It took the human race thousands of years to evolve, but the owners of Pomona have managed to make some strikingly successful adaptations in just five. What started out as a casual, French-inspired bistro has evolved into a polished restaurant with an emphasis on organic and locally sourced ingredients and a reputation for creative dishes with a global reach.
Executive chef Ryan Boeve and pastry chef Arthur Lopes met at Ophelia’s in 1999 and three years later left to establish Zoria, which was on Hillview Avenue for three years and then Main Street for seven more. When they decided they wanted a new place to innovate and opened Pomona, many of their guests followed, and Boeve says those guests helped drive the restaurant’s evolution.
With its softly elegant dining rooms dressed in pale gray and accented with vintage furniture pieces, Pomona is an appealing place to settle in for an evening of meticulously orchestrated courses that meet high standards of preparation and presentation. Additionally, the wine list is deep and wide and the cocktail bar comprehensive.
Pomona seats 150, but it feels much smaller because the eating areas are separated and each feels like its own small restaurant. The room with the vaulted ceiling, floor-to-ceiling silvery gray drapes and paintings on the walls is the most private and romantic, and there’s nice background music, too. But I love the outdoor patio with the fireplace. It’s a European-like terrace garden and delightful if the weather cooperates. For a convivial, more informal experience, choose the main dining room with the bar at one end. This room always has a lively buzz.
Whatever your preference for ambiance and decor, the basics are the same: snowy tablecloths, pristine white plates, fresh flowers, expert service and a menu that changes seasonally. It’s a carefully curated menu, limited to about seven or eight entrées with the same number of appetizers and desserts. Because there is a commitment in the kitchen to eating seasonally and sourcing locally, the menu migrates over the course of a year, so, if you go often, you won’t get bored. Generally, when the menu changes nothing remains from the previous one.
The Pomona menu is divided into small plates, charcuterie, entrées, cheese course and desserts. Pace yourself, because you do want dessert. Arthur Lopes is renowned as a pastry chef and he loves to conjure up that final flourish. A signature house dessert is the soufflé; you need to order it halfway through your meal because each soufflé takes about 25 minutes from kitchen to you. Over the arc of a year look for chocolate soufflé or orange, raspberry, Grand Marnier, even chestnut. Soufflés, tarts, cakes, crumbles, whatever. It’s all ethereal.
Depending upon the time of year you visit, small plates could include some of the following, with prices ranging from $9 to $17: French onion soup, wild boar sausage with green lentils (French soul food), duck confit with Brussels sprouts, Cedar Key clams or maybe a colorful beet salad with goat cheese and walnuts and plenty of textural contrast.
As an appetizer for two or as part of a small plate dinner, Pomona offers a gorgeous charcuterie board ($30) that includes crispy sweetbread, chicken liver paté, pork belly, dry cured rosette De Lyon sausage, chicken livers wrapped in bacon, foie gras custard (although as an enthusiastic foie gras eater, I believe there are better things to do with foie gras than make it into custard), warm marinated olives with sheep’s milk cheese and lots of little morsels as well as sliced crusty baguette.
Not enough restaurants in Sarasota bother with charcuterie, so it’s gratifying that Pomona makes the effort and does it so well. My dinner partner and I shared a charcuterie board and left neither crumb nor bite of anything, including the pickled vegetables.
Large plate menu items are apt to include branzino stuffed with mushrooms, veal sweetbreads, Gulf shrimp in a sauce, Seminole beef, or a perfectly cooked duck breast with orange-duck jus (my choice on a recent evening) with glazed beets, turnips and farro as the accompanying starch. There’s always an intriguing vegetarian dish made with local seasonal bounty. The kitchen teases fresh vegetables into succulent, colorful dishes and creative combinations. Large plates (portions are sensible, not overwhelming) range in price from about $19 to $32.
A welcome menu feature at Pomona is a cheese course—something that many fine restaurants have abandoned, so bravo to Pomona. The small board of four ounces is $17; and the large, double the amount, is $28. Expect three or four European and American selections served with quince paste, fruit and some kind of bread to accompany the cheeses. You could compose a full meal of the charcuterie board and the cheese board with a bowl of onion soup to start and then an Arthur-choice dessert. That would be rich, indulgent and just plain ridiculously satisfying. Don’t do this if you have a cholesterol lab test during the week. I want to give the same warning about the potatoes cooked in duck fat and butter, although I am powerless to resist them.
Pomona has fulfilled the intention of co-owners Boeve and Lopes to maintain a sophisticated, intimate venue for exceptional food and comfortable upscale ambiance. They’re happy with what they’re accomplishing, but the two also want to run a relaxed, 50-seat bistro that is vegetable-focused, and so they’re planning to open an additional eatery called Lila on Main Street in the space that was the old Bullet Hole. The emphasis will be on organic and locally sourced produce, and the menu is about 85 percent creative vegetarian, with the rest of the menu catering to flexitarians, which means, I’m happy to say, there will be bacon and chicken stock.
The Verdict: Now in its fifth year, Pomona serves innovative dishes from a modern menu that changes seasonally and emphasizes organic and local ingredients. The setting is chic but relaxed and the service is professional and caring.
Pomona Bistro & Wine Bar
481 N. Orange Ave., Sarasota. (941) 706-1677
Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m.
Credit cards: all major cards accepted
Street parking; handicapped accessible