Simplicity is often superior to the gutsy or cutting-edge when it comes to fine dining.
Towering over the snack shacks and tacky surf shops on Clearwater beach is the juxtaposed Sandpearl Resort. As you walk through the huge white palm doors, you are taken hostage by the ocean spilling in through the floor-to-ceiling windows and the endless travertine floors. It feels unnecessary to step outside. Why not remain in the realm of ritzy sophistication, where you can walk an endless strip of sandy white beach, high above the rest?
The hotel is beautiful and never relinquishes itself to pretentiousness, except maybe in its fine dining restaurant, Caretta. The travertine floor leads to an entrance that is reminiscent of a bar in the Waldorf Astoria, with dark mahogany and a magnificent mosaic laid to reflect the restaurants name.
Once inside, a VIP room houses a zen-candle chandelier, and a grand u-shaped bar accented with a sleek sushi case makes it easy to pick your poison while watching the chef prep your favorite fish.
Outside, you can comfortably lounge on the restaurant’s veranda and watch the sun slip away as you sip your equally colorful cocktail.
The menu spins with Southwest, Caribbean and even Japanese influences and gains momentum with innovation. Even considering the risky dishes the menu proposes, the restaurant seemed promising the night arrived there with my friends for dinner.
The Fried Lobster Mac and Cheese reflected soul food genius, but I was sold on the quirky ceviche and sushi menu, which offered an unheard combination of ahi tuna, yabayaki (a sweet BBQ/eel sauce) marshmallow, and wasabi cotton candy. It was one of those dishes that could be amazing or inedible. I was willing to take my chances. My fellow foodies ordered the Crisp Skin Snapper and the Vegetarian Lasagna.
Although the lasagna was a default for my vegetarian friend, it sounded delicious and interesting enough for a carnivore, posing an unconventional mix of saffron, Japanese mushrooms and pesto. Unfortunately, the dish was dry and tasteless, relative to what it promised. The snapper was somewhat flavorful, not so much crisp and definitely did not take the plate. Ironically, its subordinate, the accompanied vegetable gratin, was moist, perfectly caramelized and completely devoured.
My sashimi was a disaster, but not because of the reasons I anticipated. The amount of tuna on the plate was an ode to the overpriced and played-out, “less-is-more,” bourgeois culinary movement. There were maybe two full bites that lingered on the tongue with a waxy feeling, but did not taste fishy. The Yabayaki marshmallow possessed the texture and sweetness expected from the sugary delight, but so much that it drowned any flavor of eel sauce that may have been present. The cotton candy, which I expected to be whimsical, green and fluffed all around my plate, sat in a small, sad white ball and remotely tasted like wasabi. Actually, I think they forgot to put the wasabi in my cotton candy. The whole could have been greater than the sum of the parts if the components were executed as promised.
I looked for redemption in the martinis, but to no avail. We had to send both fruity drinks back, but we were pleasantly surprised when the waitress returned with the most delicious gin and tonics on the beach. Still, while alcohol can help make food taste better, one would have to consume more than a couple to save a meal like this.
In the long-awaited end, the restaurant’s ambitious efforts ended up spinning out of control and falling flat, and hard. Although unique in its sophistication, Caretta’s ambience and innovative menu are not dazzling enough to blind the diner of a bad meal for long. As a premier fine dining restaurant on the beach, it falters when it comes down to the age old problem of execution. Caretta has so much potential – in fact, it’s almost there – but it cannot stand on great ideas and luxury alone. Unless it begins focusing on fundamentals, it will be blown away in the wind. Until then, I would stick to the less pretentious establishments. It might not be pretty, but you know you can never go wrong with fried conch fritters and a frosty Corona, beach-side.
For more information on Caretta and the Sandpearl resort, Click Here, or call 727-441-2425.
Photographs courtesy of Sandpearl Resort and BayNews9.