Turn, Turn, Turn

At CK's, fine dining is a revolution

click to enlarge LIFE AT THE TOP: Ryan Devin enjoys a lobster - bisque at CK's. - Sean Deren
Sean Deren
LIFE AT THE TOP: Ryan Devin enjoys a lobster bisque at CK's.

Food and romance are as entwined as — Ronde and Tiki Barber, stockbrokers and Wall Street, the sun and the moon. So, on Valentine's Day, you might want to dine passionately on something other than Big Macs in an effort to please that special someone, whose face wrings your heart like wet laundry and whose laugh effortlessly flails your emotions, like wind dances clothes on the line. Now, I have nothing against Big Macs, but they certainly cannot compete with, say, the romantic properties of Champagne, caviar or chocolate — that is, unless you're employing the Special Sauce in creative ways McDonald's never intended. Regardless, why not treat your beloved to a Big Night Out in celebration of one of life's most precious gifts? Or, just go and yuk it up!

Either way, my absolute Valentine's Day favorite is CK's, perched 10 stories atop the airport Marriott hotel. The area's only revolving rooftop restaurant, it boasts an awe-inspiring, 360-degree, panoramic view of the entire Bay area. You'll find primo drinks, careful, considerate service and fare that perhaps falls short of culinary cutting edge but certainly is respectable.

Sit at a linen-covered table, high above the blue-lighted airport. Order the sprightly orange Cosmopolitan ($8), and while you sip, you can feel the whole room move at a half-mile per hour. In 90 minutes, the restaurant makes one full revolution.

As dark falls, you see on one side jeweled bridges, golden chains spanning the black water of the bay; later, the scenery slowly shifts so you're facing the distant gleam of downtown Tampa skyscrapers, or the muscular, lighted towers of St. Pete.

For years, CK's inadvertently squandered its most precious asset by over-lighting the interior. The effect: Diners couldn't see out very well. But in 2000, it underwent a much-needed, $1.2-million renovation. Now, it wears a clean, simple navy-blue color scheme, repeated in chic new cobalt-colored dishes and napkins. With redone lighting, the fabulous view stands out crisply and clearly. Now, if the place would just stay open past the prim hour of 10 p.m., those who want a classy nightcap might enjoy its remarkable setting.

CK's food has been updated, and its pricing is markedly improved. Credit goes to Marriott's director of food and beverage, Abeer Kronawetter, and executive chef Henry Nagel, who has been successfully tinkering with the restaurant's offerings. For years, the food was too expensive; now, though the regular dinner menu remains overpriced, the restaurant at least offers several new, attractive specials at the lower end of the scale.

On Valentine's Day, CK's will offer a special menu and plans to seat diners every half hour from 6-10:30 p.m. It will serve smoked salmon on a mini potato cake; herbed cheese eggplant roll, crabcake endive with mustard aioli fried prawn and sesame noodle salad; and potato, Gruyere and Roquefort tart.

The cost varies from $55-75 per person, depending upon the entree you choose: lobster Americaine with potato gnocchi; filet mignon and jumbo prawns; potato-crusted sea bass; filet mignon with Cabernet sauce; or stuffed chicken breast in Chanterelle sauce. For dessert, the chef plans "Chocolate Passion," passion-fruit infused chocolate Genoise with apricot-passion fruit gelee, glazed with dark chocolate ganache. And let's not forget complimentary champagne and choice of coffee or tea.

Quite apart from the holiday, the restaurant has several attractive new pricing packages that make its fare much more affordable. One is a three-course dinner for two, including your choice of a bottle of wine; appetizer or dessert; salad and entree, at a fixed price ($99.95, including tax and tip). Another is the early bird special, from 5 to 6 p.m., seven days a week, according to the manager. However, her staff may tell you otherwise — the receptionist incorrectly told me the early bird was available only on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.

Be on time because at 6 p.m. sharp the restaurant reverts to its more expensive menu. And you may have to ask for the early bird menu; we had to bludgeon it from our waiter, who erroneously assumed we were among the unsuspecting who wouldn't mind ordering a higher-priced meal.

