As a tried and true Sarasota enthusiast, there aren’t many jobs that give you more opportunities to brag about our amazing city than being a Realtor. Unless you consider the careers of two women I was fortunate enough to hang out with last week.
Erin Duggan knows she has my dream job. I tell her all the time. As Vice President of Visit Sarasota County Erin travels the globe, celebrating our great city every day of the week while marketing Sarasota’s beautiful beaches, cultural amenities and overall unbeatable lifestyle to any and everybody who listens.
Susan Robinson has a similar job promoting Sarasota, but with a more targeted market. As founder of Key Culinary Tours. Susan takes small groups of people on tours of local hot spots, sharing the history and interesting tidbits while visiting local restaurants and shops. No wonder there’s always a smile on her face!
Mart and I joined a small group of local food writers and community influencers (which naturally included Erin) on a Key Culinary Tour of St Armands Circle. Now I’ve been to St Armands more times than I can count, and pretty much “thought” I knew everything there was to know about this shining destination on the western end of John Ringling Causeway. Guess what? I don’t that much at all! And that’s where Susan and her team at Key Culinary Tours comes in.
Here’s how Key Culinary Tours work . . . You go online and make a reservation for one of their tour dates, at which time you meet up with the rest of the tour group at an established destination. In the case of the St Armands tour, we met at the statue of John Ringling that’s located across from Crab and Fin Restaurant. Once we had all arrived, Susan introduced everyone and began the tour, sharing fun factoids about St Armands Circle, mixing history, circus lore and interesting trivia with tidbits of pop culture and even clarifying a few rumors here and there. Mixed in all that delicious gossip and education were stops at four local restaurants and two specialty shops that offer an interactive experience.
First off, we stopped outside the oldest building on St Armands. . . the facts of which I’m NOT GOING TO TELL YOU, so as not to ruin the tour for you! You’ll never guess who owned the building and what kind of business he/she ran . . . unless you go on a Key Culinary Tour yourself. (Or you could exhaust yourself trying to look up this information . . . I’m here to tell you the tour is much more fun!)
We were a mixed group of younger and not so younger women and man (Mart didn’t mind,) combining long time residents with a gal who hasn’t “quite” moved down yet from Nashville, (give her a few more months of winter.) As Susan shared her knowledge of “all things St Armands” I’m confident the long-term residents were more surprised at the history of this magical destination than our newest resident. Maybe not Erin, but the rest of us . . . you bet!
Our first restaurant visit was at Shore Diner, where owner Mark Caragiulo set out a spread of what can only be American comfort food with a decidedly Florida twist.
Served family style we all shared the culinary joys of Shore’s ever popular Parmesan Truffle Fries (warning. . . these are addictive!) and their Kung Pao Calamari (the crowd favorite on our visit. I could eat this all day!) We also enjoyed espresso cups filled with Lemongrass Lobster Bisque (totally yum!) and a Lobster, Shrimp, and Crab Cobb Salad served with the customary egg, avocado, bacon, lettuce and . . . did someone say bacon with seafood? You’ll want to order this next time you visit Shore Diner.
I’m not sure Mark was aware that we were headed to other restaurants. Why else would he spoil us with a couple orders of Shore’s House-Smoked Fish Spread and Gravlax, served with a side of grain mustard potato salad (the bomb!) citrus curd and crostinis. Shore certainly knew how to start us out on an decidedly delicious tour.
Next up Susan headed us to The Columbia Restaurant, the oldest establishment on St Armands Circle, stopping along the way to show us where John Ringling had his first real estate office. (I’ll never tell!) Fortunately, that half block walk stirred up just enough appetite for all of us to enjoy another tasting but not before Susan shared the appetizing history of how St. Armands Circle got its’ name (hint . . .both the R and the S were added.) Also of interest – St Armands isn’t named after an actual saint.
When seated at the Columbia, the staff quickly began mixing up one of their famous 1905 Salads and some of their popular Cuban sandwiches. The manager, John Monetti, who’s been at the St Armands location for 23 years, joined us with some interesting facts about The Columbia Restaurant. “Did you know The Columbia serves an average of 750 1905 salads any given day during Snowbird Season?” he asked. That accounts for the five Columbia restaurants in Florida being the largest server of Worcestershire sauce in the entire United States. And their second biggest seller? That would be the sangria, which sells about 100 pitchers a day, with even more sold in the hot summer months than tourist season. (Way to represent Sarasota locals!)
