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Top 21 best restaurants 2015: our opinionated list of the best restaurants in Sarasota/Manatee right now.

PLUS

SUSHI SECRETS

EIGHT GREAT SANDWICHES

A SEAFOOD STAR

SARASOTA'S BEST CHICKEN WINGS

--AND MORE

OUR JUDGES

The dedicated diners who helped us make the call.

Judi Gallagher, Judi Gallagher & Associates hospitality consulting and contributing food and wine editor, Sarasota Magazine

Marsha Fottler, food and wine editor, Sarasota Magazine

Jeremy Hammond-Chambers, chef and owner, Innovative Dining boutique catering

David R. Kotok, co-founder and chief investment officer, Cumberland Advisors

Burton "Skip" Sack, former chair, National Restaurant Association

Christine Peterson Schlesinger, diabetes educator and nurse practitioner

Bernabe Somoza, owner, Mission Avenue Studio

Emily Stroud, owner/designer Hayden Reis totes and accessories

Our 21 restaurants are listed in alphabetical order.

Andrea's, The Art of Food & Wine In a cozy room of about 40, this white-cloth dining experience is orchestrated anew each night by master chef Andrea Bozzolo, born and raised in Italy and educated at one of Europe's most prestigious hotel schools. Bozzolo makes his own pastas and breads, imports only the best cheeses, and is an authority on Italian wines, offering an impressive list. The consistently excellent menu is contemporary Italian, meaning he does little riffs on classics from various regions of Italy. Foodies revere his beef carpaccio and ravioli with brown butter and sage. And regulars love to see the cart with imported Italian cheeses being wheeled into the room. Andrea's has a long list of happy regulars, so reserve days in advance. 2085 Siesta Drive, Sarasota, (941) 951-9200.

Beach Bistro This intimate cottage on the sand has it all--romantic sunsets, award-winning Gulf Coast cookery, and a praiseworthy wine list. It all bears the imprint of Sean Murphy, a big personality with Irish charm who loves his little corner of Florida and is meticulous about the food he serves to locals who walk to the Bistro and guests who fly in from all over the world. Standouts include the foie gras and the Gulf Coast bouillabaisse, but the menu changes periodically so there's always something new and luxurious to call your favorite. Service is exactingly professional and Sean is always there to chat with old friends and first-timers. You need reservations, because Beach Bistro is everlastingly booked. 6600 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, Anna Maria Island, (941) 778-6444.

Bologna Cafe This restaurant recently moved to larger quarters in Osprey, where owners Claudio and Barbara Ronchi still offer a deli case as part of the restaurant. The couple imports cheeses from Italy, working with small-batch producers, and the same goes for their wines. They make their own mozzarella, which is not to be missed. The skilled kitchen relies on family recipes from Bologna and modern riffs on regional classics. In an area where Italian eateries dominate, Cafe Bologna manages to stand out, with offerings such as gnocchi with Gorgonzola, coletta of veal, ricotta purses with truffle oil, and house-made pastas. The late Marcella Hazan, the guru of Italian cookery, said it felt just like dining in Bologna--need we say more? 3893 Destination Drive, Osprey, (941) 244-2033.

Capital Grille This upscale chain steak house (dry-aged beef) has been packed since it opened at the Mall at University Town Center. Although it's at the mall, Capital Grille isn't really "of" the mall. You can enter only from the street, making it a destination dining spot whether or not you want to shop. The steaks are first-rate, but Capital Grille also has made a name for itself with clever sides and small plates. The pan-fried calamari with a hot jolt of hot cherry peppers is a favorite. The lobster mac n' cheese is rich and two can share it. Parmesan truffle fries are superb. Of course, it's a beef lover's paradise, but there are glamorous seafood offerings too. 180 University Town Center Drive, Sarasota, (941) 256-3647.

Cassariano A super-fine restaurant masquerading as a simple bistro and bar. Don't be deceived. Eat inside or out under the Venice Avenue arcade and enjoy traditional Italian meals prepared by Italian pros who work in a semi-open kitchen. Cassariano serves scratch-made pasta, and uncomplicated meat--including lamb, pork, veal and beef--and seafood dishes with sublime sauces, in a comfortable, casual ambiance. This restaurant is a little gem. Some regulars are reluctant to tell too many people about the place because they consider it their neighborhood hangout and want to make sure they can get in. Overheard one night: an Italian visitor saying, "This is so good you could swallow your tongue." 313 W. Venice Ave., Venice, (941)485-0507.

