Eat This Now

52 Dishes to Eat Right Now

A critic's guide to the local dishes you need to try.

By Marsha Fottler November 30, 2016 Published in the December 2016 issue of Sarasota Magazine

In 2016, Conde Nast Traveler confirmed what locals and longtime visitors already knew. The magazine named Sarasota one of the nation’s 15 Best Food Cities, in the company of such celebrated culinary destinations as San Francisco, New York City and Boston. Our town abounds with gourmet treasures, from chef-driven fine dining establishments to hole-in-the-wall eateries that take you on culinary adventures around the world. And new spots and new dishes pop up so quickly that even local foodies scramble to keep up. To connect you with the best, our team of editors, restaurant critics and food bloggers tackled the tasty task of compiling this list of where—and what—you should eat right now.

The Cuban sandwich and 1905 salad combo at the Columbia Restaurant is one of our city’s crowning glories. The hot, buttery pressed Cuban bread makes a crispy complement to the savory meats and cheese inside, and the hearty salad is bathed in a magnificent garlic dressing. May it forever reign. 

The Old-Florida setting and fare delight at Longboat Key’s bayside Mar Vista, but the stuffed squash blossoms are an unexpected pleasure. Three squash flowers are filled with creamy burrata cheese with grated lemon zest and topped with a light sauce. Fresh, unfussy and up-to-the-minute. 

The perigourdine at little Lolita Tartine in the Rosemary District testifies to France’s love affair with duck. Sliced, smoked duck breast fans out atop crisp mixed field greens, tiny croutons, walnuts, tomato and an exquisite sweet onion marmalade. 

Bouillabaisse at the award-winning, Gulf-front Beach Bistro may be the best (and at $78 for the “bountiful” bowl, the most expensive) seafood stew you’ve ever tasted. Local fish, shellfish and lobster swim in a stellar, saffron-spiced broth. Worth it. 

At Pho Cali, a sensational little downtown Vietnamese restaurant, the owner’s favorite is No. 130—marinated, cubed tenderloin flash-sautéed with onions, seasoned with fragrant spices and served with a squeeze of lime and fried rice. Heavenly. 

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The addictive conch fritters at Star Fish Company.

Whatever seafood you order will be as sensational as the dockside view at super-casual Star Fish Company in the fishing village of Cortez, but make sure to start with the conch fritters—light, hot, crispy-brown and way too good to share. 

The lively new Oak & Stone near the UTC mall excels at wood-fired, thin-crusted pizzas. We like to sit at the bar and order one of the 56 craft beers and the pizza with Cedar Key clams, bacon, white cheddar and roasted garlic. The tender-chewy clams add a briny taste of Florida. 

Southside Village’s stylish new Veronica Fish & Oyster has a sure hand with seafood, including a riff on the Maine lobster roll. A caper aioli and triple-fried French fries enhance the top-quality lobster meat in this petite appetizer (two rolls to an order). Pricey at $24, but pitch-perfect. 

At downtown’s Owen’s Fish Camp, a kitschy tribute to Sarasota’s past, order the catch of the day accompanied by a layered fried green tomato salad. Fresh, firm pan-fried tomatoes rest atop mixed greens and silky goat cheese and are crowned with crispy bits of country ham and creamy buttermilk dressing. 

We knew Peruvian food features coastal ingredients and intriguing flavors, but not until the new Brasa & Pisco opened did we learn the country also excels at rotisserie-cooked meats. For just $20—with sides—the whole, spit-roasted chicken boasts well-seasoned meat and crazy-good crispy skin. 

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Key lime pie at Euphemia Haye.

Key lime pie is Florida’s emblematic dessert, a creamy concoction that’s lovely to look at and both tart and sweet. You’ll find the supreme example of the species, from the correct pale-yellow hue to the silky texture, at the upstairs Haye Loft at Euphemia Haye

Every month, the culinary team at Michael’s On East challenges itself to present a dinner inspired by a different country. The epicurean adventure features a multi-course menu and wine pairings from locales around the globe. Many locals never miss a month. 

From Oct. 15 to May 15, sweet, succulent stone crab claws are in season. At Crab & Fin on tony St. Armands Circle, take a sidewalk seat and feast on a pile of big, glistening cold claws while watching the pretty parade of shoppers. 

The lines often stretch out the door at Yoder’s in Pinecraft, the town’s Amish neighborhood. And many of those patient customers will finish off their hearty meal with a slice of chocolate peanut-butter pie. Savoring your first sweet, creamy slice is a Sarasota rite of passage. 

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Some of the best authentic Italian pizza around comes from the wood-burning oven at Made in Italy and is served by the yard—enough for five and you can section it off with different toppings. This chic Venice hotspot also has a bustling bar scene and great cocktails. 

