I could tell by the wicked gleam in her eye that my editor had cooked up an assignment that would have me wanting wine with lunch that day. For the February Restaurant Issue, she said, I want you to cull from all the great restaurants in Sarasota the dozen—no, make that a baker’s dozen—that are absolutely not to be missed right now. I know it will be difficult, she conceded, and you’ll lose some sleep over it, but this kind of critical heavy lifting is nothing more than our readers have come to expect of us.
Just 13? How could I possibly narrow the field to a handful when I have so many favorites, each with its own special savor and charm? I agonized. I paced. I fretted. And then I came up with a scheme that at least made sense and gave me hope: make up three categories—they turned out to be Newcomers, Perennials and Institutions—and populate each with the top four or five restaurants I’d award ribbons for best in show. Amazingly, that worked!
Indigenous has the magic it will take to turn the charming cottage and guest house at the southwest corner of the Towles Court arts district into a lasting favorite among Sarasota’s demanding diners out. A couple of incarnations back, it was Canvas Café, and the man in charge of the kitchen was Steve Phelps, an innovative chef who was perhaps somewhat constrained by the restaurant’s owners. He’s both owner and chef now, so Indigenous is his baby all the way, and it shows in everything from the welcoming redesign of the place to a menu calculated to evolve not only with the seasons but over the years.
Whatever you order, expect it to have a strong local resonance—locavores, rejoice!—and an emphasis on sustainable farms and fisheries. Whether he’s whipping up a Southern classic with a twist like pork belly and Hoppin’ John or butter-poached crab, count on intense flavors beautifully balanced, plated with artistry and served by a thoroughly professional wait staff in a seductive setting with plenty of al fresco options.
Pomona Bistro & Wine Bar in Citrus Square downtown takes a more traditional approach to design in its classically proportioned, high-windowed dining room and to a menu with many favorites, including excellent housemade charcuterie. But chef Ryan Boeve brings a heightened consciousness to every dish, as in the touch of ginger added to his uncommonly good duck confit, which is accompanied by sinfully delightful potatoes roasted in duck fat, or his celestial dessert souffles.
For dining with friends or tête à tête, perhaps on an astonishingly vivid little heirloom chicken called Poussin Rouge Fermier du Piedmont, tables inside or on the patio are just right. For a glass of seriously good wine and a small plate or two, the wine bar with a view of chef at work in his gleaming kitchen can’t be beat.
The Table Creekside, on the banks of Phillippi Creek, burst onto the scene this winter amid high expectations, given the following its predecessor in Southside Village attracted. It does not disappoint.
The place is deceptively plain from the outside, which only heightens the pleasure of its sleek and chic—and much larger than seems possible—dining room. Big windows bring in the views of Phillippi Creek, and a creekside terrace beckons on fine evenings.
The menu is a grazer’s dream come true, offering everything from yakitori skewers to wahoo ceviche to calamari cassoulet to chef Pedro Flores’ superior crab cake. Recent dinner standouts included an imaginatively stuffed free range chicken and an upside down tortelloni Bolognese.
Eat Here has taken Main Street by storm. It’s a concept that Sean Murphy road-tested on Anna Maria Island before upping the ante downtown, moving his concept of many small plates for sharing and really well-priced wines into a bigger, prettier, more sophisticated space. The new Eat Here also offers a full bar, expanded list of wines by the bottle and many more outdoor dining options than the original, which is still going strong in downtown Holmes Beach.
There truly is something for every taste. How about a heart-attack hot dog with a side of Bearnaise and a short form will? Or “shrimpcargots” with collards, bacon and the explanation that shrimp substitute for snails because escargots “would be great without the chewy little slugs”? The wood-burning oven turns out delicious little pizzas (the farmstead is our favorite), and addictive housemade potato chips served warm with a drizzle of garlic butter.
