SUN PHOTO/LIZA MORROW
Chef Bill Schaefer rules the kitchen at
the Waterfront Restuarant on South Bay Boulevard in Anna Maria.
Hey, seafood lovers, do I have a restaurant for you – the Waterfront Restaurant. Owned by Jason and Leah Suzor, it was built in 1922 and is one of the original Anna Maria homes. It has one of the prettiest water views on the Island, and uses its location well. Big French doors open onto a relaxed porch, affording diners a wide-angle view of the historic Anna Maria City Pier and Tampa Bay. Mother Nature boosts the view with spectacular sunsets that cast tangerine and rosy rays until almost 9 p.m.. It is a dining bonus.
Diners in search of peaceful, quiet environs should gravitate to the serene surroundings of the dining room just through the front door. The tables are large and well spaced and the air-conditioning is cranked on high to keep things cool while a homey fire burns in a centrally located fireplace. Just beyond, a dark wooden bar with a comfortable pub spirit is undeniably friendly. It’s an upscale space with cushy leather bar stools, a huge salt-water aquarium, pretty, generous bartenders, almost two dozen wines by the glass and lots of beers from around the world on tap. A shady patio garden, yet a bit further, is quiet and cool.
Super salads include the spinach and shaved fennel with dried cherries, blue cheese crumbles and smoky bits of crispy bacon. The Waterfront Salad includes greens, mushrooms, Gorgonzola, pine nuts and sun dried tomato basil vinaigrette. I was thrilled with the Caesar salad laced with garlicky vinaigrette. It is the classic, covered with those terrific shavings of good quality Parmesan and garlic croutons.
So go ahead and order a salad and you’re pretty well on your way. But we were here for the fish offerings, and the Waterfront has some good ones with portions ranging from appetizers to small plates to substantial to huge.
The seafood dishes were all that could be asked for – tender, juicy, pure and clean as anything likely to swim in the direction of dinner. The main reason is Chef Bill Schaefer’s passion for the life aquatic. No culinary hand stands, no foams or fusions, just fresh and robust flavors from solid recipes.
The Grouper Oscar almost did it, but I had been wooed with pretty dishes of succulent grouper many times before. The tempting Flounder Picatta, sautéed with lemon and capers in a white wine butter sauce made a seductive case. But the Ahi Sliders – well really more of a fresh tuna burger – a simple, delicious and satisfying ditty with tiny chunks of sushi grade ahi tuna made with wonton toast layered with fennel slaw and seaweed salad and jacked up with wasabi convinced me.
Now I know that chopped tuna sounds easy, but a restaurant that turns a burger into a sigh-inducing sandwich cannot be denied. Just an explosion of flavor. You get two of these little guys with a small serving of condiments for less than $15, a steal of a deal, while sampling your way through the beer or wine selection.
I wasn't surprised to learn that Schaefer once was in charge of Euphemia Haye’s Haye Loft on Longboat Key, so there were no disappointments with dessert. All are made in-house and the best were the retro desserts – sweet potato pie, the gooey pecan pie served with scoops of vanilla ice cream and a simple, accomplished key lime pie.
Assuming we’re settling in for a delightfully cool winter season, fresh, comforting and fragrant food seems the thing to be eating. You’ll find just that here. Also, watch your mailbox for coupons, one for every week the bridge is closed. Don’t miss Thursday, Oct. 2, for Roguetoberfest, the Waterfront’s biggest beer tasting party.
Restaurant chefs really do have it made. They can think of an ingredient they would like to add to a dish and there it is, ta-da, in the walk-in refrigerator: seafood stock, veal glace,’ cilantro, shallots. They don't run out of stove space, and they don’t run out of butter. If they want something done, they tell someone else to do it.
At home, as you well know, there is just one stove, one sink, two hands and a limited amount of supplies in the fridge. The cooking that results is different and usually simpler than restaurant food. But try this dish. It is worth the effort.
Note from Schaefer: Wong Kai Imports, 5404 33rd St. E (just off SR70, the first traffic light past Sam’s) has an Asian market open to the public and is a great place to find hard to get items like tamari and miso. Plan to spend some time shopping, as it has an extensive, inexpensive and unusual inventory, most with no English labeling. Schaefer says you can fill a cart and still have trouble spending over $20.
111 South Bay Blvd.,
Lunch daily 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Dinner: Sunday through Thursday, 4:30 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4:30 to 10 p.m.
The Waterfront Restaurant’s Ahi Sliders (Serves 6)
1/2 c. prepared sesame ginger salad dressing
4 lbs. ahi tuna or other fresh tuna steaks
1/4 c. pickled ginger
2 Tbs. wasabi powder
1 Tbs. black sesame seeds.
2 Tbs. tamari, sweet soy or regular soy sauce
2 Tbs. miso
24 wonton wrappers
1/4 c. sesame oil
1/4 c. vegetable oil
1 fennel bulb
3 c. arugula
Condiments to taste:
Seaweed salad (wakami or hijiki)
Tamari or regular soy sauce
Keep tuna steaks chilled at all times. Slice fennel as thinly as possible and toss with enough sesame ginger dressing as needed. Refrigerate. Wash arugula and refrigerate. Finely dice pickled ginger. Dice tuna steaks. Combine tuna, ginger, wasabi powder, tamari, sesame seeds and miso in food processor. Pulse until just mixed. Try not to over process; tuna should still be gravelly in texture. Form into 24 plump patties, approximately 2 1/2 to 3 oz. each. Put onto chilled plate and cover in refrigerator.
Reserve 2 Tbs. of sesame oil and add the rest to the vegetable oil. Heat oil mixture in deep, heavy bottomed frying pan, preferably cast iron, and quickly fry the wonton wrappers, one at a time, turning once. Try not to cook crisp, texture should be leathery. Drain oil mixture, add reserved sesame oil and heat pan. When oil just starts to smoke, quickly sear both sides of each tuna burger. On the second side, press patties a little flatter with spatula. Depending on taste, the burgers should be very rare.
Lay out 12 of the prepared wonton wrappers, dividing the fennel slaw on top of them. Place seared burgers on fennel slaw and top with tamari, seaweed salad and pickled ginger to taste. Spread a small amount of wasabi on one side of each of the remaining six prepared wonton wrappers and top the burgers, wasabi side down. Toss arugula and remaining sesame dressing and divide onto plates. Carefully cut the burgers in half diagonally, arrange on plates with arugula salad and serve with extra condiments on the side.