Fish doesn’t get any more swish than the coconut macadamia-crusted mahi mahi at Ophelia’s on the Bay. The nut-crumb crust enlivens the mild mahi, and tropical fruit jam and zingy habanero golden potatoes add to the island flavor. A celebratory vacation dish. 

All day Sunday, Italians simmer sausage, meatballs and pork in rich red sauce until everything is meltingly tender. Chianti makes its Sunday sauce (only on Sundays) from a recipe from the owner’s parents in Abruzzi, then ladles out a generous portion served with just-baked bread. 

The enormous array of Chinese dim sum at Yummy House is both authentic and irresistible. Don’t hold back—everybody orders too much. And yes, it’s worth braving the lines that form just before lunchtime and the crowd at night. 

The gooey-chewy mozzarella yucca rolls at The Table Creekside come warm (and free) to your table at this waterside restaurant with a playful global reach. On an ever-changing menu, they’re a blissful constant. If they don’t come out fast enough, diners ask where they are. 

Bijou Café’s chef/owner Jean-Piere Knaggs takes the lowly spud and turns it into pommes gratin Dauphinois, a dreamy sliced-potato, Gruyere cheese and double-cream casserole from southeast France. It’s been on the menu since Day 1, and Sarasota wouldn’t be the same without it. 

Tired of kale salads? You’ll fall in love again with the kale Caesar salad at Louies Modern, a sophisticated uptown hotspot. Chopped curly greens are tossed with anchovy and pickled onion, and the bright creamy-lemony dressing perfectly navigates savory-salty. 

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Tommy Bahama's towering pina colada cake.

If a tropical holiday had a taste, it would be the towering pina colada cake at Tommy Bahama. From the white chocolate mousse frosting to the pineapple-and-rum-spiked filling, this is how to kick off a Sarasota vacation—or staycation. 

Shoppers looking for treasures at Bradenton’s Red Barn Flea Market need only sample the tacos al pastor at the tiny stall that’s Maria’s Restaurant. The fresh-made hand-helds composed of pork, chiles, pineapple, honey and smoked paprika are beyond excelente

In a city full of Italian restaurants, Pino’s stands out, and the chef/owner’s skill with octopus demonstrates why. Tentacles are steamed, marinated and grilled with oil, lemon, garlic and served with dressed arugula. The lightly crusted octopus is super-tender and totally Mediterranean. 

You won’t find gnocchi with Gorgonzola cheese and walnuts at most local Italian restaurants. But Bologna Café, which specializes in Northern Italian cuisine, earned raves for this dish and others from the late Italian cookbook guru Marcella Hazan

Picnic fare doesn’t have to be grocery-store fried chicken. Instead pick up a meatball sub from Piccolo Italian Market & Deli. Fresh, crusty Italian bread encloses beautifully seasoned meatballs and lots of red sauce. Messy, but you’ll love every bite. 

If it’s Wednesday night, it’s time for twin Maine lobsters for just $24.95 at Blu Mangrove. The rosy-red crustaceans full of succulent meat come with seasoned fries, housemade slaw—and a view of the broad Manatee River rolling along. Best to reserve ahead for this popular weekly deal.

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Spanakopita shines at Blu Kouzina.

Flaky, spinach-stuffed spanakopita reaches perfection at Blu Kouzina, where the Greek owners make their own phyllo and import olive oil from their home groves. Follow it with impeccable seafood, and eat on the porch or inside at this blue-and-white Aegean estiatorio

Pot roast with vegetables and truffle mashed potatoes at Mattison’s Forty One Restaurant & Catering is home cooking far better than most of us make at home. This melt-in-your-mouth masterpiece has been on Paul Mattison’s menu for 10 years and is featured in his cookbook. 

The pork belly tacos at fashionable Shore on St. Armands Circle combine America’s two favorite food items right now: the house-made taco and rich, fatty and succulent pork belly. Almost as creative as the upstairs restaurant’s retractable roof. 

Grouper sandwiches abound, but you’ll find a great one at the Dry Dock Waterfront Grill. The fish is fresh, white, flaky and moist, and your sandwich with fries and coleslaw comes with a water view.

Small, boho Drunken Poet Café keeps the lights low and the menu interesting even at lunch. But we keep ordering the tried-and-true shrimp pad Thai. Unlike many pad thai sauces, this one tastes fresh and ethereal, and every ingredient is cooked for just the right amount of time. 

Grown men moan when they taste the brisket Benedict at Made’s Sunday brunch. Slow-roasted brisket hash and thick bacon are layered with poached eggs, pepper sausage gravy and chipotle Hollandaise on a toasted bun. Positively pornographic. 

The Trenne Dolce Italia is a house favorite at little Dolce Italia. Fresh, homemade triangle-shaped pasta is drenched in pomodoro sauce with mushrooms and then blanketed with snowy grated mozzarella cheese. Sharp, gooey, divine. 

