Tidy Tidbits: Viewing and Vittles

We attended a fun concert of Cole Porter songs, explored new dining options locally, and I’ve been sampling a number of different television series.


We four were sans our mothers, but we enjoyed very much the Hot ‘n’ Cole concert at the Sarasota Opera House that afternoon.  Featuring six undergraduate musical theater majors from Penn State and two pianists, this was a lively celebration of Cole Porter’s songs.  It was nicely choreographed and the singers were both exuberant and talented.  An audience favorite was Sarasota hometown star, Maria Wirries.  To cap off the day, we had dinner across the street at Bijou Café.  Elegant and gracious, this restaurant always pleases.


I’m guessing that the image most of us have of Albert Einstein is of an older man with a frizz of wild white hair shooting out in all directions.  This is not what you see in Genius, a new TV series from National Geographic based on Walter Isaacson’s biography.  In Genius, we get Einstein as a young man, brilliant, but frustrated by his inability to get any scientific notice for his work.  And as a harried husband and father who depends upon his wife, Mileva, for her scientific knowledge and insights, but fails to credit her publicly.  It’s an extremely well done, fascinating series! 

I’ve also been sampling a variety of Netflix and Amazon offerings during my treadmill time.  Nothing has truly captivated me and earned an A.  Mostly they are B’s.  They run the gamut from Z: The Beginning of Everything about Zelda Fitzgerald’s coming of age and her tumultuous marriage to hard-drinking novelist Scott,  to Longmire,  to When Calls the Heart.  Z is an Amazon production which I found slow going initially.  It picked up a bit and I did watch the entire first season.

Based on a recommendation, I watched the first season and a bit more of Longmire.  Set in remote Wyoming, it’s a modern day western crime series.  Sheriff Walt Longmire and his two deputies deal with murders and runaways all the while doing a delicate dance in their relations with the nearby Indian reservation.  I was engaged for quite a while, but then decided I’d had enough of the west–at least for now.

Lastly, I’ve gone back and forth between a very wholesome drama set in the Canadian Northwest about a Mountie and a school teacher.  I thought it should be a Hallmark offering which it didn’t seem to be at first, but the second season opening shot credits the Hallmark Channel.  Set in the mining town of Coal Valley, When Calls the Heart brings together wealthy Elizabeth Thatcher, who leaves her upper class city life for adventure in a rustic town, and Jack Thornton, a handsome Mountie, son of a Mountie, who isn’t sure marriage fits in with his life plan.  Add in a host of townspeople (mainly women) and the “bad guy” mine owner and troubles and conflict ensue.  I’m now well into season 2 and I find that the narrative has gained in complexity over the first season.  It’s diverting entertainment.


In our dining around, we lunched twice at Chicken Salad Chick and once at Judy’s Restaurant.  Chicken Salad Chick is a chain (headquartered in Alabama) new to this area and very pleasant and attractive.  We’d had one of their many varieties of chicken salad as takeout, but these times we ate in their dining room.  And calling it a dining room is not a stretch.  The front area, in particular, with big windows is light and bright.   We tried the jalapeno chicken salad, the barbecue chicken salad, and the lemon basil version.  We had them over a green salad with a choice of dressings and several packets of wheat crackers.  Each bowl came with a dill pickle and a frosted sugar cookie on the side.  Good value and quite tasty!  My favorite salads thus far are classic and jalapeno.

Judy’s Restaurant, in a small strip mall in Cortez, is run by locals and popular locally.  Lunch here offers up all those good things you aren’t supposed to eat along with some healthier salad options.  Our waitress stated that they had the best Reuben around which the Chief Penguin promptly ordered (with fries) and devoured.  I had a yen for a burger, something I don’t indulge in too often, and found it hit the spot.  Overall, Judy’s was more appealing both in terms of décor and menu than I anticipated. I’m told they serve a mean breakfast!


Credits:  Header photo (jacaranda blooms) and Chicken Salad Chick ©JWFarrington; Einstein photo from web via Daily Mirror.

Suncoast Scene: Pages & Plates

This week brings you my thoughts on a wonderful novel and a round-up of local restaurants, mostly casual ones.


The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck.  I saw an ad for this book in the NY Times’ book review section and then one of my favorite booksellers said she thought it would become as big as All the Light We Cannot See.  That clinched it; I added it to my wish list, received it as a birthday gift, and was not disappointed.  Set in Germany after WWII, it’s about several of the widows of those who resisted Hitler and unsuccessfully plotted his death.

