Juli Cragg Hilliard

Food and music: The balance to any busy life

These days, most of our dining experiences are geared around child-friendly restaurants. We haunt places that offer kiddie menus and crayons. We inculcate table manners. We don’t stay out late.
And pretty much, we love it. From time to time, though, we remind ourselves that we are adults. We seek out an evening of erudition, style and taste. We reconnect with the individuals we saw in one another when we met. We forget we are parents; we remember we are a couple.
Visiting two of Manatee County’s chef-owned restaurants in one evening soaked us in a double measure of food-focused pleasure and relaxation. Like a pair of hummingbirds living on high-dollar nectar, we dined at one spot and dipped into another for dessert and live music.
We began with Ezra, tucked unostentatiously in a busy shopping strip on Manatee Avenue West. Nothing foreshadows the personal touches that lift it out of the ordinary, or inspired us to color our night out artsy and upscale.
White tablecloths and dishes, glossy wooden chairs, and bamboo shoots sprouting in small, square glass vases establish a simple and vaguely Asian scene. The walls wear heavily textured paint in panels of moss and white. A soft leather couch embraces a corner, near a wine bar with high stools.
Ezra further communicates ambience with a display of original art for sale. On this night, it was mostly paintings of women and botanical themes, including mixed-media representations of splashy flowers enhanced with decorative buttons.
Our fellow diners were a mix of affluent-looking people midlife and older and of younger adults. A handsome, blond couple that appeared about 30 sat at a small, wall side table. They seemed married to one another – both wore wedding rings. But I read tension in her body language, and he looked to be carrying most of the conversation, in the manner of a man trying to entertain a date.
My throat tightened with empathy as I imagined the possibility they were trying to break marital stress with a nice dinner out.
Once our food started to arrive, it was easy to forget surrounding dynamics and décor, and to lose ourselves in flavors and beauty arrayed – like artistic compositions — on our plates.
Sipping New Castle Brown Ale and Napa sauvignon blanc, we savored warm homemade bread presented in a spiral-shaped wire basket lined with paper. Pan-fried Gulf oysters, light and tender, were served atop raw vegetable slaw and with an herb aioli for dipping.
He enjoyed a non-garlicky “cezar” with twists that included tomato, Bermuda onion and hearts of palm. I could not resist a small version of my Ezra lunch favorite, fried calamari and romaine salad with wasabi vinaigrette. Our entrees were: pan-seared Pompano, stacked over spinach and lobster ravioli and covered with lobster sauce, and onion-crusted Key West mahi mahi on fried rice with chunks of lobster.
My husband, making his first trip to Ezra, is not a showy person but raved over every bite. We were reminded of a trip to California, where a restaurant critic friend guided us among creative eateries.
As for the blond couple, at some point before they left I saw the woman smiling.
As we had dessert plans elsewhere, I only glanced at Ezra’s sweets menu. But if the hot-from-the-oven, soft-centered miniature chocolate chip cookies brought to us were any indication, such offerings as guava cheesecake and lychee crème brulee are worth investigating.
We drove to the islands, and past tree-lined Coquina Beach to the south Longboat Key home of Euphemia Haye. With white lights strung in the tall, enfolding foliage, the two-story building looks like an enchanted cottage. We climbed outside stairs to its Haye Loft, which houses the lounge and dessert room. The brightly lit bar, exuding the comfortable feel of a regulars’ hangout, bustled with groups in conversation.
We had called three venues that offered live music, and been informed that all were nonsmoking, before deciding to hear Kenny and Leah Soderblum perform jazz. Leah, dancer-slim in sparkly black top and shimmering gold skirt, sang songs like “Girl from Ipanema” in an intimate tone. Her silver-haired, sportcoat-clad husband played the tenor saxophone.
We ordered cocktails — a fuzzy navel and a cosmopolitan — and listened a bit before heading into the dessert room, to pick from a dizzying array of pies and cakes. My husband told the hostess, “I’m a Florida boy. I’m going to have to have Key lime pie.” And I went for the unbelievably rich peanut butter mousse with dark chocolate topping.
And Kenny and Leah, quietly speaking to one another between tunes, provided a warm background of sound.

Selected Works

Articles
Sarasota Herald-Tribune May 6, 2008
Religion BookLine April 9, 2008
Publishers Weekly Oct. 15, 2007
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Religion BookLine, May 2, 2007
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Feb. 16, 2007
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Manatee magazine, Aug. 7, 2006
Manatee magazine, Aug. 7, 2006
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Sarasota Herald-Tribune, June 15, 2006
Religion BookLine, June 7, 2006
Publishers Weekly, May 22, 2006
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Sarasota Herald-Tribune, April 22, 2006
PW Religion Bookline, March 29, 2006
Publishers Weekly, March 27, 2006
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Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Feb. 3, 2006
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Publishers Weekly March 28, 2005
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Religion News Service, Jan. 3, 2002