The raw seafood bar at Jack Dusty in The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, is a stunning display of fresh seafood, from shrimp and oysters to sashimi and ceviches, along with chowders, bisques, tacos and more. And often a live mermaid materializes atop the icy counter, flashing her sparkly tail. 

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Start your meal at Pomona with the elegant charcuterie board.

On the elegant charcuterie board at Pomona, choice offerings include Lyon and Merguez sausage, duck confit rillette, pork belly with a mayonnaise-style cold egg sauce, house-pickled vegetables and crusty bread. Are we in France yet? 

At Fins, you’ll be mesmerized by the Gulf views—and the rich, chunky lobster potato nachos. Maine lobster morsels are folded into melted smoked Gouda cheese and accented with crispy prosciutto and fresh arugula. Waffle fries make the perfect dipping implement. 

Lucky Pelican is famous for its seafood. We love the heady mélange of spicy shrimp, cod, crawfish, jambalaya, rice, cheese and fresh corn salsa in the ocean burrito. It’s served with kicky Baja sauce. 

Fresh ingredients for the ideal Caesar salad arrive tableside on a rolling cart at Marcello. They’re assembled with élan, starting with the theatrical mashing of anchovies. Super fine every time. 

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Sophie's Avenue Burger.

Take a shopping break at UTC Mall and order the Avenue Burger at Sophie's at Saks Fifth Avenue. Juicy Angus beef, cheddar cheese, roasted tomato and a tangle of crispy shoestring onions balance on a fresh brioche bun. You may not finish it all, but you'll savor every bite. 

Downtown’s Mediterraneo is a sophisticated spot known for top-quality Italian dishes. Costoletta de vitello may be best in show. A pounded veal chop is lightly breaded, pan sautéed and seasoned and topped with arugula and tomatoes. Simple—and sensational.  

Always bustling Phillippi Creek Village & Oyster Bar is brilliant with seafood. Consider the fish tacos. Three crisp blue-corn taco shells are layered with big pieces of batter-fried snapper, guacamole, white queso fresco, pineapple infused slaw and a swirl of sauce. Best ever. 

The frutti di mare is worthy of The Sandbar’s seaside setting. Shrimp, crab, clams, lobster and scallops are sautéed with spinach and heirloom tomatoes and served over pasta. Then comes a gentle rain of grated golden bottarga—cured local mullet roe with a salty, sea-funk flavor. 

The best vegetarian bowl on earth? Our vote goes to the macro bowl at the chic new Lila, where chickpeas, sweet potato chunks, avocado, seaweed and brown rice are colorfully arranged in sections and sprinkled with a tasty turmeric-tahini vinaigrette

Everything—everything!—is impeccably French at Maison Blanche; we recommend beginning your evening in Paris with the tomato tart. It’s just cherry tomato confit and fresh basil in a pastry shell, but master chef Jose Martinez makes simplicity sublime.  

Selva is known for superb Nuevo Latin cuisine, and no visit is complete without some ceviche. A must-try: the mixto ceviche, with fresh shrimp, seasonal white fish, octopus, mussels, onion, cusco corn and roasted camotes in a spicy lime marinade. 

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Baker & Wife's The Meatball is comfort food with a twist.

At Baker & Wife, a fun, artisanal spot, The Meatball is a comforting favorite. A big meatball sprinkled with mozzarella sits majestically atop a mound of spaghetti squash transformed with Parmesan cheese, oregano and basil. 

At Muse at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, you can sit inside or out, overlooking the lush grounds, while enjoying Gulf grouper picatta. Blue crab, grouper cheeks and broccolini risotto are sprinkled with crispy capers. Art to eat and appreciate. 

The millefoglie is the dessert to have at La Dolce Vita, a Naples, Italy-inflected restaurant where the bread and pasta are made fresh daily. Layers of crisp puff pastry fraternize with fresh berries, a rich Chantilly-like cream and a swirl of dark chocolate. 

At The Waterfront, an Anna Maria restaurant with views of Tampa Bay and the Gulf, the Moqueca, a Brazilian stew, gets a Florida translation with Gulf shrimp, Tampa Bay clams and fresh local fish swimming in a lime-and-coconut-infused broth. It’s served with cilantro-marinated basmati rice. 

Pork-belly connoisseurs will flip for the honey-plum glazed pork belly appetizer at Boca Kitchen Bar & Market, a new downtown spot winning buzz for its bar scene and creative ways with produce. This dish blends the rich, complex flavors of the pork with kohlrabi, mesquite pineapple and spicy honeycomb. 

The lobster mac ’n’ cheese at The Capital Grille is a sumptuous spin on humble comfort food. Rich and creamy, it’s studded with tender lobster chunks. Order as a dinner side or do what we do: Sneak out to the mall and make a lunch of it with a glass of wine. 

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Lobster mac 'n' cheese at The Capital Grille.

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