IN A CITY known for passionate restaurateurs—and diners—which menu items are we most passionate about right now? That was a question our food experts pounced upon when we gathered them for a brainstorming lunch at Lee Roy Selmon’s. They came armed with so many notes and opinions that we outlasted endless plates of fried green tomatoes and barbecued ribs as we reminisced, raved and occasionally ranted about what we’d eaten in Sarasota restaurants this year.
We ended up with 52 outstanding dishes—one for every week of the year. (And yes, those fried green tomatoes made the cut.) Some of those dishes forge adventurous new ground; others celebrate classic traditions and consummate Continental skill. We also included some outstanding values, and we didn’t neglect our local roots, with several choices that are quintessentially Sarasota. (Smoked mullet spread from Walt’s, anyone?)
We know you’ll spot some new discoveries along with old favorites, and we invite you to become part of our story by going to sarasotamagazine.com (this article will be posted after the first week of the month) and adding your personal favorites to the list.
The grilled salmon and asparagus salad at Bonefish Grill tastes like spring in a bowl. Pecan-dusted goat cheese adds tantalizing texture to the toss of fresh fennel, crisp green beans, asparagus and citrus vinaigrette, and it’s triumphantly topped with a pretty pink plank of wood-grilled salmon. 3971 S. Tamiami Trail, (941) 924-9090; 8101 Cooper Creek Blvd., (941) 360-3171.
Head east for a Far East treat at The Lucky Pelican in Lakewood Ranch. Fresh, delicate cod is brushed with a housemade Asian barbecue glaze and roasted, then served over gingered veggie pancakes with tempura green beans. Every ingredient comes together in a spectacular flavor explosion. 6239 Lake Osprey Drive, (941) 907-0589.
At comfy, clubby Libby’s Restaurant, we like almost everything on the big menu, but whatever we order, we’re likely to vanquish a basket of Libby’s biscuits before it arrives. Made from real-life Grandmother Libby’s recipe, these buttery bits get even better with house-made cherry preserves, a smooth and earthy truffle butter and a smear of roasted garlic. 1917 S. Osprey Ave., Sarasota, (941) 487-7300.
Sliders may be everywhere these days, but the first and still the best we’ve ever tasted are at Sean Murphy’s Beach Bistro. Grilled tenderloin, pan-seared foie gras, a to-die-for demi glace, and Béarnaise sauce nestle inside a grilled sweet Hawaiian roll. Each slider takes two or three napkins and is brilliant to the last mouthwatering bite. 6600 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, (941) 778-6444.
THE CHEF'S SPECIAL JEWEL ROLL is the crowning glory at Vizen Japanese Restaurant. Eight beautiful bites of miso tuna are wrapped in fine rice paper, topped with radish slice and black, green, red and pale yellow roe, and served on swooshes of spicy mayo. 6559 Gateway Ave., Sarasota, (941) 926-0830.
BARNACLE BILL'S doesn’t score high on décor, but it rates well among seafood lovers for cooking extremely fresh fish with all the respect it deserves. Their take on classic bouillabaisse, that heady French stew of fish and shellfish simmered with wine, garlic and saffron, could hold its own in Marseilles, and the price—$26—is more than right. 1526 Main St., 365-6800; 5050 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, (941) 355-7700.
Mozaic is justly famous for its couscous, but the quail may be the best dish there—maybe the best dish in all of Sarasota. It’s sautéed in a coat of forest mushrooms, bedded on a grape and thyme jus and accented with cubes of chevre polenta and goat cheese nibbles. A preview of heaven. 1377 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 951-6272.
The fried green tomatoes at Lee Roy Selmon’s are down-home delicious and fried to a golden, crispy perfection. Dunk them in the garlic and horseradish aioli and you’ll get why Southerners prefer their tomatoes finger-lickin’ good. 8253 Cooper Creek Blvd., (941) 360-3287.
Our food critic likes to describe the time his wife first dipped her spoon into a champagne flute filled with limoncello ice cream at Pino’s. "How was it?" he asked. "This is not dessert," she said. "It’s crack, and I want more." 100 Central Ave., Sarasota, (941) 955-3739.
The menu at Urban Reef Restaurant calls them tamale cakes. We call them delicious. Whatever you name them, you’ll ask for more of these tasty little masa corncakes under a topping of pulled pork, chipotle chocolate sauce, sour cream and pineapple salsa. 1888 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 365-3722.
