Local restaurant ventures done right
Boca-dito — an open-face ciabatta sandwich — at Boca Kitchen Bar and Market. [Photo: Kathleen Flynn/Tampa Bay Times]
Chefs who pride themselves on quality ingredients used to have to rely on food imported from Europe or raised on boutique farms in California.
Today more and more Florida chefs brag that they are cooking with foods from ... right here.
The amount of home-grown fruits and vegetables, Florida seafood, poultry, eggs and even beef has grown so much that a chef who is a diligent forager like Steve Phelps can name his latest Sarasota restaurant “Indigenous.” Appropriately, he fills his plates with “backyard oranges,” produce from farms large and small, including B&W in Fellsmere and 3 Boys in Ruskin, and meat from Deep Creek Ranch in DeLeon Springs, which raises cattle and sheep. When sturgeon or caviar is on the menu, it comes from Mote Marine Laboratory.
The restaurant itself is a tropical charmer comfortably at home in the shady mews of Sarasota’s Towles Court.
Nothing dry or preachy about eating here. Wherever and however the ingredients grew, Phelps transforms them with full modern and classical skills into dinners that are pure pleasure. I stop thinking about the planet when I eat one of his gougeres, warm cheese puff miracles as delicate as in any French bakery. So, too, the crispy duck, conceived in a millennial molecular fashion, pressed into a delicious small brick with a raisin port sauce unlike any confit I’ve known.
Combinations like lobster/edamame succotash, short ribs in molasses and black pepper or buttermilk panna cotta with strawberries and oatmeal crisp are smart and sophisticated, but there’s also a “plain burger” of Florida beef (with duck fat potatoes).
Most pleasantly surprising is that Indigenous and other smart “local” ventures have the fresh decor, sensual music and first-rate service of any modern restaurant, not the bare-bones aesthetic of a health food co-op I feared.
In Tampa’s Hyde Park, crowds are refueling on farm-fresh produce at a 1920s gas station that has become Boca Kitchen Bar Market, where the outdoor blackboard advertises Captain Purple’s clams from Cedar Key, Lake Meadow eggs from Orlando and goat cheese from Indiana. Even the trendy Japanese appetizer of long shishito peppers blistered on the grill comes from the King Ranch farm in south Florida.
It’s the newest offering from Gordon Davis, who ran Le Bordeaux, created the Ceviche chain, Ciro’s speakeasy and last used the Hyde Park location for Smoke’s modernistic barbecue. He’s also reinventing the Samba Room chain.
The menu is farmhouse-flavored, both home-grown and homemade, burgers, short ribs, tuna and free-range chicken, with global trimmings of caponata and Moroccan charmoula, made in house. Chef Ted Dorsey also “puts up,” pickles and preserves, old-fashioned Southern chow chow, onion marmalade, date, fig and tomato jams and tapenades in Mason jars for the table and for sale.
New-fashioned and just as tasty is spicy Champagne mustard. Huge scallops. Best of all is a reinvented “root beer float” of New Castle ale with a scoop of ice cream the kitchen made with the beer and molasses — beer nut brittle on the side.
Lokal Burger serves grass-fed beef, farmhouse trimmings and Miami flash, including Champagne and an option of glazed doughnut for a bun. And owner Matthew Kuscher’s own favorite is a Cuban-styled frita stuffed with potato sticks. Always the key ingredient is ground beef from grass-fed Kobe-style cattle at the White family ranch in Ocala provided by Fresh Florida Beef, a new meat packer linking Florida farmers and restaurants.
The burger with the most pride of place is the Lokal, Florida beef, Florida tomatoes, honey mustard made with local honey and Homestead avocados. The beer list includes hefty Belgian ales under the heading “Not Lokal.”