2013 Dining Hall of Fame
The inductees to the 2012 Dining Awards Hall of Fame
The personable wizard of Sushi Pop
It is rare to find a chef who can combine the solemn sleight of hand of a master sushi maker with the confounding magic of molecular gastronomy. Chau, the wizard of Sushi Pop, is that chef.
Rooted in Japanese culture, Chau Trinh (“Just Chau,” he says) embraces neighboring countries, creating dishes of pan-Asian depth.
“We’re immigrants from Vietnam,” says Chau, a very young-looking 31. His aunt, a Vietnamese war bride, came to Fort Myers in the mid-1970s, where she employed four branches of her imported family in a strip mall Chinese restaurant, housing them in a trailer park behind the mall.
Chau’s mother, Mai Tran, eventually bought her own Chinese buffet place in Fort Myers, and worked in a sushi restaurant on weekends, learning the skills and breaking cultural taboos against women and non-Japanese in the kitchen. Chau picked up the rhythms and, at 19, came to work at his mother’s Saikyo Sushi in Winter Park. Investors lured him to a hip downtown sushi bar, and Shari in Thornton Park was born in 2002.
“Thinking about what I know now and what I knew then,” Chau says, “I was flying by the seat of my pants.” After eight years he wanted to stretch creatively (“I didn’t want to be a happy hour chef”) and left Orlando for Sushi Pop, at an ex-American Pie pizza location in faraway Oviedo. “I live five minutes away,” he says with a chuckle.
Dedicated to his craft in the anime-styled restaurant, he bends low, bowing to the fish he meticulously carves with a supernaturally sharp knife, watching everything that goes on like a silent ninja blending into the stainless steel kitchen. His vision turns to ingredients familiar and unusual: spicy tuna and 24K gold leaf; salmon belly and extra virgin fish sauce; powders made from duck fat or sesame oil.
His mom (“She just told me she was 61,” Chau laughs, “I had no idea.”) now works on the line at Sushi Pop, portioning out fish, mixing sauces, talking to her son in Vietnamese.
“It’s not just about the sustenance,” Chau says. “For us, it’s all kind of a joke. What it says it is, what you think it is, what it actually is. We like to have fun, but we cook seriously.”
310 W. Mitchell Hammock Road, Oviedo. sushipoprestaurant.com
Mandarin Orange Cake
A Christner’s classic, any way you slice it
She is a seductress of deceptively plain appearance and simple family, yet draws every eye when she enters the room. She stands imposingly tall, dressed in pale orange and, while a lady never tells her weight, the potential weight she can put on her admirers makes her dangerous and tempting.
The Mandarin Orange Cake. Three layers of moist, orange-laden enticement and layers of frosting as thick as the cake. Sweet, tart (mostly sweet), it has an addictive combination of ultra-richness and that little twinge of the forbidden—should I eat this gargantuan slice all by myself? Should I eat it at all?
Christner’s Del Frisco’s Prime Steak & Lobster has expanded and thrived since it opened in 1993, but three things haven’t changed: The Christner family still runs the place, the steaks are still house-aged and hand-cut, and The Cake is still queen of the dessert cart.
Alice Christner, wife of owner David, calls the Mandarin Orange Cake “she” because “she’s so pretty.” There’s nothing fancy about the treat; cake mix, orange, pineapple, an icing of whipped cream and vanilla pudding, served with a scoop of Edy’s ice cream and a side of orange sauce. “I can’t explain why it’s so popular,” she says (Christner, not The Cake). “But we sell three, four, as many as eight cakes a day, sliced and whole. We cut it into eight pieces—in the real world, a cake serves probably 12 or more.”
In the convoluted history of Christner’s (the Del Frisco’s appellation was borrowed from famed Del Frisco’s Double Eagle in Dallas, and will be dropped come June 1), there’s only one fact important to cake lovers: Double Eagle owner Dale Wamstad supplied the recipe to the Christners along with a story—that his grandmother won over his prospective grandfather with a slice of the citrusy confection, meaning that Wamstad owed his existence to the cake.
When pressed for the secret ingredient, Christner finally admits, “If anything, it’s Miss Lois.” Lois March makes the sauces, soups, dressings and desserts, and has since 2000. “We stole her from Straub’s Boat Yard (a onetime neighbor),” Christner says, “and if you ask to take
her picture she will kill you.”
729 Lee Road, Orlando. christnersprimesteakandlobster.com
White Wolf Café
Going with the flow on Orange Avenue
In the past 22 years, Michael Hennessey’s business has gone from antique mall to artisanal meals, without planning or intention.
“I’ve made my entire living in the restaurant business one way or the other,” Hennessey says. He was working at La Belle Verriere (a Winter Park restaurant opened by Jeannette Genius McKean to display her Tiffany windows) when the antique bug bit. “Being an antique dealer was enchanting,” he says. In 1991, Hennessey purchased a rambling building and opened the Orange Avenue Antique Mall, leasing space to sellers of knickknacks while offering coffee, candy and ice cream to browsers.
Demand for food brought more tables and a larger menu; the burdensome cash flow of antiques meant that trade was left behind. By late 1992, Hennessey had named the business after his white German shepherd, Casper, and was making soups and chicken salad out of a rented church kitchen.