Be firm: Early birds score a terrific deal. You get to luxuriate in the restaurant's amazing ambiance, plus dine well on a choice of salad, entree and dessert, all for a fixed price ($16.95-18.95). Another great deal is Sunday brunch, a lavish spread of 75 different dishes reasonably priced at $19.95 per adult, $12.95 for children ages 4-12, and free to kids 3 and younger.

During my first visit, the waiter started us with the CK's Classics drink menu, listing 10 specialties, including a chocolate martini ($8), made with Grey Goose Vodka, dark and white creme de cacao and a dash of Godiva liqueur. We also tried the Key lime pie frozen cocktail ($8), with Absolute Citron, Bacardi Limon, ice cream mix, fresh Key lime juice and lime mix. Both were made just right, with plenty of verve. Not in the mood for liquor? Sample from the wine list, with 160 selections, ranging in price from $21 to $440 per bottle.

If you're ordering the early bird dinner, your meal lacks an appetizer — but you can pay extra and get one anyway. We tried the large portobello mushroom ($7) and the lobster bisque classique ($6). I didn't care much for either — the mushroom's breading tasted greasy; and the soup's muddy texture lacked that light, buttery charm so characteristic of an expert bisque. However, it floated two big chunks of lobster meat that went down nicely.

We became preoccupied with the bread- basket, a trifecta of so-fresh olive bread, a spectacular lavash flatbread and Italian focaccia. Guys will like the flatbread because it's fun to break; it's also fun to chew. It's so thin, you feel like you're noshing on, oh, cardboard, except it tastes much better, and we liked the flavor boost its pimiento dipping sauce provided.

The Caesar and garden salads arrived — fresh greens topped with shards of Parmesan. They were acceptable but nothing special. The entrees were better: I chose a buff slice of prime rib, cooked exactly to medium rare, and accompanied by a mountain of buttered mashed potatoes. Simple, yes, but quite satisfying.

My dining companion ordered salmon, which sat on the plate steamy and pink, branded from the grill, drenched in a citrus-y lemon butter sauce, and accompanied by a heap of wild rice. The fish was so tender that it surrendered softly in the mouth and fell apart on the fork.

Before dessert, I needed to take a few laps around the restaurant. On my travels, I checked out the crowd, which tended toward older people, with a few younger couples interspersed. A large party on the other side of the CK's was fashionably dressed to honor a couple's 53rd wedding anniversary — an accomplishment all you Val Pals out there might want to contemplate.

When I got back to the table, a wedge of edible sunshine awaited me — a piece of Key lime pie, its zippy filling set in an obviously handmade, crunchy and buttery crust, a fulsome finish to the evening. After paying the reasonable bill, it was almost depressing to take the elevator back down to the Real World. Still, at least I knew I would be back shortly for a second visit during the restaurant's Sunday brunch.

On Sunday, I was amazed to find a monstrous buffet, set up on tables along one whole side of the restaurant. There was so much food that it was staggering to view, much less eat. I counted 75 dishes, hot and cold, every manner of bagel, pastry and roll, ice cream, a whole table of desserts, eggs, bacon, sausage, crêpes and waffles.

There was seafood casserole, mojo pork, Mediterranean chicken, seven kinds of fruit, marinated cold vegetable dishes, a whole section with nothing but cheeses, soup, salads, all sorts of drinks, hot and cold. And a pasta bar where we chose from dozens of ingredients and several kinds of sauces, and an employee whipped up a custom-made dish.

I chose fettuccine matched with six fat scallops, asparagus, purple onion and mushroom, bathed in Alfredo sauce; it was delicious. Another expert dish was a hot cauliflower au gratin, the blanched vegetable glamorous in its cheesy sauce. And I liked a latticed pastry bearing a fruity filling and thin icing on top, flaky and gooey at the same time, a lovely combination to wash down with coffee.

When you finish such a meal, your body is happy but feels like it needs to work overtime to handle all that food. Mine always wants to run laps in an effort to get itself moving again. But at least, if you're with your special valentine, you can suffer together, and stumble out holding hands.

Contact food critic Sara Kennedy at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 116.

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