Date: December 11, 2013
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist


+ Roast is toasting around the corner from the Opera House
Many restaurants have tried the space on First Street, around the corner from the Sarasota Opera House, but none has stayed open long. Now, a new contender that just may put down roots there is Roast, a restaurant and full bar, that’s taken the neighborhood by storm. In fact, we ate there when it first opened about a month ago, and when we tried to make last-minute reservations for dinner before a concert, we couldn’t get in. When we walked by, we saw a line at the door and a lively crowd at the tables inside and out, in the beautiful courtyard.

Open for lunch and dinner, Roast features grilled and roasted meats, seafood, shareable plates, salads, soups and vegetarian and pasta dishes. It also offers catering — the main dining room downstairs and the courtyard area have a capacity of about 50 each — and it also has a cocktail lounge and a smaller dining room on the second floor that can seat up to 30. Combined it could host a charming cocktail party for as many as 100 people.

It’s a fun foodie place with beautiful surroundings. The chef/proprietor, Andrew Thompson, and General Manager Frank Zilleckis call it, “Modern American with a European influence.” Whatever they call it, it’s good and we hope it sticks around a long time.

+ Polo Grill reopens
The Polo Grill and Bar in Lakewood Ranch has not only refurbished and spiffed up its premises after a short closing this summer, it’s also hired a new chef. Tommy Klauber, the proprietor of Polo Grill, has brought in Stephane Pierre.

“His mastery of cooking and his big, warm personality have won over many of our frequent customers and staff. Anyone who has the chance to come out, meet him and try his foods will truly enjoy it.”

Pierre, 44, a Belgium native, has more than 25 years of experience in the culinary arts and fine dining. He started out as a fish cleaner at the Michelin-starred Devos Restaurant in Brussels and went on to receive an official appointment by the royal family of Belgium to serve the royal court. He’s racked up a bunch of impressive culinary awards from certified master chef to being named a disciple of the famous Auguste Escoffier and president of the Euro Toques Society.

The Polo Grill is a huge establishment. Aside from the dining room and bar areas, which have been made more beautiful than ever, there’s a huge banquet hall that can serve a variety of configurations and is used for many major events with sit-down capacity for hundreds of diners.

+ Half Shell Oyster has a name and place change
Our old favorite, the Half Shell Oyster House on Main, has packed up and moved to 5230 University Parkway and changed its name to The Half Shell Seafood House. But, what’s in a name when the food is better than ever?

It still has the best, freshest, largest oysters for the best price in town: One dozen raw oysters, perfectly shucked and glistening in their juice, are a mere $13. And, the other day when we were there for lunch, the oysters were a little smaller than usual (still huge, by most standards, though), so, without saying a word, four more were added to the iced tray, giving us an even 16 for the same price.

The restaurant also added some incredible dishes that are packing in the customers for lunch and dinner. Among them is a lip-smacking lobster macaroni, piles of steamed mussels, a whole listing of steamed crabs from king to snow, and to-die-for seared ahi tuna.

+ Off the Hook rings a bell
If you’ve been to The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota since the restaurant became Jack Dusty, you know two of the people associated with the opening of J.D. were Patrick Bucko and Ruth Hardy. Now the pair is starting a new venture called Off the Hook Seafood Company with a trio of other foodies: Nick and Tracy Melone and Sean Dargin, who’ll oversee the bar.

Off the Hook opened about a month ago in the restaurant-happy Gateway Avenue — 6630 Gateway, to be precise — and they tell us the new venue is offering local seafood with weekly changes and a late-night menu.

Bucko, who was born in Sarasota, has already spent some 30 years in the restaurant business. In fact, he started working at The Pub out on Longboat when he was just 15. Since 1993, Bucko’s been a server, bartender and manager of such important Sarasota landmark establishments as Euphemia Haye, Horse Feathers and the Cork and Bottleshop Restaurant. He’s also worked for Sean Murphy’s group at not only the Beach Bistro, but also the other Eat Here restaurants in our area.

He got the Jack Dusty team going about a year ago, and now he’s got his own place with his friends. They are serving up seafood that’s, well, right off the hook. The new restaurant is open from 4 p.m. until close Tuesday through Sunday.

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