drizzled throughout a brilliant cilantro coconut cream sauce with kaffir lime. The grouper was expertly grilled, breaking off into bite-sized chunks you can sweep through the cilantro coconut cream, hit with a touch of that dragon fruit and, upon tasting, I suggest you allow it to rest on your tongue just a minute or two so you can keep all that flavor on your taste buds just a little bit longer. So enjoyable and delicious!
The big guns are coming out of the bar now, with an incredibly tasty cocktail, the Smoked Painkiller . . . created by chef-turned-bartender Mitch. Siesta Key Toasted Coconut Rum, Cointreau, lime, and pineapple are blended, then poured into a wine carafe and infused with smoke before being served ‘smoking cool’ at your table. Topped with a dash of nutmeg, this cocktail is not only a showstopper in presentation but also in flavor. The photo above shows how it is presented before being poured, smoke billowing out, into your glass.
All these robust cocktails lead us to the Beef Tenderloin with a Lobster Mac & Cheese. Again, served family style, the lobster was cut into the same size chunks as the Orecchiette pasta, allowing the lobster to infuse its flavor into the gruyere cheese sauce, which was balanced out with fresh green peas that popped with flavor when bit into. Chantarelle mushrooms also made an appearance before being quickly scooped up onto my fork. Note to self: Learn how to make those crispy potato garnish on this dish!
Another delicious dessert was the Doughnut Holes with a duo of peanut butter sauce and jelly sauces. We failed to get a photo of this dish because it was presented with the doughnuts served warm in a brown paper bag. Once those babies spilled out on the plate they were . . . what’s the word I’m looking for? Oh! I got it . . . GONE! Trust me on this, they are great.
Probably the most photographed dessert of the night was the S’Mores Fudge Brownie Stack. Chef Lyndsy served this herself, setting the dish on the table, then toasting the marshmallow topping before pouring a vanilla bean marshmallow fondue over the dish. One of our friends, Tracy, was fortunate to be sitting right where Chef Lyndsy served up the dish, and I believe her close-up photo went viral. (If it hasn’t yet, it will!) This dessert is actually a rich chocolate fudge brownie served between two homemade graham crackers under that marshmallow fondue. Served with this rich dessert is toasted marshmallow ice cream, which, we’re told, Chef Lyndsy has a hard time keeping in stock. It is a Jack Dusty favorite all on its own!
Topping off our night of delectable wonders was a coffee flavored cocktail called the Gun Smoke. Flor de Can 7 Year Anejo Rum is the base, with cold brew coffee, apple, cinnamon syrup and egg white in the cocktail with a sprinkling of chocolate bitters on top. What a great cocktail to top off a night of amazing food! The Gun Smoke doesn’t have to be an after-dinner drink, but for those of you who enjoy that hint of coffee at the end of a meal, this may become your new favorite.
Over the past ten years or so, we’ve been watching the craft cocktail movement grow with bar chefs featuring ingredients you’d expect to find behind the bar, but now including ingredients typically found only in the kitchen, as well as from spice chests from around the world. The imagination used to design craft cocktails has allowed talented bar chefs and bartenders to explore a world of flavor possibilities, and deliver their inspiration to you in liquid form.
Maybe that’s who Jack Dusty represents. At least I hope so!