SARASOTA — What makes Meliora the best new restaurant of 2022?
Let’s start with the name.
The restaurant, which opened in March in Sarasota’s Southside Village, is a reference to a Latin adjective meaning “better.”
And that appears to be the underlying theme here: Better service, better food and an overall better dining experience. It’s a concept owners Bruce Pike and Drew Adams clearly take to heart.
The duo, longtime friends who moved to Sarasota from Washington, D.C., during the pandemic, wanted to bring something bigger, something exceptional to the local dining scene. At the Southside Village space (formerly Hillview Grill), they saw an opportunity to open a restaurant that felt casual enough for a weeknight dinner but with an elevated menu that hinted at the kitchen’s fine-dining prowess.
Pulling heavily from their own experiences in the hospitality industry (Pike formerly ran an event production company) and a passion for the culinary arts (Adams worked in several Michelin-starred restaurants, including the celebrated Washington, D.C., spot Rose’s Luxury), the two set upon opening one of the region’s most ambitious newcomers.
In a year where fast-casual concepts still dominated the Tampa Bay dining landscape, Meliora stood out. And yes, it’s completely worth the drive.
Here’s the thing about restaurants of this caliber — they don’t just attract diners, they attract talent. I first dined at Meliora after a chef from an esteemed Tampa restaurant told me they had recently started cooking there. And they weren’t the only ones: Adams’ team includes chefs with highly regarded restaurants like Tampa’s Rocca and St. Petersburg’s Lingr on their resumes, a trend I’m sure will continue.
What makes Meliora so attractive to diners and chefs? Maybe it’s the quality of service and the incredibly well-versed staff, who help guide guests past the many twists and turns on the menu throughout the course of an evening. Maybe it’s the fine-tuned attention to detail, and the ever-evolving, envelope-pushing menu. Maybe it’s just that the food is very good.
Here’s what Meliora is not: Meliora is not a fine-dining restaurant (though to be clear, cooking of this quality doesn’t come cheap). It’s not a farm-to-table concept, either, though Adams and his team source locally and seasonally whenever they can. And it’s not a restaurant that hinges on spectacle or drama, yet showmanship and theater each have parts to play as an evening unfolds.
Take, for instance, a raw scallop dish ($19), which arrives tucked inside a tiny glass dome while a server pours an aromatic scallop cream tableside. The hot cream, punchy with garlic and chives, gently cooks the scallop, steaming the edges of the glass so that the effect is like taking bites out of a tiny terrarium. It’s creative, fun and unforgettable — and quite possibly the best thing I ate all year.
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The element of nostalgia is central to Adams’ menu, and several items on the small and shared plates list (divided into “hot” and “cold”) are iterations of signature dishes honed throughout his career. But a big part of what makes dining here so remarkable is that the menu is constantly changing: During a four-month period, Adams estimates he experimented with roughly 100 different dishes.
Meals are punctuated by plates that not only pair texture and flavor, but also pop with color, from a starter of charcoal-hued Japanese milk bread ($8) served with ramp salt and cultured butter to a bright bouquet of crudites ($15), which arrive nestled in a creamy goat’s milk ricotta sprinkled with dill pollen.
Several items employ a playful, hands-on approach: A plate of cold, ground pork with fermented kohlrabi ($17) comes showered with crispy garlic chips and sesame seeds and is served with large lettuce leaves for wrapping, the extra squeeze of fresh lime or scoop of chili paste left up to the diner’s discretion.
Make-your-own bao buns ($48) present an equally thrilling choose-your-own-adventure setup, with warm, soft buns served alongside crispy-skinned pieces of tender cold-smoked and roasted Rohan duck with crisp slices of pear, fermented turnips, scallions sliced on the bias and a syrupy house hoisin sauce. It’s a dish that’s fun, messy and completely delicious.
There are some dishes that wouldn’t feel as seasonally appropriate in the Northeast but fit in just fine here. A plate of heirloom cherry tomatoes ($14) lives on the menu year-round. Served with a thick and tangy tzatziki sauce with feta, the tomatoes taste just as lovely on a balmy November afternoon as they do in July or August.
And though Meliora isn’t a seafood-centric restaurant, there are several references to the Gulf of Mexico’s bounty, including beautiful rice paper prints of indigenous fish hanging in the dining room and an excellent tuna dish ($18), which uses local yellowfin supplied by a small fishing operation in Cortez near Anna Maria Island. The kitchen dry-ages the fish before topping it with fried ginger and nestling it in an umami-packed sauce with tamari and hot ginger oil, showered in scallions and sesame seeds.
Cocktails also enjoy a certain level of stagecraft here: The bubbly and refreshing Merriweather ($16) comes topped with one of those wobbling smoke bubbles du jour, while other quaffs incorporate live fire (the Shenandoah, $18) or emerge from underneath glass domes, cloaked in sage-scented smoke (the Smudge Stick, $15).
As with everything here, the experience feels like something to behold and to admire, then to enjoy.
1920 Hillview St., Sarasota. 941-444-7692. meliorarestaurant.com.