Only three weeks after opening, The Table was abuzz. Diners flocked to the new restaurant on Hillview Avenue in Sarasota, lured in by a fierce word-of-mouth machine and the inviting glow of the dining room. The restaurant was already having repeat customers. Same-day reservations on weeknights were hard to get. Waiters bustled about the dining room, lauding the artistry in the kitchen and lecturing on unfamiliar ingredients.To a limited extent their ministrations are necessary. The menu looks like a souvenir from some imaginary Latin American republic, equal parts American, European and New World equatorial — from Miami, in fact, where The Table's chefs, Rafael Manzano and Pedro Flores, previously operated a restaurant. Novelties abound — boniato gnocchi with Argentinean sausage, monkfish pearl croquettes and seared scallops with Caribbean pumpkin — and all the entrees clock in under $19, lamb chops and filet included.
The Table was clearly hatched from an improbable, even whimsical idea of what a restaurant could be, and Sarasotans responded en masse. But was it love or infatuation? A desserts-only visit prompted some misgivings. The chocolate sampler ($5.50) looked magnificent; it consisted of a raspberry-chocolate "smoothie" in a shot glass, a chocolate fondant in a mini-ramekin with vanilla ice cream, and a chocolate brownie with chocolate ice cream dotted with marshmallows, all three lined up on a beautiful white plate and tricked out with various bells and whistles. It looked like an artistic interpretation of the circus, but it was ultimately too cute to be satisfying.
Would The Table be, to pillage Cole Porter, the good turtle soup or merely the mock? Would we say thumbs down and give it a shove — or would it be at long last love?
A few visits later, I had my answer: Only a month or so in operation, The Table is the best restaurant I've experienced in Sarasota.
All the dishes are presented with panache. The port-mango jam that accompanies seared foie gras ($14) is strewn across a long plate like islands in an archipelago; the foie gras rests at the end on a mound of cinnamon plantain mash, which completes an exceptionally well-conceived trio. A slaw of crisp chayote and fresh, shaved coconut topped three monkfish medallions, and the monkfish topped a stack of intensely sumptuous braised short ribs ($14). Every one of our appetizers, entrees and lunch plates was beautifully displayed, deeply satisfying and vigorously imagined. Among desserts the chocolate extravaganza ($5.50), apple crumb ($4.50) and key lime mousse ($4.50) succeeded at something approaching the same level.
The chefs call their cooking Atlantic Rim, a catchy shorthand for cuisine that combines influences and ingredients from South America, the Caribbean and Florida with others from Spain, Portugal, Italy and to a lesser extent the Middle East. This is a lot to integrate into one menu, but the end result is as simple as the Barcelona Press ($7.50), a Spanish take on the Cuban sandwich, or boniato gnocchi, which use the Caribbean sweet potato boniato rather than a typical potato.
Strictly speaking, all but a few items originate from around the Atlantic, but the term is fairly superficial and does not acknowledge that the menu's dominant flavors are Latin. I might propose "magical realism" as an alternate way of describing the menu. In literature, magical realism describes worlds in which fantastic or improbable elements live side by side with literal ones, so that the mythical is treated with as much seriousness as the mundane. It's about letting the imagination take over even after you've learned the way things are not supposed to be. The roasted lamb barbacoa with tomatillo creme fraiche and pickled radish salad ($5), an appetizer, turns out to be a jocular bait-and-switch. Basically, it's a Latin gyro; grilled lamb stands in for shwarma, hard blue corn tortilla shells substitute for pita, and the tomatillo creme fraiche mimics the cucumber-yogurt sauce tzatziki.
Magical realism is also about incorporating folk stories and popular elements into high art; both the calamari pepper pot ($6) and shrimp carnevale with yuca-coconut broth and tempura mussels ($16) refine Latin American staples without messing around too much with the basic tradition. Three main objects floated in the carnevale: little yuca logs, large shrimp and fat mussels taken out of their shells and dressed in a tempura jacket that somehow stayed crunchy after minutes in the broth. The visual arrangement is stark — it's not exactly a carnival in this carnevale bowl — but the broth had a bright and complicated flavor cut by a suave note of coconut milk.
The name of the place refers to the round table at the back of the dining room, the site of special prix fixe meals. At the chef's table you are served a seven-course meal for the insanely low price of $45 a person, and the details of that meal are negotiable with the chefs. Our waiter was eager to share all the details of the first-ever meal served at the chef's table: the selections included the annato coriander roasted lamb chops with spinach and a Peruvian potato galette with the rich Spanish goat cheese murcia al vino and a fig demi-glace ($19) — plus the filet mignon with balsamic veal reduction and broccoli rabe-cheddar mash ($19). Both items are on the regular menu, but in general the idea is to give the chefs a chance to whip up whatever they have in mind on a given night.
Vivid, novel dishes, implausibly low prices and an elegant yet informal atmosphere bring The Table very close to restaurant perfection. Now it has only to expand the wine list and temper some genuinely caring but overenthusiastic service. At long last love.
Weekly Planet Staff Writer Travis Wilds dines anonymously and the Planet pays for his meals. He can be reached at 941-308-0258, or [email protected]. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.