Sarasota and other Florida eats.

Florida spring training kind of sucks, in my professional opinion, because the sites are so far apart and several are wastelands for decent food. I found a handful of decent spots in my week there this year, along with a lot of mediocrity, but I’ll just focus on the good here, including the fact that Sarasota of all places has a decent little food and coffee scene happening.

Baker & Wife is a farm-to-table type of place in Sarasota, recommended to me by a friend who lives nearby, and I was impressed by both the vegetable dishes and, as you’d expect from the name, the dessert. I went with two starters rather than a main, a salad of roasted yellow beets with goat cheese, pesto, and pine nuts, along with crab cakes with a spicy green papaya slaw; of all of that, the only aspect I didn’t care for was the slaw, which tasted too much of fish sauce. The beets were really spectacular, although I am a fan of roasted beets in any form, but I think they pair so well with goat cheese, any kind of nuts, and the salty, bright punch of the pesto. Dessert, I had the “baker’s bannoffie pie,” and I’ll let the menu describe it: “pecan and graham cracker crust, house made banana & vanilla bean pudding, chocolate chips, caramel, cream.” It was that good and then some. It all worked so well together.

Perq is a new third-wave coffee bar in Sarasota, using beans from various artisan roasters around the country, and offering numerous cold-brew and single-origin espresso options along with the usual. It’s a sizable cafe too, unlike a lot of third-wave spots, and they appear to rotate through various roasters – they had a number of I knew from my travels and when I chatted up one of the baristas, he mentioned several other great roasters they’ve used, like heart, Sightglass, Four barrel, Counter Culture, and more.

I had half a decent meal at Selva, a Peruvian restaurant downtown, where the ceviche was very good and the entree I had was not. The ceviche isn’t truly traditional; they have numerous combinations that include various fruits, acids, and types of fish, and the tuna/watermelon ceviche I got had larger pieces of fish than I’m used to seeing in ceviche. It came with a spicy lime sauce for dipping or pouring to taste, and I would recommend using that if you end up here. But the main course was kind of a mess – a duck breast that was cooked very inconsistently, and served with a risotto that was anything but.

There’s also a tiny Buddy Brew location right near Selva, at the entrance to the parking garage downtown not far from Tamiami Trail. I would go to Perq before this, but Buddy Brew is solid.

Elsewhere in the state, I discovered the brand new Foxtail Coffee in Orlando’s Winter Park neighborhood thanks to a scout’s recommendation, and both times I went there was a line out the door. They had four coffees available from different countries; I tried their espresso one day and an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe pour-over the next, the latter of which came with a roasting demonstration from Iain, one of the owners and a baseball fan as well. It’s right near the old location of the Ravenous Pig, which has moved into the old Cask & Larder space but which I can report is still some of the best food to be had in the Orlando area.

Near the Jupiter complex is a very unassuming little coffee shop and roaster called Oceana, which does a lot of single origins as well but roasts most of them darker than I tend to like. Their pour-over options are the way to go – I had an Ethiopian the first day I was there, and I’ll be honest in that I was so in need of the caffeine I don’t remember much beyond the sheer pleasure of feeling it hit my bloodstream. Pass on the espresso as their extraction rate is way too high and the result is watery.

Merritt Island’s Cuban Island Cafe is worth a stop if you’re in that area, which I’d never visited before; I went for my standard choice, lechon asado, which in this case came with some amazing black beans, one maduro, one tostone, and well over a half-pound of pork.

I’ll also mention Harry’s Pizzeria in Miami, which appeared on a list of the best pizzerias in the U.S. a few years ago that I’ve kept on hand for my travels, hitting more than half of the 48 places they listed. The pizza itself was just average, but I had an escarole salad to start that was tremendous – lemon, anchovies, parmiggiano, and bread crumbs. It hit a little of everything, adding salty, sour, and umami notes to the slight bitterness of the raw greens. They have a few non-pizza options that might be worth trying if I ever go back to have that salad again.

