In anticipation of Tampa's legendary Gasparilla Pirate Festival, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa invites players in the High Limit Slot Room to enjoy a taste of Caribbean, no passport required.  Every Thursday in January from 6 to 9 pm, the casino is featuring a a Gasparilla-themed Taste Experience Curated by Executive Chef Bill Gideon.  Players are invited to sample a variety of gourmet hors d'oeuvres and desserts, complete with sommelier hand-selected cocktails featuring spirits from the St. Petersburg Distillery.

When I learned Chef Gideon worked on the Caribbean island of Nevis for two years, I knew the hors d'oeuvres would be out of this world and I was right. Chef Gideon drew upon his experience to incorporate the spicy and sweet flavors of the Caribbean into the chef driven menu. This month's menu includes Coconut Shrimp Tempura in Mini Sweet Bell Peppers, Conch Fritters with a Calypso Dipping Sauce, Callaloo Lamb Stew in Espresso Cup, Jerk Pork Tostadas with Mango Chutney, Tropical Lobster Salad Tostones, Jamaican Beef Dumpling and a huge selection of Caribbean inspired desserts and pastries. 

Planning the chef-driven menu is no easy task. "I always have a lot of ideas, we taste the spirits and plan the menu to complement them. We brainstorm and pass ideas back and forth until we create the perfect tasting menu" said Chef Gideon.  "This month we incorporated flavors of the islands like pineapple, coconut and banana to complement the spirits" said Gideon.

It takes precision and a lot of patience to take what's essentially an entree and work it down into one perfect, elegant bite. Chef Gideon and his team accomplish this with perfection each and every week.  Back in the kitchen, it's common to see the chefs using tweezers to add the individual elements that makes each bite both elegant and delicious.  

Whenever the islands call my name, one of the first things on my plate are conch fritters. I love them but am not always a fan of the chewiness of the conch. Chef Gideon solves this problem with a little trick he learned in the islands to maximize the flavor without the chew. The tender conch fritters were perfectly fried and accompanied by a delicious homemade peach calypso sauce. The peach sweetens the heat to deliver the ideal balance between spicy and sweet. I also loved how they were served, the perfect bite presented on a spoon. 

Nothing says the islands like lobster and the Tropical Lobster Salad Tostones were also a big hit!  The plantains are mashed and made into a little crisp "plate" for the perfectly seasoned lobster salad. 

Memories of the islands filled my head when I tasted the Jerk Pork Tostadas with Mango Chutney.  The pork is marinated in a wet jerk rub and cooked low and slow until it falls apart. Chef Gideon uses raisins to incorporate a little sweet into the jerk heat and finishes it off with a delicious homemade mango chutney.

Of course, Chef Gideon doesn't forget dessert!  He partners with Pastry chef and former winner of Food Network’s Sweet Genius, Chef Alon Gontowski to prepare a gorgeous selection of Caribbean-inspird desserts.  Choices include Rum Panna Cotta with Lime Gelee, White Chocolate Mousse Bombe, Chocolate Rum Pot De Creme, Pina-colada Cake, Caramel Banana Napoleon and Salted Caramel Cashew Tarts.

With desserts this delicious, it's hard to pick a favorite. For me, it was a tie between the Caramel Banana Napoleon and the Salted Caramel Cashew Tarts. Layers of crisp phyllo dough in the Napoleon were drizzled with caramel and topped with a banana pastry cream and crystallized ginger shards.  Chef Alon incorporates a a five spice mix into the Tarts and tops them with cashews and a sweet glaze for the perfect balance of salty and sweet. 

Nothing says the islands like rum and this month Chef Gideon designed the hors d'oeuvres to complement a selection of cocktails prepared with spirits from St. Petersburg Distillery.  Launched in May 2015, St. Petersburg Distillery creates high-quality, small-batch spirits which combine the expertise of generations with the artisan spirit of St. Pete. Using copper pot stills, they offer a unique line of spirits including Righteous Rum & Spice, Tropical Gin, Sweet Corn Whiskey, Tippler's Orange Liqueur, Oak & Palm Spiced Rum and Oak & Palm Coconut Rum. 

The cocktails on my visit included the "Drawn and Quartered", a take on the classic mojito and the "Pirate's Mule", St. Petersburg Distillery's version of a Moscow Mule.  The Drawn and Quartered, made with St. Petersburg Distillery's fabulous Oak & Palm Coconut Rum, had a rich coconut flavor with a slight hint of vanilla. Mixed with lime, soda and fresh mint, I'm not sure I'll be able to drink a traditional mojito again. The Oak & Palm Coconut Rum is also delicious neat. 

The Pirate's Mule, made with Oak & Palm Spiced Rum, had strong hints of vanilla, nutmeg, honey and baking spices.  Mixed with a little Angostura bitter and Ginger Beer, this was my favorite cocktail of the evening. 

This Caribbean Taste Experience is surely one you don't want to miss! Catch it while you can, every Thursday in January from 6-8 pm in the High Limit Slot Room at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa.