Buttermilk Bakery – Orlando, FL

It’s taken us over a year to try these off the wall, idiosyncratic or dare I say Craftsmen and Wolves-esque lineup of croissants, tarts, cakes, pies, financiers, cookies, and kouign ammans. As a self profressed food lover, it’s a travesty that I’ve waited so long. 

buttermilkbakeryI’m comfortable in my critiquing abilities and knowledge of the greater Orlando area, and so I it seems natural to see Buttermilk Bakery, aka I love Buttermilk as arguably the finest patisserie in Orlando. You can’t browse any of the reputable, nay popular blogger community figureheads without seeing top down shots of what I would consider their flagship flavor: The double baked matcha croissant. Of course, I followed suit, the lamb that I am. But let’s get serious. How many bakers in the area are performing at this level?  With a scope ranging from caramel cornflake crunch croissants to roasted sunchoke goat cheese & herb quiche, and about 100 other equally innovative creations, the answer is roughly 3-4. How many bakers in this area can actually deliver a quality product? I’m going to hold firm with 3-ish. We tried two items on our visit. The aforementioned double baked matcha croissant and a slow roasted strawberry pop tart for the kid.

Why the confidence in Buttermilk Bakery after just one first trip? They’re already firmly established pillars of the community. I mean, if they sucked, I’d have heard about it by now. So what I’m tasting on my first trip cant be a fluke. What I’ve been waiting a year to try has long been warmly accepted by the masses.

matchacroissantEven though I have strong ties to my dear friends (and partners to some extent) at Born + Bread Bakehouse  here in Lakeland, I was reminded by a t-shirt I saw at Urban Canning Co. stating, it’s about “community not competition.” It’s ok to show love to people doing great stuff similar to what you or your loved ones do. We can all learn from, and respect each other’s qualities and be better for it. Even though Buttermilk Bakery ain’t my kin, I still love what they’re providing to the people of Orlando and hope said people continue to sustain these craftsmen so that I can make a repeat visit on April 11, 2017.

The croissant was simply obese, the flaky crust moist with butter. Generously stuffed full and adorned with delicate, matcha tinged frangipane. The pop tart shell was akin to pie crust, flaking as easily as Talia Al Ghul in the Dark Knight Rises. The strawberry filling was extraordinary from the slow roasting which concentrated the berry to a paste. It was close to overwhelming how much strawberry came through, as they don’t skimp on anything.

To understand how highly I view Buttermilk Bakery, take note of my day. I went to Anh Hong, a staple in the Viet-centric neighborhood on Colonial Drive in Orlando for a delicious lunch with the family. This was followed by a trip to the bowling alley closer toward the attractions where my 7 year old son rolled a 92 on his first game ever. The intent was to quickly head back east after bowling around 4:30 pm to arrive at the Audubon Park Market right at 5 pm. Traffic dictated that I would arrive at 6 pm. The drive home normally from Winter Park area is 52 minutes. Traffic decided that 52 minutes wasn’t long enough. Traffic was thinking more like 1 hour 30 minutes. In conclusion, If you find yourself en-route to or from great pastry, your body will forgive 98 extra minutes on I-4.

 

Chuan Lu Garden – Orlando, FL

Sometimes you self-advocate to an actuality which causes a questioning in your ability to tell good from great. There are far too few noodle shops in Central Florida. No debate there. Yet, there are fewer still who actually offer homemade versions of their namesake, and few do it at high levels of expertise. By few I mean one.

Chuan Lu Garden, a no frills, microscopic jewel, is perched directly at center stage of Orlando’s Asian food version of Main st. I had to ask myself, “Is it great on its own merits or is it great to me because there’s no other Northern Chinese noodle show in town?” Well, let’s look at the facts. They insist on making all of their hand pulled noodles in the back, just through the swinging doors leading to a furiously busy kitchen. This review may be short, but it doesn’t take long to highlight the value of a handmade product. I ordered just two things, hardly enough to form a complete picture of a restaurant in most cases. However, based on the high levels of craft found in each of these items, I feel confident enough to give it our stamp of approval. If you’re wondering how to tell if something is made by man or machine, I have an easy test. Look for imperfections. If you receive an order of six dumplings, and no two look the same, (except maybe at Din Tai Fung) you’re in good hands. If your siu mai are identical, you’ve got knockoff purses on your hands. Dumplings are like snowflakes. No two are alike.

Chuan Lu spread 1

As for the noodles, not only are they made in-house, they’re perfectly tender with just enough bounce, due to the reaction of sodium bicarbonate and flour. I ordered my noodles as one should in a place that specializes in Northern Chinese and Szechuan provincial delights; fermented black bean sauce mixed with minced pork, scallion, cilantro and cucumber. In most places you’ll find it called Zhajiangmian. It’s difficult for mt heart to praise a place so highly when I can literally look out the front window of Chuan Lu Garden and see the building that houses Ming’s Bistro, my favorite Chinese restaurant in Orlando. The good news is that these two don’t really compete head to head. Northern Chinese cuisine has very specific characteristics, stemming largely from the climate. This food was made to warm up your insides during the harsh winter. Luckily it has the added benefit of obliterating my debilitating pollen induced head congestion.

Chuan Lu spread 2

This proved to be the case in my second visit when I insisted we re-order the Zhajiangmian so my compadres could sample the springy noodles. We also asked our waitress for her favorite dish on the menu. After a little coaxing she graciously admitted her preference for cumin lamb, strips of tender lamb shoulder, wok seared with onions, leeks, lemongrass and a generous handful of chilies. The most powerful flavor was the potent Szechuan peppercorn. These berries aren’t used in many other cuisines that I’ve seen. They’re flavor is aggressive, asserting itself above all others the second it hits each of you 10 thousand or flavor rescepticles. The peppercorns cause a strange buzzing sensation in the mouth. They aren’t spicy hot per se. No, instead they enhanced the rest of the dish with the most welcome strangeness. The other dish that must be noted on the second visit was a different kind of dumpling called steamed juicy pork bun. They remind me of a cross between a soup dumpling and baked pork buns, with a layer of crispy crepe batter circulating on the bottom. Its the only place I’ve ever had them so they are a must!