In addition to the St Armands Key Culinary Tour, Susan Robinson shared the news about their bicycle tours, Happy Hour Tours, their downtown Sarasota culinary tour and a chef-led tour of the downtown Farmer’s Market that takes place every Saturday. The tours are limited to 10 guests each, so Susan’s team can provide individual attention, guaranteeing all your questions are answered. The tours are designed to be walk friendly, taking in about a mile overall . . . but who notices when you stop so often and sit for a quick bite!
In between all the great tastings, Susan included stops at two of our favorite St Armands stores; The Spice and Tea Exchange and A Savory Palate. At the Spice and Tea Exchange, the staff was quick to introduce our group to some new spice, tea and oil options, providing a few tasting samples of how their products can be used. There were spices mixed with humus, others with cream cheese or mayo, and my favorite — sugars mixed with whipped cream.
I was especially impressed with the dessert topping which featured two different recipes using Cool Whip with Spice and Tea Exchange’s Tropical Cocoa sugar. One featured the cocoa mixture topped with a raspberry sugar and the other featured a more “spicy” version, topping the cocoa mixture with their Mango Habanero Sugar. (Make this yourself, and in mere seconds you’ll be called a culinary wizard at your next gathering.)
At A Savory Palette, owner Paulette Callender was her always helpful self, helping us sample a variety of her ultra premium olive oils and balsamic vinegars. Our entire group raved over their refreshing cocktail consisting of only seltzer water and white peach balsamic vinegar. This was about as refreshing as any drink I could have asked for! This is a keeper for sure!
On to Blu Kouzina our group settled into a corner table in the outside dining area and sampled small bites showcasing the flavors of Greece. In addition to being one of the most beautiful restaurants on the key, Blu Kouzina is also one of the most authentic Greek restaurants on the entire Gulf Coast. All of their food is cooked with their own cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil from their personally owned groves in Greece. You won’t find a microwave or freezers on the premises . . . it’s totally fresh! Trust me, Blu Kouzina is the real deal.
Blu Kouzina’s sampler plate was exactly the size portions I had hoped for, featuring a Keftedes meatball with tzatziki, a zucchini patty with fresh herbs and feta cheese, and Kotopoulo Yiro . . . aka a savory chicken skewer with roasted potato. I was pretty thrilled to also find a bite-sized serving of baklava, so nutty and crispy with just a hint of honey. And that small shot of a Greek beer? What a great photo opportunity for our tour group!
We took another stroll around the circle, stopping to note several statues and as Susan shared several stories on a few key inductees in the Circus Ring of Fame, including the medallions Cecil B. DeMille, who filmed the movie Greatest Show on Earth in Sarasota, as well as the medallion of Jumbo the Elephant — the first animal to ever be inducted into the Circus Ring of Honor. We all took a moment to consider what an important part the Ringling Circus plays in Sarasota history, and noted that just that week the Ringling Brothers Circus had announced they would be closing the circus forever, after 146 glorious years.
Finishing up our tour was a final stop at Tommy Bahama’s Restaurant, where dessert waited for us in the form of three small samples of their most popular desserts. We all enjoyed the Triple Chocolate cake, the Peanut Butter Pie (new to their menu and everyone’s favorite) and the Pina Colada Cake. Let me tell you that Peanut Butter Pie has the best pie crust I’ve ever tasted, just so crunchy and delicious . . . I could go on and on!
Coming from their 100% made from scratch kitchen, you can taste the attention to detail that Executive Chef Shannon Mills pours into each dessert on the plate. (Not to be outdone was the mixologists at the bar, sending out a sample of Tommy Bahama’s Key Lime Martini!) Because the mini samplers are made only for Key Culinary Tours, Tommy Bahama’s manager, Ira Freedman, was happy to bring out the dessert tray and show us how large their desserts are when coming into the restaurant as a regular guest. Each bite was so delicious, I wanted to steal the sampler plate as we walked out the door. (Not kidding!)
All in all, Key Culinary Tours takes about three hours, and is a great way to spend an afternoon with friends or a way to make new ones. Susan Robinson shared that Key Culinary Tours sells just as many Tours to locals as they sell to out-of-towners. “You wouldn’t believe the number of locals who rarely step outside their own neighborhoods,” she explained. “After taking their first Tour it’s the locals clamoring for us to open Culinary Tours in other parts of town!”
Guess this tour idea has legs! You go, girl!
*Thank you to Jola Portraits for a number of the photos featured on this blog. You gave us an opportunity to sit back and enjoy Key Culinary Tours while you did your magic!