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Restaurant Review: Jack Dusty at the Ritz-Carlton

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jack dusty raw bar

(See also a photo gallery of Jack Dusty.)

The setting is spectacular out on the patio at Jack Dusty, the Ritz-Carlton’s new restaurant. Sunlight glints off the slight chop in the bay, pelicans splash down near the docks that line the waterway between here and the Hyatt, and of course, the decor is delightful. Comfortable outdoor couches and chairs, gas-fed fire pits, luxe stonework.

On one couch sits a couple drinking Dom Perignon and snacking on bar bites. He’s unshaven, with sunglasses and a scarf – either a Eurotrash wannabe or merely a wealthy ne’er do well – and spends most of his time looking at his phone, while his much older companion literally feeds him with a fork.

There are also older couples enjoying vacation cocktails, beautiful people sunning down by the pool and a few tech-types having dinner accompanied by open laptops and talk of online games.

It’s very much what you’d expect from one of the most luxurious hotel chains in the world, and easily the nicest place to stay in our neck of the woods.

But setting a scene doesn’t necessarily translate to creating a great restaurant experience.

Jack Dusty replaced the Ritz’s Vernona, an elegant restaurant that served incredible fare at prices that were above the local fine-dining average. The new restaurant is geared to a more casual clientele, with prices lowered a touch to match the slightly more relaxed atmosphere.

At lunch, that means you’ll pay $20 for a steak sandwich that is perfectly adequate, if a bit underseasoned, or $18 for a fried oyster po’ boy that will leave you looking around the scene in order to compensate for paying twice what you might pay elsewhere.

At dinner, the situation is more complicated. The cocktail program at Jack Dusty is exciting, loaded with unusual recipes that you will not understand merely from reading the detailed (and colorful) descriptions on the menu. Don’t worry, just order the one that sounds the best and – if you are an adventurous drinker – you’ll likely enjoy the experience. Give it a few sips before judging, though, since the crafty bartenders pack a heck of a lot of flavor into each concoction.

Have some questions about the complex cocktails? I don’t blame you. You may want to ask at the bar – the servers on the floor range from educated to oblivious. There’s also a good beer selection and a wonderful array of serious aged rums, if you’d rather.

If you start with the cocktail list, you’ll find the food menu a bit of a letdown. There’s an extensive array of raw bar items, all served in the impeccable way that you’d expect at the Ritz, and priced accordingly. Appetizers are utterly typical – clams, mussels, crab or grouper cakes, fried calamari and peel-and-eat shrimp. And the entrees sound like someone just going down a list of the proteins and preparations that need to be represented. Pork, chicken and beef? Check. Grouper, gumbo and snapper? Check.

In execution, some of those tried-and-true dishes do succeed in meeting high Ritz expectations, like Manhattan clam chowder that integrates a subtle sweetness from tomatoes, peppery spice and serious clam flavor in a package that is more than the sum of its parts. Same with luxurious oysters topped by collard greens, andouille sausage and hollandaise, as well as some brilliant salads.

But the grouper cakes are downright bland and accompanied by a bright yellow sauce that tastes like dyed sugar syrup. Jack Dusty’s version of cioppino – a tomato-based Italian take on bouillabaisse – is packed with a panopoly of seafood, but the shrimp are cooked well past done and the clams are gritty.

However, the restaurant’s steak is a rousing success, a hefty beef tenderloin as tall as it is wide with tender sauteed mushrooms and rich mashed potatoes on the side.

Jack Dusty also nails a lot of the details and smaller dishes. Bar bites – like an array of olives served in a jar and doused with herbs and olive oil, or delicate homemade potato chips – accompany the cocktails perfectly. And the restaurant’s bread is exceptional, a dark, sweet and grainy loaf baked in a can.

Desserts are another high point of a visit to Jack Dusty. Doughnut holes are more like hefty beignets, crisp, sweet, hollow, doused in powdered sugar and served hot in a simple paper bag. You can also create your own ice cream sandwich, choosing between four fresh cookies and three ice creams that are made in-house and pack more flavor than a gallon of the store-bought stuff.

In the end, you have to ask yourself what you expect out of a restaurant at the Ritz. Jack Dusty easily succeeds at beauty, high prices and creating a luxurious setting, but if you want substance over style you might find yourself yearning for the days of Vernona.

JACK DUSTY
1111 Ritz-Carlton Drive, Sarasota
309-2000, jackdusty.com
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Brian Ries

Brian Ries is the editor of ticketsarasota.com.
Last modified: September 13, 2013
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