Most cities of any size and substance have restaurants that have become institutions; think of the Four Seasons in New York or Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia. Sarasota is similarly blessed with Café L’Europe, a continental jewel located in a prime spot on St. Armands Circle. Café L’Europe is 34 years old, and in that incredibly long restaurant lifespan has served countless meals to locals and tourists alike. Locals will tell you that it has always been a destination restaurant, too—for anniversaries, engagements and, of course, the prom. In fact, during one visit to the Café, our waiter regaled us with his personal prom story, which was the first time he set foot in Café L’Europe. His date is long forgotten, but he’s back at the Café.
While institutions can draw guests based on years of reputation, they can also fall prey to relying on that status, letting service and quality of food and preparation slip. We wanted to determine if that were the case with the Café.
First stop on our mission was the appetizer list. It presents a wide range of cuisines and tastes, from tapas to bison carpaccio, with an Asian and classic French stop in between. We were hooked by the tapas, a plate of seafood that featured sweet lump crab presented rather drably in a bowl, and an enticing pile of pastrami-style smoked salmon. The salmon had a smoky, briny flavor and texture that screamed for a slice of rye bread. But the buttery crostini on hand makes a delicious foundation for either crab or salmon. This is a must-have, if only to take the leftover salmon home for a bagel breakfast feast. Appetizers run from $10-$32.
The bourbon pecan salad comes highly recommended, and for good reason. The pecans are toasted to a lovely sweetness, and the croutons are an ingenious toast of cornbread squares. Those two elements added to a mix of greens and other veggies should make for a standout salad. Unfortunately, the salads were overdressed, and as any fashionista— food or otherwise—will assert, nothing causes a quicker downfall than overdressing.
“Are there any entrées that are original, that have stood the test of time for 33 years?” we inquired. Our waiter pointed us to two—the potato-crusted grouper and the brandied duckling. Of the two, my vote goes to the duckling. This is about as classic as it comes. The duck is served crisp (although not at the temperature we requested) on a bed of wild rice, flavored with a creative sauce of Bing cherries and cognac. Satisfying in every way.
Back to the grouper. While I loved potato-crusted grouper in the ‘80s when it reached its apex of popularity, by 1990 it already seemed overdone. It may be showy, but the potatoes can weigh down the light-textured and unassertive fish. However, if you desire a blast from the past (and obviously lots of guests do), here’s your opportunity to experience what was once a culinary rock star.
My recommendation for seafood goes to the sea scallops. The plump, sweet scallops are pan-seared and served with a sweet potato hash that works surprisingly well with the seafood. The sweetness of both fundamentals in the dish is balanced by a tart citrus sauce. Most entrées fall between $24 and $30.
Desserts seem less creative than the other menu items, including the ubiquitous crème brǔlée and Key lime pie. I did sample the Key lime, reasoning that many tourists probably look forward to indulging in one of Florida’s most famous additions to the culinary repertoire. I was disappointed that it didn’t rise above the hordes of Key lime desserts found in thousands of restaurants across the state.
Café L’Europe provides a sense of hospitality and historic charm (the brick-walled front of the restaurant is said to have been John Ringling’s original office when he developed St. Armands). It also delivers the other essentials of fine dining—good food, outstanding service and an engaging wine list—which should keep this restaurant’s status as a Sarasota institution.
431 St. Armands Circle, Sarasota
Lunch daily 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner daily 5-10 p.m.
VISA, MC, AMEX
Valet parking, parking on street and municipal parking lots