Friday, March 4, 2011

St Armands Circle and The Crab and Fin

Shopping in Paradise —St Armands Circle

The finest shopping on Longboat Key is on St Armands Circle. Set amidst a tropical paradise, St. Armands is an enchanting circle of elegant shops and boutiques, fine restaurants and bistros — an island shopping circle far removed from the hustle bustle of the mainland by a bridge that traverses magnificent Sarasota Bay. Unique in concept, history, and beauty, St. Armands is one of the first stops I like to make whenever I'm in Longboat Key.

The central gardens and statuary on the St Armands Circle round-about

Visionary circus magnate John Ringling purchased the St. Armands Key property in 1917 and planned a development which included residential lots and a shopping center laid out in a circle. As no bridge to the key had yet been built, Ringling engaged an old paddle-wheel steamboat to serve as a work boat. His crews labored at dredging canals, building seawalls, and installing sidewalks and streets lined with rose-colored curbs. In 1925, work began on a causeway to join St. Armands Key to the mainland. Circus elephants were even used to haul the huge timbers with which the bridge and causeway were built.

An old photo of John Ringling

John Ringling's influence is still evident today, in the planning and design of streets radiating from the the circle at the island's hub, and the Italian statuary from his personal collection strategically placed around the key. 

St Armands Circle looks very much as Ringling originally envisioned it, with the palm tree lined medians, the parklike setting, and gorgeous tropical plantings. One of the more popular restaurants on the Circle is The Crab and Fin, or as it used to be called Charley's Crab, a perennial favourite with visitors and residents alike.

Nestled on a picturesque corner, The Crab and Fin is the perfect place to pause during a day's shopping, have a glass of wine and people watch while nibbling on some crab cakes and listening to dulcet tones of the charming outdoor pianist, who plays every day! 

On a gorgeous sunny afternoon, I found myself passing "Charly's" around lunchtime and was lucky to get a table outdoors. Famous for their crab, I decided to try the Large Florida Stone Crab Claws, served chilled with a dijon mayonnaise, and the Avocado Tuna Tartare with a chili-lime aioli, crispy vermicelli and deconstructed guacamole.

The crab claws were pre-cracked, thank goodness, and full of succulent pink crabmeat. It's a messy business though, so I was relieved when my server brought a moist warm towel and fresh lemon, but surprised when he squeezed the lemons on my outstretched hands himself! That's service. 

Crab and Fin Tuna Tartare with spicy aioli, avocado 
and crispy angelhair vermicelli

The Tuna Tartare was excellent. A generous portion of raw tuna was carved into manageable bite-size pieces and set atop a pillow of spicy lime-chili aioli, and crowned with a chunky serving of guacamole-style avocado. The flash fried angel hair vermicelli was slightly salty and provided a lovely contrast to the rich smooth texture of the tuna and avocado, with the spicy aioli providing the kick. Not only delicious, the tartare was also artfully shaped as a square, and set obliquely on a translucent cerulean blue plate. Lovely. Just one more glass of wine and then some 'retail therapy' on St Armands Circle.