If you’re one of the 65,024 people who, according to the Census, are new to Sarasota County since 2004, the name of the best new restaurant on Siesta Key, Summer House, likely means nothing. For the rest of us, it conjures memories of the Summerhouse, which opened on the island in the 1970s.
Sarasotans dined there, but they also tied the knot, celebrated bar and bat mitzvahs, conversed awkwardly before prom and took cooking classes there before it closed in 2004. As famous for its architecture as for its cuisine, the restaurant—called an “air-conditioned jungle” by chef Paul Mattison, who made the place a landmark—occupied a two-story, glass-paneled building set in a tropical landscape during an era when there was still plenty of jungle left on the key. The building still stands, but now it’s a clubhouse for a condo development and is filled with exercise equipment, couches, a pool table and a Sopranos-themed pinball machine.
This new Summer House has nothing to do with the original. Evan Gastman, the chef, says the name is intended as an homage to Mattison and a nod to Siesta Key history. Situated on the north end of Siesta Key Village, the restaurant sits adjacent to The Cottage, The Hub Baja-Grill and The Beach Club. In addition to working at Summer House, Gastman oversees the food at those three locations; all four are owned by Michael Granthon and Chris Brown.
Pitched somewhere between Sarasota School of Architecture and Old Florida, Summer House’s design includes tall windows that allow Village people-watching, comfortable Mad Men-worthy chairs, an amatory bar and playful fish camp artwork. There may be no better place on the key to hoist an Old Fashioned with a date or celebrate a promotion with friends.
Steaks sit in the literal center of the Summer House menu, with filet mignons, New York strips, sirloins, ribeyes and a 40-ounce porterhouse for two. Gastman highlights the provenance of his beef, which comes from Revier Cattle Company in Minnesota and Niman Ranch in California, both known for their sustainable and humane practices. Gastman nails an 18-ounce Revier ribeye ($58), which arrives at the table with a blistered exterior and an interior cooked right to medium rare. Seasoned lightly, the steak delivers pure beefiness.
The chef’s skill with meat extends to a roasted half-chicken ($29). Using his grandmother’s recipe as a model, Gastman brines the chicken, cooks it in a sous-vide and then browns the skin. It might seem like one of the more boring options on the menu, but the half-bird is as juicy as a watermelon, with a perfect crispy, crackly exterior. Forget the half-chicken; bring me a whole one next time, please.
Fish, lobster, scallops, lamb and pork round out the entrée options. Sides are straightforward and well-executed. A bowl of sautéed wild mushrooms ($10) is just that, and doesn’t need to be anything more. Shaved Brussels sprouts ($11) come accented with bacon, brown sugar and a bourbon glaze. The bar’s cocktails, meanwhile, are refined and spirit forward, and the wine list offers by-the-glass options you won’t find anywhere else in Sarasota. Oysters served raw or roasted with spinach, a bacon fondue and bread crumbs ($17) are an excellent way to kick off your meal; the restaurant’s Key lime torte is a popular way to end it.
The only question mark? That name. It’s given the restaurant buzz among old-timers, but it’s a confusing choice for a place that’s not a strict revival. Siesta Key is changing. Masses buzz around the Village even out of season, the county has given the public beach facilities a sleek facelift and the island appears weekly on MTV. (One of Gastman’s restaurants, The Cottage, was featured in the Siesta Key pilot. It’s where Brandon told his mom what he liked about his then-current love interest: “Booty is really nice.”) On an island where the future is suddenly looking very different from the past, Gastman’s food and the restaurant’s gorgeous environs deserve to make a new name for themselves.