I’ll start this blog post with a warning.
Envy is not an attractive emotion. It’s not something any of us would want to be known for, but when we were invited to preview Ridley’s Porch, the new restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota’s Beach Club on Lido Key, I didn’t go into it thinking I’d be filled with envy by the time we were done. But I was. Terribly terrible jealousy and envy towards the members of the Ritz-Carlton Beach Club. Because if you want to eat at Ridley’s Porch, you’ll need to either be a member, a guest of a member, or a guest at the hotel. Which excludes me at present time.
Fortunately, I am friends with Stacey Anderson, the Marketing Communications Coordinator for The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota. She was telling a group of us how local General Manager Damien O’Riordan and his crew became personally invested in the reimagination of the restaurant at the Beach Club and invited us to see the finished renovation, as well as try out their new chef. The Ritz’s staff went into the renovation wanting guests to feel as though they were sitting on their porch, enjoying a cocktail or casual meal overlooking one of the world’s most beautiful beaches. I think they succeeded.
Naming the restaurant Ridley’s Porch was one of my favorite decisions made by The Ritz. The Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle is a local treasure that nests on the sand of The Ritz’s private beach. The rarest of sea turtles and the smallest, the Kemp’s Ridley is critically endangered, so I welcome any attention to their plight. There are strong ties to sea turtle preservation within the grounds of the hotel, where lighting is controlled during hatching season, helping ensure the hatchlings have every chance to make it to the shoreline.
We started our evening with one of Ridley’s Porch’s most popular cocktails, their Old Rocking Chair. Using Mote Marine Laboratory Sun Brewed Tea with your choice of either Bourbon or Vodka, the bartender then adds fresh squeezed lemonade, and flavors of Hibiscus, coconut, rose petals, apple, and pineapple. This was a delightful cocktail, and, I’m happy to report, a portion of the proceeds from every Old Rocking Chair cocktail are donated to Mote Marine Laboratory and those adorable Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles.
Taking a seat at one of the long community tables at Ridley’s Porch Restaurant, we joined a group of other foodies (and “drinkies”) to sample some of the new dishes guests will enjoy. First off was an Artisan Cheese & Charcuterie Board. This appetizer changes from week to week, featuring the freshest of regional crafted cheese and meats served with various accouterments that build upon the flavors.
For our sampling, we were feted to Drunken Goat Cheese, Queso de Titilo, and Cambozola cheese. With that were a nicely spiced Italian Salami, Florida Wild Boar Salami, candied pecans, quince, cornish pickles, rolls, and lavash. The Cambozola is a combination of a French soft-ripened triple cream cheese and Italian Gorgonzola often called a Bleu Brie. Being a fan of both, this was a real treat to my palate. The Queso Titilo was also sublime, especially with a little of the quince. Velvety smooth and creamy!
Chef Catalin Munteanu was the chef at The Beach Club before it was recreated as Ridley’s Porch, so he was able to participate in the entire menu creation along with The Ritz Carlton’s Executive Chef Yann Chupin. Originally from Romania, Chef Catalin has worked throughout the U.S. and Europe and is also about as passionate as any chef I’ve met regarding the responsibility he feels towards the food sources he serves. For example, when he served the Cast Iron Sea Scallops he pointed out that scallops take a while to mature, so when tasting the large scallops served at Ridley’s Porch he asked us to respect the life of the shellfish and to chew slowly enough to savor every nuance in flavor.
Chef Catalin’s knowledge and passion were evident in every dish. Take, for example, the Barbequed Octopus appetizer. We were provided bite-sized samples and a standard order was placed on the table for photographs. This plate was also up for grabs and heartily enjoyed. The octopus itself was both tender and slightly chewy, with that zip of barbecue sauce. Topped with watercress salad and layered between wedges of mint potato salad, it was impossible to ignore how tasty the potato was, and how well every ingredient enhanced the octopus.
While enjoying the octopus, we were asked what we would like to drink if we had a front porch seat to the sunset, and then . . . as if reading my mind, we were served Watermelon Spritzers composed of gin, Aperol, fresh watermelon juice, lemon juice and topped with soda and prosecco. Are these folks mindreaders or what? This is exactly what a sunset on the beach would call for! The ideal mix of sweet and sour!
