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Council Oak Steaks & Seafood, Tampa

A steak house brings prime meats to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.

By Laura Reiley, Times Food Critic
Published November 15, 2007


REVIEW

Council Oak Steaks & Seafood

Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, Tampa

5223 N Orient Road, Tampa,

(813) 627-7628

Cuisine: Steak house/American

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, until midnight Friday and Saturday

Details: Amex, V, MC; reservations suggested; full bar

Prices: Entrees $21.75-$48.75

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TAMPA

Kumamoto is a Pacific oyster, quite small, with a deep cup, a frilly fluted shell and a smooth, fruity flavor and buttery texture. Bigger, Blue Points are an Atlantic species with a brinier, almost cucumbery flavor.

Our server at Council Oak knew this kind of thing.

She knew that there are three components to describing an oyster: saltiness as a rule, the colder the water the saltier the oyster, texture (delicate, firm, etc.) and sweetness or finish (descriptions range from metallic to cucumbery, grassy and watermelony).

Don't even get her started about ribeyes vs. porterhouses or the value of dry aging.

In her early 20s, she had the quiet, self-confident knowledge of a longtime foodie. We asked her inane questions about marbling, kibitzed about tartare. She parried.

In a restaurant that's been open just about a month, it is a miracle.

Council Oak in the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa has managed to assemble a competent, thoughtful service staff and to train them well. Owned by the Seminole tribe (as is the restaurant of the same name in Hollywood), Council Oak is a new contender in the great American steak house wars. Morton's, Sullivan's Steakhouse, Don Shula's, Fleming's, the Palm, Ruth's Chris - they all have a similar masculine vibe and an a la carte approach to steaks and chops.

The scene is set

Amid Tampa's glut of high-end steak houses, is Council Oak worth the drive out Interstate 4? That all depends on how you feel about casinos. To reach the restaurant, you must walk the periphery of the gambling hall with its cacophony of electronic bells and that ubiquitous casino smell of cigarettes, stale booze and up-all-night hope.

Linger near the host stand and you can watch the surgical precision of butchers cutting steaks in a stainless steel exhibition butchery. Once seated, you see the kitchen staff scurrying in its spotless glassed kitchen, but faint sounds and smells of casino never disappear entirely. It creeps into your thoughts as you look around. You imagine that woman dining alone is consoling herself after a wipeout at the slots, and the couple with the raw bar sampler must have hit big.

The menu is appropriate for a good day at the poker table: luxe seafood followed by big red meat, all capably prepared for the most part.

One salad embodies what the kitchen is trying to do. A crisp, cold head of baby iceberg lettuce ($8.50) comes dotted with blue cheese crumbles and accessorized with a long strip of tasty bacon and ripe sliced tomato, nearby a round of red onion corrals sweet French dressing and a small vodka martini sits cradling a blue cheese-stuffed olive. It's audacious yet retro - just what every salad eater needs, a shot of vodka.

Oysters Rockefeller ($11), steak tartare ($10.50), escargots ($14) - it's trammeled ground, but the kitchen does a nice job adding contemporary touches. Crab cakes ($14) perch atop decorative drizzles of mustard sauce, each crisp, pan-fried cake topped with a bundle of peppery microgreens.

Side dishes (all suitable for sharing) are similarly familiar. Very al dente asparagus stalks ($7) get a luxurious bath of buttery hollandaise, onion rings ($8) piggyback along a metal rod like a beer-battered totem pole. Au gratin potatoes ($7) were our only disappointing side, a little floury and glutinous.

The main attraction

And then comes the meat. It's all aged prime beef, so it's dark and rich, the connective tissues broken down, flesh etched with marbling. The bone-in filet ($34 for 8 ounces, $46 for 16) is tender, with good flavor imparted by the bone - a better choice than the prime rib ($28.75 queen cut, $34.75 king), which was somewhat demure flavor-wise, despite a nice table-side grating of fresh horseradish.

Nonbeef choices are mixed: Rosemary-rubbed lamb chops ($39.50) were perfect and tender; a stewed chicken ($23) was marred by a heavy grease slick on the pot's surface.

Wine list, cigar menu and dessert are designed for merriment and celebration, with big, name-brand cabs to stand up to a Fuente Fuente Opus X ($20), and desserts like the double chocolate malt ($7.50), a tall glass tube of two-toned mousses, paired with a chocolate-encased sour cream ice cream bar and long molded chocolate garnishes.

For some hopeful gamblers, no sweets will be necessary: Remember what Paul Newman said in The Color of Money. "Money won is twice as sweet as money earned."

Contact Laura Reiley at (727) 892-2293 or lreiley@sptimes.com. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.