Chuan Lu spread 3

Amidst the many quality restaurants in this area of Orlando, it can be a chore to stand out. I’ve seen so many good enough type restaurants in this corridor fold because they just weren’t good enough to cut the tight battle raging on Mills and Colonial. Chuan Lu Garden offers something truly special and easily warrants return visits. At the very least it should make it on your list for a multicultural Colonial Drive food crawl!

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Eat a Duck Weekly Recap #6

It’s shaping up to be quite the epic contest of Noodle Wars 2015 between James and myself. While I have gotten more strict with my eating habits, there’s no chance I will ever deny myself the joy of eating great Vietnamese food. I may have temporarily dislocated pork shoulder from my daily intake, but that isn’t stopping me from enjoying the extensive menu over at Pho Cali in Sarasota. I opted for a bowl of lemongrass beef bun, with spicy chile and onions. It almost made me forget my fatty pork patties. Jimmy more than made up for my pork omissions. We both have a deep yearning to find that next great menu item that’s possibly hiding on the back page. In this case, it was Ha Noi noodles with pickled green papaya, grilled pork and pork meatballs. What a refreshing feeling it is for each of us to have a place in our respective towns with such high flavor and quality. It’s been a long time coming.

Speaking of a long time coming, a wood fired pizza insurgence is under way. Have you joined the republic? We are feverishly composing our thoughts on Polpo Pizza Co. to express our love for what they are producing. I know there are a lot of pizza people out there. You owe it to yourself to plan a nice beach day in the Sarasota area, with special attention paid to procuring a pizza pie produced particularly by Polpo at the precise period and place Polpo pre-determines to park.

Moving on, we found that going back to our well of old favorites resulted in great rewards. I haven’t been back to Beewon Korean restaurant in almost five years until last week. I found an old picture of my son noshing at the table back then. Poor guy didn’t even have a hair on his head. But he sure was happy taking on their bulgogi beef. While the sure things (Mahans & Oxford Exchange) triumphed, the new stumbled. Deciding after many contemplative passing glances at their storefront on Colonial Dr. in Orlando, I gave Mamak Asian Street Food a shot. While their rendition of Char Kway Teow (a wide rice noodle dish similar to chow fun) impressed, the beef curry meatballs left me wincing with confusion. The curry sauce itself tasted fine, yet the meatballs seemed like they were purchased at IKEA. Truthfully, I guess I should say that I quite enjoy their meatballs. But I expect them to stay at IKEA, in a pool of brown gravy, garnished with Lingonberry compote and not curiously found in an Asian hawker style restaurant. I cant say for a fact they bought them elsewhere or made them by hand, shaped to extremely perfect proportions. They were just very, very familiar to me.  I say maybe give Mamak a shot, but not before going to every single other jaw dropping place in a two block radius. With big guns like Ming’s Bistro, Anh Hong, Little Saigon, and Chuan Lu Garden, Mamak has a lot of competition. It’s by far the prettiest space on the block. So if they can get the entire menu hitting on all fronts, look out!

Finally, we finish at home. We try to eat what’s in season and tastes best, wherever we live. In Florida, we’re seeing a burst of peaches on the scene. They’re mainly smaller and thinner skinned than their relatives that hail from Georgia in my opinion, which results in a more concentrated flavor. We found some gems at Sweetwater Farms yet again. Large heads of broccoli, Japanese eggplant, and a slab of grass-fed sirloin from Providence Cattle proved to make a wonderful version of a New York style Chinese take out favorite; Beef and Broccoli. Another Stone Crab season has come to an end. I got my last chance to enjoy my favorite claw based foods. For one day last week, Whole Foods had them on special at their beer bar for 2$ a claw, so I took advantage of the situation. When you see that kind of deal, never pass it up! We’ll see you next week!

EAD Weekly #6

EAD Weekly Recap No. 3

As one of Eat a Duck’s main contributors celebrated an anniversary this week, there was cause for much rejoicing. The vacation got started at Tia’s, to sample what was voted 2015’s Best Cuban Sandwich in the Universe. I don’t think it stacked up to the best of the best in our #Apuercolypse competition, but it was a valiant effort with great roast pork and extra buttery, pressed La Segunda bread. Everything else inside didn’t seem to receive as much attention as far as detailed flavor profiles or “homemadeness” is concerned.

For the most part, we visited some great old favorites in Orlando in Siro’s and Little Saigon, as well as some Tampa joints with Chocolate Pi, Fodder & Shine, Pinky’s, Squeeze and Jet City Espresso. Then we ended our trip where I’m typing, with family, eating great food at home. This week spanned a pretty large radius. Time to get out there and go eat!

EAD Weekly spread #3

Orlando Food Crawl 2014: Part II

ead-orlando-food-crawl-2014 2.0

We arrived early at East End Market just in time for Sangria Hour over at the adjoining Txokos. While most of the crew had to cure their shakes, I set out to explore the market while waiting for a couple of chumpy stragglers to vacate our spot at Kappo. Not that any of us are big tymers like Bird Man or Mannie Fresh, but we “still fresh” and because of that, reserved the entire restaurant…all eight seats. (For an introduction to Kappo, see our review)

For those who don’t know, East End Market is a food-centric co-op/incubator for small upstarts. The owner has provided a handful of spaces for small business owners to develop and demonstrate their concepts. It’s been a proven success as pretty much every booth is always buzzing with shoppers. I decided to do another mini cleanse with a small glass of lemongrass, starfruit Kombucha from Joybird Juicery.

Out of all the places on the crawl, the crew was most looking forward to Kappo. All eight members of said crew are live free or die harder with a vengeance sushi connoisseurs. If you want to experience the experience we experienced, you need to set it up through their email process. I’ve had a nice back and forth with the reservations department coordinating this and previous visits with excellent results. They have hospitality down on all fronts in a dynamic way, from planning to meal execution.

Let me reiterate, if you’re looking for the girlfriend experience in a way that only food can provide, phrases such as, “money is no object”, “foie-forward”, “don’t hold back”, “bring the uni” and “its imperative you make it rain shaved truffles” need to be part of your conversation when you set up meal.

