While curbside pick-up was a wise and wonderful choice during the last couple of months of social distancing, in-house dining has always been our preferred way to enjoy the amazing food offered by Sarasota’s many locally-owned restaurants.
So, with several months since our last in-house restaurant visit, I felt like I was waking up from a long nightmare when we finally experienced the joys of going out, picking up with our third restaurant showcased in our “Dining with a View” series. Trust me . . . it felt so right to join civilization again.
We both enthusiastically agreed that a visit to Bridges Restaurant, located on the eighth floor of The Embassy Suites hotel was the ideal place to resume writing about the Sarasota restaurant scene after sheltering in place for so long. First off, the expansive views of Sarasota’s sophisticated downtown skyline and bayfront is the perfect backdrop for the stylish decor featuring the colors and patterns of the sea, with double high windows that frame different glimpses of the sun glinting off Sarasota Bay. A large circular bar is surrounded by windows ringed with two-top tables where guests can take in a view of the bay by day, sunset by night, and the twinkling lights of the city once evening settles in. I suppose the appropriate word is “Ahhhh!” Bridges just feels so comfortable and welcoming . . . like Sarasota felt when I first moved here 30 years ago.
Truth be told, Bridges also has a secret weapon in the kitchen . . . one our favorite chefs . . . the irrepressible, passionate, and oh-so-talented Chef Solomon Shenker, who, in addition to running the kitchen of Hotel Indigo, also took over the helm of Bridges Restaurant earlier this year. We will follow Chef Sol to any restaurant where he’s in control of the menu.
Settling in, Jill told our server that she was on the Keto Diet, and Chef sent out word that “he’s got her back!” which means, leave the menu choices to me. So we did! (Told you, we’re big, big fans!) We began our evening by sharing the Bridges Seafood Salad. Let me say that without taking a single bite I could almost smell the fresh salty air and brininess of the Gulf of Mexico once it made an appearance at our table. I closed my eyes for a brief moment and conjured up the gentle sound of waves lapping the shore. True story.
But let me tell you about the tastes of the Gulf as well . . . Every ingredient in Bridges Seafood Salad is fresh from the Gulf and local farms . . . as in fresh, whole Gulf shrimp combined with chunks of locally sourced crab claw meat, all presented with locally grown cucumber, grape tomatoes, and citrus slices galore. Topping this was Chef Sol’s “New Orleans mayo,” a remoulade made from scratch with egg yolk, cilantro, garlic, shallots, EVOO, roasted red pepper, and fresh herbs. The seafood remained the hero of this appetizer but was definitely enhanced with the nuanced remoulade. We’d barely begun, and for Jill this was such a show-stopper that she had a hard time putting her fork down.
Our next taste was that of a Cajun Sausage & Chicken Chowder. Now, having been made with a roux, a bowl of this wouldn’t work with Jill’s Keto Diet, but she did want to taste it, even if only by dipping her spoon into the dish. (More than once, I may add) While she was entranced by the flavors of the soup, I got right into the bowl, exploring the depth of flavors that Chef Sol is a master of in bringing into a bowl of soup or chowder. Seriously, I thought Chef Sol’s 18 Mushroom Bisque simply could NOT be matched…but I stand corrected. If I had the choice of ordering one soup over the other I would be at a loss having to choose a favorite. Maybe Chef Sol can find one of those serving bowls that are split down the middle so I could enjoy both! My mouth waters just thinking about the Cajun Sausage and Chicken Chowder! Starting with a base of a slow cooked brown roux, Chef combines chicken, sausage, mushrooms, carrots, potatoes, and spices that produced a magnificent chowder taken right out of the New Orleans playbook. I licked the bowl clean!
With our taste buds now properly revved up, our attention turned to three superb entrées, the first of which was the Veal Osso Buco which pretty much should come with instructions to leave your knife alone . . . because you honestly won’t need it. Chef Sol brought this dish out to us and explained that everything in the kitchen is sourced within 50 miles of Bridges Restaurant, with the veal coming from a local Myakka rancher. It is obvious to this foodie that Chef pours a lot of love into this dish, as he explains it takes 5 hours to make. To begin with, Chef ever-so-lightly dusts each slice of veal shank with his own seasoned flour then gives it a nice pan sear in EVOO before settling it into a French Rondeau cooking pan. There, it is surrounded by fresh rosemary, mushrooms, a classic mirepoix, and an entire bottle of cabernet sauvignon.
