A different side of Orlando

Featured in Taste & Travel, Winter 2015.


Explore the headwaters of the Everglades.

When people think of Orlando, they tend to think crowds, Disney, gaggling children, long lines and overcrowded theme parks where not-so-healthy food is consumed on the run. What they don’t necessarily think of are the gastronomic offerings of this Central Florida city. But with 5,300 restaurants in Orlando, the city is fast emerging as a culinary destination. Here you can dine high-brow or low-key casual. With Orlando’s bourgeoning farm-to-table movement, its growth of independent restaurants and more and more locally and organically sourced ingredients, many celebrity chefs are emerging.

In fact, the Orlando area garnered more nominations among the 2014 James Beard Foundation Restaurant and Chef Award semifinalists than anywhere else in Florida. Nominees included Hari Palupaka of Cress Restaurant; James and Julie Petrakis of The Ravenous Pig and Cask & Larder; and Henry Salgado of Spanish River Grill and Txokos Basque Kitchen in Orlando’s East End Market, where the event was held.

The East End Market is essentially a permanent farmers’ market and cultural hub showcasing some of Central Florida’s best chefs, food entrepreneurs, tradespeople and artists, with a strong focus on sustainability. As well as Txokos, the two-storey building showcases the wares of a dozen merchants — selling everything from cheese to fresh bread and local beers. They also offer weekly classes in cooking and gardening on its second floor, with a demonstration and an incubator kitchen for vendors to use.

Other great restaurants in the city include K Restaurant and Wine Bar, where chef/owner Kevin Fonzo uses local ingredients from his organic garden out back.

Other celebrity chefs are also to be found in the finer hotels in the city. So cast aside your reservations about hotel dining.

On a recent family trip to Orlando and neighbouring Kissimmee, we made the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes and neighbouring JW Marriot Orlando Grande Lakes our home for several days. Grande Lakes Orlando is an impressive property. Set on 500 acres, it overlooks a beautiful lake, an 18-hole golf course and hidden beyond a thick forest of cypress trees, Shingle Creek, where kayakers, paddleboarders and fishermen can explore the headwaters of the Everglades in their own private space.

On our first night, we ate at celebrity chef Norman Van Aken’s elegant Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton. Van Aken is ‘the founding father of New World cuisine’ who seamlessly fuses Latin, Caribbean and Asian cuisine with a classically European technique. Van Aken is known internationally for introducing the concept of fusion, which he describes as “taking a classical concept and welding it to cuisines more noted for their regional character.” He’s been nominated as a finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Restaurant in America, and has been described as ‘the Walt Whitman of American cuisine.’

The restaurant is brightly lit in an octagonal room with a high ceiling and tall majestic windows overlooking the lake, white table cloths and solicitous waiters. For dinner, we start off with sweet and tangy fried green tomatoes cooked in a tempura batter, with a spicy escabeche mayo and queso fresco. We also have a delicious Key West shrimp ceviche offered up with a touch of tequila and avocado purée. We then move on to our first plates, following our server’s recommendations to have the yuca-stuffed crispy shrimp and a house specialty, ‘My Down Island French Toast,’ — foie gras served with brioche French toast and savoury passionfruit caramel. Certainly, it’s the most innovative dish on the menu, but very sweet. For mains, we share yellowtail snapper, pan seared with garlic mashed potatoes and tru¦e oil, which has been on the menu since Norman’s opened 10 years ago. We also have Pork ‘Havana,’ Van Aken’s take on a traditional roasted pork leg in sour orange marinade, but using pork tenderloin and serving it with other regional treats, such as stone-ground Haitian grits and a classic mole poblano. For dessert, the richness of the ‘Havana’ Banana Split with rumsautéed bananas is perfectly offset with key lime cheesecake.

At nine the next morning, and on his day off, the charming executive chef at JW Marriott Orlando, Chris Brown, picks us up from the Ritz lobby and takes us in the hotel’s Cadillac Escalade to a 7,000-square-foot fruit and vegetable garden. This is actually an Audubon sanctuary, and the site of Whisper Creek Farm and an event space used by the resort.

It’s a peaceful clearing just off the golf course, with a wooden fence to prevent animals from eating the produce. “We sometimes see deer — there’s a bunny right there,” he says pointing, both for my benefit and my kids’, who are also playing journalist for the day, with pen, notebook and camera in hand.

The idea for an on-site farm first was conceived a few years ago. “Back in 2011, we participated in a farm-to-fork event several miles away,” he explains. “We wanted to be able to offer this experience to our guests on a regular basis, but we needed something closer, since there are no farms within a half hour of the property.”Argentinian grill at Whisper Creek Farm. Photographer Amy Mikler.Guests can go on a tour of the farm every Saturday, and — come this spring — Whisper Creek Kitchen will open off the JW Marriott’s main lobby, using many of the farm’s products, and craft beer brewed on-site by Brown, who is a Certified Cicerone. Another restaurant, Highball & Harvest, opened last fall at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, offering crafted cocktails and southern-inspired cuisine with ingredients from the farm. The produce — everything from 18 varieties of citrus to squash, plantains, zucchini flowers and Surinam cherries — is already used in the resort’s restaurants. Argentinian grills and four smokers are used on the farm to cook pork, chicken and other meat for family-style dining at a chef’s table that sits under the shelter of an oak tree, as well as ‘Feast of the Fire’ events for up to 400 people.

A small bat box on top of an 18-foot wooden pole next to the garden can accommodate 600 bats, with each bat able to eat 4,000 bugs in an hour, so it’s a good protection for the harvest — not to mention the guests. There are also beehives a way’s away from the site, in what looks like a stack of white drawers. The honey used in a variety of ways, including spa treatments and for a honey citrus pale ale, one of two regular house beers, the second featuring pumpkin in the fall.

Primo restauarnt

Primo restaurant.

Chef Melissa Kelly from Primo restaurantThat night we try Primo, the two time James Beard Awardwinning chef Melissa Kelly’s contemporary Italian restaurant that Brown oversees. Although Kelly also has two other restaurants, one in an old farmhouse in Rockland, Maine and the other in Tucson, Arizona — all three named Primo after her grandfather, this is the first I have visited. We are hardly disappointed. The meal is sublime. Kelly’s Farmer Salad is the best salad I’ve ever eaten, the bread for its crispy croutons made from a 22-year-old sourdough starter, with house-cured bacon lardons and a poached egg on top. Her brisket is charred to a sugary sweetness. The ricotta cavatelli (lovingly hand-rolled that afternoon) with rabbit and Brussels sprouts is mouthwateringly delicious. A main of scallops in a sweet garlic crema glaze on a bed of corn is perfectly cooked. The sautéed scallopine of pork saltimbocca — although a signature dish and still delicious — did not have the complexity of Kelly’s other dishes.

Chef's table at Whisper Creek Farm.

Chef’s table at Whisper Creek Farm

For dessert, we sample house-made cannoli with amarena cherries and zeppole — warm, freshly cooked doughnuts — along with a selection of gelatos — espresso, salted sesame, avocado to name just a few flavours. It was a meal that we can’t easily forget.

A different side of Orlando

A different side of Orlando

Taste & Travel, Winter 2015