White Wolf “grew organically,’’ says his wife, Anne Marie, who met Michael 15 years ago as a White Wolf customer. “It wasn’t designed to be a restaurant.’’
These days she takes care of the dollars and cents while he steers the restaurant, which has the feeling of a New Orleans eatery, with live music, a popular bar and stained glass in the windows. A cabinet of dishes, price tags on the chandeliers hanging around the room and tin signs are remnants of its antique shop days.
Chef Jason Schofield creates house-made salami, pickles, sausage and other items for White Wolf and Wolfie’s Pizzamia, which opened a few doors down in February. Free range chicken, wild salmon and all-natural pork highlight the dinner menu, while diners flock to Sunday brunch and daily breakfasts of cinnamon rolls, Benedicts from crabmeat, red beans and rice, and an extravagant lobster and Brie omelet.
Hennessey, 55, greets people at the door and often learns enough about them that he can comment on their upcoming vacation plans by the time they leave. His wife says that’s the secret of White Wolf’s longevity. “Michael,” she says, “always treats everyone who comes in the door as a guest in our house.”
1829 N. Orange Ave., Orlando. whitewolfcafe.com
Staff of Paco’s
Dishing out a whole lot of hole-in-the-wall goodness
Let’s start out by clearing something up: There is no Paco at Paco’s Mexican Restaurant. There’s a Chico in the kitchen, but he’s not of Mexican descent; in fact, nobody at the Winter Park restaurant is or ever has been Mexican. The recipes come from a woman trained at a restaurant in Hawaii whose family, all from Sanford, has been serving their brand of Tex-Mex cuisine for 32 years. So, apparently, this proudly proclaimed “hole in the wall” is as close to the Texas border as it needs to be.
It doesn’t seem much has changed since Marj Myers (who passed away in 2009) opened the tiny restaurant in 1981 on the very overlookable corner of Fairbanks Avenue and Clay Street.
“Yes it has,” says Melissa “Missy” Myers, Marj’s sister. “We added soup.” Donnie, Missy’s brother, runs the kitchen along with “Chico” Carter, who started here in 1983. “Same cooks,” Missy says, “so the same food.”
Marianne Metz has been serving tables at Paco’s since 1983; her sister, Monica Pitts, came aboard in ’88. “I figured this would be a good part-time job until I found a real job,” Marianne says, “and I’m still here.”
The menu adheres to Marj’s original recipes for tacos, burritos and enchiladas, what Donnie loudly identifies as “Winter Park Tex-Mex.”
Several generations of customers have come to sample this unique fare. “Even on a slow day, we’re busy,” says Monica, “because of the regulars.” Many of the stalwart “Paconians” visit two or three times a week; some eat here every day. Marianne and Monica often have a ticket written and food ordered as regulars are walking in the door—sometimes all they write is a customer’s name. “The first customers who ever came through that door still come to eat,” Missy says.
“We might not please everybody,” Monica admits, “but we fill ’em up trying.”
What does Missy want people to know about Paco’s?
“That we’re here,” she says, before getting ready to open for another dinner crowd.
1801 W. Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park. pacosmexican.com
Haute cuisine and a small wonder
“I’m a working chef,” says George Vogelbacher. At 72, most people have had enough of the restaurant business, but Chef George still puts in a full day, and cheerfully.
“Usually, I start at 7 a.m.,” he says of his day at Winter Park Fish Company. “That’s when my fish house takes my order. By 10:30, I have my order and cut all the fish.”
His parents had a country inn and bakery in the ancient Swiss town of Oberstammheim, near Zurich. After a culinary apprenticeship, Vogelbacher met the owner of the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., while working on a cruise ship. He moved to Washington in 1967.
“In 1968, things were not too great in Washington,” he says, referring to the civil unrest and race riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. A chance visit to Harper’s Tavern in Winter Park led to the purchase of the empty restaurant next door, and the fabled Le Cordon Bleu (no relation to the culinary school) was born.
Le Cordon Bleu (and Harper’s) burned down in 1996. Soon after, Vogelbacher opened Nicole St. Pierre on the grounds of the Enzian Theater in Maitland. It so suited Chef George’s Continental cuisine that people would come for dinner before a movie and never leave to see the film. After five years, Vogelbacher sold the restaurant, and it closed three years later.
With Winter Park Fish Company, he partners with the owners of local fishmonger Gary’s Seafood, creating specialties such as a cioppino seafood stew of shrimp, mussels, clams and lobster, and one of the best crab cakes around.
“I still enjoy it,” he says. “I see a lot of the kids from my former customers.”
The tiny WPFC kitchen is a far cry from the haute cuisine of his previous restaurants. “The biggest difference is not the quality of the food,” he says. “At the other places we took our time, we wanted to sell a couple martinis; it’s casual and very fast here. Here, on Saturday, I did 306 customers, I’m selling 100 pounds of fish a day.” He gives a big laugh, throwing his hands in the air. “How we do it is unbelievable!”
761 Orange Ave., Winter Park. thewinterparkfishco.com