Diners are fickle, and smart restaurants realize that periodically retuning their menus is a way to keep old friends returning to see what’s new. Libby’s Bar + Café, which opened to rave reviews when it took over the space that was Fred’s in Southside Village in 2008, has done that regularly, and its latest menu brims with choices and some really good deals.
For starters, Libby’s sidewalk tables are among the most inviting in town. Inside, jazzy art glass fixtures light two big dining rooms and a double bar, one side of the latter serving as the restaurant’s watering hole and the other a clubbier happy hour and nighttime draw for the see-and-be-seen crowd. The vibe overall is a blend of neighborhood favorite and casually sophisticated restaurant with culinary ambition.
The menu is extensive and eclectic. The appetizer list alone stretches all the way from fried cheese fingers (Manchego in a pumpkin-seed crust) to a truffled Portobello and brie torte ($12), a heavenly creation that was one of the best items we tasted on a recent visit. This darling boasts a golden and celestially light pastry shell enclosing a near miraculous blend of not only the headlining cheese and mushrooms but also savory roasted garlic and organic wild strawberries! Amazing. The balsamic syrup drizzled around the edges finishes a delectable dish in high style.
The torte is rich and rewarding and would make a fine light meal paired with a house salad and a glass of wine from a very fine list, like the 2009 Frank Family Vineyard chardonnay ($14) that opened my eyes to a wonderful California chard in a style I’d never before encountered, perfectly balanced between fruit and oak and the lightest sweet kiss of vanilla.
I’ll confess that I’d been tempted by the sweet onion and okra hush puppies, and so was Colette before she settled on an app that evoked memories of her childhood in Tampa. Quirky egg rolls (all priced at $8) range from sweet and sour duck to cheesesteak, but it was the Ybor City number that captured her. The crisp wrapper enclosed spicy chorizo sausage, grilled ham, Manchego cheese and banana peppers sauced in a tomatillo aioli. Colette said it reminded her of the best pressed Cuban sand-wiches she devoured as a kid, which is pretty high praise.
When it came to the main course we both gave serious consideration to the short but savory pasta section, especially to a wild mushroom ravioli with goat cheese and pine nuts and to a four-cheese tortelloni gilded with white truffle crema. In the end, the meat section won Colette’s vote, and the seafood earned mine.
She ordered the café steak ($22), Libby’s take on the humble steak long popular in bistros everywhere. This one is center-cut skirt steak, sliced and set off by corn and lima bean succotash and a yummy blood orange-balsamic glaze. Skirt steak is not the tenderest of cuts, but it is full flavored, and when sliced across the grain is satisfyingly al dente.
I couldn’t resist what the menu calls “our favorite fried fish” ($21), which is fresh and tender grouper cheeks breaded and deep-fried and accompanied by a sweet potato-andouille sausage hash, which rather missed the mark for me, and a housemade tartar that was right on the money.
Because we had chosen such rich and filling starters, we really had no room for dessert, but we asked for the list anyway in the interest of science. Unfortunately our waiter, who had taken his time presenting himself at our table and seemed a bit distracted when he got there, chose to bring us the bill instead. No problem. We were already carrying about half of Colette’s steak home in a bag, anyway.
Libby’s Café + Bar
1917 S. Osprey Ave., Sarasota (in Southside Village)
Reservations: (941) 487-7300
Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday; dinner 5 p.m. until closing seven days; brunch 11:30 am.-3 p.m. Sunday
Handicapped accessible: yes
Parking: on street, in lot or valet
Savory Street: a new address for dinner.
I’ve often thought how pleasant it would be to live above a good café and bakery, especially on a sunny morning when one might be led by the nose downstairs to excellent coffee and
fresh pastries at a sidewalk table under a brightly colored canopy.
This olfactory fantasy came to mind quite forcefully during a recent dinner at the well-named Savory Street Café & Bakery in Citrus Square, where apartments top a row of small shops anchored on the north end by Pomona Bistro & Wine Bar and on the south by our dinner destination.
Savory Street starts its day with a long and internationally varied breakfast menu and offers a lunch of inventive sandwiches on freshly baked breads and some salads, as it has since opening day. It had begun dinner service only a month before our visit and already had the hang of it, even though its wine and beer license had not yet come through, a deficiency management cured by pouring complimentary wine with our meal.
In the evening, a pleasant little neighborhood day-starter morphs into a chef-driven restaurant serving an ambitious and beautifully executed menu of largely Latin-based standouts. Gino Calleja’s delicious dishes are served either on the terrace or in a serene, high-ceilinged dining room.
We were seated side-by-side on a comfy and colorful banquette, where menus were delivered immediately and a basket of superior breads soon followed. After reciting the evening’s specials—the couple seated next to us advised that the Chilean sea bass was about the best fish they had ever tasted—our waiter left us to ponder and choose.
Red snapper ceviche served on mango carpaccio and blue crab cakes complete with nopalito (tender young cactus) relish beckoned strongly. In the end, Colette plumped for the veggie pyramid ($7), an astounding and pretty stack of vibrant flavors and varied textures: portobello mushrooms, eggplant, spinach, tomatoes and toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds) seated on blue corn polenta and sauced in poblano pepper cream. Wow!
I fared nearly as well with a trio of bocaditos (small bites) grouped as Tapas Savory ($8). My faves were the crispy chicken flautas (flutes) and a soft taco stuffed with spicy shrimp achiote (a peppy blend of Mexican spices). New to me was the third morsel, a potato and chorizo pambazo, which proved to be a small, sweetish white bun, sliced, stuffed and then dipped in mild guajillo red pepper sauce. The delightful little bites came embellished with guacamole and crema. Yum.
The question at this point was whether the main course could live up to the starters. Silly us.
Colette’s roasted chicken a la Savory ($17) was a delight from the first bite of the tender and full-flavored bird, impeccably sauced in an infusion of preserved lemon and epazote (a pungent Mexican herb) and accompanied by sautéed spinach, a rich little camote (sweet potato) casserole and a to-die-for quesadilla stuffed with pumpkin flower and Oaxacan cheese.
Pasta lover that I am, I went for the gnocchi verde ($15), which topped perfect little housemade potato and chive dumplings with asparagus bites, cherry tomatoes, garlic, red piquillo (“little beak”) peppers from Spain and goat cheese in a lush artichoke cream. I love the traditional Italian gnocchi sauced in silky Gorgonzola cream, but this prep knocked my socks off.
For dessert we shared another trio, this one called fun tasties ($8): a crisp hazelnut dacquoise, a bouncy little guava pastry and a petite ramekin of sweet sweet sweet mango crème brûlée.
Savory Street Café + Bakery
411 N. Orange Ave., Sarasota (in Citrus Square)
Dinner reservations: (941) 312-4027
Hours: breakfast and lunch 7 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday; dinner 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday
Handicapped accessible: yes
Parking: ample on street
There’s something for just about every taste on a long and eclectic menu at this Southside Village favorite, which boasts some of the finest sidewalk dining in town.
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