The place was packed on a Thursday evening, but our helpful hostess at State Street Eating House downtown made room for two at the bar, which suited us just fine. The bar often is our first choice at a restaurant, both for the entertainment value a seat there affords and for the attentive personal service provided by a good bartender. We enjoyed both at State Street.
Much was made of this restaurant’s handcrafted cocktail list prior to its opening, and so we had to sample a couple. What we found were excellent, carefully constructed drinks at a bargain price of $8.75 apiece. We’ve paid $25 a pop for cocktails of similar quality in New York. Colette tried the French 75, which blended gin with lemon and a little simple syrup and topped that with a generous champagne float in a flute. I went a more traditional route with a mojito featuring excellent rum and freshly muddled mint in a jar. Both lived up to the build-up.
As we sipped we took in our surroundings, which were decidedly retro with bare brick walls and industrial lighting. A handsome glass-walled wine room anchored the back of the pared-down space, and a pair of tables on the sidewalk offered an al fresco option. The hard surfaces resulted in a pretty high noise level, but we found it convivial.
For starters, Colette went to the snack portion of the menu for a brown paper bag of perfectly crisp fried okra scented with white truffle oil ($5.50). She declared it the best of its kind she’s tasted—and she’s downed a lot of okra! My appetizer was heftier and a bit of a challenge: a pair of grilled fresh sardines served whole, head and all ($9.50). Forget the little headless things that come in a tin; these were full-grown fish that required a fairly delicate touch to scrape the oily flesh from the bones. The effort is worth it if you like that sort of thing, and I do.
For her main course Colette went wild, ordering a whole roasted chicken more commonly shared by two diners ($26.50). The plump pullet arrived stuffed with oranges and rosemary and smelling like heaven. It tasted every bit as good it smelled. The skin was just brown enough, and the meat was a moist and tender miracle. A side of Brussels sprouts roasted in duck fat ($5.50) made her swoon. As Colette had planned, the half chicken we took home with us made a fine cold lunch the next day.
I chose a variation on a favorite pasta dish: sweet potato gnocchi tossed with spinach, tomatoes, toasted pine nuts and shaved Parmesan ($18.50). Not bad, but not the best gnocchi prep I’ve tasted, either. Colette liked the dish better than I did. What I loved loved loved was the side I ordered of fresh-baked rustic bread and flat bread with sea salt ($2). The flat bread was plump and toothsome—definitely not the crackerlike lavash that the flat bread label might bring to mind. The rustic bread was a coarse and eminently full-flavored sourdough enhanced by a few heartbeats on the grill after being thick sliced. The bread gave me the opportunity to do a bit of swooning myself.
The wine list is compact but well chosen with a very nice assortment by the glass, which is how we rolled that evening: a lightly brambled pinot noir ($9) for her and a nicely flinty white Bordeaux ($6) for him.
State Street Eating House’s menu and innovative bar offerings make it a promising addition to downtown Sarasota’s enviable collection of restaurants.
1533 State St., Sarasota
Reservations (for parties of six or more): (941) 951-1533
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Cards: All Major
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Parking: On Street
Peruvian Comfort Food at Canta Rana
The place to be in fine weather at Canta Rana is outdoors, around back under a high canopy of live oaks, a dining space so delightful I’d be willing to stretch the definition of fine weather a good bit before retreating inside to the AC.
Canta Rana describes its menu as Peruvian fusion and offers a handful of dishes influenced by Chinese, Spanish, Puerto Rican and Italian traditions in addition to a much lengthier list of more indigenous fare.
Many Sarasotans think first of the masterful and innovative cuisine pioneered here by Chef Darwin Santa Maria when they hear the word Peruvian applied to food and drink. Chef Diana Durand’s Canta Rana is decidedly down home by comparison, purveying what we might think of as Peruvian comfort food.
Our recent dinner started strongly. From the appetizers list we chose a rustic and straightforward tamalito criollo ($5.99). This starter features a nice fat corn tamale stuffed with pork and onions and steamed in a plantain leaf before being sauced criollo (lots of sweet peppers, onion and garlic).
We also sampled a first-course tiradito al olivo ($13.99), which “cooked” sashimi-style sliced corvina (a generic tag for just about any of more than 250 saltwater sweet and firm-fleshed drums and croakers) in a tart and creamy marinade of limes and olives. Very tasty.
For her main course Colette chose aji de gallina ($12.99), a mildly spicy stew of shredded chicken breast and potatoes in a creamy aji pepper sauce with ricotta cheese and walnuts. She declared it savory and good. I went for the lomo saltado ($15.99), a stir fry of sirloin strips, onions, garlic and peppers, oddly garnished with steak fries right in with everything else. It was pretty good, but not as good as Colette’s chicken stew.
The evening’s pièce de résistance proved to be dessert, which was mazamorra morado ($4.99). Although billed as purple corn pudding, it was anything but a custard. Instead, it was a bowl of hot, thick, sweet, deep purple soup with a flavor that reminded us deliciously of blackberries. We’ll order this delicacy again.
1813 Fruitville Road, Sarasota
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; until 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., followed by regular menu until 5 p.m.
Cards: All Major
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Parking: In Lot
This article appears in the June 2012 issue of Sarasota Magazine.