Dusk is falling fast at the sleepy intersection of Links Avenue and Adam Lane. On the southeast corner, an A-frame, aluminum-roofed cottage awaits visitors.
Only it's not a home. The building in the Towles Court historic district, which looks like it dates to pioneer days (as opposed to most of Sarasota, which looks like it fell out of either 1962 or 2009) has been converted to the restaurant Indigenous, which focuses on using ingredients grown, harvested or caught as close to the area as possible.
A covered brick patio for outdoor dining is lined with native plants. Inside the tiny house there are candlelit tables where sofas and bedroom sets once stood. Behind the house, a separate garage is now a wine room perfect for first dates, bent-knee proposals or a casual nightcap.
In the kitchen, behind a pane of glass that separates him from the small main dining room, chef Steve Phelps and an assistant are turning out food both familiar and sophisticated.
One dish screams all kinds of local: A plate of cold-smoked shrimp with horseradish flan topped with caviar, a thin golden-tomato purée and chive oil. The shrimp came from the Gulf of Mexico. The smoke was generated by the burned husk pulled from a neighbor's coconuts. The caviar is a delicacy from Mote Marine just a few miles away.
"Isn't this incredible?" says Judi Gallagher, culinary director for ABC 7 television in Sarasota.
The restaurant, which opened in September, is part of a recent wave of openings, relocations and renovations that have reinvigorated the dining scene, which has struggled like all businesses in Florida to stay afloat during the recession years.
"It's like a mini renaissance for Sarasota," Gallagher says. "It's a great time to eat here."
For anyone visiting the beaches of Longboat or Siesta Key on the weekends or driving down for the day to shop at St. Armand's Circle, the options for discovering new flavors are plentiful.
1888 Main St., Sarasota
Chef and owner Sean Murphy made his reputation in fine dining with the landmark Beach Bistro on Anna Maria Island in 1985.
The two-story Eat Here feels more like Murphy's playhouse, with approachable flavors and prices.
Consider the Killer Grilled Cheese, a sandwich absolutely pregnant with Muenster and Gruyere cheeses and caramelized onions between slices of house-made bread. For good measure, it comes with a small hot tub of au jus to give the sandwich a French dip.
If that's not decadent enough, try the Tempura'd Beets, which are lightly battered, fried and served with goat cheese and crème fraiche. Or veal pot roast. Or Asian duck pizza.
For sippers looking for something light, the upstairs bar overlooking Main Street serves a lemongrass caipirinha mixed with cachaca rum, lime juice and lemongrass.
465 John Ringling Blvd., Sarasota
Perched above a clothing store on St. Armand's Circle with the same first name, Shore Diner offers a hip, retro surf vibe with elevated comfort food and expertly made cocktails.
Sit on the balcony near the entrance and you can people watch above the shopping district while eating fried oyster sliders. Sit on the opposite side of the restaurant when the weather is right to enjoy open-air dining courtesy of the retractable roof.
Not to be missed: the braised Berkshire pork belly with garlicky mustard greens, a sunny-side up egg and smoked cheese grits. Thirsty customers should try the Shore Cocktail, a knee-wobbling and irresistible mixture of Hendrick's gin, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, cucumber and mint.
1990 Main St., Sarasota
The most incredible french fries you will eat anywhere in the 941 area code are found here. Only they're not French, they're Belgian frites. If you call them french Fries, the staff will politely correct you otherwise. With a smile that says, "We hear this all the time."
The frites are even more delicious after being anointed with a dab of mayonnaise. And chased with a glass of Belgian beer.
For the more sophisticated diner, a dozen styles of steamed Prince Edward Island mussels are on the menu, with flavors ranging from the lighter Marinière (celery, onions, butter) to the incredibly rich and satisfying Roquefort (blue cheese, white wine, cream) treatment.
If you want to go full Belgium, order the Vol-au-Vent de Poisson a mixture of monkfish and creamy mushrooms in a pastry so delicate, it may get its feelings hurt if you use a harsh tone of voice.
1668 Main St., Sarasota, FL.
Michael and Victoria Calore loved Sarasota while visiting relatives here from New York City. So much so, they closed their restaurant there, uprooted their family and moved south to start another.
