As I descend in the elevator from the Hard Rock Casino’s Lucky Street garage to the gambling floor, I have no idea what to expect. It turns out luxuriating in a juicy, knee-buckling, dry-aged steak at Tampa Bay’s most expensive restaurant begins with a 10-minute hike. This place is huge, with rows and rows of glazed-eyed casino capitalists. They’re locked in a staring contest with the shiny slots that whir and spin. The stale smell of Vegas hangs in the air. I walk and turn and walk and turn, following the signs. Finally, I reach a touch screen to get further directions. From the red line that appears, it looks like I’m halfway there. I trudge on and pass table after table, zooming by cards, dice and yards of bright green felt.
Then, as I reach a wide expanse of long escalators and glance to my right, I see a butcher clad in a white coat, knife in hand. He’s expertly trimming a huge bone-in ribeye. My eyes focus past his shoulder as I realize that I’m staring at a huge two-story glass wall that is actually an enormous cooler filled with aging sides of beef. Welcome to the butcher shop at the entrance to Council Oak Steaks & Seafood.
The friendly staff shows us to our handsome booth and the pampering begins.
A basket of assorted breads arrives accompanied by two kinds of butter (one with chives) and a sun-dried tomato spread. A smartly uniformed omnipresent server fills our water glasses, a task that will be repeated silently and tirelessly throughout our four-hour meal. My party did a lot of talking and we took our time, but this is not a place to rush in any case.
The appetizers feature ubiquitous steakhouse fare: crab cakes, diver scallops, beef carpaccio, shrimp cocktail and an amazing raw bar sampler (for two or four) featuring Alaskan king crab, Maine lobster, jumbo cocktail shrimp, oysters and clams. We swoon over delicious escargot dripping with garlic butter and topped with tiny circles of perfect golden puff pastry. We also indulge in a quartet of Oysters Rockefeller, a welcome culinary holdover from the age of the robber barons. The briny mollusks on the half shell topped with spinach and hollandaise, then lightly broiled, are classic for a reason.
We skip the Caesar, iceberg wedge, and caprese salads to taste what turns out to be a lovely combo of baby spinach, dried cherries, pine nuts, roasted bell peppers, crisp bacon, shaved Asiago, and a bracingly tart cherry vinaigrette served on the side so that you can dress the salad yourself; be gentle.
By the end of the appetizers we have made a good dent in our wine; the list overflows with huge reds even if the price is dear. And we’ve consumed lots of water from the glasses that are never allowed to dip below half-filled. The service is quiet + effortless = impeccable. As is typical in the steakhouse tradition, the entrées are largely unadorned, but Council Oak offers a group of sides that are easily shared by a table of four. We settle on creamed spinach and lobster mac & cheese; both are quite tasty even if I have to search for the bits of lobster — still, a huge improvement over the same dish that’s come up short twice elsewhere in recent weeks.
The entrees are a carnivore’s dream. The prime dry-aged meats hang for 21 days in a Himalayan salt-filled tomb, tenderizing and concentrating the flavors. We flip over the 16-ounce veal chop, a pair of double cut lamb chops perfumed with garlic and fresh rosemary, and crusty petit filet mignon with succulent steamed South African cold water lobster tail that flanks a luscious boat of drawn butter. The ambrosial crustacean is also available grilled, broiled, or sautéed. Tarragon-tinged béarnaise and a medley of wild mushrooms sautéed in garlic butter are mouthwatering additions to gild the lily. If you wish to adjust the seasoning, demitasse spoons stick out of tiny globes filled with your choice of Himalayan pink salt, cracked pepper, or black lava sea salt; a nice touch.
If your New Year’s resolution includes cutting down on red meat, and you don’t want to spring for king crab or whole Maine lobster, you can’t go wrong with line-caught snapper. The fish is perfectly cooked and accompanied by a scrumptious white truffle risotto, wild mushrooms, and port wine butter. This seafood entrée doesn’t take a backseat to anything on the menu.
And neither do the desserts. Not only does Council Oak offer delicious gelato and three soufflé choices as well as perennial favorites cheesecake, crème brûlée, and carrot cake, but their spin on the all-pervading chocolate lava cake kicks it up a notch. CO’s version has a warm, soft, salted caramel center that oozes out to combine with the chocolate-covered pretzel ice cream. Delish!
My favorite, however, is the fiery volcano made of vanilla bean ice cream (covered with Heath bar crunch lava rocks) flambéed tableside with a shot of 151 rum. As the alcohol ignites and yellow flames glow, turn blue, and dramatically rise a foot above table, you can’t help but think of Vegas. It’s a touch of Cirque du Soleil by Tampa Bay. Whether you’re a high roller, or willing to save for a special occasion, Council Oak is not to be missed.