Photo By Mark Losh Photography
Where Love is Served
It could be a fiendish plot by Hallmark or an alignment of the planets, but February is now known as the Month of Love. While astrologers say that Venus and Mars actually do align at this time of year, and red hearts loom large in every card store, Valentine’s Day shouldn’t be your only excuse for romance. Here are four restaurants that bring setting, style and great food to the amorous table at any time of the year.
Bosphorous Turkish Cuisine
Turkish poetry equates food and romance. The 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi wrote, “The lover’s food is the love of the bread,” and starting with the presentation of a platter of lavas bread, fresh from the oven and puffed like a pillow, Bosphorous serves the food of love.
I have, I must admit, my own passion for small dishes, and a platter of assorted Turkish hot or cold appetizers, called meze, is my idea of an amorous meal. This is where the Spanish got the idea for tapas, and one Romantic culture influencing another can never be bad.
Eating at Bosphorous is an adventure for anyone not familiar with Anatolian cuisine. Food, like love, comes in many varieties. Spicy and savory, dark with garlic and walnuts, bright with lemon, chunky dishes with lamb, and creamy plates of caviar whipped with olive oil. The diversity of flavors and textures makes for an engaging sensual experience.
The long, rich-colored restaurant has all the elements for a sultry dinner—low lights, foods from exotic lands served in small, finger-sized bites, and the opportunity to feed those small dishes to one another.
The place is built with enough nooks to feel all but invisible, and the Turkish custom is to allow plenty of time for conversation (no, the waiter isn’t ignoring you). Remember to end the meal with pistachio-filled baklava and the famously strong Turkish coffee. As the proverb says, coffee should be black as hell, strong as death and sweet as love.
BOSPHOROUS TURKISH CUISINE
ADDRESS 108 Park Ave. South, Winter Park
K Restaurant Wine Bar
For me, the combination of intimate surroundings and reliably superior cooking tells the story at K Restaurant: an inventive kitchen and a room small enough to feel cozy without depositing you in the laps of the next couple (unless that spells romance for you, in which case you’ll need to make special arrangements).
Kevin Fonzo has become Orlando’s celebrity chef, and the “K” in K Restaurant gets right down to basics when talking about food. “Frankly, to take it super erotic, a meal should arouse something in you,” he says with a mischievous chuckle. “It has to be pleasing for both parties. It has a lot to do with visuals, appeal to the eye, so you want to dive into it. Sharing something you want to share with a partner … that sounds a lot like sex
For Valentine’s Day, Fonzo creates a special menu with masculine and feminine options —steak on one side, seafood on the other, light and rich desserts —with something for any relationship permutation. While February 14th is his busiest day of the year (even busier than New Year’s Eve), Valentine’s Day isn’t the only time for romance. “Date nights, people holding hands. We’ve had couples who wouldn’t leave—we’re locked up, they’re still staring into each other’s eyes.”
Fonzo says they get two or three proposals a year at the restaurant. So far, nobody’s been turned down.
K RESTAURANT WINE BAR
ADDRESS 2401 Edgewater Drive
Park Plaza Gardens
The walk through the front café section of Park Plaza Gardens isn’t what you might call romantic. Hopping, casual bar-slash-eatery, yes; good place for sidewalk people watching, absolutely. But sultry dining spot … not a chance.
That’s why the transition into the main dining room, with living trees, fine linens and that impressive glass ceiling, is such a revelation. I’ve always thought the restaurant, and the Park Plaza Hotel itself, were charming in a compact, European way, and the courtyard-like surroundings add a note of opulence to an already good meal.
John Tan has been in the food business for 40 years, from his days working in his parent’s restaurant in Singapore to his tenure as executive chef at Park Plaza Gardens, and he has a workman’s view of romance that is appealingly simple.
“Make the food as lovely as possible,” he says. “The presentation makes the difference. Lots of different colors. Fresh ingredients.”
