It's the best time of year to take a drive down to Sarasota. The weather is still spectacular and most of the snowbirds have begun their migration back north. Thus, more restaurant seats for you, especially nice during this week's Sarasota Film Festival.
In a city of strikingly good dining options, a trio of newcomers has made waves.
MoZaic was on the horizon for ages, the promise of exciting French-Moroccan fare taunting locals for months before it actually opened in December. As with so many good things, it was worth the wait. Chef Dylan Elhajoui's vision is a stunning addition to the downtown scene. The restaurant itself houses a few tables downstairs and an intimate dining room above, all spare yet charming. Elhajoui and co-owner John Anderson have wisely decided to leave the lion's share of the drama to what arrives on the plates.
A recent dinner began with an amuse bouche, an eggshell cradling a velvety lobster-lemongrass flan. Insanely delicious and just enough spoonfuls to leave you wistful.
Salads show an especially sophisticated touch, from one that pairs baby arugula with pine nuts, asparagus, lavender honey goat cheese and a vinaigrette anchored by preserved lemon ($10), to a second that showcases olive oil-braised tomatoes and toasted walnut halves with greens in a vigorous, shallot-sassy vinaigrette ($8).
After all that virtuous greenery is out of the way, it's time for a little luxury: moist, flavorful duck leg confit on a puddle of risotto dotted with peas and ribbons of orange zest ($14); or wide pappardelle crowded with fresh rock shrimp, fluffs of blue crab and perfectly seared scallops ($28), all kissed with a bit of cream. It's an indulgent menu, surely, but one that lingers on exotic veggies (try the braised cardoons, celerylike but nuttier, $6) and more health-conscious spins on classics (a nearly abstemious layered potato gratin, $6). Elhajoui's Moroccan roots introduce a bit of exotica across the Mediterranean menu, from tagines to couscous to a stunning pear and walnut flourless cake with citrus blossom-scented creme anglaise ($10), all of these sultry dishes ardently supported by Ken Kuiken's eclectic wine list (great by the glass, offered in short or regular pours). Add to that a suave service staff, and MoZaic is a newcomer about which Tampa Bay should be jealous.
With flavors a bit less mysterious, Libby's is no less striking. In the space vacated by Fred's in the charming Southside Village, this sprawling newbie has been swamped since its October opening. Owned by the Seidensticker family, who cut their chops at the fabled Gasparilla Inn on Boca Grande, this is a paean to the good old U.S. of A. At lunch, think dazzling BLTs ($12) and burgers ($12), served with fries and housemade ketchup that can cause compulsive behavior.
A Bloody Mary ($9), edgy with horseradish, gets cooled with a swirl of lemony creme fraiche, and a simple grilled salmon fillet ($12) comes with a tumble of mixed greens in a sweet-tart Asian dressing. Lunch's best deals come in the "to the nines" section, each dish $9 and served up within 15 minutes or it's free. Our ginger-chile rock shrimp salad was whisked to the table in far less time, and we were content to pay for the cup of creamy organic tomato soup and crisp toast that accompanied the wide plate of shrimp, greens and rice wine vinegar-sparked cukes.
Its generous French doors thrown open to the street, Libby's has the bustle of an urban hot spot, crowded with families, business folk and Hillview neighborhood scenesters. The lively bar and spacious dining rooms get a little moodier at night, sidewalk tables still the hottest commodity after the dusk cools. The dinner menu is vast unto stupor-inducing. What to choose? A dozen or so cold plates, even more hot plates — all nicely sharable dishes, like meatball sliders ($11) or rock shrimp toasts ($13) — then several dozen more entrees and enticing sides (fried artichokes, caramelized Brussels sprouts, Gorgonzola mashed cauliflower, each $8). Simple grilled fishes and steaks satisfy and leave space for desserts that make you feel like a kid: tall and fluffy key lime pie ($7) decorated whimsically with gummy bears (it's a satisfying match, who knew) or a gargantuan, just-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookie ($6) topped with softly melting vanilla ice cream.
Nearly a year old, Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse follows in the footsteps of its namesake restaurants in Ohio (Columbus, Akron and Cleveland), New York (Buffalo), Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh) and Daytona Beach: It's a super-swank steak house with all the archetypal bells and whistles. A crackerjack waitstaff glides through a dining room of polished woods and deep ruby fabrics (seared-steak colors, natch).
That's not to say it's predictable: Its "chef-inspired" dishes lend elegant nuances to classics, from a petit tenderloin wrapped in bacon and then capped with bordelaise and melted bleu cheese ($26) to another tender filet mignon given a glisten of shallot-cabernet butter ($31 for small, $37 for large). Prime meats hardly require a lot of adornment, but Hyde Park's skills with timeless sauces (bearnaise, bordelaise, horseradish cream) render them de rigueur.
The price point makes Hyde Park a splurge night, a perfect opportunity to share chilled Maine lobster tail ($17 half, $26 full) over cocktails (several of them topped with a how-do-they-do-this airy citrus foam) and then to end the proceedings with one of the most textbook creme brulees ($7.25) in the area, its perfect snappy sugar mantle giving way to the plush essence of vanilla. If all that would put you to sleep for a film festival screening, Hyde Park also offers $5 small plates and $4 martinis and cocktails in the bar from 4 to 6:30 p.m. — an affordable way to sample a bit of the good life in Sarasota this spring.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.