2019 Dining Awards: Critic's Pick 1
Our annual guide to great cuisine, with 20 picks from Dining Critic Joseph Hayes, selections by readers in 57 categories, and four new inductees into our Dining Hall of Fame.
Critic’s Pick: Best Restaurant, Norman’s
Critic’s Pick: Best Restaurant
Nominated as a James Beard Award semifinalist this year, my Best Restaurant nod continues to prove the relevance of New World cuisine first championed by namesake chef Norman Van Aken, a 2008 inductee into Orlando magazine’s Dining Hall of Fame.
Opened in 2003, the Ritz-Carlton based restaurant has amassed 15 years of AAA Four Diamond awards and a place on the Beard “Who’s Who in America” list for its chef. The question becomes, what does it take to endure as a world-class restaurant?
“The reason it continues,” says the philosophical Van Aken, “is an unquenchable curiosity for the way food and service unites people. If you’re looking for predictable results, life isn’t that way. But paying attention to the spinning world is a way of being aware.”
“So many interesting fusions,” he says, a fitting comment from the chef many credit with inventing the term “fusion cuisine.”
A refurbishment two years ago has enhanced the lush feeling of Norman’s, known for its style and service as well as the menu. “Service is to me as important as the food,” Van Aken says. “People understand when they’re being paid attention to, and when they’re not.”
That menu, informed by flavors of the Caribbean, Pacific Rim, Latin America and the bounty of Florida, comes from a continuing conversation between Van Aken and Executive Chef Andres Mendoza, who came to the Norman’s kitchen seven years ago. “The smells in the kitchen, the ingredients, the techniques, everything made sense to me,” he says. “The dried chilies, this is me. The food I love to eat, Puerto Rican, Cuban food, this is me. The relationship with Chef, it’s natural.” Mendoza, who was raised in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, says his culinary curiosity has been fanned by his new home.“I didn’t know Caribbean, Cuban or Colombian food until I came to Orlando; my love for this cuisine developed in Orlando.”
Mendoza is most excited by the restaurant’s seasonal tasting menu. “We get to play with whatever we want.” It currently features tastes such as almaco jack fish in red sauce and tempura fried octopus with squash broth.
Even with a history of acclaimed eateries and several new endeavors in Miami, Van Aken has a fondness for Orlando. “Every time we come here, unlike any of the restaurants precedent in my life, we enjoy the restaurant sitting at the table, like a guest, not like the chef.” As do we. The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes; normans.com —Joseph Hayes
Critic’s Pick: Best Chef
Tim Majoras Flying Fish
There are chefs who cook to a superb standard every day, and sometimes one who rises above it with a vision of what is possible. That chef, at this time, is Tim Majoras.
What Majoras does at Flying Fish, serving items like immaculate Hokkaido scallops with grits, sweet corn and peppadew, is superb, but behind those artistically crafted meals is Chef Tim’s continuing foresight.
“I was fascinated by the different food that I saw on PBS when I was a kid,” he says of his path. “My dad was a short-order cook; my mom was a waitress. It just kind of hit me that being a chef was my future. And what I thought it was going to be, going to culinary school in Orlando, is just what it was.”
That journey has paid off. I’ve enjoyed a singular, multicourse meal crafted by Majoras’ capable hands at a private event, and every plate, every taste, was a new revelation: a dish of ostrich, dried beef and Egyptian rice, or the richness of sablefish marinated in coconut and sake. The talent behind those dishes reveals itself every day at Flying Fish, showing what we can expect in our town’s culinary future.
“Orlando is changing and evolving for the better,” Majoras says, “and I’m proud to be a part of it.” Disney’s Boardwalk; disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/boardwalk/flying-fish —J.H.
Critic’s Pick: Newcomer
Local magnate Sunny Corda rises above even the superb offerings at his other restaurants (Mynt, Rasa and Saffron) with Southern Spice, reaching a level of excellence that counters any argument about the sameness of Indian cuisine. Recipes preserved from his mother’s kitchen combine with an extensive classic education learned from the likes of Thomas Keller (Per Se) and Michelin star chef Peter Beck (Tamarind NYC) to form Southern Spice’s offerings of dishes from Southeast India. Mixing the familiar (yes, you can get samosas, chicken tikka and shrimp korma) with attention-getting specialties like jhol curry, chepala pulusu and lamb chettinad, this is premiere cuisine of the world prepared by world-class chefs. Dr. Phillips; southernspiceorlando.com —J.H.
