Hotel restaurants often suffer from a case of the blands. After all, they have to appeal to the lowest common denominator. They must be pleasant and upscale enough to prove hospitable to corporate travel and business meetings, yet gastronomically mainstream enough not to spook family travelers. Plus, they often have to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner to hotel guests, requiring a lot of staff and a utilitarian game plan. In short, a recipe for y-a-w-n. • A number of Tampa Bay area hotels have adopted novel approaches, many with new concepts launched in 2011 that defy usual expectations. Hardly stuffy continental cuisine at special-occasion prices, area hotel restaurants are now offering barbecue, Asian, Italian, seafood and even Latin-inspired small plates (that's Mojito at Tampa's Crowne Plaza, slated to open Dec. 16). Not all are slam dunks, but during the holiday season, with family in town and crowds to entertain, these new concepts bring some fresh options to festive dining out.
Viva Italia | Vincenzo's Grill, ItaliAsia
The hotel on Roosevelt Boulevard in St. Petersburg opened originally as a Radisson, then two years ago, with a full renovation, became a Marriott. Its restaurant, Roosevelt's, was an American grill of a predictable nature, but in April it was transformed into Vincenzo's Grill. Vincenzo Longo had owned a similar eponymous restaurant in Safety Harbor for eight years. A straight-up Italian restaurant with Mama in the kitchen, it was known for its gnocchi and housemade pastas. Vincenzo's Grill hedges its bet a little with dishes (steaks, grilled fish) that are more mainstream, but Mama is still in the kitchen keeping it real with her Bolognese sauce and homemade dressings.
The basic concept is craft-your-own: Pick a pasta (spaghetti, ziti, tortellini, even gluten-free or whole wheat) and then your sauce, or choose chicken or veal scallopini and a classic presentation, from piccata to saltimbocca or Parmigiano. A shrimp fra diavolo ($16.90) brought a suitably spunky sauce of long-simmered crushed tomatoes with just enough chili flake and garlic to show off the bouncy sauteed shrimp. A chicken piccata ($16.90) was less traditional, the tangy lemon-caper sauce muted with the addition of a splash of heavy cream. A pleasant house salad is included, obviating the need for a whole lot of apps (the shrimp pecora, $8.90, is a nice sharer, goat cheese and roasted peppers gussying the lemony crustaceans) — but Mama's gorgeous ricotta cheesecake ($5.90) is a must at meal's end. Airy, delicate and oh-so-Italian.
Until this summer, the restaurant at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Tampa Airport was a typical hotel affair called Tango Tapas. Since then: ItaliAsia. It's an unfortunate name (go ahead, say it a few times), but the concept, honed at a hotel in Chicago, is half Italian, half Asian, no fusion, something for everyone. That means chicken wonton soup cheek to jowl with Tuscan white bean puree. Nothing wrong with that. Bustling around a spacious, airy dining room, servers could use a bit more polish and training, but a lot of good work is being done in the kitchen: A deconstructed seafood Rangoon ($12) brings fried wonton triangles atop shrimp, scallops and lobster meat, brought together with a gingery cream and squiggles of sweet and sour. (A deconstructed Caesar, $8, on the other hand, reads more like a salad in a bag. Why do I, the customer, want to do all the work of assembly?)
While ItaliAsia's pizzas are not likely to launch a thousand ships, the Asian-inflected dinner entrees exhibit some skill: A pan-roasted miso glazed salmon fillet comes rosy-pink in the middle and set atop chewy udon noodles in a puddle of soy-mirin broth and surrounded by stir-fried bok choy and other Asian veggies ($20); the Mongolian tenderloin ($16, $10 at lunch) is zingy with ginger and green onion, just sweet with brown sugar, and juxtaposed with hearty brown rice.
New tricks | Beachwood BBQ & Burger, Aqua Bar & Grille
Two hotel restaurants underwent reconcepting this year as a result of severing ties with a parent company: St. Pete Beach's Postcard Inn on the Beach's original restaurant was Wildwood BBQ & Burger, an outpost of a New York City barbecue restaurant launched by a big name on the national competitive barbecue circuit. But the desire to serve seafood — it's St. Pete Beach, after all — caused a dissolution of the arrangement and Wildwood was rebranded as Beachwood BBQ & Burger in June.
And on the other side of the bay, what was Aquaknox at the Westin Tampa Bay was rechristened Aqua Bar & Grille in March when parent company E-Brands was sold to Tavistock. In both cases, the new restaurants are broadened versions of their previous incarnations. Beachwood is still multiregional spins on 'cue (Memphis, Kansas City, St. Louis, etc.), but with the addition of fish options. And Aqua has taken a global seafood concept and moved it more toward an Ocean Prime-like steaks-chops-and-seafood vision.
On a recent visit, Beachwood's new grouper entree needs rethinking: A huge disc of candy-sweet mango-raspberry chutney was overkill when paired with an equally sweet citrus mango puree atop the fish. Not attractive, not complementary with the meaty grilled fish. Still, Beachwood has a number of dishes that help explain why Postcard Inn on the Beach has become party central (well, there's also the beach access, the funky-cool decor and the beach volleyball). A generous platter of nachos ($10) comes packed with smoky chili, slender pickled jalapenos, molten cheddar and all the fixings, and the St. Louis ribs ($14 half, $24 full) are shellacked with a balanced sweet-tangy sauce and pink with slow smoke.
At Aqua, chef Matt Mangone just unveiled a new menu, so dishes on our visit may be obsolete: A yellowfin tuna tartare ($6.50) made a lovely plate with daikon and pickled chiles and a swoosh of avocado mousse to cool things down, and a fillet of seared Florida snapper ($25) was elegantly kitted out with crisp fingerling potatoes, soft-smoked cipollini onions and bits of duck pancetta. Even with major menu changeups (the word is, more raw bar items but less seafood overall), the restaurant setting is one of the most stylish around, with a lively color scheme and offbeat mid-century modern aesthetic.
Ongoing innovation | Caretta on the Gulf
The Sandpearl Resort's Caretta on the Gulf has not undergone a major metamorphosis in 2011 — original executive chef Steve Jordan is still firmly in place — but a quarterly changing menu means the Caretta concept is constantly evolving. And for holiday outings, this year the beachfront hotel restaurant offers a lovely Sunday brunch (11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., $39 adults, $19 kids, with lots of "action stations" for extra drama) as well as a Christmas buffet and prix-fixe dinner.
On our visit (seated mighty close to Hulk Hogan, I must breathlessly reveal), a long list of fish entrees wowed us with innovation (i.e., a dark-crusted salmon, $29, paired with tangy cabbage and crunchy pumpernickel, a "Why didn't I think of that?!" combo of flavors), but it was the 18-ounce bone-in ribeye ($43) that seduced us entirely with its sumptuousness: perfectly seasoned, nicely marbled, expertly cooked and surrounded by a heap of tiny organic vegetables like fingerling potatoes and what tasted like Jerusalem artichokes. With deck seating facing the water, a fire pit that gets crackling after dark, live music on the weekends and local choir and handbell groups caroling during December, it's a whole lot of extra stocking stuffers for this year's holiday season dining.
Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@ tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. She dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.