ST. PETE BEACH
Maritana Grille has made it onto most of the Times' "best of" lists over the years: Most romantic, best holiday dining, as a course in a dream dinner, and just straight-up best restaurant. The reason for all of this, for nearly 22 years, was chef Eric Neri. He oversaw six food and beverage outlets at the Don CeSar in addition to banquet services, directing a team of 40 folks in the kitchen. And he still managed to be a fixture at local charity functions and to win major kudos like the Cordon D'Or International Culinary Award.
And then, in November, he was gone. The Loews Don CeSar Hotel was mum about the departure until nearly Mother's Day, when it was announced that Kenny Hunsberger would move into the role as executive chef of the hotel. Hunsberger had been at the hotel since the end of 2010 after 24 years at Hyatt properties (mostly at Tampa's Grand Hyatt). For a while after Neri's departure he kept things status quo. Then he hired Gavin Pera as the new chef at Maritana Grille, and Pera launched an all-new menu at Maritana Grille two weeks ago.
In short, the new menu is smart, contemporary and pushes the hotel's top restaurant in a sophisticated new direction. One of the oddest parts of Neri's reign was his enthusiasm for flying in Hawaiian fish. Pera clearly thinks our fish over here is nothing to sniff at: gulf grouper, snapper and Florida prawns get the spotlight along with a fair amount of local produce. And Pera likes the 21st-century chef's toolbox: Molecular gastronomy touches appear here and there, with the sous vide technique used broadly.
The dining room these days is light and spare, with fish tanks nearly the only embellishment (sadly, the huge eel may soon outgrow his tank and relocate to Clearwater Marine Aquarium), and servers are uniformly seasoned and suave. Most of the drama in the room happens on the plate. The Reveal dessert ($12), for example, was like a scene out of Jurassic Park. A blueberry syrup is poured over a dinosaur-sized white chocolate egg, which cracks apart spectacularly to reveal, not a baby T. rex, but a bit of almond cake and lavender ice cream, vanilla mousse and lemon curd. We videotaped it and our squeals are too embarrassing to share with Times readers.
Not to linger over much on dessert, but another evening's chocolate trio ($12) brought a striking white plate sectioned with clean chocolate lines, three quadrants filled with a tiny, dense chocolate cake; a stack of rich chocolate wafers sandwiching fruit gele and topped with a quenelle of chocolate mousse; and a little chocolate pretzel ball that reminded me of a truffle ball from Momofuku Milk Bar in New York. Yup, very sophisticated, but all that chocolate needed a foil like a creme anglaise or an ice cream.
There were a couple other very slight missteps in the meals I ate. One evening's squab appetizer ($16) brought gorgeous roasted wings on a puree of sunchoke with a little pitcher of sherry reduction and a couple great garnishes, but its accompanying squab breast, which seemed prepared sous vide, was rubbery and super tough to cut. And a plate of West Coast oysters ($16) had a nice mignonette and Bloody Mary granita, but the oysters themselves were room temperature, which didn't bring out their briny, refreshing quality.
Minor problems for the brand new menu, which otherwise charmed with to-the-minute touches like a bed of red quinoa under a plank of crisp-skinned snapper with baby green pattypan squashes and a vibrant compressed tomato vinaigrette ($32). And despite being one the area's most "special occasion" dining rooms, there are satisfying down-home elements like a bed of savory-tangy collards underneath a plush square of short rib with more sunchoke puree and curls of crispy shallot ($29).
Pera's new menu, plus consistently top-notch service (special props to Brad and the bartenders) and a big-time wine list (it has made the 2013 Wine Spectator's awards list) assure that the Don's top spot still has got it, even if Neri is much missed in the local food community.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.