For the sake of a meal, Farlow’s on the Water in Englewood can seem like a trek from Sarasota. From downtown, it’s 80 miles round-trip to this creekside restaurant. But most of the drive is on I-75 and the traffic is at its lowest right now, so this is the time to go.
And Farlow’s is unique, showcasing Caribbean food, American Southern specialties and some Florida-seafood favorites, too. You’ll find Kentucky Hot Brown and St. Croix seafood pie as well as black grouper prepared Oscar style. The reason for such variety? The husband/owner, Keith Farlow, is from the Virgin Islands and the wife, Laurie, is from Kentucky, and now they’re running a restaurant on the west coast of Florida. It’s all good.
The food isn’t fusion; there’s no mash-up of ingredients or cultures. Each regional dish is geographically authentic. Southern-style shrimp and grits ($22) has the creamy texture and cheesy-bacon flavor you’d find in a Mississippi diner. The goat tacos ($14) hit your tongue with a flavor bomb of Caribbean ingredients found in every home cook’s kitchen there. Goat tenderloins are marinated in West Indian spices and slow-roasted for six hours. Chunks of the meat are tossed with cilantro, goat cheese and caramelized balsamic onions and served with mango and jicama slaw on the side. You’ve got to try it just so you can say you drove all the way to Farlow’s to get something this unusual.
Caribbean grilled scallop salad ($14) or tamarind wild pink shrimp might tempt. Martinique shrimp and strawberry salad ($14) is refreshing, with seasoned, grilled shrimp mingled with diced pears, strawberries, grape tomatoes, cranberries and feta sprinkled over a mixture of baby kale and arugula. The dressing is a strawberry vinaigrette. A lovely dish for a hot summer afternoon.
Farlow’s is a sprawling place oriented toward views of a wide creek, thickly fringed with mangroves, that flows into Lemon Bay. A lovely boardwalk meanders along the shore, and it’s well worth taking a walk there before or after your meal.
Guests can eat inside in a spacious room fitted out with tropical elements. A stone patio under a vine-covered canopy is studded with tiny, romantic lights. If you want to eat in the open air, that’s possible, too. Large circular stone seats and tables dot an outdoor garden. This option brings you closest to the water. Or dine on the boardwalk and actually be on the water.
The knowledgeable servers time your meal experience so that you can enjoy a leisurely cocktail, and there are lots of signature ones (like the Elyx Blue Cheese martini) as well as a big separate drinks menu with some frozen concoctions, and a good-looking rum thing called Voo Doo Juice that’s served in a souvenir bucket.
Appetizers average $10, and I can vouch for the West Indian conch fritters and goat tacos. But you may be intrigued by beef paté (it’s like an empanada), fried green tomatoes, jumbo Caribbean chicken wings or escargot. Desserts are house recipes, many made with local seasonal berries and fruits. There are four specialty dessert coffees, too, each about $8.
Entrées average about $22, and each comes with a dinner salad and two side dishes of choice. The sides are mostly routine: mashed potatoes, French fries, steamed broccoli or vegetable medley of the day. Better to experiment with more intriguing ones, such as coconut risotto (really good), corn pudding, quinoa salad (gluten-free) or baked sweet potato with mango-rum butter.
The food is well prepared. But this is not gourmet food. It’s home recipes raised a level or two. And the presentation is straightforward. The baked potato is left in the aluminum foil it was baked-steamed in, and silverware is not refreshed between courses unless you ask.
Whole fresh fish is available daily, and I enjoyed a gorgeous whole hog fish, batter-fried and arranged in a nearly upright position on the plate. The batter crust was light and crunchy and once cracked, revealed white, mild fish that fell away from its skeleton with a little tug of the fork. A squeeze of lemon and it couldn’t have been better. The whole fresh fish is market price. Mine was $35, and worth it. Fish and seafood are especially good at Farlow’s, and chef selects and filets the fresh catch himself.
Despite the travel time, I’ll go back to Farlow’s and explore some of the other menu items, such as scallops stuffed with blue crab and topped with bacon ($23), or Southern peaches and brie quesadilla ($10), honey and ginger jerk chicken sandwich or St. Kitts blackened tuna steak with cucumber wasabi sauce ($25). There’s something to please everyone at Farlow’s, including live music Wednesday-Saturday.