I’m going to wager that a growing number of Sarasota’s restaurant scene fans have heard of H2O Bistro but can’t tell you where it is! Which is pretty amazing, since the creations of H2O Bistro’s Chef Solomon Shenker has been creating quite the buzz this summer. Way to create a sense of mystery, oh wise Solomon. . . Get people talking about your great food, and make them search high and low for you!
Spoiler Alert: Against all odds, and without any signage or visibility from the street, H2O Bistro has created a truly loyal following of local foodies from the lobby of the acclaimed boutique hotel, The Hotel Indigo. Pretty impressive, in my book!
Jill and I first met Executive Chef Solomon Shecker, hereinafter to be “Chef Sol”, at the Savor Sarasota kick-off held a few months ago at The Francis Ballroom. Instantly likeable, we were enamored with Chef’s Mushroom Soup (made with 18 different mushroom varieties) and made a point to tell him so. Naturally, as we came to discover, Chef Sol invited to visit H2O Bistro, with the request “please, let me spoil you!”
I’m confident Chef Sol says that to everyone, and 1,000% sure he pampers each and every guest that dines at the comfortable, casual H2O Bistro, just off the Hotel Indigo’s lobby. Beach chic and welcoming, I’m sure many a weary traveler are immediately drawn to the lobby bar for an ice cold craft beer or glass of wine, then inspired to dine after seeing the plates of food coming from the kitchen.
Knowing that H2O Bistro can fill up quickly when there’s an event at the hotel or a show at the Van Wezel, we decided to slip in on a weeknight, and were rewarded with a table by the window, seated promptly by our genial server, Adam.
Menus presented, we spy an interesting array of appetizers, salads, and a selection of light bites on one side of the menu, with dinner entrees, desserts and wine listed on the other. Adam is happy to explain that the nightly “specials” are highly recommend at H2O Bistro, since all of their ingredients are locally sourced, with all preparations, right down to the seasoning blends, scratch made. No “Sky Chefs” grab-and-go menu in this hotel restaurant! With fresh ingredients the driving force behind the chef’s creations, H2O Bistro’s nightly “specials” are actually semi-regular menu items that have consistently drawn raves from the regulars, and are showcased on the nightly menu when the proper ingredients are at their height of flavor and quality. Brilliant!
With the wine ordered, Adam promptly returns with our first starter . . . a “Chef Sol couldn’t resist” Seafood Bruschetta. Separately, either of those words catches my attention, but together? Truly a marriage prepared with love and attention! This appetizer was INSANE, featuring fresh, plump shrimp and crab, with an imaginative and totally indulgent mix of hearts of palm, red onion, diced tomato, parsley, a refreshing crunch of celery, and shredded locatelli cheese, all atop grilled French bread and finished with EVOO and balsamic vinegar. Wow! Wow! Wow! I could have eaten all of them, but after seeing Chef Sol deliver two buffet sized dinners to another table, I knew we needed to pace ourselves. We were pleasantly distracted from demolishing the entire serving while watching Chef Sol do the thing he does second best – schmoozing the guests.
Round two found us sharing the Seafood Bites and Caribbean Seafood Stew, and I quickly knew we made the right choice to follow the Gulf influenced menu choices, seeing as how we were in the midst of a veritable “high tide” of food.
The Seafood Bites have the appearance of beignets, but one bite reveals a slight crunch, and then a rich “chew” of moist and meaty crab and shrimp in puff pastry dough. With a classic, creamy ranch dressing to dip the Seafood Bites in, perhaps we
could/should have stopped right then . . . But hey, in for a penny, in for a (few) pound(s)! And the Caribbean Seafood Stew? Who wouldn’t love a stew of crab, shrimp, corn, onions and saffron rice with a little chorizo thrown in for good measure! I know we did!
For my entrée, I ordered the Cioppino, and trust me, this was a masterpiece of robust flavor with an enormous serving of mussels, clams (two to a shell? Is magic being done in the kitchen or what??) calamari, mahi mahi, crab, shrimp, onions, celery, garlic, and fresh herbs, all bathed in a red seafood sauce. Four generously sized and crispy toast points with toasted locatelli cheese graced the rim of the plate, just in case I was a little bit hungrier. Jill and I both thought the toast points were as good as anything on the plate! Did I just hear someone say “whew?” Oh yeah, that was me – and you too, once you experience this classic.
Jill’s Land and Sea special arrives on a square plate that just might need its own zip code. In fact, I wondered how Adam, not the biggest guy in the room, carried both entrées unassisted. No joke! We all want a square meal, but this was a square meal squared!
The tender chicken breasts were “bronzed” in a house seasoning, which we asked Chef Sol about during his aforementioned schmoozing. He explained it was a combination of blackening spice and jerk spices, something he drummed up when he wanted to please some Trinidadian guests staying at Hotel Indigo. That, my friends, is how you spell h-o-s-p-t-a-l-i-t-y . . . H2O Bistro style! The shrimp was sautéed in a Cholula Hot Sauce with butter, with a huge mound of paella rice at its center, along with a sizeable portion of sautéed fresh zucchini, yellow squash, onion, and roasted red peppers that complemented the meal. I knew the minute the plate hit the table that we would be taking most of it home for a later meal!
It’s hard to imagine picking up our forks again after enjoying such robust and delicious food, but we knew from prior experience that we had to at least share a piece of Chef Sol’s world-class New York Style Cheesecake. Being from Long Island, Chef Sol’s cheesecake is absolutely, hands down, the real McCoy. Replete with a drizzle of caramel sauce over a slice that is easily spring-form-pan-deep, this is one lush and creamy cheesecake with be the thickest, most buttery graham cracker crumb crust ever. I don’t know of anybody that does it better!
And so, after realizing we ordered more than we could possibly finish, we inevitably surrendered and raised a white flag on this feast. But not before picking up the Hotel Indigo banner, which we’ll be waiving with gusto as long as Chef Sol is spoiling everyone at H2O Bistro!