GULFPORT — The Peninsula Inn & Spa is housed in one of the oldest buildings in this waterside town, with a broad front porch and stately British Colonial decor that makes it stand out from many of the surrounding laid-back Old Florida bungalows.
Jim and Alexandra Kingzett opened the inn in 2002, sold it, then bought it back in 2007. Its fancier restaurant, Six Tables, draws special-occasion types willing to part with a lot of green. But there was always a second restaurant space that drifted through a few concepts — tapas and Thai, the Palm Bar, the Palm Terrace — never quite fulfilling its destiny. A year ago, Alexandra got the idea for a Southern-style restaurant, named after a friendly ghost said to haunt the inn.
Southern is not a bad idea. It's a cuisine niche that seems underserved along the increasingly rich restaurant row of Beach Boulevard. And the Deep South's culinary grace and gentility fit with the wood-paneled dining room with its low lighting and big fireplace and the deep verandah out front. But if the Kingzetts want this to compete with all the successful concepts nearby, they're going to have to do some work.
First, service. On two visits servers were brusque, unhelpful and intermittently MIA. On the second visit this might be on account of sheer busyness, but on the first, the dining room was nearly empty yet the server was nearly impossible to flag down. Servers also seemed unfamiliar with preparations. ("Escolar? It's a fish." I know that, but what's it like?)
Chef Luc Molinier, who hails from Lyon, France, has worked at Chateau France and nearby Pia's. He's obviously comfortable working in a number of culinary idioms. And he seems skilled with fairly classical French techniques. What he isn't exhibiting at Isabelle's is consistency.
Fried green tomatoes ($9), which turned out to be crumb-battered red tomatoes, come with a lovely pool of red pepper coulis and, strangely, three rosettes of ice-cold pimento cream cheese and two little piles of candy-sweet Vidalia onion marmalade so reduced that it was like candied onion twigs. The dish didn't hang together. The hard discs of cream cheese added nothing; nor did the onions. And if you're going to serve green tomatoes, make them green. Red tomatoes don't have the requisite tartness or texture.
That same red pepper puree showed up on a very nice evening's special of roasted salmon ($14) with a heap of ratatouille-like veggies and fluffy white rice. Simple, not particularly Southern, but a satisfying dish at a good price. Another entree, grilled pork tenderloin ($17) with green peppercorn sauce, was so peppery as to be inedible. Molinier and staff need to be tasting as they go — overpeppering is easily avoided, as is the heavy-handedness of truffle oil in the house mashed potatoes. Way too much of a good thing.
Those mashers came alongside the herb roasted chicken ($14), another dish whose details need to be rethought. Woody spears of asparagus seemed microwaved, the super-inky sweet demi-glace didn't gel with the truffled potatoes, and the drumstick of the chicken was so overcooked it read like jerky.
That said, the vegetarian option, a grilled veggie and smoked Gouda tart ($14), is a nice thought. A puff pastry vol-au-vent kind of thing brimmed with mushrooms, yellow squash, onion and zucchini, paired with a heap of sauteed spinach. And for dessert, the pecan pie with housemade bourbon mint ice cream ($6) is a surprising marriage of flavors that really works.
Isabelle's bar is a lively one, on two visits filled with merrymakers both local and out of town. In order to make the dining room similarly rich, the kitchen and servers need to step it up.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog is at 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.