If you only paid attention to the exit signs off I-75 into Sarasota, you’d think the only restaurants near the highway were the same old fast food joints and national chain restaurants that you can find pretty much anywhere. (Yawn!) But we’re here to tell you . . . not so fast my friend!
In 1999, visionaries Miles and Mindy Millwee opened the doors to Madfish Grill, less than a mile from I-75 on Cattlemen Road just south of Bee Ridge Road. At the time, some locals questioned their location, since “most” high quality, independent eateries chose to be near the center of town or somewhere along busy Tamiami Trail.
Seventeen years of success later, and no one questions Miles and Mindy’s location choice anymore. . . In fact, there are probably more than a few restaurateurs who privately envy Madfish Grill’s loyal patronage and lack of serious competition in their vicinity. They may also envy the restaurant’s popularity as Madfish seems to only get better and better with every year that ticks by.
In the interests of full disclosure, I was the 2nd person hired to the service staff all those years ago, so I can personally attest to how even-keeled and consistently wonderful the management is. That translates to a staff with relatively low turnover, a dining room that is as timeless in décor as it is in comfort and warmth.
Proof that MadFish is still on its’ game, was our snagging the very last parking space on our weekday visit. Yet even when faced with a bustling crowd, we were quickly sat at a booth by manager Ben Gough. “My last name rhymes with cough,” Ben explained, which we found humorous. I didn’t want to mention that “Ben rhymes with Zen,” which seemed more appropriate given his calm, relaxed demeanor.
We kicked off our evening with a couple of Madfish’s craft cocktails, something this oasis is quite well known for. My libation was the Michter’s Manhattan, which consisted of Michter’s rye, sweet vermouth, bitters and Filthy Cherry, while Jill chose the French 75, a champagne, Ungava gin and lemon cocktail named after the 75-millimeter MI897 artillery piece from WWI. (I didn’t make that up . . . it says so right on the menu!) Both were ideal in getting us to slow down, sit back a moment or two, and take a deep breath from all the work and excitement surrounding the holiday. Let’s just say we were relaxing into the Madfish vibe.
For days leading up to this dinner date, I kept telling Jill how excited I was to know Madfish Grill still had one of my very favorite soups on their menu, one they served since day 1 – the Mangospacho. While is doesn’t occupy a featured spot on the menu, do yourself a favor and order one when you visit Madfish Grill. I have often wondered how many tens of thousands of gallons of Mangospacho have been consumed over the past 17 years. !!?!! If you like conventional gazpacho, and you love mangoes, you’ll adore this refreshing mashup of two of our favorites. I was afraid I may have oversold Jill on the Mangospacho, but she quickly confirmed what I’ve known all along. “I’d like a couple gallons of this,” she exclaimed, and I happy agreed with her.
At the suggestion of our wonderful server, Rita, I jumped at the chance to order the Benny Jamaica’s Jerk Wings. These jerk glazed wings with a creamy herb dipping sauce hit our table looking like art you can eat. The wings were spiced perfectly for my taste – not too hot, with the wings crispy on the outside and bursting with juicy flavor inside. The herb dipping sauce as the perfect counterpoint, a nice change from the typical Ranch or Bleu Cheese dressing.
In a “go big or go home” frame of mind this evening (or perhaps it’s “get big and go home?”) we ordered several appetizers, including the Coco Mac Shrimp. Jill really loved the tropical coconut-macadamia crusted shrimp, butterflied and deep fried to a beautiful golden brown hue, and served with an orange ginger marmalade. The crunch on these shrimp was audible across the table, and worth a giggle or two when guests at a neighboring table asked “What was that!”
While we continued grazing from the appetizer selections, we couldn’t help but order a few from the specials menu, which Ben changes every few days depending upon availability of the freshest catch.
Our Oysters Rockefeller was off the charts delicious, and “worth every calorie,” according to Jill. The four plump oysters were baked with an ever-so-rich blend of cream, spinach, Parmesan cheese, garlic, bacon and breadcrumbs. Consider this appetizer heaven on a plate. My mouth waters just thinking about it!
Just when the Oysters Rockefeller was claiming “Best in Show,” came the Pumpkin Ravioli. Wow! These pasta pockets of pumpkin were bathed in a tantalizing mascarpone cream sauce, with crunchy bacon crumbles and topped with onion straws. I wanted to lick the dish clean, that cream sauce was so amazing! While each dish seemed to get better and better, looking back, I probably would have thought the same if we ordered everything in reverse order!
Onward and upward I say – the entrées were on the way!
In further celebration of Madfish Grill’s 17 years of deliciousness, I orders their house favorite, Seafood Pie. (It said so on the menu, surely that speaks volumes!) The big chunks of Maine lobster, shrimp and diver sea scallops were ensconced in a sherry cream sauce, scallions and mushrooms in a beautifully baked fresh puff pastry. This is a dish you’ll pull your camera out for . . . it is truly a sight to behold. Mashed potatoes and freshly steamed vegetables rounded out the spectacle, building upon a well-paired flavor profile, with pops of color that make this camera-ready dish, a tummy-ready dish as well. The flavors were bold, yet refined, making it obvious why Madfish Grill’s Seafood Pie has been a fan favorite for so long.
After much back-and-forth, Jill chose one of the specials for her main course – the Pepita Crusted Cod. The sizeable portion of cod was sautéed with a pumpkin seed and panko crumb crust, adorned with a tomato-lemon butter, and accompanied with Jasmine rice and asparagus spears. (Personally, I think the asparagus tipped the decision for Jill; she loves asparagus.) The bright, lemony flavor of the cod was ideal and the nutty coating totally embraced the moist and flakey fish. Madfish’s high standards are key to The Pepita Crusted Cod being a special vs finding a home on the regular menu . . . Chef only serves it when he gets his hands on the freshest cod available!
And is any meal a memorable as this complete without checking on the desserts? I think not.
We already know that whatever we choose will be a sweet treat, so we turned over our decision to our server, Rita, who suggested the flourless chocolate torte, known affectionately as the “Bête Noire.” Rita described it as a cross between a chocolate brownie and a piece of chocolate cake. Personally, I think that’d be “fudging” the description a bit. Dense, moist, and oh-so-chocolatey, this was most definitely the perfect culinary punctuation mark to an outstanding evening.
Celebrating a special occasion? Don’t need one to drop by Madfish Grill, though it’s ok if you do. Don’t feel like cooking tonight? Don’t order a pizza, eat left-overs or stay home when there’s a warm welcome just waiting for you at Madfish Grill. You don’t need a reason to spoil yourself! Just do it! One visit and you’ll understand why Madfish Grill has earned a reputation for impressing guest for year after years in the past, and for years to come!