Rarefied dining, Peruvian-style

Published Jun. 16, 2005|Updated Aug. 25, 2005

If you've ever been to Peru, head south now. If you've never been, chef Darwin Santa Maria has saved you the air fare.

On an urbane corner of the Glitter Coast he has set a sexy table with the tart ceviche of Lima's streets, the rich sauces of the Andes, even the stir-fries of Peru's Chinese chifas, or diners.

Selva Grill renders them with authenticity, exquisite skill and dramatic presentation that raise the cooking of Santa Maria's homeland to gourmet standards.

In Santa Maria's kitchen, flavors from wild mushrooms to bananas, pineapple to corn are turned into rare flans, creme brulees, custards and puddings and other luscious confections. You can't eat anything with a spoon that's as rich as Selva's crab creme brulee.

So Peru is a starting point, a grand one for its Latin and Indian flavors and for bringing Sarasota a South Florida buzz that can keep diners hopping late into la vida loca hours.

But dining here goes beyond an ethnic theme. Selva is a first-rate restaurant with a smooth and friendly staff, plus smart decor of stone, wood and falling water. No posters of Macchu Picchu.

The flavor of Peru is subtle. Try it in a Pisco sour (and you really must try one): brandy from the vineyards of Pisco, lemon, bitters and nutmeg with a froth of egg white. It's an eggnog for Florida, with deliciously bearable lightness.

That delicacy and the Peruvian accent are traceable to Santa Maria, whose personal story is as exciting as his food. Santa Maria came to Sarasota with his mother, refugees from violence in Peru.

While cooking at fashionable Fred's he won honors as the best sous chef in the country. When he first opened a ceviche bar in an ungentrified corner of south Sarasota, he quickly built a following among the Hispanic and hip. Last year he moved uptown to the Main Street stretch of sidewalk tables and bookstores in downtown Sarasota.

(Malin Parker, one-time senior chef at Fred's, has now hung his apron a few doors away at Cru bistro and wine bar.)

You should try at least one of Santa Maria's nine ceviches, in which he "cooks" the seafood or beef in lime juice. I can vouch for a traditional one and for a martini glass of salmon charmingly spiked with coconut juice, ginger and lemongrass.

When I tasted the classics, the fancy linens and trendy lamps disappeared, and I was back on a Lima street corner discovering the marvelous combination of corvina with bracing onion, lime and cilantro balanced by corn and sweet potatoes. The only difference was that the potatoes were a blue-rimmed green and the toasted corn kernels popping crisp.

Oddly, the simple skewers called anticuchos couldn't match the street's. They were overcooked and dry, although in splashy tall food assembly with a tower of mashed plantains. Perhaps pork and chicken lack the kick of the original beef heart.

In so much else, Selva's authenticity is matched by elegance. The golden sauce of Huancayo, made from eggs, yellow pepper and sometimes cheese, has a smooth polish here that shames French veloute. Try it on yucca or Cornish hens.

The Peruvian version of chicken and rice is done as an entree of arroz con pato _ duck breast with a green risotto of cilantro and peas. If it isn't heaven, it at least hits Andean heights.

Fish, from crusty sea bass with a soy glaze to seared salmon, are consistently sharp. Sides are even sharper: corn flan with back bean sauce or rice wrapped in a rich man's purse of plantain leaves.

Lamb chops get ancient quinoa and mushroom ragout; skirt steak gets a beet relish and chimichurri. For carnivores, the most familiar dish hides behind the name lomo saltado, nothing more than a stir-fry of beef, onion, pepper and tomato that the Chinese made one of Peru's comfort foods. With rice and crispy yucca, it'll taste like home (or your favorite vacation), but with juicy sirloin.

Exotic tastes of the Pacific receive modern European trimmings that are sleek and graceful. Desserts could be the best around the bay. A banana flan with a praline crisp will make you forget Foster, and the kitchen's tropical sorbets come in a "bowl" of crystallized sugar and ice with a vanilla snap spoon.

The wine list plucks good value from Chile to France and Italy. Even my favorite Vacqueyras, spicy Domaine des Espiers, is under $30. Bubbly runs from proscecco to $300 Cristal.

Service would impress any hemisphere with its grace. Servers are alert, confident with knowledge and opinion, and quick to help diners switch plates or find their way.

A dinner like this can cost $100 for two, but anyone who has been away from Peru too long will want to give Santa Maria a big hug _ and many do.

Chris Sherman dines anonymously and unannounced. The St. Petersburg Times pays for all expenses. A restaurant's advertising has nothing to do with selection for a review or the assessment of its quality. Sherman can be reached at (727) 893-8585 or


1345 Main St.


PHONE: (941) 362-4427

HOURS: 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 11:30 p.m. Friday through Saturday

RESERVATIONS: Strongly recommended

DETAILS: Credit cards, no smoking indoors, full bar, outside seating

PRICES: $19 to $30