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Dining out on vacation proves Louisville’s value as a restaurant community

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Super sushi at Jo-To Japanese Steakhouse in Siesta Key, Fla.

It didn’t take a trip out of town to remind me how good Louisville restaurants are, but 10 days in Siesta Key, Fla., really drove the point home.

(I’m spoiled. I admit it.)

And that’s surprising given the money that flows through this small resort area: There is no shortage of luxury cars and eight-figure homes.

Doubtless, the serious travelers who come here—many of whom are foreigners—know good food and desire great restaurant experiences. But by and large, the restaurateurs on this quaint, quiet and gorgeous key don’t deliver it.

Despite being near some of the world’s best fishing grounds, few chefs source much local seafood. Seriously. Tuna on many menus is frozen and from the South Pacific. Salmon — hardly native to Florida — is on menus everywhere.

That seafood claimed as fresh generally isn’t, and even when it actually might be, it’s mishandled. (Oysters on the half shell are an especially egregious example; opened before being ordered and not cut from the bottom shell, meaning they’re a bit dry and must be mangled to retrieve from the bottom shell.)

It’s not as though I came here expecting four-star dining. Tourist destinations are notorious for serving food for the masses using mass-production methods.

But here — where deep fryers are the top tools in most restaurant kitchens — I think it’s fair to expect at least a modestly local experience wherein Floridians show a mastery of their own ingredients.

That isn’t the case. Not even close. At least not on Siesta Key. Perhaps in the city of Sarasota (the key’s mother city, as it were), the restaurants are better, but we didn’t choose to vacation in Downtown Sarasota. We came to sit on the beach, not in the shadows of tall buildings.

At the risk of offending some fellow visitors’ preferences, I’ll not mention the places I thought a terrible waste of good money.

I think my preferences are pretty trustworthy, but they’re my preferences. Those who don’t agree are entitled to dine on all the greasy, overpriced, under-finessed fare they want. Free country. Have at it. Fry cooks and cardiologists need work, too.

But I will point out the few good spots we liked and believe will be good if you come here. Some places I mention will have multiple locations, so assume I’m mentioning the Siesta Key spots.

GOOD BET: Jo-To Japanese Steakhouse: Darn reliable and fresh sushi. We first discovered this spot many years ago and had a pair of slam-dunk sushi meals in the same week. Two years later when we returned, the meal was horrible, so we laid off for a few more years. Hankering for sushi this week, we returned and it was first rate, favorably priced—OK, shockingly so; it was a bargain, the best of the trip—and the sushi chefs were fast and friendly. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

GOOD BET: The Broken Egg: Great breakfast spot with an expansive and clever menu, big servings of tasty food. Service is unendingly friendly and easy going, and the grub is darn reliable. All outside seats are under cover and look out onto Siesta Key Village, which makes for good people watching.

Love him or hate him, it’s Dick Vitale’s favorite spot on the key, where he lives when not roaming the country for ESPN. (Apparently he’s a prince of a guy away from the microphone.)

BEST BET: Morton’s Gourmet Market, Sarasota’s Southside Village: OK, I know it’s not on Siesta Key, but it’s about 15-20 minutes from the key and more than worth the drive. Imagine a Whole Foods Market one-third the size but with all the fantastic salads, a really well done wine and beer department, terrific New York-style pizza made to order, a high-end bakery/patisserie, prepared foods section—and always friendly service.

Cheese, anyone? No serious cheese fan would be disappointed by the wide selection (about five times that pictured here) of fromage at Morton’s Gourmet Market.

Southside Village is worth visiting just to see the homes — miles out of my price range in three lifetime – and you might expect Morton’s to be as pretentious as the area, but it’s not.

Over the course of our trip, we visited twice, stocked up on numerous cold salads, wine, absurdly caloric desserts, fine cheeses and pizza (which is better than what we’ve found on the key and it cost less). You’ve heard the old saying … like a kid in a candy store … well a trip to Morton’s is the same experience for an adult.

Those visits do come at adult prices, tourist community prices at that. But everything we bought seemed worth it within that context. You easily could shop only at Morton’s, never go to an area restaurant and be incredibly well fed during your stay.

GREAT BET: Publix Supermarket, just off Siesta Key: Yes, indeedy, I’m a Publix fan. Apparently you either love the brand or hate it, depending where you visit, but this Publix has never let us down. Its deli-bakery does a fantastic job with fried chicken and prepared salads (the chicken salad is the bomb), fresh baked breads, sliced meats and cheeses.

Without fail, cashiers there asked where we were from, where we were staying and made recommendations for stuff to do. (It’s hard enough these days to get a grocery checker to make eye contact with you, much less conversation, so such experiences really stand out to me.) Just like with Morton’s, there’s more than enough inventory choices and prepared food options here to keep you from dining out should you choose. (Publix’s only drawback is its seafood department. The smell says everything.)

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