Darwin Santa Maria is a local Sarasota chef who we’ve written about several times over the past 8 years. He’s been the Executive Chef at a number of Sarasota’s most popular restaurants and he’s co-owned a few as well. And we’ve followed him from hot spot to hot spot, enjoying countless appetizers and entrees, indulging on a number of his craft cocktails and most importantly, learning to love Peruvian cuisine.
Just before Florida’s restaurants were shut down for the pandemic of 2020, I had met a friend at Darwin’s for dinner. Little did I know that I know that I would not set foot inside a restaurant again for almost 2 months!!! For a foodie and especially a food blogger these past two months have been unbelievable! Yes, we have done curbside pickup and delivery, but not being able to spend time with our favorite chefs and front of house staff has been unexpectantly depressing. Our favorite restaurants are an extension of our homes and we think of them as family. We miss them!
So, back to that Saturday evening in early March. . . I arrived at Darwin Peruvian Eatery extremely excited. I am a Chef Darwin fan, and I KNEW firsthand the feeling of indulgence whenever I dine on his culinary creations. The man is THE master of Peruvian food in Sarasota (and possibly all of Florida,) and I trust his culinary talents to take me on a trip to the Andes anytime! Throw in a number of excellent, colorful Peru-inspired painted murals and you’ll find Darwin Peruvian Eatery is also a feast for the eyes, as well as the palate!
Oddly enough, there is a craft cocktail on Darwin’s bar menu called The Flu Shot. I kid you not! Timing being what it was, (early March 2020) there was no chance that I wouldn’t order one! So, I made myself comfortable at the bar while waiting for my friend Kimberly, and listened to the live musicians while my craft cocktail was being made. It was the first, and only time, I’ll ever look forward to a Flu Shot!
Starting with a base of Suerte Reposado Tequila, the Flu Shot packs in plenty of Vitamin C with splashes of fresh lemon and orange juices, and then . . . the spices come to play! Both Tumeric and cayenne pepper make their presence known, both in the cocktail and along the rim of the glass, with just enough agave to tone down the cayenne. Yum! I was not the only one ordering a Flu Shot that night. . . in fact, I got the last one as Tumeric was running low.
Once Kimberly arrived, we moved to a table inside the restaurant, where I could also check out the room. While not packed, Darwin’s was certainly busy as Kimberly and I weren’t the only ones taking advantage of a night on the town before the projected lockdown went into effect. Wanting to try a little bit of everything, we both decided to order two small plates instead of a full entree.
If Chef Darwin is famous for any one style of cooking, it’s no doubt his ceviche, where various cuts of raw fish is “cooked” in citrus. There are a number of ceviche choices on Darwin’s menu, which made it hard for me to choose until remembering how much I love his Leche De Tigre. Leche De Tigre, when translated means “tiger’s milk”, the Peruvian term for a specific citrus marinade that ‘cooks’ the raw seafood and packs it with flavor.
Served in a martini glass, bite-sized chunks of tuna are marinated in citrus with a shrimp garnishing the glass. While some would just pop that shrimp into their mouth, I dropped it into the ceviche marinade to soak up all the citrus goodness. The tangy ceviche is served with a handful of crispy plantain chips and a small dish of salty Peruvian corn. They all paired swimmingly, especially since I had missed these flavors for far too long!
Kimberly also focused on the ceviche section of the menu, opting for the Camaron Ceviche which highlights the flavors of juicy shrimp marinated in the juice of oranges and limes seasoned with achiote spice, then tossed with avocado, tomato, red onions, and Peruvian corn, also known as choclo. While many of the ceviches on Darwin’s menu feature the Liche de Tigre marinade, the slight variation to the marinade in the Camaron Ceviche offers a slightly sweeter twist on the citrus back tones. Both ceviches put a smile on my face!
Taking a more “middle of the road” offering for her second dish, Kimberly ordered the Crispy Calamari off the Para Pacar (To Snack) section of the menu. Prepared in a classic friend calamari fashion, her dish included roasted jalapeno and pickled red onion with a wedge of lime on the side . . . a squeeze of citrus always being ideal with seafood. The crisp coating on the calamari was golden brown, the calamari slightly chewy, just as it should be.
While mentioning earlier my adoration of Chef Darwin’s ceviches, there are a number of other dishes people would argue to be all-stars at Darwin Peruvian Eatery . . . and that would include the Crispy Polpo.
Let me say the name of this dish doesn’t do it justice. There is nothing “crispy” about Chef Darwin’s octopus (aka Polpo). Correct me if you disagree, but when I think of crispy food I think of a protein where the skin crisps up when cooked or something that has been dipped in a batter and deep-fried. Chef’s Polpo has neither of these characteristics, instead offering a slight char on an oh-so-tender, yet slightly chewy arm of an octopus, with most of the char on the tender tips of the tentacles. Pinenuts, pickled daikon, curly kale, and lemon drop pepper gastrique balance out the plate. I would totally order this again and again!
There are a number of exciting choices on Darwin Peruvian Eatery’s Big Plates menu, including Chef’s rendition of Malbec braised short ribs that he will normally sell out most nights. (Hint: If you make dinner reservations you can place your order beforehand!) The restaurant also offers a raw and ceviche bar seating which can be fun, giving you front row seating to watch Chef in action.
Now that the restaurant is reopened under the new state guidelines, you’ll want to consider one of the seats at the shaded outdoor seating area, sit in one of the two dining rooms inside, or for parties of six or more, maybe schedule seating in the private dining room (if available!) Darwin also offers curbside pickup or Grab n’ Go Delivery.
While we all look forward to a brighter future, consider Darwin Peruvian Eatery your go-to spot for bright, wake-up-the-tastebuds food! We hope all our readers will continue to support our local restaurants. Best wishes and delightful dishes to Chef Darwin and his talented staff!