A Sea Change

Sea Island, the luxury resort that has been a second home to generations of well-heeled Georgians, is completing its metamorphosis. Unlike Shakespeare’s “sea change, into something rich and strange,” Sea Island’s transfiguration is rich, but also comfortingly familiar.

Despite the economy, diners from as far away as Jacksonville, Savannah and even Atlanta are driving to Sea Island to experience one of the region’s most highly rated restaurants – one that is both new and as firmly rooted in the storied coastal retreat’s traditions as its evening bagpiper.

“We are very pleased to have seen a recent uptick in Georgian Room reservations made by nonresort guests and club members,” says Bill Jones III, chairman and chief executive officer of the Sea Island Company. He’s hopeful that it’s just the beginning of the state’s commercial reawakening: “Regional and national businesses are re-engaging with us to book space for the coming year,” he says, describing the trend as “very encouraging as we look into 2010 and beyond.”

In 1998, Jones, grandson of the elegant seaside complex’s co-founder, launched a massive construction project, overhauling the golf courses, adding the Lodge and renovating Sea Island’s most beloved icons, including the historic Cloister hotel. Not only did the original 1920s “temporary” structure, designed by Addison Mizner, undergo a careful re-imagining, but its new and most upscale restaurant, the Georgian Room, also reflected a transformation of focus.

This year, under Chef Daniel Zeal, the restaurant won its second consecutive Mobil five-star award – not bad considering the Georgian Room opened in 2006. (Most other construction was finished in 2007.) It is one of just two dining establishments in the state to win that prestigious honor. The other, the Buckhead Ritz-Carlton’s celebrated Dining Room, was scheduled to close Oct. 1.

Sea Island’s Lodge also holds a five-star hotel rating, and this year, both the Cloister hotel and the new multimillion-dollar spa won the coveted five-star plaque as well.

Just as Jones’s new plan faithfully rebuilt the Cloister’s cherished old Spanish Lounge, the new Georgian Room’s chefs carefully preserved the spirit of what was in 2006 “an old Southern estate with an older dining technique, with Dover sole and chateaubriand on the menu,” says Zeal, who was hired by former chef Scott Crawford to help open the restaurant. Crawford (now at the Umstead Hotel near Raleigh, NC) was the first chef to bring a five-star award to the Georgian Room.

Change comes slowly to a place like Sea Island, which for many years included an “American Plan” dining option, including all meals. Its most popular and ambitious restaurant was the Lodge’s Colt & Alison, a clubby steakroom named for the resort’s golf course designers. But Crawford and Zeal, despite some initial pushback from the clientele, worked to bring the restaurant into the 21st century, introducing an elegant, sophisticated Southern palate to the lush French regency dining room. Attention was quickly paid: In 2006, Esquire’s John Mariani named the place one of the country’s best new restaurants.

Other subtle adjustments were made: The Georgian Room is now officially open to the public, “something that was done unofficially for a long time,” says Zeal, despite previous rules limiting reservations to Sea Island guests and club members. The tradeoff made sense: “Mobil doesn’t rate private resorts,” he says.

In addition, the kitchen so large it’s nicknamed “The Acre,” now also hosts a chef’s table, where guests enjoy a nine-course tasting, with matching wines, for $275 per person. However, in the main dining room, Zeal banished the three- and four-course prix fixe in favor of a la carte selections. “We wanted people to be able to order exactly what they really wanted, rather than what they thought was the best value,” he says. “Before, no one would order poussin [tender young chicken] – now they do.”

What was perhaps even more remarkable was the focus on Southern ingredients. Zeal developed strong ties with local providers such as Thomasville’s Sweet Grass Dairy and Glynn County’s last large family farm, Sapelo Farms. The focus on eating locally has only made his food seem more global.

Though his innovative but accessible and balanced dishes often seem to have Asian inspirations, their genesis is often closer to home. In fact, when Zeal visited Napa Valley’s famed French Laundry, which many believe is the country’s best restaurant, he says he found himself missing something. “Everything was wonderful, of course, but it was all so rich, so heavy,” he says. “After a while my palate started getting bored. I missed the Southern flavor profile – our citrus, the sweetness, the spice.”

The Georgian Room

Sea Island


Reservations required: 800-732-4752, ext 4347.

Jacket and collared shirt (but no tie required) for men (“and young men over 12”); women will want to wear their smartest cocktail dress and sparkliest baubles.

Categories: Art of the Meal