2020 Dining Awards: Critic’s Picks – Part 1
2020 Dining Awards | Critic’s Pick 1 | Critic’s Pick 2 | Readers’ Choice | Readers’ Spotlight | Critic’s Farewell
CRITIC’S PICK: BEST RESTAURANT
Jaleo springs from the mind of culinary giant José Andrés, who is not only a hi-viz ambassador of all things Spanish, but an activist humanitarian of the highest order. The Michelin, James Beard and Spanish Order of Arts and Letters winner (and Pulitzer Prize nominee) takes his fame and place in the world seriously, using the nonprofit World Central Kitchen he founded to feed and aid crisis points throughout the world—from 3.7 million meals served to Hurricane Maria survivors in Puerto Rico, to meals dropped to passengers on the Diamond Princess liner quarantined in Japan due to COVID-19.
But his focus remains on the food of Spain and creating impressive showcases for it. “To me, the essence of Spanish cooking is the farmers, the growers, the producers of all of the amazing foods that come from Spain,” Andres says. “You do not need to speak Spanish to know that a Manzanilla olive or a piece of Manchego is one of the most incredible things you can put in your mouth!”
Jaleo’s Disney Springs space is crafted in giant murals and minute details to reflect the vibrancy and modernity of Spanish culture. As an alumnus of the groundbreaking El Bulli, the experimental cuisine mecca in Barcelona, Andrés likes to play with forms, such as the famous aceitunas modernas y clásicas, combining olive juice gelled into a translucent sphere of pure olive flavor served alongside the more identifiable stuffed Gordal (“fat one”) olives from Seville. (Andrés objects strongly to the molecular gastronomy label usually placed on that dish.) The sound of pot banging and a shout of “PAELLA!” from the kitchen means that the signature rice dish, prepared over a massive open wood-fired pit, is ready for serving. Knowing what dining at Jaleo helps to accomplish might make you feel noble; eating the food will open your eyes to the world.
CRITIC’S PICK: BEST CHEF
Chau Trinh, Sushi Pop
In restaurants, like theater, we may recognize the performers and follow certain restaurants like eager audiences. But the ingredients change or go out of season, or a better one suddenly appears. The planets align and a moment of brilliant inspiration changes everything. Or the audience signs up for something unfamiliar and new.
Like theater, the best meals are ones that stay in your memory and become the standard to which others are compared. And that’s how it is when Chef Chau Trinh performs an omakase at Sushi Pop, a purely chef-driven meal of almost countless courses, a test of talent and taste where the diner surrenders control.
“That’s the whole idea about omakase,” Trinh, a 2013 Dining Hall of Fame inductee, says from Sushi Pop’s Winter Park location. “It’s a matter of seeing food from a different perspective.” In this intimate culinary encounter, Chef Chau utilizes a lexicon of tastes, aromas and presentation, imposing his preferences on the diner—the definition of omakase, the chef’s choice. The meal may include exotic fish from Japan, New England oysters and Midwestern beef, all prepared and served by Chau.
The chef also sees dining as performance. “Omakase is like seeing a really good show. There’s ebb and flow, rise and fall, some surprises, and some things you just know are going to be good. You’re leading up to that point. Not everything is anticipated or expected. You should have some ‘I wonder what’s going to be next’ moments.”
His viewpoint has matured since he opened the Oviedo Sushi Pop in 2011. “I’m coming back to more pure food, instead of being so flamboyant. It’s still a lot of fun to play with food, but for me, I’ve gone back to center, done in a way that’s thoughtful instead of thought of.”
The result is an elegant reminder of the art of food.
“I’ve learned how to cook simple things great,” Trinh says. “I love telling that story.”
CRITIC’S PICK: BEST NEWCOMER
Dexter’s New Standard
Ryan McLaughlin knows the pressure of opening a big, new space.
“This is an arduous project,” he says of Dexter’s New Standard in Winter Park. “I’ve opened restaurants before but not as executive chef. This is the culmination of a career in kitchens, putting all my knowledge in one thing, for the first time ever. You only get to open once.”
Chef McLaughlin has worked with two of the area’s finest culinarians: Kevin Fonzo at K and Bram Fowler at his almost legendary Journeys. He’s taken those lessons to heart, creating a menu of modern and inventive dishes like eggplant Napoleon, crab-stuffed beignets and teres major tartine, an open-faced sandwich made from an oft-neglected cut of beef (popular in New Orleans—showing one of McLaughlin’s influences).
“The label is ‘modern American,’ ” he says. “We have a diverse menu, things from all over the place.” The kitchen celebrates the new wave of Florida-farmed oysters from Indian River Lagoon and Apalachee Bay. Frog Song Organics, Waterkist Farms and Nearby Natural Mushrooms are just three of the other suppliers.
There are menus for lunch, brunch, late night and happy hour, and craft cocktails. Plus, a full sound stage for live bands, sometimes as many as three a night. Local musicians such as Kaleigh Baker and Hannah Harber share the stage with touring bands like Justin Townes Earle, and there’s the occasional evening of jazz. Music is programmed by local star Thomas Wynn. Lydia Murphy, the self described “Pastry Punk,” is a veteran of Smiling Bison and Osprey Tavern and fashions truly superb breads and desserts like orange curd cheesecake, as well as creating sour mixes and syrups for the cocktail bar.
