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Michael's angles are strictly modern

When was the last time your foursome did a complete round-robin with all the entrees on the table and they all passed muster? I gave highest marks to the lamb with walnuts and grilled pork with maple, apples and mustard, but there wasn't a loser in the splendid display the night my party and I visited Michael's. That was the promise of Michael's on East _ to give Sarasota a taste of California innovation and casual sophistication. Owner Michael Klauber brought a chef from Napa Valley's heralded Mustard's Grill and a fondness for America's finest wines.

I found a few errors the second time I visited the restaurant, but Michael's is still going strong after three years and a change in the kitchen. (Frank Caldwell, a veteran from the Colony on Longboat Key, has been chef for more than a year.) It remains one of the area's most uptown practitioners of creative New American cooking.

That's due partly to the unfortunate fact that there has been no groundswell of competition. Even St. Armand's Circle, the ritzy heart of the Platinum Coast, is still clogged with Hollandaise.

It is also due to the fact that Michael's is just plain good and has won a solid following for its mix of California clever and Florida fresh. The food can be as daring as grilled cold artichokes or as familiar as steak and onion rings.

The aim is to be good, not just different, as evidenced by the house salad: Romaine lettuce with a sweet mustard cream dressing topped with gorgonzola, red onions and dry roasted peanuts. Outrageous? Not really. It's just Caesar salad with a sense of humor, a fun mix of textures and tastes.

Michael's is an easygoing place where the atmosphere and the dress are casual. But stylish fun is not cheap, and neither is the crowd. Dress is resortwear casual, not blue-jean bonhomie, and I swear I overheard a diner contending that Michael Milken got a bum deal.

Yet if you get a kick out of good food, Michael's is well worth the treat of a $20 lunch for two or considerably more for dinner.

I'd go just for an appetizer of the red-pepper cornmeal pancake with caviar ($5.75). The dish balanced the crisp pancake, the crunch of tiny eggs and confetti of raw vegetables with the luxury of sour cream and creme fraiche.

If that's too cute, there are simpler pleasures. Grilling gave artichokes ($5.95) a smoky edge even when cold (although the sesame-pepper dressing had separated). Tomato and herb conch chowder ($3.95) was positively invigorating. The earthiest starter, however, was roast cloves of elephant garlic ($3.95); yes, solid garlic roasted to buttery softness. This will never be for the timid, but it'd be better with non-garlic toast, maybe sesame rounds.

The house salad should be ample starter, however, so just take your pick of the entrees. The only bummer I found was roast chicken ($15.95). This is a classic test of a top kitchen and is a new standard of contemporary fare, too. This one failed. The chicken was moist and attractively garnished, but the herbal flavor was minimal and the glace too heavy and meaty.

Otherwise, have at it. In seafood I can vouch for plain red snapper or an elegant plate of grilled shrimp on angelhair pasta ($15.95) in champagne cream, a rare success with that delicate flavor. As to meat, grilled pork loin ($16.50) was indeed wonderful (and lean!) and the lamb rack ($21.50) was perfect.

The big goof was the bread. Not bad in itself, but it was burned on my first visit and woefully tardy on my second. It arrived after the appetizer _ and after our reminders and after service to later arrivals. Our waiter explained that the staff was few and the crowd many that night, but that was not our problem. It undermined an otherwise winning style of enthusiastic, knowledgeable service.

On the other hand there were many pluses: a dozen low-everything offerings (like crabcakes with yogurt dressing), marvelous desserts and robust espresso. And an exemplary wine list showing Californians at their best and at good prices. (That doesn't go for the $5 by the glass stuff, but the under-$20 bottles include treats like Vichon's crisp Chevrignon for $16.)

Keep up the good work, folks _ and do keep it up. I'm glad Michael's is on East to stay. And may your number increase.

Michaels's on East

1212 East Ave. S, Sarasota.

Phone: 366-0007

Type: New American.

Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mon.-Fri; dinner, 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Sun.

Reservations: Recommended.

Credit Cards: AE, DC, MC, V.

Full bar.

No non-smoking section.

Wheelchair access: Good.

No children's menu.

Prices: Lunch entrees, $4.95 to $11.95; dinner entrees, $10.95 to $22.50.

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