Popular chef Darwin Santa Maria forsakes uptown style for seaside grazing; plus Southern comfort at Retropolitan, and more.
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’s elegant Pisco sour cocktail sets the tone for a casual restaurant and beachy bar that exceeds expectations. Choose plates to share from a sophisticated menu heavy on seafood and starring Chef Darwin Santa Maria’s heavenly ceviches and sashimi.
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
The South Rises at Retropolitan
The Italian restaurant Galileo in Burns Court has opened a sidekick called Retropolitan in the Mission-style cottage next door. They call it a gastro pub, but it’s more a casual purveyor of Southern favorites, with an agreeable but modest wine and beer list and a dessert menu inherited from its parent. It also offers a petite but welcoming patio for al fresco dining.
In relying on comfort food with a traditional Southern accent, Retropolitan both lives up to the retro part of its name and embodies a trend we’ve been following in recent months. Restaurants have been retrenching in an iffy economy and embracing the tried and true when designing or redesigning their menus.
Retropolitan kicks off its homey menu with a complimentary cone of warm potato chips and a housemade sour-cream-based onion dip with actual bits of caramelized onion. Addictive! We munched them happily on a recent visit as we selected wines by the glass and remarked on the presence of dishes we haven’t seen on a restaurant menu in a long time, like fried chicken livers, a treat from my childhood. The straight-up version served here is an appetizer ($6) and every bit the guilty pleasure it should be. The same is true of the yummy, crisp sweet potato pancake (also $6) that Colette dispatched with considerable relish.
What could be more Southern and traditional than fried chicken? Retropolitan’s essay in the form ($14) comes to table with a nice crust but not a great one, and for this staple an evenly browned crust is key. The chicken inside was fresh and moist, however, which went a long way toward redeeming the offering. The problem with crust resurfaced in a side dish of fried green tomatoes, which can’t be considered a success without a mouthwatering crumb coating. Still, the tomatoes themselves were tasty, and another side of watermelon with mint and feta was nothing short of sublime.
A more coherent combo was the Memphis-style pulled pork platter ($14), which featured tender slow-cooked pork so smoky good that it needed not a drop of sauce to bring out its full rich savor. The onion rings that shared the plate were heavenly, sweet and moist inside a very fine breading. The collard greens that came along for the ride were fresh and perfect.
The dessert menu shines. Colette cooed over a gorgeous cashew caramel gelato while I dug into a crisp and rich but not overly sweet cannoli (both $6.50). They were just right and sent us out the door happy.
437 Burns Court, Sarasota
Information (reservations not accepted): (941) 362-0627
Bar: beer and wine
Hours: dinner 5-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; until 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Cards: VISA, MC, AmEx
Handicapped accessible: no
Parking: on street
An editor, writer and online publisher, John Bancroft has reviewed restaurants, books, movies and music for many magazines, websites and newspapers, most recently for the St. Petersburg Times.