Critic’s Pick & Readers’ Choice: Best Chinese
Taste of Chengdu
Last year when I started writing about Chef Xiong “Tiger” Tang’s unique excursion into Sichuan cuisine, people were just beginning to take notice of his authentic spin on seafood, beef and chicken dishes that include the sweat-inducing seasonings of his home country. Now, the line often starts before the doors open on his West Colonial Drive spot, with diners craving whole lobster with peppers, brisket in chili sauce or tofu skin with chive sauce. “Lots of places call the food Sichuan and just throw on a lot of pepper; that’s not Sichuan,” Tang says of his lip-numbing food. “My brother in China sends me fresh peppers [called huajiao] from the mountains of Sichuan province at harvest time. Fresh is different.” West Colonial near Tampa Avenue; facebook.com/tasteofchengdu —J.H.
Critic’s Pick & Readers’ Choice: Best Sandwiches
Bad As’s Sandwich
If you’ll forgive the sandwich-based pun, John Collazo is definitely on a roll. It’s 10 a.m. and the owner/chef of Bad As’s Sandwich is in the kitchen, blaring Red Hot Chili Peppers at max volume, filling his little sandwich shop with sounds and aromas. “I was jamming,” he says. “I made bread this morning, I just made pimento cheese … I do a lot.” He claims about 90 sandwiches available for his menu (“I don’t know if Subway has that many”) and is always thinking about new combos. His Ya Mon—jerk chicken, pork rinds, lime mayo, the crunch of fried plantain, sweet-tart-spicy jalepeno pesto—brings a lot of umami tastes to hit all your senses. Milk District-Primrose Drive just south of Robinson Street; badasssandwiches.com —J.H.
Critic’s Pick: Best Plant-Based Restaurant
Proper & Wild
Chelsie and Jamie Savage take growth very seriously. In the space of a year, the owners of plant-based hotspot Sanctum Café have added two new properties and a new baby to their resume. The Sanctum Coffee & Juice Bar in Altamonte offers drinks, coffee and a smaller version of Sanctum’s menu. But the gem is Proper & Wild, and the growth is palpable. Yoga casual gives way to Winter Park downtempo, with sophisticated menu items like burgers made from lentils and shiitake mushroom and a winter squash curry that doesn’t flaunt its meatlessness so much as make you question the need for meat at all. “The community has voted for plant-based items,” says Chelsie. “For food that makes them feel good. If somebody had lunch at Sanctum on Tuesday, and they want to go out to dinner on Friday night, this is the spot.” East Morse Boulevard off Park Avenue, Winter Park; properandwildwp.com —J.H.
Critic’s Pick: Upper Crust Award
P is for Pie
The case full of banana cream pies and cookies, the carrot cake whoopie pies, the towering cakes so high that a standard box won’t close—that is the model of a successful bakery, one where Stacey and Ed Tomljenovich excel. But rising above the sweet fray is an innovative, clever, downright inspired savory side that takes cues from world cuisine, pop culture and odd ideas: ricotta, balsamic roasted mushrooms, mozzarella, roasted tomatoes (the Bruno Mars); the Game of Thrones, a teenager’s request for squab and boar themed food that became a pork and chicken hand pie with prosciutto; and a meat loaf, mashed potato and green beans “Christmas Story” pie. Cutie pies, pie pops, superior hand pies, minis, pies in Mason jars, full sized—everything from a single bite to a family affair that fulfills the sweet tooth or the hearty appetite. “We’ve spent the last three years proving ourselves,” Stacey says. “I think we’re getting there.” Audubon Park; crazyforpies.com—J.H.
Critic’s Pick: Impact Award
John Rivers, 4Rivers Smokehouse
After 10 years of 4 Rivers Smokehouse, with its enviable growth to 14 locations in two states, John Rivers has impacted the Orlando food scene on many levels, and brought about the very environment of what giving means in this community.
