Food & Wine - May 2011

By John Bancroft Photography by Matt McCourtney May 1, 2011


Belgian Seduction

It’s always a pleasure to welcome a new star into the firmament of terrific restaurants that line Sarasota’s food-fabulous Main Street. This time the newcomer is a very fine Belgian restaurant and bar, Brasserie Belge. It shares a courtyard with another of our favorites, Mediterraneo, across the street from the Hollywood 20 cineplex.

The brasserie took over the space once occupied by Buddha Belly Donuts and transformed it into an inviting urban watering hole. There are tables outside on the patio as well as inside near the handsome bar and in a curvaceous red room lined on one wall with a comfy banquette. You can dine at the bar, too.

Before we get to the outstanding list of mostly Belgian beers and ales and the signature moules frites, a word about the mayonnaise in which one is invited to go native and dip the superior Belgian—not French,

please—fries. For one thing it’s homemade, and second, it really brings out the full savor of the crisp yet tender fries.

I think you will be happy if you try it. If not, your waiter will graciously replace Belgium’s preferred dip with ketchup.

The frites themselves come with several dishes, but perhaps most gloriously with main course moules frites ($18 to $22, depending on prep), a big steaming pot of perfectly fresh and tender little mussels steamed in your choice of a celery, onion and butter broth, in a creamy garlic sauce, simply in white wine, or done Provençale style with fresh tomatoes and basil spiked with pastis, the French anise-flavored liqueur.

The latter prep ($22) is the one Colette chose on our recent visit, and I feared she might swoon at first sniff, let alone first bite. The aroma of about two pounds of gemlike mussels in their open shells aswim in a delightfully fragrant bath was heady, indeed. The way-better-than-average fries came in a paper cone on the side and went wonderfully with the shellfish. If you have a smaller appetite, there’s an appetizer portion, too ($8 to $13).

To go with the moules, Colette wisely chose a Belgian pale ale so concentrated and nuanced as to rival the luscious red Côtes du Rhône ($7) that I chose. Her bottled Orval Trappist Ale ($12.50) explains why Belgian ales and Trappist monks are so admired around the world. The bar offers many choices in the bottle as well as several choices on tap, including my old fave Stella Artois.

Now, let’s back up to starters. Colette opted for carpaccio ($9.50) and was as happy as a little girl with the perhaps less than obvious choice in a Belgian restaurant. The thinly sliced raw beef was rosy and full-flavored and superbly complemented by generous shavings of good Parmesan cheese and fresh basil.

Across the table I enjoyed a more likely choice in the form of fondus au fromage, or cheese croquettes ($6). Two of the lightly battered and golden crisp lozenges were overstuffed with creamy white cheese and were thoroughly satisfying. If you prefer to share an appetizer, this is a fine choice.

While Colette purred over the mussels, I wallowed in the homey pleasure of onglet à l’échallote, or hanger steak in red wine and shallot sauce ($15.50), a twist on the French bistro staple steak frites. The bargain cut of meat is among the most flavorful to grace a plate (be sure to slice across the grain), either in the more austere French version, often served either naked or with a pat of herb butter, or the richly sauced Belgian version. This is one of my favorite simple meals, and both the steak and the fries at Brasserie Belge were absolutely first-rate. I’ll be back for more, and Colette definitely will order the mussels again.

We were thoroughly satisfied but, because ours was a working dinner and we honor the obligation to sample widely when working, we ordered desserts. (What won’t we do for science?)

Colette’s mousse au chocolat Belge ($6) was further testimony to Belgium’s gastronomic chops, this time the excellence of its chocolatiers. I went for the more lavish crêpes mikado ($7), which pairs two light and toothsome crêpes, stuffs them with scoops of vanilla ice cream and sauces the whole extravagant confection in more of that wonderful warm Belgian chocolate. Yum.

Brasserie Belge

1990 Main St., Sarasota

Reservations: (941) 706-1944

Full bar, excellent Belgian beer and ale list, wines by the glass

Hours: 11 a.m.-1 a.m. (kitchen closes at midnight), 7 days

Cards: all major

Handicapped accessible: yes

Parking: free in attached garage entered from Ringling Boulevard

The Verdict

This terrific new addition to Main Street’s galaxy of culinary stars features sublime steamed mussels, superior fries and a host of other good choices at lunch and dinner daily. The Belgian beers and ales are not to be missed.

Dining Well at DaRuMa

There’s a good reason why our readers consistently rate DaRuMa Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Lounge among the city’s best dining destinations: The food, service and setting are all thoroughly enjoyable. Whether you choose to sit at the attractive sushi bar, at a traditional table or booth, or around the table-sized flat-top grills where high-hatted teppan chefs wield cutlery with unnerving aplomb, you’ll have the best seat in the house.

The restaurant, named after the sage who long ago spread Zen Buddhism far and wide, integrates its varied service and cooking styles seamlessly. We chose a quiet booth for two at which we sampled from the superb sushi menu, the teppan grill and the kitchen, which for us was just right.

We started our evening with a really good deal from a list of $5 appetizers. What we got for $10 were not scaled-down portions or pale imitations of real starters but rather five superb gyoza, those heavenly little pan-seared dumplings stuffed with pork and veggies, and a full-sized and delectable spicy tuna roll with the expected trimmings. We were impressed and think you will be, too. Plenty of other hot and cold starters are available at a wide range of prices.

Meals—whether petite entrées, bigger combination boxes, or sushi platters—come with a superior miso soup with plenty of tender tofu cubelets and greens and a refreshing green salad with the ginger dressing familiar to habitués of sushi bars everywhere.

Colette’s sushi dinner, Maguro Delight ($19.95), was a stunner and a bargain at the price. It paired five absolutely gorgeous raw tuna filets draped artfully over lozenges of seasoned rice plus her choice of spicy tuna roll (which we had already sampled) or the aptly named dynamite roll. A lovely single orchid blossom graced the plate, and in addition to wasabi, thin-sliced ginger and soy, a nifty peanut dipping sauce came along for the ride. Absolutely first-rate in every particular.

I opted for a combination box pairing deep-fried tempura shrimp with grilled New York strip steak sliced and served in a semi-sweet teriyaki sauce ($25.95). Both were very good and the accompaniments were equally good: steamed broccoli and cauliflower florets, a dab of tangy seaweed salad and steamed rice with veggies. Most satisfying.

DaRuMa Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Lounge

5459 Fruitville Road in Sarasota Crossings Center, Sarasota

Reservations: (941) 342-6600

Full bar, Japanese beers, wine and sake

Hours: 5-10 p.m., 7 days

Cards: all major

Handicapped accessible: yes

Parking: shopping center parking lot

An editor, writer and online publisher, John Bancroft has reviewed restaurants, books, movies and music for many magazines, websites and newspapers, most recently for the St. Petersburg Times.

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