The Waterside Marriott closed its marquee restaurant, Il Terrazzo, in January. This moves its No. 2 restaurant, Waterside Grill, into the primary spot. The decor will underwhelm you, as will the service, but then the food comes and Kapow! you're shocked by how good it is. Longtime chef Rich Willerer is devoted to the farm-to-table idea, sourcing as much as he can locally and growing a whole lot more in a fairly elaborate rooftop garden. The restaurant will undergo a re-concepting this fall, but it seemed like a good time to go and check out what the Waterside has going on these days.
The hotel's location is gorgeous, with the waters of Garrison Channel lapping against the restaurant's generous patio seating. Indoors is where the decor is less inviting. From the lobby of the hotel, the restaurant entrance isn't well marked and the restaurant's vestibule is an overly large swath of no-man's land (Willerer hopes a remodel will transform this space into a coffee bar by day and wine bar in the evening). The two-section dining room feels generic, with nut-colored booths and the kind of benign still-life prints that come in frames you buy at Michaels.
But then plates show up.
Willerer and the hotel's executive chef, Kevin Randles, have assembled a great team: sous chef Julie Miller; supervisors Maneanne Kersey, Todd Clark and Aaron Berger (he's the guy with the green thumb on the rooftop garden); and pastry chef Sinai Grove. While all are obviously in possession of chops, it's their respect for the provenance of their product that is especially laudatory.
Quite a bit of the short menu comes off of a grill powered by local white oak (it burns hot and slow with a tremendous sweet smokiness). This may be fat wild gulf shrimp with an Asian-inflected slaw and puddle of coconut cilantro aioli ($14) or a thick-cut Berkshire pork from Palmetto Creek in nearby Avon Park, served with garlicky sauteed greens, crispy-edged roasted potatoes and just a slick of a sweet, smoky glaze ($26).
Of the proteins, it's the finfish that shine brightest: A meaty fillet of Caribbean swordfish (a touch salty on one visit) is grilled and paired with an absolutely mesmerizing coconut risotto; tender, steamed bok choy and a dribble of zingy guava ginger jam ($26); gulf red snapper is pan-seared to crispiness and set atop a brunoise of tender veggies in a pool of sweet-spicy chili broth ($27).
Lovely and generously portioned, these dishes should not discourage the ordering of salads or sides: Sides like garlic greens and tender young rainbow carrots (both $6) may start their lives on the rooftop; salads like a peppery watercress and arugula tossed with cubes of sweet roasted yellow beet ($9) may draw ingredients from farms in Manatee County, facilitated by middleman Suncoast Food Alliance. As with many of the country's best farm-to-table restaurants, Waterside Grill has fairly simple preparations to allow ingredients to shine.
Hotel restaurants walk a fine line. They must appeal to families and business travelers alike, with menus that are broad and not likely to spook the horses. Still, business from locals is important in the slower months, which requires dynamism and enough cutting-edge work to compete with nonhotel spots. Waterside Grill strikes the right balance (although a $7 valet plus tip may irk some cost-conscious locals).
Willerer and crew are working on a new concept that focuses more on small plates, but with a similar emphasis on local produce and seafood. Using the current individual key lime tart as a harbinger of things to come, with its sophisticated shortbread crust, delicate layer of strawberry coulis and fluff of bruleed meringue ($5), Waterside's future looks sweet.
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.