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East County Friday, Jul. 1, 2022 1 month ago

Anna Maria Oyster Bar headed to UTC in Sarasota in 2023

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Restaurant CEO John Horne wanted to open a restaurant close to the Lakewood Ranch area.
by: Ian Swaby Staff Writer

After opening his original Anna Maria’s Oyster Bar 25 years ago atop Bridge Street Pier on its namesake island, CEO John Horne began an expansion eastward.

He said for years — he can’t recall how many — he’s had his hopes set on the eastern portion of Manatee County. The window finally opened for him with an opening at University Town Center.

While the site may not feature a pier or a waterfront setting, Horne said his newest location, which is planned to open early in 2023, will feature a special visual of its own. Those who go to the restaurant will witness the return of oyster shucking before their eyes. That once was a feature of the original location.

He said as soon as guests walk in the door, they’ll find staff members shucking oysters at a station that sets the backdrop for the experience, although the restaurant will offer a wide variety of foods, including non-seafood items, and not just oysters.

Shucking involves inserting a knife into the shell's opening, at the hinge, twisting the knife to pry open the shell, and then guiding the knife through the inside of the shell to remove the muscles that attach the oyster to the top of the shell.

“I think everyone needs to learn how to shuck oysters,” said Horne, who said he has participated in oyster shucking competitions in the past.

“There's an art to it,” he said, explaining that shuckers must be careful not to break the shell in the process of shucking, littering fragments into the oyster. It's all just torque, hitting the hinge.”

Horne said he still has scars on his palms from a time when he used to shuck oysters himself. He said these come from occasions when he was shucking about six oysters in a hurry. He said that in situations like this, “Sure enough, you put a knife in your hand.”

Horne also had one other piece of advice.

“The key is good gloves the oyster knife can’t penetrate,” he said.

Once the oysters have been shucked, they are on to the preparation stage.

The restaurant offers multiple ways to enjoy oysters — raw, tequila lime, Chipotle grilled, and Rockefeller. Horne encouraged guests to try the tequila lime oysters, stating it is an original recipe which includes green onions, lime juice, and tequila poured over the oyster. When the dish is baked, the alcohol will be cooked out, with a tequila flavor remaining.

When the oysters arrive at the table, Horne said guests should know there’s a recommended way to eat them — by slurping them from the shell. “That's the best way to eat the oyster.”

He said while the restaurant normally offers Gulf oysters, the UTC location will introduce new menu items for oysters from locations across the country, including the state of Washington and Chesapeake Bay, and even from Prince Edward Island in Canada.

“They’re completely different,” he said. “You'll get different salinity, different sizes.”

Jerome "JJ" Mullaney passes a plate of grouper to servers.

While the selection will vary seasonally, options from outside the Gulf will be available every day, while Gulf oysters will remain the mainstay of the restaurant.

He said the restaurant usually obtains its oysters within three days from the time they were in the water.

He emphasized oysters comprise only about 10% of the restaurant’s menu.

Horne said the restaurant’s Danish Baby Back Ribs were “fall off the bone good.”

The key, he said, to successfully preparing ribs is starting with a quality product, but also devoting the time to preparation. He said that cooking the ribs slowly, on a low temperature, helps them retain their moisture. “It takes the half of the day to cook ribs,” he said.

Another dish he highlighted was the almond-crusted flounder, a fried flounder battered with crushed almonds and served with Amaretto butter. He also said the grouper, caught locally in the Gulf, is extremely popular with guests.

Other options include handhelds such as burgers, seafood sandwiches, and tacos; a raw bar with offerings like shrimp, sashimi, and tuna; steaks; bowls including pastas, soups and salads, and other items.

He said guests should be aware of the restaurant’s new Carolina Hot Chicken Sandwich. Panko-battered, tossed in mustard sauce, and topped with coleslaw, the sandwich, he said, provides “a little bit of a kick” and has been popular since its introduction around Memorial Day weekend.

However, Horne also said he aims to be conscious of the natural environment that makes possible the dishes he serves.

“Oysters are awesome,” he said. “They’re one of the greatest natural water purification systems that we have.”

According to the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, oysters feed by filtering algae from the water, removing excess nutrients in the process; a single adult oyster can filter more than 50 gallons of water a day.

“You’ve got to look down the road,” he also said, stating it would be foolish for the restaurant to deplete the food supplies on which it depends. He said it is important for restaurants to source products from responsible suppliers, something that is easy today, through internet research.

He said that good relationships with suppliers also allow him to know who the restaurant is ultimately purchasing from.

Tim Bingham, managing partner at the Ellenton location, shucks oysters.

He said the oyster bar has been involved in an initiative with 11 other restaurants involving oyster restoration, although his restaurant has not resumed that activity since COVID-19. It involves the placement of used oyster shells into the wild, while planting oyster larvae on the shells. While the larvae do not come to inhabit the shells, they do use them as a home, while constructing their own shells.

“There’s a lot of great restaurants in this area, and we’re just looking forward to being one of them,” he said.

However, he said nearby Lakewood Ranch was a factor, calling it a “great area.”

“They planned it well, and we’ve just got some absolutely fabulous amenities out there,” he said. “We're anxious to get near Lakewood Ranch.”

The restaurant’s Cortez location was a recipient of a TripAdvisor Traveler’s Choice Award in 2020, which is awarded to the top 10% of restaurants worldwide.

“I think it's our consistency,” said Horne, who said that in addition to aiming for consistent standards with its food, the restaurant is also able to maintain many staff members over a period of years due to its work environment, which he said has a positive reputation.

“I think consistency is the most important thing in the hospitality and restaurant business, when people know that they can come in and see the same people, and the food is at the same great level,” he said.

The restaurant will open in the location previously occupied by Newk’s Eatery, at 5405 University Parkway, Unit 110.

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