ST. PETE BEACH
For much of its life, since its completion in 1928, the Don CeSar has been a special-occasion dining destination. Okay, there was a bit during the late 1960s when it was down at the heels, but the rest of the time it has maintained all the glam that real estate mogul Thomas Rowe intended.
The Don's Maritana Grille is often cited as one of the area's priciest meals, up there with Armani's at the Grand Hyatt, Chateau France and a bevy of our fanciest steak houses. A dinner for two can easily ratchet up beyond $200. As we amble toward the holiday season with all its inherent special occasions, my curiosity nudged: Is the Maritana Grille worth it? Two recent visits to the Pink Lady reassured me.
The King Charles used to be the big-deal dining room at the hotel. These days it's for private functions and the lavish Sunday brunch, the Maritana Grill downstairs having been transformed into the fine-dining digs in 1994. Its assets: It's an intimate, clubby room sporting big fish tanks in case the conversation flags. In other words, it's not a strangulating-necktie, which-spoon-do-I-use fussy hotel dining room. Servers follow suit, pairing good knowledge of the menu and meal pacing with a casual chattiness.
But what makes the hefty price tag palatable is chef Eric Neri's chops. He's a rare bird in the culinary world, having stayed put happily at the Don for the past 16 years. In a career that is notoriously peripatetic, his choice doesn't signal some kind of plodding lack of imagination. Neri once made the U.S. Culinary Olympics team and his work still exhibits an exuberant curiosity about what's going on in the food world.
Because it's a hotel dining room that must ably feed a captured audience, the menu balances the familiar with the cutting-edge. An Italian truffle cheese on toasted focaccia ($11.50) reads like a homey but super luxurious grilled cheese, while a stacked terrine of yellowfin potatoes and goat cheese sits atop roasted beet rounds drizzled with truffle oil and capped with bright-flavored microgreens ($11.50). A composed salad of Maine lobster and white asparagus ($16) beats out similar dishes at other hotels because of its edgy lemongrass vinaigrette.
Even the bread basket has pizzazz, with semolina baguette rounds and focaccia slices studded with a prickle of rosemary-flecked breadsticks, all of these accessorized with a whole head of roasted garlic, butter and a lovely cruet of balsamic and olive oil. By and large the wine list is for the big boys but strangely short on red Burgundies and Bordeaux; lots of top-notch French bubbly, but big-name California cabs (Silver Oak, etc.) get the nod over their Gallic brethren. And a tip for martini lovers: nice blue cheese olives.
Entrees get a more overtly Floribbean touch than the appetizers, with tropical fruit and lobsters making multiple appearances. That said, our favorites included a moist, slow-braised short rib ($33.50) sitting atop cheesy soft polenta dotted with sweet cipolline onions, and a delicious duo of roasted lamb chops paired with a swath of shank confit (a little tough) and a slather of truffled mashed potatoes ($34). And of the lobster offerings, we made short work of a quartet of perfectly seared sea scallops paired with a disc of sinfully rich lobster risotto ($31.50).
Special occasions may prompt the kitchen to send out a plate of tiny, brightly colored truffles. Still the pastry chef shows her talents more fully in a trio tasting ($10.50) of mango brulee, warm chocolate raspberry cake and a sophisticated lemon thyme biscotti. The Don may be a splurge, but the holiday season often seems like the right time for a little indulgence.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.