Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino's restaurants pay dividends

TAMPA

In heels so teetery and dripping with bling so glimmery that we would have felt right at home next to Liberace's Christmas tree, we headed into Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa. • Our objective at the fourth largest casino in the nation and the sixth largest worldwide? To sample, in a single evening, all of the complex's dining options. No gambling, scant dancing and nothing for which the "what happens at the Hard Rock stays at the Hard Rock" clause need be invoked. Just dining, and lots of it. • When the casino opened in 2004, it contained a nightclubby hot spot called Floyd's, the casual all-day Green Room and a food court. In a 2007 expansion, Council Oak, a high-end seafood and steak house, was added, along with Fresh Harvest (a huge room of seven live-action kitchens serving everything from fried chicken to dim sum and ice cream) and an intimate sushi bar called Rock 'N Raw. • In 2010, the 9,000-square-foot Floyd's closed to make way for the new Hard Rock Cafe, an entertainment venue with nearly double the space. Just last month, Rise Kitchen & Bakery was added as part of the recent $75 million expansion.

Council Oak

The sound of 5,000 slot machines fades, but not entirely, as you whisk past the butchers cutting USDA prime dry-aged steaks in a stainless steel exhibition butchery. It feels every bit as Vegas-high-roller as anything on the Strip, with prices that may establish it at the most expensive restaurant in Tampa (twin lobster tails ring in at $65 and a porterhouse commands $58). Still, it rivals any steak house in Tampa for the fundamentals. On our visit, sides like creamed spinach and sauteed mushroom caps were textbook, a whole Maine lobster was sinful perfection and a trio of tabletop salts rendered even a simple baguette exciting. From the understated decor to a crackerjack service team, it has stayed as spry as when it opened.

5 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, until midnight Friday and Saturday; reservations recommended.

Rock 'N Raw

This was the dog of our dine-around. The compact sushi bar adjacent to Fresh Harvest has acoustics that make it one of the noisiest spots in the casino where servers seem to have given up hope of ever having proper communication. I will give it props for wine pours sufficiently ample that they require a two-handed approach, but the short sushi lineup is so weighted to spicy mayo, cream cheese and tempura bits that the fresh fish gets lost along the way. And more got lost: We ordered a veggie roll advertised to contain cuke, daikon, carrot, avocado and asparagus and it arrived with just asparagus, that's it, and woody asparagus at that. Apprising the server, her response was, "That's how the chef is making it today." Huh? Sushi and cooked dishes range from $6 to about $15.

11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, until 4 a.m. Tuesday, until midnight Friday and Saturday; no reservations.

Hard Rock Cafe

A weird yellow schmatta-under-glass once worn by Justin Timberlake, a telegram from Jimi Hendrix to his dad and guitarists who wander out into the audience and hop up on the dinner table: Ah, we're in the Hard Rock Cafe. Remember when no matter where you were in the world, the round yellow logo T-shirt was as ubiquitous as the sun itself? It's less so now, but the drinks are still ample and the burgers solid.

Blister in the Sun got us briefly out on the dance floor waving our arms in the air '80s style before our Lithuanian waiter pantomimed his way through getting the particulars of our order (lip reading would be a solid job skill here). A veggie burger wasn't going to win any prizes, but much of the straight-up American sandwich fare is carefully constructed, and chef Steve Martorano, whose picture adorns the menu, is about as rock 'n' roll as chefs come.

11:30 a.m. to midnight daily; reservations not necessary.

Fresh Harvest

If you're hungry, this buffet is the best deal at the Hard Rock. Dinner is regularly $27 (less for Player's Club members) and lunch is $20. It's a tremendous selection of food, most of it very attractively arranged and not tired in the way so many Vegas buffets are. Effort is clearly expended to keep displays replenished with freshly cooked dishes. A spinning Mongolian barbecue sizzles steaks quickly to order, a raw bar features oysters, clams and peel-and-eats, an Italian section offers respectable antipasti and classic pastas, and a rib-sticking American station turns out very nice smoky ribs, roasted pork loin and fried chicken.

The dining room is vast, just the walk to peruse all the wares requiring a bit of fortitude. On our visit, Fresh Harvest customers seemed a bit glum, so maybe this is where those unlucky at the slots go to console themselves at the ice cream sundae bar.

10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily; reservations not necessary (although a Friday night seafood buffet, $35, gets busy).

Rise Kitchen & Bakery

Located near the new pool, this huge and sprawling newcomer features 10 hearth ovens baking artisan breads, which are then featured in a range of sophisticated sandwiches (try the Caleb's grilled cheese with Gruyere, prosciutto and pear). Soups, salads and flatbreads round out the menu, mostly at the $10 price point, with dozens of cakes (note the seven-layer banana Milky Way cake) and sweet treats arrayed invitingly in a glass case. Regional sodas and whoopie pies give Rise a family-friendly feel, but it's a nice place to sit and take a break from the frenetic casino.

11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, no reservations.

Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.

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