Alley Cat Cafe
1558 Fourth Street
A surprising little cottage and walled garden hideaway in an alley next door to the Salvation Army warehouse. Unique to say the least. Lunch in the garden under the towering trees. Salads come with arugula, endive and radicchio and grilled herb-happy goat cheese, or grilled quail in a bed of greenery with smoked bacon, Saga blue cheese and wildberry vinaigrette. If it's a sandwich you prefer, try the pan-seared sirloin with wild mushrooms, smoked gouda and English ale-onion marmalade, or breast of chicken with maple-smoked bacon, or grilled eggplant with sun dried tomatoes and arugula on toasted garlic bread. Start your candlelight dinner amid a fine array of antiques with sauteed Florida crab cakes and ginger Dijon remoulade, or the house p?t? with champagne-tickled mustard. Follow that with crispy duckling christened with Calvados, half a roasted free-range hen with a stuffing of andouille and cornbread, or the filet mignon with three-onion marmalade and sauce bearnaise. Lunch and dinner, with $16 to $24.50 entrees, are served Monday through Saturday.
7252 S. Tamiami Trail
Chef-owner Andre Lavigne started his Florida culinary career as a busboy in Miami's Cafe Chauveron, but quickly was promoted to kitchen waiter and then captain, later moving over to Mark's Place when the Cafe closed. He and wife Lana, a Chauveron classmate for years, couldn't afford a chef when they opened this little bistro in April 1993, so Andre took over and he's working wonders. Lana handles the postage-stamp front, serving nightly blackboard specials. The grilled salmon and scallops proven?ale were as sensational as the triple chocolate cake from a special recipe given to them by friend and dessert guru Maida Heatter. Dinner, with entrees from $11 to $23, is served nightly.
The Bijou Cafe
1287 First Street
A brilliant case study of adaptive restoration, this transformed Texaco station is where owner-chef Jean-Pierre Knaggs works such wonders as crispy duck with fruit stuffing, orange-raspberry cognac sauce or green peppercorn demi-cream sauce. Another favorite is the shrimp piri-piri, spicy hot shrimp sauteed with garlic, lemon and cayenne. Lunch Monday through Friday. Dinner, with entrees from $12 to $21, served Monday through Saturday.
The Broken Egg
210 Avenida Madera
Mart and Lori Solu are the energies behind this combination deli-bakery-gourmet gift shop, serving breakfast and lunch and offering catering service, too. It's located in the heart of the Village, next door to one of the best tennis shops in the South. There are freshly baked bagels along with croissants and cinnamon swirls which are worked into French toast. I like the Broken Eggwich, corned beef hash and Jerry's buttermilk pancakes freckled with bananas, blueberries and wheat germ. The Incredible Hash Browns made with cheddar and sour cream are worthy of the name. Breakfast and lunch, with entrees from $3.25 to $7, are served daily.
1213 North Palm Avenue
Wildly exotic menu of specialties served in a beautifully preserved historic home. Start with the buffalo in a lingonberry and Merlot wine sauce. Or try the herb-crusted rack of lamb with roasted garlic, rosemary and mint sauce. One of the knock-out desserts is the chocolate flourless cake, an incredibly rich chocolate cake with chocolate icing. Dinner only, Tuesday through Saturday, with entree prices from $17 to $25.
1526 Main Street
We had a memorable meal at this state-of-the-French-art jewel - salmon tartare and rack of lamb. But what truly sets this place apart are the Saturday-Sunday breakfasts built around all-organic everything and homemade "creme fraiche." Among my favorite "plats de r'sistance" are the Belgian waffles with Vermont maple syrup and the omelets made with brie or in the Nicoise fashion with black olives, green pepper, onion and tomato. I also like the "oeufs en Meurette," poached eggs blessed with burgundy, garlic and onion and served with mushrooms and thick slices of fresh bacon. Breakfast entrees range from $5 to $7.
328 John Ringling Blvd.
St. Armand's Circle, Sarasota
The same chef who made downtown Carmichael's such an adventure moved to his own place last August, and with wife Dot handling the front room, he's providing a super menu selection which he's labeled "Flavors of the Harvest Cuisine." David serves up the freshest of everything including sauces made with vegetable roux and natural fruit extracts - not butter, flour and fat - and absolutely no additives. The luncheon Black Angus burgers, grilled on applewood, are beauts; the spinach salad is superior with char-grilled salmon, dates, figs and lingonberries. Start your dinner with fresh Bar Harbor oysters mignonette or Great Grandmother's Winter Salad made with Anjou pear, smoked Danish gouda and Wisconsin turkey on a bed of baby greens with honey-mustard dressing; then order the pan-roasted rosemary-tangerine scented chicken breast with real mashed potatoes, or the venison with Alpine mushrooms and purple shallots splashed with aged marsala. Lunch and dinner, with $13.50 to $18 entrees, are served Tuesday through Saturday.
1395 Main Street
This extremely popular breakfast-lunch local link of a mini-chain, found also in Naples and Orlando and as far afield as Phoenix and San Francisco, has great pancakes loaded with blueberries, wheatberries, cinnamon-coated apples, raisins and walnuts. But I also like the unique Crepeggs, paper-thin crepes made with whipped eggs and filled with various combos of turkey, mushrooms, avocado, spinach, onions, Monterey jack, ham and sprouts. I especially like Pope John, a pair of eggs with potatoes, melted Swiss, onions and mustard with cut-up Kielbasa - thus the name. Heavenly! Breakfast, with entrees $2 to $6.75, is served daily.
Jack's Chophouse Grill & Downunder Jazz Bar
U.S. 41 and Fruitville Rd. 941/951-2467
Waterfront dining on solid steaks, chops and fish lightened with New American finesse. Excellent wine list. For dinner, try the Boursin and pistachio-crusted rack of Colorado lamb with brunoise ratatouille. For dessert, the peanut butter mousse with a pecan-chocolate crust is a must. Brunch on Sunday. Dinner daily, with entrees from $10 to $24.
The Serving Spoon
1825 Osprey Avenue
This is another breakfast-and-lunch winner, run by Jim and Melissa Palermo, who have been pleasing early risers since 1992. The menu is straightforward but there are such specials as sour cream coffee cake, lowfat buttermilk pancakes, breakfast burritos with salsa, cheddar and guacamole, "huevos rancheros" layered on refried beans and the B.E.S.T. (bacon, eggs, Swiss cheese and tomato) sandwich. I like the fact that you can substitute fresh fruit for home fries. Breakfast, with entrees $2.75 to $6.25, is served daily.