Every time I step into the Hard Rock, it takes effort to forget the Seminole casino I visited in my youth. The cavernous bingo halls perpetually fogged over in a haze of cigarette smoke, the ball-callers' voices punctuated by the hacking coughs of elderly card-daubers; the glassed-in room of faux-slots; the yellowed felt of the poker room. The very air of the place tasted of desperation.
Well, Seminole casino, you've come a long way, baby! In the past decade the Seminole tribe has upped the ante, first by bringing in Hard Rock to operate the casino, then by purchasing the Hard Rock chain outright and finally by negotiating a new sweetheart deal with Gov. Crist to bring in real slots and new table games.
Two months ago, the Hard Rock unveiled a huge expansion, with an additional 60,000 square feet of gaming space and two new high-end restaurants. Now the Seminole Hard Rock Tampa is like a real casino. And like real casinos, there's more to do than just gamble away your weekly pin money.
The recently opened Council Oak Steak and Seafood is not only the best reason to head to the Hard Rock, it's shaping up to be one of the best steakhouses in a town overloaded with that particular species.
Part of that has to do with the sheer monetary extravagance at the casino's disposal. The restaurant is gorgeous, with monumental ceilings and soaring, modern architectural details softened by a subdued gold and chocolate color scheme. Tables are arrayed in tiers that step down to a gleaming stainless steel kitchen area that looks bigger than the dining room and is faced with a floor-to-ceiling glass wall. Large parties are seated in the lowest tier, inches from the kitchen.
Impressive, but the restaurant's real success is at the table. Every detail of a Council Oak dinner, from the beef to the service, is thoughtful and carefully considered.
It starts with the beef. Here at Council Oak you are confronted with a fleshy spectacle the minute you enter the foyer and see the butchers' room. Another monumental glass wall separates the prospective diner from a row of refrigerated steaks arrayed by cut. Behind that are pristine stainless tables attended by white-clad workers busy breaking down meat. Behind that are large sections of cow hung to age in front of a wall made of bricks of Himalayan rock salt.
That glass can slide away if you wish to speak with the butchers. On a Wednesday night, I was content to merely watch for a few minutes as a mustachioed man fed hunks of bright red beef laced with fat through a grinder — a soothing sight.
All the beef at Council Oak is dry-aged, all of it is prime, and the kitchen knows how to treat it right. A rare, bone-in filet ($46) comes to the table seared dark with an interior like a sea of fleshy red. The rib eye ($38.75) is equally gorgeous, with a rib bone that — in Flintstonian proportion — juts fully a foot from the meat of the steak, darkened by the heat, with my initials emblazoned on the side in the glowing pearl of untouched bone.
The filet is well-seasoned, but that glorious rib eye is marred by a profound lack of salt. That's a big culinary faux pas when you're dealing with a piece of beef, but I can partially remedy it with a dip into the little jars of delicate Florida sea salt or Himalayan rock salt set on every table.
The rest of Council Oak's menu is, if anything, more accomplished than the steaks. A soupy lobster pot ($12) is a virtuoso balance of rich butter and cream and hunks of delicate poached lobster, with the merest hint of earthy pancetta and truffle oil. The oysters Rockefeller ($11) are an ideal expression of the classic recipe: bitter spinach, rich béarnaise, smoky bacon and plump oysters assembled in perfect harmony.
Seafood is simply prepared, from steamed lobster tails ($49.50) served with clarified butter to crisply sautéed filets of snapper ($26.50) accented by butter infused with sweet port wine. Both of the fish options — grouper and snapper — are sourced solely from the Gulf, although that lobster and an extensive selection of raw oysters are flown in from around the world.
Classic steakhouse sides tend toward the hearty and straightforward, from spiced meat sauce on al dente spaghetti ($7) to creamed spinach ($7), where the intense fat of reduced cream is cut, just enough, by the bitter greens. Fries ($7) are cut in-house and drizzled with just enough luxe truffle oil and crumbly cheese.
From start to finish, it's all very tasty and, more importantly, provides a much bigger hit of culinary virtuosity than most steakhouses. Although the beef is obviously the star, there is more to the kitchen than just a blazing grill.
There is also more on the floor. The servers can recite details about each menu item that are more than mere rote training. They size up tables and make suggestions, getting involved and guiding customers through the meal. Bottles of ketchup come with every plate of potatoes; the butter comes salty and soft; coffee is served with an array of shaved chocolate, cinnamon sticks and other aromatics.
Perhaps thanks to the buying power of a big casino and the unique tax situation of the Seminole reservation, wine at Council Oak is extremely affordable. Most bottles on the extensive and well-chosen list, especially those in the midrange between $30 and $100, hover around or just under two times retail. That's refreshing, especially at a steakhouse.
Since the entrance to Council Oak abuts the gaming floor in unsubtle casino fashion, you'll have to wade through clouds of cigarette smoke and the cacophonous jangle of slot machines craving the attention of sense-dead gamblers. But these days, the rococo extravagance of modern casino design and the promise of exceptional food make it all seem worthwhile.