ST. PETE BEACH — It was just two years ago that the Times reviewed Maritana Grille, the flagship restaurant at the Don CeSar Beach Resort. We gave it a favorable write-up, talked about its exalted place in the bay area dining landscape, discussed its viability as a fine holiday destination and warned that it was a good idea to check your available credit when making dinner reservations. None of that has changed.
So why are we back again?
Because it is now a different restaurant.
Maritana recently closed for a couple of weeks to undergo a six-figure makeover. Gone are the big chairs, the blues, the dark browns and the midroom plantings, all of which were probably pretty snazzy two decades ago, when the restaurant underwent its last renovation. In their place are less obtrusive furnishings, neutral tones and a generally lighter, more contemporary feel.
The menu is decidedly lighter, too. An oft-repeated refrain from the staff about the new menu is that it was revamped to encourage locals to visit more often. With dishes built around more vegetables and healthier techniques, and fewer heavy sauces and carbs, the thinking goes, maybe a visit to the beach for dinner need not be a guilt trip.
A good place to start among the appetizers is the tasting trio ($14), because it lets you take a tour of some of the highlighted offerings. The jewel-toned tuna tartare is paired with a seaweed salad, Alaskan king crab with a tarragon aioli, and a Hawaiian blue prawn with jicama and compressed melon. The compressed melon is also a result of the makeover, because while they were redoing the dining room, chef Eric Neri re-equipped the kitchen, too. To compress watermelon, a piece is put into a plastic bag and sealed in a vacuum machine. This pulls the air out of the bag, including that in the fruit, making it more dense and flavorful.
The cauliflower soup ($10) showcased the cruciferous veg well without being overpowering, and the steak tartare ($15) was snappy with a dressing of roasted tomato. The lobster salad listed on the menu as part of the dish turned out to be a couple of fresh figs, without a change in the price.
The entree section of the menu is built around seafood preparations, and some are offered grilled, some griddled and some sous-vide, which is where Neri is using his new toys again. First the fish is sealed in a bag with the vacuum, then the bag goes into a water bath until the fish reaches a precise temperature. It's a way to make sure the fish isn't overcooked. We tried the Florida black grouper ($32). The white fish arrives at the table in a bowl over rice and beets, fennel and beans, and then a rich bonito broth is poured over. The amazing aroma enticed us first; then came the pitch-perfect taste.
Among the terrestrial options, the wood-grilled lamb ($37) was so tender that it barely required a knife. The mushroom risotto that came with it was heavy on the truffle oil. A little goes a long way with truffle oil.
The desserts are artistic achievements. I'm not in the "it's too pretty to eat" crowd — ever — but it's close here. A deconstructed Black Forest cake had all the elements, a small, dense piece of dark chocolate cake, a rich custard, cherries and whipped cream, to be combined on the plate as you ate. The s'mores arrived on house-made graham crackers.
There are plenty of extras worth mentioning. Dinner starts with an amuse-bouche — a gift from the chef. On one visit, ours was a rock shrimp in a spicy chili sauce that was a nice bite. An array of fresh breads come out with four butter options. After dessert came a tasting of artisan chocolates from Norman Love.
Service was attentive and helpful. Our server helped us pair wines by the glass with our entrees, and did it thoughtfully with great explanation as to his suggestions. And about that wine list, it is heavy and requires some serious studying. Bottles range from $34 to a car payment.
So, the new Maritana Grille is a lot like the old Maritana Grille in that it is a special-occasion place. But now, it's about how many special occasions you can afford based on what it does to your wallet instead of your waistline.
Jim Webster can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8746. He dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.