Darwin's on 4th Peruvian chef Darwin Santa Maria started out in the kitchens of Sarasota's better restaurants and soon had his own place, Selva Grill. This bigger restaurant is his current adventure in contemporary Peruvian food, indigenous recipes from the jungle areas with a modern spin. Darwin's on 4th is boisterous and fun with an open kitchen, big bar, lively music, extensive menu and that wonderful, all-embracing Latin hospitality. By all means start with a signature ceviche. Fans love the steak with chimichurri sauce, but do experience the malbec-braised short ribs, pork belly, tuna tartare or catch of the day. The duck with green pea and beer risotto is transporting. We have a growing number of Peruvian restaurants, but Darwin's is the most satisfying, confident and authentic. 1525 Fourth St., Sarasota, (941) 343-2165.

Derek's Rustic Coastal Cuisine Derek Barnes has plenty of accolades, including being in Zagat America's Top Restaurants. When he closed his Sarasota restaurant and moved to Bradenton, foodies squawked but then drove north, because when you crave Derek's food, nothing else will do. At his new, more casual place, the emphasis is on fresh seafood, with a New Orleans vibe (he did, after all, cook at Emeril's in New Orleans), and the gumbo is Louisiana-luscious. He does New Orleans BBQ shrimp, voodoo crawfish, fried green tomatoes and a wonderful shrimp po boy. But then there's yellowfin tuna with sweet onion corn fritter. And who else makes Southern-fried tofu and waffles paired with braised kale and toasted garlic caramel? This chef's imagination always runs at high speed. 5516 Manatee Avenue W., Bradenton. (941) 794-1100.

Euphemia Haye Many wouldn't dream of celebrating a special occasion anywhere else than in this charming cottage on Longboat Key, and it also draws visitors who appreciate haute food in an intimate environment. You could be treated to roasted duckling, noisettes of beef Madagascar, Grecian lamb shank, veal sweetbread Grenobloise, shrimp Taj Mahal or a prime peppered steak pan fried in hot-sweet orange plus brandy. The menu is both American and global, but leans to classic French. Upstairs, the Haye Loft, a casual, no-reservations hangout, specializes in outstanding house-made desserts, pizza, light bites and live music. Enjoying a meal at Euphemia Haye is an experience unique to this part of Florida. 5540 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key, (941) 383-3633.

Fins Maybe offering the best water view of any restaurant on this list, Fins on Caspersen Beach is new to Venice but already popular with locals and visitors who praise the seafood, the outdoor treetop lounge, and the coastal contemporary feel that welcomes diners in sandals and sundresses. It's an upscale addition to the popular Sharky's on the Pier complex, which also includes an outdoor tiki bar with live music and casual dining and a scenic pier. You'll find an impressive array of sushi selections, a fine octopus salad and, tropical salads as well as fresh fish and shellfish prepared a variety of ways. Take visitors from out of town. They'll think you're a genius for living in Southwest Florida. 1600 Harbor Drive, S., Venice, (941) 999-3467.

Fleming's This steak house is a big chain restaurant that acts like a local independently owned one. The ambiance is white-cloth polished casual, with wood tones and furniture that's more female-friendly than most steak houses. And it skews young. Many of the servers have been here long enough to know regulars by sight. You relax when you walk through the door. Big wine list, steaks done right, great ahi tuna. Signature sides such as the chipotle mac 'n cheese, house potatoes and creamed spinach are well prepared. The food is familiar but delicious, every single time. There's also a comfortable bar where you can dine as well as enjoy a drink. This well-run establishment consistently delivers an outstanding experience. 2001 Siesta Drive, Sarasota, (941) 358-9463.

