Destination Dining Arrives in Hilton Head Island at the Sonesta Resort.

Soft-shell shrimp tacos
Sonesta Executive Chef Nelly Buleje with his favorite catch - grouper fresh from local waters.

Sonesta Executive Chef Nelly Buleje with his favorite catch – grouper fresh from local waters.

There’s been some major revamping and refreshing going on in Hilton Head Island and recently I was invited to check out the truly vibrant transformation at the Sonesta Resort, specifically it’s dining. About $30 million has been invested in this property within the past couple of years and it shows. I am happy to report that this investment has resulted in this formerly well-worn (and well-loved!) property now shining like a new penny, resplendent in the perfectly modern lift that its oceanfront locale deserves.

Newly refreshed and refined, visitors to the updated dining outlets here can expect to find a contemporary yet classic coastal theme sporting soft natural touches in hues of flax and linen plus pops of color in what best be described as a ‘mood lifting’ orange. It simply makes you happy!

And, at the helm of the Resort’s tantalizing menu, is Executive Chef Dernier ‘Nelly’ Buleje serving up a menu highlighting fresh, local seafood and products with a Lowcountry twist. The five eateries here embrace Sonesta’s ‘Food is Art’ philosophy and that, along Chef Nelly’s energy (he’s just 29 years old!) and passion for fusion cuisine, combine for a fantastic foodie destination experience! Throw in the Island’s proximity to some of best seafood and shellfish in the world, the Sonesta’s beautifully relaxing ambiance, and it sounds like a good time to me!

That grouper could be served in Heyward's most popular entree, Gulf Coast Grouper! An ample portion of fresh grouper glistens under a lobster butter glaze and is served with black eyed peas, applewood-smoked bacon and fresh tomato vinaigrette. If a rainbow had taste this would it - buttery, and rich with a slight sweet-n-salty finish from the bacon and tomatoes... delicious!

That grouper could be served in Heyward’s most popular entree, Gulf Coast Grouper! An ample portion of fresh grouper glistens under a lobster butter glaze and is served with black eyed peas, applewood-smoked bacon and fresh tomato vinaigrette. If a rainbow had taste this would it – buttery and rich with a slight sweet-n-salty finish from the bacon and tomatoes… delicious!

For visitors who have never been to the Island or this particular resort before, it will be a happy surprise that ‘hotel food’ can be this awesome and for those (visitors and locals) who thought they knew this property, there will be an epiphany found in every bite. From the Gulf Coast Grouper, glistening in a lobster butter glaze and served with black eyed peas, applewood-smoked bacon and fresh tomato vinaigrette to the Seared Tuna Reuben with its perfectly pink Ahi tuna, mustard remoulade and fabulously crunchy citrus coleslaw on tasty, toasted rye bread, foodies will find the menus varied and off-the-boat fresh.

“Our goal is to offer the best here at the Sonesta, and to me that means sourcing locally,” Chef Nelly explained, “In the South, we have a wealth of natural resources working in our favor, from the extended growing season to the unique products indicative to the local Lowcountry cuisine. We are always on the lookout for local sources and products – we utilize a ‘fresh sheet’ to determine the absolute best ingredients for that particular day.”

The Tuna Reuban layered on a bed of crunchy citrus coleslaw on tasty rye, served with crispy fries and Chef's excellent homemade pickles.

The Tuna Reuban layered on a bed of crunchy citrus coleslaw on tasty rye, served with crispy fries and Chef’s excellent homemade pickles.

Chef Nelly patrons several local purveyors and farmers, giving guests a true ‘ocean to table’ experience. “For example, our shrimp and grits are made with Geechie Boy Grits milled just up the way on Edisto Island. There is no comparison between this product and ‘regular’ off the shelf grits – local and stone ground is the only way I make grits!” he adds.

Located in the pristine and protected Ace Basin at the edge of Beaufort County, St. Jude Farms provides all the local clams, oysters and mussels for the Sonesta as well as much of the shrimp, crab and fish. Chef Nelly also frequents the Bluffton Famers Market looking for that extra special local ingredient, one that will perfectly compliment a specific entrée, app or dessert.

