What makes Meliora the best new restaurant of 2022?
Let’s start with the name.
The restaurant, which opened in March in Sarasota’s Southside Village, is a reference to a Latin adjective meaning “best.”
And that seems to be the underlying theme here: better service, better food, and an overall better dining experience. It’s a concept that owners Bruce Pike and Drew Adams clearly have close to their hearts.
The duo, longtime friends who moved to Sarasota from Washington, DC during the pandemic, wanted to bring something bigger, something exceptional to the local dining scene. In the Southside Village space (formerly Hillview Grill), they saw an opportunity to open a restaurant that felt casual enough for a weeknight dinner, but with an elevated menu that hinted at the culinary prowess of the kitchen.
Drawing heavily on his own experiences in the hospitality industry (Pike ran an event production company) and a passion for the culinary arts (Adams worked at several Michelin-starred restaurants, including the famed Washington, D.C. , spot Rose’s Luxury), the two created in the opening of one of the most ambitious newcomers in the region.
In a year when fast-casual concepts still dominated Tampa Bay’s dining landscape, Meliora stood out. And yes, it’s totally worth the drive.
That’s the thing about restaurants of this caliber: they don’t just attract diners, they attract talent. I first dined at Meliora after a chef at a beloved restaurant in Tampa told me they had recently started cooking there. And they weren’t the only ones: Adams’ team includes on their resumes chefs from well-known restaurants such as Rocca in Tampa and Lingr in St. Petersburg, a trend that is sure to continue.
What makes Meliora so appealing to diners? i cooks? Perhaps it’s the quality of service and the incredibly well-versed staff, who help guide guests through the many twists and turns of the menu over the course of an evening. Perhaps it’s the fine-tuned attention to detail and the ever-evolving, envelope-pushing menu. Maybe it’s just that the food is really good.
Here’s what Meliora isn’t: Meliora isn’t a luxury restaurant (though to be clear, cooking of this quality doesn’t come cheap). It’s not a farm-to-table concept either, although Adams and his team source locally and seasonally whenever they can. And it’s not a restaurant that depends on spectacle or drama, but spectacle and theater have parts to play as the evening unfolds.
Take, for example, a plate of raw scallops ($19), which arrives inside a small glass dome as a server pours an aromatic scallop cream at the table. The hot cream, pungent with garlic and chives, gently cooks the scallops, steaming the edges of the glass so that the effect is like taking bites out of a small terrarium. It’s creative, fun, and unforgettable, and quite possibly the best thing I’ve eaten all year.
The element of nostalgia is central to Adams’ menu, and several items on the small and shared plate list (divided into “hot” and “cold”) are iterations of signature dishes perfected over the course of his career. But a big part of what makes dining here so remarkable is that the menu changes constantly: Over a four-month period, Adams estimates he experimented with roughly 100 different dishes.
Meals are punctuated by dishes that not only combine texture and flavor, but also pop with color, from a charcoal-hued Japanese bread pudding starter ($8) served with salt and cultured butter to a bright bouquet of crudites ($15), which arrive nestled in a creamy goat’s milk ricotta sprinkled with dill pollen.
Several items take a playful, hands-on approach: a plate of cold ground pork with fermented kohlrabi ($17) is drizzled with crunchy garlic chips and sesame seeds and served with large lettuce leaves for wrapping, the extra end of fresh lime or a spoonful of chile paste left to the diner’s discretion.
Build-your-own bao buns ($48) feature a choose-your-own-adventure setting, with warm, soft buns served alongside chunks of crispy cold-roasted smoked Rohan duck skin with crispy slices of pear, fermented turnips, sliced scallions on the bias and a syrupy homemade hoisin sauce. It’s a fun, messy and completely delicious dish.
There are some dishes that wouldn’t feel so seasonally appropriate in the Northeast, but fit right in here. A plate of heirloom cherry tomatoes ($14) lives on the menu year-round. Served with a thick, spicy tzatziki sauce with feta, the tomatoes taste just as nice on a pleasant November afternoon as they do in July or August.
And while Meliora is not a seafood-centric restaurant, there are several references to the bounty of the Gulf of Mexico, including beautiful rice paper prints of native fish hanging in the dining room and an excellent tuna plate ($18 ), which uses the supplied local yellow fin. for a small fishing operation in Cortez near Anna Maria Island. The kitchen dry-ages the fish before slathering it in fried ginger and tossing it in an umami-filled sauce with tamari and hot ginger oil, drizzled with scallions and sesame seeds.
The cocktails also enjoy a certain level of scenography: the bubbly, refreshing Merriweather ($16) arrives with one of those quivering smoke bubbles of the day, while other drinks incorporate live fire (the Shenandoah, $18 ) or emerge from under the glass domes, covered. in sage-scented smoke (the Smudge Stick, $15).
As with everything here, the experience feels like something to behold and admire, and then to enjoy.
Find the full list of the best restaurants of 2022 at tampabaytimes.com