Is it possible that French food today is underrated? For decades, high-end restaurants in America competed to perfect French cooking, offering more and more refined versions of duck confit, beef bourguignon and sole meunière, as if French cuisine were the only culinary tradition worth honoring.
That attitude has gone out the window. American chefs now embrace flavors and techniques from distant countries and cultures, while also resuscitating neglected food traditions from right here at home. But all that newness has left a void in the world of French cooking—a void that, in Sarasota, at least, Libby’s Neighborhood Brasserie is now filling. Libby’s first opened back in 2008 and for a decade served as the flagship eatery of Steve Seidensticker’s company, Tableseide Restaurant Group. Seidensticker’s son, Joe Seidensticker, the company’s chief executive officer, and daughter, Lisa Seidensticker, the chief operating officer, originally planned to remodel Libby’s and reopen last fall, a schedule thrown off by the death of their widely admired father, as well as construction setbacks. Libby’s finally opened for business again this May, with a stunning new look and a revamped menu.
With its other new restaurant, Lemon Tree Kitchen, Tableseide has thrown in with the trend of offering lots of vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free items for people following special diets. When I asked Lisa Seidensticker in May if the new Libby’s would follow that example, I got an emphatic no, right before Joe Seidensticker brought out a wooden cutting board weighted down with a duck and pork terrine served with spicy mustard, cornichons, walnuts and crusty bread. The cool pâté inside the terrine is rich and fatty; a thick slice of it is pure indulgence. And while it isn’t on the current menu, which changes often, it has lingered in my mind. Expertly spiced and accented with pistachios and thyme, it was the kind of warm, hearty dish that tastes great with a glass of sparkling white wine between ski runs in the French Alps.
As that terrine demonstrated, the new Libby’s is committed to the brasserie concept. “Brasserie” originally meant “brewery,” and the brasserie style of restaurant in France is often a casual place, as much a bar as a restaurant, with delicious, uncomplicated food at a price that allows for regular stop-ins.
Libby’s rotisserie half chicken ($24) is a perfect example of what you’ll find. There’s nothing creative about it, just a plump, juicy half-bird that’s been roasted to perfection and is served alongside a warm potato salad studded with bits of bacon and Brussels sprouts. Same with the skirt steak ($32), perhaps my favorite cut of beef. A long, thin strip of meat, grilled until charred on the outside while still red-pink inside, it is wonderful, particularly when dunked in the restaurant’s unnecessary but outstanding au poivre sauce.
The restaurant also offers one of Sarasota’s best burgers ($16) and excellent salads. I love the watercress salad ($11) with its herbal greens, spicy walnuts and blue cheese, as well as the bistro salad ($11), delivered with a quivering poached egg on top. The charred octopus ($16) is another standout. The flesh is tenderized before being grilled, resulting in a soft but meaty texture and a blackened exterior. The cocktails and beer and wine menu are a hit, too—making Libby’s an ideal place for an evening meetup. The only misstep: dessert. A soufflé came out slightly burnt.
Nothing on the revamped Libby’s menu will strike you as bold or innovative. It’s French comfort food par excellence—delicious and satisfying.