Date: March 19, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist


+ Verdi’s 'Jérusalem' meets MoZaic
The Sarasota Opera has been offering prelude dinners: three-course meals at choice restaurants within walking distance of the Opera House, with friends who are attending that evening’s performance and want to get together for a good dinner before the curtain. One of this season’s choices was MoZaic, just around the corner from the opera, and a destination, in itself.

We joined about 25 other opera fans recently before the opening night of Verdi’s “Jerusalem,” and Dylan Elhajoui, MoZaic’s master chef who specializes in continental cuisine with a Moroccan twist, went all-out with a made-to-order menu just for us. The choices for our first course included sautéed escargots and mushrooms in boursin gougère or pumpkin and mascarpone ravioli in a brown butter-sage sauce with a Bailey’s Irish cream “owl” of golden hubbard squash potage. The entrees included salmon with a goat cheese soufflé, glazed Cornish hen or jasmine tea duck breast. And, how do you choose just one from a dessert menu that gives you a choice of bittersweet chocolate espresso pot de crème or lavender-scented buttermilk panna cotta with Moscatto d’asti-apricot soup and vanilla bean ice cream?

Elhajoui set us up in the room to the side of the front door, and it couldn’t have been a more auspicious way to set the scene for the rarely performed opera we were going to hear a couple of hours later. Bravos were being voiced at MoZaic, as well as the Opera House.

+ The Honey Tree Café offers dining all day
Fun, relaxed restaurants that open for breakfast and lunch are a dime a dozen in Sarasota. But eateries that serve food starting in the early morning and continue through dinner are not that easy to find. The Honey Tree Café, located at 8315 Lockwood Ridge Road, reminds me of a combination of a New Jersey diner and a Manhattan coffee shop. It offers an enormous array of food, from eggs and waffles, to hot and cold sandwiches, salads and entrees such as steak, meatloaf and stir-fries.

We’ve gone there primarily for lunch and, seeing that its specialty sandwiches and wraps came in the form of pitas and gyros, we assumed the owners were Greek. Not so.

The Quni family came to Sarasota from Kosovo, by way of Michigan. They’ve been around for almost 50 years and, as File Quni (pronounced as if it were short for Phyllis, which it’s not), says, “We thought it was temporary, but we stayed.”

Good thing, too, because File, her husband, Zef, and their four children — three boys and one girl — turn out some pretty fancy food in a setting that’s as informal and relaxed as you can get. Even their menu speaks for them: “Welcome to the Honey Tree Café,” it says. “We take pride in our food and preparing it the way you like. We are family owned and operated. So, sit back, relax and let us do the cooking and serve you as family. Enjoy!”

We like our eggs, whether they are omelets, scrambled or fried, on the soft side. Many restaurants refuse to serve them softer than a hard ball. But, at the Honey Tree, they do our bidding without an argument or even that look that says, “Are you crazy?”

I’m partial to their albacore tuna pita because, when asked, they serve it in a fluffy gyro wrap with diced tomatoes, shredded lettuce and a hint of what tastes like pickle relish mixed in with the tuna salad, making it just a little more interesting than your run-of-the-stream tuna. We had a smoked turkey club pita the other day with bacon, cheese, lettuce, diced tomatoes and just enough mayo to make it juicy, rather than dry. We asked that they press the pita when they grilled it and, voila, they did it. Just right.

Oh, they also serve “Detroit Coneys and hot dogs.” Maybe we’ll try one of those one of these days when our waistlines give us a nod.


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