I ask him how he would like to spend his own Valentine’s Day. “My wife likes seafood,” he says, “so a romantic meal for me would be seared diver scallops, maybe some cauliflower. … You get those nice golden yellow colors. At our chef’s table we serve a little box full of pastries, just small bites. That would be a sweet ending.”
The best romance in Park Plaza Gardens is Tan’s relationship with food. Perhaps next best would be, after sampling what he serves, to book a room for you and your paramour in the baroque hotel, just above, for another sweet ending.
PARK PLAZA GARDENS
ADDRESS 319 Park Ave. South, Winter Park
Enzo’s on the Lake
It’s been 30 years since Enzo Perlini opened his hideaway restaurant on picturesque Lake Fairy. And while he passed away in 2006, his wife, Joanne Ross, and son Michael Perlini are still maintaining Enzo’s Italian trattoria traditions.
Imagine this combination for an intimate dinner: a meal fragrant with Italian spices, a table surrounded by manicured floral gardens overlooking a tranquil lake, the sun setting on the horizon. Michael Perlini thinks that’s enough.
“All we do is provide the outlet,” he says. “We try to take the stress out of a special occasion and make each person feel important. But the romance,” he says with a laugh, “is up to them.”
Enzo’s is old-school Italian. The walls are white, the open kitchen sizzles with activity and olive oil, the service is attentive as only the service in a family-owned business can be. Even the language on the menu is enticing; you can’t say “linguine” or “zuppa” without puckering up. And that outdoor lakeside dining area is a lesson in courtship.
There have been too many weddings, anniversaries and Valentine’s Day dinners to count in 30 years. And with platters of mussels and clams steamed in garlic, aromatic sauces, candlelight and vino, if romance isn’t brewing before you get to Enzo’s, it probably will by the time you leave.
Time your visit for that sunset.
ENZO’S ON THE LAKE
ADDRESS 1130 S. US Highway 17-92, Longwood
Some of the best fish served at Orlando’s finest restaurants comes from Gary’s Seafood Specialties.
If you’ve ever been impressed by a fish dinner at one of Orlando’s better restaurants, chances are you have Gary Reed to thank.
Reed spends more time on the road, buying pompano in Punta Gorda and Gulf shrimp from Mayport, than in the Orlando offices of his company, Gary’s Seafood Specialties. With his partner, Mitch Rice, he sells directly to chefs with a discriminating eye for fish.
“I do this because I’m crazy,” Reed says. “Prices and demand have made this business a lot more expensive over the past 10 years, but we’re still dedicated to finding good, domestic fish. That’s what we do.”
Reed started the company with Rice in 1991, driving a single refrigerated truck from Florida’s east coast to west and back, buying whole fish directly from boats and setting up shop at the back doors of local restaurants. “It was a seafood processor on wheels,” Rice says. “The chefs would come out, pick their fish, and we’d fillet it on site.”
Now the filleting is done at Gary’s facility on West Amelia Street. Richard Lendino, chef/owner of Stone’s Throw Bistro in Sanford, values being able to see the whole fish. “You can look at the gills, the eyes, and see that it’s fresh,” he says. Lendino remembers buying a whole cobia and discovering that the rock crab the fisherman used as bait was still alive in its stomach. “That means six hours, tops, from the sea to my restaurant. It’s like a candy store for chefs.”
The Gary’s reputation has attracted customers in Las Vegas (the Luxor and Mirage hotels) and New York (Jean-Georges, Per Se). Fortunately, Orlando seafood fans can pick from a smorgasbord of choices, from luxurious restaurants such as Luma on Park or Citrus, to the small and cozy Winter Park Fish Company. The home chef can visit a local Whole Foods fish section, where Gary’s is a high-end supplier.
And here’s a bit of trivia for your next dinner conversation: 48,000 pounds of live lobsters have a (temporary) home in a temperature-controlled Gary’s Seafood warehouse on Fairbanks Avenue. Think about that for a slightly frightening, but delicious, image.