Over the course of a year, chef Nils Tarantik at Duval’s Fresh. Local. Seafood. on Main Street filets and prepares close to 40 different kinds of fish. Few other local restaurants demonstrate such wide-ranging passion for seafood.
It’s a measure of Tarantik’s skill that he keeps things simple. None of his dishes are overworked. They’re thoughtfully composed and have eye appeal, but you won’t feel like you’re decimating someone’s artwork when you reach for your fork.
The respect for product at Duval’s is evident on every plate, making you want to eat your way through the whole menu. But finding favorites and returning to them makes it tricky to advance. Take the lobster and fresh corn casserole topped with cornbread crumbs. This new take on seafood comfort food is rich, creamy (there’s cream cheese in the blend) and studded with succulent, sweet lobster morsels and crunchy corn scraped off the cob in the kitchen. It’s on the appetizer side of the menu ($12.50), and it’s nothing less than divine.
Chef Tarantik rotates, adds and subtracts items to keep the menu new and lively. But he can’t retire the lobster corn casserole because customers demand its speedy return. I’m with them. Same with the oyster po’ boy. The oysters are from Louisiana, and they hold their own in the traditional New Orleans French bread sandwich smeared with a smoky house remoulade sauce and sprinkled with shredded Napa cabbage instead of the usual iceberg lettuce.
Duval’s has two signature dishes. One is the flash-fried calamari presentation, made with Siesta Key rum and ginger beer glaze, banana peppers and red peppers. A punchy little mouthful, this starter is $12. The other is PEI mussels, cooked and served in a creamy Dijon mustard sauce that includes tasso ham and potato chunks. This is a rich and hearty first course ($15.50), and guests generally ask for more French bread to sop up every drop of the sauce. Something more traditional and equally satisfying: the New England clam chowder at $6 or a velvety lobster bisque at $12 for a bowl.
Blackened ahi tuna is new to the menu; at $26.50, the dish mingles rare seared ahi with jasmine rice and kimchee. It’s finished with wasabi and a sweet soy glaze and served with micro greens. The Caribbean crab and shrimp cake ($22) dinner serves the fat, snappy little cakes on a bed of zucchini corn succotash accented with a peach balsamic glaze. It’s both sweet and spicy, just the way you expect Caribbean seafood to be.
Dinner entrées average about $26, but the signature seafood bouillabaisse (with a half lobster tail) and local fish is $34. Delicious all the way through. Grilled pork chop, roast chicken, filet mignon and a nice seasonal vegetable medley are available for guests wanting to range beyond seafood.
Lunch offerings include soup and salad combos, fish sandwiches, Baja fish tacos, a fish ’n’ chips meal ($14), chowders and burgers and a BLT served on a warm baguette. A craving for a monster seafood salad at lunch might lead to the Ocean Cobb, which includes lobster, crab and shrimp with candied pepper bacon along with the rest of the traditional Cobb ingredients. It’s quite something at $24.
Cloth napkins, tablecloths and excellent service and a full bar elevate the experience. White sails attached to the ceiling suggest the ocean, and textural white tiles on the walls are either drifting sands or waves making their way to some distant shore. It’s stress-relieving just to look at them.
Chef Tarantik was born in Britain and came to Sarasota when his wife was transferred here. He joined the Duval’s team in 2012 and two years later became executive chef and part owner of the restaurant with James Abrams. Recently they added a shuttle service, so anyone in an approximately three-mile radius can phone and be transported to and from the restaurant. Or you can just order dinner and it will be delivered. Smart move with all the new downtown condos.
House-made desserts at Duval’s average $8 and include an opulent caramel bread pudding (made with a trio of Danishes and baked to order), a refreshing Key lime semifreddo (coconut rum gastrique in this one), gingersnap apple crisp and a few others that make having dessert here definitely worthwhile.
Nightcaps are also enticing at Duval’s. A stroll down Main Street could include a stop for a late-night Tiramisu Martini made with Bacardi rum, Kahlua, Bailey’s Irish Cream, Godiva dark chocolate liqueur and cream ($9). Sounds like sweet dreams to me.