1 The coconut risotto at Roessler’s Restaurant has been a crowd-pleasing side for years. Chef Klaus Roessler transforms the traditional risotto by sweating the onions, toasting the rice, and adding coconut milk and a few secret ingredients. “Our soy ginger sauce makes it extra special,” Roessler says. This creamy, tropical treat goes great with salmon, fresh mango and some spicy micro greens. Ahh....risotto! 2033 Vamo Way, Sarasota, (941) 966-5688.
2 Café Evergreen’s Napa cabbage slaw is crisp, flavorful, and seriously good for you. What’s the secret? “Rice wine vinegar,” says owner Ted Weinberger. “It’s zero calories, sodium-free, and rich in phenolic compounds that reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes.” The great-tasting slaw is loaded with all sorts of antioxidants, minerals and vitamins—a side dish that can’t be sidelined. To take the complex tapestry of flavors up a notch, they’ve added just the right amount of dill. 801 Tamiami Trail S., Nokomis, (941) 412-4334.
3 Good news! You don’t have to take the next flight to Kennebunkport for a flavorsome bowl of lobster salad. Mango Bistro serves it up closer to home in downtown Englewood. Generous portions of lobster are mixed with crunchy celery and onions, a pinch of tarragon, a dash of mayo, and sour cream. Savor it with the delicious kale and avocado burger and a crisp white Rhone. And you can also browse the art on the walls or sit back and listen to some homegrown live music. 301 W. Dearborn St., Englewood, (941) 681-3500.
4 Legend has it that Thomas Jefferson first served macaroni and cheese at a state dinner in 1802. And we’ve been digging into steaming bowls of this all-American comfort food ever since. At Darrell’s, it’s an all-time favorite for a very good reason. “It’s all about the ingredients and how we prepare them,” says owner Darrell Hornberger. “We use real heavy cream and a good cheddar cheese.” Plus, they lovingly prepare each order from scratch. Crave a little more on your side? Just add some smoked pulled pork on top—and presto! You’ve got a piggyback mac. Brickyard Plaza, 530 U.S. Highway 41 Bypass S., Venice, (941) 485-9900.
5 What’s better than potato salad? The creamy, fire-roasted pepper potato salad at Beach Road Wine Bar & Bistro, that’s what. The magic starts with young, tender Yukon potatoes that are not stripped of their nutritious skins. These are roughly chopped and added to a cream cheese base that’s been further flavored with fresh Italian parsley and cilantro, fire-roasted chilies, hard-cooked egg and a dash of sour cream. Did we mention mayo? We did not. It’s that kind of potato salad. Enjoy this hearty side dish with some Kobe beef sliders and a glass of Sicilan Nero d’Avola and you just might turn your back on old-school ‘tater salad from now on. 1350 Beach Road, Englewood, (941) 474-9500.
6 The über decadent fried ravioli side at Norma Jean’s Sports Bar & Grill is so good, you might decide to skip the main course. Crispy on the outside, oozing with creamy cheese on the inside, and bathed in marinara sauce, they’ll keep you smiling even when your favorite team is losing. A toasty bowl of these pairs perfectly with the shrimp Caesar—or just ask for a second bowl and indulge. 1635 U.S. Highway 41 Bypass S., Jacaranda Plaza, Venice, (941) 492-5524; 1272 S. Tamiami Trail, Osprey, (941) 786-1834.
7 Happiness is playful, joyful and, occasionally, edible. The Living Room’s comfort food menu is built on that philosophy. Consider their broccoli bites—basic broccoli transformed into bite-sized baked delights with the simple magic of grated cheese, fresh garlic and breadcrumbs. According to chef/owner Greg Gover, this dolled-up broccoli can turn broccoli-bashers around. “It’s baked to perfection and not fried,” he says. “You can enjoy as many as you want without guilt.” These ’lil beauties go great with chicken or fish. 2357 Tamiami Trail S., Venice, (941) 244-2834.
8 Cormick’s menu boasts oven-roasted potatoes—and no French fries whatsoever. “That’s no mistake,” says chef/owner Jim Long. “Oven-roasted potatoes outclass French fries across the board.” Aside from being delicious, they’ve got 150 fewer calories, 13 fewer grams in fat and a subtlety of taste French fries just can’t match. “They’re a popular side dish in Europe,” Long says. “European visitors often tell me how much they miss them over here.” Splash on some olive oil with Long’s secret seasonings, and you’ve got a world-class dish. 200 Tamiami Trail, Venice, (941) 488-0717.