Go to any Sarasota party, and what’s the hottest topic of conversation—art? Real estate? World peace? Maybe, but it’s much likelier that the biggest buzz will be about what hot new restaurant is providing our latest culinary thrills. This is a restaurant-crazy town, where serial dining out is the norm and where a popular chef’s decision to strike out on his own can cause a small sensation. And we’re getting more chances to feed our restaurant addiction every year, as the city’s growing population, rising wealth and expanding downtown are attracting all sorts of creative entrepreneurs with fresh restaurant visions along with some of the country’s best chains.
As a restaurant critic, I’m always exploring new culinary turf, and last year provided many delicious discoveries. Here’s a look at some of my favorites, from posh new special-occasion restaurants to friendly little sushi bars and neighborhood joints. All have opened within the last year, give or take a few months, and all offer food, service or atmosphere that was enticing enough to lure me back (on my own dime) after my initial review.
Without a doubt, it’s been the year of the Italian restaurant. Sarasota has always had a taste for Italian food and atmosphere (and we seem to be getting a whole contingent of bona fide Italians, who arrive fashionably late at many of our Italian hotspots, chattering away in their native language and looking wonderfully sophisticated and interesting). But we haven’t had too many notable new Italian restaurants in recent years. After that drought, 2006 brought a deluge.
Treviso, the restaurant in the new visitor’s center at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, is one of the best. Keeping pace with the trend of offering fine dining in museums (formerly the mainstays of American cheese sandwiches and dried-up banana nut muffins in cellophane wrappers), Treviso brings style and substance to our very own world-class museum complex. The space is architecturally interesting with a modernist sensibility, and the food is appealing and absorbing without demanding too much attention. Can we ask for more than that?
I love the bruschetta, which features a trio of toppings that bring layers of sensory excitement to the table. The pastas deliver flavors, and the sandwiches catch your eye. The dinner entrÈes are prepared with precision, balancing texture and tastes. Leave room for dessert, too. The small list of libations (I’m thinking primarily of wine) needs to be addressed, but other than that, well, I think legendary hostess Mable Ringling would be quite proud.
La Tosca is a surprising and welcome addition to those of us who live south of Sarasota, where we formerly depended on a controversial tiki bar and a palladium of early bird specials for our culinary sustenance. Located in a big, high-end boat storage facility—OK, that is a bit odd—the trattoria offers a three-sided view of Little Sarasota Bay, something to applaud in and of itself. The food is the other reason to rejoice. La Tosca offers food that’s an engaging combination of traditional and contemporary Italian. The carpaccio is a must-have. By adding tomatoes and endive, the chef creates a mini salad to enhance the well-seasoned rare beef, dressed with nutty olive oil and piquant capers. EntrÈes hit the mark, too, with a delightful and decidedly Italian rendering of duck.
The doyenne of Italian cuisine, cookbook author and Longboat Key resident Marcella Hazan, loves little Bologna Cafe, and so do I. The interior of this tiny spot on the South Trail resembles a delicatessen, but combining take-out and table service is very much in the Italian style. I’m always stopping in to pick up just about anything from the fresh-from-Italy deli case. The cheeses are exquisite, especially the fresh mozzarella, which they create on the premises from imported curds. Salads are worth celebrating, with a kiss of dressing on the fresh, sweet greens and exquisitely flavorful tomatoes. Order the lasagna for an authentic Bolognese treat (no tomatoes here), and try the tigella—a sandwich pocket that’s indigenous to a very small area of Italy.
Esca is just what downtown needed, a sophisticated eatery with a bar that draws the who’s who of Sarasota’s younger crowd at night. The location, across from the Hollywood 20 cineplex, has hosted several short-lived eateries. This sophisticated combination of some classic dishes and contemporary preparations of seafood and pasta looks like it’s going to survive. The balcony of the second-story bar is a great spot to watch the sun set over Sarasota while enjoying the appetizer sampler. The zucchini turbans are luscious little morsels. The lobster salad is succulent, too. And the wine list offers a welcome selection of new and old-world wines. This is one of the few restaurants in town that actually carries a Gruner Veltliner on the menu. Way to go!
