At the end of every December, people in the restaurant business prognosticate on what the big trends of the next year will be. Last year, I kept hearing that Peruvian cuisine would be huge and sustainable, local even huger. Pfft, I muttered, restaurants around here are hard-pressed to find enough local goodies to throw together a salad, much less a full menu. And Peruvian? I'm not holding my breath.
I doubt that Peruvians serve crow, sustainably raised or otherwise, but I'm eating it. On a recent scouting trip to see what's new in Sarasota, I stumbled into Steve Phelps' Indigenous (seasonal American with a focus on local and sustainable) and Darwin Santa Maria's Darwin's on 4th (Peruvian fusion). It has been a fast and furious few months for Sarasota's restaurant scene, with Sean Murphy's new Eat Here opening downtown along with Half Shell Oyster House, Brasserie Belge, State Street Eating House and St. Armands' new La Malinche.
But Indigenous and Darwin's — hip, glamorous and gastronomically ambitious — may be the best reasons to hightail it south to Sarasota.
Phelps was a chef at the Bijou Café for two years. Before that he worked at the Canvas Café, the space in which he chose to open Indigenous. It's a lovely Florida bungalow just a couple of blocks off Main Street, with a rustic interior and great use of indoor/outdoor space, including an intimate "wine cottage." Because it's busy and tables are set fairly tight, it can seem frenetic at times, but servers add warmth and genuine hospitality to dinner.
Not long ago Phelps did a 100-mile dinner, meaning everything served was sourced from within 100 miles of the restaurant. Ordinarily it's less stringent than that, but the seasonally changing menu clearly prioritizes the local: Florida grass-fed beef, Gulf fish and shrimp, oranges from a nearby back yard. It's hardly pious. One evening's crisp/plush pork belly ($8) married the faint flavor of maple with a sweet-tangy hash of turnip, cherry and jalapeno heat. An appetizer, it wasn't vast, but rich and flavorful, a perfect precursor to Key West pink shrimp ($26) paired with an unusual duo of edamame and lobster succotash and hearty parmesan grits.
Indigenous' wine list is short, though packed with notable wines (still, a few biodynamic or organic wines might fit with the kitchen's agenda), and a second "captain's list" showcases just a handful of drool-worthy bottlings (like super-small-production Porter Family Vineyards cab called Time, a multivintage beauty of supple dried currants and hints of sage). Add to this a brief and lovely dessert list (a perfect buttermilk panna cotta with strawberries, $8, or housemade ice creams like a recent fresh mint chip, $5), and it's easy to see that Sarasota has a hit on its hands.
Darwin Santa Maria first introduced his stylish Peruvian vision to locals at Selva Grill, which he sold some time back. He now has inherited a fabulous Rosemary District restaurant space formerly occupied briefly by Mad Crow Brewery and Rustic Grill before that. He has lightened up the space but kept the beer equipment, brewing a house IPA, hefeweizen, English and Irish stout and a really interesting cinnamony Peruvian chicha, all with the help of brewer Jared Barnes.
Beverages provide something of a conundrum. Yes, there are the beers, but it's a shame to forgo the pisco sour ($10; Peruvian grape brandy, sugar, lime juice, egg white and a few dots of bitters — heavenly) or one of the house mojitos ($9). Oh, or one of the excellent house cocktails like the fruita picante (chipotle vodka and passion fruit with floaty bits of muddled cilantro; $11). But life's about choices; any of these ably showcases the charms of one of the house ceviches. We sampled the classic ($14), served in a stylish, three-section glass plate, the plush leche de tigre-cured fish accessorized with salted corn nuts and a jaunty skewer of fat cuzco corn kernels impaling a wedge of roasted sweet potato.
This is dramatic stuff, lively flavors and textures that are at once exotic and inviting. A tuna causa ($15; a traditional coastal Peruvian dish that sandwiches different proteins between layers of mashed yellow potato dumpling kicked up with key lime and chile) was a little less accessible. But no matter — from lamb chops ($32) to Cornish hen ($25), Darwin's kitchen crew offers chic dishes that provide glimpses of Peru's multiethnic population (loads of surprising Southeast Asian tweaks).
Dining tip: Want to be in the thick of things? Downstairs. Upstairs at Darwin's is quieter, less of a scene. Either way, take a few minutes in the foyer to watch the kitchen cam, Santa Maria and crew like the stars of some new South American Food Network show. Peruvian is, after all, the next big thing.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.