It seems inadequate to call Monroe’s a mom-and-pop enterprise, although owners Suzanne and chef Richard Monroe are married and proud to be mom and pop to a daughter (born one week after the restaurant opened in 1995) and her two-year old brother. But their family business, located around the corner from the Sarasota Opera House in a historic building, is far too chic to fit the usual mom-and-pop mold. Monroe’s is a Continental cafe- an intimate, comfortable place to enjoy exemplary food, wine, and relaxed conversation.
A self-taught cook with a lot of hotel experience, 37-year-old Rick Monroe describes his ever-changing menu as regional American "with a Southern influence, probably due to my training days in and around Atlanta and my grandmother in North Carolina-one of the best pure cooks I’ve ever known." Does her spirit hover over the stove when Rick is turning out tender and juicy braised short ribs with caramelized Vidalia onions ($22) or his molasses-cured pork loin with hot bacon vinaigrette?
Maybe so, but the deliriously rich batter-fried lobster tail and roasted boursin-stuffed California figs were dreamed up by Rick for a glamorous Florida Winefest & Auction dinner in 1997. He got so many requests for an encore performance that he added the item to the menu. Maryland crab cakes, mixed grill, sautéed mahi mahi with a lemon caper sauce, Colorado lamb shank, and grilled Muscovy duck breast with ginger soy vinaigrette show the scope of this chef’s ambitions. He also has a special salad that every Monroe’s first-timer should try. It’s composed of artisan lettuces grown on a small farm in Ocala, which supplies Monroe’s twice a week. Rick tosses the greens with dried cranberries, Gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and sliced red onion, and then he slips a net of light raspberry vinaigrette over everything.
If you’re passing by, you can see the entire downstairs room from Monroe’s large streetside windows. The mahogany bar is the focal point and occupies most of the back wall. Behind the bar is the kitchen, and in front are round oak pedestal tables laid with white cloths. Oil votives are lit at night. Big oil paintings by a local artist and a vase of fresh flowers at the entrance provide just enough color and energy to keep the interior from being dull. This room seats about 40.
But there’s also an upstairs dining room off a jazz bar that features nightly entertainment. You can smoke upstairs in the 46-seat area. Another private room for 30 can be reserved for dinner parties. And an outdoor patio is private and charming when the weather is cooperative. So there is more to Monroe’s than initially meets the eye.
When Suzanne and Rick bought the restaurant, it was operating as an Irish pub. But most folks remember the original restaurant owner and caterer, Roz, who made legendary desserts and added to the historic character of the space with tin ceilings, stained glass doors from a Philadelphia library and a bar upstairs that dates from 1904.
The wine list at Monroe’s has earned a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. It’s a boutique cellar, says Rick, because it contains many labels from small producers. The restaurant features wines from France, Australia and America, but chef believes his Alsace wines and domestic zinfandels pair most favorably with his menu.
Both Rick and Suzanne are on-site daily, keeping up standards (the service is excellent), and maintaining a civilized atmosphere by discouraging cell phone interference at dinner. Like conscientious parents, they believe in good manners as well as good food.
1296 First St., Sarasota
Dinner: Monday through Thursday, 5:30-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m. Closed Sunday. Limited late-night menu upstairs on Friday and Saturdays until midnight.
* * *
Funny, Sarasota didn’t even know it needed a Peruvian restaurant until 26-year-old Darwin Santa Maria and his wife Lellys opened Selva Grill. Now we don’t know how we ever got along without it.
Selva, which means "jungle" in Peruvian, refers to the terrain of Darwin’s hometown of Carapoto in the western part of Peru. He grew up in the family restaurant business, helping his grandmother bake and his mother cook.
In 1990, Mom, Darwin and two siblings moved to Miami. But his mother realized her children would never learn English if they stayed in Miami; so she relocated the family to Sarasota, where Darwin completed high school (he has extravagant praise for the patient teachers at Sarasota High who taught him a second language and encouraged him). Darwin went on to Manatee Community College for two years and then back to Miami for his culinary degree from Johnson & Wales.
Darwin was a sous chef at Michael’s On East, then a sous chef and later executive chef at Fred’s for two years before striking out on his own a few months ago. Selva Grill is a 45-seat storefront dinner restaurant in a mundane strip mall. Because it’s tiny and word of mouth about the cuisine has been great, those who want to dine between 7 and 9 p.m. can expect to wait in the parking lot for tables to open up.
Selva began with paper napkins and a short menu. Soon, the napkins were linen, there was Peruvian background music, pretty pottery dotted the service bar, orchids adorned the tables, and he expanded the list of ceviche appetizers and seafood entrées. Ceviche is the signature item at Selva, and culantro is the signature flavor. Culantro is milder than cilantro and has a longer leaf. It grows in Peru.
Anyone dining at Selva Grill for the first time is advised to try a ceviche. The average price is $8. The house preparation, Selva Ceviche, mixes fresh corvina (a mild white Pacific fish) with lime juice, red onions and cilantro-roasted camotes and corn nuts. The mélange is served in a tall martini glass and is a lovely milky green, with bits of Bermuda onion and strips of red and green pepper flashing through. The taste is spicy yet cool and refreshing; and the fish, which is literally cooked by the acid of lime juice, is tender and perfumey. Additionally, there’s a shrimp ceviche (ornamented with wands of fried plantain), mussel, salmon, even octopus ceviche. All of them are as pretty to look at as they are lively to eat.
Plantains are another staple of chef Darwin’s kitchen. He steams chicken and rice in wide green plantain leaves for a specialty of the house. You unwrap the dish at table and dip the chicken pieces in two different sauces, one mild and made with olive oil and cilantro and another spicier one full of peppers. For other preparations he fries his plantains crisp or bakes them.
Skirt steak is cooked with beet relish, sweet plantains and truffle chimichurri ($18), and pan-roasted salmon finds itself in a luxury bath of custard flan and champagne vinaigrette. There’s a saffron rice-stuffed Cornish hen with guava sauce and a whole fish, (grouper or snapper), head, tail, and skeleton intact, that’s fried, steamed and then baked with lime soy ginger sauce and served with plantain chips and spiced rice. ($18).
Everything at Selva Grill has intense and unusual flavors, from sweet to tart to highly spiced and hot. Desserts are Latin favorites, including a lightweight coco bread pudding served with coconut rum sauce for $6. Chef bakes the bread himself.
The wine list features a lot of South African labels, and Darwin credits Sarasota wine expert Freddy Matson with helping compose the list and stock the cellar. It’s a work in progress, and a good effort it is, with bottles ranging from $14-$34. Some wines are available by the glass for about $5.
The service at Selva Grill is unhurried and experienced. The atmosphere is that of a congenial neighborhood bistro, with Lellys Santa Maria on the floor and her talented husband emerging from the kitchen occasionally to greet guests and chat with regulars. Selva Grill seems homey and familiar. But a quick read through the exotic and intriguing menu tells you immediately you’re not in Kansas anymore. And that’s a good thing.
2881 Clark Road (Merchants Point Mall), Sarasota
Dinner: Monday through Thursday and Sundays from 4-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4-10:30 p.m.