Something about the Gulf Gate area supports small, unassuming restaurants that capture a following without fanfare or high-profile publicity. Such is the case with Broccolini. Homespun touches like crocheted table toppers under glass speak volumes about the classic style of Italian dishes. Expect chicken Marsala and pasta fagioli to taste like what you’d find in Boston’s north end, but there’s an inventive spirit in the kitchen, too. Seafood comes in impressively creative preparations, and the kitchen’s willingness to please is legendary among regulars.
Downtown’s condos may not all be occupied, or even built, but the restaurants are booming, creating an urban environment that’s producing a long-awaited energy in a city that used to roll up the streets at sundown. Two of the best are in the Rosemary District, that charming little neighborhood just north of the Fruitville corridor. Rustic Grill created major buzz when it opened, and the place is a treat for all the senses. The design unites an aristocratic Old World aesthetic with a sense of cutting-edge experience. The food takes some classics and applies an edge, too. Try the lamb shank on the meat side of the ledger or scallops topping the seafood side. Chef Clinton Combs is hitting his stride here; we only wish his service staff always held up their side of the equation.
Derek Barnes is another hot local chef who’s hit the mark with Derek’s Culinary Casual. Located in a former art studio, the restaurant is a casual, chic space, setting the scene for an equally chic fusion menu. Look no further than the foie gras for a hint of how Derek views the plate. Unctuous foie gras is smartly enhanced by pomegranate vinaigrette starring picturesque little pink peppercorns. Next, move to the duck. The breast is lean, with an almost gamey taste that’s united with a fabulously crispy, lush leg. This is served with spaetzle dressed in cream sauce. Completing the plate are Asian seasoned greens, providing a spiciness that cuts through the opulence of the dish. Fusion food can be awkward or overwrought, but here the cross-cultural elements blend triumphantly.
Finally our city of the arts has a real center for cafÈ society—Five Points, thanks to the addition of The Grape and the Americano Cafe. The former fuses a retail wine cellar with a singles-scene bar. Who knew we had all those beautiful, leggy young women in suits and stilettos? The Grape, which is part of a chain, is a novel concept, catering to the neophyte oenophile with a fun system of identifying wine styles and food compatibility. Not the spot for serious food, although some of the light bites are excellent; save The Grape for a casual escape.
Americano CafÈ brings the bistro to Main Street. It’s difficult to decide which part of the day brings the best meal here. I love the breakfast—it’s so European to sit outside and sip espresso while enjoying a plump helping of eggs and ham. The salads at lunch are always fresh and inviting, and the roasted meats for dinner hit the spot.
Great Mexican restaurants were few and far between prior to the opening of Cinco de Mayo, another welcome addition to Main Street. Interesting combinations of flavors, occasionally fiery, raise this above the ordinary. But not to worry, all the usual suspects are on the menu, executed with flavor and flair. The space exudes a quiet cool, and the long list of Mexican beers will give you a south-of the-border brewery tour.
At the east end of Main Street, Utamaro—which is technically speaking, not new, but reinvented itself when it moved to downtown from St. Armands this year—attracts a cool young crowd to its sushi bar and draws older patrons, too, for its top-rate sushi and friendly service.
Rounding Up the Ranch
The lightning-fast speed with which Lakewood Ranch appeared and became, well, a huge traffic jam, still astounds me. It seems like yesterday that the exit at University Parkway only allowed travel to the west, with no eastbound road at all! Those days are obviously over, and while it first seemed that the restaurant scene would be dominated by familiar chains, including branches of Sarasota’s beloved Morton’s Market, Broken Egg and Serving Spoon, the past year has witnessed the opening of independent eateries in the ranch, too. The Main Street retail collection is home to several restaurants; one of the most fun is MacAllister’s, a casual joint with a decidedly Scottish feel. You’ll find haggis on the menu, but it’s thankfully disguised in phyllo dough. Better yet, you’ll find a huge assortment of single-malt Scotch, by far the best in the area. Take your time sipping them and enjoying the warm ambiance and the golf-themed design. Food is casual— burgers, pastas and the like—and the clientele moves from families to a lively bar scene as the evening progresses.
