(2011) Chef Darwin Santa Maria, former proprietor of perennial downtown favorite Selva Grill, has moved his considerable culinary prowess to Siesta Key, where his makeover of the menu at The Cottage On The Key has turned an agreeable watering hole into a destination for beachgoing foodies, especially for those of us addicted to grazing.
The Cottage sits in the heart of Siesta Village, where its front deck offers excellent people-watching as well as a nice beachy feel. Walk through the wood paneled and nautically decorated dining room and bar and you’ll find a second, cozier al fresco dining space out back. The options add up to a warm and friendly vibe with just the right note of stylish beach funk.
The menus doubling as placemats offer a tantalizing array of dishes perfect for sharing, heavy on fresh seafood, all very well priced at between $7.50 and $15. We sampled widely and still had to pass on tempting items from three of the menu’s seven categories.
From the appetizers that The Cottage groups under the heading piqueos, we went for crunchy shrimp spring rolls ($7.99), served prettily cut into three individually garnished standing columns stuffed with shrimp, avocado aioli and a bright sweet chile sauce. After sampling the first two yummy pieces, we congratulated ourselves on resisting the temptation to arm wrestle for the third.
From the short sandwich list, we chose a trio of tasty little teriyaki mahi mahi sliders nicely complemented by judicious toppings of slaw, pickled ginger and wasabi mayo ($10.99), accompanied by crisp housemade chips in three flavors: plantain, sweet potato and purple potato. The sammies went down effortlessly and left us hungry for offerings from two of the menu’s killer categories, ceviches and tiraditos (sashimi). As he proved at Selva Grill, if anybody knows how to do raw, it’s Chef Darwin.
The ceviches, raw fish and shellfish marinated in lime juice and peppers and served in a variety of toothsome combinations, will be familiar to regulars at Selva Grill. We resisted a couple of old favorites—the mixed ceviche with fish, shrimp, mussels and octopus asserted most notably by cilantro and yams and the Asian ceviche starring salmon and lemongrass— in favor of one called The Cottage’s Wild Ceviche ($10.50), featuring the day’s fresh catch (The Cottage also houses a small fish market) set off by raw red onion, Cuzco corn kernels both soft and hard and sweet potato. Our radar was definitely working when we ordered this delight.
For the finale we chose another specialty of the house, a tuna tiradito ($14.75) that married succulent sushi-grade tuna in a ginger soy sauce with manicured slices of fresh watermelon, a versatile fruit that’s turning up on more restaurant menus in surprisingly successful combinations.
We also were tempted by a tiradito of mahi mahi, ginger aioli, papaya, seaweed salad and a ponzu sauce, as well as by octopus with black olive purée, onions and avocado, but even a food detective’s appetite has its limits. No matter. It’s always good to leave something tempting for next time, and in this, as in service and presentation, The Cottage excels.
At the heart of The Cottage is its big horseshoe bar. The seats around it are prime real estate, and not just because of the sports playing on multiple flat screens. The setting makes conversation easy, and the bartender is world-class.
From a list of cocktails classic and nouveau, I chose a Pisco sour ($7), my first. It will not be my last. I had no idea the signature drink of Peru was so elegant. In addition to the edgy Peruvian brandy that gives the concoction its name, it contains sugar, fresh lime juice and, for the coup de grâce, airy egg whites, all blended with three ice cubes until smooth and slightly frothy and served straight up in a martini glass. What a wonderful invention!
The Cottage Fish Market, Restaurant & Bar
153 Avenida Messina, Siesta Key
Reservations: (941) 312-9300
Full bar plus beer and wine
Hours: Sunday through Thursday, noon to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, noon to 2 a.m.
Cards: all major
Handicapped accessible: yes
Parking: complimentary valet or on street