Vacations, it might be said, are just going out to dinner but for a longer time.
Maybe it's because food is my profession, but what people tell me about their travels is where they ate, and what they want to know about mine is what I ate. I am not alone in starting with the food when I plan my vacations.
My last one was a bit more complicated, though. I was organizing a family reunion, so I had to consider the tastes of 16 different people and their needs ranging from my toddler nephew's lunch to a birthday cake for my 75-year-old father. Florida was the most convenient location to consider, and that led me to the Colony, a tennis and beach resort outside Sarasota.
There are plenty of good places to eat in Florida, and numerous vacations that could surround them. But what particularly interested me in the Colony was its food and wine shop, Tastebuds. A few steps from our condominium apartment we could find not only snack foods and groceries, but also foods made by the restaurant's chef -- from herbed filet of beef to vegetable-topped pizza -- to eat "at home" while the baby slept or we took a break from the sun or watched late-night television. One of us could host an impromptu luncheon for the whole family or, as we saw other vacationers doing, bring hors d'oeuvres and wine as a contribution to someone else's potluck dinner.
The gourmet-to-go shop was the brainchild of Mike Klauber, whose father, Murphy, switched from being a Buffalo orthodontist to a Gulf Coast hotelier in 1969. Mike, then a teen-ager, entered the hotel business as a window washer, followed that with an education at Cornell University's hotel school, next worked at New Orleans' Royal Sonesta and Arnaud's. He was on his way to work at Dallas' Mansion on Turtle Creek when he was sidetracked by the departure of the Colony's food and beverage manager. Thus, five years ago at age 25 Mike Klauber took over. While he didn't consider himself ready to run the whole food show, he did realize that the Colony's reputation was at an all-time low and "We had nowhere to go but up."
Mike installed one of the country's first Cruvinet systems -- for preserving open bottles of wine in order to serve wines by the glass. He inaugurated an annual three-day wine festival in hopes of making the West Coast of Florida a center for wine connoisseurs. And he hired his brother Tom, now age 27, as sous chef and his sister Katie, 29, to do the design and development as well as run the gift shop. He sent Tom and chef Frank Caldwell to Europe to visit the great restaurants.
But when he turned his focus on opening a carryout shop, he hit a roadblock. Murphy Klauber had long thought the Colony needed a grocery, but Mike's dream was of a gourmet shop, and Murphy didn't want anything fancy. After Mike visited 24 food shops in a two-day blitz of Manhattan, he was inspired enough to infect his father with his enthusiasm. So Tastebuds opened two years ago.
It carries not just potato chips, but five different kinds of premium potato chips, and the only fresh caviar in town. This is vacation food, glamor food, the likes of Cocolat chocolate truffles from California, party platters decorated with baby vegetables, and dilled shrimp salad made with jumbo shrimp. Most of the year there is an herb garden outside the front door. "Instead of showing a selection of what's available, I try to put together a great collection of things," said Klauber. The pizzas -- made in the restaurant kitchen and frozen -- are particularly popular; the day after Thanksgiving Tastebuds sold all 30 that the kitchen had produced. On Sundays Tastebuds gets a concentration of orders for picnic baskets to take to the beach.
Heavy dessert sauces and plum puddings don't sell well, Mike discovered. Lighter foods, those associated with health and fitness and freshness, do -- as well as pastries, starting with morning croissants. Tastebud's shelves display 250 different wines -- and guests can buy bottles from the Colony restaurant's 20,000-bottle cellar, which this year won a Wine Spectator Grand Award. Guests sometimes taste wines in the restaurant, then buy them in the store to take home.
When guests reserve rooms at the Colony they are sent a grocery list from Tastebuds, and can order their rooms stocked with food for their arrival. They are also greeted with a small basket of a half bottle of wine, cheese and fruit.
Guests and locals keep track of what's being served at the Colony's restaurant and shop through a newsletter -- and there is always some news, whether of births in the Klauber family, a champagne festival (Mike says his was the first restaurant in the country to sell Dom Perignon by the glass), Friday night tasting dinners, Saturday and Sunday night "wine and food experiences," Sunday night Creole dinners, the opening of a beachside grill (with sandwiches for under $2) and an outdoor grill menu for dinner, or Sunday's buffet brunch with made-to-order omelets, waffles and tartar steak.
Mike recognizes that food is entertainment. And he intends the Colony to be highly entertaining. "I don't like people to think, 'Is something happening at the Colony?'," he said, "but 'What's happening at the Colony?' "
He is planning to expand Tastebuds' choice of hot entrees to finish at home in the oven, aiming to offer four each day from a rotating selection of a dozen or more. He talks in terms of duck with green peppercorn sauce or vegetable lasagne, having learned that foods with heavier sauces reheat better than those with thin or no sauce.
Tastebuds' foods are also finding their way into the restaurant's kitchen, as the chef experiments with its new products such as balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oils. The store's coffee beans are now brewed into the restaurant's coffee.
After two years -- and still expanding -- Tastebuds is even more successful than Mike expected. It has become a vehicle for socializing among Colony guests; and a quarter of its sales are to local residents, which makes Mike think of opening another, larger store off the premises. As he put it, "I don't know how we did without it for so long." Tabletalk
*My vote for this year's cleverest gift idea goes to the Ruth's Chris Steak House chain, whose gift certificates are audio cassettes describing the dinner to come, with a 15-second segment for the giver to personalize the message.
*Chocolate computers were inevitable, I suppose, and so the House of Chocolates in Canandaigua, N.Y., is making them in milk chocolate (12 ounces for $10.50 including handling). No word about how to avoid meltdown. COLONY SHRIMP AND DILL SALAD (6 servings)
2 pounds large shrimp, cooked
2 cups oil (part olive oil if desired)
1 cup wine vinegar
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 tablespoons minced fresh dill
2 tablespoons minced parsley
2 tablespoons minced scallions
1/4 teaspoon herbs de provence (optional)
1/4 teaspoon basil
1/4 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon chopped garlic
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground white pepper
Shredded lettuce for serving
Cut shrimp in half lengthwise. Combine remaining ingredients (except lettuce) and marinate shrimp in them overnight in refrigerator. Serve on a bed of shredded lettuce.