Derek’s Culinary Casual
514 Central Avenue Sarasota, FL 34236
Reviewed & Photographed by: Andrew Coppolino
Some of the best food experiences happen when you least expect them. Call it accidental culinary tourism. A recent trip to Sarasota, FL, turned up an absolute gem–and it seemed as if it came out of nowhere.
I had been previously familiar with downtown Sarasota’s “Rosemary District”, an interesting and beautiful collection of buildings and architecture–and in that, a quite long history too. No need now to dredge up a miserable past that we all know, except to remind ourselves that Florida was a slave state and the Rosemary District, established in 1886, was part of that era.
But for today, Rosemary is a manifestation of change and the dedication of a community determined to build itself a vibrant and engaged citizenry that can forge a robust economy and unity. There is boutique shops, art galleries, condominiums and quaint smaller homes with pretty colors–and generally a lot of energy being donated to refurbish the area into one of increased sophistication and genuineness…and it seems to be working.
I applaud that determination, and here’s where food comes into play. I stumbled upon Derek’s Culinary Casual Restaurant quite by accident, and I’m very glad I did. The restaurant’s work is progressive or modern American cuisine, and chef and owner Derek Barnes has spent time with Emeril Legasse and even picked up a James Beard accolade as a semifinalist for Best Chef of the South in 2009.
As much as anyone during the woeful economic climes of “The Recent Collapse”, Barnes has been a leader in Rosemary, and his restaurant is the sword he brandishes in helping to nudge change and improvement along. His “sword” cuts and slices some terrific cooking, along with his kitchen staff and a bright and energetic front-of-house team who work in a dining room with brilliant and alluring works of art on the walls. It’s a casual and attractive setting just right for the food served here.
On a menu featuring forward-looking American classics or comfort-food-tweaked presentations, you’ll find “Small Plates and Bowls” and “Principal Dishes”, and in them lots of interest. The former offers about 16 dishes; the latter a dozen or so and then several “Simple Grills.”
Some stellar gougeres started this Good Friday meal: these are buttery and nicely textured choux pastry anointed with a touch of Parmesan. I gobbled eagerly–and when more arrived, I gobbled again. An amuse-bouché of steak tartare arrives and has a pleasing texture and slight hint of pepper, served with spring onion and a Tuscan olive oil that is itself both peppery and grassy.
A wee sip of Francois Montand (N.V.) sparkler joins Maine lobster and ginger dumplings with a braised daikon, shiitake and crab broth. It was just a touch salty but the lotus root added some excellent crunch to the dish.
This was followed by the crisp acidity of a 2010 Las Brisas sauvignon blanc and verdejo from Spain (Rueda DO), a “surf and earth” sampling, if you might, of nicely cooked calamari with tomatoes and New Orleans-Italian muffaletta toast, P.E.I. mussels in a delicious broth, and crisp steak frites with roasted garlic aioli. Together, they were all delicious.
Derek’s Cortez Bottarga and pasta was something special: the Sicilian cured roe delicacy is not easy to come by, even when considering it comes in from the waters off Cortez, FL, as mullet roe. The stuff sells for about $25 per ounce. It’s served like cheese on house-made pasta, and it’s beautiful.
In Kitchener (Canada), once a sort of bastion of Portuguese culture and language–and to some extent still true–there is a quirky little restaurant called The Algarve. They used to make a great arroz con mariscos, a rice and seafood stew. Derek’s version is lightly breaded shrimp with powerful shrimp flavor, Corvina (a whitefish), squid, and mussels with white beans and an airy, invigorating pilaf-like rice.
Fresh peas and lemon gave the dish considerable zing, but Peruvian aji panca–a smokey, fruity mild pepper–rounded things out very well. A 2010 Lange Estate Willamette Valley pinot noir featured a defined Bing cherry flavor and a nice acidity too.
Crispy duck is next and is glorious. Rice, daikon, peas, carrot and cucumber is an amazing contrast of textures and flavors, and I can just imagine it as a Saigonese banh mi. By this time as a 2009 Kermit Lynch Cotes du Rhone appeared–I was getting pretty tuckered out from eating.
But as Batali says, “Wretched excess is not enough!” So, we used that lovely Rhone to sip with a succulent and tender short rib, with cola and Malabar pepper reduction and smoked oyster mushrooms (smoked out back at Derek’s). It all sat atop a wonderful and simple cauliflower and potato gratin.
The finishing dish was a honey-lavender poached pear with a black pepper and caramel sauce, accompanied by goat cheese ice cream with basil. Served with Alvear Solera 1927 Pedro Ximenez, with notes of caramel, maple syrup, and coffee…the result is divine.
If you do happen to find yourself in Sarasota, Florida, this is a place you must try. If that is completely off the radar, then it’s worthwhile to simply imagine some very good food being served in a neighborhood where a group of people and activities are trying to make a difference and build a strong community. I have always thought that that is among the many roles that food and restaurants successfully play in our lives.
Dinnerreviews.com© is proud to feature this Canadian restaurant reviewer for Echo Weekly and former restaurant critic of The Waterloo Region Record. He is a full time freelance writer, broadcaster, and food commentator, and host of both the radio program “The Food Show”on 570 News and the cooking and food segment on Rogers TV “Grand River Living.” Andrew’s done cooking apprenticeships at Kitchener fine dining restaurants, and does occasional kitchen stages when he isn’t writing for various publications, developing content for his website Waterloo Region Eats, or in a restaurant somewhere eating yet more food.