Marianne is the ring leader and organizer, a woman of strong principles and moral clarity, someone who sees the world primarily in black and white.  She rescues and gathers round her in her family’s dilapidated castle, the much younger Benita, widow of Marianne’s dear friend from childhood, Connie, and Benita’s son Martin, as well as Ania and her two boys who have been in a displaced persons camp.  Life is difficult in postwar Germany, food is scarce, and their world views and experiences turn out to be quite different from each other’s.  This leads to tension and misunderstandings.

Shattuck’s novel is compassionate and nuanced and simply beautiful.  She makes it possible to understand and empathize with each of these women and to see ourselves in Marianne’s righteousness and her all too human, knowing and not knowing.  I found the following passage especially moving, as many years later, Marianne reflects on a night when the Russians burned their horse for food:

“The dark uneasy quiet of the castle, the flickering shadows of the fire, and outside, the suspended carcass of Gilda’s body.  She can hear the crackle of sparks and the strange sounds of men’s voices gathering into a low and otherworldly song.  How grateful she had been to have Ania beside her—a fellow adult and human being, connected not through allegiance to any group or party or particular way of thinking but through the reality of the moment, through their shared will to get through the next hours, the next day, and the one afterward and through their shared determination to keep their children safe.

It is the great regret of her life that she lost this—no, that she forsook it.”

This is the best novel I’ve read so far this year.


For fans of Olive Kittredge, the May 1st issue of The New Yorker has a delightful piece about Elizabeth Strout’s attachment to Maine by Ariel Levy.




The Chief Penguin and I are discovering and re-discovering that Manatee Avenue West has a number of good restaurants.  In previous blogs, I’ve I mentioned Elodie (French) and Habanero’s Mexican Grill and Bar.  Last week we added EnRich Bistro to our list of must-returns.  John and Sue, Penn friends from Maryland, were vacationing in St. Pete and contacted us about getting together.  We met for lunch at EnRich and were delighted with the whole experience. 

We had been here some years ago under its old name, but the dining room was even more attractive than I recalled and very light and bright.  I sampled the salmon Caesar wrap special while the others enjoyed calamari salad, the signature Reuben, and their fish tacos.  The sweet hot wasabi vinaigrette on the salads was a hit.  As a treat, we indulged in a couple slices of their appropriately tart key lime pie.  Service was a tad slow, but wasn’t an issue since we were in relaxed mode with our friends.


Lately, it seems like every food or cooking magazine I pick up, there’s mention of the Seafood Shack in Cortez.  Soooo…since we’re eating out a lot due to some renovation work, we decided it was time to try it again.  Years ago we ate there and found it undistinguished.  This time we were more impressed.  We began with margaritas (they were part of a special promotion) and crabby nachos.  The nachos were a tasty twist on this standby with blue crab meat, queso fresco and scallions over a generous bed of multi-colored tortilla chips.  The C.P. liked his crab cakes and I found the Caesar salad acceptable, but thought the chicken nuggets on top somewhat lacking in flavor.  Other choices include grouper, burgers, shrimp and even some braised short ribs.  A storm was threatening rain so we took a table by the window.  On nicer days, outside would be preferable.


Sharky’s on the Pier

Sharky’s is an upscale restaurant on the second floor overlooking Venice beach and the Gulf.  The dining room is large and very attractive and, with plenty of window seating, you can watch the roll of the waves and see who’s in the water or on the pier.  

The lamb meatballs on a pita were excellent, our friend devoured every last leaf of his chicken and strawberry salad, and I sampled the shrimp boathouse salad.  I was a bit disappointed that the listed artichokes and feta cheese didn’t have a larger presence midst the greens.  The two shrimp on it were jumbo as stated, but, for the price, I think the salad merited at least three of them.  Overall it was very good with pleasant efficient service.   I’d happily return.

Notes:  All photos ©JWFarrington (some rights reserved).  Header photo is Venice beach.

Suncoast Scene


Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota is celebrating Marc Chagall’s art and his depiction of flowers in it.  Several areas of the outdoor gardens are planted in the French style, the conservatory has stained glass screen reproductions as backdrops for orchids, and Payne Mansion has a handful of some original Chagall paintings.  Selby is worth a visit any time of year, but these displays are especially lovely.  This special exhibit will be up through July.


No One Cares about Crazy PeopleThe Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Illness in America by Ron Powers.  Mr. Powers put off writing this book for ten years, but, ultimately, felt compelled to tell his family’s story and to educate his readers about the history of the treatment and possible causes of mental illness.  As one reviewer stated, it’s really two books in one.  Both of his sons developed schizophrenia and one took his own life.

