Thursday, November 30, 2017

Sarasota Opera: La Traviata & The Bijou Café

Based on Florida's gorgeous Gulf Coast, the Sarasota Opera is now in its 59th season. Opened in 1926, the Opera House was designed by Roy A. Benjamin in the Mediterranean Revival style and recently enjoyed a $20-million renovation in 2008, designed to restore the historic theatre to its original glory. Decorative details have been brought back to their former glory, seating has been replaced, and the orchestra pit almost doubled in size to accommodate operas that require larger orchestras. Arriving to see La Traviata, our first opera while staying in Florida, we began the evening with dinner The Bijou, one of Sarasota's most sought after fine dining destinations, and conveniently located in the heart of the Theatre and Arts District. The cuisine at Bijou reflects chef-owner Jean-Pierre’s South African and French heritage, such as his famous Mozambique-influenced Piri-Piri Shrimp and superbly delicious Shrimp and Crab Bisque. 

One of our favourite restaurants in Sarasota, enjoying a lovely dinner before the opera combined two gems in one night. ‘A toast to the pleasures of life!’ – so sings Violetta to her new admirer Alfredo and her party guests in the opening scene of Giuseppe Verdi’s classic La Traviata, a passionate portrait of a worldly courtesan forced by bourgeois society to give up the man of her dreams. Based on the true romance of Alexander Dumas and Marie Duplessis, La Traviata tells the story of Paris’ most famous courtesan, Violetta Valéry, who leaves her destructive life to live with her first real love, Alfredo Germont. However social bias and Violetta’s failing health turn love to tragedy and remorse. Swept up in grandeur of one of the world’s most beloved operas, the Sarasota Opera production featured the wonderfully gifted Elizabeth Tredent as Violetta, and tenor Andrew Surrena as Alfredo Germont, both former apprentice and studio artists, showcasing both the quality of these programs and the loyalty of the Sarasota Opera to the careers of its young artists. An absolutely sensational evening, it was one of the most emotionally charged productions of Verdi's operatic masterpiece I've seen. Bravi.

Opened in 1926, the Sarasota Opera House enjoyed a $20-million renovation in 2008, 
restoring the historic theatre to its original glory

La Traviata launched the Sarasota Opera's 2017-18 Season

Arriving early to pick up our opera tickets, we then strolled over The Bijou for dinner

One of our favourite restaurants in Sarasota, enjoying a lovely dinner before the opera combined two gems in one night

The Bijou seasonal menu with an emphasis on fresh local produce and sustainable, abundant seafood

Glass of Bellussi Prosecco


Fresh warm homemade bread

Soupe à l'oignon with gruyere cheese 

Shrimp and Crab Bisque with Cognac, Sherry and Cream

Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie

Chicken Paillard with organic breast, olive oil, roast vegetables, garlic, spinach and lemon butter

Chef Jean-Pierre’s famous Mozambique-influenced Piri-Piri Shrimp served with charred shishito peppers, Meyer lemon and creamy South African-style grits

Key Lime Parfait

Complimentary chocolate truffles with berry coulis

After dinner at the Bijou, we walked across the street to the Sarasota Opera
for the evenings outstanding performance of La Traviata

Shrimp Piri Piri
Serves 2
Recipe courtesy of chef J.P. Knaggs 

1 lb shrimp, peeled, deveined with tail on, patted dry
1/2 cup white wine
splash of lemon juice
2 tbsp softened butter

1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp olive oil

Mix the marinade ingredients together and allow to sit for 4 to 5 hours. In an extremely hot pan, salt and sear the shrimp. Flip them over and add marinade, white wine and lemon juice. Reduce the sauce and swirl in soft butter. Serve over grits, and spoon the sauce over the dish.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens & Orchid Show

Nestled on the shores of beautiful Sarasota Bay, Selby Gardens is a tropical urban oasis of unparalleled botanical bliss. Spectacular orchids and bromeliads, towering Banyan trees, Koi Pond and waterside boardwalk through native Floriddean mangroves coupled with breathtaking views of Sarasota Bay, Bird Key and downtown Sarasota make the Gardens such a special place. Officially opened in 1975, the property was originally the residence of William and Marie Selby who moved to the Sarasota area in the 1920s and built a Spanish-style, 2-story house among the laurel and banyan trees. Marie’s love of nature and of gardening was her most consuming passion. She was a charter member of Sarasota’s first garden club, the Founder’s Circle. She had a great desire to keep Sarasota a beautiful and green place and was disturbed later in life by the proliferation of high-rise construction. The row of bamboo on the bay side of the property was planted by Marie to block her view of the offending condominiums. In 1955, William Selby established the William and Marie Selby Foundation, whose impact in the Sarasota community has been, and continues to be, enormous – on education, the arts, youth and children, libraries, health services, and programs in support of the aged. William Selby died on December 4, 1956 and Marie continued to live quietly in the home she loved until her death on June 9, 1971. The contents of Marie Selby’s will revealed her wish to leave her property to the community as a botanical garden “for the enjoyment of the general public.” 

