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EDIBLES: Passion in the kitchen translates to the table

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  • | 4:00 a.m. October 19, 2011
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“These short ribs need as much love as a small puppy,” says Chef Steve Phelps, simultaneously searing the meat in three flaming hot pans and explaining that if they are not afterward finished perfectly with a specific braising technique, they will not turn out right.

“Goat cheese ice cream with port syrup and a fresh fig at Indigenous tonight. Insanely good!” So proclaims a young friend who has happily eaten his way around most of the world at many of its most expensive fine-dining spots.

One suspects a cause-and-effect relationship between those two quotes. It would be something like, “Passionate chef results in passionate customers.” It is certainly a hopeful sign for Phelps’ new restaurant, Indigenous, in Towles Court.

Indigenous starts from its name. The food is as local and native as realistically possible in Florida, not just in the interest of freshness and taste but in using resources wisely and supporting the local community. The good news is that “Chef Steve,” as his staff and friends call him, can source his daily “Hook to Fork” fish entrée with Gulf and Atlantic specials virtually year-round. An example from September was red grouper from Venice. Another daily special is called “Plentiful and Abundant.” It might come from far away, but it may not be an overfished or endangered species, because “sustainable” is another of Phelps’ passions.

Local produce is no problem for much of the year, but, “People forget that everything gets killed here in summer,” Phelps says.

Three Boys Farm in Ruskin supplies local lettuce, carrots, peppers and herbs all the time. The produce is all grown indoors, organically and hydroponically. And here’s sustainability again: They reclaim 99% of the water they use.

“And what they can’t reclaim, they use to spray the sidewalk,” Phelps says.

“Local” here means even more. Indigenous offers wines with a local connection — a syrah and a cabernet from Porter Family Vineyards in Napa Valley, Calif., owned by Longboat Key residents. Phelps got the community involved in designing the restaurant’s logo with an event at the Shamrock Pub that attracted 100 people to draw up their vision of “What does Indigenous look like?” Chairs and tables are made by local craftsmen from reclaimed cypress wood from northern Florida. Provisions come not from Sysco but from locally-based businesses — right down to the linen.

Another of Chef Steve’s passions is education. He wants to help people become more conscious of their food intake. Where did it come from? What did it cost to get it here? Was it sustainably produced? He is training staff to be able to answer those questions and hopes customers will ask them.

Phelps has a crystal-clear vision for his new restaurant; he wants it to be a place where you can come, “whether you want a beer and a burger or a $120 bottle of wine.” Perhaps, most of all, he wants it to have soul, something he feels is lacking in Sarasota restaurants.

“The staff is excited to be here and serving the food,” he says. “As soon as you walk in the door, you become part of our energy.”

Passion, it would appear, is contagious.

Indigenous Restaurant
239 S. Links Ave., in Towles Court
Owners: Steve Phelps and Robert Trosten
Hours: Open for dinner starting at 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Opening soon for lunch.


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