Sarasota, Florida. It’s not exactly at the top of my list of food-centric cities, but it is the place where I happen to call home at the moment. So as always, before I made the move, I did my research to see what kind of eats my new town had to offer. My wife has joined me in this task the last two times we had to move, and I’m proud to say she’s growing quite adept at sniffing out the good stuff. After three months, her discovery of Indigenous, a rustic little place just south of Main St. in Sarasota, has taken the proverbial cake.
Like me, chef and owner of Indigenous, Steve Phelps, can’t seem to sit still. After paying his dues at a family run restaurant in Ohio and making his way through the food scene in Cleveland, he found himself in Sarasota. In a few years he saw his shot to open his own place and took it. Seven years later, I arrived and booked a table at Indigenous before my last box was unpacked. My urgency was rewarded with a meal that could stand up against some of the best restaurants in the country. I get the feeling Chef Phelps would be too humble to say this himself so I’ll say it for him, Indigenous is single-handedly raising the bar for quality eats in Sarasota and the town is better for it.
The menu is at once worldly, taking cues from New Orleans to Southeast Asia, and distinctly regional with ingredients sourced from nearby Providence Cattle Co. and Open Blue Sea Farms in Miami. A cozy wild mushroom bisque spiked with truffle croutons was enticing despite the balmy weather. Chef Phelps’ take on a BLT, an attractive composition of pork belly, tomato marmalade and jus aioli, is a clear display of his love for Sarasota. Chefs often make the false assumption that small town demographics are less sophisticated than in the city. It’s nice to see him flex his culinary muscles a little!
The workout continued with a glistening plate of cobia crudo. Crisp sea beans and sesame quinoa played it crispy opposite the supple fish, while sweet soy and ginger crème fraîche seamlessly wove Asia into the dish. (Something about supremely fresh raw fish makes me rhyme, who knew)
Cooked fish on the other hand, is rarely an area of the menu I spend much time on. Strangely though, as our waiter explained the Hook to Fork special that night, I was caught…well you know. Red grouper was the star, perched (I’m sorry about the fish puns and clichés, I’m not sure what’s come over me today) atop a corn cake with a luxurious pea tendril remoulade. The depth of flavor in the grouper was unparalleled. As strange as it sounds it had the unctuous mouth feel reminiscent of pork belly at times. This dish has joined hamachi kama and miso glazed black cod in the rarefied air that is my cooked fish pantheon.
Dessert was no less impressive than the savory dishes. Lavender is a fickle ingredient in my opinion. Incorporating it into a cupcake and cream can be a tight wire act as the line between floral and hand soap is razor-thin. Thankfully the chef knew exactly where that line was, deftly navigating the flavor with the same confidence he displayed throughout the meal. The cupcake had the consistency of a fresh, buttery madeleine, one of my childhood favorites.
I never truly feel at home in a new city until I’ve found the great spots to get a meal, after all, that’s where some of life’s greatest comfort is found. I have Chef Phelps and Indigenous to thank for much of the comfort I feel now, so early on. Indigenous isn’t just a great restaurant for Sarasota, it’s a great restaurant in general. So if you want a break from the Tampa food scene but don’t want to skimp on quality, get down here and give Indigenous a shot.