Caretta on the Gulf

Caretta on the Gulf goes beyond "hotel restaurant." With its unique menu, reasonable prices and stunning decor, it becomes a destination itself.

By Laura Reiley, Times Food Critic
Published November 29, 2007

Caretta on the Gulf

Sandpearl Resort, 500 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater Beach

(727) 441-2425

Cuisine: Contemporary American

Hours: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Details: Amex, MC, V; reservations accepted; full bar; private wine room; valet parking only.

Prices: Lunch entrees $10-$19, dinner entrees $18-$39



Hotel dining is often doomed by its need to be all things to all people, whether that's a business meeting locale that doesn't call too much attention to itself or the backdrop for a vacation that shouldn't, gastronomically speaking, scare too many family members.

It's a shame, really, because often hotel restaurants have deep pockets and broad resources of talent, square footage and the three Ls: location, location, location.

Sandpearl Resort, the first new resort to be built on Clearwater Beach in 25 years, does not suffer from hotel-dining blahs. It contains a nice poolside cafe and a coffee shop, but the major accomplishment is Caretta on the Gulf. Named for a species of loggerhead turtle, the restaurant has all the elements that make for success: sleek and knowledgeable service, a gorgeous beach view, stunning decor, plus tasty and sensibly priced food and drink.

The best part, at least for now, is that all this is widely unknown. On a couple of visits, the stately dining room was only about half full, which meant the staff had plenty of time to lavish on me and my dining companions. In some places this might mean hovering or too much chitchat. Here it means servers can really strut their stuff, showing enormous wine knowledge more than 50 by the glass, lots of cool varietals, all commendably priced and enthusiasm for the short, seafood-heavy lunch and dinner menus.

Chef de cuisine David Thomas' menu has much to recommend: A lovely raw bar near the restaurant entrance sets the tone with ceviche, oysters on the half shell, spiny lobster and spicy tuna sushi rolls. Then the rosy glow and crackle of a wood-burning oven sends out roasted fish, chicken and meats that for the most part are paired with thoughtful, unusual side dishes and sauces.

It's hard food to categorize -it's robustly contemporary and American, but with Asian fillips of edamame and lemongrass, glass noodles and Sriracha. It's heavy on the shellfish and luxury ingredients, but it also takes risks. These may come in the form of an unlikely combo: one evening's seared dayboat scallops ($12) paired with golden braised cauliflower, soft-stewed oxtail and a swirl of grainy mustard oil. You don't see that every day, but it works.

A tiny cup of subtly spicy shrimp bisque gets topped with a coconut foam as a freebie amuse-bouche - a delicious little slurp as we watched the sun settle along the pristine beachfront below. Salads are pleasant but not showstoppers (one night's baby spinach, $10, came with shredded endive in lieu of arugula, perfectly fine but didn't rock my world).

The array of seafood starters are better. Florida snapper ceviche ($8) is flavored with a balance of lime and fragrant zest of yuzu (a tart Asian fruit kind of like a small grapefruit) and a little roasted pepper. Roasted pepper appears again as a sauce underneath the house crab cake ($13). Barely any filler made the cake delicate and hard to really fry crisp, but no matter because the crab was sweet and fresh, its chipotle-lime cream a nice foil.

Despite an array of steaks and chops, entree winners tend to be finned. Perhaps the best was a thick line-caught grouper fillet (a huge portion and well priced at $28) perched atop a stew of fresh baby artichokes, oven-dried tomato and English peas (it was supposed to be fava beans, but they hadn't come in). Pan-seared golden brown, it was matched in allure by something from the wood-burning oven: Florida red snapper ($27). It was very tasty, but nearly outshone by a hillock of cardamom-scented fennel puree and a pool of creamy lemongrass sauce.

The dining room, designed by Duncan & Miller (the company responsible for the gorgeousness that is Pelagia Trattoria in Tampa), features wide-spaced tables, soaring ceilings and oversized windows, dark-wood chairs and booths, richly patterned fabrics and plush carpet. All together, it's far too lovely to remain one of Clearwater Beach's best-kept secrets.

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.