Indigenous Chef-owner Steve Phelps, recipient of several world-class culinary awards, is a genius with seafood and passionate about fresh and local. The kitchen is tiny and the menu restricted to about six small plates and as many entrees. Everything is carefully thought out, but the food isn't fussy or precious; Phelps is just brilliant with flavors. Sit in one of the little rooms inside or outside on the porch. The wine room/bar is quite romantic. You want to try the Mote Marine aqua farmed sturgeon, any of the locally caught fish (chef will tell you the name of the boat that brought them in) and My Uncles Burger, which is incredibly juicy and creatively seasoned and sauced. Call days ahead or you'll never get in. 239 S. Links Ave., Sarasota. (941) 706-4740.

Jack Dusty Well, it is the Ritz, so you know you're going to be treated as if you were a visiting sultan. But Jack Dusty is a new Ritz-Carlton style of dining--more relaxed but still glamorous and meant to attract locals as well as hotel guests. The ambiance takes its cues from the bay and the boat basin with a dreamy contemporary coastal setting with big water views and luxury lounge furniture that suggests you're on a millionaire's yacht. Sail away with couture cocktails, a raw seafood bar and platters seductively arranged with shellfish. Plenty for landlubbers, too, because this is essentially a hotel restaurant and means to please wide-ranging appetites from all over the world. 1111 Ritz-Carlton Drive, Sarasota, (941) 309-2266.

Louies Modern This two-year-old hotspot, owned and operated by the Seidensticker family, (which also owns The Francis next door and Libby's in Southside Village) has elevated its portion of downtown. The tone is comfortable, contemporary luxury that doesn't take itself too seriously. There's a very good bar with classic and inventive new cocktails, and the leading-edge American food is prepared in a stylish open kitchen and presented with great emphasis on color and construction. The burrata and tomato salad was a classic from Day One. Also try the lamb meatballs, crab cake made with Granny Smith apple, grouper etouffee, brisket short rib burger and lobster thermidor pot pie with cognac gravy, surely the ultimate comfort food for rich people. 1289 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota, (941) 552-9688.

Maison Blanche Short of going to Paris for dinner, drive to Longboat Key and settle into comfortable chairs in a small, chic, minimalist-modern room draped in gauzy white drapery. Then surrender your palate to chef Jose Martinez, who will thrill you every single time. Martinez owned a Michelin star restaurant in Paris before moving to Longboat to cook with locally sourced ingredients as well as what he brings in to create his brilliant and refined cuisine. Braised lamb shank osso buco with Parmesan risotto will tempt you, or maybe green asparagus soup, Mediterranean sea bass or foie gras terrine. The method is completely French. The wines are international. The experience is transporting. 2605 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key, (941) 383-8088.

Meditcrraneo It's urban, hip, and the ever-present owners welcome guests and entice them with wine and pizza from a wood-burning oven at the bar or a leisurely meal in one of the three modern European-style dining rooms. Since it opened in 1996, this self-assured downtown hotspot has maintained a chic vibe and a menu that features simple, flavorful Northern Italian dishes. Among the offerings: braised lamb shank osso buco with Parmesan risotto, black linguine, four-cheese gnocchi or the famous veal chop Milanese. A recent renovation has only upped the ambiance, and the wine (Italy and California), servers and standards are top of the line. This is a sophisticated place to see and be seen, a successful Mediterranean convergence of food, place and intention. 1970 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 365-4122.

Michael's On East is the gold standard for a big, casually elegant restaurant that does lunch and dinner as well as late-evenings in the bar. There's a superb catering division, too. Running this very big show are Michael Klauber and Phil Mancini, a formidable team with the awards to prove it, including their recent induction into Florida Trend's Golden Spoon Hall of Fame. The menu is Continental and American with a few signature dishes (Chinese chicken salad, bowtie pasta) that have so many fans they'll never go away. It also regularly reflects the food and wine trips Klauber organizes to exotic locations. Twenty-eight years of consistency, great service, high-quality cuisine, an exemplary wine cellar and that Michael-Phil hospitality all make this restaurant a standout. 1212 S. East Ave., Sarasota, (941) 366-0007.