Just so we’re clear, you may or may not be able to have a meal in a similar scope to what we had. We ate omakase style. There are no menus. We have no say. The whole idea is to trust the chef. If you want to order off of their pretty incredible menu, I think your best bet is to go to the first come first served weekday hour where everything can be had a la carte. If you want a meal only a small group of people will ever have, do what we did. You’ll feel like Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones in the 1994 action thriller, “Blown Away.”

Starting with the first course, they were definitely “foie-forward” with a lavish preparation of cured duck liver torchon, hidden inside a caviar jar with dollop of beluga, and a small layer of preserved kumquat marmalade underneath to add some sweetness as well as acidity.

Kappo spread 1

And so began the debate of which course was best at Kappo. It would be hard to top to the silky foie, except maybe with the most luxurious chawan mushi ever assembled. The custard, flavored with dashi, had a deep mahogany layer of truffle demi-glace that was so heavily reduced it approached life-threatening levels of pungency and earthiness. I almost started believing in umami. The custard itself was nice and wobbly, not too dense, which played perfectly with a couple of tongues of Atlantic uni that hovered gently over the truffle sauce. We assumed that the dish set in front of us was complete as is. We were dead wrong. The chef started walking around with a handful of whole black Alba winter truffles, shaving them with a microplane in the general direction of our bowls, without fear of consequence. This might have been the moment where my, “It’s imperative you make it rain shaved truffles” comment came into play. James wasted no time positioning himself to have truffles shorn straight into his mouth. Chef obliged with some paper-thin wafers as he pulled out the industrial strength slicer. I felt like Kurt Russell in the 1992 fire related action-thriller motion picture, when I was surprised to find truffles floating in my sake due to the “Backdraft”. Studying shaved truffles up close is such a beautiful and mesmerizing thing, like the most delicious Catacomb you could ever traverse. You should try it sometime.

The chefs kept the pace with a warm and cold sunomuno style salad with a heaping pile of cured salmon roe and marinated then seared scallop as the base. More uni fulfilled the request to “bring the uni”, this one coming from the Pacific. You could really tasty the subtle nuances between the different regions the sea urchins hail from. The Atlantic was more buttery, almost without that sense of coming from the sea at all, which did pair well with the custard. The Pacific was briny, with a stronger presence which worked just as well with in the sunomuno preparation. No salad would be complete without roughage. Chef placed a single nasturtium leaf coated in spritzing of kaffir lime essence. It reminded me of the way morning dew sticks to a flower just before sunrise.

The next dish was a fried enigma. What was this? One bite of the milky interior and I knew immediately. Milk poached sweetbreads fried in coarse panko crumbs for maximum texture. They were served with small heap of pickled julienned Asian pear, and a pungent nutta sauce of hot mustard, vinegar and blanched baby bok choy to create perfect harmony.

Kappo spread 2

Next was the sushi course. We were treated with a sampling of Artic char, flounder and waqyu strip loin, all topping the most succulent nubs of tranquil rice at just the right lukewarm temperature. I imagine if I ever got a chance to try out a 3 Michelin star sushi joint, the rice would be similar. The fish and beef weren’t ice cold and neither was the rice. I think serving cold sushi masks the true flavor, thankfully they were both at a more resting temperature. It goes to show that if you’re working with a superior product, you don’t need to put it into a cryogenic sleep to keep it fresh.  I can confirm  our resident “rice” guy Thai was spotted shedding tears of joy.

Yes, you can go to Kappo and only eat sushi, and I know that you’d go home praising yourself for the amazing decisions you’ve made. With that said, if you don’t allow the chef to breathe in a way that promotes creativity, you’ll miss out on a rare experience. The meal was inherently Japanese, as this is technically a Japanese food stall. Though, the influence of French, Korean, Italian and American for that matter, all played out seamlessly during the course of the meal.

Finally, as part of the chefs tasting we were served dessert. The chef handling pastry is a master. She keeps the flow of the meal intact by not killing the senses with overly sweet morsels, and she presents the final treats like a goodbye kiss. Not with a lame handshake, but with two kisses on each cheek. Starfruit paté de fruit, green tea mochi, pistachio and cocoa-matcha truffles were all delightful in their own unique way. Together they formed a Voltron bonbon.

It was time to say goodbye to the four chef team of Kappo to hit our last stop.

With our bellies distended, we saddled up to a hightop at the ever-loving Cask & Larder. Fullness never stops a true eater from ordering something that sounds tasty. Pogo eyed a scrumptious tamale with roasted goat, buttermilk curds, and pickled sweet peppers, while me and James couldn’t resist the lamb ribs, with a sticky BBQ sauce, smoked collard greens and quick B&B pickles. The rest of the table was not going to let us down.

Cask & Larder goat tamale

They pooled together what room they had left in their tummies and ordered an impressive tower from the raw bar. Rock shrimp scampi, roasted oysters with slivers of uni, oysters on the half with mignonette, steamed cherrystone clams with tostones and an aji amarillo aioli, and slabs of raw tuna coated with tahini, chiles, Asian pear and crispy maitake mushroom threads.

Cask & Larder spread

We had a round a victory drinks to mark another successful conquest, one of which happened to be the best gin and tonic in town. It’s always sad saying goodbye, but then again we’ve already begun plans for the next adventure, so that softened the blow. We all miss Todd, and while we’re glad he’s living his dream with his dreamgirl, it doesn’t diminish the fact that a big part of what made the Tampa food scene so lively, isn’t in Tampa anymore.  We miss him so much, we miss his scent. When this all gets sorted out, I think we should all get an apartment together. Til’ next time, old friend.

Orlando Food Crawl 2014: Part I

The triumphant return of an original  member of the Four Coursemen gave us an excuse to plan an all-out attack on the flourishing Orlando food scene. I don’t want to give him a Big Head Todd, but in all honestly, he was a true forerunner of social eating and food blogging in the Tampa area. He was the first person to really reach out and try to help us get our name out to a larger audience, without trying to buy our stomachs, and for that I give him 5 stars. So what can you do for a man who eats everything? Feed him.

