The 88-year-old Vinoy is looking spiff these days with its swirly modern turquoise rugs, herringbone turquoise-backed wing chairs and gleaming golden chandeliers. Interior design firm Leo A. Daly did an amazing job of showcasing the historic Mediterranean Revival architecture with fresh decor in a bold palette. More subtle but also stellar was the 2012 restoration of the Pompeian frescos in Marchand's, the resort's big-name restaurant (Fred's is also fancy, but open only to club members and resort guests). These changes follow on the heels of a fairly substantive renovation to the hotel lobby and Marchand's in 2008.
Changes at Marchand's go beyond these cosmetic ones. Although chef Mark Heimann, 44, has been with the property since 1995, he has shaken things up recently by jettisoning the Sunday brunch buffet and launching instead a pick-three-items menu for $32 and changing the focus of the dinner menu to a more diligent farm-to-fork effort in a broadly Southern-inflected palette.
The brunch makeover is a resounding success. Heimann saw brunch trending nationally toward a la carte preparations, partly as a way to combat waste and partly because dishes made to order almost always trump those that have sat around for a while. So now it's table service, with about 30 options that range from traditional brunch (waffles, omelets) to more suppertime fare (red wine short ribs, maple-glazed salmon) and really wonderful desserts (the best being one week's moist spiced harvest cake with fig at its center, a swath of pumpkin brittle and a tangy Greek yogurt sauce).
It's advisable to start out with the unlimited mimosas ($7) or a seriously decadent build-your-own Bloody Mary bar ($9 to $12, with accouterments like pickled okra and house-cured beef jerky), but a cup of intense Illy coffee is also prudent.
Of the more than half dozen dishes I tried, the one that stuck out as ingenious was a crispy maple-cured pork belly sitting on a bed of pale purple roasted corn grits and accompanied by a golden fried breaded ball that, when pierced, revealed itself to be a soft-boiled egg. Whoa, how did they do that? Can you freeze a raw egg, peel it, bread it and then deep fry it for exactly the right amount of time? I dunno. Sumptuous pork belly and gooey-centered egg made me overlook that the grits were a little gummy and bland. The eggs in a jar was a better spin on grits (cheesy) topped with a poached egg, cornmeal fried shrimp and roasted chili hollandaise, all served in a hinged-lid glass jar (a dish that echoes one served at dinnertime).
The only fly in the brunch ointment was service. Three people at the table, three courses each, making nine times the server could have placed the right food before the right person. Her batting average was nothing to brag about.
In fact, service is the biggest problem at dinner as well. Heimann's decision to work more closely with local farms is a great story, the lineup of local vendors listed at the bottom of the menu. But a story needs to be told effectively. On two evenings, my servers had no idea which items came from which farms, nor were they inclined to go and ask. All the charm of eating local watercress or chicken dissipates if you're chewing and wondering.
One strategy is to indicate farm names right on the dish descriptions (the new menus helpfully indicate gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan dishes), but that's a logistical hassle if sources change day to day. It seems to me server education on this front is the logical solution.
Wonderfully rustic and irregular pottery plates show dinner items off to excellent effect, from a generous portion of local roasted chicken ($27) drizzled with sage pesto and paired with pumpkin spaetzle and caramelized onion and carrots, to a decent-sized grouper fillet crusted judiciously with orange dust and accompanied by big cross-sections of roasted fennel dotted with fennel fronds and a scoop of fragrant ginger jasmine rice ($32).
Under Heimann's tutelage, chef de cuisine Ross Clingman has taken the menu away from its loose Mediterranean framework of a few years ago. There is now the odd Asian touch (five-spice snapper; a vegan quinoa/farro Thai "larb"), but the best dishes feature a little down-home comfort. This may mean an appetizer of grilled cheese gussied up with peekytoe crab and charred tomato cream ($13) or a very sturdy entree of smoked brown sugar ham shank with scalloped sweet potatoes and soft and creamy green bean casserole. With the Vinoy looking so glamorous these days, there's something especially nice about tucking into unfussy but effective dishes like these, even more so if you know which building blocks come from nearby farms.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.