Pomona This cozy storefront restaurant (there's a side patio with fireplace that offers another mood option) in a commercial/residential neighborhood near downtown Sarasota is like a private club. Regulars walk to their favorite tables from their condominiums and folks who drive in from the islands always see someone they know. The owners/chefs, Arthur Lopes and Ryan Boeve, are like friends who cook for you in their own home. The menu is Continental, offering charcuterie and cheese plates as well as fennel-stuffed yellowtail snapper, domestic rib lamb chops or grouper cheeks with Cedar Key clam brodetto. This is sophisticated, haute food conjured up by chefs who aim to amaze and entice. You might even want to sip a brandy Alexander for a nightcap. How civilized. 481 N. Orange Ave., Sarasota, (941) 706-1677.

Puccini's Almost a secret, like a pop-up restaurant. Some people think they ought to knock on the door three times and say Joe sent them. You have to bring your own wine, pay by cash or check, and reserve by talking to someone in person. But it's worth it. Dining here is like being invited into a friend's home. It's romantic, too, with a wall of little shelves that hold votive candles. The kitchen is open so you can watch chef Richard De Felice prepare your meal. And boy, can he cook. The food is Italian, but there's no operatic flair, just simple dishes, both traditional and contemporary, full of flavor, verve and fine Mediterranean ingredients. Regulars swear by the ribeye, lamb chops, salmon and the branzino over lobster ravioli. 2881 Clark Road, Sarasota, (941) 923-7002.

Seasons 52 This innovative Darden chain restaurant is a model of how many modern foodies want to eat--sensibly and deliciously. Located at the new University Town Center mall, Seasons 52 has polished casual ambiance (warm dark woods that make big rooms feel cozy and intimate), with an excellent wine list and dinner selections presented like party fare.

The lush flavors and creative American dishes are also calorie- and nutrition-conscious. Mini desserts are artfully served in shot glasses. The menu changes with the seasons and the dishes feature big flavors, but nothing on the menu exceeds 475 calories. Managing partner Alex Elshimy is one of the most gracious hosts in town, and chef Mellissa Louty is a rising star. 170 University Town Center Drive, Sarasota, (941) 702-9652.

Soma Creek Side This decidedly chef-driven restaurant is owned by Dave Shiplett, a Bradenton native who cooked extensively in San Francisco before returning home, where he has owned several restaurants, the latest Soma Creek Side. The modern American menu features seriously good food--including lots of soul food--in a very casual setting. Shiplett could seal his reputation with his shrimp and cheesy grits alone, but then there's his fish & chips hog snapper, Florida lobster bisque, bento box, and his take on pork and beans--a pork loin ribeye paired with buttered white beans and grilled squash. It's a no-fuss, no-frills place, just comfortable enough that you want to stay a long time and eat a lot. 1401 Manatee Ave W., Bradenton, (941) 567-4001.

The Table Creekside Chefs Pedro Flores and Rafael Manzano have cooked elsewhere, but they've found a happy home together at The Table Creekside in a rambling wooden building on the banks of Phillippi Creek. Done up in white, sea-glass blue and shiny silver, the place has an ambiance that's young, modern and chic. The bar is known for its infused craft cocktails, while the kitchen is known for just about everything. The menu changes often, but from the appetizers to the desserts it's all unusual and absolutely delicious. Everyone craves the silver-dollar-size warm yucca mozzarella rolls, and the braised short ribs with Caribbean gnocchi is always on the menu. But the Barcelona mussels cassoulet, the Napa grilled octopus and lobster carbonara are gaining fans. 5365 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, (941) 921-9465.

WE ASKED OUR JUDGES, "WHAT'S THE BEST THING YOU EVER ATE IN A SARASOTA/MANATEE RESTAURANT?"

