The Sarasota food scene is moving in opposite directions. On the one hand, eateries like Made, Five-O Donut Co. and Daily Bird are pushing the limits of indulgence, cranking up their deep fryers to blast out calorie bombs that will leave you so full, all you’ll need to eat for the rest of the day is a handful of greens. On the other hand, you have food trucks like Spice Boys and restaurants like Lila, State Street Eating House + Cocktails and the new Lemon Tree Kitchen, all of which are experimenting with new ways of highlighting vegetables in place of meat.
A tale of two cities? Not really. The Venn diagram for both kinds of restaurants’ customers overlaps more than it separates. Healthy food fanatics aren’t necessarily averse to pigging out every now and then, and even devoted doughnut devourers are finding themselves drawn to the bright, light and innovative dishes being served at our new crop of vegetable-focused eateries. Eating out today is more of a choose-your-own-adventure experience than ever before.
Lemon Tree is the latest entrant in the “clean” category—a catch-all term that covers restaurants that aren’t strictly vegetarian or vegan but that emphasize vegetables rather than meat and accommodate gluten-free diets and other specialty eating plans. The restaurant replaced Louies Modern in March, but the ownership didn’t change. Tableseide Restaurant Group, which also operates the recently reopened Libby’s, multiple Oak & Stone locations and Muse at The Ringling, is still in charge. (The future of Miss Susie’s Newtown Kitchen, a nonprofit restaurant launched with much fanfare last spring, is currently up in the air.)
You don’t have to be a vegetarian to love Lemon Tree, but the menu is stocked with great vegetarian options. The meat-free appetizers are particularly appealing. The delicious “vegan tartare” ($8) swaps in plant-based cow substitutes for the traditional ground beef. Sometimes, the main ingredient is the much-buzzed-about Impossible Burger, which is made with fermented soy; other times, it’s made with ground Boca Burger, another soy product. The excellent “bedeviled eggs” ($7) are vegan, with soft scoops of turnip playing the role of egg white and a mash of tofu and paprika sitting where the yolk mixture usually rests. A portobello mushroom “carpaccio” ($11), meanwhile, highlights thinly shaved fungi marinated in soy and balsamic vinegar in place of beef. All of them build flavor with sharp acid and salty accents and strong herbs and spices, rather than with fat or sugar.
The vegetarian entrées are more hit-or-miss. The “vegetable pho” ($14) combines a mushroom broth with finely shredded zucchini and carrots, tofu and bean sprouts. It’s tasty, but the thin broth lacks the intense body and spice of Vietnamese pho. (It might be more satisfying if it wasn’t marketed as a pho replacement.) Cauliflower steaks have popped up on several local menus, and Lemon Tree offers one for $15. The cauliflower itself is standard, but it’s given life by a smooth butternut squash purée that improves whatever it coats.
Ignore the pizza at your peril. It’s some of the city’s best. The vegan pie ($16) uses cashew cream instead of cheese and comes topped with shaved pear, arugula and balsamic. Even meat eaters will love it. Don’t bother with dessert (an $8 corn crème brûlée comes strangely un-brûléed), but do stick around for coffee, which is made by the adjacent Buddy Brew café. That makes Lemon Tree perhaps the only restaurant in Sarasota where you can get a glass of nitro cold brew at the end of your meal. Leaving the restaurant, you feel full and satisfied, but not weighed down with meat and grain, plus caffeinated to the gills.
Lemon Tree Kitchen | 1289 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota, (941) 552-9688, tableseide.com/lemon-tree-kitchen