You should go to Columbia Restaurant if you ever go to Longboat Key. Why wouldn’t you? You will drive right past it, and it’s very inviting, so you should stop and go in. Everyone else does, and for some good reasons. First, it is very big and very pleasant, beautiful, actually. It sits on a large traffic circle, posh St. Armand’s Circle, which, as I say, you’ll have to navigate. They have tables both outside and in. The walls of the restaurant, or at least the south and west walls, are sliding glass and telescope into each other, so that virtually the entire place is open to the Florida air. It’s a fine place to sit, dine, and watch the passing parade.
The popularity of Columbia means that there probably will be a wait, but not a bad one. You can join the passing parade and look into some shops, or bask in the Florida sun to contemplate Columbia’s 1905 Salad.
The 1905 Salad is a reason for Columbia’s popularity. Based on the original 1905 recipe, the 1905 Salad is a mixture of ham, green olives, Swiss cheese, freshly grated Romano, tomatoes, and iceberg lettuce, all dressed table-side with mojo, lemon juice, and Lea and Perrins. Some fresh oregano sneaks in there, too.
Nancy and I started off without ordering the salad. Nancy ordered the chicken salteado (chicken, onions, peppers, mushrooms, diced potatoes, some garlic, some dried chorizo, and some red wine), and I ordered, off course, a Cuban sandwich and a cup of Caldo Gallego–white beans, ham, chorizo, and turnip greens in a broth. After the waitress left, I thought, what the heck, got her attention, and asked for a 1905 salad to share with Nancy.
Your first taste of Columbia is a big hunk of warm Cuban bread which arrives almost immediately after you order along with some delicious butter. Actually, your first taste is the odor of the bread, wafting seductively around you. It was very good bread — even Nancy couldn’t resist it.
Great start. Next came the 1905 Salad.
It definitely lived up to its billing, fresh and flavorful. The combination of lemon juice and Lea and Perrins is not nearly as widely recognized as it deserves.
The Caldo Gallego was delicious, with lots of ham and beans and a great broth.
Things fell off a bit after that. Nancy’s salteado looked good enough,
but the chicken tasted stale, as if it had been pre-cooked the day before and then thrown in with the vegetables. Nancy invited me to eat all I wanted, and that didn’t take long.
The Cuban sandwich was a disappointment. Columbia makes a point of having the same ratio of meats as in the original Cuban sandwich.
The sandwich had, as you can see, spent a little too long in the press, but I can live with that. The ham was fine, and the single layer of Genoa salami added a nice flavor, but the pork, the pork. The greatness of a Cuban sandwich comes from the pork, the rich pork redolent of garlic and with that distinctive sour orange flavor. But at Columbia, where was the sour orange flavor? Where was the garlic flavor? It was basically a pretty good ham sandwich, which is fine, but if you’re expecting a real Cuban sandwich, it’s a disappointment. I once sat down with a bowl of popcorn, excited to watch John Ford’s magnificent Stagecoach, only to find that the station was broadcasting the ghastly 1966 remake.
But I’m being unduly negative. Perhaps Columbia’s clientele just doesn’t like aggressive seasoning. And Nancy and I did enjoy our lunch there, and so will you if you stop in at Columbia. The setting is lovely and the service is swift and friendly. Remember the 1905 Salad? Someone, maybe USA Today, put it among the best 10 dinner salads in the US, and it really is delicious. The Caldo Gallego was great, as was the complimentary bread. And for that pretty a place, it’s very reasonable. Give it a try.
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