"Chef Barbara's shaved white truffles over homemade tagliatelle pasta covered in lightly browned butter at Bologna Cafe in Osprey. When you close your eyes as you savor the flavors, you can smell the musty, fresh, cool fall days of the Tuscan forest where the truffles are gathered. Heaven!"--Christine Peterson Schlesinger

BEST THING I EVER ATE AT A LOCAL RESTAURANT

"I eat foie gras around the world, including in France. If I see it on a menu, I order it. The best I've ever eaten was right here in Florida at the Beach Bistro. Owner Sean Murphy's seared Hudson Valley foie gras on savory brioche bread pudding is garnished with a vanilla bean and Sauterne reduction, nutmeg Anglaise and aged balsamic. What a recipe!"--Marsha Fottler

"The bouillabaisse at Walt's Fish Market is superb. The chef has put together a mix of seafood and vegetables with exquisite flavoring that is a surprise explosion in the mouth. He shows great talent in styling this classic French dish into a Spanish-influenced delight."--David R. Kotok

"At Derek's, the jar of smooth, sinfully delicious chicken liver pate is served with homemade grilled sourdough and the perfect condiments: wonderfully tangy mirliton pickles, a zippy Creole mustard and decadent sweet onion jam. A lavish dish like this must balance richness with sugar, salt and just the right amount of acid. This appetizer achieves absolute precision and harmony." --Jeremy Hammond-Chambers

"Eating porcini and truffle cream pasta at Made in Italy comes as close as it gets to dining at an intimate restaurant in Siena. They start with homemade pasta, then toss in sauteed porcini mushrooms, shaved fresh truffles, cream, imported aged Parmesan and a drizzle of truffle oil. It's so rich and satisfying, especially with a glass of Brunello."--Judi Gallagher

"I love the seafood Cobb salad at Shore. It's full of some of my favorite foods--avocado, lobster, bacon and cheese--and it pairs beautifully with a glass of Sauvignon blanc on a beautiful Sarasota afternoon on St. Armands with my family."--Emily Stroud

Seafood Star

Restaurateur and supplier Karen Bell of Cortez Village.

"It's a sleepy fishing village, but this place feeds the world." That's how third-generation Cortezian Karen Bell describes her home and livelihood, Cortez. Since 1940, the Bell family has worked the docks on these west Bradenton shores, sorting and selling grouper, mullet, shrimp, stone crab and more. Today, the A.P. Bell Fish Company (named for Karen's grandfather, company founder Aaron Bell) operates 13 fishing boats, providing bait and seafood that's shipped all over the world--and served in a dozen or so local restaurants, including Star Fish Company, the dockside eatery that Karen acquired in 1998.

On any given day, you can see Karen patrolling the docks and warehouse in her rubber boots. She does whatever needs to be done--fetch pallets, run the fork lift, summon ice machine repairmen--to help fishermen and workers process the day's catch until the wee hours of the morning. On a good day, they might handle 175,000 pounds offish.

"Places like this don't exist anymore," says Karen. "Our waterfront has fish houses on it. Others, it's all condominiums now." Karen credits the company's diversity--selling multiple species instead of a single product--for its survival.

"I love this coast. I love the people I work with--the fishermen, the customers, even the restaurants," says Karen. She also loves the way this waterfront neighborhood brings many different people together. "At Star Fish, you could be sitting at the bar and see our Italian [wholesale] customer, a lawyer and a fisherman, all talking to each other, and they all seem to blend."--HANNAH WALLACE

Helping the Hungry

Restaurants feed those in need.

Restaurant owners and chefs don't want anyone to go hungry--and that includes the many local families who struggle to afford the food they need. Right here in wealthy, luxurious Sarasota, one out of every five children lives below the poverty level, and food insecurity is a real and "alarming" problem according to a 2014 report by All Faiths Food Bank and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

At any given time, says Sandra Frank, CEO of Alt Faiths Food Bank, between 40 and 70 local restaurants are partnering with the food bank. They give food, money and volunteer, and in all, they help feed nearly 52,000 of our neighbors every year. (Because of health concerns, restaurants can't donate prepared foods, but they do give meat and produce.) All Faiths' SPROUT Mobile Market, a truck loaded with produce that travels Sarasota and DeSoto County, hosts volunteer chefs who share recipes and cooking instructions.

Restaurants also participate in fund raisers like Bowls of Flope, All Faiths' signature annual event, or the Sarasota-Manatee Originals Forks & Corks food and wine festival, which benefits the food bank.

But the restaurants go beyond donating food and funds. When one of the food bank's trucks was stolen, chef Paul Mattison of Mattison's Restaurants & Catering donated one of his catering trucks for several months while All Faiths raised funds to purchase a new one.

