A cadre of new restaurants is firing up southwest Florida dining with the flavors of many cuisines and big helpings of innovation -- despite the economic troubles that have pinched the area.
It's still a year of dining prudently, or at least in small bites or small plates, and largely within the Old World comfort zone of artisanal foods, bistro favorites, tapas and, of course, frites.
But Old World doesn't mean you have to live in the past, for some new restaurants on the Gulf have the kind of flash that would fit 21st-century South Beach.
Pure Urban Oasis
The newest dining in Mercato, the sleek dining-drinking-shopping-movie complex, is glittering Pure Urban Oasis, where Peter Schmid has reinvented sushi, concocted lobster cappuccino and truffles his fries. Schmid, who cooked up the Blu Sushi restaurants, now turns nigiri pads into round "rice toppers" with salmon tartare, beef salad and the like on top. Most of the menu is similarly small and shareable — carpaccios, ceviches, pot stickers and snacks under $15. A few big plates of lollipop chops or teriyaki sea bass run into the $20s. To drink? Watermelon mojitos, Dreamsicle martinis and a sharp wine list.
Punta Gorda's foodie menu has expanded with the opening of Table 209. Table's cooking is marked by the classical taste and skill of James King (ex-South Seas). His goat-cheese cakes are crusted with walnut and thyme, the house pate served with bacon-onion marmalade. For big plates, he brines pork rib chops in vanilla and bourbon and tosses roasted cauliflower, olives and capers with orecchiette for unusually authentic pasta.
Filet mignon, blue cheese butter, sherry and mushroom ragout [Photo: Greg and Spencer Pullen, HARBOR STYLE Magazine]
[Photo: David Braun]
Pomona Bistro & Wine Bar
Further evidence of revival is the return of Arthur Lopes and Ryan Boeve, who owned the beloved Zoria and briefly tried an oyster bar. Their new Pomona Bistro & Wine Bar may sound California, but the cooking is from the Mediterranean, and mostly the French cotes du small plates. Nibble on a medley of warm nuts, a bowl of olives or salad of duck confit; bigger meals are grand-mere fare from short ribs bourguignon and veal stew to ratatouille.
Mussels steamed with celery, onions and butter, served in an enamel pot
New flavors in Sarasota are equally European in the casual brasserie and bistro style. Which is not always French, as Brasserie Belge makes clear from Belgian waffles to apres-anything crepes. It brings both the brasserie movement and the newfound taste for Trappist beers, white asparagus, moules and, yes, frites of Belgium to Main Street. Proprietor Christian Zebier and chef Karl Deneubourg give Euro dining distinct Belgian flavors, such as big hamburgers and steaks with Belgian sauces (especially mushroom), meatballs a la Liege with apples, as well as mussels prepared four different ways.
The buzz focuses on Lush, where the VIP room and polished come-on are as discreet as Lady Gaga, but the food has rustic origins and slow-food savvy. The brains here are chef-about-town Shannon Yates, a founder of Cru, and Songvilay Siriphanthong. The menu includes truffle fries and mac 'n' cheese, yet most offerings are rarer stuff, like tartuffo salami pizza, scallops and the prized pata negra ham of Spain and five-year aged gouda. You can roam a list of artisan olives, cheese and charcuterie by the ounce or show off with an elk chop or 38-ounce porterhouse. Wine brands include such small-label Champagnes as "Farmer Fizz."