Good news! Chef Darwin Santa Maria, the founding chef at Main Street’s Selva Grill, has returned to downtown Sarasota with a very fine restaurant called Darwin’s on 4th. The gifted Peruvian chef’s latest venture occupies in style the building that once housed Rustica and more recently Mad Crow Brewery.
It’s clear that the chef’s reputation preceded the opening of Darwin’s On 4th. Just two weeks after the restaurant and bar bowed, the place was packed with diners happy to have Chef Darwin’s unique mix of cuisines back in the heart of the city.
The place looks much the same as in previous incarnations but has been enlivened in subtle ways, making it more welcoming and comfortable. We liked the video screen behind the host’s stand that showed the chef and his crew at work. Inside the high-ceilinged dining room the open exhibition kitchen, rimmed by a food bar for those who enjoy the theater of culinary as much as the food, dominates the room, and that’s a good thing. One enters through the bar, which features music both live and DJ-dished as well as a late-night menu of its own and a pluperfect Pisco sour cocktail.
We noticed that the brewing tanks left over from Mad Crow still gleam in an alcove near the entrance. Word is that by the time you read this Darwin’s will be brewing its own craft beer, to complement a tasty list of domestic and imported artisanal brews already on tap.
Those familiar with the chef’s work, both at Selva and later at The Cottage on Siesta Key, will be glad to see that his signature mix of appetizers and small plates, with some new wrinkles, is on offer here. Piqueos, which the menu describes as “modern appetizers inspired by traditional recipes,” run the spectrum from classics like fried calamari with a sweet chili sauce to burgers large and small. Ceviches and tiraditos figure prominently, too, as they always do on the chef’s menus, abetted here by something new: causa sushi from Peru, which pairs a yellow potato terrine, rather than the usual sticky rice, with spicy tuna, crab or salmon.
I was surprised and pleased by my shrimp spring roll starter ($9), which proved to be a creamy wonder, perfectly blending fresh minced shrimp with unlikely ingredients including condensed milk and crushed oyster crackers in a crispy wrapper, accented by a savory avocado aioli for dipping and a chili sauce swoosh.
Colette was happy with Darwin’s tuna tiradito ($14), which plated thin slices of tuna sashimi with watermelon cubes set off by a ginger soy sauce and leche de tigre, or tiger’s milk, a Peruvian citrus-based marinade.
One could make a satisfying and diverse meal of small plates shared around the table, but it would be a shame to miss the main courses, not to mention dessert.
My favorite fish is not cod—at least it wasn’t before I tucked into the chef’s perfectly nuanced pan-roasted cod ($23). The fish itself was fresh and firm, sauced in a swoony bay leaf cream and served atop a ragu of white and purple fingerling potatoes, crisp fava beans and tenderly delicious crimini and shiitake mushrooms. Reader, I licked the plate clean.
Beside me on a banquette that gave us a fine view of the convivial dining room and a generous slice of the kitchen feverishly in progress, Colette ordered a dish that knocked us both out. Remember that guy on NPR who used to describe the classical music he played as Super OTW (for out of this world)? The herb-crusted roasted lamb loin ($28) at Darwin’s is exactly that fabulous. For starters, the meat is perfection itself and the portion generous, cooked precisely to the medium rare Colette specified. Its flavor all on its own was heaven.
Factor in a perfectly gorgeous herb crust and a lovely rosemary port demi, add a yummy white parsnip purée and asparagus tips, and you have a dish for the ages.
Did we manage dessert after all that? We did. I happily devoured Darwin’s brûlée ($7), a chocolatey dream (the menu boasts “100 percent cacao Amazonas”) served not in a ramekin but standing tall in a tower topped with caramelized sugar. Meanwhile, Colette purred over the lavender and honey poached pear (also $7), crowned with mouthwatering goat cheese ice cream and spiked with black pepper caramel.
We closed out a lovely evening at table with a shared thimbleful of something new to us, a malbec port ($8) that our thoroughly professional waiter found hard to describe. He came back to us for our verdict, and we all agreed that the rambunctious digestif can best be described as a fine collision of Spanish tradition and New World brashness.
Darwin’s On 4th marks the triumphant return of gifted Peruvian chef Darwin Santa Maria to downtown Sarasota and adds another jewel to our town’s culinary crown.
Darwin’s on 4th
1525 Fourth St., Sarasota
Reservations (recommended): (941) 343-2165
Hours: 4-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday; 5 p.m. until 1 a.m. Saturday; 5-10 p.m. Sunday
Cards: All major
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Parking: Complimentary valet or on street
Seafood Stars at Half Shell Oyster House
The kitchen at Half Shell Oyster House on Sarasota’s Main Street knows what to do with a deep fryer, but the best dish on the menu is a welcome twist on the Southern favorite shrimp and grits.
Half Shell, the newest link in a mini chain that includes sister restaurants in Mississippi’s Gulfport and Biloxi, puts the building that once sheltered Zoria to good use. It stakes its reputation on charbroiled Gulf of Mexico oysters, but you can get them raw and freshly shucked, too, as well as fried or dandied up Bienville or Rockefeller style.
The raw Louisiana oysters ($13/dozen) we enjoyed at a table out front under a big awning were plump and briny and absolutely fresh. With a bottle of crisp Whitehaven Marlborough sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, well priced at $30, we also sampled two other starters. The fried green tomatoes ($10) were terrific, underlain by a lemon basil aioli and crowned with a lump crab ravigote, a vinegar-based sauce. The crunchy tomato slices were layered with the house crab cakes, which, alas, are too little crab and too much cake. The grilled Portobello mushroom caps stuffed with crab and chipotle peppers ($9) were zesty and right tasty, too.
I went for a classic seafood fry-up ($26) for my main course, which gave me the chance to sample several savory offerings from the deep fryer. The fat oysters were first-rate in their crisp crumb jackets, the shrimp fresh and sweet, and the okra perfectly toothsome, fried just right. The only off-key note was struck by another of those crab cakes, which also make an appearance in the restaurant’s “Big Easy” surf and turf ($27). Fortunately, that dish stars an absolutely delectable six-ounce filet of beef beautifully complemented by sauce Béarnaise and naked lump crab meat.
The star of the evening was Colette’s shrimp and grits ($15), which proved to be a yummy surprise. The grits, in this iteration, might be more properly called polenta, as they are formed into rectangles of coarse-ground yellow corn meal fortified with cheddar cheese and lightly sautéed, creating the perfect foundation for fresh, firm shrimp sautéed with shallots and tossed in a light and lively pecan barbecue sauce. Oh, my! We may never be satisfied with the traditional version again.
Half Shell Oyster House
1991 Main St., Sarasota
Reservations: (941) 952-9400
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Parking: On street or complimentary valet
Read all our restaurant reviews at sarasotamagazine.com