Mullet is to the Gulf Coast as grapes are to Sonoma Valley.
The creamy smoked mullet spread at Walt’s Fish Market & Restaurant is one of the finest ways to feature this ubiquitous fish. Slather the spread on crackers or eat it straight from the container. It’s rich, nutty and delicious either way. 4144 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, (941) 921-4665.
Mediterraneo’s orange and fennel salad is a wake-up call for the taste buds. Extra-thin slices of fennel bulb and peeled orange are artfully arranged on a plate and drizzled with EVOO. Simply perfect. 1970 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 365-4122. You might not think of lobster as a Sarasota specialty, but the Lazyman Lobster at The Lazy Lobster is becoming one of our hometown seafood faves. The generous portion of perfectly steamed Maine lobster is thoughtfully de-shelled and served with warm butter. 7602 N. Lockwood Ridge Road, (941) 351-5515, and 5350 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key, (941) 383-0440.
It's worth visiting Crepes Suzette just for a crock of the French onion soup. The chef knows just how to prepare this grand classic, simmering caramelized onions with rich veal and chicken stock and lacing it all with bubbling Gruyere cheese. That’s us in the corner scraping out every last bit of cheese that clings to the crock. 23 N. Lemon Ave., Sarasota, (941) 487-8393.
You might not think of lobster as a Sarasota specialty, but the Lazyman Lobster at The Lazy Lobster is becoming one of our hometown seafood faves. The generous portion of perfectly steamed Maine lobster is thoughtfully de-shelled and served with warm butter. 7602 N. Lockwood Ridge Road, (941) 351-5515, and 5350 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key, (941) 383-0440.
Give grilled salmon a sweet chile glaze. Serve on a lively mustard beurre blanc. Garnish with tempura-battered, flash-fried sushi roll and a dab of baby bok choy. And that’s how salmon gets superlative at Aqua Restaurant & The Little Wet Bar. 576 Blackburn Point Road, Osprey, (941) 918-8041.
It’s not always easy to get good oysters here, which is why we’re excited about the new Main Street Oyster Bar. You’ll find an excellent selection of flown-in, fresh coldwater oysters—briny Bristol Bays, maybe, or sweet Quilcene Bays—and you can wash them down with a bargain: a 2006 Chateau Gaubert Graves at a miserly $25 for the bottle! 1991 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 955-4457.
At Derek’s Culinary Casual, gorgeous yellow fin tuna tartare is raised to celestial heights by the chef’s bold use of fennel, apple, coriander and turmeric for spice and of caviar and cauliflower blinis for opulence. 514 Central Ave., Sarasota, (941) 366-6565.
To create his namesake "lumplings” at A Taste of Asia, chef Lum surrounds a generous portion of ground, finely seasoned sausage with a feather-light dough. Order them pan-seared and ask for extra soy-toasted-garlic dipping sauce. 1535 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 365-2728.
The bruschetta at Treviso at the Ringling Museum is the perfect starter to share with a companion (and a glass of wine) after a day spent exploring the museum’s many treasures. The grilled and garlicky rustic bread is topped with just the right amount of tomatoes and cheese and comes with black bean salad, hummus and tomato basil salsa. 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, (941) 360-7390. doesn’t score high on décor, but it rates well among seafood lovers for cooking extremely fresh fish with all the respect it deserves. Their take on classic bouillabaisse, that heady French stew of fish and
Fusion? Try Pattigeorge’s tuna tartare wonton tacos: crisp cradles of marinated raw fish and wasabi caviar on a bed of sakimole, a sort of guacamole compounded of avocado, citrus juices, cilantro and…sake! 4120 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key, (941) 383-5111.
FIRST MR. BONES hickory-smokes tender baby back ribs. Then he offers five different finishes, from straight-ahead ’que bathed in his secret sauce to Mandarin ribs in an orange-ginger sauce. You won’t go wrong with any of them. 3007 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, (941) 778-6614.
Good things really do come in small strip malls.
Bella Roma Italian Restaurant’s orecchiette con cime di rape is a classic Northern Italian dish made from Mamma’s recipe. It’s love at first bite, as the pieces of slightly bitter rapini blend into the sweet sausage and little half shell pasta, with a big finish of fresh chopped garlic. 5239 Ocean Blvd., (941) 349-0995.
