If Sarasota has become an exciting culinary destination in the last few years—and I unabashedly declare that it has—it’s in large part because of six transformative restaurants and the creative spirits that run them.
This is their story, and I’m going to start it with an unapologetic love song to my favorite of them all. It also is the newest of the six, which is no coincidence. Without the precedent-shattering, risk-taking ventures that succeeded before it opened its doors, its success would have been impossible.
The restaurant is MoZaic on Main Street downtown, and the power behind its knockout menu is a singular chef from Morocco named Dylan Elhajoui, a culinary synthesist like none we’ve seen before. When I reviewed MoZaic not long after it opened last December, I declared it to be one of the best new restaurants to open here in recent memory. The intervening year has proven that its flawless opening week was no flash in the pan.
There are many ingredients in the recipe for a stellar restaurant, but first you’ve got to have food that gets people excited. This is hardly a new idea, but Chef Dylan’s masterful, incredibly subtle, supremely harmonious blend of Mediterranean cuisines executed with French flair is. The result is a marvel of inspiration and innovation, tempered by a realist’s grasp of his customers’ appetites for adventure at table.
One of the many showpieces that have won raves from diners is the chef’s couscous. A seven-vegetable stunner graces the standing menu, but on Wednesday nights he pulls out all the stops and offers half a dozen heavenly variations on a theme. There’s couscous with duck and pears, with Cornish hen and preserved lemons, with lamb shank and prunes, with to-die-for merguez sausage and fennel, with eggplant and root veggies, and, finally, a royal version that pops duck, lamb and sausage into the same tajine.
I have two personal favorites from the core menu. One is a fabulous appetizer of sautéed quail in a richly fragrant forest mushroom coat on a grape and thyme jus accented by little cubes of chevre polenta and nibbles of the goat cheese itself. One of these days I’ll work up the nerve to ask the chef if he’ll whip up a triple batch for me. If he consents, I’ll order a bold red wine and trance out right there in the dining room. My other favorite is a trio dish starring sliced and fanned duck breast, two sumptuous little lamb chops and a beautiful white dome of blue crab flan. Take a moment to admire the composition on the plate, but only a moment. The real pleasure is in the eating.
Dishes like these, as well as a complimentary different-every-evening amuse bouche worthy of the name, are served in an atmosphere both welcoming and exhilarating by a wait staff second to none. Add in a wine list that is almost as much fun to read as it to sample—by the glass, by the bottle or in tasting flights of three-ounce pours—and you have all the major pieces in place, at least the visible ones. There’s a whole lot more going on behind the scenes, but without them the enterprise just wouldn’t gel.
To sum up: superior, utterly reliable, imaginative cooking + world-class, cordial service + inviting setting + inspired wine list = wow! It works brilliantly for MoZaic, but MoZaic didn’t spring out of the void. Somebody had to prepare the ground so we’d be ready for Chef Dylan’s artistry when it arrived.
One of those pioneers is Sean Murphy, the bigger-than-life-proprietor of Beach Bistro, who in 1985 was greeted not with great expectations but with near universal skepticism when he came up with the crazy idea of opening an elegant restaurant with an ambitious menu and wine cellar Gulfside on Anna Maria Island.
“Everybody said I couldn’t do it,” he says. This, remember, was at a time when food at the beach was pretty much limited to fried fish, burgers and beer. Bathing suit and bare feet fare. But Murphy, who describes his younger self as less a chef than a “waiter with a bank loan,” didn’t listen to the naysayers; and we, along with the new wave of chef-driven hot spots, are the beneficiaries.
Beach Bistro has thrived for 23 years now and won awards left and right, but Murphy hasn’t changed all that much. His trove of fine stories told with relish to diners and bar patrons has grown richer, his little place on the beach has expanded, and his menu has evolved with changing times; but the man and the menu are still over the top. Take, for just one example, an extravaganza Murphy calls Food Heaven. This behemoth gathers on a (big) plate lamb, lobster and foie gras atop brioche bread pudding with a port demi glace and a thimble of sweet Essensia wine on the side. There’s a small plate version for the fainthearted, but the full portion will set you back 68 bucks, which is no wonder, given the ingredients.