You’ll find a more formal atmosphere a few steps down the street at Astoria Fine Russian Cuisine. In fact, the starched napery and atmosphere demand your very best manners and attention to the menu. This is the place to savor dishes like borsht, vareniky (a dumpling usually stuffed with potato and cheese, kind of a Ukrainian pierogi) and beef Stroganoff. All is not Russian, but it’s a fascinating place to experience these dishes, with a decent representation of Russian wines, too.
There’s even more international flavor on this Main Street: Saijo Sushi and Japanese Restaurant serves a well-rounded Asian menu, focusing on all manner of Japanese cooking styles. There’s sushi (I like the toro), a tempura menu, and items prepared teriyaki style. It’s a great way to become better acquainted with this culinary universe.
Just a short distance across I-75 is the Outlet Mall, home to the Island Time Grill, a colorful Floribbean concept with just enough of a Jimmy Buffett atmosphere to deliver a carefree state of mind. The seafood entrÈes are interesting; the salmon served with a pistachio-studded polenta is spot on. The bar serves an even more casual menu, featuring a great cheeseburger topped with Gorgonzola.
Across the center’s parking lot, you’ll see MT’s, a trendy bar and restaurant where the namesake initials stand for martinis and tapas. You’ll find plenty of both. Favorite tapas include the meatballs—yes, meatballs—which are bite-sized and spicy and, let’s face it, not found on that many menus. The usual assortment of finger food like bruschetta, hummus, and crostini is available, too. And the wine list is just as enticing as the wide range of martinis.
On the Trail
Any longtime local can tell you that just about everything happens on or around the "Trail," or U.S. 41. Starting in Tampa and ending in Miami, this highway was it before I-75, and in many ways it still is. Mattison’s Riverside is just a few blocks west of the trail in Bradenton, situated on the pier across from City Hall. This was formerly the Twin Dolphin, which for many years was the place to eat in downtown Bradenton. The Miller family hooked up with restaurant impresario Paul Mattison, and Riverside was born. It’s a huge improvement. This is a great waterfront space that had become fatigued in a big way. Now the dÈcor is updated and the menu is Asian-inspired—a departure for Mattison, who usually showcases the Mediterranean kitchen. I’m pleased to report that Mattison did keep the 1976 salad, which is delicious and a favorite of all who were patrons of the Twin Dolphin. Seafood is serious at Mattison’s Riverside, and just about anything that formerly swam will please the palate.
Further down the Trail, just past Sarasota Memorial Hospital, is Hillview Street, lined with restaurants and clubs. The newest is Red Peruvian Restaurant, one of several Peruvian restaurants in Sarasota. Red specializes in seafood and focuses on ceviche, the seafood dish that cooks in its own marinade. There are several ceviches on the menu, all fiery to one degree or another. Red is the place to get acquainted with yucca, too. The restaurant uses it in a variety of dishes, even featuring it as an appetizer with a red-hot dip.
Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion has been the hottest ticket in town since it opened last fall. The wildly successful chain, began by Hawaiian Roy Yamagucci of Iron Chef fame and owned by the same company that owns Fleming’s steak houses, has perfected cross-cultural dishes. This fusion cooking produces deliciously innovative layers of flavors and textures. The talents of the local chef are showcased, too, as each restaurant caters to its local clientele with original dishes. The butterfish, seafood associated with Hawaii, is aptly named, tasting and feeling like butter. It gives way with a fork. Any of the seafood is a sure bet for a fine dining experience, and don’t miss the Hawaiian martini, either. While the extensive and expensive wine list also tempts, this martini captures the essence of old Hawaii with its fresh pineapple flavors. Aloha.
Kazu’s Sushi and Asian Bistro is just off the Trail on Southgate Drive. It’s a tiny place with maybe 10 tables, but the sushi tastes much bigger, with impeccably fresh fish masterfully handled and assembled into mouth-watering morsels. There’s an intimacy about Kazu’s that inspires unhurried conversation and leisurely forays into the menu. On the sushi side, don’t miss the tornado. And the tampopo noodle bowl will make you swear off those packaged ramen noodles forever.