Vernona at the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota deserves five stars just for its beef tenderloin poached in olive oil. The meltingly tender beef comes with a plate full of equally sophisticated companions—a perfectly prepared Béarnaise, Yukon gold potatoes with truffled purée, butter and cream, and locally grown baby root vegetables. 1111 Ritz-Carlton Drive, Sarasota, (941) 309-2000.
The garlic naan flatbread at Daawat Indian Restaurant is made to order, and it’s worth a little wait for the warm, tender and slightly crisp pale-golden rounds to arrive. The naan is addictive alone, and it’s the perfect accompaniment to spicy curries and Daawat’s excellent lamb vindaloo. 239 S. Links Ave., Sarasota, (941) 366-4433.
Tommy Bahama’s piña colada cake is the ultimate tropical treat, a creamy yellow pillow that’s filled with white chocolate mousse spiked with a splash of Myers’ dark rum, then dusted with just the right amount of shredded coconut and pineapple. 300 John Ringling Blvd., St Armands, (941) 388-2888.
What’s black and blue and delicious all over? The black and blue burger at Shakespeare’s English Pub. Why black? Because the eight-ounce burger is blackened with Cajun spices. Why blue? Blame that on the Stilton blue cheese. All brought to you on a freshly baked rosemary Kaiser roll. So good, it deserves a sonnet of its own. 3550 S. Osprey Ave., Sarasota, (941) 364-5938.
HOMESICK NEW ENGLANDERS perk up when they discover the clam roll at A Bit of Boston, a shacky little spot smack in the middle of Venice. The clams are flown in directly from the Maine coast; the Nissan hot dog roll is as buttery and toasty as it’s supposed to be, and the whole belly clams are lightly fried and come with real tartar sauce. 1939 Tamiami Trail S., Venice, (941) 496-4587.
Piccolo’s knows how to build a meatball sub. Start with the best authentic Italian bread we’ve found on the Gulf coast; add plump and spicy meatballs; then pour “Grandma’s” rich, red marinara over it all. Order it well done, to get the toasty tug of the crispy bread. 2128 Gulf Gate Drive, Sarasota (941) 923-2202.
Pork chops aren’t easy, but the chef at Siesta Key’s new Blu Smoke Island Grill knows exactly how to cook them to moist and tender perfection. First he debones an enormous—14-ounce!—chop, then he brines it and marinates it (he keeps the marinade mild so the pork flavor shines through). Then he grills it on an open fire and pops it on your plate. 149 Avenida Messina, Siesta Key, (941) 346-0738.
At Ortygia, you can find a rare Italian delight: the elaborate dish that was immortalized in that classic foodie film, Big Night. It’s timballo: meatballs, eggs, mozzarella, provolone, Parmesan, tomato sauce and roasted peppers between pasta layers moistened with a white balsamella sauce, all under a big pasta dome. 1418 13th St. W., Bradenton, (941) 741-8646.
How did the hush puppy get its name?
Legend has it that hunters used to fry corn meal in deep fat and throw it to their dogs to keep them from barking. The cornmeal hush puppies at Star Fish Restaurant are strictly for humans. And these melt-in-your-mouth puppies make us want to sit up and bark for more. 12306 46th Ave. W, Cortez, (941) 794-1243.
Grilled in its own juices at a devilishly high heat, Fleming’s ribeye steak is a carnivore’s delight. Steak on the bone is just more flavorful. ( And Miss Manners says it’s OK to pick up the bone towards the end.) Try it medium rare to enjoy the melt-in-your-mouth marbling. 2001 Siesta Drive, Sarasota, (941) 358-9463.
At C’est la Vie, everything in the pastry cases is authentic and amazing, but the pain au chocolat is what we dream about most. It’s delicately flaky, buttery warm and can fool you into thinking Main Street is the Champs-Élysées. 1553 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 906-9575.
Sarasota is crazy for sushi, and we’re crazy about the Lakanilau sushi roll at Roy’s. Think of it as Asian surf and turf: A slice of Wagyu beef sits atop crispy asparagus, smooth avocado and succulent crab. Greens tossed with truffle oil on the side complete the picture. 2001 Siesta Drive, Sarasota, (941) 952-0109.
Sweetbreads are one of our guilty pleasures, but they’re tricky to get just right. At Maison Blanche, this lowly meat achieves divinity. How? The sweetbreads are braised with a sure hand to a golden brown without and a firm and tender white within, and served on caramelized endives. 2605 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key, (941) 383-8088.