Powers does not stint in sharing his and his wife’s raw feelings nor how they, like most parents, often put the most positive interpretation on early warning signs and behavior.  The second book, as it were, consists of the interspersed factual, well-researched chapters about how we as a society have treated, ignored and even abused sick individuals.  An important book that deserves to be widely read.


Since we did not go to the Yucatan, we had a craving for some good Mexican food.  After reading the online reviews, we decided on Habanero’s in Bradenton on Manatee Ave.  With our always-up-for-adventure friends, Jane and Mark, we went for lunch.  Among us, we sampled chicken enchiladas and beef tacos, the chile relleno, a specialty enchilada, and, of course, the wonderful chunky guacamole.  Along with some beer and a margarita.  Everything was tasty and delicious and we’ll definitely return.  It’s an attractive space, not crowded at that time, and our server was friendly and helpful in the nicest way.  Prices are moderate and a bit less on the lunch menu.  A good addition to our ethnic restaurant repertoire!

Credits:  All photos by JWFarrington (some rights reserved); poppies drawing also colored by this author from Color Me Fearless.

Tidy Potpourri: Books & More

Here are notes on two beach reads, my thoughts on a difficult play, and a great restaurant find for birthdays or anniversaries.


Karen White’s Flight Patterns is an absorbing novel about family secrets and the tortured relationship between two sisters and a good candidate to take to the beach.  Set in New Orleans and Apalachicola, Florida, a coastal town on the panhandle, it’s multi-layered with twists and turns as the complicated relationships between Georgia and her sister, Maisy, and their mentally ill mother, Birdie, play out against Georgia’s return after 10 years away and the hunt for a missing piece of china.  Birdie was distant and in her own world when Georgia and her sister were children so they were raised primarily by their grandfather and by their grandmother when she was still alive.  Grandpa is a beekeeper and Georgia is a fine china expert who comes back with a client to research china he has that is similar to a piece she thinks she has seen before.  I enjoyed the characters and also learning about Haviland Limoges china.

Footnote: Character Georgia’s research prompted me to search online for more information about my great (or great great) grandmother’s Limoges china which I inherited from my mother.  Based on the markings on the back of the pieces, I was able to determine that it was probably made in 1887, but so far I haven’t located any images of the pattern.

Georgia by Dawn Tripp is a well-researched novel about Georgia O’Keeffe’s early career and her relationship with photographer and artist promoter, Alfred Stieglitz.  Decades older than O’Keeffe, Stieglitz gave her flower paintings wide exposure with an exhibit in the gallery he owned.  Seductive, passionate, and domineering, he was mentor, lover, husband, and philanderer who too often tried to control her and her art.  Tripp’s prose is evocative and sensual and portrays Georgia’s struggle to be seen as an artist (not a female artist) and how her appreciation for what Stieglitz could offer becomes warped over time.  This was the book for the April meeting of our island book club, and most everyone liked it.


The Elaborate Entrance of Chad DeityOur local repertory company, Asolo, deserves much credit for presenting this challenging play.  Written by Kristoffer Diaz and first presented in 2009, it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama and winner of an Obie Award for Best New American Play.  It’s an exaggerated comedy about professional wrestling, as shown on TV, and we had ringside seats.  Literally!  In the small theater, we were in the first row on the floor (no stage) and right at the edge of the ring when it was pushed out for the second act.  The actors rushed by us carefully, never stepping on our toes!

The main character, Mace, is not a star, but a wrestler paid to lose to the big names like Chad Deity.  Mace and an Indian-American friend convince their bosses to let them fight each other, but they are then marketed as “terrorists.”  With undercurrents of racism and the overriding theme of money, this is a loud play with a strong message.  I found the first act tedious and too long, while the second act had lots of action and revived my interest somewhat.  Overall, not my favorite of the season.


To celebrate my birthday, we tried Maison Blanche on Longboat Key.  It’s located in the Four Winds resort.  The dining room is understated with floor to ceiling white drapes lining the walls, a glass tower topped with a large floral display, and tables with comfortable round back chairs. 

With both a 3-course prix fixe menu for $65 and a la carte selections, there is something to appeal to every palate.  I enjoyed the tomato tart to start followed by the sautéed halibut special over pureed spinach with scattered chanterelle mushrooms and then the cheese course.  Actually we shared the cheese course and my spouse’s apple tart dessert.  He had the octopus salad and the red snapper.  This was the best food we’ve eaten in this area and the service was impeccable!

Credits:  Georgia O’Keeffe photo by Bella Orr (ThingLink); all other photos ©JWFarrington (some rights reserved).