Sunday, February 18, 2018
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Review: Crystal Dining Room at Floridan Palace is more style than substance

TAMPA

It took Michelangelo a little over four years to paint the Sistine Chapel. And in all that time that he squinted upward, my guess is he wasn't rock solid on what was going on below.

That's my fear about the Crystal Dining Room at the newly renovated Floridan Hotel, built in 1927 and closed in 1989, left to the slow incursion of water and more antic skitter of Florida creepy-crawlies. In 2005, Antonios Markopoulos spent $6 million for the building and, guessing from the particulars of the renovation, way more in order to open in time for the Republican National Convention in August.

Looking up, it's a visual smorgasbord: Shimmering chandeliers, ornate gilded wrought-iron balustrades and immense white and gold-trimmed drapes Scarlett O'Hara could have made a whole wardrobe out of. But the best is the ceiling, hand-painted medallions and cupids and scrolled crests that nearly take your breath away.

Below, though, too many details seem ignored or amateurish.

In this day of GPS, with the hotel address on Florida Avenue, that side of the building has an inelegantly printed sign that says "use the other entrance." The dining room chairs, dark and ornate and heavy as thrones, are packed too tightly in the space so people bump and "excuse me" through the room.

And without a service bar that provides for the Crystal Dining Room specifically, cocktails take forever, appearing to emanate from the downstairs Sapphire Room (where the specialty is the historic "Between the Sheets," the racy drink of its day). In fact, for two separate meals we got appetizers before our drinks.

The hotel has two websites; one works, one doesn't. And there are goofy things like the wine list, fairly pedestrian, listing a pinot grigio from King Estate Winery, a winery that makes only pinot gris, pinot noir and a little chardonnay.

My point is, if you're going to go big, the details are important.

Servers, too, seem eager to please but as if they've been provided a quick locker-room "give it 110 percent" speech and sent out into the game. The game in question is interesting: The Crystal Dining Room's food reads like there's a Greek grandma in the kitchen who has been told half of her menu must be continental standbys.

There's occasionally tremendous talent back there. The galaktoboureko ($6) is one of the loveliest, most homemade-tasting desserts I've eaten all year, a lush, creamy custard enfolded in the gentle embrace of brittle, paper-thin, buttery phyllo. The Floridan salad ($9) and the Greek salad ($12) — similar, except for the swap-out of green peppers for romaine in the latter — are both fresh, lively, snappy starters, trouncing the likes of paste-thick lobster bisque ($9/$11) or seriously old-school oysters Rockefeller ($12), with tired spinach topping equally fatigued bivalves.

Not that I'm against old school. Nothing wrong with horseradish-revved shrimp cocktail or snails backstroking in butter and garlic (both $12), but these versions aren't remarkable. In a town of dozens of high-end steakhouses, a new-kid-on-the-block filet mignon ($28/$30) with bearnaise had better come to the table correct, not overdone.

The Greek dishes are the only things that seem close to matching the heights of the decor: that galaktoboureko, and also a richly creamy moussaka ($18 at dinner) with just the right touch of sweet spice to the meat and eggplant, and the spanakopita ($17 at dinner), which can look a little like a rumpled Barbie sleeping bag but combines those nice flavors of feta, spinach and flaky phyllo.

The Roaring Twenties were good to Florida. In their Model-Ts, tourists headed south in search of beds: Belleview Biltmore (Henry B. Plant was prescient back in 1897), the Don CeSar (1928), the Vinoy (1925) and the Floridan Hotel — they are some of this area's greatest landmarks, historical attractions with room service.

But if we've gleaned little from the recent spate of zombie shows and movies, we've learned that reanimating the dead is fraught with difficulties. We want to be returned to the glamor and Deco dynamism of the '20s, but with all the technology and culinary savvy the intervening years have given us.

Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter, @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

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