Get Stuffed

A few local options for your holiday feasting

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With the Season of Gluttony upon us, it's time to take the South Beach Diet Cookbook, the Atkins meal planners and the Weight Watchers manual and throw them on the fire you're lighting to roast chestnuts. Other holidays are for fasting. December celebrations involve feasts, and whether you enjoy Hanukkah gelt, the first fruits of Kwanzaa or liberally spiked Christmas eggnog (only eight grams of saturated fat per cup!), it's pretty clear that you aren't going to escape this month without getting stuffed to the gills.

Though giant family repasts are the traditional format for holiday dining, we here at the Planet know that traditional ain't always going to cut it. After all, after a few days of listening to Bing Crosby and dealing with wrapping-paper cuts, we know you need to get out of the house. In order to facilitate your seasonal sanity, here's a guide to Christmas buffets and New Year's Eve blowouts. (Note: As with all special events, it behooves you to plan as early as possible. Reserve your spaces now, or you might just be left out in the cold.)

CHRISTMAS EVE
In Hillsborough County, Channelside's Signature Room Grille is open for business on Christmas Eve and spreading a bit of holiday cheer through special additions to the menu. Executive Chef Waylon Nelson's seared breast of pheasant ($26) knocks your Uncle Albert's turducken right out of the water, and the special black Perigod truffle sauce and seasonal roasted chestnuts that accompany the dish could make all eight reindeer drool. A Waldorf salad ($7) adds a festive air and, for dessert, a hazelnut Yule Log (Buche de Noel) with dark chocolate mousse and raspberry coulis bridges the gap between trends and tradition.

CHRISTMAS DAY
Remember the scene in A Christmas Story in which the neighbor's dogs destroy the dinner and the whole family is reduced to eating Peking Goose — complete with head — at the only open restaurant in town? Here in Tampa Bay we have it a bit easier. St. Petersburg favorite Saffron's Caribbean Cuisine serves up a yearly buffet of roast beast (with a jerk seasoning even the Whos down in Whoville never expected). Holiday dishes like turkey, stuffing and gravy, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie share groaning buffet tables with island cornbread, collard greens, jerk chicken, plantains, and Jamaican rice and peas. Saffron's offers take-out of its holiday feast for $5.50 per pound of turkey and $9.50 per person for a panoply of sides.

For a little bit more evergreen, drop by the historic Belleview Biltmore Resort. The "White Queen of the Gulf" has been entertaining guests for over a hundred years, although rumors have been swirling as to whether it might be torn down. Chef Jim Krauss' Christmas buffet features everything from bourbon-glazed ham, roast turkey and smoked salmon to pan-seared mahi mahi, tropical fruit and pastry Chef Nomeda's holiday dessert display. Get a bit teary-eyed as you think of all the Victorian vacationers who once traipsed the pine plank halls. The Biltmore has been decorated to honor its historic tradition, with 11 Christmas trees decorated to commemorate each decade of the resort's existence, and a giant gingerbread house. It just might be the end of an era, folks.

New Years EVE
Don't spend another New Year with Dick Clark. Dress in your swankiest togs and get out to one of the area's finest restaurants for a New Year's Eve fete. If you missed it on Christmas Eve, Channelside's Signature Room Grille is reprising its pheasant motif (or twin lobster tails, or filet of beef, or herb-encrusted grouper, or even a vegetarian pasta dish) as part of a four-course spectacular ($85) complete with party favors, live jazz entertainment and the all-important balloon drop. (Because it isn't New Year's Eve unless you get whacked on the head with inflated latex.)

In competition with the Channelside to-do, Pelagia Trattoria in International Plaza's Renaissance Tampa Hotel provides its own jazz-infused party, as well as six courses for the same price (though, admittedly, one of these "courses" is fennel volute and another pomegranate sorbet). Pelagia chef Fabrizio Schenardi pulls out all stops with the other courses, however, which include duck confit, foie gras, pan-seared John Dory (that's a fish, folks) with artichoke heart stew, rack of lamb with olive ducelle and walnut-gorgonzola raviolone and syrah-poached pears. Choices abound on this menu, so if one of the listed items above doesn't suit your fancy, there's probably an option that you'll like more (braised oxtail and black trumpet mushroom-encrusted filet of beef, anyone?)

These tasty treats should keep you full until well into 2005. Happy holidays to all, and to all, a good bite.

Freelance writer Diana Peterfreund dines anonymously and the Planet pays for her meals. She may be contacted at [email protected]. Restaurants are chosen for review at the discretion of the writer, and are not related to advertising.

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