"[The restaurants] give quietly and sincerely," says Frank. "There's no expectation of publicity; it just comes from a good spirit and good heart."--CHELSEY LUCAS

Food & Wine Festivals

Sample offerings from local restaurants at these special events.

Feb. 14-15

33RD ANNUAL CORTEZ COMMERCIAL FISHING FESTIVAL

CORTEZ

Bradenton's own fishing village shows off its fresh catches.

cortez-fish.org/fishing-festival.html

March 7

SEVENTH ANNUAL TOAST TO VENICE FOOD, WINE & BEER FESTIVAL

MAXINE BARRITT PARK, VENICE South county restaurants star in this afternoon extravaganza.

toasttovenice.com

March 19-22

FLORIDA WINEFEST & AUCTION 2015

SARASOTA

A four-day event celebrating its 25th anniversary.

floridawinefest.org

March 27-29

DESOTO HERITAGE FESTIVAL SEAFOOD FEST

PALMETTO/BRADENTON

Local seafood favorites paired with live music and crafts.

desotohq.com/events/seafood-festival

May 2

FIFTH ANNUAL FOOD AND WINE ON PINE

ANNA MARIA ISLAND

More than 25 local restaurants, plus music and art.

foodandwineonpine.com/

June 12

SUNCOAST FOOD & WINE FEST

LAKEWOOD RANCH

International wines and samples from area restaurants.

tickethype.com/event/76

Jan. 2016 TBA

EIGHTH ANNUAL FORKS & CORKS

SARASOTA

A grand, multi-event celebration featuring local restaurants and international vintners.

dineoriginal.com/forksandcorks

BEST CHICKEN WINGS

WING OFF!

In search of Sarasota's best.

Lots of restaurants serve wings, but who has the best in town? We polled our Facebook fans to find their favorite spots, then asked wing enthusiast Justin Powell, ABC7's Joe Bardi, our contributing food editor Judi Gallagher, associate editor Hannah Wallace and illustrator Rob Jones to taste and tell.

BEST OVERALL

And the winner is ... Munchies 420's Gold Rush wings, which are served "naked" (that is, no breading on the jumbo wings) and tossed in a sauce made with mustard seed, apple cider vinegar and sugar. "I could have easily eaten a dozen of these," said Powell.

BEST BREADED

The White Horse Pub's buffalo wings are not only big, saucy and juicy, they're also breaded, adding an extra layer of texture to an already good base. Breaded wings aren't for everyone, but if you like them, this is your spot.

BEST TRADITIONAL

If you want a traditional wing-eating experience-tasty, fried wings served with a classic Buffalo sauce, blue cheese dressing and celery-then Gecko's has you covered. You wouldn't have to ask us twice to hunker down with a plate of these, a big beer and a football game.

BEST GOURMET

That would be MADE's rich confit duck wings-fried crisp, tossed in peach barbecue sauce and served with an addictive buttermilk-green goddess dressing and crudites. Talk about raising the bar.

BEST VARIETY

Maybe you're an adventurous wing-eater, opting for flavors like roasted garlic, teriyaki, Thai spice and even peanut butter and jelly (yes, seriously). If so, J.R.'s Old Packinghouse Cafe is the place for you-there is truly a wing flavor for every palate.--MEGAN MCDONALD

Counter Culture

Sitting on one of the Shake Pit's red stools, I could read the pulse of the town.

I remember sitting on the red stools at Shake Pit on Bradenton's Manatee Avenue when I was a kid. Legs dangling, I would push my hands against the counter and spin, staring at the floor and counting how many times the stool rotated. This moment was repeated again and again throughout my childhood. Certain specifics vary: the decorations on the wall, the weather outside, the topic of conversation. But other details never change. There's the sound of burgers sizzling on the grill and oil popping in the fryer, and the growing collection of notes and signatures scrawled on the ceiling.

Always, there are the people eating at the counter.

I remember sitting with my grandmother, Muriel, as she held court from her stool, gossiping with her Rotary and church friends, sharing her two cents with the downtown businessmen, teasing the high school kids who manned the grill. Watching her and listening to those conversations, I could read the pulse of the town.