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens Spanish-style house set among laurel and banyan trees

Since the Gardens were opened to the public, the property has more than doubled in size from seven to nearly 15 acres. The historic Payne Mansion on adjoining property was purchased in 1973 and now houses the Gardens’ Museum and new Selby House Café, catered by Sarasota's celebrated Michael's on East. The Selby Gardens collection numbers more than 20,000 greenhouse plants, plus thousands more in the outdoor gardens. Eight greenhouses include the stunning Tropical Conservatory – the only greenhouse that is open to the public where unusual flora can be seen year-round, particularly this years annual Orchid Show themed Earth, Air, Fire, Water where t
housands of orchids and other plants were on display for six weeks from mid October to the end of November, celebrating the diversity of the largest family of flowering plants on the planet through dramatic horticultural displays of very rare orchids that are part of Selby Gardens’ research collection. A respected centre for research and education, as well as a famous showplace that delights more than 140,000 visitors each year, Selby Gardens is a tranquil haven to wander, relax and stand in wonder at nature's awe inspiring beauty.

The Selby Gardens 2017 Orchid Show was on the day we visited

The extraordinary Bat Flower is native to the tropical forests of Southeast Asia 

Named after the Viscount of Milton, Miltonia orchids are an epiphyte growing abundantly in Latin America

Native to southeast Asia, the Arundina is commonly known as the bamboo orchid 

The Zygopetalum orchid originates from the mid to high elevations of Central and South America

 The Dendrobium orchid

Spidery Brassia orchid

The spectacular Paphiopedilum orchid

Spotted Vanda Prachid Orchids

Oncidium orchids

Beautiful dendrobium epiphytic orchids

Spectacular flower that was blooming near the Koi pond

The Koi Pond waterfall

Selby Garden's serene Koi Pond

The 117 year-old Japanese bell is called a Kansho, and is rung at the opening of Buddhist temple ceremonies, and can be rung when visiting the koi pond, as I do each and every time

The Selby Banyan grove

Balinese diety surrounded in foliage in the bamboo forest

The Schimmel Wedding Pavilion 

Florida storks having lunch at low tide along the shore of Sarasota Bay

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Blue Marlin Grill on Historic Bridge Street

Set in a 1920’s cottage on historic Bridge Street, The Blue Marlin is the culinary haven of restaurateurs Adam and Marianne Ellis. Launched in 2011, Ellis and his wife restored the cottage, which had been their family for years. In keeping with the feel of an intimate, coastal restaurant, they retained the original wainscotting and wood flooring and cleverly built tables and benches from recycled dock wood. The 'black and white' room displays black and white photos of locals and their fish catches. Antique ship lanterns, fish mounts and oars scattered throughout lend the cottage a charming, intimate atmosphere. There is a lovely curved bar that mimics a boat and a great outside deck and courtyard they call “The Trap Yard”, which features love music on Friday and saturday nights. The décor is deliberately understated so as not to take away from the food, which focuses on daily fresh fish brought in daily from AP Bell Fish & Co in Cortez, which not only provides his restaurant with the freshest possible fish, but also the ability to offer daily specials with that day’s catch, from Key West Pink Shrimp, Gulf of Mexico Lane Snapper, Two Docks Little Neck Clams and gourmet Black Grouper— a former fishermen and restaurant industry veteran, Ellis believes in the importance of always using the freshest locally sourced ingredients. In addition to the fresh catches du jour is a savoury selection of chowders, spreads and side dishes, such as "Cortez Chowder" with fresh grouper cheeks and shrimp in a tomato saffron broth, Florida Gulf Shrimp and Grits, Linguine with White Clam Sauce and decadent desserts like Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Pie. Ellis is also proud of his wine list, which is always changing and includes wines from smaller vineyards. Someone once told Ellis “If you’re going to start a restaurant make it a place you’ll like because you’ll always be there”. The casual, coastal feel of the Blue Marlin and sensational menu of fabulous fresh fish and seafood guarantees we might also be a fixture for years to come.

Weathered bell on the old wooden door entrance to the Blue Marlin

Adam Ellis of the Blue Marlin on historic Bridge Street

Chalkboard with the day's fresh local catch

The interior features original wainscotting and wood flooring with cleverly built tables and benches made from recycled dock wood with painting by local artists 

With a good wine list, I was delighted to find that they had a lovely organic Grüner Veltliner from Biohof Pratsch, a relatively small estate in the Niederosterreich region in lower Austria

A light crisp wine with a touch of lemon herbal freshness 

Lightly salted warm edamame

Burrata and Tomato Salad with homemade pesto and balsamic drizzle

Beausoleil Oysters from Nova Scotia

"Cortez Chowder" with fresh grouper cheeks and shrimp in a tomato saffron broth

Linguine with Two Docks Littleneck Clam Sauce and garlic toast

Gulf of Mexico Lane Snapper with rice and green beans, which to my surprise arrived deep fried

Grilled local Grouper

Table in the 'black and white' room with old photos of locals and their fish catches

Grouper Fulford
Serves 4 
Recipe courtesy of Adam Ellis, The Blue Marlin

4 8-oz grouper filets
4 eggs, divided into 4 whites and 2 yolks
Flour for dredging
Salt and pepper, to taste

Lemon Butter:
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice, about 1/2 lemon

Preheat oven to 450°F. Heat a pan with oil on medium-high heat. Season the fish with salt and pepper, dredge it in flour and coat it with the beaten egg mixture. Place the filets directly into the hot pan. After 3 to 4 minutes in the pan, flip the fish and finish it in the oven for 6 to 8 minutes, until the oil starts to bubble out of the fish. Just before serving, melt butter in saucepan over low heat, then add the lemon juice and warm briefly. To serve, transfer the fish to a plate and brush it with lemon butter.