SARASOTA — This year has already been very generous to Sarasota diners. From a raucous blues club with Low Country fare launched in January, to another sultry Southern newcomer in March, to a chic New American brasserie debuted at the beginning of April, there are loads of reasons to head over the Sunshine Skyway or down I-75 in search of dinner.
The newest of the three is the brasserie on Palm Avenue, Louies Modern, one of a three-part complex owned by Jeff Greco and Steve, Joe and Pat Seidensticker, the family that also owns Libby's Café and Bar on Osprey Avenue and at one time ran the Gasparilla Inn. Adjacent to the glamorous 150-seat Louies is a barista bar for grab-and-go coffee and breakfast, and The Francis, a special-events space that is clearly gunning for Michael's on East Ballroom.
Libby's made a name for itself with simple, wood-fired proteins, smart meal salads and huge, smile-inducing desserts (a key lime pie festooned with Gummi worms, etc.). At Louies, there's a similar strategy, minus the huge desserts (desserts here are all diminutive and $4, from a layered chocolate mousse cake slice to a sophisticated lavender honey creme brulee). The aesthetic is more contemporary and edgy than at Libby's, with dishes like fried sunchokes accessorized by a slightly spicy, lemony minted aioli ($5) and smoked trout deviled eggs ($4).
There's a bit of new-restaurant goofiness, like a burrata served on a huge wedge of pink salt ($14), its lovely soft cheese and soupy tomatoes swiftly melting the block so you're racing against the clock to stave off extreme saltiness. But otherwise the kitchen has launched with polish, sending out an exemplary brisket burger ($14) with rosemary-flecked asiago fries, as well as wholesome sides such as grilled asparagus ($9) and red quinoa pilaf ($8).
With high ceilings and no tablecloths, Louies gets some decibels going when it's in full swing, and the bar appears to be the be-seen spot right now downtown.
The noise level at the Blue Rooster isn't exactly demure. It's a sprawling, good-times space with live music six nights a week and a juke joint vibe with a gargantuan bar and community tables. Industrial lighting, wood-clad walls salvaged from a barn in Georgia and rows of Warhol-like paintings of blues legends signal "fun," but hip fun. It's in a part of town, north of Fruitville, that only recently has become a restaurant row. Darwin's on 4th and Station 400 preceded the Blue Rooster, the block now teaming with cars of would-be diners.
The coin of the realm here is fried chicken, which you can have over-the-top with waffles and a whiskey maple syrup ($18), or more sensibly by the piece on a leaf of velvety bibb lettuce that somehow accentuates the crispness of the not-overly-breaded skin and the lushness of the meat (pieces $2-$5.50). Killer yardbird, whether you have it accompanied by minted cole slaw (perfect, with just enough vinegar tang and mayo to hold it together) or clearly housemade baked beans studded with smoky kielbasa and flavored deeply with Steen's cane syrup.
But wait, before you get to the chicken you've got to spend a little time with biscuits. Hot, tender, flaky, served with a tub of rich honey butter and another of pepper relish. I promised myself I'd never write "melt in your mouth," but, you know. I was less smitten by the lineup of bourbon-centric cocktails (the booze seemed diluted in a sea of teas and lemonade and garnishes — less is more), but the Blue Rooster finishes strong with a moist, decadent chocolate layer cake ($7) and airy sweet potato pie ($6).
The other Southern newcomer, Made takes the place of Brasserie Belge downtown, any trace of Belgian-ness erased with an outsized American flag erected behind the bar in rustic squares of painted wood. The decor is less glamorous than Louies Modern and less whimsical than the Blue Rooster, but it makes great use of wide windows out to Main Street and its lovely patio seating.
The menu hews to a less narrow Southern idiom: Yes, there are fried green tomatoes ($8) and double-dipped fried chicken ($15), this time served with a waffle flecked with Gruyère and black pepper, but keep looking a bit. On a recent visit, an order of duck confit wings ($12) was a revelation. Why hadn't I thought of this before?
Duck legs, slow simmered in their own fat, then fried crispy and painted with a peach barbecue sauce and served, Buffalo style, with buttermilk green goddess dressing and sticks of celery and carrot. Pair that with a side of risotto-style creamed jalapeno and grilled corn, or maybe some guilty-pleasure cheesy tots (these aren't Ore-Ida, more like breaded mashed potato balls) and it's the kind of meal that hovers somewhere between Americana and Nirvana.
There are loads of reasons to spend a day or weekend in that city to our south — theater, opera, museums, not to mention the state's only Trader Joe's. And this spring Sarasota got three more good ones.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.