7 Best New Restaurants
Since the beginning of 2008 we’ve seen many a restaurant door open, with a select few making a real impression on the local dining scene. Here are the best new eateries listed by their individual types of dining: American, Asian, Cuban, Italian, prix fixe, health-conscious and eclectic.
Asian: Seoul Garden
If you’re a connoisseur of local Korean restaurants, you’ve had this particular cooking before. The same people who run Seoul Garden formerly owned Korea Garden and Korea House in Longwood. Yes, the standard bulgogi barbecue is there. Served as “ssam” (wrapped in a lettuce leaf with all those little side dishes), grilled meats prepared right at your table can’t be beat for a family meal. In fact, I would go just for the sides. But take a trip into unknown territory because that is where Seoul Garden shines. Order the “haemul pajun” seafood pancake for an invigorating combination of simple seafood and fiery kimchi, or try one of the jjigae stews, various mixtures of meats or tofu in a spicy broth, to clear the head. The menu posted on Seoul Garden’s Web site is completely in Korean, so a personal visit is mandatory. We’re fortunate to have several good outlets for this ancient and splendid fare, but Seoul Garden is the best.
ADDRESS 511 East Horatio Avenue, Maitland
ENTREES $7.99 to $19.99
Prix Fixe: Chef’s Table
Chef Kevin Tarter takes a risk every time he steps into his kitchen because, as the name of his eatery implies, there’s hardly any boundary between customers and chef. A restaurant kitchen has always smacked of theater to me, and on this Winter Garden stage you can see pathos, comedy, suspense and triumph worthy of an entire Fringe Festival. An alumnus of New Orleans’ legendary Arnaud’s restaurant (note the occasional appearance of spice shrimp etouffee on the menu), the seasonally minded Tarter would rather wait for Florida shrimp season than ship something in from a foreign aquafarm. While it’s impossible to nail down one go-to dish on this changeable menu, Tarter has a fine hand with the grill, and rib eye or lamb won’t let you down. In fact, I’ve yet to come across anything that doesn’t please.
ADDRESS 99 West Plant Street, Winter Garden
PRIX FIXE $49
Health-conscious: Green Day Café
Even though the experience of being served an extraordinary meal on fine linen is one of the best parts of dining out, there’s something to be said for a nice simple takeout salad. We are pleased by the small things, too. Green Day Café fulfills my main criteria—good ingredients, thoughtfully prepared. Here you’ll find fast food without guilt—there’s even a drive-through—and while there’s no red meat to be found on the menu, turkey, chicken and tuna keep Green Day from being one of those scary vegetarian places. Meats are whole-roasted and sliced on premises (no processed and formed “luncheon meat”), and the environmental consciousness extends to the cups and forks, made from sugar cane and corn. But all that is meaningless if the food is cardboard, and that’s not the case here. Wraps and salads, bargains at under $7 each, offer flavor combinations as simple as tuna and carrots, or as layered as turkey, walnuts and cranberries (the “turkey cranberry,” natch).
ADDRESS 1515 Lee Road, Orlando
American: Circa 1926
A wary diner may wonder if the restaurant gods look askance at the corner of Park and Canton avenues in Winter Park. It would take too long to list how many other restaurants have occupied this space, from art-gallery-with-food to bookstore-with-food to upscale-something. Whatever cosmic offenses may have closed those other places, Circa 1926 seems to have struck the proper chord of culinary appeasement.
Chef James Slattery learned the right lessons from his time in Emeril’s two Orlando kitchens, among them how to appeal to dining clientele. First of all, what a great-looking space: burgundy leather, sexy uplighting and that wall behind the bar suggesting water and flame. The open flow from multiple French doors thrown wide may sound intrusive, but it offers the feeling of outdoor dining without having diners actually sitting alongside parked cars. The cuisine is “American,” which of course gives Circa 1926 the latitude to serve crawfish beignets on the same menu as tuna tacos and osso bucco. Americans eat all that, right? Well, this one does. I love the comfort food touches, such as ample samples of veggies like potatoes, corn and English peas accompanying roast chicken, or crisp duck served with wild mushroom bread pudding. These are dishes that won’t frighten anyone off but are fresh enough to hold your interest.
ADDRESS 358 North Park Avenue, Winter Park
Cuban: Cuba Libre
Big latin restaurants in Orlando seem to hop gleefully across the dining-entertainment line: take, for example, the Spanish décor and flamenco dancing at Church Street’s Ceviche, or the Havana night club atmosphere of Bongos Cuban Café in Downtown Disney. Like them, Cuba Libre attempts to replicate the feeling of spicier climes with a two-story setting reminiscent of a Cuban hacienda courtyard, and on Saturday nights, frilly-shirted salsa dancers performing choreographed floorshows. If you’re more interested in food than entertainment, the best aspect of all these spots is that they have impressive kitchens. This is particularly true at Cuba Libre, where the menu isn’t just an enticement to see the show, it’s the main reason to go.
I know Guillermo Pernot’s cooking from his groundbreaking restaurants in Philadelphia. The winner of awards from Food & Wine Magazine and the James Beard Foundation, Pernot is “executive concept chef” at Cuba Libre, which means he may not be in the kitchen but it’s his hand steering the menu. His use of tropical fruits and his innovative adaptations of traditional Cuban dishes (grilled skirt steak with a pickled mushroom salad springs to mind) are always enjoyable and at times breathtaking.
ADDRESS Pointe Orlando
9101 International Drive, Orlando
ENTREES $18.50 to $29.50
Italian: Il Paradiso Café
Where "authentic" world cuisine comes from is debated among fans of any ethnic dishes. The term “Italian-American” was coined as food with Neapolitan and Sicilian foundations mixed with local techniques found in every “Little Italy” from Boston to San Diego. Il Paradiso hits the mark by serving outstanding regional recipes, regardless of the region. With influences from Naples and the Italian communities in Brooklyn, the entrée choices include baked ziti, meatballs with pasta (classic New York), pumpkin gnocchi, and a warm cauliflower-and-spinach salad (very Italian). Being an habitué of both areas, I’m very happy with the whole menu. Il Paradiso is the real definition of a “family style” restaurant. Not, as some places would have you believe, where each plate holds five pounds of soggy pasta, but where Chef Salvatore Cristiano will take a spin around the dining room and actually care if you liked the mussels, and co-owner Jimmy Crudo will sprinkle a bit more balsamico on the hand-sliced caprese if you ask nice. You need a place like this in your dining repertoire.
ADDRESS 520 West SR 436, Altamonte Springs
ENTREES $8.25 to $10.95
Eclectic: Funky Monkey Wine Company
I don't get the monkey thing. Eating and monkeys just isn’t an attractive mixture. Good food, a relaxed, almost living-room setting and a lively atmosphere: that combination I get. The people involved with FM come from local hotspots Dux and Primo, along with Per Se in New York and Down Under in Boca Raton. But pedigree will only sustain a restaurant until the food hits the table, and the appealing assortment of little plates and full entrees keeps the menu from becoming boring. Half-price sushi hours are a brilliant way to generate traffic, and the addition of new chef Bryce Balluff is a pretty good sign that the Monk will stay enjoyable. You gotta love anyone who would combine grilled shrimp with rich blue cheese polenta, and that’s just an appetizer. Occasionally, the Monk hosts burlesque dinner shows, lending a bit of a “Parliament House in your house” feel—which, while it may be funky, doesn’t involve any simians, as far as I know.
ADDRESS 912 North Mills, Orlando
ENTREES Entrees: $9 to $25