27 Ways to Heaven

By staff December 1, 2006

Thanks to visitors and residents with a taste for the good life, Sarasota enjoys an ever-evolving and dizzyingly delicious restaurant scene, from much-awarded landmarks serving classic Continental and New American cuisine to hip little bistros where the food is as cool as the Cosmo-drinking crowd. Creative chefs and entrepreneurs from all over keep elevating the offerings, sometimes giving the latest flavors and trends a Southwest Florida twist.

In a town overflowing with so many culinary riches, we decided to embark on a bold mission: to find the most sensational, satisfying dishes of them all. What made our selections stand out from the crowd? We loved some for their flair and originality, others for their Sarasota roots or stunning presentation, and a few for their sheer simplicity and authenticity. But simple or sophisticated, every dish brought fabulous flavor to the table and left us hungry for more. We started our list with more than 100 selections; after delicious judiciousness, we finally arrived at 27 fare necessities—the dishes every Sarasota resident and visitor absolutely must taste.

Whether it’s a creamy cowgirl goat cheese, a tangy smoked Wisconsin cheddar or an Oregon blue, Southgate Gourmet’s cheese plate reflects owner Cliff Whatmore’s neverending search for the finest American artisanal cheeses. The selections change according to the season and his latest discoveries, but the cheese is always glorious. And so are the accompaniments—macerated dried fruits, chili almonds and red-wine-soaked dates. 2157 Siesta Drive, (941) 954-2280.

No one has ever accused the award-winning Beach Bistro of understatement, as its most extravagant culinary gem, Death by Foie Gras, demonstrates. Homemade brioche transformed into a buttery, rich bread pudding and baked with a hint of pineapple pillows the slices of pan-seared foie gras. A Sauterne vanilla bean reduction puddles the plate. Our only question: Is this an appetizer or dessert? 6600 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, (941) 778-6444.

They say you can't make good bread in Florida—nonsense, they just haven't discovered the baguettes at C’est La Vie. Crusty on the outside, tender on the inside, these authentic French loaves require just the right amount of pull to tear one apart before you even make it to the sidewalk. Perfect with sliced brie and Parma ham or simply solo. Buy an extra one; the first one never seems to make it home. 1553 Main St., (941) 906-9575.

We haunt Yoder’s during season to see if those Mennonite cooks made sour cream raisin pie that day. It’s not always in the vintage ‘50s pie case, but when it is, the cream filling with a hint of butterscotch and lots of slightly piquant raisins sends us straight to heaven. If it's not there, their 'best-seller—strawberry cream pie' is the next best path to paradise. 3434 Bahia Vista, (941) 955-7771.

When temperatures rise, cool off with Crab & Fin’s classic gazpacho. The St. Armands Circle seafood house barely purées the uncooked tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, cucumber, garlic and olive oil to create a highly textured soup, served in a modified martini glass with a dollop of sour cream, a crunchy crouton and a crowning stalk of celery. And just as tasty is the sidewalk seat overlooking the Circle’s pretty promenade of shoppers. 420 St. Armands Circle. (941) 388-396.

The earthy flavors of the Aegean Sea peninsula travel to Siesta Key via Mattison’s Greek salad with grilled lamb chops. A bed of fresh greens hosts a trio of grilled lamb chops, creamy dollops of chevre cheese and a dome of cubed cucumbers bathed in tart tzatziki sauce. You get cured olives and blistered tomatoes, too. This is a casual meal that goes way beyond the norm. 1256 Old Stickney Point Road, (941) 349-2800.

The café tables outside downtown’s new 100 Central offer the quintessential urban al fresco experience, but Pino’s salad di mare will take you straight to restaurateur Pino Luongo’s native Capri. Chilled to a seafood-enhancing temperature, the mussels, littleneck clams, scallops, shrimp and fabulously tender baby octopus are exquisite. A touch of vinaigrette, freshly ground pepper and sea salt—molto bene!  The warm rosemary bread only adds to the excitement. 100 Central, 100 Central Ave., (941) 955-3739.