Osprey is a pretty unlikely spot to find a French patisserie, but from the depths of a renovated juice stand on the Trail appeared Gabby’s. With its engaging green and purple harlequin-patterned logo, it burst upon the scene shortly before last Thanksgiving and has been SRO since. The pastry is divine: croissants stuffed with almond paste or dark, truffle-like chocolate, yeasty cheese Danish, cake-like muffins perfect for a tea party—all delectable. The coffee is delicious, too. Bertha Palmer would be delighted.
Just a few miles south is Ilia’s Mediterranean Cuisine, a warm and pleasant Greek outpost in a sea of fast food joints and early bird specials. Although Ilia offers a range of foods from the Mediterranean region, go for the Greek. The spanakopita is flaky and stuffed with an intriguing mixture of spinach and cheese. Moussaka is traditional and comforting. Ilia’s condiments, especially the yogurt, are absolutely authentic and leave a satisfying tanginess. You’ll find enough beer or wine on the list to complement any dish you chose.
Dishes I Dream About
All the single-malt Scotches I haven’t tasted at MacAllister’s call to me on a semi-regular basis. The bar in this Lakewood Ranch Main Street eatery is intimate and, when not swarming with people, inviting. I want to work my way through MacAllister’s list of Scotches and become part of their club, one of those credentials every foodie longs for.
La Tosca’s pappardelle alla Tosca features wide egg noodles I remember from my grandmother’s kitchen in a toss with sausage, porcini mushrooms, Parmesan cheese and the secret ingredient that keeps it in your dreams, truffle oil. You’ll keep this Osprey trattoria on your speed dial after you taste.
Forget what you think you know about yucca. It’s neither dry nor dreary, but oh so reminiscent of hearts of palm. Yucca a la Huancaina at Red Peruvian Restaurant lays out strips of yucca with a creamy cheese dip for a new taste and texture sensation.
Derek Barnes likes culinary gadgets, and his new ice cream machine turns out some exquisite flavors. Of course, he’s the one filling the machine with inventive combinations, and when he takes those flavors and presses them between equally inventive cookies—well, it’s the ice cream sandwich from heaven.
Cafe Bologna sits in a strip of shops at a bend in the Tamiami Trail just south of Phillippi Creek. It’s easy to miss, but those in the know make a beeline for the espresso bar. The dense liquid comes in a quaint demitasse, served with a glass of mineral water to wash it down. It’s the best and most authentic espresso this side of the Adriatic.
Treviso, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota (941) 360-7390.
La Tosca, 576 Blackburn Point Road, Osprey (941) 918-8041.
Bologna CafÈ, 5770 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota (941) 927-9262.
Esca Restaurant & Bar,1888 Main St., Sarasota (941) 365-3722.
Broccolini’s Restaurant, 6525 Superior Ave., Sarasota (941) 926-8525.
Rustic Grill, 400 N. Lemon Ave., Sarasota (941) 906-1111.
Derek’s Culinary Casual, 514 Central Ave., Sarasota (941) 366-6565.
The Grape, 1413 Main St., Sarasota (941) 364-9463.
Americano CafÈ, 1409 Main St., Sarasota (941) 365-1026.
Cinco de Mayo, 1551 Main St., Sarasota (941) 917-0043.
Rounding Up the Ranch
Astoria Fine Russian Cuisine, 8126 Main St., Lakewood Ranch
Saijo Sushi & Japanese, 8126 Main St., Lakewood Ranch (941) 388-9506.
MacAllister’s, 8110 Lakewood Main St., Lakewood Ranch (941) 907-9706.
Island Time Grill, 8225 Cooper Creek Blvd., Sarasota (941) 351-5128.
MTS Martinis & Tapas, 8473 Cooper Creek Blvd., Sarasota (941) 360-0007.
On the Trail
Mattison’s Riverside, 1200 First Ave. on the Memorial Pier, Bradenton (941) 748-8087.
Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion, 2001 Siesta Drive, Sarasota (941) 952-0109.
Red Peruvian Restaurant, 1960 Hillview St., Sarasota (941) 954-6956.
Kazu’a Sushi & Asian Bistro, 2063 Siesta Drive, Sarasota (941) 951-7778.
Gabby’s Patisserie, 106 N. Tamiami Trail, Osprey (941) 966-2253.
Ilia’s Mediterranean Cuisine, 625 N. Tamiami Trail, Nokomis (941) 480-0095.