The hash browns at Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse are the very apotheosis of hash brownness: two super-sized potato pancakes, crisp and brown without, moist and fluffy within, delightful with sour cream and caramelized onions. 35 S. Lemon Ave., Sarasota, (941) 366-7788.
Decadence is Not dead.
Luxury lives at downtown’s Bijou Café with the opulent paté sampler: super-rich duck liver mousse under a light layer of aspic, coarse and lively country pork paté and smoother-than-silk mushroom terrine. It’s too outrageous for just one person—share the wealth. Bijou Café, 1287 First St., Sarasota, (941) 366-8111.
Who knew a spinach salad could be sublime? The wilted spinach salad at Currents at Hyatt Regency Sarasota goes beyond fresh spinach with heirloom cherry tomatoes, crispy pancetta, sautéed shallots—and here’s what sends us to heaven—fresh ricotta salata. A marvelous medley. 1000 Boulevard of the Arts, Sarasota, (941) 953-1234.
Caesar salad can be a been-there-ate-that affair, but at Euphemia Haye it’s been a signature dish for 35 years. What makes it the real deal? It’s partly the garlicky, anchovy–infused dressing, partly watching the waiter toss the hand-torn lettuce in an enormous wooden bowl. Some traditions should last forever. 5540 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key, (941) 383-3633.
If you want to understand what Italians mean by “La Dolce Vita,” just taste the tiramisu at Café Amici. The perfect ending to the perfect Italian meal, it’s light, rich, sinful and refreshing all at the same time—ecstasy disguised as dessert. 1371 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 951-6896.
it is a basic right— maybe even a requirement—for every Sarasota visitor and resident to at least once a year eat a creamy, tangy, pale-yellow slice of Key lime pie, and we don’t know of a better version than at cozy, convivial Lynches Pub & Grub. Made from owner Chris’ own recipe, it’s as magic as moonlight over the Gulf. 19 N. Boulevard of Presidents, St. Armands, (941) 388-5550.
We are seriously fussy about calamari, but the rendition at Galileo had us standing up and applauding. The baby squid are flash fried to a crunchy, tender toothsomeness and require nothing but a light spritz of lemon to achieve full savor. 443 Burns Court, Sarasota, (941) 330-2811.
Cascading across a rustic wooden plate, the antipasta Italiano for two at Bologna Café looks like an Old Master painting and tastes like a trip to the Italian countryside, with olives, prosciutto de Parma, salami and an assortment of Italian cured meats along with a number of classic cheeses, including a finely aged Parmesan. 5770 S. Tamiami Trail., Sarasota, (941) 927-9262.
Macaroni and cheese is everybody’s favorite comfort food, but it puts on a tiara and goes to a ball at Michael’s On East. A royal triumvirate of cheese—manchego, Parmesan and Gruyère—enriches the creamy Bechamel sauce, and truffles add the crowning touch. 1212 East Ave. S., Sarasota, (941) 366-0007.
No.79 with grilled pork at Pho Cali isn’t just a Vietnamese specialty; it’s a festival of shredded lettuce and carrots, cucumber, peanuts, mint and subtly seasoned grilled pork with sweet Asian dressing, with all that crunch and flavor perfectly offset by spongy rice noodles. Party on! 1578 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 955-2683.
Our area is blessed with all sorts of family-owned Latin restaurants specializing in a taste of home. One of the tastiest dishes from those faraway homes: Mama’s Favorite Molé Enchiladas at Casa del Sol, where they sauce chicken-stuffed rolled corn tortillas in two authentic Mexican molés: the traditional, dark and rich with chocolate and chiles, and a green version tangy with tomatillos. 4832 Cortez Road W., Bradenton, (941) 798-6900.
You never know where you’ll find Nancy Krohngold’s barbecue, but find it you must. She sets up her stand at different spots around town, and the hottest seller is her pulled-pork sandwich—sweet, spicy and melt-in-your-mouth tender. (We love her baked beans and edamame succotash, too.) To find where she’ll be next, call (941) 955-3400 or go to NancysBarBQ.tumblr.com.
Talk about mastering the art of French cooking!
We can just picture Julia Child roaring with delight after one spoonful of Fredy Mayer’s earthy, ethereal mushroom soup—made with a heady mix of different varieties of the fabulous fungi—at at his Morel. A gem of a dish at a gem of a restaurant. 3809 S. Tuttle Ave., Sarasota, (941) 927-8716.
