Fran Casciato, the executive chef at Libby’s Café + Bar in Southside Village, has an unusual world view for a chef. It is a strong focus on relationships — with customers, kitchen staff and owners. His passion for food and a commitment to running a successful business guide how he runs the kitchen of what has become a Sarasota institution in a little less than three years.
In the interest of building ongoing relationships with customers, the Libby’s menu is designed so customers can create the dining experience they want, from a light meal on a weeknight to a big night out for a major occasion. The menu is large with lots of small plates — 20 items are under $10 on the new summer menu. But they are not small; most are two servings. And a popular choice is to order two and share them for a light meal.
There are regular entrées, as well. One of Libby’s signature items in that category is the cedar-wrapped salmon (see box for recipe). Another is wasabi-crusted tuna. The popular Kobe meatloaf is never on the menu, but it’s always available as a verbal special offered by waitstaff.
Casciato describes his food as “creative comfort food” and believes that ongoing success means “being chameleon like, anticipating what customers will want and continually developing and changing the menu.” A tongue-in-cheek sense of humor is at play in his approach.
“The restaurant offers serious food without taking itself too seriously,” he says.
A case in point is what resulted when Libby’s co-owner Steve Seidensticker expressed a yearning for a White Castle burger. Libby’s version is called “Shades of White Castle,” pun intended. It is a big half-pound prime beef burger with Berkshire ham and a wedge of fried Velveeta cheese. (Note here, please, the good-natured relationship between chef and owner.) Another example is the Karubi pork belly ribs small plate — a fork-tender rib that’s not a rib at all. To call it whimsy doesn’t do justice to the culinary artistry involved. What’s intriguing is the undeniable and deliberate element of fun in Libby’s food.
Casciato says that the restaurant’s giant, baked-to-order, chocolate-chip cookie “sums up the concept of the restaurant — great ingredients and the appeal of simplicity.” It also exemplifies the restaurant’s priority on relationships, because about a year ago, Libby’s took the classic off the menu. This caused a furor. Taking the kids for a cookie had become a ritual for Southside moms. They organized a petition drive; the cookie was quickly reinstated; and the neighborhood and its café appear to be living happily ever after.
Libby’s Café + Bar
1917 Osprey Ave.
Owners: Steve, Patrick and Joe Seidensticker
Hours: Open seven days a week. Lunch and dinner Monday to Saturday, brunch and dinner Sunday.
Libby’s cedar-wrapped sustainable salmon with a maple-dijon crust
1/2 cup Dijon mustard
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup fresh panko breadcrumbs
4 each shaved Georgia sustainable cedar wraps 9.5-inch-by-6-inch
4 each 8-ounce center-cut salmon fillets
1. Soak the cedar wraps in water for an hour before grilling. This allows the cedar to become more pliable and helps to release steam during the cooking process, which keeps the fish moist.
2. Lay one salmon fillet on the work surface and evenly spread about two tablespoons of the Dijon crust across the top of the fillet. Repeat with each fillet.
3. Remove the cedar wrap from the water and pat dry. Lay cedar wrap down lengthwise from left to right. Position the prepared salmon fillet in the center of the wrap in a north-to-south fashion.
4. Lift the sides of the cedar up and around the fillet, allowing the sides to overlap on the top center of the fillet. Use a small pinch of leftover Dijon glaze to secure the cedar flaps together.
5. Place the wrapped salmon seam-side down on a preheated barbecue grill. Cook for three to four minutes until the cedar takes on a lightly charred color. Turn the wrap over and continue to cook two to three minutes more until the bottom is charred as well. Cover the grill and reduce the heat or move the wrap to a cooler spot and cook four minutes more.
6. Serve the salmon in the wrapper. Lift the top seams away from the fish and enjoy.