Review: Drunken Poet Café

Last Friday, Lovelips and I went for dinner at the Drunken Poet Café, in downtown Sarasota, FL in the middle of Main Street. Shortly before or afterward, I read a comment on ocvictor‘s LiveJournal about how a restaurant review is not just about food; it’s about the story of the food. It occurred to me that I had never written a restaurant review. So, this is a review of that restaurant, and my first-ever restaurant review.

The Drunken Poet Café is in a single story building with a black awning on the south side of Main Street, and from the outside, nothing suggests that it is a Thai restaurant. Step through the darkened glass door into the restaurant, though, and a dim but airy yellow space greets the eye. A dozen tables, most set for intimate dinners of two, fill the front half of the space, while a long sushi bar provides seating for another ten customers looking for a dazzling display of raw fish meeting steel knife in expert hands. Tasteful art from China and Thailand adorns the walls.

Oy and her partner Bank moved into this space, a former health food store and sandwich shop, back in December. Not only do they want to make a successful restaurant, but they are hoping to parlay their success into a series of girls’ schools in Thailand, where educating girls is considered something a waste of time. In essence, they are trying to create a new mode of restauranteering, supporting social change through fine dining. It may just work.

Owing to a limited kitchen, Drunken Poet was not able to provide an elaborate menu on the night we visited. At lunch time, the Café serves a series of wraps and sandwiches based around the essentials of Thai cuisine: lemon grass, garlic, basil, mint and curry. At dinner, we had only one appetizer to choose or not, at our pleasure. Fortunately, we agreed to try the coconut shrimp, which were clearly fresh and only lightly breaded in a mixture of crumbs and fresh coconut flakes. Served with both hot sauce and the ubiquitous fish sauce that are hallmarks of Thai cooking, the shrimp whetted our appetite for more.

Perhaps all Florida restaurants fall into one of three categories: pretentious dining, fast food, and the dive or joint. In pretentious dining establishments, much is made of the decor, the artistry of the sauces, the elegance of presentation. Such food commands high prices, usually without justification. In fast food, chain-style restaurants, the emphasis is on convenience and price. However, the dive relies on the essentials of Florida: fresh fish well-prepared, good vegetables and fruits from local farms, and an absence of overly stuffy presentation, thoroughly replaced with attention to making good food taste great.

By this reckoning, Drunken Poet is a dive. We ordered both entrees available that night: salmon in Thai garlic sauce, and spicy basil seafood. The salmon was a delicate pale pink, suggesting the absence of the usual food dyes that make salmon look ‘like salmon should’, but also suggesting a wild-caught variety. The preparation was delicate, leaving a steak on a bed of julienned carrots, celery and red and green peppers. Served with rice, this dish was neither too laden with sauce nor too dried out. The spicy basil seafood contained a medley of Gulf-caught shellfish, including mussels, shrimp, and scallops. True to her word, our hostess arranged for this dish to be spiced properly, and the dish presented a panoply of flavors with vigor and liveliness.

Though we did not sample the sushi on this occasion, we did hear about the specialty of the evening, a Sexy Man Roll, described as a combination of tuna, salmon and a tempura eel, wrapped in traditional rice with sesame seeds. In addition, Drunken Poet does not yet have its liquor license, so we made do with absolutely heavenly young coconut milk — which has the color of overly-lemoned water, yet tastes like ambrosia. We finished our meal with Thai coffee and waited for the evening’s entertainment to begin.

Sarasota’s live spoken word scene seems to be on the edge of popping. Drunken Poet, true to part of its name, hosts a poetry reading every Friday night. This night, the poets number eight, and at about 8:15, the poets began a round-robin open mic whose rhymes and meters echoed off the high yellow walls into the night. The work ranged from political rants on the continuing war to songs by Deemo (sp?) a local singer-songwriter, to elegies for dying love, to sprightly meditations on the interconnectedness of all things while taking pictures of a Buddhist temple.

After dinner, Oy offered some thoughts on the importance of interconnectedness. “It’s very important,” she said, “to run a restaurant that caters to the neighborhood, to where you are. We get office workers from downtown, from the construction project a few blocks away, and the kids on their skateboards. We want this to be a neighborhood place in a place that feels like a neighborhood.” She then admitted that much of her own family lives in France, and that she goes to see her children there when she takes a break from running Drunken Poet or helping her girls’ school get started. As a restauranteur willing to branch out into Thai-inspired sandwich wraps and running girls’ schools, it’s a remarkable awareness that she brings to her table: local food, prepared with an international flair, can change the world for the better.

Drunken Poet Café
1572 Main Street
Sarasota, Florida

Stars: ✮✮✮✮ (4 of 5)
Cost: $$$ (3 of 5)

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