It's a gamble. People go to casinos, they play games, they get hungry. Sometimes these hungry game-players are feeling flush and are ready to celebrate in style. More often these players of games would prefer paying a little and getting a lot. So it developed in Las Vegas: There were the all-you-can-eat mega buffets and $5 steak dinners for those who had been roughed up by the odds and there were, starting with Wolfgang Puck more than 20 years ago, the celebrity-owned bastions of fine dining.
From Mario Batali to Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis, nearly all of the nation's big-name chefs have dabbled in Vegas. And now the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa has the Marc Murphy-helmed Grey Salt. The breezy 240-seat Mediterranean spot takes the place of the casino's Green Room. In the pecking order of on-site restaurants, the Green Room was near the bottom, sort of a New York-style diner where those who had been whupped by Lady Luck could nurse their wounds over modestly priced eggs. The pinnacle at the Hard Rock? Council Oak, all the way (12-ounce Wagyu ribeye? $125. Caviar sampler? $300).
Council Oak is still top dog, Grey Salt's prices and atmosphere decidedly more approachable even after a challenging night at the slots. It's a pretty restaurant, an oasis from the ding-ding-ding hubbub of the casino outside. But in two recent dinner visits, the dining room was almost entirely empty.
That is not because the food isn't good. It's hearty, gutsy, well-conceived dishes that lean heavily on wide wood-burning grills. A rotisseried half chicken ($25) or strozzapreti pasta twists with tomato ragout, mozzarella and Parmesan ($24) are well-priced and competitive with any restaurant in the Tampa area.
So why isn't it busy? A few reasons. First, for casino gamblers, it is neither fish nor fowl — not the high-stakes pinnacle, nor the consoling bargain. And little has been done to attract folks in the area who aren't already at the casino. (Self-parking requires a 20-minute cacophonous walk through the whole of the smoky casino with hard-to-follow signage; much closer $20 valet parking is not mitigated by any kind of dining validation.) Also, Murphy, a regular judge on Food Network's Chopped and frequent guest on other hit cooking shows, is evidently not the kind of household name in this area that propels diners' curiosity.
On neither of my visits was Murphy on site, not a surprise with a celeb-owned casino outpost, but nor was his local executive chef Chris Hine. This didn't seem to have a deleterious effect on what emanated from the open kitchen, but the dining room staff's food knowledge and menu preparation was poor ("the iPad wine list features wines from Mediterranean countries, like Spain and Argentina"), and no effort was made to tell Murphy's story or to contextualize what this newcomer is all about.
If you are observant, you figure it out. One whole wall is given over to hundreds of jars of preserved lemons; occasionally the pungent waft of burnt sugar from a crema catalana iron (think of it as a red-hot branding iron for creme brulee) sneaks around the dining room. The menu wanders through the sunny Med countries, from Greek roasted halloumi ($14) to more Middle Eastern fattoush (bread salad, $12) and on to Moroccan-spiced lamb flatbread with tzatziki ($16).
Oysters we were told hailed from Apalach turned out to be delicious Blue Points ($16 for six) with a lively cucumber mignonette (shallots needed to be chopped finer, though); a salad of shaved and grilled zucchini paired with ricotta salata and a flurry of mint ($12) was both simple and sophisticated. There's a punchy house Caesar ($14) and a charcuterie board with a generous array of Italian salumi and pickled veggies ($20) that shows well against the area's increasingly dense lineup of elegant charcuterie plates.
Grey Salt's wine list, which leans toward Spain and Italy, is a fun read, with food pairing suggestions and other electronic bells and whistles. There are a number of savvy Italophile cocktails with bitter amaros, while the beer list is strictly perfunctory.
I toured Grey Salt with Murphy the day it opened, his excitement about this first restaurant outside of New York contagious. The Tampa Bay area is in fact new territory for big-name chefs aiming to expand their holdings, and Mediterranean cuisine is somewhat underrepresented fare in these parts right now. I just hope the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa knows how to play this hand effectively.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.