On the south end of Gulf Boulevard, less than a mile north of the historic pink palace that is the Loews Don CeSar, sits a bright baby blue building. The color is arresting. It’s an intense blue, the shade of water at a depth where sea turtles thrive. So, as you enter the new Sea Turtle Restaurant, it’s no surprise to see a giant, backlit faux skylight emblazoned with an underwater scene featuring the giant reptile in its native habitat. The interior walls are deep coral, another hue that announces the beachy milieu.
Thus, we’re seated hungry for seafood starters. Coconut shrimp with sweet chili dipping sauce has the perfection of a commercially sourced product. In any case, the shrimp are succulent and the tropical flavor pops. The sauce brings more sweetness than heat, but it’s a fine accompaniment.
Smoked salmon cornets, stuffed with shrimp and diced onions, are obviously rolled in-house. The teeny-tiny crustaceans are bathed in a sweet Thousand Island dressing-type sauce. The thinly sliced smoked salmon can’t contain the overly generous filling that spills out everywhere. It’s tasty, yet awkward, and the small salad that shares the plate seems extraneous. Cornet also seems like a misnomer for the two huge salmon pieces that take up half the plate. Perhaps if there were less filling, and a tighter spiral, you’d get a workable horn shape that would be easier to maneuver.
As we peruse the entrees, my table is excited to see a distinct English bent to dinner. I’ve adored shepherd’s pie since I was a kid. What’s not to love? But the simple version served in the high school cafeteria bears no resemblance to the real deal that I’ve enjoyed on visits to England. Technically, shepherd’s pie features lamb, whereas a beef filling means cottage pie. The terms are interchangeable nowadays, and, in most cases, a shepherd’s pie means beef. Usually, underneath the mashed potato topping, meat and gravy join a variety of vegetables for complex flavor and texture: carrots, celery, onions, maybe rutabaga (the English call it swede), garlic, corn, and even small bits of green beans. The Sea Turtle’s version lacks veggies and is disappointingly one-note.
The signature dish is a boneless chicken breast cooked in a sauce of onions, mushrooms, white wine, cream cheese and cream with “secret herbs and spices.” Due to the magical alchemy of cream with wine, this dish has nice flavor, though the spices and herbs are not discernible. The viscosity of the sauce, I assume due to the cream cheese, seems artificially and unnecessarily thick.
Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding with mashed potatoes and fresh veggies is another quintessential English dish. This Yorkshire is golden and puffed high. However, it’s unfortunately buried in gravy (as is the beef) that has the off tastes of a commercial flavor enhancer such as bouillon or Kitchen Bouquet. In and of itself, that might be overlooked, but the fresh veggies accompanying most entrees — in this case, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and green cabbage — are soft and overdone by today’s standards. These are the veggies of yesteryear, before Brits like Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal brought world-class cuisine to the U.K.
Finally, there’s fish and chips. Sadly, this dish fails on almost every level. I say almost because the fries, or chips, are beautifully cut, yet they’re greasy and soggy. You can’t cut corners and expect a crisp chip. The fish also lacks crackle. It’s the crunch of the batter against the juicy white fish that makes this a classic. This one is a limp mess.
Sea Turtle offers popular desserts (key lime pie, carrot cake) that are often not house-made creations, so we try to focus on what might be. The gluten-free brownie is essentially a flourless chocolate torte, similar to those on the cutting edge years ago. It’s gooey, as one would expect without gluten, but there are some odd flavors here as well, possibly from cocoa instead of chocolate. It’s not terrible, just not seductive in the way that pure chocolate can be. It’s also obscured from view by an enormous serving of ice cream. We eat with our eyes first, so a more restrained plating where the brownie is visible might help.
The apple-blackberry crumble has a fresh, hot topping. The dessert seems to have more of a crust associated with the term cobbler than a crumble. It’s hard to tell exactly because, like the brownie, it’s buried under a blob of vanilla ice cream that conceals the view of the main event. The problem, regardless of nomenclature, is that the edges arrive charred. Note to kitchen: Do not serve blackened pastry to your customers. The fruit is balanced and appropriately sweet, but a burnt crust is distinctly unappetizing.
The restaurant has lots of positive social media buzz, especially for its breakfast, which has me pondering: What, exactly, are the appropriate expectations for finesse in a restaurant providing generally straightforward food on the beach? Clearly, there’s a different standard here than for a fine-dining establishment in town. But despite a lower bar, greasy fish ‘n’ soggy chips and burned crumble crust shouldn’t be served. This lack of attention shows a disregard for customers, even with lowered expectations.
Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.