Understanding Umbrellas 1296   is an exercise in separating a book from its cover. If someone is to judge by appearances, Sarasota’s newest restaurant looks très classy, with an alluring exterior finish signaling to passersby that lofty expectations are appropriate. Inside, the furniture and décor feel like a thoughtful mash-up of mid-century modern’s straight lines, the ornate craftsmanship of the Roaring ‘20s and maybe a touch of Andy Warhol in the color palette. The jaded diner may presume the food leans more on form than function—smaller portions plated to dazzle, the prominent use of unusual ingredients, perhaps even instructions on how best to consume food that feels more like artwork than sustenance and leaves the belly wanting though the eye is satisfied. And here is where reality diverges from expectation.


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ETHAN STEINER, EXECUTIVE CHEF, built the Umbrellas 1296 menu to rely heavily on the aesthetics of flavor and fullness. “I want to make food that looks good, tastes good, and doesn’t make you feel like you got ripped off,” he says. For Steiner—humble despite his world class pedigree—it’s all about food-induced happiness. And though he has worked under notable names like Gordon Ramsay, he has managed to sidestep the magnetism of celebrity for a more blue-collar, food-first position where he can floor guests with dishes that explode with flavor, even when that dish features historically disagreeable vegetables.

Brussels sprouts: reviled as a bitter green and often referred to with childish derision even by full-grown adults. Like Popeye did in the 60s with spinach, Steiner hopes to pluck the humble plant from vegetable purgatory with a preparation so unabashedly tasty, diners might actually feel guilty eating it. His rebrand comes in the form of an appetizer and starts with two ample handfuls of sprouts from his outsized meat paws. Placed in a wire basket, he lowers them into the deep fryer until their leafy exteriors have formed a crispy, charred layer. Once removed, Steiner tosses them in a house made blend of agave nectar, lime juice and the ever-popular Sriracha, before plating them with a pair of lime wedges. The resulting dish provides all the satisfaction of a meat stir fry, while the tang and kick of the sauce adds a nice top note to the roasted outer leaves. Another hearty starter, the baked feta, starts with dried feta cubes placed in a miniature cast iron casserole dish, where they toast in an oven for a few minutes. The feta cubes almost take on the look of fire-roasted marshmallows when they come out, and the final plating includes a dollop of olive tapenade, a sprinkle of diced parsley and toasted pine nuts, and an accompaniment of freshly grilled pita bread.  Between the two appetizers, you could be forgiven for not bothering to rifle through the ample menu, though you would miss out on a selection of salads that masquerade as everyday light fare but pack the punch of full-blown meals. The Chinese chicken salad features a verdant base of chopped romaine lettuce and napa cabbage that gets mixed with shredded carrots and almonds, then tossed with a generous portion of chilled and pulled chicken. A sweet chili vinaigrette dresses it all in a zesty sweet-and-sour glaze. Finally, the salad is capped with diced scallions and chow mein noodles. Cool and crunchy, sweet and salty, light yet filling—all of the paradoxes make for a satisfying eating experience. And the salad is ready in a flash, so it works well as a quick lunch bite. For those that prefer a more chunky, deconstructed salad, the kale antipasto works well. It includes kale, pepperoncini and olives in an herb vinaigrette, served with a side of charcuterie meats and cheeses. Like the appetizers, these salad selections shrug off the notion that fine dining should exercise restraint in flavor and portions, speaking to Steiner’s principle that food should be as filling as it is mouthwatering.

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The blackened salmon dinner entrée serves as a window into Steiner’s more artistic side with a singularly satisfying combination of flavors and a final arrangement that shows a flair for the three-dimensional. The dish starts with a daub of sweet potato mash seasoned with chipotle and blended with heavy cream. Then, a quick, simple toss of arugula, salt, grapefruit wedges and grapefruit juice get placed on top of the mash. The jewel of the piece is the blackened cut of salmon, with the spicy seasoning seared onto the fleshy side and the skin of the fish, dashed with salt, on the other. The skin is “crispy and delicious,” says the laconic Steiner, and it offers a delicate flakiness that dissolves after a few light and crispy chews, serving as a perfect complement to the expertly seared meat. The blackened salmon, much like the restaurant itself, catches the eye with its impressive, stylish appearance—but, for Steiner and Umbrellas 1296, it’s your belly they’re after. 

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