Among the guests were fellow bloggers, Kim and Robert Livengood aka The Cocktail Couple. I was seated next to Robert and he and I agreed on almost every dish, with his favorite being the Prosciutto Bruschetta. I have to support his choice. Chef Catalin’s bruschetta starts with a crunchy bread with Prosciutto di Parma, goat cheese, arugula and under it all. . . the surprising bite of fig. This is a WOW! Bruschetta, for sure.
The Shrimp Ceviche was also a hit, with diced Tiger shrimp, fresher-than-fresh avocado salsa, (seriously, just look at the avocado!) citrus juice, cilantro and garnished with colorful watermelon radishes. Ceviche is such an ideal dish for a waterfront restaurant, and Ridley’s Porch serves up a nicely portioned coconut shell with a side of tortilla chips. You can scoop the ceviche up in a chip, or a spoon. It’s delicious both ways.
Next were those Cast Iron Sea Scallops that Chef spoke so reverently about, Served with a creamy risotto, roasted cauliflower, capers and a red beet fondue, the scallops had a smoky flavor to them that everyone just loved. Seared perfectly, each bite was rich and luscious, perhaps even more so by the adoration Chef, Catalin invested into the dish. His respect for the scallop was evident in every single bite.
And since we’re mentioning smoky flavors, I have to do a call out for the Smoked Jalapeno Margarita, a specialty of Ridley’s Porch. Fresh jalapenos are sliced, the seeds removed, and then charred by a torch, before they’re positioned under a cocktail glass, allowing the glass to fill with that spicy, smokey flavor. Upon serving the cocktail, our bartender charred another slice of jalapeno and dropped one in each of our glasses. This is truly a spicy drink, and not for the faint of heart. Want to get knocked off your chair with a smoked cocktail? This is the one to try!
Guest satisfaction is paramount at The Ritz. If it weren’t, they wouldn’t be The Ritz, now would they? With that in mind, Chef introduced a veggie dish that you don’t have to be a vegetarian to love! The Roasted Red Beet & Miso Cake was a real treat for me. Red quinoa, lemon-scented broccolini, and beet butter sauce are mixed, pressed into a mold, then inverted on a plate, topped with more broccolini and a splash more of that beet butter sauce. This was great on its own, but Mart thought it would also make a great beet patty for a sandwich. I have to agree. Chef took me to church on this dish!
My favorite of the night was the Blackened Salmon. With Norwegian heritage, I’ve had my share of salmon. In Norway, they serve it pretty much every meal of the day, and if you ask what the best dish at any Norwegian restaurant is, the server will inevitably suggest “Have you tried the salmon?” That’s no lie.
The Blackened Salmon at Ridley’s Porch is, without a hint of exaggeration, the most elegantly flavored salmon I’ve ever, ever, ever had! It was so succulent and tender, I would have sworn it was sous vide before cooking, but Stacey informed me that it wasn’t. This salmon was beyond delicious and probably the reason I left the night feeling envy for any and every person with a membership at The Ritz-Carlton Beach Club.
Served with a warm tabbouleh salad, the salmon was blackened with paprika, black pepper, garlic powder, Cayan, chervil, parsley, mint, and chives. Myer lemon juice and zest added zip to the tabbouleh, with heirloom baby carrots, cilantro chutney, and confit tomatoes jumping on stage with that amazing salmon. Did I mention that I loved it?
Before we left, the staff served up several “Doctor Suess inspired” Pina Colada spun sugar treats. This is one of those desserts that makes you feel like a kid again, and who doesn’t like taking a gastro-stroll down memory lane? It was a fun way to say goodnight to a delicious evening spent in the languid ambiance of a restaurant that felt like home, surrounded by friends and celebrated with the talents of one of area’s best new (to me) chefs.
Just one question? Do any of my friends have a membership to The Ritz-Carlton Beach Club? Anyone who’d invite me back? First round is on me! Yes, I’m offering a bribe to go back!