Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Beach Bistro - A Culinary Standout

I've been fortunate to have had dinner at Beach Bistro many times over the years, courtesy of my parents, who spend half the year — the cold half — in Longboat Key. It's our favourite restaurant, and no wonder, the food is outstanding each and every time. Owned by Sean Murphy, Beach Bistro is voted 'Top Restaurant in Florida' consistently, one of the 'Top Restaurants in America' 
by Zagat, and its wine list has regularly received a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for “one of the best wine lists in the world.” What more is there to say?

A native of Halifax, Sean graduated from Dalhousie Law School, but avoiding a career in law and also Canadian winters, he followed his passion for food to New Orleans, learning the restaurant trade under the tutelage of industry renowned Archie Casbarian at Arnaud’s. There, he was introduced to Murf Klauber of the Colony Beach and Tennis Resort in Longboat Key, where he worked before opening the Beach Bistro with his wife Susan Timmins in the fall of 1985. The opening was dramatic and traumatic, emerging from the throes of a hurricane that pounded the windows of the Bistro’s Gulf-front location for three days, Sean, Susan, friends and family bailed and sand-bagged until exhausted. They then turned their attention to opening the restaurant as they had promised. Asked why he was so doggedly determined to open on schedule, Sean replies “We had spent all our money. We were overdrawn $800. Opening night we took in $848.” They've never looked back. 

The restaurant is full every night. At the height of the season, you have to book a table well ahead to make sure you get in. I called a few days in advance for a table for one, and snagged a reservation. When I arrived, I was concerned that being a single diner, they'd tuck me in a corner somewhere, but no. I was shown to a beautiful table in the middle of the restaurant. Other tables around me had four people squeezed into the same size table — I was in heaven. 

I had two servers that were very pleasant and attentive, bringing me a chilled glass of an Italian Pinot Grigio, as I perused the menu. Just as a 'stand' of fresh baked bread with oven roasted tomatoes and warm pesto arrived, so did an amuse-bouche of Bistro Blue Tomato Seasoned Parrish Plum Tomato Soup with Sweet Cream and Maytag Blue Cheese. It was divine — served hot with the blue cheese melting on top — the soup was velvety smooth and full bodied, and the aroma was extraordinary. I regretted not ordering the full size serving from the menu to begin my meal, but I knew I had to save room.

One of Beach Bistro's signature dishes, which is hard to imagine when every dish they serve is outstanding, is their famous Beach Bistro Bouillabaisse. I order it every time I go there. It's the best. As the menu states, "First, you hire a bunch of pros to build a killer broth. Then we poach to order “Novey” lobster tails, jumbo shrimp, premium market fish, shellfish and calamari, and served it with clever asides of herbed toast and garlic aioli." 

The Bistro’s focus from inception was perfection. One of Sean’s favorite advisories is – “If you pursue perfection you will achieve a high degree of excellence a good part of the time.” Sean attributes the success of his restaurant to the strength of his team. “We have the strongest group of managers and chefs anywhere. They understand that our craft requires two major commitments: What we do must be done perfectly and we must be relentless in the pursuit of that perfection.” And they succeed year after year. It's good to know somethings don't change, even what I order each time I walk through their doors.

6600 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, Anna Maria Island, Florida 

The Famous Beach Bistro Bouillabaisse
Serves 6-8
Courtesy of Sean Murphy, Beach Bistro

6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup finely chopped onion
1 cup finely chopped celery
1 leek, white parts only, finely chopped
2 tbsp shrimp or crab base
1 tbsp dried tarragon
1 tbsp fennel seed
2 cups white wine
¼ cup pernod
1 quart seafood stock (can substitute clam juice)
2 cups tomato juice
1 tbsp tomato puree
1 dash Tabasco
3 medium tomatoes peeled, seeded, and roughly chopped
1 pinch of saffron
3 pounds firm-fleshed fish — ask your fishmonger to make a recommendation
14-18 jumbo shrimp
2 lobster tails
2 dozen mussels, bearded and cleaned
2 dozen littleneck or sweet clams, well cleaned
8 ounces cleaned, sliced calamari tubes and tentacles

Heat a heavy bottom stockpot over high heat. Add the oil and garlic. Sauté the garlic for 5 minutes and then add the onion, leek, and celery. Stir the vegetables well to prevent burning and allow to cook for an additional 3 to 4 minutes, or until translucent. Next add the shrimp or crab base, dried herbs, white wine, and Pernod, bring to a simmer and allow to reduce for 5 minutes. Add seafood stock (can substitute clam juice), tomato juice, tomato puree, Tabasco, tomatoes, and saffron and bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.

Add all the seafood and cook for 6 minutes, or until the shells have opened. Discard any shells that do not open. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve with a dollop of aioli and toasted French bread. Garnish with a sprig of fresh thyme.