I like to think we toured Orlando thoroughly the first time, especially since we were dining at the height of the city’s food revival. At that time, places such as East End Market, Cask & Larder and Pharmacy were in their infancy, still working out the kinks, but that didn’t stop them from serving up tasty food. For the most part, the main goal of our last trip was eating at places that none of the Tampa crew had tried.

ead-orlando-food-crawl-2014 2.0

I think of my two Orlando food crawls as Paul McCartney albums. The first one was like “Band on the Run”, a masterful effort from start to finish. Our most recent one was something of a greatest hits collection. I feel comfortable saying that they were “All the Best.”

What would be considered “The Lakeland crew” got a late start. I realize punctuality is important, especially when you’ve got half a dozen full service restaurants to visit. However by 10 AM, our bellies were beginning to grumble, so we swung by The Bread Pedlar for a morning bun to prepare our stomachs. It’s not our fault we happened across a random pincho stand raise up like a phoenix, setting fire to the sun. Or should I say, setting fire to our plans of making it on time to Highball & Harvest to meet the rest of the crew. The pincho pusher told me that it would take 2 minutes, which turned into 20. Finally, with a skewer of BBQ’d Chicken and a couple of Plátano Relleno con Carne hand pies in hand, we finally got out-of-town.

Meanwhile, at Highball & Harvest, Kurt, Todd and Thai wasted no time and began eating and drinking with gusto. The highly regarded “Chicken and the Egg,” a fantastic take on chicken & waffles with a sunny side up egg and house made hot sauce, didn’t survive long enough for us to sample. They also ordered “Pig-n-Potatoes”, which was their version of hash for a highly sophisticated southern gentleman. Instead of corned beef, braised pork cheeks were used.

Highball & Harvest spread 1

We were greeted with hisses for our tardiness which quickly morphed into warm greetings as everyone was just so happy to see each other again. There were a few scraps left of the hash we gobbled up like Oliver Twist scrounging about for another bowl of gruel. There were a couple of fantastic Parker House rolls left with a side of apple butter butter. You really must order them with any meal at H&H. The only way I can properly describe these rolls, would be to flash back to the days when we all used to go to buffets as youngsters and eat our weight in those awesome yeast rolls, which is pretty much the only redeeming quality of said establishments. The H&H rolls were like that, only x10 better.

As everyone got comfortable, another round of drinks were ordered by the boys as us late comers played catch up by ordering some food. Coming out of the kitchen first was a  Southern sampler spread, consisting of smoked fish dip, pickled root vegetables and pimento cheese with various crackers. Also ordered was a canister of fried pickles and onion strips with secret sauce. The smoked fish dip was great as were the pickles. We also got a single baby pork belly slider with BBQ kimchi from the bar menu to sample between six of us. The thing was no bigger than a silver dollar, but it managed to round the table twice as each of us attempted to take smaller and smaller bites so as not to be the glutton.

After we slowed on the sampler, our main plates arrived. I must have gone through burger withdrawal, as it had been nearly 2 weeks since #ApocalypseCow. James and I went with their burger, made with ground short rib topped with pimento cheese, smoky bacon, B&B Pickles and mustard. There was something eerily familiar and comforting to me; as if it were a burger I had from many years past.

Highball & Harvest spread 2

Pogo chose a beautiful bowl of red Canaveral shrimp and grits with a thinned out tomato based BBQ gravy. The rest of the boys shared a plate of chicken fried chicken with silky potato purée, sweet pickled green beans and watermelon rind. What a happy accident it was to try the shrimp and grits. For me it was the best plate of food we had at H&H, though we heard rumors that the chicken and waffles was in fact the best, we may never know. I don’t think any one of us expected to love this place as much as we did. I’m very excited to go back for more. Just make sure to validate your parking before you leave the hotel, because it’s pretty steep otherwise.

After some McLaren ogling, we headed to Winter Park, the center of our food crawl battleground. Of course this exercise was obviously first about eating good food. However, the more subtle theme of the day was reconnecting with friends. We took a slower, more relaxed approach and decided to trim off a couple of places we just simply did not have time for, which also gave us an excuse to hit Prato sooner. If you haven’t heard of Prato by now, you either: 1. Don’t like Italian food, or 2. Don’t know us. We’ve covered what I firmly consider the best Italian restaurant in state at length; with not one but two posts as well as the myriad Instagram photo bombs. At this juncture, we were joined by Theresa and Joel, a couple more Bay area peeps who really know their stuff.

Prato apps

Between the eight of us, we nearly ordered the entire menu. Not only did the waiter gift us some of their signature meatballs, but with eight people ordering, real estate on our table was at a premium. We have a rule that forbids the ordering of more than one dish at each place to avoid overfilling. That that rule quickly went out the window as multiple pasta courses were checked off by James and Kurt. If I had to guess, they had nearly half a dozen between them, and they weren’t the only ones. There was pizza covered with cured meats, fresh mozzarella, herbs and an over easy egg for dunking the crust into. Theresa pulled a rabbit out of her hat with her smokey, Italian style Reuben sandwich. Joel, who we found out is indeed a real person (long story), snuck in some soft stracciatella bathing in a pool of warm olive oil with perfectly placed droplets of aged balsamic. Spread that stuff over some crunchy bread and it will make you go crazy enough that your tongue will try to beat your brains out.

Prato spread

I kind of lost track of all the pasta we ate. Whatever they had, we ordered it. If you’re looking for the best pasta area, made in-house and by hand, Prato is the place for you. Just take a look at this rundown.

  1. Giant raviolo filled with soft ricotta and a yolk with parm and brown buttered bread crumbs
  2. Squid ink campanelle with New Smyrna Beach clams, Canaveral shrimp and roasted cherry tomatoes
  3. Cavatelli with beef cheek ragu, butternut squash, greens with a runny horseradish crema
  4. Beet ravioli stuffed with goat cheese then topped with crushed tomatoes, herbs and toasted pine nuts
  5. Chive bagli amatrciana dusted with buttery bread crumbs

Prato pasta

That tied up the first half of our crawl like a nice farfalle. Stay tuned for Part II, featuring the incomparable Kappo and the young gun, Cask & Larder!

