Originally published in The Observer
Date: January 18, 2012
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist
One of our favorite restaurants in Sarasota has been Selva Grill. It’s on Main Street now, but, when we first went there, it was in a little (but charming) hole-in-the-wall in a strip mall near Swift Road in south Sarasota.
The original chef was Darwin Santa Maria, but he and his family have been on the move for a while, far, far away from Sarasota.
“I’ve been traveling to Colombia, Costa Rica, Spain, Italy, and France, but, most of the time, we were in the mountains, jungle and on the coast of Peru,” Santa Maria tells us, filling in some of the blanks. Now, this peripatetic chef has returned to Sarasota with a spacious, fun restaurant that brings us Peruvian food with a twist.
“Watching the influx of people from around the world moving to Sarasota,” he said, “we decided to open a place where locals and people from different nationalities can eat something familiar or try something they’d never had before.”
What are some of those different things? “Urban street food.”
“This is a new type of dining, designed for me. We match tasting and plate-sharing,” Santa Maria explained as we strolled through the new restaurant on Fourth between Orange and Lemon.
And the atmosphere reflects the address (what other city has a restaurant between two fruit streets?) with exotic drinks “that start conversation.”
Not only are there exotic drinks, its also houses its own brewery.
“I got the idea of a brewery as a sort of dream a while ago,” Santa Maria says. “I saw this place in Lima, but I didn’t know enough about it or how it actually worked. But it seemed like such a great idea, having your own brewery with different kinds of beer to match the food.”
So, the dream was put on a back burner until “a buddy called and said this space was available in Sarasota. You have to remember, my heart is in Sarasota. I love its culture. It’s a mini-Manhattan with a cultured atmosphere. I love the beaches, and the people here are very cosmopolitan. This is a great food city, and it’s starting to become more comfortable with itself. The restaurants are less trendy and more about quality and ingredients.”
But beer brewed on the premises and urban street foods aren’t the only things that set Darwin’s on Fourth apart. It’s the food.
“Peruvian food owes much to the combination of its rich natural resources with traditions of immigrant ethnic groups,” Santa Maria says. “Peru enjoys the bounty of three, clearly different regions: the coast, the Andean Mountains and the Amazon jungle; the indigenous foods of the Incas — potatoes, corn, fish and quinoa — have been influenced by the Chinese immigrants, leaving their mark by introducing stir-fry, soy sauce and ginger.”
The Italians also made their mark with Mediterranean flavors, along with Japanese and African influences, as well.
This all adds up to a culinary melting pot that’s irresistible to a lot of people whose diversities dissolve as they share their love of great food, flavors and tastes.
“Our casual fine-dining atmosphere and bar-lounge make us well suited for romancing, meeting up with friends or holding a special celebration,” Santa Maria says. “Urban street food naturally lends itself to a fresh, affordable menu. The Peruvian influences give healthy (and delicious) options. And Darwin’s bar offers a culinary-inspired approach to beer, wine and cocktails.”
And, there’s music and entertainment, too, which provide the backdrop for a lively, spirited evening. Santa Maria’s musical tastes run from AC/DC, “to keep myself pumped” while he’s in the busy kitchen, to “Latin rock like Maná, or even top 40s,” for slower times.
Darwin’s will most likely not have too many slower moments. Location, food, spirits and spirit will make this one of Sarasota’s most glamorous and quality nightspots, perfect for whatever you want that evening.
When we go, we’ll head for the quieter areas of the restaurant, looking for the romance and the urban, upscale elements, perhaps leaving the late-night DJ in the lounge for other celebrations.
When we think of setting this grand new space to music, three pieces come to mind: Villa Lobos’ colorful “The Little Train of the Caipira,” which takes us on a musical joyride through the Brazilian interior); “The Geographical Fugue,” that wild and wooly spoken chorus by Ernst Toch; and, well, Jimmy Durante’s look at the culture of Peru: “Inca Dinka Doo.”
4 cups lime juice
3 cloves garlic
1/2 cup chopped red onion
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
3 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
8 green mussels, cleaned and debearded
1 pound mahi-mahi, cubed
1/2 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 cups tomato juice
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
Place lime juice, three cloves garlic, red onion, cilantro and celery in the blender and blend until smooth. Toss with mussels and mahi-mahi and marinate in refrigerate for at least one hour.
Sauté shrimp in tomato juice and garlic until cooked, then strain and place in refrigerator. When ready to serve, combine shrimp with the marinated seafood and divide onto individual serving plates.