Rivers says the initial impetus of building his company was to give people jobs: “I didn’t start it to make money; I started it to help people. The better you run the business, the more people you can help.” His inspiration of starting small and focusing on food quality has sparked the careers of Hunger Street Tacos, Hawkers Asian Street Fare and many more, and his Cows ’n Cabs annual event has raised more than $520,000 for local charities.
The future of his 4Roots Farm and Agriculture Center, encompassing 40 acres in College Park, is staggering; this endeavor will change the face of Orlando’s food scene. Impacting elementary education by teaching kids where food comes from; giving fresh food access to an often neglected segment of the community; and building a fresh food hub to provide food for Orange County Public School campuses, 4R Smokehouses, and AdventHealth locations—all are goals of the project. Local farmers will learn new techniques and be able to use the farm’s cutting-edge processing facilities. Rivers’ foundation has already built educational farming programs at Ocoee and Edgewater High Schools, where students are growing the food that goes into their own cafeterias.
“Back to [my] roots, I was the odd man out,” he says. “We didn’t have a whole lot of money in Jacksonville; Mom is very Lebanese; she’d dress us a little funny, cut our hair. I gained an appreciation for what it’s like to be different; it provided motivation in my life.”
His goal, at the heart, is nourishing people, and that is the best impact of all. 4r-foundation.org —J.H.
Critic’s Pick: Empire Building Award
Sonny Nguyen Domu, Domu Chibi, Tori Tori
The first iteration of Domu opened at East End Market in 2016, a sophisticated ramen house before house-made noodles became a local craze, with Chef/Owner Sonny Nguyen bringing a rock/hip hop sensibility to honored traditions. The depth of flavor and respect for ingredients has produced slow-cooked bone broths, house-made noodles, and some of the best crispy kimchee butter-coated wings ever made. Domu’s head-spinning expansion has spread to Domu Jacksonville and Domu Chibi (“little Domu”) in the Waterford Lakes Town Center, where quick ramen and small bites are served. After a year of regulatory limbo, Japanese pub Tori Tori will open this summer in the Mills 50 District, offering food and crafted cocktails. The second full Domu opens at The Marketplace in Dr. Phillips soon after.
Nguyen grew up in Winter Haven, the son of restaurateurs. “I was a restaurant kid,” he says. “There’s always a back room where the kids hang out with the spare chairs. It helped me understand the business; it’s in my blood.” His connections with Bento Group and Avenue Gastrobar furthered his business background, along with an accounting degree from UCF.
“I go into this every day like my life depends on it. I have all these lives on my shoulder, I have to keep jobs for everybody. That’s a lot to bear for a business owner.”
Nguyen has a vision beyond his own restaurant walls. “All of us who are going to help influence the food scene in Orlando,” he says, “need to push the envelope as much as we can.” domufl.com; facebook.com/toritoripub —J.H.
Critic’s Pick: Rising Stars Award
Joseph & David Creech, Hunger Street Tacos
The 2017 winners for Best New Restaurant took a tremendous risk by presenting an “elevated Mexican dinner” at the Edible Education Experience last year. Crafted by co-owners Joseph and David Creech, with chefs Bruno Fonseca and Albert DeSue, the meal explored marrow and mushrooms, esquites, nopal and 30-ingredient mole. It turned out to be an unforgettable excursion into Mexican cuisine.
The remarkable food being made every day at Hunger Street only scratches the surface of the Creech brothers’ capabilities. There are depths to the combinations of ingredients, the immediacy of hand-nixtamalized heirloom corn, the intimacy that comes from deep respect for the culture and its food. And with Maricela Gomez of Mexico City recently named sous chef, those experiences are expanding further.
“Mexican food is bottomless, it’s endless,” Mexican born and raised Joseph Creech says. “We always want to be at the creative front of that. Deep in my heart, its more than the food, it’s the people. It’s the culture. If we can be pushing real food in a fast-casual environment, that’s really exciting to me.”
He looks toward moving beyond fast casual “in time,” and plans on further events at Winter Park event spot The Heavy, including collaborations with Ravenous Pig chef Camilo Velasco. “We use the Nahuatl word ‘cuate’; it means twin, a bond between both sides of the table. There’s nothing that helps you understand a culture better than sharing a meal.” West Fairbanks Avenue, Winter Park; hungerstreettacos.com—J.H.