The modern restaurant is frequently described as a by-product of the French Revolution — hundreds of food service professionals in the royal household and homes of the aristocracy all of a sudden needed to find something else to do when the cooks' guilds were abolished. But there were public eateries going back as far as ancient Rome and the Sung Dynasty in China. These were mostly for travelers, frequently associated with inns or hostelries.
Since then, the status of hotel restaurants has pendulumed back and forth. There have been plenty of decades in this country where hotel restaurants represented the pinnacle of culinary achievement, with the kind of deep pockets that allow for exceptional ingredients, fine china, linens and far-reaching wine lists. And other decades where hotel restaurants have felt like playing it safe, diners' destination when they need someplace pretty but not likely to spook anyone.
The past few years in the Tampa Bay area have brought a dramatic influx of ambitious new restaurants, but here's the thing: Many of them are independent, many of them are at a moderate price point and very few of them are in hotels.
There are time-honored go-to hotel restaurants like Marchand's at the Vinoy, Armani's at the Grand Hyatt and Maritana Grille at the Don CeSar, but the last hotel restaurant to really get folks palpitating was probably Caretta on the Gulf at the Sandpearl.
The Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach debuted in February along with its main restaurant, Ocean Hai, an Asian-fusion concept overseen by chef de cuisine John Capponi. The hotel is a real looker, its two towers flanking a central pool with beach views. A lobby bar in neutral sun-and-sand yellows and beiges ends at the restaurant's hostess stand, the restaurant itself a study in ocean blues and greens, but with just enough wood paneling, blonde wood floors and a gleaming stainless steel exhibition kitchen that there's nothing cliched or beachy-nautical about it. High ceilings and broad windows are juxtaposed with homey touches like a wall of pretty mosaic blue tile and ceiling sconces that look like oversized woven baskets.
In short, it's a lovely space, with a glassed-in private dining room that makes you itch to have some kind of festive gathering. The disappointment, though, is that the food is mostly unremarkable. There are tandoori-spice sea scallops ($35) that are wanly flavored when compared to a tandoori dish at your neighborhood Indian spot, a pork tenderloin ($28) that nods at Chinese char sui but is swamped by an overly sweet sweet potato puree, and edamame dumplings ($11) without any of the finesse or visual appeal of a workhorse dim sum joint.
This is not to say that Ocean Hai doesn't have its place, or that it won't serve its core audience of hotel guests. But it's not compelling enough "Asian fusion" to draw locals to brave beach traffic and valet parking. Our area has seen an influx of actually competent Korean, Hong Kong-style Chinese and other Southeast Asian cuisines that a handful of tatsoi leaves and blistered shishito peppers are not novel enough to elevate a plate of rubbery-overcooked calamari ($14).
Capponi's menu reads more like "Asian inspired," which is fine, but the prices are steep enough that execution is paramount. A grilled filet mignon (or "mingnon" as the menu spells it) ordered medium arrives on the rare side of medium rare, so its strewn root veggies with purple potatoes and little pool of lively chimichurri (its advertised shiso much too subtle to discern) don't distract enough from the $42 price tag. On the other end of the cooking spectrum, a $34 short rib dish brings meat braised so long it's tough and fibrous, not the plush unctuousness one hopes for in a sultry braise, its sauce inky over a pleasant celery root puree with a similar array of roasted root veggies that appear on many plates.
A short lineup of house cocktails hits a similar Asian-inspired note, and the wine list is a short greatest-hits approach (Kim Crawford sauvignon blanc, Caymus and Silver Oak cabs, Sonoma-Cutrer chardonnay), with a fairly steep markup and divided into useful categories by weight and basic characteristics. Service is professional without seeming to have deep menu knowledge or enthusiasm for what's on the plate. What may tip Ocean Hai into the worth-trying category for Tampa Bay locals is a special deal: For $59 you get a shared app, choice of two entrees (the more expensive ones are a $10 up-charge) and a shared dessert.
But even there, with postprandial sweet options, attention to detail seems lacking, from the much-too-gelatin-firm panna cotta with its strange sake gelee to the underwhelming and waxy chocolate mousse. In such a pretty space, it's a shame the kitchen, at least thus far, isn't getting "Hai" marks.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.