Swimsuit? Check. Sunscreen? Check. Cocktail dress? Oops. Almost forgot that.
A summer getaway on the Golden Isles usually means packing beach gear, not formal attire. But when we want to come back from a coastal vacation with stories about supping at the Georgian Room at Sea Island resort, we’ve got to gussy up.
The Georgian Room boasts itself as the only restaurant in the state with a five-star rating from Forbes. Opulence unfolds the moment you reach the stretch of live oaks that line both sides of the road leading to the property. Pass through the gates and head to the Cloister, the lodge that put Sea Island on the map when it opened in 1928.
Behold the beauty of the Spanish Colonial revival building with its red clay-tiled roof, its palatial lobby with a soaring three-story ceiling and musicians playing softly in the corner. Click your heels on the stone patio. Smell the flowers in the meticulously tended gardens.
Sea Island will stimulate your every sense. All is designed to be utterly and exquisitely perfect.
My visit to the Georgian Room started that way, with an amuse-bouche aptly named the Perfect Egg. In the base of a petite egg-shaped bowl sits a nub of spinach creamed with dry sherry. Above it rests the lightest, most luscious soft-scrambled egg, followed by a spray of celery root foam crowned with a touch of gold. Eaten with a tiny golden spoon, these are compelling bites.
But there’s more to the story here, one that your server may not tell you. Every dish on the tasting menu contains a gold component, a nod to the Golden Isles. Every dish on the tasting menu also attempts to give a bit of history about the area. I know this because, after my visit, I spoke on the phone with Georgian Room chef de cuisine Aaron Bellizzi.
Bellizzi is a new arrival to Sea Island and to the South, having taken charge of the Georgian Room last November. The 2007 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America has spent time in such lauded New York establishments as Le Cirque, Benoit by Alain Ducasse and, most recently, Eleven Madison Park.
During the restaurant’s annual two-month winter closure, Bellizzi rebuilt the tasting menu — which has always been the focus of the dining experience here — to focus on recounting stories of the region through food. He also expanded the a la carte menu. The result is an elevated take on Southern coastal cuisine, relying on plenty of product (and cooking techniques) from here and now to tell stories about long ago.
The first tale is titled “The Guale Indians,” a reference to the Native Americans who inhabited the Georgia coast prior to the Spanish arrival in the 1500s. This course reimagines the morning mist rising near the beach, a scene the Guale might have witnessed 500 years ago. Resting on an oyster shell is a marinated seared scallop topped with pearls that pop with the tangy-tart flavor of Japanese ponzu sauce and peppery scallion curlicues. Accompanying the crudo composition is a meringue cracker flecked with gold. The ensemble sits on a bowl filled with white rock salt. When a tableside pour of water trickles through unseen holes in the bowl and hits dry ice hidden below, a billow of smoke gently rises upward.
Of course, it’s not necessary to know the inspiration for this serene dish to draw oohs and aahs, but I wouldn’t have minded if a server had explained the reason for the reenactment.
Almost matching that mist performance is an eye-stunning starter of hamachi. A row of thinly sliced yellowtail is covered in a tweezered arrangement of brightly pickled vegetables. The bite of jalapeno, and a vinaigrette that marries the funk of anchovy with the citrus-chile zing of Japanese condiment yuzu kosho are what make this my favorite a la carte item.
A close second is the corn velouté (which also appears on the tasting menu). It’s a savory, buttery soup made richer with a disk of jellied corn and dayboat shrimp. It tastes of summer in a bowl, unlike an average Caesar salad and a drab, flavor-seeking Winter Truffle Risotto, neither of which speak to the season.
The a la carte menu is uneven. Although fish and seafood appropriately dominate the menu, salty black grouper with an unappealing sauce gribiche and unadorned roasted potato wedges look and taste like an afterthought. The single poultry among proteins – duck – holds delicious sweet-spiciness from a coating of a peppery spice blend and a honey glaze, yet, coupled with carrots, the plate appears more appropriate for fall. A side serving of duck confit was dry and stringy.
Success, it seems, lies with the tasting menu. This affair is typically five courses ($160, plus $100 for wine pairings), but can climb to seven, if you opt for supplemental meat and cheese courses ($30 and $18, respectively).
To its credit, the Georgian Room, unlike some restaurants, does not require the entire table to partake in the tasting menu. And when the table splits ways with the menus, the staff does a commendable job pacing the meal so that no one feels excluded.
Round and round comes a basket of house-made bread: grit bread, mini baguette-shaped brioche and, best, scallion truffle scones to smear with herbed goat cheese butter. One amuse follows another. A pre-dessert glass vial holds luscious layers of lemon mousse, olive oil sorbet and Champagne froth.
We’re nearing the end of the story, with a chapter called “A Revolution and a Culture.” Patriotism on this dessert plate consists of cylindrically shaped Grand Marnier mousse, its sides striped in red and white, capped with strawberry sorbet and a blackberry compote garnish. Bring in the fife and drum to celebrate its deliciousness, but must we be so trite?
There are other stories I would’ve liked to have told you. Yet, a dessert pudding of Key lime and blueberry cremeux never arrived. And no one seemed especially interested in engaging about wine gems in the 76-page drink tome. (If you are going all-out, I recommend the wine pairings with the tasting menu.) A server couldn’t remember the risotto’s main components and laughed away the brain fart.
Considering that the bill here is no laughing matter, I’d be more inclined for this gracious, accommodating front-of-house to pay less fuss escorting guests to and from the restroom, and more time engaging them about the carefully curated dishes and drinks available to them.
Nearly 1,700 restaurants around the globe claim a five-star Forbes rating. What makes the Georgian Room different? It is a grand place to celebrate a unique location with a deep history. But that history — particularly that of Georgia’s foodways — doesn’t stop at 1776. And staff ought not rest on a Forbes rating if it wants the Georgian Room to stay relevant for diners who look beyond facade.
GEORGIAN ROOM AT SEA ISLAND
6-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays (closed January and February). 100 Cloister Drive, Sea Island. 912-634-3999, seaisland.com. Reservations required. Dress code: Jacket and collared shirt for men, cocktail attire for women.
Recommended: Chef’s Tasting Menu; from the a la carte menu: King Yellowtail, Corn Velouté, Flounder Meuniere, Maple Leaf Duck, Valrhona Chocolate Mousse.
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