back of the house

She’s All That

By Sara Stovall / Photography By Peter Acker | January 16, 2017
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Ophelia’s on the Bay


A dazzling sunset over bay waters. A royal’s envy of a wine list. Flavors that haunt your dreams for a whole year. Service so warm you want to move right in. These pleasures happen nightly in Sarasota’s restaurants, but it’s rare to find them all in one place. That’s why Ophelia’s on the Bay has captivated the hearts and appetites of locals and visitors alike, a love affair that has raged for decades.

A meal at Ophelia’s definitely qualifies as upper-upscale, but there’s nothing fusty in the experience. The continental fare explores summits of ingenuity where seasonal ingredients meet in preparations that let them shine, but speak to the palate as something greater than the sum of their parts. At dinner, happy hour at the bar, or Sunday brunch, every element is enjoyed pure and unencumbered: the view of Little Sarasota Bay, the luscious swirl in a glass, the last endorphin-surging bite of dessert. No extra trappings are necessary to confirm you’re enjoying the finer things—if not the finest. Don’t let the paper menus fool you for a second. You have to print new ones every day, if that’s how often they change.

Where there’s a menu, there’s a mind—and sniffing out the secrets in any restaurant’s success-sauce naturally starts in the kitchen. On many nights at Ophelia’s, that’s where you’ll find Executive Chef Dan Olson, backed by a small-but-mighty culinary team. What will strike you about the top brass at this eminent restaurant is that he’s remarkably down-to-earth. Don’t be shy—ask him: Does the head of this kitchen ever feel the heat?

“There’s always pressure,” he states. “That never goes away.”

Olson started developing heat tolerance early, working in his father’s restaurant throughout his high school years in Maryland. A dream of enrolling in culinary school brought him down to Florida, and as it turns out, Ophelia’s kitchen would be Olson’s alma mater.

“When I got here [in 2000], Ophelia’s was on a whole other level than anything I’d ever experienced,” Olson recalls. “The level of cuisine, the level of technique—everything was elevated here. And I fell in love with it immediately.”

Olson was just 19 when he started cooking on the line under Ophelia’s then-new Executive Chef Mitch Rosenbaum, who Olson remembers as “super creative, one of those guys who’s just a food encyclopedia.” Rosenbaum’s talents with exotic flavors and inspired fusions earned him praise for lifting the cuisine at Ophelia’s on the Bay to new heights of excellence.

“I was just a sponge,” Olson says. “I took it all in and learned as much as I possibly could.”

In less than five years, Olson soaked up enough knowledge and experience to assume command of the kitchen, along with the weight of the restaurant’s legacy.

“I’ve tried to continue on that path of being ahead of the curve of culinary trends, keeping the vibe relatively comfortable without being too stuffy,” Olson says. “We want to be humble and let people have a good time, be relaxed and casual, but we always want our cuisine to be totally refined, and something new and different all the time.”

But to follow through with menu changes nearly every day? Lots of people think Olson’s a little crazy to do that, but he sees the challenge as a boon.

“It keeps things interesting. It keeps the servers, customers, and cooks on their toes. It keeps the job from becoming mundane and boring,” he says.

When talk turns to ingredients, you start to understand how the creative flow is sustained. Olson’s procurement prowess balances a mission to support local, family-owned growers and purveyors with an obsession for hunting down the world’s most incredible seafood and meats.

“It’s fun for me to reach out, make connections, and build those relationships. That’s something that took a couple of years to expand, but at this point I can pretty much get just about anything on the planet. That’s something I’ve spent a lot of time on,” he says (and if you’re listening in, it’s the first time you’ve heard anything resembling his own horn).

The best from your backyard and the farthest-flung reaches to boot—how’s that for a muse? Year after year, Sarasotans rank Ophelia’s on the Bay as one of the city’s “most romantic” places to pull up a chair, and it’s an ode to the infectious romance between the chef and his inventions. Olson recently took things to the next level and bought the restaurant, and he admits that wearing a stack of new hats has cut into his time in the kitchen. But has it impacted his creative drive? No way.

“I have new ideas all the time, so I just keep running with it,” Olson says, and it rings like a vow.

Ophelia's on the Bay: 9105 Midnight Pass Rd, Sarasota; 941-349-2212; opheliasonthebay.com

Article from Edible Sarasota at http://ediblesarasota.ediblecommunities.com/things-do/she-s-all
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