Orlando Food Crawl 2014: A Tale of Five Seatings

A great deal of time has passed since this “crawl” took place, but if I failed to share the wonderful food and drink eaten along the way, I’d be snubbing those who made the trip and doing you, our loyal readers, a disservice. I managed to salvage photographic evidence of our journey from the insatiable maw that is my photo gallery. As I looked through them, it brought me back to that day, refreshing the memories like so many reconstituted matsutakes. It was the first time I met those who’d become the core of my Tampa food contingent. If this trip hadn’t happened, I may never have met the new anchors of Tasting Tampa, Kurt and Heidi Raschke or the Toro Titan of Tampa himself, Mr. Thai Vo.

EAD Orlando food crawl 2014

Just about every stop on this trip has been discussed in one way or another, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to say. We here at Eat a Duck try to steer ourselves towards the type of restaurants that have a revolving door policy when it comes to the menu. I like to order something different at every place, even if I have favorites, they’re never ordered on the following trip. We’ve talked about some of our food crawl etiquette in the Tampa edition a while back, but let me reiterate a few firm statutes of our process. There has to be a clear consensus within the group about which restaurants we’ll be patronizing. If one member disagrees we all disagree. The best decisions in life are made as a team. I mean, all the hobbits lived right? It’s because they went on the journey with a clear goal. It should be said, however, that even though Frodo doesn’t die, he was stabbed by the Nazgul at Weathertop, and by Shelob, suffering physical and mental scars. Never forget.

The other rule (more of a guideline really) is that no one orders more than one dish per stop. Furthermore, no matter how bad you want to try the mozzarella sticks and the chicky flappers; you must stick to the allotted single appetizer per location. If you cannot abide by these hard and fast rules, you’ll be subjected to discipline by the appointed appetizer adjudicator for a final ruling. That happens to be me. That doesn’t mean, you’re barred from ordering another dozen freshly shucked oysters if everyone has voted in the affirmative. Nevertheless, don’t forget to stage an informal vote before pulling a Jimmy and blurting out “another round of slipper lobsters!”. Remember, before any re-order, always recite the Eat a Duck food crawl anthem made famous by Reggie and the Full Effect, “F.O.O.D., food, food. G.O.O.D., Goooood, Goooood”.

Unfortunately, I was forced to work for the first leg of the trip. East End Market and Ravenous Pig started us off like any good story, at the furthest point, gradually leading us back to the start. In other words, for your food crawl planning to be successful, drive to the farthest spot first and work your way back to the place that’s closest to home. You’ll be grateful for that one, as you drive along the highway, struggling to breathe due to pork bloat.

I met up with the crew, Todd, Thai and Brittany, during the Saturday lunch rush at Prato, the entire restaurant was slammed with people. Keep in mind two key points about Prato:

1. Prato is so good we already wrote about them here.

2. Prato is so good we wrote a second piece about them here.

Prato spread

Fortunately, we were able to grab a table before the Winter Park elite arrived to demand our credentials. We dined on some marrow toast, mortadella hotdogs, a half order of house made pasta and a simple but elegant, wood-fired margherita pizza. I think we can agree we chose the perfect combination for a wonderfully dainty lunch? The next stop took us to the lounge in Hamilton’s Kitchen at the Alfond Inn. Since Prato is just a short walk away and the town has insufficient parking, we decided to hoof it and burn off some calories. Hey, if you’re going to eat so much that your caloric intake reaches five digits, every breath we take, every step we make, every move we make counts. This was more of a palate cleanser as the purpose was to enjoy a few well-prepared cocktails. We couldn’t resist ordering a basket of shoestring cheesy garlic frites from the bar.

Hamilton's Kitchen at the Alfond Inn spread

Moving on to Cask & Larder, probably the one restaurant we haven’t really covered that is most deserving. I wrote up a blurb for the Lakelander magazine if that counts. Either way, it bears repeating, they need more attention from us. This was the one place where our scheduling failed a bit. They open the bar at 4 pm which was fine, but they offer a very limited menu until 5 pm when the dining room opens. At the bar they offer oysters and boiled peanuts, as well as chicken liver and ham biscuits. At 5 pm, it’s no holds barred starring Hulk Hogan. Rated R for strongly suggestive oyster aphrodisia.

Cask & Larder spread

At this time, we had to say goodbye to Brittany, an original member of the caravan, only to welcome the Raschkes, a couple of true food lovers from Tampa. They were already waiting for us at Pharmacy, a secretive restaurant and speakeasy type place that you’ll never ever find without a bunch of help. On my GPS it gives the address. Fair enough. Should have been easy to find right? Wrong. As I parked, the location is supposed to be within the confines of an upscale shopping area, considered Orlando’s restaurant row. It’s the area where all the excessively wealthy, mega-rich millionaire Orlandoans go to eat, (i.e. Tiger Woods, John Morgan, Daniel Dennis and Carrot top). I literally walked around for 10 minutes trying to find this place. It got so confusing and labyrinthine I felt like the illuminati were testing my might. I don’t want to ruin the fun if you choose the path of dining at Pharmacy. Just go find it your own dang self.

Pharmacy spread

Our last spot was a departure from the newer, trendsetting places we had been accustomed to over the entirety of the day. Hanamizuki is not like any other Japanese restaurant I’ve been to in Florida. I’ve never been to Japan, though not for lack of wanting. If I could guess what “real” Japanese food tastes like, without having to cater to western sensibilities, I imagine Hanamizuki is as close as you’ll find within 200 miles. I had been once before with my wife and was completely awe-struck by inspired preparation of the dishes. As a whole I remembered how much the restaurant had me interrogating myself. There was no question that the food was great. Actually, some of it was the best I had eaten in a while. My wonderment stemmed more from how I should approach tradition. I questioned how authentic I want food to be, compared to what I’ve trained my palate to think tastes good? How far am I willing to push the limits? Either way you slice it, whether it be with a dull butter knife or a precision Yanagi ba, this nuta: akami maguro or yari ika dressed in white miso, hot mustard and wilted scallion was freaking incredible. It’s got to be if you order it three separate times in the same sitting!

