Jack Dusty – A Year Later . . .

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Wow! Has it really been a full year? This past week Jack Dusty just turned 1, and in true Ritz-Carlton fashion, celebrated with a full-on, first class, “warm-welcome-to-fond-farewell” anniversary party,  which your Sarasota Foodies were most grateful to attend!

This was an occasion that could never have been pulled off in the late, great, and oh-so elegant European inspired Vernona Dining Room, the predecessor to the coastal-chic casual yet laidback sophistication of Jack Dusty. Case in point… Jack Dusty allowed for the back section of the dining room and outside balcony to host this event, while the front dining room remained open for hotel guests and locals who stopped by for dinner or cocktails.   The Vernona Dining Room would have had to turn away hotel guests, or shut down the Ca Da Zan Lounge for an event like this, while Jack Dusty handled the separate crowds in splendid fashion.

Mermaids and Mermen - regulars at Jack Dusty

Mermaids and Mermen – regulars at Jack Dust

Jack Dusty’s anniversary party was off and running when we arrived, hosting media guests, regular patrons and Ritz Carlton residents to a night of delicious tastings of new menu items, as well as an opportunity to mingle with  mermaids and mermen, a rum tasting bar on the back patio, DJ Jay Goodley spinning up a perfect mix of tunes, craft cocktails, wine, and a one-off keg of an amazing Cigar City Humidor Tangerine IPA. (A little more on all of that later.)

Jack Dusty 2014  (8) (Medium)

Naturally, the star of this party was the absolutely gorgeous restaurant itself, as well as the new menu items coming from Jack Dusty’s Chef de Cuisine, Chef Caleb Taylor, and his talented team turning out an array of impeccably prepared samplings.

Jack Dusty 2014  (42) (1024x768)

We started off by being ushered to the craft cocktail bar, where Head Mixologist Ingi was offering two brand new custom cocktails.  The first was a Classic Daquiri,  with rum and the perfect balance of sweet and tartness, which Jill felt was in perfect harmony with the nautical venue. The second cocktail, the Trade Coast, was a sophisticated, manly sort of creation, made with Bacardi 8, Amaretto di Saronno, made all the more exotic with the addition of Amaro Averna, with its sweet and gentle herbal bitterness and one of Jack Dusty’s large, hand-carved (and slow melting) ice cubes. Wonderfully cold to the mouth and warm to the taste . . . the perfect ‘sipping cocktail’ for a cool winter evening.

Jack Dusty 2014  (6) (Medium)

One needed only wait a moment before one of the Ritz’s always polished staff was at hand, proffering small plates featuring one “ooh” after “ahh” tasting of 8 different dishes! And of course, in the interests of honing our thoughts on these delights, we were practically forced to have seconds of several.  At least that’s my take on it!

We started with the “Sunshine Blue” and Roasted Pear Salad, with its local five leaf mix, walnut relish and port wine vinaigrette.  This tasting portion offered a good 4-5 bites per plate, the balance of blue cheese to pear and greens spot on tasty.  (Are you hungry yet? It gets better!)

Sunshine Blue and Roasted Pear Salad

Sunshine Blue and Roasted Pear Salad

I don’t recall the exact order we tried the next three new menu items, but the Wild Boar Cavatelli, with its winter squash, sage and toasted pine nuts had a deeply layered flavor profile that I adored, and beautifully orchestrated textures.

Wild Boar Cavatelli (sample size)

Wild Boar Cavatelli (sample size)

Just to give you an idea what we were enjoying that night, above is a photo of the sample size we were enjoying, and below is a photo of what a regular sized order of the Wild Boar Cavatelli would look like if  (and when) you order it.   Honestly, we could have stopped there, gone to the other side of the dining room and ordered a full portion – it was so good, but there were more delicious samples coming from the kitchen.

Full portion size of the Wild Boar Cavatelli . . . photo credit Joe Sedik

Full portion size of the Wild Boar Cavatelli . . . photo credit Joe Sedik

It would be flat-out false to say any one dish was head-and-shoulders above the others, but for me, my favorite was the Everglades Frog and Crayfish Gumbo – a delicious mix of spicy gumbo and crispy fried frog and crayfish, that was even more exceptional when paired with the aforementioned Cigar City Humidor Tangerine IPA.   Singularly delicious, but together, a line drive double play leading to a culinary home run!  I am SO ordering this next time we come to Jack Dusty.

Everglades Frog and Crayfish Gumbo (sample size)

Everglades Frog and Crayfish Gumbo (sample size)

While Jill was in 100% agreement with me over the salad, wild boar and gumbo, she felt the best-in-show (before we get into the amazing dessert dishes), was the Deep Fried Grits with Charred Tomato Aioli.  This dish is featured on Jack Dusty’s lunch menu but we think they should be a main-stay on both menus.  Simply put, Jill felt the grits were irresistible in taste and sensational in it’s simplicity!  The delightfully light crunch of the crust held the smooth, cheesy grits in place until broken open with a fork, and then the acid from the charred tomato aioli oozed in and added the perfect compliment to the sublimely smooth and creamy texture.   If this is the type of grits served with Jack Dusty’s Shrimp and Grits, don’t miss them!

Deep Fried Grits with Roasted Tomato Aioli

Deep Fried Grits with Roasted Tomato Aioli

The dessert courses showcased even further the cuisine that puts a contemporary spin on classic Americana sweets. The Key Lime Pie was artfully served in a small mason jar, and was cool and bright, with that zippy tang that only key lime can give, while the Banana Pudding was served parfait style, with graham cracker crumbs blended in and banana so ripe and pristine they looked “just off the tree fresh.”

Key Lime Pie at Jack Dusty

Key Lime Pie at Jack Dusty

The Jack Dusty S’Mores were certainly popular, being the only chocolate desert featured that night., which might explain why some guests were taking them two at a time.  Honestly, the S’mores were supposed to be sized as a single bite (or two) but once you bit into that outer cracker, the melted ooey gooey, sticky goodness required several chews before you could take another bite.  I laughed when I saw a friend pop an entire S’More into his mouth and then had to hold up his finger, and cover his mouth in one of those “wait one moment, please” (chew . . . chew . . . chew) moments when his wife tried to introduce him to another guest.   The flavor had me instantly transported back to that happy place when I was a kid, and first tasted this all-time favorite around a campfire at my parent’s cottage.  Happy food, for sure.

Jack's S'Mores

Jack’s S’Mores

It was the Deep Fried PB&J Cheesecake Bites, however, that had my sweet tooth singing and dancing, which may account for why it became my personal goal to ensure everyone at the party tasted one!  Truly, this is a must-have dessert. . . as in I was honestly stopping people I’d never met before to ask “Have you had the Deep Fried PB&J Cheesecake yet?  No?  Here — try one!”    Our server barely made it out of the kitchen before I had all these babies all handed out!

Deep-Fried PB&J Cheesecake

Deep-Fried PB&J Cheesecake

In the end, the truest testimony that the re-imaging of this iconic Sarasota hotel’s restaurant was a brilliant move, was a brief conversation I had with a couple who live in the Ritz Carlton’s condo tower year round.  Previously they only visited the Vernona Dining Room for special occasions, but now they frequent Jack Dusty’s several times per week!  This reinvention of a restaurant that many thought didn’t need fixing, has drawn an enthusiastic response from guests who believe Jack Dusty is the unique “wow” you expect when you think of  “puttin’ on the Ritz.”

For a little more insight into the evening, check out this link our new friend, photographer Joe Sedik put together!  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYT8rYi8Myw&feature=youtu.be

Happy Birthday, Jack Dusty!  We wish you many more!



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