In the unlikely event you don’t see something that snares your fancy, the menu even offers alternatives. To wit: “bar-b-que: try Nancy’s….Ringling and Pineapple” or “pasta: try Mediterraneo (half a block east),” two recommendations with which we wholeheartedly concur, although we have never been the least bit tempted to push back from our Eat Here table until fully stuffed and happy.
Derek’s Culinary Casual in the Rosemary District has only improved in the years since chef Derek Barnes pioneered a once iffy neighborhood. His cleverly converted double storefront has an agreeable urban feel, and his “progressive American cuisine” comes directly from downtown heaven.
Every dish, large or small, delights and surprises. We especially like finding a spot at the food bar that fronts the exhibition portion of the kitchen, where we can watch as wizards in chef’s whites turn out favorites like pan-seared sea scallops with chocolate (!) and parsnip purée, grouper cheek tacos with toasted peanut slaw or yellowfin tuna with basil and duck-fat-fried rice. And don’t miss our all-time favorite dessert: a lavender and honey poached pear with goat cheese ice cream and a black pepper caramel sauce.
Not far away is MoZaic, chef Dylan Elhajoui’s French-Moroccan-inflected Main Street stunner. The chef’s technique is unmistakably classic French, but in the service here of bold and sunny flavors with roots in the countries touching the shores of the Mediterranean and executed with fresh local ingredients.
Expect a traditional and toothsome tagine of chicken and artichoke with couscous and preserved lemon, certainly, but watch, too, for winners like sage-smoked duck breast and poached pears with goat cheese polenta and star anise aigre-doux (sour and sweet) jus or juniperberry spice-rubbed pork tenderloin and prune bread pudding with a Catalonian barbecue sauce.
Intimate, casually sophisticated and wine-savvy Andrea’s is tucked into a little strip center opposite Southgate mall. In this cozy setting, chef Andrea Bozzolo works his magic, often stepping out of his kitchen to greet his devoted regulars. His pork belly appetizer is to die for, but the same might be said of his signature veal scallopine in Gorgonzola sauce, his vitello tonnato (“cold thin sliced veal in a light tuna sauce, Andrea’s mother’s recipe”) or his pappardelle and braised short ribs in a celestial Barolo wine sauce. Wines are carefully chosen and trot the globe. Reservations are a must.
Just a few doors down Siesta Drive at Tamiami Trail is Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, the only restaurant on our list that is part of a national chain. It’s saved from chain restaurant predictability by local managing and chef partners with a personal stake in delivering superior quality seven nights a week. They do just that in a mellow, clubby setting.
Steak is the thing, of course, from a monumental bone-in ribeye to a buttery filet mignon in three sizes to mildly zesty peppercorn-encrusted New York strip. Fleming’s own F17 steak sauce is a cut above any other steak sauces we’ve tried, too. The wine bar lives up to its name with many fine selections by the glass or tasting flight but also is home to Fleming’s prime burger bar (the cheddar cheeseburger with peppered bacon is the standout) and to a nice collection of happy hour small plates.
Michael’s On East is a groundbreaking and enduring midtown fine dining destination with armloads of awards for food, wine and service, and it’s packed every night, thanks to the attention lavished on the place by co-owner Michael Klauber. The candlelit dining rooms are elegantly appointed, and the bar has always put me in mind of luxury liner decor from the heyday of trans-Atlantic steamships.
The dinner menu bristles with treasures like a roasted bone-in Snake River Farms heirloom pork chop with cumin-spiced chestnuts and ancho-chile-glazed caramabola, pan-roasted bluefin crab cakes with truffled roasted potatoes, and a Napoleon of seared Hudson Valley foie gras medallions accented with pear, mango and lingonberry. What many don’t know is that happy hour in the bar is one of the best deals in town, with five excellent private label wines at $5 the glass and terrific small plates, like housemade hoisin duck and veggie spring rolls on sweet chile sauce and ginger aioli ($5), and a pair of Mediterranean yellowfin tuna sliders with watercress and a lemon and cracked pepper aioli, plus tasty little fried dill pickle chips on the side ($10).
