Side of Ranch: Jay Heater
I've lived in a lot of places where the fine dining options revolve around the Golden Arches, BK or KFC.
So I truly appreciate the choices available in East County. I could go on a world tour of cuisine and test a new restaurant for months. I could have my oysters raw, fried, baked, chopped, diced, stewed, blanched or broiled. My pizza can be thick, thin, oily or topped like a garden salad.
It's great for me, but I wonder how all these restaurants stay in business. There are more restaurants in the Sarasota-Manatee counties area than birds.
On Sunday, I ventured to Oak & Stone, billed as a craft beer and Artisan pizza joint, but hosting a special event because it has just added a Sunday brunch to its menu. The restaurant, owned by Lisa and Joe Seidensticker and part of the Tableseide Group that includes Sarasota's Louies Modern, Libby's, Muse at the Ringling and Modern Events, is located at 5405 University Parkway, in the heart of what we could call the restaurant district.
Whether that area could be said to have a glut of restaurants remains to be seen, because for the time being, most of these places seem to be filled. But those in the industry do wonder if some of the entries have a shelf life.
"There probably is too much competition," said Oak & Stone head chef Mike Yoder, who honed his cooking skills while growing up in an Amish family in Ohio. "This area is flooded with restaurants ... well, I wouldn't call them restaurants. They are not good.
"But if you are good, you don't have to worry about it."
But, Mike, haven't we seen it all when it comes to restaurants? How many different spins can you put on a hamburger? How many ingredients can you pile on a pizza?
If each restaurant is trying to put its particular stamp on its menu, Oak & Stone has found ways to fill that bill.
Anthony Liakakos, the general manager, showed me a plastic bracelet that includes a special chip. The bracelet is handed to those who want to pour their own beer.
Yes, pour your own.
Using the iPourIt system, Oak & Stone has a beer wall with a line of 56 brews that allows customers to work the tap themselves. They swipe their bracelet, pull the tap and the beer flows with the system calculating your bill by the ounce. Liakakos said it is the only such system in the Sarasota-Manatee counties area. The beers are rotated on a regular basis, so getting bored would be impossible.
Liakakos and Yoder also work to set themselves apart with the food they offer. Therefore, you get sausage and gravy knots.
It is a combination of homemade pepper sausage gravy, buttered garlic knots, eggs sunnyside and hash browns. Yoder said it was his mother's recipe, and her mom's before that, and her mom before that. He wouldn't specific the type of sausage he uses, because that is a trade secret.
Suffice to say I wanted to figure out the recipe, since it carried that wonderful sausage explosion you get with biscuits and gravy, but not so much I had to keep my Tums next to my napkin. I was sold.
Another interesting menu item was the Benedict pizza, which combined garlic sauce, white cheddar cheese, port, bacon, caramelized onion, eggs sunnyside and a house hollandaise sauce.
Being a native New Yorker who appreciates pizza in its most simple forms, I had a hard time wrapping my hands around pizza when I could see an egg. We have a current culinary trend that says everything is better with an egg slapped on the top, and I'm not a fan. Once I scraped the egg off, though, the resulting creation was very tasty. I wouldn't call it pizza, but that's a topic for another day. For those of you who like endless combinations, Oak & Stone uses pineapple, clams, kale, pickled cucumber salad and salmon on their pizzas. Knock yourself out.
Wanting to know more about the food, I followed Yoder around as prepared items for his customers in front of a 760-degree, wood-fired oven. He was too busy to give me many answers, but he did say his best way of getting feedback is by chatting with those who sit at his counter. "People need to have value," he said. "It's not like everyone has a lot of money. We know it is hard-earned."
That hard-earned money is being spread thinner as new restaurants continue to test the market.
In this case, though, I'll set a few dollars aside. Just hand me one of those bracelets.