Florida eats, March 2014.

Recent posts over at ESPN: on young Dodgers players, on Jose Abreu and other White Sox, and on Nick Gordon and other Florida prep kids. I also held a regular Klawchat this morning.

After I posted my dining guide to Arizona, I was asked – as I am every year – when I’m going to do a similar one for Florida. The answer, of course, is never. Here’s why:

* I lived in Arizona for just under three years. I have never lived in Florida.

* All of the spring training sites in Arizona are located within about 30 miles of downtown Phoenix. The biggest gap between any two parks is a 75-minute drive. It might take you that long to get through Tampa, never mind far-flung sites like Fort Myers or Viera.

* Arizona has a wonderful, thriving culinary scene. Florida has oranges. Actually, the food scene in Miami is supposed to be pretty good, but there are no teams there.

So this is more of a quick round-up of where I ate on last week’s trip, not an exhaustive guide to eating in the state where you shouldn’t even bother going for spring training unless your favorite team is there. And even then you should think twice.

In the greater Orlando area, I had two meals of note at off-Disney sites (I stay at WDW because they own us and it’s cheaper to stay there than anywhere else), but also wanted to mention two others. One meal was at 4 Rivers, a wonderful Texas-style barbecue joint in Winter Garden about which I’ve waxed poetic many times. Get the moist brisket, the corn, and the collard greens. The smoked sausage is pretty good too, although it’s not always that hot. Their “burnt ends” aren’t my idea of burnt ends, so I haven’t ordered them again. There’s another location of 4 Rivers in Longwood.

I also ate at Prato in Winter Park, a trattoria focused on pastas and pizzas located on a cute, expensive-looking street well off I-4. I had dinner with a scout, so we split their meatball appetizer – three small, moist meatballs, firm enough to hold their shape, served with just a coating of tomato sauce on a bed of creamy polenta with some sauteed onions. I had to get the pizza, because I’m pizza-obsessed, and it was solid-average – good crust, a little doughy without much char, but with great toppings, including mixed mushrooms and arugula. I wouldn’t go well out of my way again to eat here, but if I were in the Winter Park area to see a player I’d consider it worth visiting again.

The Ravenous Pig was the best meal I had during the winter meetings, but I never had the chance to write the meal up afterwards and won’t dare to do it the injustice of writing it up now. I’ll just say that it’s the best restaurant in greater Orlando in my own experiences, and I want to try its sister restaurant, the more casual Cask and Larder, the next time I’m in the area. There’s a focus on local fare, artisanal ingredients, house-made charcuterie, and cocktails. You can’t lose.

I had to see a prep pitcher in St. Petersburg and went to Bella Brava, which has a little bit of a chain-restaurant feel (think Carrabba’s) but better food than that would indicate, other than the use of dried rather than fresh pasta. I had their slow-braised pork belly (which apparently is also smoked) rigatoni with pepper/onion confit, fresh rosemary and fennel, and crispy lardons, with the jus from the meat serving as the sauce. It was as good and rich as it sounds other than the dried pasta, which seemed flat and incongruous next to the powerful flavors of the meat and the sweetness of the pepper confit.

With two games in Dunedin, I took the chance to visit some old haunts but had mixed results. Eli’s BBQ Shack disappointed; Eli passed away a year ago of leukemia, and unfortunately the chopped pork wasn’t the same, coming out dry and tough with no bark. Casa Tina in downtown Dunedin was just as good as I remembered, solid-average to a tick above, serving authentic Mexican food with great attention to detail in the food; my entree was good but it was actually the salsa that blew me away, as the tomatoes tasted like they had just been picked that morning. The Whistle Stop Cafe in Safety Harbor still had good food, although the menu has changed and is now much bigger with more upscale (expensive) fare as well as the old sandwiches and salads, but the service – never good – was unbelievably slow.