When I became one of those high school kids manning the grill (or the ice cream window, more often), the counter continued to tell our town's stories. Graduation robes, prom dresses, football uniforms, business suits, sunburns and beach towels---I looked at the people at the counter and knew what was going on. When a local athlete signed a contract with the NFL, he bought a new car and drove to Shake Pit to celebrate. His signature joined the dozens of others above the counter and on the walls, along with hundreds of photographs, local newspaper clippings, and mementos from around the world. It's a snapshot of Bradenton--past and present--and the people who pass through our friendly little city. The burger's not bad, either. --BEAU DENTON

Sensational Sandwiches

From the artisanal to the ethnic, the creative combos we love most.

RENOIR | LOLITA TARTINE As pretty as an Impressionist painting, and so delicious--shrimp, avocado, arugula, and tzatziki sauce arranged atop toasted French country bread.

CUBAN | COLUMBIA Winner of our "Sarasota's Best Cuban Sandwich" contest, it's a feast of flavors and textures--roast pork, salami, ham, Swiss cheese, pickle and mustard on fresh, flaky Cuban bread.

BAHN MI | MISS SAIGON This sophisticated fusion of French and Asian cuisine features subtly spiced, tender pork topped with pickled cucumbers, carrots and cilantro and nestled on an airy baguette.

CANDIED BLT | SMALL BATCH BAKERY

Squeeze the bread down when you bite into this beauty so the sweet and salty bacon, ripe tomato and crisp lettuce merge into a juicy, perfectly balanced mouthful.

TONY SOPRANO | PICCOLO'S Bada bing!

As larger than life as the hot-headed Italian it's named for, stuffed with authentic Italian goodies on equally authentic bread.

SOFTSHELL CRAB | OWEN'S FISH CAMP

The BLT takes a trip to the shore in this crispy, creamy combo of a fried softshell crab, basil mayonnaise, bacon, lettuce and tomato.

LOBSTER ROLL | LIDO BEACH PAVILION

Best beach concession-stand food ever--they fly in the fresh New England lobster, heap it high and serve on Sundays, starting at 11 a.m.--get there before they sell out.

TUNA MELT | STATE STREET EATING HOUSE

This old-school favorite still earns top marks, with creamy, housemade tuna salad on English muffin bread topped with melted cheddar and a ruddy sprinkling of paprika.

Secrets of Sushi

J-Pan's Daniel Dokko shares insider tips.

Though his parents were Korean, J-Pan owner and founder Daniel Dokko grew up in Brazil, which has a substantial Japanese population, and as a youngster he dreamed of opening his own Japanese restaurant. After working his way through the ranks at Orlando's famed Amura, Dokko opened J-Pan in Sarasota in 2008. In addition to extended stays in Kyoto, he's traveled the world experiencing international approaches to sushi.

START CLEAN "Ginger is used to clean the palate between bites, because when you're eating a beautiful, fresh fish, you want to taste the flavor or texture."

THE SASHIMI TEST "I like to start by ordering sashimi; that way you can see the skill of the chef--the presentation, the cuts. A good sushi chef never gives you a piece of fish with crushed fiber. It's always going to be the right texture."

YES, IT'S FRESH "Don't [insult a sushi chef by asking] if the fish is fresh. The fish is always fresh today, or I wouldn't be serving it."

KEEPING IT REAL"At most restaurants here, it's not real wasabi--it's horseradish. But the chef usually has real wasabi available. The taste is a little sweeter, and it's grated."

TAKE A CHANCE "The best way to experience eating is to try something new. I went to Korea last summer, and I had live octopus. I will remember that for the rest of my life. It was a good experience. Find something you might think is weird, and just try it."

ASK AWAY "I encourage people to sit at the bar and ask the chef questions. A good restaurant, it's not about the fish--every restaurant here gets the same fish from the same places. Experience the attitude of the chef."--INTERVIEW BY HANNAH WALLACE

PHOTOGRAPHY BY SALVATORE BRANCH ORT. KATHERINE BRASS PIPER. EVERETT DENNISON, TERRENCE DUFFY, CHRIS LAKE, JENNIFER SOOS AND CHAD SPENCER
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Author:Fottler, Marsha
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
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Date:Feb 1, 2015
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