If you haven’t been out on the boat or the links all day, a good bet is lighter fare at the inviting bar. A classic of the bar menu is smoked salmon “from Willie Krauch’s smokehouse in Tangier, Nova Scotia,” served with capers, domestic caviar and Key lime crème fraîche. Even when he’s being moderate, Murphy eschews half measures.
As does Derek Barnes, one of the new wave of Sarasota chefs. Instead of a picture-postcard setting at the beach, Chef Derek chose a pair of storefronts in the edgy Rosemary District to house Derek’s Culinary Casual, a hip temple of what the chef likes to call progressive American cuisine. His ambitious restaurant would be just as at home in downtown Manhattan as at the northern edge of downtown Sarasota.
One of the best seats in the house, for my money and especially for a solo lunch, is at the food bar that rides the rim of the exhibition portion of the kitchen, where flares go up dramatically from the big gas range as pros in chef’s whites dance a ballet culminating in culinary nirvana. While cooing over a chilled carrot and ginger soup over shiitake and cucumber kimchee one recent noontime, I watched with pleasure as my main dish of grouper cheeks sautéed with mild chorizo, sweet corn, roasted peppers and little pillowy grilled corn fritters took shape, one precise and deceptively unhurried step at a time. I was in love before I took my first bite and perhaps a little off my rocker, since I couldn’t resist finishing with one of my favorites among Chef Derek’s vibrant desserts. This one floats a pear half poached in lavender and honey on a black pepper caramel sauce and tops it with—surprise!—a scoop of goat cheese ice cream. Only a good strong espresso got me out the door and back to work instead of curling up for a nap.
One other dish of special note deserves mention. The dish is an appetizer of yellow fin tuna tartare, a lovely thing in and of itself but raised to celestial heights by Chef Derek’s bold use of fennel, apple, coriander and turmeric for spice and of caviar and cauliflower blinis for opulence.
Chef Darwin Santa Maria took what might have been just a really good ethnic restaurant on a street teeming with them and turned it into not only a prime destination for discerning diners but also a proper stage for the beautiful people, of which Sarasota sometimes seems to have more than its share. The Pisco Bar & Lounge is, many agree, the boîte of the hour, just as in its day was The Martini Bar, as the space was known before its makeover earlier this year. What makes the watering hole notable by either name is that it is part of Selva Grill, a Peruvian-inflected restaurant that’s the very epitome of postmodern splash. The dining room’s interior design is the visual equivalent of salsa, and the soundtrack adds a lively dance mix, techno but understated. Très chic.
Chef Darwin’s first claim to fame on the food side of the equation has to be his cutting-edge ceviches, nine of them on the standing menu, including one for beef eaters and one that makes excellent use of fresh watermelon. All are superb, but there are two I come back to time and again: the trilogia and the mixto. The first arrays on a ceramic tray three small dishes, one holding the day’s fresh fish in aji amarillo, another tuna in ginger sauce, and another subtly spiced shrimp. The second ceviche mixes, as its name suggests, shrimp, fresh fish, octopus and mussels with onions, Cusco corn and roasted camote, a South American sweet potato. While the trio is demure, the mixto is unabashedly rambunctious. Both go wonderfully well with a mojito or a Pisco sour.
One of the most dramatic presentations is the whole fried snapper served in a lime ginger sauce and accompanied by Creole-style black beans and rice. It can be mildly alarming to those for whom fish usually means a filet. Me, I’m timid, and go instead for the Juane de pollo, which wraps cilantro-infused rice and chicken in a banana leaf (which is pretty exotic where I come from). If neither drama nor raw stuff “cooked” in a citrus marinade is your dish, you can always fall back on a nice New York strip steak with foie gras butter and truffled Parmesan fries on the side or a sumptuous rack of Andean lamb with truffled chive risotto. Call Chef Darwin’s blend of styles fusion if you like, but that’s gotten to be a pretty tired catch-all label, useful when new but now close to meaningless. I think I’ll go with stylishly original, instead.