Hanamizuki spread

These are not the only restaurants in Orlando worth investing a whole day for. They are however, within the circle of friends I choose to associate with, the most appropriate representation of food crawl perfection, each offering a cavalcade of small plate options and a myriad of tasty drinks. For an evening of sane, one meal/one restaurant dining, all of these places easily stand alone. Since this trip, a whole new group of places have opened and are flourishing over in Orlando. It’s high time we plan Round 2.

 

Siro: Urban Italian Kitchen – Orlando, FL

When one enters a hotel restaurant, whether it be inside the confines of the Central Florida tourist corridor, or in a far-flung locale, one usually expects certain intangibles. The stigma these mega-resorts have been branded with can be categorized as follows. First, and most common, is good food in a somewhat formal setting, sometimes amazing food, maybe even with a celebrity chef at the helm, but completely out of the common mans price range. The second being a frightening amalgam of bad food while retaining the obscenely hefty price tag.

There has however, been a surge in the amount of hotels throughout the country experimenting with the insane concept of a more inclusive dining concept. One that attracts locals and hotels guests alike. An idea that a resort can offer the same kind of meal that you’d find at your favorite bistro, without breaking the bank.

Although I try to keep myself abreast on almost every new restaurant opening in the greater Central Florida area, I sadly do not get to eat at each one of them right away. I have my short list of places that pique my interest and are at least worthy of a meal in the, hopefully, near future. The Mrs. and I probably only get to dine alone once every two months or so. So when we got that chance last week, I pulled out my list. It’s a little bound paper notepad. You remember, the stuff people used to record ideas before they invented technology? (As I type this on my iPad) the notepad sits in a drawer next to my bed in the off-chance I dream up a recipe in my sleep.

The notepad has categories that aid me in my decision-making when a night out is imminent. I have a list of places we like in town, places that I want to try in town, places out-of-town that are worth the drive, depending on mood, attire required and craving. And then the list I spoke of earlier. Places I have yet to sink my bicuspid into.

There sat Siro right at the top. I didn’t know exactly where it was, only that it was a new contemporary, small plate focused Italian bistro that had recently opened. I read about it briefly in the local cultural paper I got at Whole Foods month or so ago. As we began to dress for our night out, my wife and I took turns reading menu items to one another. We began to salivate more and more over as each subsequent dish was read. It was abundantly clear that Siro was going to be a big fat bullseye in each of our wheelhouses.

Siro Logo

As we plotted our course to Siro, my temporary ignorance to its location, brought on by the dazzling menu, was lifted. It was stated clear as day on their website, the Orlando Marriott World Center Resort.

Do not be afraid when you pull into the resort. The behemoth will not swallow you whole. Do not be afraid of the almost main course like cost for self parking. The price almost scared me away, but it was too late to turn back, so I prepared myself to pay the troll toll. Fear not, for Siro will validate your fee as a guest of the restaurant.

This will be a good time to forget where you are, as you would never know otherwise once you pass the hostess stand. Pass this point and you are instantly transported to the neighborhood eatery you wished made its home in your town. Decor is welcoming, hip and vibrant, leaving lots of positive things to discuss throughout the space as every detail seems to be in its rightful place. Even the lighting was just so. Well maybe not great for the camera on my phone, as I failed to pack the better digital SLR. It was date night for goodness sakes. I didn’t want to kill the mood if you will.

As my wife browsed the cocktail list, I was hard at work trying to do cull my choices from the myriad of tantalizing menu items. It broke my heart to turn any of them away, as I would have gladly eaten every single item on the list.

The lady ordered the Artisan which had vodka, limoncello and a nice bit of basil. I however dismissed the thought of alcohol consumption so I could order an extra dish. As the waitress brought her drink, which was served in a classic champagne glass, (by the way from here on out I declare champagne should only be served in this vessel. We as a society need to boycott flutes. Nobody got time for trying to maneuver bubbly liquids from one of the most inefficient contraptions known to Rube Goldberg) she let us know how they prefer you to order your food. She made it clear that the goal is for the guests to relax and hang out. Maybe order a few starters and some antipasti or a salad. Then later order some pasta or a pizza. The whole idea is to have a casual meal without feeling like you are on some deadline. Nobody is rushing anyone out the door.

Roasted Marrow Bones Kale Caesar Salad

I decided to start out lightly with an order of marrow bones and grilled bread, as my significant other opted for the kale Caesar. My bones came split lengthwise next to some expertly charred grilled bread and a simple small arugula and watermelon salad dressed only with olive oil, salt and lemon. There was also a small bowl of what appeared to be confit onions agrodolce. They were sweet and sour, which cut the intensity of the rich meat butter known as marrow. A great beginning for me and an even better one for my wife as I always am worried she isn’t going to like a new place as much as I want her too. Her salad was presented to her with slabs of fresh white anchovie filets strewn across the top with a soft-boiled egg on the side. One of her greatest loves other than me of course, is a proper Caesar with the correct accoutrements. She was not disappointed. She was even tempted to sample the marrow on toast which, to her delight and surprise, was delicious, duh.

We made quick work of that course and when our waitress came back to check on our progress, we quickly spouted off a few more items we wanted to try. We went with crisp risotto balls and an order of the frites with truffle mayo. We are both fry aficionados, pair that with anything that includes the word “truffle” and it can’t be overlooked. The risotto balls came out first, swimming atop a pool of deep red arrabiata. One firm swipe of my fork into the globe of golden brown fried arborio and I was met with a cascade of melted Robiola cheese like a mini volcano erupting in the serving crock. Rustic Italian comfort food at its best I tell ya!

Hand Cut Fries w: Truffle Mayo Arborio Fritters

The fries arrived shortly afterward. Kind of an odd menu item for the cuisine, but we ordered it with ease. The fries were skinny and cooked till they were almost hollow. I don’t always like them to be that far done, buy they hit the spot. Extremely crispy and an easy transportation device for the mayo as well as what I’m assuming was house made ketchup. We both agreed the mayo was superb. Very airy and light (possibly because of the addition of whipped egg white?) but lacking deep earthy presence of truffle that we so craved. This isn’t a complaint more than stating it was a flavor that did not really need to be present as the mayo stood up on its own.