After those 5 hours of serious seasoning and tenderizing, Chef Sol takes the pan juices, now sweetened and richly flavored by those fresh vegetables and spices, and combines them all with an immersion blender for the luscious gravy that bathes the meat. Truly, this is one of the most decadent “comfort foods” in my personal memory! The Veal Osso Buco is served with a side of grilled asparagus and a creamy risotto that pairs well with the flavors of the meat . . . as well as that delightful gravy!
A Pan-Seared Rack of Lamb came next, and featured one of Jill’s favorite surprises of the night! Seared with aged parmesan cheese, Chef Sol’s preparation featured a Moroccan inspired seasoning rub consisting of curry, a touch of chili powder, turmeric, and cumin. Chef then serves the lamb atop a fresh herbed cauliflower purée, seasoned with similar Moroccan spices and a healthy amount of fresh garlic and basil oil.
To make the flavor profile even more amazing, I suggest you take a piece of the lamb (cooked to a perfect medium rare) and dip it into the cauliflower purée, and you’ll find something magical happens. The flavor combination . . . the char from the lamb, the velvety texture from the seasoned cauliflower . . . just explodes on the palate. Neither of us could stop gushing over how surprisingly delicious this dish was. Truly, this evoked some “foodie math” in me, where 1 + 1 = a perfect 10! Jill remarked that she would happily order just the cauliflower magic by itself and be thrilled with the meal!
And naturally, a seafood dish was must-do for us, even if it means taking food home in a doggie bag. Chef Sol, as he always does, cooks “out loud” with our final entrée. He starts with a pan-seared Black Grouper, one of my very favorite fish for its mild flavor, and firm yet flakey flesh — no doubt due to its environs in deep, cold waters one hundred miles (or so) offshore. This beautiful fish rests atop Chef’s Floribbean crab cake, seasoned with cilantro, Old Bay, and blackening seasoning and pan-seared in butter to a crispy crust. The two proteins could stand alone in their deliciousness, but then Chef Sol . . . with his typical gustatory gusto takes the dish even further, with a “Seafood Hollandaise”. Overall, the dish is very light and while it was a wonderful dinner entrée, I thought it would make an ideal brunch or breakfast entrée as well, so we told him so! And, as Chef hadn’t named the dish yet, our brunch recommendation inspired him to name it “Grouper Benedict”, no English muffin needed. I think it’s the perfect name!
Choosing dessert is always a challenge, and never more so than anywhere Chef Solomon Shenker cooks. As in, hmm . . . should I have one piece of cheesecake or two pieces of Chef Sol’s legendary cheesecake? Kidding. (Or am I?)
To say this is “hands down” the best cheesecake anywhere is kinda trite. After all, we have been lauding Chef Sol’s cheesecake for 8 years now, and have never been challenged in that opinion. We have, on occasion, thought we’d found a local cheesecake that was “as good as” Chef Sol’s, only to find out he provides cheesecakes to a number of our local restaurants. That pretty much ends any argument as far as any local cheesecake wars are concerned. I, again, give this my personal award for the Platinum Standard of Cheesecakes!
Yet somehow, Chef’s cheesecake was even better now that he’s surrounded by a new state-of-the-art playground worth of kitchen equipment. Chef Sol’s huge mixers allow him to whip his cheesecake batter to an even creamier and airier consistency while leaving the flavor intact. This dessert bliss is couched in a robust crust that eats like a confectioner’s crunchy candy. Drizzle a bit of melted caramel sauce and fresh whipped cream, and trust me on this . . . if you haven’t had this heaven-on-a-plate creation yet, you simply must. (Jill managed to resist this pretty much . . . sampling the whipped cream and just a smidge of the cheesecake. Well, yay for me!)
Whew! What a fantastic feast! As we finished up our meal and headed home, I was overwhelmed with how happy I was to simply get out of the house and embrace the sights, sounds, and flavors of Sarasota again. Bridges is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and is known for a robust happy hour at their beautiful glass-enclosed bar, so if you can’t make it for dinner, try stopping by anytime. Valet parking is complimentary when you get your valet ticket validated.
I would just add that during these times, please continue to cherish your family and friends, eat well, stay safe . . . and save room for cheesecake everyone!