One of the great perks of living on the Gulf Coast is the ability to be awed daily by breathtaking sunsets over the water.
It’s a seductive lure for residents and tourists alike. But the 23-mile stretch from St. Pete Beach to Clearwater is largely an epicurean desert, notable mostly for fried food and beer. And while these comforts have long been an integral part of beach culture, sometimes you want high-end choices even if the atmosphere says relax.
Caretta on the Gulf is the flagship restaurant at the Sandpearl Resort. It offers sophisticated cuisine with both indoor and outdoor views of sunset and breaking waves. Chef Steve Jordan’s expressed goal is a menu driven by seasonally inspired, fresh ingredients that he keeps simple. “Everything has a way it wants to be cooked,” he proclaims. And luckily for diners, he’s cracked the code.
The meal begins with a delicious warm basket of soft herb bread and salty pretzel rolls with a slab of fresh creamery butter dotted with coarse red salt. It’s a good thing I know there are many delights to follow because these carbs are the siren’s song. I demonstrate extreme discipline, though, by tasting only one sample of bread each plus an extra pretzel roll, just to confirm my previous findings.
Then our cheery and superbly smooth server swoops down to deliver a demitasse cup of luscious mushroom bisque as an amuse-bouche. I’m not sure what the conversation is between the chef and the mushrooms, but he coaxes every ounce of earthy flavor out of these humble fungi.
Caretta has a terrific sushi and raw bar with limited, but interesting, choices. There’s the unusual surf and turf roll that wraps thin slices of beef tenderloin around sushi rice and a lobster salad with enoki mushrooms plus a touch of white truffle oil. The viscous eel sauce may look and feel like an artistic Gulf oil spill, but it is delicious and the best-seller on the sushi menu. Then there’s the C-roll (sea, get it) combining lobster, crab and shrimp with avocado, pepper and asparagus.
It’s offered with a pale pink ginger puree that’s a nice variation on the typical paper-thin slices of the lively root that usually accompany sushi.
Other delicious appetizer choices are butternut squash bisque with duck confit, parsnip, and the zing of a spicy cinnamon port reduction. Or the beautifully browned, yet creamy jumbo lump crab cake with a salad of celery root, watercress and fennel in a sherry vinaigrette — plus the unexpected garnish of a diminutive sweet, soft poached half apple.
There’s also a delectable heirloom spinach salad with the time-tested combo of salt-roasted pear, smoky blue cheese, and black walnuts in artisanal Nueske bacon vinaigrette.
The fish entrée flavors sing; you can almost picture a chorus of Disney cartoons happily extolling the virtues of the Caretta fish menu, gleefully clapping fins as they dance on their tails while crooning in tight harmony. Special emphasis is placed on the juicy Caladesi red snapper honoring Florida’s heritage. The shimmering fillet floats in a shallow bowl of seafood broth full of oysters, green beans, and roasted pearl onions, playing tag with crisp brown chunks of red potatoes.
Scottish salmon, nicely seared, rides atop dark beluga lentils imitating mounds of caviar, with cauliflower florets, Thumbelina carrots and sweet golden raisins peaking through. A well-balanced Vadouvan curry mustard emulsion provides just the right touch of spice and heat.
The nicely caramelized Gulf black grouper sits atop al dente truffle risotto with a tangle of wild arugula and fennel. Everything glistens, as the orange beurre blanc, with hints of shallot and garlic, drips down to mix with a drizzle of cabernet-balsamic reduction.
The center cut beef tenderloin features two beautiful melt-in-your-mouth medallions, organic vegetables & braised cipollini onions, and the wondrous horseradish potato soufflé with a soft Havarti cheese center. Try topping the meat (why not?) with the optional butter-poached half lobster for surf ’n’ turf and WOW!
Two huge dark red, tender venison bone-in chops get a full Bavarian makeover with herbed spaetzle and sweet braised red cabbage; maitake mushrooms, chestnut confit, and poivrade sauce complete the scrumptious dish.
The dessert menu highlights a signature chocolate cake for two, and variations on two stalwarts — key lime mousse and the Caretta sundae. Our table goes for the Guinness stout and chocolate cheesecake with caramel corn that’s as tasty as it is unanticipated. But the “Florida Heat” dessert knocks the entire table for a loop: a tower stacking blood orange mousse, pink grapefruit mousse and perfectly torched Italian meringue atop delicate lemon sponge cake. Lighter than air, explosive yet velvety on the palate, it’s my favorite dessert this year.
As the ample check arrives, so do the tiny dark chocolate hazelnut and white chocolate kiwi-honey truffle distractions. As you waddle out of Caretta and pass by the tinkling keys of the 100-year-old Steinway grand player piano that seems the size of a limousine, you are reminded that this is, indeed, a singular night on the town.
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