A plain grouper sandwich is so last year; the cool new version is Siesta Key Oyster Bar’s fish tacos. Beach bunnies and surfers come out of the sun for a cold beer, a little live music and a plate of three warm flour tortillas, shredded lettuce and ripe tomatoes surrounding a bountiful serving of grouper (or shrimp) and cilantro cream sauce. 5238 Ocean Blvd., Siesta Key, (941) 346-5443.
Pizza comes in endless iterations; our new favorite variation is the spinach and shitake flatbread pizza at Sam Snead’s. It’s simple yet memorable, layering sautéed spinach, shitake mushrooms and sliced tomatoes atop a crisp, freshly baked flatbread. Insider tip: Ask for goat cheese instead of the usual mozzarella. The tang adds the finishing touch. 1860 S. Osprey Ave., Sarasota, (941) 906-7771.
A thick strip of meat with a yummy fat layer running through it, and no one does it better than the new Andrea’s. It’s grilled until perfectly tender and served over red borlotti beans fragrant with aged balsamic vinegar. 2085 Siesta Drive, Sarasota, (941) 951-9200.
There’s so much to swoon about at Lan—including serving dinner way after 10 p.m. But if we had to pick just one thing to tell you about, it would be the rosy rare rack of lamb on a rich pool of shiitake and shallot demi glace, sautéed endive and a taro and Stilton croquette to die for. 1568 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 953-7111.
BEST SEATS IN THE HOUSE
Our favorite places to sit, sip and sup.
Dining barside in Michael’s On East’s plush lounge comes with perks, including pianist Joe Micals’ smooth melodies, sophisticated “Lounge Bites” to satisfy your palate and vintage cocktails like the “Algonquin” to unleash your inner Dorothy Parker. 1212 East Ave. S. (Midtown Plaza), (941) 366-0007.
Ask for the waterside two-top at Ophelia’s on the Bay. It’s a tiny table built for romance with a close-up view of a dazzling aquatic drama starring egrets, herons, the occasional dolphin and a steady flotilla of pleasure boats. 9105 Midnight Pass Road, (941) 349-2212.
Kick back in a rickety chair at the Star Fish Restaurant, where commercial fishermen still ply their trade, crab traps bob in the water, and the self-serve grub is terrific. Sip a few cold ones, crack open a stone crab or two, and drink in the vibe of true Florida. 12306 46th Ave W, Cortez, (941) 794-1243.
A Longboat Key fixture since the 1940s, the MarVista remains unspoiled. The outside deck, overlooking the small marina and the Gulf of Mexico, is ideal for sipping, supping and thanking heaven you’re here. 760 Broadway St., Longboat Key, (941) 383-2391.
You (and your little dog, too) can kick back at a patio table at Caragiulos. Try a Campari and fill your eyes with the parade of urban life on Palm Avenue. Famished? The pear and Gorgonzola flatbread pizza will fix that. 69 S. Palm Ave., (941) 951-0866.
HIGH FOR LOW
Some great new ways to taste the good life—on a budget.
Dine ritzy for under 10 bucks at—where else?—the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota’s new BayView Burger Bar. The robust menu boasts burgers, sandwiches, shakes, wines, beers and such signature cocktails as the Fruity 41 (vodka, watermelon and a sour splash)—all for under $10. Panoramic view of Sarasota Bay is free of charge. 1111 Ritz-Carlton Drive, (941) 309-2008.
Happy hour has never been happier—or so affordable. From 4 to 7 p.m. daily, you can feast on $2.50 appetizers at Libby’s Café and Bar. The tasty offerings include tuna sashimi, meatball sliders, fried calamari, a caprese salad and more. Martinis and well drinks are $3.75. 1917 S. Osprey Ave., (941) 487-7300.
Make your appearance at Fleming’s before 7 p.m. and take advantage of the $6 burger bar menu. It’s not just beef; there are Portobello, crab and ahi tuna burgers, all of which come with a mini-wedge and onion rings. Add a $6 glass of great wine—and that’s dinner! 2001 Siesta Drive, (941) 358-9463.
What’s so happy about Hyde Park Prime Steak House’s late night happy hour beginning at 9 p.m. every night? Cocktails are $4 and the “Small Plates” menu includes such happy fare as oysters on the half shell, sirloin sliders and blackened jumbo scallops. Eat like a king until closing time. 35 S. Lemon Ave., (941) 366-7788.