As our server helpfully reminded me, any meat—not just duck—can be salted and cooked in its own fat to make a confit, but until my most recent visit to Derek’s Culinary Casual in the Rosemary District I had never spotted the pork variety on a menu. That unexpected inclusion signifies one of the many things I like about chef Derek Barnes: He surprises me.
The first thing we noticed that evening, after reassuring ourselves that expressionistic paintings of chickens still grace the main room, was a flurry of little stars on the menu, indicating new dishes. Barnes is a restless chef, constantly finding new and exciting combinations of familiar and occasionally exotic ingredients that delight not just the palate but also the eye and nose.
When Barnes left his post as chef at the former 5-One-Six Burns, he sought out a pair of storefronts on a stretch of Central Avenue north of Fruitville Road that was a bit down at the heels but ripe for renewal. He reworked the side-by-side storefronts but wisely kept the urban-frontier flavor of the high-ceilinged space intact. Today, Derek’s has plenty of company in the Rosemary District, from a hookah lounge to upmarket designer home furnishings to new condos. Barnes doesn’t get all the credit, of course, but his restaurant certainly helped to spur the district’s rebirth.
From the first he amazed customers with a bold approach that turned familiar comfort foods into swoony gourmet fare.
He hasn’t missed a beat since.
One of the first delights to arrive at dinner is a pair of mouthwateringly delicious gougeres, little cheese-rich French pastry puffs it would be a sin to butter. These heavenly bites are every bit as good as the madeleines that chef Daniel Boulud serves at his signature New York restaurants. Order a sparkling aperitif to accompany these darlings and your evening will be launched in high style.
What can possibly follow that opener? There are plenty of good starter choices, from the chef’s soup of the day, which on our most recent visit was a fragrant broth aswim with baby lima beans, duck and kale ($4/$6), to a preparation of crisp veal sweetbreads ($12) that flanked the guilty pleasure with sumptuous little potato gnocchi. The sherry vinaigrette sauce brought out each of the treats’ distinct savors. Little morsels of housemade bacon dotting the plate didn’t hurt, either.
That pork confit appeared in a main course called Land and Sea ($28). Two large, crispy battered shrimp rested atop a log of the cured meat, crisp and brown on the outside and pull-apart tender within. The shrimp served more as a tasty grace note than anything else, but both the portion and the richness of the confit, plus palate-popping sides of spicy green beans and locally sourced watercress, will satisfy the most robust appetite.
Sticking with our friend the pig, which the chef handles with exuberant aplomb, Colette chose “boutique-farmed” double pork chops ($28), and asked that they be prepared a hair to the rare side of medium, which is exactly how they arrived.
The thick succulent chops were marvelously yoked with tender little lightly caramelized Brussels sprouts and a maple-spiked hash of pulled pork and sweet potatoes, all beautifully set off by a fragrant smoked shallot sauce. The dish was superb in every way.
For dessert we sampled two more delights, an old fave and a newish creation. The tried-and-true was a lavender-and-honey-poached pear topped with a scoop of creamy goat-cheese ice cream and bedded on a purr-inducing pool of black pepper caramel sauce ($8). This has been my favorite dessert from the beginning, and I pray the chef will never tire of it. Goodness knows I won’t.
Colette went for a sort of deconstructed banana cream custard ($7) that featured a swoosh of cool custard and warm braised banana, but it didn’t stop there. Gilding this pale yellow lily was a trio of fantastic ricotta beignets. And so we ended a fine meal as we began, with pastries fit for a queen and her consort.
The Verdict: From first to last, the fare at Beard-nominated chef Derek Barnes’ restaurant is wonderfully lively, thoughtfully innovative and perfectly prepared. Not a false note has been struck on any of our visits over the years.
Derek’s Culinary Casual
514 Central Ave., Sarasota
Reservations (recommended): (941) 366-6565
Bar: excellent wine list and beer
Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday (in season); dinner from 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Cards: Visa, MasterCard, Discover
Handicapped accessible: yes
Parking: in nearby public lot or on street
Great grazing at MartiniVille
At a place called MartiniVille, the logical place to start is at the bar. With a name like that, it had better serve some killer cocktails. We decided this casual Holmes Beach watering hole is up to the job.
Bar grazing is among our favorite feeding strategies when dining out in our jeans and island shirts, and it is definitely the way to go at MartiniVille—unless, of course, the weather is perfect and you can hook a table on the broad covered porch. Either way, the menu is geared to a little of this and some of that, from small pizzas and flatbreads baked in a wood-burning brick oven to a nice variety of small plates meant for sharing and a short raw bar list.
After carefully vetting our cocktails—a straight-up “James Bond” gin martini (although I believe Ian Fleming’s spy ordered vodka martinis slightly more often than gin) for him ($8) and a restrained but tasty pomegranate martini for her ($10)—we shared an order of one of our favorite culinary sins: French fries crisped in duck fat ($12.50). These were not as outrageously fat fabulous as some we’ve tried, but they were very good and came with terrific truffled ketchup and Bearnaise sauce for dipping. It was a happy start.
Next we ordered two small plates, a sandwich and a bottle of Davis Bynum Russian River Valley pinot noir (well priced at $40) to share. The sandwich was a yummy lamb burger ($16.50) served with pickled red onions and cool raita on ciabatta and presented with a light and tangy slaw kicked up with bits of pineapple.
The sandwich went surprisingly well with chilled veggie rice paper spring rolls sauced in a lively sweet chile vinaigrette ($6.50/$11.50) and a brace of grouper soft tacos featuring firm, fresh chunks of fish nicely asserted by dollops of lime crème fraîche and accompanied by more of the island-style slaw ($9.50).
Our enthusiastic grazing left us too full for dessert, but the next time we’re in the neighborhood the “HalfUn,” featuring Guinness Stout ice cream sauced in chocolate and salted caramel, has my name on it.
MartiniVille Liquor Bar & Kitchen
5337 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach (Anna Maria Island)
Telephone: (941) 779-1000
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday; 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday with only limited bar menu available
Cards: all major
Handicapped accessible: yes
Parking: on street
Get set for Winefest
Here is the good news about wines to be featured April 28 through May 1 at the 21st annual Florida Winefest & Auction: Most of the wineries represented are small boutique outfits with very limited production. This gives us a chance to sample and buy wines that otherwise might never make it onto our radar.
A perfect example is Amethyst Wines of Yountville, Calif., which produces only 10 to 15 barrels of nebbiolo and cabernet sauvignon per year. The grapes are grown in small family vineyards, and the tiny production allows laser-focused attention to detail in each vintage, a formula both for wines of character and for cult status.
Festival events range from opulent and pricey ($125 to $150 for winemaker dinners at a variety of venues; $200 for the Beach Feast at Longboat Key Club & Resort) to scaled-back and affordable ($15 in advance for the popular Taste of Winefest that closes out the weekend). The whole extravaganza (which also includes wine and cooking seminars besides the big charity auction on Saturday) is a fund raiser for a host of local children-oriented causes, so drink up. More info at (941) 952-1109 or www.floridawinefest.com.