Jungle Fever

By staff May 1, 2005

Forsaking his little start-up location in an uninspiring Sarasota strip mall off Clark Road, chef Darwin Santa Maria of Selva Grill (selva means jungle in Peruvian) has earned cheers from his faithful fans by moving to downtown Sarasota. Now he can feed the cool downtown crowds in a congenial indoor-outdoor setting.

"Ceviche for everyone" could be his new motto, because on any given weekend night it's not unusual for the bustling open kitchen to turn out 300 of these gorgeous marinated raw seafood and lightly seared meat appetizers. Ceviches are arranged like art in variously sized plates and stemware, each one an ingenious and tempting bundle of savory/sweet/tangy bliss. They range in price from $7 to $13 and include combinations such as octopus, sliced thin and marinated with Peruvian black olive sauce, or salmon with lemongrass and ginger-infused coconut water. Or how about tuna bathed in ginger and soy sauce and paired with cubes of fresh watermelon for a taste experience that's both sweet and clean? The house specialty ceviche combines corvina fish, lime, onion, cilantro, corn and roasted camotes. That one will perk up your palate, all right.

Now that his kitchen is bigger, Santa Maria is joined by two other chefs, Matt Johnson (who some nights concentrates on just the ceviches) and Eric Houseknecht, whose specialty is pastry. He's the reason the dessert menu has been expanded and elegantly elevated. Co-owner is Pablo Castro, whom regular Burns Court diners will remember as the front-of-the-house partner at Uva Rara. He's Argentinean, which might explain Don Pedros on the fancy drink menu. This Argentinean favorite consists of Scotch or bourbon with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Cocktail and dessert in one glass-how efficient.

The new Selva Grill space was formerly occupied by Main Street Bistro, and Santa Maria hasn't made major changes to the décor, opting to keep the flat wall fountain outside and the ever-changing swirling light mural inside. But he has made the rooms a bit more sophisticated with black tablecloths and napkins, comfortable low lighting and sexy background music. Inside, seating is a combination of tables and banquettes, or you can eat at the bar on the other side of the partition. Additionally, the bar serves a late-night menu from 11 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Service by a young and multicultural staff is crisp and efficient, with lots of smiles.

Expect pan-Central and South American cooking with a dash of Asian. Risotto is prepared with cilantro, green peas and beer to be served with duck breast. Wok-fried sirloin is wed to fried yucca, while a piece of mahi-mahi is glazed with guava and served up with a black bean jicama salad and pineapple salsa. Skirt steak comes with beet relish and sweet plantains, and a roasted bass nuzzles up to corn custard flan and black bean sauce. Even the ubiquitous salmon is jazzed up at Selva Grill. It's pan-seared, wrapped in plantain leaves and served with rice and champagne vinaigrette. While recipes might be rooted in modest peasant kitchens of Northern Peru or even China, there's a modern cross-cultural theatrical flair about everything that's created in this Sarasota bistro. Entrées average about $25. And extra sides, such as jicama salad or sweet plantains or tostones, are an additional $5.

You do want to try chef Houseknecht's desserts ($6.50-$8), if just for the pleasure of seeing these beauties sail out of the kitchen, raised aloft by the wait staff. With their colorful (and edible) neon palm trees and modern art squiggles, each looks as appealing as it tastes. Selections such as strawberry shortcake, banana flan, cheesecake or bread pudding might sound old hat, but they, too, are spun into lively flights of fancy with combinations of ingredients that will leave you coveting the recipes. As Lellys Santa Maria, Darwin's wife, who works the front of the house, always says, Selva Grill "is a party in your mouth."

Selva Grill

1345 Main St., Sarasota

(941) 362-4427

Dinner: 5-10 p.m. nightly and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Catering offsite and private lunches in the dining rooms available

Credit cards

Reservations suggested

Valet or street parking

Wheelchair accessible

Keeping Sunday Special

Sometimes we forget about Sarasota's long-established restaurants until a tourist or visiting relative helps us to rediscover them. Newer, flashier pleasures come into view, and we lose sight of old friends. When a houseguest recently suggested Sunday champagne brunch at the Hyatt, I realized that I hadn't been there in ages but was absolutely eager to return.

Every few years, in accordance with Hyatt corporate policy, the dining room changes its name and makes a few décor alterations to keep things fresh. So when you go to the Hyatt now you'll have brunch at Scalini's (formerly Pompano Cay), on the lobby level. It's been several other names, too, since the hotel opened in 1975, but the brunch itself at $29.50 has pretty much remained the same: a long and pretty parade of breakfast and lunch, hot and cold foods concealed under big, rounded silver domes spread out both inside the dining room and outside in the immediate lobby area.

This is a brunch buffet composed to make a visual impact on the hungry and also to appeal to wide-ranging tastes and varied age groups-everything from eggs Benedict, bagels and lox and apple crepes to oysters Rockefeller, chicken and yellow rice, mahi-mahi, Asian pork, peel-and-eat shrimp, or simple croissants or muffins with jam. The coffee is always Starbucks. At several of the food stations, brunch experts are ready to customize your order, whether for an omelet, pancakes or waffles, roast beef or even made-to-order shrimp scampi. The fruit and dessert stations are bountiful and beautifully laid out, making choices that much more difficult. I always think people can learn a lot about home entertaining by studying how experienced brunch buffet professionals figure out traffic patterns and presenting platters of food in the most enticing ways. Hint: Vary the levels by making good use of footed trays, cake stands and even boxes or overturned bowls draped with a cloth.

The Hyatt dining room is divided into two levels, the lower one closer to the wide glass windows and views of the marina and Sarasota Bay beyond. The upper level features a mirrored ceiling, which enhances the room's lightness and brightness. Hotel guests and locals enjoying brunch tend to dress tropical casual, but the wait staff is formally attired and service is formal, too. When you get up to forage a new buffet station, your plate will be cleared immediately, your yellow cloth napkin folded and the table refreshed with necessary silverware. Coffee and juices are brought to your table. Tables are laid with starchy white cloths and the rattan armchairs are plenty comfortable enough for a long and leisurely meal. Note that if you intend to have a glass or two of champagne with your brunch, book your reservation for noon or after, because no bubbly can be poured before then.

The name of the Hyatt dining room may change periodically, but the Sunday champagne brunch abides as a dependable and enjoyable place to spend a few hours eating things you'd probably never cook at home on a Sunday morning.

Scalini's at the Hyatt

1000 Boulevard of the Arts, Sarasota

(941) 953-1234

Sunday Champagne Brunch: 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m.

Reservations suggested

Credit cards

Valet or self-parking

Wheelchair accessible

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