The Colony Resort on Longboat Key has recently closed its doors, but The Dining Room at The Colony, where brothers Michael and Tommy Klauber cut their teeth in the restaurant business under their near legendary father’s tutelage, was and remains a stately and mostly traditional seaside resort restaurant, both respected and beloved. The brothers took the lessons they learned at The Colony, extended them with formal training and apprenticeships, and struck out on their own, creating restaurants that each in its own way redefined what fine dining could be in a town then known largely for the outdoorsy pleasures of golf and idle days spent soaking up the sun on some pretty spectacular beaches. We still have all those good things, of course, but thanks to pathfinding restaurateurs like the Klaubers we also can boast a restaurant scene that is the envy of many a larger city.
Michael scored first with his iconic Michael’s On East in midtown. It came as a revelation when it burst on the scene some 20 years ago and is as popular as ever today, filling tables even on traditionally slow nights of the week. Even the décor is a break from the low-key resort norm, with the high-fashion look of the dining room and bar, their streamlined art deco curves and plush booths evoking the opulence of the monumental ocean liners that once routinely plied the Atlantic. A grand piano lends another touch of a more graceful, less hectic era.
On the plate, yellow fin tuna arrives rare and espresso-crusted with lobster papaya slaw and a garlic-and-chiles siracha sesame drizzle. Standbys like pan-roasted New England cod come with decidedly untraditional accompaniments like artichoke-olive couscous and chorizo. The game hen shares billing with fregula, a Sardinian pasta augmented with roasted corn. The bone-in pork chop is fennel-dusted and asserted by a blood orange gastrique. The duck is bourbon-glazed and served, in a sort of reverse back flip, with collard greens and spoon bread. The raw oysters are imported from cold water beds, while the nearer-to-home-grown Apalachicolas are fried and served in a salad.
Thus was the bar raised.
Tommy followed not long after with Pattigeorge’s, a bayside restaurant on Longboat Key that started with typical Florida finny fare and gave it added oomph. He’s since added the Polo Grill in Lakewood Ranch. But PG’s, as it often is abbreviated, is his flagship and has been updated a number of times over the years; and its menu has kept pace with the times. It stands today in its most pleasing incarnation yet, fronted by a serene garden of bamboo, bromeliads and orchids, serving coastal cuisine inspired by the cooking of the Americas, the Caribbean, Asia and the Mediterranean.
At a table with a splendid view of a night heron fishing from the bowrail of a tethered sailboat, we recently sampled an appetizer that pretty much sums up PG’s style in a single dish. Tuna tartare wonton tacos are crisp little cradles for diced, marinated sashimi-grade fish topped with wasabi caviar and bedded on sakimole, a wonderful twist on guacamole featuring avocado, lemon and lime juice, cilantro and…sake! Tough to go more global than that.
The globetrotting theme continues throughout the menu. Two of my favorite entrées are Thai green curry grouper, which presents the broiled fish atop wok-tossed veggies with lime and lemongrass, and a rich paella a la Valencia, which rings with freshly steamed mussels a bed of saffron rice studded with lots of snapper, shrimp, chicken, chorizo and mushrooms. Local and exotic, creative and traditional: It all adds up to mostly fish but with a satisfying twist.
Your next step? Sample for yourself. Here’s where:
Beach Bistro 6600 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach (941) 778-6444
Derek’s Culinary Casual 514 Central Ave., Sarasota (941) 366-6565
Michael’s On East 1212 East Ave. S., Sarasota (941) 366-0007
MoZaic 1377 Main St., Sarasota (941) 951-6272
Pattigeorge’s 4120 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key (941) 383-5111
Selva Grill 1345 Main St., Sarasota (941) 362-4427
An editor, writer and online publisher, John Bancroft has reviewed restaurants, books, movies and music for many magazines, Web sites and newspapers, most recently for the St. Petersburg Times.