I got the attention of our waitress yet again to order the frito misto of rock shrimp and banana peppers. We both adore pickled banana peppers as we eat them often along with nachos or red beans and rice. I think we both were more excited about eating the peppers than the shrimp as odd as that may sound. Our premonition was correct as the corn meal crusted banana peppers were more of an epiphany than the crustaceans were. The pairing of Meyer lemon aioli was a grand achievement. I think though if I had the option I would have paid double for a bowl sans shrimp as they were that good. It’s not often that pepper trumps protein. Common sense dictates otherwise. You won this round my frenemy.

Crispy Florida Rock Shrimp Arugula Malfatti

Fullness began to set in.

I had been eyeing the pasta dish all night. I made it a point to retrieve a menu for my studies as the meal progressed, and the arugula malfatti had been singing a siren song to me all night. Not knowing what malfatti was I ordered blindly assuming it was some sort of pasta that had the bitter luscious green woven in there somehow. It was decided this would be the last savory order of the night. Happily, it turned out to be the best thing we had eaten in recent memory. The real kicker? It was completely vegetarian. The bowl came to us with thick, hand cut ribbons of bright green tinged pasta. A thin lemon broth sat at the bottom of the shallow bowl. Just barely blanched fresh fava beans and green peas were strewn about, intermingling with a dusting of Parmesan snow and a final sprinkle of fresh arugula. My life was complete. It is astonishing to see what can be done with fresh vegetables in the right hands.

We could not skip dessert even though the pasta was starting to expand in our stomachs to near fatal proportions. Everything on the sweets menu appealed to us, so we asked someone who had tasted them all (our waitress) which ones were the clear stand outs. It was suggested the italian cookie jar and any of the sorbetos, would be a wise choice. We opted for passion fruit as they have a short harvest season and we just so happen to be in it. The cookie jar was full of Italian specialties that brought me back to childhood at my grandmother’s house, where these kinds of cookies were always in stock. A smile spread across my face as I remembered my time with her in the kitchen dunking amaretti into coffee ever so gently. The sorbet was just as memorable as it tasted of nothing but pure passion fruit essence. A wonderfully refreshing way to end our fantastic meal.

Passionfruit Sorbet Amaretti Cookie Jar

I can’t wait to give the rest of the menu a go as I eagerly anticipate my next visit. This new trend of large resorts and hotels bringing a sense of locality, not only from the produce procured but also in the immense talent in the kitchen, should be welcomed by those who live nearby, so that hopefully, the trend will spread. The addition to any new reasonably priced quality dining establishment, regardless of where it’s located, is always a good thing.

Siro: Urban Italian Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Tako Cheena – Orlando, FL

In this world of ours, there are many different kinds of eating establishments to fit various circumstances. After a night of heavy drinking and concert going, my food pyramid consists of  two things, tacos and Asian cuisine. I need one or the other, sometimes both.

Fortunately for my extra-specific alcohol cravings, a little place opened up not too long ago called Tako Cheena. I was driving down Mills Ave., on my way to one of the many fantastic restaurants in the area, when their catchphrase caught my eye so violently I may need retina re-attachment surgery,  “Dim Sum Good Takos”.

photo: www.amplifiedculture.com

The sign alone intrigued me, as I had no clue what was inside. I was hoping for dim sum, as I recall reading the sign incorrectly. As I was saying, I was on my way get food from another place, a banh mi from Yum-mi Sandwiches to be precise. Even though I already had my meal lined up, I couldn’t resist. So I walked in and took a look at the menu. I loved what I saw even though in my heart, I was disappointed there wasn’t any dim sum despite their slogan. What they did offer though, made up for this ten times over. A love affair blossomed that night, Tako Cheena and I have spent many nights together since.

This leads me to my latest visit, although every one has been worthy of written praise, I’ve always seemed to be lacking a camera to document the experience. Good thing I had James with me on this trip. He is like the food snob equivalent of a boy scout, always prepared.

This was his first time with Tako Cheena. I remembered my first time fondly as I watched him eat up the menu with his eyes. It’s extremely concise and leaves no room for fluff. The menu is considerably Eastern Asian. Most of continent is well represented with touches of Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indian. The only thing missing was a Russian Borscht burrito. After our orders were placed, I sat back and took in the sounds of the space. The room of half drunk patrons who, like me, were loud and excited to jump in on the feast to soak up the alcohol pond in their tummies that had accumulated throughout the night. The smells were equally intoxicating as aromatic whiffs of smoke from the grill and char siu pork belly, flavored with five spice filled the air. Soon enough our food arrived.

Takos:

The very pork I spoke of earlier in all its glory filled a flour tortilla, topped with a chopped cabbage, green onion and cilantro slaw. That crunchy slaw paired off against the ultra rich and fatty pork was the only thing that kept me from entering a full-blown food trance.

The other Tako ordered was filled with panko-crusted cod and topped with the same slaw.  The fish was fried to golden perfection and was as crisp as snapping a fresh potato chip. It was an awesome take on the fish taco. The most astounding aspect was the sweet and spicy sauce that created a  lacquered sheen over the fried plank. We each had one so no sharing was in order. James was so overwhelmed that he had to get another, just to make sure it was as awesome as he first believed, it was.

Asian Dogs:

Early German immigrants were kind enough to share the frankfurter with us Yanks, and we have thoroughly embraced it as one of our American staples. What Tako Cheena does best, is presenting non-traditional flavors with a certain visual appeal that isn’t automatically dismissive. They take the concept of a hot dog, something we all know and love, and give you something completely different. The first trick is the dog. It’s actually a Chinese sausage that’s sweet, salty and packed with flavor. Then they use the garnish as the way to bring in some classic Asian flavors. The Japadog takes command with seaweed, cabbage, cucumber and a sweet sesame miso sauce. The Banh Mi dog on the other hand, gives a nod to the traditional Vietnamese classic using slivers of daikon, carrot and cucumber pickled in nuoc cham and rice vinegar. Then it’s finished with lemon mayo and chopped cilantro.

