BY KRISTINE NICKEL
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARK SICKLES
What is the hottest ticket downtown, the most difficult place to get a reservation? Duval’s. Yes, Duval’s. A restaurant that one year ago would have been an easy walk-in. Today, it’s hoppin’ and with good reason. The restaurant that was always good with its eclectic fusion menu has now found its niche with seafood and that seafood is great and sometimes spectacular.
Food is not the only reason for its new-found popularity. The space underwent a major renovation. Gone is the open kitchen in the rear of the shotgun space. Ditto for the unremarkable ambiance. All has been replaced with a sophisticated interior that combines banquettes with facing chairs and two-top tables. There are a few high-tops in the front of the bar. And did I say bar? Yes, indeed. Duval’s is no longer hamstrung with a wine- and beer-only license. The bar is small, but very chic, separated from the restaurant with a wall that manages to keep things connected while setting them apart. And the colors are reminiscent of the sea — lovely hues of blue used in flat surfaces and textured fabrics. It all combines to create a soothing setting for the food. Then there is the happy energy produced by the guests. And it is high energy, but high energy Sarasota-style: Not too loud, but definitely a healthy buzz.
There are many things on the “start” menu that tempt. The requisite calamari, the home-spun
lobster mac ‘n’ cheese, but there is also delicious innovation. Cheese lovers are going to want to try the eggplant rollatini. The eggplant is the vessel holding the always sumptuous combination of mozzarella, ricotta and parmesan. This trio plus eggplant is baked and then sauced with a muscular marinara sauce. Taste the tomatoes. They love the cheese. I also found the ribeye spring rolls to be fun. In a riff from the fusion days, the kitchen takes strips of steak, some caramelized onions and cheese and stuffs all into a shell, served crispy. My favorite, however, is their signature crab and shrimp cake. The seafood is identifiable, but not chunky. It’s magically held together since there is scant filler. And the whole thing is seared and warmed through. The remoulade sauce lights up your mouth. It’s truly an addictive dish.
Duval’s is also open for lunch and shares some items between both menus. I love the Ocean Cobb. All the goodies that make up a Cobb salad — bacon, eggs and bleu cheese — are combined with chunks of lobster, shrimp and crab. The base is a spring mix of lettuces along with onion and grape tomatoes. Duval’s wisely uses prudence when dressing this salad. It’s served with a lighter balsamic vinegar that doesn’t catapult all the rich ingredients over the top.
Prudence is also the word to describe the Caesar. The romaine is so fresh, it tastes sweet. And the focaccia croutons are irresistible. The dressing here is just a kiss, a refreshing enhancement, which is the purpose of dressing.
There are several soups worth exploring. I find the gazpacho very pleasing in texture. It’s loaded with vegetables. The seasoning drifts a bit too far toward Cajun country for my taste. I much prefer the lobster bisque. It’s just as rich and luscious as you would hope it would be.
For my money this is the place for salmon. And I eat salmon everywhere. This Scottish salmon
is brimming with flavor. It’s served over zucchini vermicelli, which is such a fantastic pretend pasta, and the glaze is balsamic fig. It’s sweet and earthy and so complementary to the salmon. The scallops are equally enticing. Plump and sweet, with the only enhancement a simple lemon butter.
On one occasion, the fresh catch was red snapper. Having waded through way too many boring red snapper dishes, I was loath to try another. But it was brilliant. Simply grilled and served with lemon beurre blanc on a bed of basmati rice, the fish was meaty and flavorful.
Now, no restaurant would only serve seafood, and Duval’s is no exception. They accommodate
vegetarians with a market medley of fresh, locally grown veggies and for carnivores, there are short ribs and a petite filet mignon.
Desserts sound incredible and I’ve been told by a most reliable source that their bread pudding is oh so good. Next time, maybe it’s just the Caesar salad with the bread pudding. And a bottle of Nickel & Nickel Chardonnay. No, we’re not related (unfortunately),
but I do love the wine and this wine list as well. It is not large, but has a wide range of
whites and reds to complement the food.
Service is very personable and professional. And here’s the icing on the cake. Acknowledging that parking can be a hassle on the street, Duval’s has a shuttle that will pick you up at any of our parking garages downtown or at your downtown abode.
Simply call or text the restaurant at 374-3776 for a lift in their snazzy blue van (it matches the new interior).
It’s wonderful to see a transformation receive so much well-deserved attention. Try it. I think
you’ll like it.