Foam’s the rage right now, and Cru’s sesame-encrusted ahi tuna with wasabi foam shows why. Everything about this appetizer, especially the whipped cream-like garnish prepared from Japan’s notorious horseradish, delights the senses. A blend of black and white sesame seeds adds color and crunch to the exquisitely tender tuna swimming in a little pool of caramel sauce studded with cracked pepper. 1377 Main St., (941) 951-6272.

Italy’s traditional bruschetta gets artful treatment at the Ringling Museum’s new Treviso café. To a palette of perfect garlic bread, the chef adds a Tuscan white bean tapenade, spiced with oregano and topped with crisp eggplant relish and painterly-red chopped tomatoes. It’s a little masterpiece of a meal, and the Italian-themed museum complex only adds to the authentic flavor. 5401 Bay Shore Road. (941) 360-7490.

A chilled, oversized martini glass filled with tangy key-lime mustard sauce and cocktail sauce makes the foundation for The Colony’s Naked Stone Crab Martini. Next up: mango-avocado-tomato salsa, spooned into half a lemon.  Crabmeat fills the glass, and jumbo cracked stone crab claws over a bed of mixed greens rim the entire plate. Florida’s finest seafood cocktail, bar none. 1620 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key, (941) 383-5558.

This deliciously gamey, meltingly tender medallion of ostrich at Maximo’s probably comes from one of hundreds of ostrich ranches dotting the United States, but we like to imagine it’s fresh from the savannahs of Africa, an image encouraged by the safari-like ambiance of this South African-flavored eatery. All the food is as engaging as the exotic atmosphere, but you just have to order the ostrich. 149 Avenida Messina, Siesta Village, (941) 346-7865.

Michael’s On East has set the culinary standard in Sarasota for 20 years now, and the bow-tie pasta has been one of its most popular entrées since the beginning. For good reason: The grilled chicken is a supporting player to salty pancetta, crunchy snow peas and earthy shitake mushrooms, all fused together with a rich, Parmesan cream sauce. 1212 S. East Ave., (941) 366-0007.

Dip Chutney’s warm, doughy pita bread into creamy Middle Eastern hummus and you’ll be humming for more. The mashed chickpeas are perfectly seasoned with garlic, lemon juice and sesame oil, transforming the ubiquitous and usually pedestrian appetizer into a morsel of manna. You’ll want to eat every last drop—and may even ask for more pita bread. (We always do.) The very best appetizer on Hillview’s restaurant row. Chutney’s Etc., 1944 Hillview St., (941) 954-4444.

Excellent as the entrées are at The Table, they’re just an exquisite prelude to the dessert list, especially the Key lime tower. It’s a testament to the chefs’ creativity that they’ve figured out how to lift Florida’s omnipresent Key lime pie out of the ordinary: Construct a tower circled by a crunchy wall of graham crackers and filled with a creamy, tongue-tingling, tropical custard. Welcome to paradise. 1934 Hillview St., (941) 365-4558.

The antiques and fine art inside the historic Florida Citrus House make the new Rustic Grill a sensory feast even before the food arrives. When it does, the first bite comes in a brown paper bag—warm cornmeal biscuits, punctuated with pepper and so rich they almost fall apart in your fingers. They’re a seductive introduction to an eclectic cuisine that combines old Florida with ultra-modern sensibilities. 400 N. Lemon Ave., (941) 906-1111.

Purists—and they are legion—insist that fresh air and a water view are essential ingredients in a great grouper sandwich. They don’t get any greater than on the waterfront patio at the Old Salty Dog on City Island, where fresh grouper filets are dipped into homemade batter and expertly fried. Add lettuce, tomato and tartar sauce, serve with a cold beer, and you’ve got the perfect Florida vacation meal, served in the perfect spot. 1601 Ken Thompson Parkway, (941) 388-4311.

There is crème brûlee—and there is crème brûlee! The Bijou Café knows how to deliver the real thing, a creamy custard creation with more than a hint of fresh vanilla bean. But we all know the classic French dessert is as much about the crusty caramelized topping as it is about the custard. Bijou hits all the high notes with a brown torched-sugar crust that, when broken with your spoon, dissolves meltingly into the rich custard. 1287 First St., (941) 366-8111.

Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse puts great American spin on the classic French pomme frites with its shoestring French fries. Monster Idaho potatoes are sliced sliver-thin and fried in peanut oil until they turn golden-brown. Dusted with kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper, these crispy delights make a sensational side for steaks and come to the table spilling out of a distinctive cone cup. 2001 Siesta Drive, (941) 358-9463.

You don’t have the scoop on Sarasota if you haven’t strolled around St. Armands licking a creamy, dreamy ice-cream cone from Kilwin’s. Whether you choose classic vanilla or seasonal pumpkin, it’s the quintessential introduction to the city—sea breezes waft by, shop windows beckon, and many of the prosperous-looking tourists in colorful Lily Pulitzers and Tommy Bahama gear are blissfully bemused with their own Kilwin’s cones. 312 John Ringling Blvd., (941) 388-3200.

Smear tender beefsteak with melting foie gras butter, slice off a bite, top it with a French fry kissed with Parmesan-scented white truffle oil and dip it all into port wine glace. Close your eyes and hold onto your armchair! You are about to take off on a rocket-ship ride of taste sensations. Selva Grill’s bistec con sherry with poached foie gras butter and papas frites takes steak and potatoes into the Peruvian stratosphere. 1345 Main St., (941) 362-4427.

A garlic-drenched 1905 Salad at the Columbia Restaurant has been a culinary rite of passage for generations of Sarasota newcomers. First you shop St. Armands Circle. Then you settle into the blessedly cool, dark restaurant and watch the debonair waiter deftly toss chopped iceberg lettuce, chopped Spanish olives, diced tomato and julienned Swiss cheese and ham. Finally, you dive in, sopping up the dressing with crusty, crumbly, fresh-baked Cuban bread. 411 St. Armands Circle, (941) 388-3987.

What does a bait shop offer besides tackle and minnows? How about what may be Sarasota’s best cheeseburger? The New Pass Bait Shop’s burger grabs you hook, line and sinker with "just-the-right-amount-of-grease" beef patties with cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles and onions. Sit by the blue-green pass as you eat it and watch pelicans dive and boats sail by. $6.88 for the whole experience. What did you ever do to get so lucky? 1505 Ken Thompson Parkway, (941) 388-3050.

When rich lobster broth caresses the sweet, tender flesh of miso-glazed Chilean sea bass, we have only one question: When can we come back and have this again? Longboat Key’s Pattigeorge's, well-known for its engagingly inventive Asian-inspired dishes, wins the gold for this specialty. Tender baby bok choy, fresh fennel and baby carrots support the delicate sea bass, which floats gently in the flavorful stock. 4120 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key, (941) 383-5111.

A signature dessert for almost 20 years, Ophelia’s smooth and sensual white chocolate mousse comes in a chocolate-dipped almond twill cup nesting on fresh raspberry coulis. Kayakers have been known to paddle over to enjoy this special treat on the outdoor terrace while gazing at the moon’s shimmering reflection on Little Sarasota Bay. We love it with a 20-year tawny port and a big spoon. 9105 Midnight Pass Road, Siesta Key, (941) 349-2212.

The giant wooden bowl in which they mix the Caesar salad is almost as much of an institution at Euphemia Haye as Ray Arpke, who opened the award-winning Longboat Key restaurant 36 years ago. And the salad is also a classic, with impeccable fresh greens, the proper proportion of fresh garlic to freshly grated Parmesan cheese and exactly the right amount of anchovies. Hail Caesar! 5540 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key, (941) 383-3633.

Simon says go straight to Simon’s Coffeehouse, a strip-mall gem with some of the most deliciously healthy food in town, and order the fresh fruit crepes. Thin, delicate French pancakes enclose two different sets of fillings: juicy berries and warm apples with walnuts. Top the first with sour cream or yogurt and the second with crème fraiche for a breakfast as sinfully sensual as you’d get at any creperie in France. 5900 S. Tamiami Trail, (941) 926-7151.

Even the staff at Zoria gets dreamy-eyed when they start describing their favorite dessert: the banana cream pie. The crust is flaky, the filling ultra-creamy, the bananas sweet and ripe and the cream fresh-whipped. But it’s that caramel drizzle that sends it over the edge. The dessert selection rotates, so call ahead so they have time to make it for you. 1991 Main St., (941) 955-4457.

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