Overlooking serene Little Sarasota Bay from Siesta Key is Ophelia’s On The Bay, a restaurant that has presented “Florida the way it should be” for 22 years now. Among the reasons for its longevity is a menu that never rests on past triumphs but instead is constantly reinventing itself. Whatever the chef’s preparation of the moment, the menu is heavy on fish and shellfish from Florida waters and cold waters, too, all impeccably fresh and brightly presented. A recent offering of Gulf of Mexico hog snapper spiked with Florida orange honey, a three-fruit coulis, guacamole and fried plantain is just one outstanding example. Sterling lamb, beef and poultry dishes round out Ophelia’s fare, and the view cannot be beat.
Maison Blanche on Longboat Key is a nearly otherworldly dining experience showcasing the superb haute cuisine, albeit with many a twist, of Paris-trained chef Jose Martinez. The spa-like white-on-white dining room is the perfect stage for presentation by a seasoned wait staff of dishes like an over-the-top appetizer of Osetra caviar with potato chips and lemon sauce, or an entrée of heartbreakingly tender yet nicely crusted roasted suckling pig with apples and Brussels sprouts even I can love. Prix fixe degustation menus, at $65 for five courses or $75 for six, offer excellent value and a dazzling ride through the chef’s repertoire. The wine list is equally impressive, opening its part of the performance with an astounding 14 champagnes!
Farther north on Longboat is Euphemia Haye, a restaurant name long spoken in tones of near reverence, especially by those who remember when it was the only swanky dining spot on the island. Chef Raymond Arpke’s roasted duckling, presented in a constantly changing array of seasonal fruit sauces, is spoken of that way to this day. It is without doubt this beloved and unapologetically Old School establishment’s best seller, most likely followed by a Caesar salad worth traveling for.
The dining room and the small bar are downstairs, shielded from the prying eyes of passersby behind lush subtropical growth and decorated in a delightfully quirky style that has no truck with minimalism. Joining the duckling and the Caesar on the main menu are prime steaks, seafood and lamb and a not-to-be-missed side: whipped potatoes with cream and white truffle oil. Upstairs are the famous dessert room and the Haye Loft bar (where a new tapas menu is now being served, in addition to wonderful little ultra-thin-crust pizzas and other faves), the latter presided over for the past 20 years by bartender par excellence Eric Bell, who is himself an institution.
So much has been written and said about Sean Murphy’s heralded Beach Bistro in Holmes Beach that it is hard to know where to begin and nearly impossible not to repeat oneself. It also would be foolish in the extreme not to include it in our baker’s dozen bests. This formal and fancy Gulfside fixture (a rose for the lady? Of course!) a few years ago added a very agreeable bar concentrating on wines by the glass and small plates, but extravagance still is the place’s hallmark.
The heart of the menu is blockbuster dishes like “Bistro Bouillabaisse, Famous—First, you hire a bunch of pros to build a killer broth…” and “Food Heaven,” which plates Colorado lamb, Maine lobster and Hudson Valley foie gras on brioche bread pudding. Omitting any of the half dozen beloved core dishes probably would provoke a lawsuit, so the kitchen keeps it new with a daily parade of specials grouped under Smaller Plates (“White Castle” sliders offer foie gras and beef tenderloin on a butter-grilled sweet bun with demi-glace and béarnaise) and Carpe Diem (porcini-dusted, pan-seared, truffle-buttered sea scallops were a recent tour de force).
Ah, extravagance! It fortifies the soul.
Less is More
Small plates are big. Try these heavenly seven from our featured restaurants.
