A diamond in the sand

Caretta on the Gulf is a celebrated four-diamond restaurant located within the Sandpearl Resort on Clearwater Beach. Simply put, it sets the standard for fine dining in Tampa Bay. The food is exceptionally good, the interiors are warm and sophisticated, and the beachfront view of the Gulf of Mexico is the jewel of Pinellas County.

Over the years, the restaurant’s awards stack up like starfish on the beach. They include 13 consecutive Golden Spoon Awards and Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence. Plus, AAA previously has awarded Caretta’s with five diamonds for its service, its highest level of recognition.

Jonathan Pelletier oversees an army of culinary and service professionals, including a full kitchen staff, service staff, pastry department, sushi chefs, butcher shop, a 300-bottle wine cellar and a sommelier. Caretta’s is a glittering restaurant where every detail is tended to and everything feels special.

Unique ingredients and extraordinary preparations help to make it special. The Caretta Manhattan starts with local Palm Ridge Bourbon Reserve, Vya Sweet Vermouth and blood orange bitters. This mixture is poured into smoked barrels and aged at the bar for six months. The result is a smooth and smoky cocktail with a hint of orange.

Sea scallops are seasoned with coriander before the sear and finished on a bed of chipotle-and-leek creamed corn. Along for the ride are brussels sprouts caramelized in bacon fat and a Nueske bacon chip. The flavors are exceptional, from the sweetness of the scallop and corn to the salty bacon. A flourish of lobster emulsion pulls it all together. Just moments after the bite clears your tongue, the warmth of chipotle blooms across the back of your throat.   

The short rib is so tender it shreds to the tine of a fork. It’s served with a shitake spring roll, roasted bok choy and a brilliantly colored carrot, and ginger, puree. General Tso’s glaze, so shiny you can see your reflection in it, glosses the short rib. This is a stunning dish that satisfies on every level of taste and texture. Executive chef Lahma LaFon creates this degree of excellence by “sourcing unique ingredients of the finest quality. We look for things people haven’t seen before and let the food speak for itself,” he says. The menu changes seasonally. Almost everything is organic and made from scratch.

King trumpet mushrooms are scored in a hatch pattern and placed alongside local black grouper, artichoke hearts and autumn-inspired butternut squash risotto. A few blistered heirloom cherry tomatoes give acidity to balance the sage bearnaise sauce and Franzhall goat gouda. The golden crust of the grouper stays crisp to the last bite. This is quite possibly the best grouper you’ll ever taste.

Weekend menus often feature a show-stopping entrée, like a 30-ounce Durham Ranch Buffalo Tomahawk Ribeye. It’s served with a butter-poached lobster, seasonal organic vegetables and a potato souffle. The dramatic presentation of the big chop with its long rib bone taking flight off the plate will draw eyes from everyone nearby. A rich lobster demi-glace kissed with cognac, drizzles from the crust. 

The cold-water lobster is tender and sweet, with just a hint of salt from the butter. The crispy crown of the Yukon-gold potato souffle gives way to a cheesy center that oozes onto the plate. Where to start? The ribeye or the lobster? This kind of decadence, anywhere else, would raise eyebrows. At Caretta’s, it’s celebrated and meant to be shared.

The dessert menu also changes seasonally. Pastry chef Angela Krainis creates classically inspired desserts that are accessible and comforting, but with a refined spin. Take the Caretta’s s’mores. Everything on the plate is made in-house, from the graham crackers, chocolate sable, marshmallows and ice cream. It’s a very sophisticated version of the campfire favorite and delivers all the classic flavors, but on a whole new level. Toasted marshmallow is sandwiched by the sables, while the graham cracker ice cream and a lush, smoked chocolate mousse flank a blood orange coulis that flares across the plate. Every bite gives a delightful surprise, whether it’s smoky chocolate, toasted marshmallow or a bright citrus burst. “I love taking classic flavors and elevating them,” Krainis says. Her spin on affogato defines that statement. Here she uses bourbon-pumpkin ice cream and an orange, chocolate chip biscotti to create the quintessential fall treat. It’s warm and cold and full of fall flavors, all at once.

For a nightcap, order the s’mores-tini. The glass is rimmed with smoked chocolate, and graham crackers, and garnished with toasted marshmallow. It’s a liquid s’more, lush, dramatic and a great finish to an unforgettable night.

The most special occasions call for the most special of places. Caretta’s on the Gulf is that special. Go for the food, the gracious service, the stunning views and the memories you collect along the way.

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