Featured on WTSP’s Flavors of Tampa Bay, El Lago Ranchero serves Mexican fare amidst warm yellow walls and mission-style tiled archways. Waiters shuffle tamales, shrimp tacos, and fajitas—each paired with rice and beans—to tables inside the eatery or on a patio shaded with umbrellas. Guests can quell sweet cravings with fried ice cream and flan or sangria and margaritas as they try to find the courage to tell their date their second, secret middle name.
“I believe that if you’re not cooking with all five senses, you’re not cooking,” declares Derek Barnes in his feature for Sarasota’s Hot Chefs. It’s this maxim that earned him a lifetime of culinary achievement, starting with a four-year stint under the expertise of Emeril Lagasse and leading to a Zagat rating for his own restaurant and the title of semifinalist in the 2009 James Beard Awards. Derek channels these achievements into the innovative dishes he creates at his eponymous restaurant, which specializes in what he calls progressive American cuisine. That “progressive” moniker can mean a lot of things, whether it’s anointing a dish of foie gras with hazelnut honey and walnut streusel or braising a savory lamb shank in the tart flavors of lime and cilantro. Unlike a time-traveling Byzantine explorer, the chef doesn’t obsess over his plentiful spice cabinet, as the menu’s simple-grill selection serves up fresh cuts of steak, fish, and poultry in a simple, unadulterated form. Each flavor note finds its ideal complement in a wine list that features 100 bottles, many of which are available by the glass.
MoZaic's head chef Dylan Elhajoui learned how to cook in his native Fes, Morocco surrounded by a family of chefs and restaurant owners, flavorful foods and fragrances, and bustling markets brimming with fresh produce. He infuses the recipes of his youth with abundant herbs and spices, organic meats, and fresh fish, depending on what can be found in that week's farmers' markets and fishermen's nets. The results are flavorful dishes, such as the seven-vegetable couscous spiced with ginger and lemon confit. Chef Elhajoui and his team also craft delicacies such as the sage-smoked duck breast, which they serve with a sweet side of poached pears, a goat-cheese polenta, and star-anise aigre-doux jus. Guests can conclude meals with one of the house's eclectic desserts, such as the Tangier—a flourless pear-and-walnut cake topped with a dollop of vanilla-bean crème anglaise and toasted-coconut ice cream.
Ceviche Tapas Bar & Restaurant not only imports ingredients and products, but also recipes. With roots in northern Spain and Catalonia, these dishes come together on a menu of more than 100 hot and cold tapas selections, along with paella and cazuela. Paella, a widely varied rice dish cooked at length in a wide pot over open flame, can contain Serrano ham, scallops, pork, chorizo, and saffron rice the stunning golden hue of an alchemist's magazine advertisements. Though the restaurant spans multiple locations, each one presents guests with some charming element: a poolside patio at the Tampa location, a central tapas bar in Orlando, and a flamenco room in St. Petersburg. Meanwhile, no matter the location, events bring about live music and joviality, all supported by an ample list of Spanish and Portuguese wines.
Oftentimes, those who find success in a given venture continually try to replicate their initial victory. But when Sean Murphy and Susan Timmins, owners of the award-winning Beach Bistro, were conceptualizing a new restaurant, they decided to go in a brand new direction. That direction was Eat Here, a more casual eatery with chef-crafted food in a charmingly stripped-down atmosphere. Instead of elegant stemware, there's mismatched cutlery from vintage stores; rather than fresh roses, there are sunflowers in old wine bottles.
The approach is working—Eat Here has emulated its big sibling's spot in Florida Trend's Golden Spoon Hall of Fame by winning Best New Restaurant awards from the same publication. The menu has a definite sense of humor (see the Better Than Any Frenchman's onion soup) and exciting presentations of luxury ingredients, such as lobster tacos and ice cubes shaped like gold bars. Complementing the selection of wild-caught seafood, wood stone pizzas, and revived American favorites are handcrafted cocktails, including lemongrass caipirinhas and watermelon mojitos.
Cosimo’s Trattoria & Bar blends the charm of Old World bistros with more modern international flavors. In keeping with tradition, the chefs hand-toss each 12-inch pizza before topping the pies with everything from ground Italian sausage and roasted red peppers to grilled chicken and sundried tomatoes. Classic pies are then baked to a toothsome crisp inside a wood-burning brick oven.
Homemade pasta dishes, ciabatta sandwiches, and grilled salmon with polenta exemplify bistro-style Italian cuisine. But the chefs push the boundaries with wasabi aioli and sweet Thai chili sauce on tempura-fried shrimp, and hoisin sauce and sesame seeds can top surprising specialty pizzas. Gluten-free items also accommodate diners with special diets.
Tan walls, diner-style booths, large plate-glass windows all lend a homespun charm to the airy, high-ceilinged dining room at Cosimo’s Trattoria & Bar. For a splash of color amid the space’s earth-toned palette, the eatery also features a colorful portrait as well as planters brimming with leafy green ferns. The covered veranda allows diners to enjoy their meals in the open air while avoiding the prying eyes of passing jetliner pilots.