The first time I ate a grilled romaine salad was at the big, beautiful Waterfront seafood restaurant on Anna Maria Island. And now it’s my favorite way to enjoy romaine lettuce. As long, chargrilled, smoky romaine ribs come off the grill, they’re sprinkled with crisp green apple pieces, crumbled Nueske’s Smokehouse bacon and Gorgonzola cheese. The salad is drizzled with homemade vinaigrette and served warm. The flavors and technique transform those simple green leaves into something stratospherically beyond lettuce.
Last Thanksgiving season, Phillippi Creek Oyster Bar made me forget about a traditional turkey and stuffing dinner when a server brought out an exquisite seafood pot pie shaped like a loaf with a palm-tree decorated crust. It looked like the best performance from a winning contestant on The Great British Baking Show, and it tasted unforgettable—big morsels of fresh and perfectly cooked grouper, crab, shrimp and scallops in a creamy sauce, all cloaked with a rich and flaky pastry. I’ve waited a year to taste it again and now I can. Enjoy it in the restaurant or order from chef Pedro Flores’ kitchen for your holiday table and feel like the best chef in Victorian England just made you dinner.
Country Paté at 62 Bistrot
The rough-cut country paté, presented with the traditional accompaniments including tiny, tart cornichons at 62 Bistrot, is a dish to savor and to enjoy often. The owners of this small country French restaurant are a young couple from Bergerac in the Dordogne region of France, which is famous for ducks and geese, hence their superlative foie gras and paté. After the paté, say oui and move on to the escargot.
The antipasto misto at Pino’s is everything I fantasize about on an Italian meat, veg and cheese board. Imagine three kinds of cured meat, chunks of salty Parmesan, grilled zucchini and roasted red peppers, olives, crunchy bruschetta, fresh, creamy mozzarella layered between tomato slices in a stack, and artichokes, all drizzled with olive oil. Ask chef Pino to add some of his marinated grilled octopus to the board for a Mamma mia embarrassment of Mediterranean riches.
At Farlow’s on the Water, an easy-breezy indoor/outdoor restaurant, the fried whole hogfish eyeballing me from its white platter gave me a fright. This is an ugly, mean-looking fish, served like an upright monster of the deep. The surprise comes when you crack the tawny battered crust and white, tender chunks of delicate-tasting fish come tumbling onto the fork. Can’t judge a fish by its mug shot, although you’ll want to take a photo of this one and share the cuisine memory.
Cask & Ale looks like an expensive urban loft sensitively reimagined from what might have been an old factory. This classy gastropub showcases local craft beers as well as international ones made with wheat, citrus, honey, chocolate, you name it. Beer is on tap and in bottles with strange and funny names from far-off places. Food is of the nibble variety, and most of it is very good, but the one that beckons me back is smoked salmon sitting atop a warm potato waffle topped with Mote Marine caviar. It’s a tour de force of textures and flavors. Ask your server for the right beer.
At the casual Texas-ranch outdoor pavilion-style restaurant called Brick’s, smoked meats are the star, but not the lone star. I respect the brisket, admire the St. Louis ribs, and appreciate the sides of cornbread or house-made pickled apple slices, but my best bite at this bustling downtown spot is the flavor-bomb bacon burnt-end taco. Cuddling up to the chewy-smoky bacon chunks nestled in the soft tortilla are tangy slaw, queso and candied jalapeños. That and a salt-rimmed frozen Margarita make a marvelous lunch or dinner. 1528 State St., Sarasota, (941) 993-1435
The hunt for the ideal lobster roll is a widespread obsession. I like mine with mayonnaise in the mix, which puts me at odds with 50 percent of other addicts, who search for the perfect lobster roll in both obvious and obscure places. My favorite discovery this year is served on a platter with good fries at the casual, noisy, crowded, friendly Lobster Pot on Siesta Key. The split toasty bun is mounded with flavorful, rich, big lobster chunks lightly seasoned and moistened with mayo. I’m willing to stand in line with sandy families on every visit just to taste that lobster roll again.
The food at Cafe BarBosso is authentically New York Italian-American and expresses the outsize personality of owner-chef Joe DiMaggio. All the pizzas earn raves, but the lamb pizza is pure bliss. The thin semolina crust is drizzled with mint-infused oil, coconut curry, cardamom, yogurt, fresh mozzarella and chunks of tender mild lamb. An unforgettable pizza that could triumph in a Bobby Flay throwdown.
I don’t eat cauliflower, but at the new Bravo Coastal Bar & Kitchen in Westfield Siesta Key, I had a culinary epiphany at a big table when my foodie cohorts cajoled me to take a bite of the buffalo cauliflower steak. A thick piece of cauliflower sliced lengthwise is seasoned, lightly slicked and cooked with Gorgonzola cheese, creamy horseradish and green onion. Who knew such joy could lie in a slab of white fiber on a plate? The kitchen also does cauliflower with capers, peperoncini and pine nuts, which I’m going to investigate on my next visit. Can I actually be a cauliflower fan?
Big, comfortable Brasa & Pisco excels at Peruvian specialties. But my favorite dish is deceptively simple: quinoa risotto. Grilled fresh fish of the day (it’s usually tuna, barely cooked) is sliced into rectangles and arranged on a bed of tri-color yellow pepper quinoa risotto and sprinkled with a few clumps of snowy queso fresco cheese. Highest calling of quinoa ever. Enjoy with the house cocktail, a pisco sour, for an authentic Peruvian experience that leaves you with good memories and a feeling of contentment.
The crazy-busy storefront cafe called Korean Ssam Bar has a big menu (including sushi), and most of it is a mystery to me, which makes it so much fun. My favorite so far is Stone Pot Bibimbap (try saying that five times fast), which is basically a rice bowl mixed with vegetables and choice of meat or seafood. It comes with the ingredients separated and attractively arranged with a fried egg on top in a heavy and extremely hot stone bowl. The server says, “Don’t touch it!” and then adroitly messes up the egg yolk and mixes the ingredients. I dig in with chopsticks or fork. No. 3, which is a medium amount of Asian spice, is fierce enough for me. If you’re braver, know that you can go up to five.