Keeping up with the Sarasota restaurant scene 

It's been a while since I pimped the Sarasota dining scene -- mainly because the economy has stalled our neighbor to the south more than it has the Bay area. But there are two new and one old restaurant down I-75 that are worth the visit, whether you're in the area or make a special trip.

Tucked into a two-story space on Sarasota's Main Street, Mozaic (1377 Main St., Sarasota, 941-951-6272 or mosaicsarasota.com) manages to portray comfort and a clean, modern design, with warm colors and earth tones that match chef/owner Dylan Elhajoui's food.

Elhajoui is from Morocco, which is apparent as soon as you spy the cardoons and couscous, preserved lemon and raisins that litter the menu. He also dips into cuisines on the other side of the Mediterranean, with Provençal flavors, Italian ingredients and techniques that mesh seamlessly with the African foundation. The result? Dishes that break free of Sarasota's -- and the Bay area's -- cookie-cutter fine-dining scene.

Soups, from golden yellow tomato flecked with specks of deep green chive oil to creamy asparagus cut with heady mint, are spectacular. Refined, but he can also do comfort food.

Braised veal shank is served in a traditional clay tagine and has the simplicity of pot roast, with exceptionally tender meat, hunks of potato and carrot, and sections of succulent cardoons, the sauce an utterly simple broth of cooking juices punctuated by preserved lemon. His couscous is just as good, one of the few strictly vegetarian entrees I've encountered that can lure me away from flesh.

Of course, Elhajoui can also ramp up to classic restaurant elegance when called for, like perfect sea bass dripping with buttery oil or duck breast coated in heady anise that cuts the unctuous fat of the bird.

Even better, he doesn't disregard the dessert course like most modern chefs, tossing out meal-ending creations that are out of the norm and uniformly excellent. Combine that culinary talent with a fantastic wine program and capable service and you have one of the best restaurants on the Gulf Coast.

In this issue I declared La Cabana Del Tio the winner of our Tournament of Tacos, but how does it stack up with Sarasota's Tournament champion?

Like Cabana, Maria's (Red Barn Flea Market & Plaza, 1707 First St. E., Bradenton) is a humble place, a stationary taco trailer jammed into a permanent building in the Red Barn Flea Market. Unlike Cabana, Maria's does not make its own tortillas. No problem, because the meat inside is so good you'll forgive and forget the stale corny edges.

The fried chicharrones are incredibly rich and incredibly satisfying, while the barbacoa and carnitas are seasoned perfectly. Pastor and nopales are not for the timid, with surprising heat built into the sauce.

If Maria's had been a Tampa spot, it very well may have won the tournament. But I'll leave Cabana its glory, and just encourage everyone to give Maria's a try for themselves.

The Suncoast Food Alliance (suncoastfoodalliance.com) is an innovative organization working to bring local farmers and chefs together Buoyed by great success in its first two years, now the Alliance is making sure diners realize that its client restaurants are turning diners into locavores.

Starting a few months ago, the Alliance began Farm To Fork Dinners at participating restaurants, with menus constructed from local ingredients and guest farmers who can talk about the watercress in the salad or the pork on the plate with experience. Since they grew or raised it, natch.

The most recent dinner was at Sarasota's Ritz-Carlton, with another scheduled at Lan's (1568 Main St., Sarasota, 953-7111 or lanrestaurant.com) -- a great little spot headed by the talented female chef Lan Bradeen -- for April 21. Mark your calendars.

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