By LAURA REILEY
Times Food Critic
PALM HARBOR — Under new ownership, Innisbrook Golf Resort and Club has undergone an ambitious $26 million renovation. In addition to resort guests and club members, outsiders can get a glimpse of the luxe life, too. Its Packard's Steak House, named in honor of Innisbrook's course designer, Larry Packard, has just opened to the public, reservations required.
But despite the fact that some diners may have zipped in for a meal from the outside world, Packard's Steak House still has the feel of a swanky private resort. There are men in golf regalia, swapping stories and razzing the duffers. There are super-solicitous servers who call you by surname. And the dining room is sumptuous and elegantly appointed, the design overseen by St. Petersburg-based Pamela Temples Design Group.
With the gorgeous Copperhead Course right outside the wide patio, Packard's walls are also hung with paintings of lush fairways and picturesque greens to reinforce the point: It's pretty here.
That's the upside. Like many private resorts and clubs — country, golf, tennis, yacht — food is expensive and the culinary vision can be a little cut off from the rest of the restaurant world, guided by kitchen idiosyncrasies and members' tastes. If Packard's wants to compete with the big boys, the increasingly crowded arena of high-end steak houses (Ocean Prime, Bern's, Capital Grille, Council Oak, Ruth's Chris and others), chef de cuisine Andrew Coniglio and executive chef André Halston are going to have to be ruthless editors of the menu. There's some deadwood there.
First off, steaks are high quality and well cooked, but chronically overseasoned with salt and aggressive dry rubs. One night's monster 16-ounce New York strip ($33) ceded all of its flavor to its porcini rub; a gargantuan and juicy 22-ounce Delmonico ($39) got an intense kona rub and then sat on a pool of super-sweet balsamic syrup, the overall effect disconcertingly Bosco-like.
On the other hand, the sliced sirloin on a lunch salad ($14) was perfect and tender with great flavor (no rub, not too much salt). In fact, that salad may have been our favorite dish, a horseradish kick in the dressing drawing together the chopped lettuces and marinated tomatoes, meat and Parmesan crostini.
Battered fries, lobster bisque ($8) and even the cheeseburger ($10.50) were oversalted, a problem easily remedied. My second suggestion is to go back to the drawing board on a couple dishes: There's a lot of hyperbole surrounding the house meatballs (with vermicelli and red or Alfredo sauces, $18). Softball-sized and made of chicken, they are both rubbery and dry. Lose them, and then take a look at the Asian dumpling platter ($19). First, it's advertised as chicken, pork and veggie dumplings; upon arrival, all contained pork. It's a bold move for a steak house, but the dumplings themselves could be bested by most neighborhood Chinese joints (ditto the Mongolian egg rolls, $11).
A lot of the steak house fundamentals are good. The meat is excellent quality and there are carefully rendered classic sides, served family style. Grilled jumbo asparagus ($10) was perfect, creamed spinach ($9) textbook. The wine list has lovely big-name reds, with a nice selection by the glass. Front waiter/back waiter teams keep things moving efficiently. And the bowls of ice cream ($6.50) — from chunky Georgia peach to dark chocolate — have a delicious retro charm. To lure customers beyond resort guests and members, though, the kitchen's got to nail the details.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is 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.