“We want to beak clichés and separate ourselves from the stereotypical hotel restaurant. Even if a source can only provide a small amount of a particular product – like a certain fish for instance, that is okay. I am still interested in that product and patron that source because quality outshines everything else,“ Chef Nelly says.

This mid-western Chicago boy has learned a lot in his year here in Hilton Head Island about the local cuisine and that includes seafood, of course. He’s developed relationships with area chefs, developing a network of culinary professionals to share ideas and learn about new sources. With his chef-friends from local restaurants like Vine/843, The Porch Southern Kitchen & Bar and Lucky Rooster Kitchen+Bar (with whom he is planning reciprocal wine dinners) Chef Nelly is well on his way to ‘bustin those clichés and elevating everyone’s dining experience.

Props to Sonesta for incorporating the cool indoor/outdoor seating at the Seacrest Terrace & Patio! With the large garage-type doors, corner fireplace and fresh, comfortable seating this space whispers 'relax and have a good time' to me! Now, where's that mojito?

Props to Sonesta for incorporating the cool indoor/outdoor seating at the Seacrest Terrace & Patio! With the large garage-type doors, corner fireplace and fresh, comfortable seating this space whispers ‘relax and have a good time’ to me! Now, where’s that mojito?

I was also thrilled to learn that Chef Nelly and his team make their own pickles! They pickle all kinds of produce like cauliflower, beet, okra and yes, cucumbers (for sweet pickles, don’t you know). This is something that one doesn’t find happening in most hotel kitchens. Chef Nelly has also started a small kitchen garden and hopes to grow it (get it?) larger – it has sage, dill, rosemary, basil and mint – the integral ingredient in their popular sugar cane blood orange mojito. Isn’t it fun AND reassuring to know that the mint in my cocktail was grown on property!

Sonesta Food and Beverage Director Robert Fedorko (he’s also a professional chef and Chef Nelly’s mentor) added that the Sonesta team is committed to elevating the hotel food scene here in Hilton Head Island. “Our eateries are destination restaurants and we welcome locals to share in what visitors and foodies are already discovering – innovative menus with locally-infused flavor are right here in their neighborhood. Feel like you’re on vacation when you walk through the door AND try some of the best food on the Island” he says.

Before I close on this post, I must also comment on the great vibe found at this property… the furnishings are contemporary yet emit a cool, casual vibe sans a smidgen of hipster angst. The upscale Heywards Restaurant is quiet and cozy – even romantic ­– perfect for a business dinner or anniversary celebration. Adjacent is the Seacrest Terrace and Patio, with a big punch of breezy coastal chic including two large metal garage doors opening onto the ample pool-side terrace and a sleek gas-lit fireplace that anchoring a corner wall. Pretty cushioned chairs and sofas line the terrace and catch the ocean breeze; posh yet comfortable. Deciding where to sit for an evening cocktail is a difficult decision of the best kind – just like deciding what to order from the small plate and ‘share’ menus. But hey ya’ll, the great news is that here all outcomes are win-win!

Sonesta Resort Hilton Head Island

130 Shipyard Drive

Hilton Head Island, SC

Restaurant Reservations & Information: 843.842.2400

sonesta.com

Heyward's Restaurant is cool and sophisticated, yet echos the casual, coastal theme prevalent in the Resort's renovation. Chef Nelly's menu keeps this vibe on task with his creative interpretation of guest favorites and seasonal inspirations - served with a sometimes surprising and always imaginative Lowcountry twist.

Heyward’s Restaurant is cool and sophisticated, yet echos the casual, coastal theme prevalent in the Resort’s renovation. Chef Nelly’s menu keeps this vibe on task with his creative interpretation of guest favorites and seasonal inspirations – served with a sometimes surprising and always imaginative Lowcountry twist.

Heyward’s Restaurant (upscale dining with an artisan flare); Open for breakfast, dinner and Sunday brunch

Seacrest Terrace & Patio (casually chic, covered and open-air dining); Open for lunch and evening cocktails with delectable ‘small plate’ menu

Bayley’s Bar and Terrace (lobby); Coffee bar in the morning with cocktails starting at 4 pm

Sweet Cane Bar and Grill (poolside); Open daily on a seasonal basis