Three intimate eateries have taken over old spaces, with a common thread of reuse, repurpose and refresh.
A standout at the retro Strand is the buttermilk chicken.
Old timers and breakfast savants remember this Mills Avenue space as Chuck’s, a tried (and tired) diner that needed the overhaul brought about by its new owner, Joe Rees. Rees knows the business well, having owned Carlo’s Diner in Ocoee for 17 years, and could have easily slapped new paint on old walls and continued service as usual. Instead, he and his crew are creating menus of “new American and European flavors,” as he says.
He maintains a mid-century Florida feel while taking advantage of the new farm-to-table accessibility. Hanging lights are made from Mason jars, a flat-screen monitor is encased in a 1950s TV console, a banquette wall has been fashioned from weathered siding. Slow-cooked grits; eggs and Cornish game hens fresh from Lake Meadow Farms; house-made pate ($7.50) served with homemade pickles—all bring classic menu items to a new, artisan level. The buttermilk chicken ($9) is moist and plump, served on a savory brioche with shredded radicchio and kale slaw. Salmon ($14.50), lightly poached in a hearty court bouillon, would never have graced the counter at Chuck’s.
“We’re lucky,” Rees says. “Everything is happening in this section of town, and we want to be a part of this Mills 50 identity.”
Twin sisters Ashley and Bethany, Bethany’s chef boyfriend Dustin and Ashley’s Merchant Marine partner Michael open a restaurant. What sounds like the plotline for a mediocre sitcom has become instead a rather extraordinary little jewel of an eatery.
Ashley Byrd, a seamstress by trade, found the former Tatáme Lounge space advertised on Craigslist, and her suggestion of “Let’s open a restaurant” was answered by Michael Roller, newly back from months at sea, who set his organizational skills to a year-long rebuild. The Byrd sisters reupholstered worn out couches and banquettes, repurposed glass insulators into lights, and turned a thrift store dresser into a serving station. The room feels like a friend’s living room—that happens to have a hand-crafted bar.
Dustin Haney has known the sisters since he was a dishwasher at Pizza Hut in Virginia Beach. His carefree youth turned into an obsession with local and seasonal food. “Learning by doing” is how Haney describes his informal education, and he points to a bookshelf hung high across the dining room of Scratch. “Those are my cookbooks,” he says, “I live in cookbooks.”
Our server brought a tiny smoke-filled glass cloche, dramatically lifted to reveal, under a wood-scented cloud, bite-sized bits of Magret duck breast ($11), cured in sweet orange and rich lavender, the cloak of alder smoke leaving a taste of pine that made me pause mid-bite to try to understand what I was eating. Grilled corvina ($13) was a microcosm of tastes and visuals, tiny black caviar lentils supporting the hearty and flaky fish, dotted with jewel-like trout roe that popped unpredictably in the mouth with a briny tang that contrasted with the pie-like taste of sweet potato purée and a sweet and sour blood orange gastrique. Layer upon layer of tastes brings Haney’s shrimp & grits ($10) to a different place, shellfish accented with roasted mushroom veal jus, deeply flavored black garlic and a creamy celery root “polenta.’’
Chef Haney may call it “fine dining for the common person,” but there is nothing common about the imagination and creativity of this seasonally changing menu’s bold flavors.
A.J. Haines’ resume looks more like a writer’s career than a chef’s. After an education and career in graphic design, he became a welder building fire trucks and military vehicles. But the call of the kitchen, learned at his Italian grandfathers’ knees, was too strong. An escape from Midwestern snow led to study at Orlando’s Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, stints in the kitchens of Prato, Luma on Park, and Cask and Larder, and the opportunity to take over Wolfie’s Pizzamia from chef Jason Schofield, who began a path of in-house charcuterie that Haines has perfected.
“We’re not doing American Italian,” Haines says. “I learned about this food throwing pizzas with my grandfather in the restaurant he built in an old barn, making food he knew from the family in a little town just above Naples.”
Furnished from the seemingly inexhaustible antique stock of White Wolf Café’s Michael Hennessey (hence the name), Wolfie’s is Oriental rug-draped, copper kettle adorned and remarkably quiet.
The wine cooler fridges placed along one wall hold not bottles of Pinot Grigio, but hanging hams and curing salamis. Haines dries paper-thin prosciutto, spicy capocollo and hearty bresaola, and ages rich mortadella and chewy soppressata in this room, and the results are as good as anything I’ve ever eaten in Italy. The Salumi Platter ($8) of various delights served with house pickled vegetables, olives and “pig butter” is a meal by itself.
Pizzas are inspired by his grandfather and perfected by practice. The “College Park” was my favorite, a sturdy crust topped with rich bechamel, thick mozzarella and ricotta, and deep roasted tomatoes and mushrooms (14”, $15; 18”, $18).
From hand-made pastas to in-house beef, pork and veal meatballs served in slow-simmered pomodoro, what comes out of this kitchen would be recognized by Italian grandmothers at any time in history. And this respect for traditional ways may be the freshest innovation of all.