(2006) When we arrived at Derek's, there seemed to be an overabundance of neatly attired waitstaff standing about in black pants and shirts with long bistro aprons tied trimly around the waist. But it wasn't long until they were bustling around the restaurant, shuttling from open kitchen to table, shouldering a constant stream of interesting-looking dishes. Within 20 minutes the restaurant went from almost empty to not quite full. No doubt about it, Derek's has arrived.
It's a noteworthy entrance on the local restaurant scene. Derek Barnes developed legions of fans as chef at 5-One-6 Burns. The new digs, smack in the middle of the burgeoning Rosemary District, is described as upscale casual, serving contemporary progressive cuisine. While that sounds more apropos to a style of art or jazz, it fits with the mission, printed on the menu, "to introduce you to new flavors, textures and techniques." And that it did.
The ambiance is minimalist. Walls are two-toned, the top half painted to give a silky, fluid impression that merges seamlessly with the tall ceiling. This design works well with the more architecturally structured elements of the front windows and doors. Tables are clothed in white napery, and the chairs are an updated schoolhouse style. Derek's energetically buzzes with the crowd, but the noise never annoys. It's a comfortable and agreeable feeling.
We began our exploration of "new flavors, textures" with the foie gras torchon. I unabashedly adore foie gras, and Barnes procures his from New York's Hudson Valley, which has become the capital of force-fed geese in the United States. For those uninitiated, the torchon technique entails rolling the liver in cheesecloth, poaching and then serving. (The menu provides a full page of "Derek's Foodnotes," a thoughtful and handy primer reflecting the chef's emphasis on methods of preparation.)
The foie gras is presented in a cascade of orderly slices sandwiched with bits of wilted arugula. The pieces de resistance are little balls of pomegranate gelée scattered about the plate, which give a refreshing burst of flavor.
The signature appetizer is the tuna gnocchi. As any aficionado of Italian food knows, gnocchi are usually yummy little dumplings made from potatoes. How creative of Barnes to make these from tuna. Other elements on the plate included some peppers and greens and a beautifully fried duck egg-sunny side up-sitting in the middle of it all.
Derek's offers a pair of lovely salads. We enjoyed both-a country spinach and a "Caesaresque," meaning the dressing is in the style of a Caesar. Both benefit from the house bread, a delectable biscuit-like roll flavored with cheddar cheese. One could feast on just salad and bread and be quite satisfied.
"Principal Dishes" are an array of interesting entrées. There are several seafood selections (including a shrimp fricassee and yellowfin tuna), plus short ribs served with a medallion of beef, a vegetable galette-it's difficult to settle on just one. A surf-and-turf ensemble, here called "Land and Sea," caught my eye for its unique pairing-monkfish and pork confit. This is a dish for the venturesome. The pork is sumptuous, the richness almost too overwhelming for the austere monkfish.
We also feasted on a duck dish that my husband, Jack, pronounced "best duck ever." The breast is lean, with a pleasantly gamy taste juxtaposed with a fabulously crispy, lush leg. This is served with a spaetzle done in a cream sauce alongside Asian-like seasoned greens, providing a spiciness that cut through the opulence of the dish. Here's where we really began appreciating Barnes' promised new flavors and textures.
That admiration extended to dessert, where literally everything appealed. Don't miss the ice cream sandwich, a concoction of chocolate ice cream and chunks of peppermint packed in between wonderfully thin, delicious cookies. If that seems extravagant, opt for the day's frozen trio. On our visit, the pear granitas were a standout, although I finished all the chocolate ice cream, too. Our waitress told us Derek managed to procure a machine that makes the ice cream fabulously thick and creamy. It's on my Christmas list!
The wine list offers a smattering of bottles from across the globe-Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as well as more established California and Old World offerings. The wines are reasonably priced (most between $25 and $35) and several are available by the glass.
Finally, all the waitstaff makes the service at Derek's exemplary. Food comes out of the kitchen quickly, so tell your server if you prefer a more leisurely pace. And you probably will want to linger over a cup of the excellent cappuccino as you savor this exciting new entry to Sarasota's restaurant scene.
514 Central Ave., Sarasota
Lunch: Tuesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.
Parking in street and Fifth Street lot