I confess that I have “a bit” of a crush on the Chef at Duval’s Fresh. Local. Seafood. And I know his wife understands because I’m just one of a long list of adoring fans.
Chef Nils Tarantik, in my humble opinion, is about the nicest and easily one of the most talented chefs in Sarasota. It’s my opinion, and if you don’t agree, that’s ok. You probably need to meet him before you can join the fan club. (I’m running for president, just so you know!)
My husband, Mart, has a background in the restaurant business and has worked with Nils . . . waaaaay back when he was a sous chef at one of those restaurants where Nils had to follow someone else’s recipes. Talk about curbing your enthusiasm! As Mart describes Nils, he’s the brand of chef who is best when given free reign in the kitchen. We both agree that Chef Nils’ creativity in recipe development and food presentation are not to be missed, and we’ve followed his career for some time.
We dropped by Duval’s Fresh. Local. Seafood again last Friday evening and peeked into the kitchen to make sure Chef was there. It was just before 6:00 and the restaurant hadn’t filled up yet, so we said hello and congratulated Chef on the news that a second baby is on the way. (His, not ours!)
Once comfortably seated in the dining room, we ordered cocktails, Mart’s a Manhattan Martini and mine a classic Duval’s Martini, made slightly “dirty” with olive juice. We’d arrived in time for Happy Hour discounts and who doesn’t like to sip and save while looking over the menu?
As appetizers go, calamari is one of those go-to starters that most of us have enjoyed dozens of time. But, not like what you’ll savor at Duval’s, where, under the skill of Chef Nils and his dynamic crew, calamari is dialed in pirate-style. We’re talking Siesta Key Rum Glazed Calamari, flash fried so it’s nice and crispy, then tossed in a rum glaze . . . alongside slices of pineapple, banana peppers, cucumber and red peppers. Mart was wowed by the topping of pea shoots, which gave the entire dish an “octopuses garden” (his words not mine – no octopus here,) air to it. This calamari has a real zing to it, a bright taste that wakes up the appetite, just as an appetizer is meant to do!
I ‘m watching what I eat, so I thought a nice Southern Caprese salad would allow me to dine guilt free. Ha! Just look at the size of this dish! Featuring fried green tomatoes as big as my fist, this Caprese alternated between the fried tomatoes, thick slices of mozzarella, garden fresh basil, heirloom tomatoes, and a balsamic reduction. This masterpiece sat atop a brilliant green garlic herb oil that had me begging for more. (To take home, that is! Duval’s could seriously bottle the herb oil and make beaucoup bucks!) I really enjoyed the crunch of the battered fried green tomato as it added that extra “somethin’ somethin'” to the typical Caprese salad. (Notice how I snuck the word “thin” in there? Positive thinking at its best!)
Finishing up our apps, Chef asked if we’d like to try two new dishes he’ll be introducing to the menu. Seriously? The opportunity to play guinea pig with Chef Nils was irresistible. We’re all in!
Before trying the new dishes, Chef recommended a simple palate cleanser . . . a minute arugula quinoa salad with blue cheese and red onion, extra virgin olive oil and a mango balsamic reduction. “Only Nils could make a palate cleanser with red onions,” Mart exclaimed. Don’t ask me how, but it worked. Quinoa in a salad is always a hit with me, especially since it adds an almost nutty crunch that I usually get from seasoned croutons.
First up on the two new menu items was Duval’s Classic Oven Roasted Trout. This North Carolina River Trout was so sublime, and so divine, with the cavity lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, and a fine dusting of flour before they quick pan sear the trout, just browning the skin before roasting it in the oven. The final “kiss” on this dish? Laying it gently in a sauce of lemons, capers, white wine and lemon juice. Notice how it’s not swimming in sauce? It didn’t have to be!
“It’s simple, yet superb!” I complimented Chef Nils when he asked our thoughts on the dish. “I’m so thrilled with the flavor of the trout, the texture of the meat and the skin.”
“You have to respect the fish, ” Chef explained. “The flavor of a river trout is excellent, almost on its own. We celebrate that flavor. You shouldn’t cover it up with needless garnish or spices.” Trust me on this. . . this trout was so well respected. Served with a fresh gremolata of parsley, lemon zest, and shallots, the amount of restraint shown in this dish was every bit as important as the decision to add spices to it. I rated this trout “Superior!”
Alongside the trout was an order of Duval’s Fries. These chunky wedges of potato are sliced thick, slathered with whole grain mustard, salt, pepper and olive oil and then oven roasted. Don’t ask why they’re called fries, they’re way healthier than that!
The rock star in food presentation this evening was the Blackened Ahi Tuna served with a citrus rice pilaf and shredded slaw ensconced within a toasted tortilla “fort.” The tortilla was is wrapped around a rolling pin, rolled in sesame seeds and baked to a light, crispy crust. Standing on its end, it resembles a cracker castle, a virtual fortress rising up from the rice pilaf, protecting a mound of shredded slaw seasoned with a sesame vinaigrette and topped with Ahi tuna. A beauty, for sure!
“Do you think Chef Nils stays up all night thinking of these dishes?” Mart had to ask. I have to wonder as well. We spent our evening complimented the sauce, the spice choices, the plating, the flavors, the freshness . . . name any detail in any dish and we found something we loved about it.
While we didn’t take photos of our desserts (they were gobbled up too fast!) we did enjoy the creativity in both. Mart had a wonderful Pecan Praline Mousse, served on a small plate that was just the right size dessert after such a scrumptious meal. The crispy praline reminded me of pecan brittle, which was drizzled with chocolate and sat on a velvety espresso mousse. I had taken the first bite and immediately knew this would be a hit with Mart.
I finished our evening at Duval’s Fresh. Local. Seafood with a Summer Trifle, one of the featured desserts on Duval’s Savor Sarasota menu, which was still being served in late July, even though the promotion ended the middle of June with most other participants. My trifle was a wonderful blend of strawberry, black berries, blueberries, and raspberries swirled in a lemon curd over a moist vanilla cake. Chantilly cream topped the confection, brimming over the top of the shot glass it was served in. It certainly presented all the tastes of summer berries at the exact proportion of dessert I’ve come to favor. These little confections are the perfect solution to the cautionary “Save room for dessert” commentary. Just lovely!
You don’t have to know Chef Nils or anyone else at Duval’s Fresh. Local. Seafood to get the royal treatment. Once you go, however, you
may will join his fan club! Duval’s is so cool they even offer a shuttle service for folks in the general downtown area who don’t drive, or chose not to. For that service, call/text 941-374-3996 or visit their website to schedule a pickup.
But here’s a hint: Make sure you call for a reservation, as Duval’s dining room fills up quickly, even in the quietest days of summer.
And if you’re ever invited to sample a new dish . . . go for it! I’m so glad we did!