As brevity is a virtue in both sermons and sidebars, let us stipulate that each of the small plates applauded below is delectable in its own way and worthy of ordering with a glass of good wine at the bar or as a starter at table. OK? >> At MoZaic we swoon over the wild mushroom ravioli in smooth smooth smooth porcini cream with Parmesan, asparagus and roasted tomatoes. >> At Table Creekside we ooh and awe over the pretty sauce-painted plate that bears Charlie’s crab cake, a monument to bountiful lump crab kicked up with a sumac remoulade. >> At Indigenous we coo over every bite, at once sweet and savory, of the Parmesan beignets with orange blossom honey, crunchy pears and thyme. >> At Eat Here we are amazed at the succulence of “tempura’d” beets lightly battered and fried and served with chevre and crème fraiche for dipping. >> At Derek’s Culinary Casual we fall to one knee in thanks for the crispy veal sweetbreads with gnocchi, housemade bacon, local tomatoes and a sherry vinaigrette. >> At Andrea’s we tuck in, without shame or compunction, to grilled pork belly with Borlotti beans (also known as cranberry beans for their pink speckles) sauced in a vivid 25-year-old balsamic vinegar. – John Bancroft
We asked our Facebook fans about the city’s best cheap treats. Read on.
Two things stand out about Selva Grill’s pan con pato: It’s duck confit, and it’s $5. The indulgent late-night treat comes with a baguette and Criolla onions, a sort of Peruvian Creole salsa, to balance the richness. Selva Grill, 1345 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 362-4427.
For a grand tour of Asian flavors and textures, embark on Libby’s Katsu salad—coconut-and-wasabi-crusted chicken breast, edamame, crispy wontons and a refreshing ginger dressing, over Asian greens—and all for $14. Libby’s Café + Bar, 1917 S. Osprey Ave., Sarasota, (941) 487-7300.
¡Viva quesadilla! El Toro Bravo’s Pancho Villa quesadilla is a steal at $8.50: ground beef and four cheeses, plus sour cream, guacamole, onions, tomatoes and lettuce. The flavors—and portion size—are revolutionary. El Toro Bravo, 2720 Stickney Point Road, Sarasota, (941) 924-0006.
It’s like bruschetta—only better. Sweet, succulent, slow-roasted Roma tomatoes, toasted with tapenade and pesto, are the stars of Eat Here’s better bruschetta, $8. Garlic-buttered focaccia plays the supporting role. Eat Here Sarasota, 1888 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 365-8700.
They had us at “caramelized onions and cumin-garlic aioli.” That sweet-and-savory pair adorns chicken for Sangria’s pollo al mojo picon, a hot tapas plate perfect for sharing—but at $4.25, you can afford to eat it all yourself. Sangria Tapas Bar, 1532 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 955-8272.
Kazu’s bento boxes feature a huge selection of entrées—even sushi—served with miso soup, salad and pearl rice, and all for under $10. We recommend the crispy snapper with Japanese barbecue sauce—just $9.25. Kazu’s Sushi and Asian Bistro, 2063 Siesta Drive, Sarasota, (941) 951-7778.
You won’t miss the meat in Veg’s hearty portabella muffaletta, $7.49: The main mushroom comes topped with house-made olive tapenade, plus an indulgent combo of hummus and Gouda, hot-pressed on locally baked rosemary focaccia. Veg, 2164 Gulf Gate Drive, Sarasota, (941) 312-6424. —hannah wallace
Our 13 Top Spots
239 S. Links Ave.
Pomona Bistro & Wine Bar
481 S. Orange Ave.
The Table Creekside
5365 S. Tamiami Trail
Eat Here Sarasota
1888 Main St.
Derek’s Culinary Casual
514 Central Ave.
1377 Main St.
2085 Siesta Drive
Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar
2001 Siesta Drive
Michael’s On East
1212 East Ave. S.
Ophelia’s On The Bay
9105 Midnight Pass Road Siesta Key
2605 Gulf of Mexico Drive
5540 Gulf of Mexico Drive
6600 Gulf Drive
This article appeared in the February 2012 issue of Sarasota Magazine.
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