YES, TIMES ARE TOUGH, but so are folks here in Sarasota. We can survive without double-digit annual real estate appreciation, and we can manage without all that money we once had in the stock market. We can even cut back on power shopping. But there’s something this city will never give up—dining out in our local restaurants.
I know that because of the passionate response to a blog our contributing food and wine editor, Judi Gallagher, recently posted at sarasotamagazine.com. In her “Foodie’s Notebook,” Judi usually reports on what’s new and notable in the local dining scene, but in this entry, she scolded financial guru Suze Orman for appearing on Oprah and advising viewers to tighten their belts and stop eating in restaurants.
Gallagher, a chef and former restaurateur, wasn’t about to tolerate such trash-talking, and in addition to asserting that restaurants are a vital part of the local economy, she noted that many restaurant dishes cost less than if you made them yourself at home.
“Shame, shame on Suze!” she wrote. “If Suze can make a delicious and healthy No. 79 with lemongrass pork at Pho Cali for under $9, then I will personally erect a statue of her in my kitchen. By the time you buy the soy sauce, ginger, lemongrass, peanuts and romaine, you’d be over budget, and I haven’t even gotten to the bean sprouts and marinated carrots, let alone the barbecued pork!” Readers roared their approval, with a record number of postings that ran 20 to 1 against Suze’s restaurant ban.
Inspired by their response, we decided to scout out some great Sarasota meal deals for this Food & Wine annual, absolutely amazing entrées so reasonably priced you can enjoy them even during a recession. We asked our food editors and foodie friends for their favorites; here are 14 of their best suggestions—and many really do cost less to order out than to create in your kitchen at home.
1. One of the most popular dishes at Libby’s Café + Bar in Southside Village is the truffled wild mushroom torte with Coach Farm goat cheese and balsamic vinegar ($14). Pair it with the Asian pear salad ($8), another crowd pleaser, for a dinner of outrageous flavor and finesse. Just think how long you’d have to shop and cook—and how much you’d spend—to make a dinner like that.
2. C’est Cheese on the South Trail sells cheese from all around the world, many not available in local restaurants or grocery stores. A great way to sample some is to ask owner Sherri to make a cheese plate. She’ll include four different cheeses, along with crackers, dried fruit and Marcona almonds, and because she uses small amounts of cheese left over from previous orders, she can charge a bargain-basement $12.95.
3. Want an eggs Benedict-style breakfast without breaking the budget? For just $1.29, you can order a side of heavenly Hollandaise—one of their specialties—at any Peach’s restaurant and pour it on your made-to-order eggs.
4. Good ahi tuna is a true luxury, and the ahi tuna is truly good at Bonefish Grill. For $14.90, you get a nine-ounce ahi tuna appetizer. That’s the same size as the dinner serving, and since the appetizer comes with Bonefish’s Tuscan bread and pesto sauce, it’s definitely enough for a dinner.
5. Knick’s, the cozy neighborhood tavern in Southside Village, makes a veggie burger even carnivores could love, super-moist and succulent, and it arrives with your choice of sides. Some of those are pretty healthy, too, but we’d go for the sinfully delicious steak fries. Total cost: $7.95.
6. We all know that even when the food is reasonable, the bar bill can drive the cost of restaurant dining way up. But you can sip without splurging at Caragiulo’s all this year. To celebrate its 20th birthday, the popular Italian restaurant on Palm Avenue has priced 10 excellent wines at $19.89 each. We’ll drink to that!
7. Michael’s On East has a new $25 Epicurean Adventure that should thrill any frugal traveler. Proprietor Michael Klauber says they’ve come up with “awesome” menus, which include your choice of several appetizers and entrées, plus a dessert. Each menu is inspired by a different country or region; this month it’s Asia
8. The salami and provolone sandwich at Piccolo’s Italian Market in Gulf Gate comes on wonderful Italian bread with oil and vinegar along with lettuce, tomato and roasted peppers, and it’s big enough to satisfy two hungry customers. Try assembling that yourself for $6! Prefer to make a meal of salad? The $5.95 antipasta salad is both super-fresh and full of top-quality ingredients.
9. Some of the best meal deals are at the small, family-owned ethnic eateries around town. El Toro Bravo, a Mexican spot in a shopping center along Clark Road, has a combo plate called “Cancun” with two cheese enchiladas topped with a fantastic green chili sauce, sour cream and guacamole. So much food, so much flavor—for just $9.50. Add a Dos Equus for a buck or two more.
10. In the mood for a four-course feast with perfectly paired wines? Harry’s Continental Kitchens on Longboat Key offers an eminently affordable splurge, with top-of-the-line choices from grilled diver scallop as one of the starters to entrées that include rack of lamb and Atlantic swordfish. They’ve picked a premium wine for every choice, and it’s all yours for $49—$35 without the wine. And after April 20, the price drops to $43 with wine and $29 without it.
11. I’ve spotted some of the town’s top chefs dining at Cosimo’s, which won our “Best Pizza” contest last year and has great pasta as well. They recently introduced a special dinner for a party of four. You get your choice of several salads, pastas and pizzas for $29.99 ($7.50 per additional person). And nicest of all, they serve it in friendly family style.
12. Euphemia Haye, which has collected just about every major gourmet award around since it opened on Longboat in 1980, serves amazing desserts in its upstairs Haye Loft, but our late-night nosh of choice there is the nine-ounce duck-and-shiitake mushroom pizza on an impossibly thin crust, sized for one and a steal at $10.75.
13. The new Jamrocks Jamaican Restaurant on Longboat Key is the real thing: food by a Jamaican chef, reggae music, even a little tiki bar. If you go on Friday nights, you’ll hear live steel band music (starting at 5 p.m.) and feast on the buffet, which opens at 6 and offers such traditional favorites as curried goat, curried chicken, jerk chicken, pepper steak, oxtail and escovitch fish, along with salads and pastries. Your fare for this mini-trip to the islands? $14.95.
14. And finally, at the south end of Siesta Key, the Turtle Beach Pub offers what I’m convinced is the best burger in Sarasota—half a pound of Black Angus beef on a good bun with fries or cole slaw for $7.95. We live just around the corner, and more often than not we start with some peel-and-eat shrimp ($6.95), order the burger medium-rare with cheese, grilled onions and mushrooms (50 cents per topping), split it—and walk home happily stuffed.
WHERE THE DEALS ARE
3971 S. Tamiami Trail, 924-9090
69 S. Palm Ave, 951-0866
4114 S. Tamiami Trail, 924-3374
Cosimo’s Brick Oven
3501 S. Tamiami Trail
(Westfield Southgate) 363-0211
El Toro Bravo
2720 Stickney Point Road, 924-0006
5540 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key, 383-3633
Harry’s Continental Kitchen
525 St. Jude Drive, Longboat Key, 383-0777
Jamrocks Jamaican Grill
6836 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key, 383-4932
Knick’s Tavern & Grill
1818 S. Osprey Ave., 955-7761
Libby’s Café + Bar
1917 S. Osprey Ave., 487-7300
Michael’s On East
1212 East Ave. S., 366-0007
Piccolo’s Italian Market
7119 S. Tamiami Trail, 923-2202
4832 S. Tamiami Trail, 923-8202
Turtle Beach Pub
8865 Midnight Pass Road, 349-2280