Finally we shared an order of Ginger Apple Empanadas. I think they’ve changed the recipe on this menu item a couple of times, trying to get it just right. It’s still on the menu as spring rolls, but the cashier informed me they were actually empanadas. It was a welcome change if you ask me, which you obviously didn’t. It took weeks to figure out that this dessert was really two pastries wrapped into one parcel.  You can have an empanada filled with warm spicy apple filling and stop there, that’d be your dessert and you’d walk away a happy man, but there’s more. To top things off, you have a key lime and sweetened condensed milk caramel to create a pseudo reversed key lime pie. You even could say you have a crust which was made up of the outer edge of the empanada shell.

Maybe I over-analyzed the genius of the chefs vision. Maybe we just aren’t as thoughtful. Either way, this dessert was like much of the food we had that evening. Complex, sophisticated, even modest if you will. At its core, showing respect to the flavors is what’s most important. If you ever find yourself in a stupor say, after a night out at the punk rock show,  there’s no better brain food to be found than at Tako Cheena.

♦ Logan C.

 

Tako Cheena by Pom Pom on Urbanspoon

Cafe 118 – Orlando, FL

Allow me to lift the curtain a bit to expose the inner workings of the Eat a Duck empire. Please, for your safety, hold on to a hand rail or take a seat at your earliest convenience. After deliberating with our statisticians Billy Bean, and C3PO, it has come to my attention that….suprise! Eat a Duck spends much time discussing the pleasures incurred by eating pork products of varying preparations, fattened goose/duck livers, and deep-fried potatoes of many shapes and creeds.

The truth is, more often than not, (I am speaking for James as well) in our day-to-day lives eating at home and such, we eat more vegetables than meat. I love fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and I often try to incorporate them into my meals.

When I found out, about a year ago, that Orlando had a 100% vegetarian/vegan, and raw restaurant I was intrigued. I was curious about how a chef could get away with serving a menu that is completely uncooked and make it palatable for the masses.

Photo courtesy of: www.lancearoundorlando.com

You see the  number “118” in Cafe 118 isn’t derived from an old cliché way of coming up with a name for a restaurant. That of generically using the street address to make it easy on would be patrons. Or from some abstract reference to the amount of times it took to perfect the hummus recipe. The number 118 stands for the commonly accepted temperature at which enzymes and the nutritional contents of raw plants begin to break down and become useless to body. Call me Bill Nye, or maybe just Mr. Google.

Like I said before, my family went a year ago and had an amazing meal. It changed the way I thought about the possibilities of food preparation and “cooking”. We decided to give Cafe 118 our business once again, just to make sure it was still as good as we remembered.

The menu consists of a list of different beverages including raw juices, smoothies, and shakes. I’m assuming these are consumed mostly by people wanting a quick meal replacement, because some of the concoctions are quite hearty. I opted to share a freshly made pineapple, celery and mint juice. I knew it was fresh because I could hear the industrial strength juicer roaring in the back. I don’t know about you, but I love that sound. The juice was refreshing and light, not too sweet and yet it didn’t overpower you with “celeryness”.

Café 118 spread

We decided to share three items between the two of us. The equation of 3=2+Dessert will help you make some tough decisions should you find yourself with a partner at Cafe 118. That’s the perfect ratio of menu items to create a full stomach when dining in pairs. Feel free to multiply for larger parties, as if this were a cookie recipe.

The first appetizer we ordered came almost instantly. I guess if you’re not cooking anything, there isn’t much choice in the matter. We got four huge vegetable spring rolls. The wrapper was a crunchy piece of collard green enveloping julienned carrots and red cabbage. The vegetables inside were tossed in a creamy lemon macadamia nut dressing. The fun begins when you dip the thing in a dish of sweet and sour sauce that comes on the side. The different textures of extremely crunchy combined with the creamy dressing and dipping sauce mingled together quite nicely. The spring rolls were delicious and very filling, but the dipping sauce was otherworldly to say the least. No joke, that sauce is better than most traditional house made sweet dipping sauces you would find anywhere else. Interestingly they don’t really describe the contents of is the sauce, it must be a secret. I’ll say I would love to dip a nice chunk of crispy pork belly from Ming’s Bistro in that sauce. Oh whoops I’m already slipping back to carnivore mode.

The next plate was baby sweet peppers stuffed with a cashew and almond puree, topped with what tasted like a red pepper aioli. Although we knew it wasn’t, since there would have been eggs in there somewhere. On top of that lay a sprinkling of chopped arugula to add some color to the plate. Then, for good measure, a few drops of truffle infused olive oil. This might have been the most shocking discovery in a while for me. I never thought to add truffle to my raw vegetables. It made it all the more complex and earthy if that’s even possible. Textures really take center stage when eating this way. It gave me the idea to add truffle oil to my hummus next time I make it to see how well it meshes. I don’t see why it shouldn’t after experiencing the triumph that was the pepper dish. Only two things down and I’m already getting full? Weird.

Finally, the main course of spaghetti with sun-dried tomato sauce arrived in all its glory. If you didn’t see the little flecks of greens that peeked through the sauce, coming from the ribbons of zucchini, it would have been hard to tell that the pasta wasn’t pasta at all! I believe that to get  zucchini to meet the shape and texture of pasta, they have to soak it so it begins to wilt a bit. Whatever it was they did, it tasted and felt al dente. I normally choose to pass on anything “sun-dried, but I’m glad I didn’t try swaying my wife to order something else. The sauce that coated the “pasta” was chock full of a sweet tomato, garlic and basil goodness that even Lydia Bastianich would have trouble wrapping her head around. To make it even more appealing to the uninitiated, you get a couple mini meatballs made from spinach and mushroom with a dusting of pine nut cheese to take the place of Parmigiano Reggiano.

They also do raw desserts and ice “creams” that are amazing. I ordered their take on s’mores, which was quite good. Thin graham wafers sandwiching an oozy marshmallow type sweetness and then drizzled with chocolate sauce. I only took one bite of that because I was already stuffed and satisfied.

The meal was a complete success in my mind. I really appreciate how they are trying to make this kind of food easily accessible to anyone. I would be so bold as to bring my Mom and Dad here and not even worry if they’d have a great dinner. Now here is a question for all of you out there, but mainly to those in smaller communities. Do you think something like Cafe 118, a restaurant  free of meat, animal products and ovens for that matter, could be a success in your town?

Café 118° Living Cuisine Café & Juice Bar on Urbanspoon