There have been so many recent restaurant openings in Sarasota, with everyone shouting “look at me!”, that it’s hard to keep up with them all.
Fortunately for the recently opened Taverna Grill, this new establishment had already been touted by fellow food writers, so Jill and I knew ahead of our visit that there definitely something special going on at this charming restaurant on Hillview.
Taking over the space of the historical Hillview Grill, Jill and I were both pleased with the renovations of the space, the décor and equally impressed with the menu and price points. I’ll confess to checking out the menu online before we went, so I was pre-intrigued anyway, and then we were greeted at the door by our server, the enthusiastic and knowledgeable Terrill, who set about treating all of his tables like royalty.
Taverna Grill is truly a chef-driven restaurant, as there are two chef-owners, both from Italy, both Michelin-trained, and both named Andrea – Chef Andrea Joly, and Chef Andrea Baroni.
As I said, I acquainted myself with the menu beforehand, and it was clearly in lockstep with today’s dining trends, with locally sourced and organic ingredients being the starting point for dishes that were flawlessly executed, visually arresting, and most importantly – DEE-LICIOUS!
The Asparagus Salad is the perfect example. Presented with fresh ribbons of asparagus and celery, toasted walnuts, aged balsamic vinegar, and organic greens topped with goat cheese, this had all the elements I adore in a salad; the required crispiness coupled with nutty flavors, acidity from the tomato and a nice amount of creamy goat cheese playing off everything on the plate. The clever use of a mandolin to shave the asparagus and celery lengthwise gave the dish an elegant presentation.
Jill and I also shared Taverna Grill’s Seaweed Salad. This was a heavenly plate of spinach with cherry tomatoes and micro greens tossed with a miso-lemongrass dressing, and three of the most beautifully seared sea scallops you could ever want . . . perched on a seaweed salad and topped with caviar. I closed my eyes whilst having a few bites, and oh my . . . it was like I was sitting at a seaside taverna on the Mediterranean! When the food can transport you like that…well, just go try this dish sometime and taste-travel for yourself. No passport needed!
It should come as no surprise that all of the pasta (except the gluten free pasta) is produced fresh daily in-house. They also make their own breads, including the Foccacia that we were lucky enough to taste just after it came out of the oven! And what’s better than the aroma of freshly made bread, I ask you!
Our next course, (we share so we can taste each other’s entrees,) was a generous portion of spinach tagliatelle with a homemade Bolognese sauce made from Chef Baroni’s grandmother’s recipe, one that’s been honored for generations, then topped with an excellent Grana Padano cheese. Seriously, it doesn’t get much homier than this classic dish from Nonna’s kitchen.
It was our dish of housemade sweet crab stuffed spinach and whole-wheat ravioli that totally earned Taverna Grill the honor of being mentioning alongside (insert your favorite local Italian restaurant here.) Seriously, this was roll-your-eyes-back-in-your-head, refuse to share with your wife delicious!
Taverna Grill’s Chef Andrea (pick one!) presented a sublimely creative dish, with the sweet crab meat nestled in perfectly cooked and picture-perfect spinach and wheat striped ravioli, dressed in butter and just the “right” amount of fresh thyme. I have NOT stopped thinking of this dish, and telling everyone I know how this minimalist approach achieved such perfection. It’s THAT good!
Dessert was another testament to the expertise in flavor and presentation that Chef Joly and Chef Baroni present to their guests.
We sampled the Semifreddo, with its dark chocolate chips and honey roasted hazelnuts, and I can’t even begin to think where I’ve had better. I loved each spoonful of this Italian ice cream-inspired dessert, enjoying the smooth creamy finish with morsels of chocolate and hazelnuts mixed in for a surprising crunch. That extra handful of chopped hazel nuts on top, with the mint and fresh berries were like the icing on the ice cream, so to speak! Just luscious!
The house tiramisu (Italian for “cheer me up,” or “lift me up”) is prepared à la minute, with only the ladyfingers soaked overnight before being served with the coffee and cocoa flavored mascarpone in a parfait glass. A little splash of rum put this over-the-top. (Consider me cheered up . . .Lift me up while you’re at it!) It’s a different presentation of a tiramisu, but that is intentional. The rum begins to pool in the bottom of the glass, which encourages you to keep eating until there isn’t a morsel left!
In the immortal words of the late Jim Harrison, a roving gourmand and famous food essayist, “Your meals in life are numbered and the number is diminishing. Get at it.”
And while you’re at, put this rising star, Taverna Grill, on your culinary bucket list!