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Sarasota sophistication

Fred's is a delicious portal into a tour of an avenue of tasty delights.

I liked Fred's as soon as I saw the place. It practically smiles at you. The creamy exterior has more age than the usual Florida pastel, the white trim and dark awnings are crisp, orderly and almost Palladian. The Gucci yellow rattan chairs at the sidewalk tables seem to be having a good time even when they're empty.

Inside you feel at home instantly. The cream of tomato walls, old chicken wire tile floors, dark wood and etched glass partitions create friendly little rooms. It's the feel of an old downtown place or bistro of another century, if not another country.

Until you see the lights. Wrought iron twists out from the walls and ceilings trying to hold onto playful, squiggly glass that seems to hold all the confetti of Carnival and the chuckles of the glassblowers.

The place sounds good, too, like an old bistro scene come to life.

Fred's is not just for looking and listening. It's definitely an eating place, and the food has that same mix of straightforward and reliable with darn near crooked fun. Of course there are a puffy chicken pot pie and husky burgers; the handcut steak is perfect, the best tenderloin this year. Seabass goes classic in a modern but simple way, roasted with golden crust over delicate mushrooms and bok choy in a broth of smoked tomatoes and cilantro, a flavor that lingers but doesn't loiter.

Let the kitchen loose and it gets wild with a pizza whose tomato sauce is fra diavolo with plenty of the devil in it, topped with little burgundy squid and sweet pine nuts. Some of the older crowd may expect chicken Cantonese to be a rice dish, not a pizza.

The risk-taking doesn't always work. The grouper with a pesto crust was overcooked. A risotto with crab and a puttanesca sauce showed that we still don't get the subtlety of risotto.

On the other hand, whoever decided to make an espresso flan here had a stroke of genius _ and skill.

Service is thoroughly modern, yet old-fashioned in the best sense. Servers taste the specials every night and make savvy recommendations (except for one who didn't know or care for the breads). Amid the polish, several gaffes stood out: An idle host ignored a single woman at the door, wine was slow from the bar, leftovers were plopped on the table before the meal was finished.

Still, during both my meals I felt ultimately in good hands.

And Fred's is just a start, a portal into a gourmet pleasuredome linked with adjoining food and wine businesses. Step next door to the Tasting Room, a wine bar with the best bar food this side of the Oakville Grocery, from house-made pates and smoked fish to rustic ham sandwiches.

You can get a $10 tour of four wines from the brilliant stock of Freddy Matson, the charming palate who oversees the next stops, J.D. Ford's wine and liquor shop and the Living Room for tastings and accessories.

Across the street is Morton's, as upscale as grocery shopping gets, with Euro carts and spices in custom-packed tins a la Dean & DeLuca, kosher butcher meats, artisan loaves, exotic cheeses and uptown take-home.

All these businesses are part of one company, Epicurean Life, which has placed its bet in Southside Village, a lush old neighborhood south of downtown that's getting new energy. Around the corner, the street is dotted with more small restaurants.

This cluster is an appetizing alternative form of neighborhood redevelopment that seems intimate and organic, more like downtown Dunedin than the mega projects on our horizon.

REVIEW

Fred's

1917 S Osprey Ave.

Sarasota

(941) 364-5811

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday-Saturday; 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday.

Reservations: Accepted for parties of six or more

Credit cards: AE, CB, D, DC, MC, V

Details: Full bar; non-smoking section provided

Wheelchair access: Good

Prices: $7.95-$27.95

Special features: Private room available; outdoor dining; wine bar and wine shop attached

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