Driving down Gulf Boulevard from Clearwater to St. Pete Beach is a visual lesson in American capitalism. Looking at the journey through cultural anthropology glasses, one can only conclude that we are all in search of a beachfront condo with easy access to sunset views, fried seafood, and copious amounts of beer at popular prices.
It’s the law of supply and demand writ large.
As you travel the 23-mile trail along the barrier islands, one beach town blends into another without much variation or sense of place. That is, until an amorphous pink blob appears in the distance. Soon what looks like a set of horns comes into focus.
And then you realize it’s a huge pink palace, and the horns are really towers. OMG, it’s St. Pete Beach’s version of Downton Abbey.
When you finally reach the Don CeSar and loop around from Gulf Boulevard onto the ramp that takes you up to the second floor entryway, you can easily imagine being greeted by Lord and Lady Grantham. And the fantasy isn’t broken when the complimentary valet tenderly takes your keys and ushers you back in time to the Jazz Age. And just as you pass the first of the ubiquitous chandeliers, you’ll see the Maritana Grille on your left.
But if you’ve done your homework, you know to continue on to the handsome lobby bar where you can grab a cocktail, head outside, and enjoy a marvelous drop-dead gorgeous sunset over the elegant grounds. Only then is it time to enter this bastion of fabulous Floribbean cuisine, passing 1,500 gallons of saltwater aquariums, to take a seat at an elegant table covered with crisp linens and bedecked with a stylish assortment of china, silver and sparkling stemware. When your server then appears with black or white linen napkins, depending on the shade of your outfit, you can surely imagine that Downton’s Mr. Carson is attending to the details of your meal.
Before you know it, the footman — eh, server — delivers a plate of chive and paprika butter “fingers” to accompany a selection of yummy olive, whole grain and cheese breads topped with a row of lighter-than-air golf ball-sized dinner rolls. Just as you’re swooning over the bread, an amuse-bouche appears in a large flat bowl with a tiny egg-sized dip at its center. A quick peek reveals a lightly dressed macaroni salad topped with a tiny square of perfect salmon garnished with two small chives — a dead ringer for a 1960s dollhouse TV with rabbit ears. It’s meant to be eaten with a unique spoon that resembles a shoehorn for an oversized Barbie doll, truly an unexpected and delectable bite.
The appetizers are varied and uniformly delicious.
Pear velouté is a creamy stock soup flavored with port wine reduction and toasted almond/red grape garnishes. A wonderful “tasting trio” highlights hand-minced tuna tartare with a crispy wonton, beef tenderloin carpaccio with micro greens, and a mouth-watering fresh gulf prawn with jicama salad and juicy watermelon. Maryland crab cakes are light but full of flavor and nicely balanced by chewy red quinoa, lemon aioli, and a brushstroke of cranberry reduction completing the plate. Alaskan king crab legs are split, and the sweet meat is topped with roasted garlic butter and pancetta, then grilled. Simply sublime.
An intense and fruity raspberry sorbet serves as a palate cleanser prior to the entrées.
Then, your choice of the freshest fish imaginable is cooked in the au courant, lush “sous vide” style or cast iron grilled for crispiness. I imagine Downton’s Mrs. Patmore at the stove reminding us that “anyone who has use of their limbs can make a salmon mousse”; meanwhile, her sidecook Daisy labors over the eggplant gnocchi for the sous vide Caribbean red snapper that’s then pan seared and served with sautéed scarlet pepper, wilted arugula, and sweet yellow pepper sauce. Atlantic ahi tuna features caramelized Brussels sprouts, baby artichoke, jewel pepper, marble potato and cauliflower purée.
Fish is flown in daily from Hawaii. We try a succulent, moist white tuna steak on jasmine rice with cantaloupe coulis and a scrumptious lobster, poblano pepper and basil salsa.
The roasted venison loin is as fresh and tender as any shot on the Grantham’s hunting trip to Scotland’s Duneagle Castle; the tasty dish includes butternut squash purée, wild mushrooms, warm Brussels sprout/haricot vert salad, pancetta, and a finish of chardonnay smoked salt.
Our happy table is sighing post-entrées, but I’ve got the unmistakable cadence of Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, in my head: “It seems a pity to miss such a good pudding.” So, we loosen our belts and ingest luscious strawberry, chocolate-almond, blueberry-pomegranate ice cream quenelles, each on a bed of chocolate cookie crumbs, with candied walnuts and plump fresh blueberries. A trio of carrot cake squares is pan-seared for a bit of crispness, then topped with a dollop of cream cheese icing and a sweet slice of sous vide cooked carrot.
Chocolate-espresso truffles then appear, just in case you need a jolt before you leave the table, retrieve your car from the valet, depart the elegant “pink palace,” and disappear with a smile into the night after one of the Bay area’s finest meals.