Strong Water Tavern pairs small-plate gems and rum concoctions for a memorable experience at Universal’s Sapphire Falls.
Chef Carlos Castaño is a master of dishes from Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Haiti, U.S. Virgin Islands and Mexico.
If Strong Water Tavern, the rum-centric small-plate restaurant at Universal Orlando’s new Sapphire Falls Resort, were an independent eatery on Mills Avenue, millennials would pack the place nightly and usher in a hipster rum craze. On Park Avenue in Winter Park, Strong Water would attract throngs of well-dressed beautiful people meeting over unusual cocktails and innovative tapas. A location in downtown Orlando would draw so many among the theater and dining crowd, you might need a scalper to snag a late-night reservation.
As it stands, Strong Water Tavern is a unique gem lurking behind the guise of a hotel lobby bar, offering new takes on a centuries-old tipple and a menu where each dish is a superbly executed revelation.
Jamaican curry goat (ROBERTO GONZALEZ)
Open since July of last year, the Sapphire Falls hotel sits between Universal CityWalk and the soon-to-open Volcano Bay water park. Visible from the hotel lobby and Strong Water’s outdoor deck is “the famous falls,” constructed to plummet down four stories into the lagoon waterway that connects hotels to parks. In the distance the thrill rides of Dr. Doom’s Fearfall, The Incredible Hulk and the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit dot the horizon.
Strong Water Tavern is designed with accents of the old Caribbean and modern touches. It shares a Caribbean theme with the “three a day” Amatista Cookhouse downstairs, where breakfast, lunch and dinner can be found (pizza isn’t necessarily Caribbean, but vacationing kids have their needs). However, Strong Water has a sophistication and purpose that creates its own class. There’s lots of wood and stone, suggestions of oak rum barrels decorate the ceiling, and a map of the rum longitude from Vera Cruz to Antigua lives above the bar. One wall in the lounge area at the back of the restaurant has a multi-paneled TV—sit facing the windows or out on the terrace and ignore it. The real world shouldn’t intrude on such an experience.
I saw several groups of people standing in the doorway and peering through hesitantly, and even the online literature suggest this is a lounge and “watering hole.” The brave will be pleasantly rewarded.
Chef Carlos Castaño was born in Cali, Colombia, and brings decades of cooking to Strong Water. He came from Miami to work with Todd English at bluezoo, and soon after joined the Universal team. His kitchen shares an emotional involvement with each plate: the beef empanadas ($9) are a dish learned from Castaño’s grandmother’s hand; the Cuban ropa vieja ($10), a rich soupy stew, comes from the family of his sous chef.
Strong Water Tavern
I could, and probably will at some point, run through the entire menu and come up with flawless food at every choice. Servings are small enough to warrant several selections, but so full of flavor that just one dish with a perfectly matched wine or rum pairing could be satisfying enough.
The menu is divided into items from Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Colombia, U.S. Virgin Islands and Mexico (the food of Vera Cruz is far more tropical than Spanish). Ceviche is shared by most of the Caribbean, and a special section is devoted to varieties of marinated fish. Most familiar is the Mexican ($13) combination of shrimp, tomato, peppers and cilantro, but my faves include the Caribbean mix ($16) of seafood marinated in citrus and coconut cream, and the Peruvian Trio ($15), three servings of classic ceviche of corvina (my favorite fish) dressed in a hot red pepper aioli, cooling coriander salsa verde, and fiery bright yellow aji Amarillo garlic sauces.
Unexpected and spicy are key words. House-made Buffalo sauce accompanies what could have been pedestrian chicken tenders in buttermilk batter but aren’t ($10); and a Haitian soup joumou ($10) of beef and pumpkin is robust and eye-openingly hot.
Chef Castaño brings his Colombian heritage to beef and sweet plantain hash ($9), with a perfect balance of hearty and spicy shredded beef and an accompanying fried egg adding a welcome rich, cooling note. Pollo patacon ($9) layers shredded chicken atop fried green plantain slices with a spicy tomato hogao.
Unusual items include what I’m told is the most popular item on the menu: Jamaican curry goat ($12), a daring dish for vacation dining, the bone-in meat full of savory fat and graced with a complex Scotch bonnet pepper and curry sauce. There’s also lamb pelau from Jamaica ($12) and a beautifully filling vegetable Rastafarian stew ($10).
Mixers, syrups, chutneys, salsas and sauces are all made in-house—the ginger beer is killer, and the jalapeño-pineapple jam accompanying a beef-filled papa rellena croquette ($8) should be supplied by the pot.
Restaurants at Sapphire Falls and the semi-attached Royal Pacific Resort (there’s a covered walkway) are overseen by Complex Executive Chef Nando Belmonte, a veteran of Universal properties. If he is the exec that hired Chef Castaño, he is owed sincere thanks.
I’m sure that Strong Water is not long from being discovered as an impressive food destination. For now, it can be our extraordinary secret. Shh.
A Celebration of Cane
More than 60 types of rum are available from the bar, most in a three-shot tasting flight, sourced from exotic Guyana and Martinique to St. Augustine. Several shots are created in-house, including a delightful mango-infused rum and a green apple-tart milk punch made with Nicaraguan rum and black tea that takes four days to create—and is deceptively potent. Well-versed rum captains have an encyclopedic knowledge of the offerings and even mixed drinks have a rum-filled Strong Water twist.