- December 5, 2018
Within a 0.2-mile stretch of downtown Sarasota from North Palm Avenue to Main Street, locals can experience opera, a Tony Award-winning musical and more than 1,800 square feet of art galleries. On Sept. 10, another artistic outlet will be joining the creative buffet along this stretch: the third annual A Taste of Downtown Food & Wine Festival.
The event kickstarts the social season with an afternoon of fine food and wine at the Sarasota Opera House. Since its inception in 2014, the event has raised more than $28,000 for the Sarasota Youth Opera.
Twenty-two restaurants from the downtown area will partake this year, and attendees can taste everything from Japanese to Peruvian bites. According to Tsunami Sushi and Hibachi Grill General Manager Jeffrey Karasawa, attending is like “traveling the world in four hours.”
Organizer Jennifer Simms says she likes to host the event in September because it gives locals something to do before season begins. She also notes that it attracts a wide demographic, from people in their 20s to 70s.
“We were trying to put together an event that is more community-based,” she says. “A lot of our events are more opera-centric, but we also wanted to do something that attracted more members of the general community.”
To preview this year’s Taste of Downtown, the Observer spoke with four participating chefs to see what dishes they plan to serve, what ingredients they can’t live without and what gets their creative juices flowing.
This cocktail hot spot might be a newcomer to the event, but the employees of State Street Eating House + Cocktails plan to hold their own during the restaurant’s first appearance at Taste of Downtown. Chef Adam Ruth, who has worked in restaurant kitchens since age 15, is taking a similar approach to the one he uses to arrange his own menu items: Base everything on ingredients that are currently in season.
Ruth will prepare a crab and watermelon ceviche that he describes as “sweet and refreshing.” The dish makes use of extra virgin olive oil and citrus for balance, as well as some spices to “liven up the party a bit.”
“We try to keep it simple and not have too many ingredients fighting against each other,” Ruth says.
When preparing for an event like this, it’s important to pick a dish that will be able to sit for hours at a time, hence his choice of ceviche, which Ruth says actually gets better over time. It’s easy to assemble and straightforward — reminiscent of his cooking style at large.
“The dish we’re doing is very reflective of our fare in general,” says proprietor Chris Voelker. “And that’s always looking at what we can do the freshest and the most innovative.”
Voelker describes Ruth as a modest chef — a trait that might be one of his biggest strengths.
“Telling me something is good isn’t going to make me better,” says Ruth. “Critiquing everything will constantly push me.”
Tsunami has participated in the event every year, and its proximity to the Sarasota Opera House has continually helped its staff provide the freshest dishes possible — and allowed them to replenish their food supply within minutes.
This year, the restaurant will serve its Ahi Tuna Tower, which includes spicy tuna with sliced avocado and shredded Alaskan king crabmeat on top of a bed of sushi rice, topped with tempura flakes, housemade spicy mayo and eel sauce drizzled on top, then finished with masago (fish eggs). Owner Sam Ray describes the dish as “refreshing, savory and flavorful.”
Executive chef Allan Yu has been with the restaurant for two years, and with translation by General Manager Jeffrey Karasawa, Yu says he thinks the true taste of Sarasota is sophistication.
“I’ve noticed that people here love texture and flavor and that there are more sophisticated tastes,” he says. “You don’t have to go extremely spicy or extremely sweet; they want simple, sophisticated and delicate. And they care more about the quality than the quantity.”
Karasawa enjoys the chance to get the restaurant’s name out and introduce people to Japanese cuisine in a “baby step” fashion.
“We’re famous for our sushi,” says Karasawa. “But we don’t want to do too much on the raw side. The tuna tower is just a little touch of raw. It lets people try it and see if they care for the fish.”
Mattison’s is no stranger to event catering, and its commitment to what owner and Chef Paul Mattison calls “pure, simple and clean” food carries over into its preparation for the event.
The restaurant has participated since the inaugural event, and Mattison looks to his dinner menu to decide what dish he wants to feature. This year, he’ll be preparing a new version of his Niman Ranch Pork Medallions, which consists of fennel pollen-crusted pork served over a cauliflower hash and challot-raisin chutney.
Mattison considers pork a mild-flavored meat, so he likes to pair it with dynamic, rich flavors. He says the right mix of sweet and savory makes for the perfect pork dish.
“There’s a little brown sugar, and there’s a little vinegar in the dish, so again, you have to balance the sweet and sourness,” he says. “I find that when you mix that savory and sweetness with it, it really pops, and it complements the meat really well.”
He wanted to differentiate his dish by veering from the industry trend of pork-belly dishes, and as fall approaches, apples and pears are in season.
“The common denominator is freshness and quality of ingredients,” he says. “That battle cry of delicious and healthy ingredients and just good, simple cooking."
Selva Grill specializes in Latino cuisine, and the restaurant plans to celebrate that cultural vibrancy with its Taste of Downtown dish.
“We decided to do the shrimp ceviche, because it has most of the flavors and colors we would like to share,” says executive chef Ysacc Sanchez. “We would like people to have fun and enjoy their food at the same time.”
Sanchez, who grew up in Peru, says presenting his dishes colorfully is as important as producing quality, fresh food, echoing the lively cultural tradition of his homeland.
The shrimp ceviche he’ll feature at the event will be a fresh tiger shrimp with tomato juice, fresh orange juice, cilantro, onions, Cuzco corn, avocados and achiote, a Peruvian herb.
Growing up in Peru, Sanchez says the kitchen was his natural environment. His family owned a small restaurant there, and he developed an appreciation for Latin cooking by going to the "mercado" with his mom to find fresh ingredients. He looks forward to sharing the cuisine to which he’s devoted so much of his life.
“It’s the passion,” he says of what defines his cooking style. “You can be from anywhere in the world, but it’s passion that moves you, to make you be better than yesterday.”