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This place cooks

Zoria's chefs celebrate food, from the lowliest root vegetables to the most delicate desserts and everything in between.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001

SARASOTA -- You don't find a place like Zoria everyday.

Imagine a kitchen that poaches pears, makes onion jam, knows duck from breast to fatted liver, cooks great beans and collards, stuffs its own tortellini and spring rolls, and is accomplished at risotto and tempura. And does them all with sauces and pastries the equal of the classical French.

If you did imagine all this, you'd expect to be uncomfortable, surrounded by snooty waiters and snootier prices. You wouldn't be at Zoria.

This place forages for humble parsnips and precious lobster and prepares them with a world of techniques. Yet the results are friendly meals with depth of flavor and warmth of service.

It's a place you might leave with only one regret: "Maybe I should have had the lamb shank." The good news is you can afford to come back because even under-$20 entrees here can be world-class.

How to define Zoria's food? A little Asian? Comforting? Contemporary or classic? Simply, this place cooks. More specifically, Ryan Boeve and Arthur Lopes cook with grace and imagination.

It's their food that distinguishes Zoria (pronounced zoh-RYE-uh) and makes this restaurant chef-driven not decor-driven, a distinction more restaurant-builders around Tampa Bay need to learn.

How to find it? Not by heading in the usual direction to St. Armand's or along the high-priced strands of the Pearl Coast. No, next time you head south hunting for good food, stay on the mainland and you'll broaden your horizons.

Sarasota's downtown -- from posh shops on Palm Way to Main Street's movie district -- is spilling over with culinary entrepreneurship, smart bistros and trattoria (Mediterraneo, Pino, Epicure), not chains. Down Tamiami Trail, Southside Village is another foodie mecca and there, next to the tie-dyed neighborhood bicycle-and-coffee shop, you'll find Zoria.

Boeve and pastry chef Lopes moved here two years ago from Ophelia's on the Bay on Siesta Key. That explains the quality of the food; the new location makes it affordable.

What elevates the food is that the chefs seek out the right ingredients and take extra steps in every element on the plate, yet the ultimate taste is lusty, not finicky.

Take crab salad. The menu specifies "micro greens" and rock crab, not stone, and you'll love what comes to the plate. It's a core sample of a tropical salad, a solid round stack of fresh avocado, a few orange sections, palm heart with real crunch, and several ounces of sweet, perfect flakes of rock crab, topped with lettuces that are still sprouts. A light orange vinaigrette and a few toasted almonds make it a parfait of taste and textures. Sounds fancy but Everycrabeater would be thrilled.

The way red meat gets dressed up here (filet mignon gets house-made Worcestershire), you'll want to paint the town. I had antelope, tender and blue-rare with a crunchy pepper crust and a gang of fun sidekicks: a pear infused with rosemary, savory onion jam, luscious spoonful of duck foie gras and a personal best gratin of potato slices and cheeses. Dr. Atkins be damned!

Every dish is a similar composition of deep flavors, but not abstract art on a plate. The best are served in bowls or with sturdy peasant backgrounds, such as salmon on green lentils or a thick porterhouse slab of pork on a bowlful of simmered beans (black, white, brown and speckled and all colors in between) and andouille sausage with smoky collards on top.

Gold-crusted sea bass with soba noodles, stir-fried spinach and tempura-fried lobster seems uppity until you see the generous size of the lobster claw.

More often, tastes are earthy. A starter of tortellini has small folded moons stuffed with a little gorgonzola, and sauced with balsamic; duck comes on a punchy puree of parsnips and a meaty demiglace that will make you forget mashed potatoes and gravy.

That duck was the kitchen's only goof: Despite earnest discussion -- and agreement -- about the evils of overcooking, duck came out on the well side of medium, not the rare.

Even major dissatisfaction would be banished by Zoria's desserts. Lopes' hands (and knives) turn ordinary apples into a tart with crisp almond crust OR caramelize the apples into a surprise package filled with a mousse of goat cheese, an apple cheese Danish without the pastry. If your tastes are more European, the chocolate pave is lushly French and the panna cotta custard delightfully delicate. (Bread pudding made with chocolate brioche I'm saving for that lamb shank.)

The same imagination and keen eye for quality and value shows in wine. The list is brief but it hits unexplored high spots of California between $25 and $40, and lets you try Bordeaux, Burgundies and rarities like Treana and Pride Mountain for $80 or less. By the glass, there's one clever choice for each category, like Montaudon ($6.50) for Champagne.

Wine and food are delivered with speed, good nature and genuine service -- servers pour tomato fennel soup over croutons at the table; and everyone, even the bus help, knows the regulars.

I didn't forget about decor or marketing. The first is pleasant enough, pale yellows, blond wood and bold artwork, and the latter tasteful, a classy logo and a slick Web site, but they are unimportant. You could call it "Two Guys Who "R' Great Cooks" and I'd be there.

What matters more than big budgets or brand names is the personal effort that goes into the food and the service. That's what makes meals at Zoria exceptional.



1934 Hillview, Sarasota; (941) 955-4457

Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday

Reservations: Strongly recommended

Credit cards: AE, D, MC V

Details: smoking not permitted; beer, wine served; wheelchair access good

Prices: Lunch entrees, $5 to $11; dinner entrees, $12 to $25

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