Monday, November 19, 2012

Sarasota's Indigenous: Seasonal American Cuisine

On a quiet corner in Sarasota's rustic Towles Court historic arts district resides a wonderfully imaginative and renovated cottage that's a subtropical dream at twilight. Welcome to Indigenous. With inviting outdoor seating on a covered brick patio lined with native plants, a cozy wine bar in a former guest house off to the side, and three small candlelit dining nooks in the main house, the setting is absolutely charming. The kitchen and wait staff are equally charming, but most noteworthy, they're top notch. Polished service and a fine wine list match Chef Steve Phelp's skill in the kitchen, with a menu which offers sustainably grown, wild harvested ingredients and changes seasonally.

The covered outdoor brick patio with low lighting and a balmy breeze 
makes for perfect dining

Like the furnishings and fixtures, the name Indigenous was carefully chosen to reflect the chef-owner’s goal of providing superior and sophisticated cuisine, sourced from local farms and fisheries whenever possible, but with constant emphasis on sustainably grown or wild harvested seasonal ingredients, wherever they might come from. This philosophy yields dividends not only for Sarasota's discriminating diners but also for the planet. In a tight kitchen, behind a pane of glass that separates him from the small main dining room, Chef Steve Phelps creates culinary delights every night, with dishes that both familiar and sophisticated. 

Chef Steve Phelps in the kitchen at Indigenous

“I’ve been very patient and I’m glad the community was patient too. This was truly the beginning of something special, not only for Sarasota but for me, personally. After more than 20 years in this industry, Indigenous is the realization of my vision for a restaurant with perfected cuisine, a great wine list and incredible indoor-outdoor ambiance.”

Chef Phelps   photo credit: Kim Longstreet

Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, where he started working in his uncle’s restaurant at 14 years old, Chef Phelps first came to my attention when he was chef de cuisine at The Bijou Café, which was one of my favourite dining spots in Sarasota at the time, and still is. In the spring of 2011, Chef Phelps left Bijou to pursue the opportunity to open his own restaurant, Indigenous, working with a talented group of professionals to realize his personal vision of a great local restaurant. — and he's done that in spades. When I first started coming to Sarsota in the early 1980s, fining dining was limited to a handful of reliably adequate restaurants. Nothing noteworthy. Everything as now changed. Sarasota is now blessed with a prodigious array of culinary offerings. 

Home baked cheesy thyme shortbreads start the evening off nicely

The evening begins with a basket of fresh baked thyme and cheese shortbreads and a bottle of Illumination Quintessa Sauvignon Blanc 2010 from California's Napa Valley. A lovely crisp vibrant wine with citrus and mineral notes, it was the perfect wine partner for our selection of fish entrées, for which Indigenous is acclaimed.

Arugula Salad with roasted shiitake mushrooms, shaved fennel, apple 
and Florida Tomme cheese in a Dijon Tarragon dressing

We chose our main dishes from the menu’s 'plentiful and abundant' section, referencing the daily selection’s origin in sustainable fisheries rather than from the unfortunately large pool of overfished species, as well as the 'hook to fork' selection featuring more plentiful Gulf and Atlantic species. Mine was wild-caught Florida Gulf Coast Cobia, sautéed to perfection and served with a stew of cannellini beans, kale, fennel and tomatoes, and my parents both enjoyed the Mahi Mahi with roasted sweet potato medallions, lemongrass coconut broth, chayote and Lido Key avocado.

Grilled Mahi Mahi with roasted sweet potato medallions, 
lemongrass coconut broth, chayote and Lido Key avocado

Local Cobia from the Gulf Coast of Florida served with a cannellini bean, 
kale, fennel and tomato stew 

Not normally one for sweets, how could we resist the small dessert menu of sorbets, iced creams, puddings and cakes, made fresh each morning in Chef Phelp's kitchen. This evening, the seasonally inspired sorbet was melon, and the iced cream was Lavender and local Honey. The pudding was a silky smooth Chocolate Pot au Creme. A sweet finish to a wonderful dinner enjoyed under the stars on a balmy Sarasota evening and serenaded by the excellent cuisine of Chef Phelp's. Inspired by a passion for food, our planet and the community, Steve Phelp's is truly one of the stars of Sarasotan cuisine, and I can't wait to come back for an encore.

Homemade Melon Sorbet with a starfruit garnish

Chocolate Pot au Creme

Homemade Lavender and Honey Iced Cream

Six-Mile Mangrove Snapper with Summer Corn Butter Sauce, Heirloom Tomato & White Cucumber Salad, Grilled Lemon and Thyme Vinaigrette
Serves 4
Recipe courtesy of Chef Phelps

For the Fish:
4 6-oz pieces Mangrove Snapper filet
All-purpose flour
Sea salt to taste
Fresh black pepper to taste
2 tbsp canola oil
2 tbsp unsalted butter

For the Sweet Corn Butter Sauce:
4 cups raw fresh corn trimmed from cob and 'milk' scraped from cob
4 cups water
1 tsp salt
8 tbsp cold unsalted butter

For the Grilled Lemon and Thyme Vinaigrette:
4 lemons, each cut into 4 wedges
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
2 tsp honey
2 cups canola oil
2 tbsp minced fresh thyme leaves
Salt & pepper

For the Assembly:
1 cup chopped heirloom tomatoes
1 cup diced white cucumber
1 bunch tatsoi greens

Season the snapper with salt and pepper, then lightly dust with flour and set aside.

Place the corn and 'milk' scraped from the cob into a small saucepan along with the water and salt. Bring to a boil and then turn off heat immediately. Drain corn with a strainer, reserving liquid. Place corn in a blender or food processor along with a small amount of the reserved liquid.

Start the motor and gradually add more liquid until the corn forms a smooth paste. Add the butter and process until fully incorporated. Pour into a saucepan, adjust seasoning, and keep warm until ready to assemble dish.

Make the vinaigrette by brushing lemon wedges with a very small amount of oil and placing on a hot grill for a minute or two. Squeeze lemon juice into a clean blender bowl and add the honey and Dijon. Blend on medium for 30 seconds, and with blender still running, slowly pour in the oil until emulsified. Stir in thyme, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Heat a small skillet on medium high heat and add oil and butter. When butter begins to foam, add flour coated fish. Cook well on first side to crisp, then flip and finish on the other side for 1–2 minutes. Remove from pan and let rest, not you!

Pour a pool of corn butter sauce onto the bottom of the plate. Place fish atop. Toss tomatoes in vinaigrette with salt and pepper and tatsoi, place atop fish and serve.

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