At this sandwich shop, they make warm, perfectly salty mozzarella fresh each morning – some days as many as 70 bowls of it to adorn their nearly 20 sandwiches. And when they run out, they close.
"Eighteen of our 20 sandwiches have mozzarella, so it's hard to make them without it," Victoria says, using the correct pronunciation of "MOOTS-a-DELL."
The lesson: Get there early.
Otherwise, you would miss the No. 3 (a fried eggplant sandwich with mozz, roasted peppers, Boar's Head ham and olive oil). You also would be out of luck with the No. 5 (fried veal cutlet with flash-fried broccoli rabe, sun-dried tomatoes and, yes, mozzarella).
Currents at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota
1000 Boulevard of the Arts, Sarasota
Chain resort food can be so bland and uniform from hotel to hotel. Leo Gianulis, executive chef for the Hyatt's Currents restaurant and food operations, adds a little of his Greek background and a lot of locally sourced ingredients to give the resort its own personality.
The Greek flavors he picked up from his grandmother color the roast chicken he borrowed from her kitchen, as well as the bacon-wrapped meatloaf with nutmeg and cinnamon seasonings.
His sensibilities, leaning toward sustainable and organic menus, prompt dishes such as the golden beet salad with puréed potatoes, micro greens and a Meyer lemon emulsion as a sauce.
In the near future, Gianulis plans to offer a pantry where guests can take home products supplied by local vendors.
"That way, they can take a little of Sarasota back with them," he says.
The Table Creekside
5365 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota
If there is such a thing as casual elegance, The Table has it in abundance. Nestled amid a hedge of mangroves and overlooking a quaint neighborhood creek that leads to the Intracoastal Waterway, The Table, which opened nine months ago, is where Sarasotans go to sip Veuve Cliquot and eat Lobster Carbonara in shorts, boat shoes, maxi dresses and sandals
Start off with a Bohito, a take-off on the Mojito made instead with basil, vodka and house-made cucumber juice.
For a surprise, chef Pedro Flores offers a seared scallop made with sea bass and then pairs it with a fried alligator fritter made with tortilla masa and an asparagus bisque sauce.
Taste of Asia
5110 Ocean Blvd., Sarasota
Laotian food is rare enough on Florida's Gulf coast. Finding it on the beaches of Siesta Key, along with Thai and Vietnamese fare, makes it even more so.
Selina and her husband, Lam Lum, serve their native cuisine in an intimate indoor/outdoor setting that feels almost as if customers are eating in their homes. Regular guests often are sent away with a hug or a kiss on the cheek.
For traditional Thai fans, the pad thai is full of natural peanut flavors. For those who want to sample Laotian cuisine, the fresh Koor Mee Lao is a satisfying mixture of rice noodles, onions, scallions, bean sprouts and either fish, chicken or pork.
Taste of Asia is also a haven for vegan and gluten-free diners, with vegetable-filled green curry and fried rice made with cauliflower. Lumplings – dumplings made Lum-style – come in pork, chicken, fish and vegetarian.
Darwin's on 4th
1525 Fourth St., Sarasota
Sarasota doesn't usually conjure the words "Peruvian gastropub."
But that's exactly what Peruvian chef Darwin Santa Maria has created just north of Main Street in downtown Sarasota. The restaurant appears to hew to the motto over one doorway that reads in gothic letters, "Living Well Is The Best Revenge."
The dramatic showpiece is the open kitchen, which extends like a half-moon into the dining room. Sit at the bar for the most dramatic effect as the cooks create yuzu-butter poached lobster tacos and authentic Andean Chaufa De Quinoa, a Peruvian stir-fry with duck, shrimp, pork, sweet plantains and egg mixed with quinoa.
Sushi and ceviche lovers should not miss the Tuna Tiradito, the restaurant's sashimi-style tuna mounted on slabs of fresh watermelon and seasoned with ginger soy sauce. Giving the dish a spectacular flavor is the leche de tigre, or tiger's milk, a Peruvian citrus-based marinade used to cure the seafood.
At nights, the bar becomes sultry and darkly lit as it serves a wide range of home brews and locally made beers. Later in the evening, the bar quickly turns into a nightlife hotspot with live music. Bring your dancing shoes. You'll want to work off your dinner.