The Harvest Board of tomato carpaccio, marinated turnip, grilled peppers, crisp raw radishes and more is a signature dish. “It’s an homage to what we’re trying to do with local farmers,” McLaughlin says. “A vegan option with different preparations, different textures, salty, sweet and spicy, changing with the season. Local tomatoes aren’t available all year so I appreciate them when they’re here.”
New owners Nathan and Kellie Landwer have taken the familiar Dexter’s name (the Lake Mary Dexter’s is a separate company) and created, appropriately, a new standard.
CRITIC’S PICK: RISING STAR AWARD
American Kitchen Bar & Grill
American Kitchen and its leader, Chef Venoy Rogers, are the epitome of multicultural, adventuresome cuisine. The fact that it’s stashed in the ground floor of a hotel (B Resort & Spa) on one of the busiest thoroughfares on Disney property means that it might get overlooked. But if that means you can consider American Kitchen your own personal secret, then by all means go and enjoy the craft of a kitchen that makes its own pasta, crafts its own sauces and house-ages some of the most respected beef in town. Utilizing uni from both coasts, Angus beef meatballs, house-smoked brisket and the best local ingredients, American Kitchen Bar & Grill merges Italian, Mediterranean, Southern and just plain fine cooking, and can only continue to rise.
CRITIC’S PICK: IMPACT AWARD
Ben Hoyer, Downtown Credo
When Downtown Credo opened its first location in College Park in 2010, Ben Hoyer’s goal was to serve fair trade coffee, with customers donating as much, or as little, as they want, proceeds benefiting the community. Credo existed to meet people’s needs rather than just handing out money.
And for some like-minded organizations (of which there are few), successfully accomplishing those goals would be enough. But not for Hoyer.
“The whole purpose hasn’t changed so much as evolved,” he says, 10 years into Credo’s existence. “And so have I.” Hoyer felt the hardships of competition and COVID, and decided to close the original Credo in May. With two remaining locations in the North Quarter and AdventHealth still operating, Credo continues to purchase coffee from independent farmers in Central and South America, and new connections with coffee growers in Mexico have allowed it to become a direct importer of beans.
Credo’s original mission of “inspiring the pursuit of meaning, impact, and community” has spawned different organizations under Hoyer’s communal umbrella: Rally, a social enterprise accelerator providing business mentorship and professional services; Credo Conduit, a collaborative workspace that connects makers, creative artists, education and civic engagement organizations; and Orlando Together, addressing race-related issues. All from coffee. “I had no idea how to do what I was doing 10 years ago, and I’ve realized that my real strength is in making these connections between people.”
As the Credo manifesto says, buying a cup of coffee is a big deal.
CRITIC’S PICK: EMPIRE-BUILDING AWARD
Hawkers Asian Street Fare
Wayne Yung, Kin Ho, Allen Lo and Kaleb Harrell started serving the then-unfamiliar Asian street food that would become Hawkers’ signature in 2011, quickly adapting an ex-Chinese restaurant to the needs of four sometimes disparate cuisines. The partners bused tables, took orders, and followed Vietnamese, Chinese, Malaysian and Hong Kong chefs around the kitchen while attempting to quantify their recipes for what they hoped would be a repeatable model.
“We opened by scraping together a few IKEA chairs and $78,000 from everyone dumb enough to give us money,” Harrell says. “We unlocked the door and everybody showed up to try it. Suddenly, all I could think was, ‘we’re stuck in this restaurant, the line is never going to stop and I just bought myself an expensive line cook job.’ But after six months, it began to work.”
Nine years later, the band is still together; the four original partners are still in the company, and Hawkers has seven company-owned locations in five states, with plans for four or five more once the economy recovers. The addition of Orlando chef Robert Walker (Harmoni Market, The Boathouse, Norman’s, Boheme) as director of food and beverage adds an extremely talented authority watching those kitchens.
Transformational changes are coming to Hawkers #1 on Mills Avenue, shifting and enlarging the structure of the building. “We’re going to give Mills the love it deserves,’’ Harrell says. “This is where it began; this restaurant deserves it the most.”
CRITIC’S PICK: BEST FOOD HUB
À La Cart
À La Cart is like visiting a friend with the coolest backyard ever. Surrounding a convivial lawn in Colonialtown is a libation-filled pavilion watched over by owners April and Dustin Williams, and spots for five or more stationary food trucks. Currently featured are bowls and bao from Poke Kai; oak-smoked barbecue and some of the best fried dough in town from Smoke & Donuts; offerings from Brazilian-themed Steak It Easy; and sweets and milkshakes from Dulce Pecado. The famed SwedeDish truck takes residence Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with falafel merchants Korgette doing business every Monday through Thursday. But À La Cart is more than a parking lot for food trucks—with events like brewery takeovers and special brews for holidays, including beers from Louisiana for Mardi Gras and sour brew specials for Galentine’s Day and Sour Fest. And with 15 taps pumping craft beers, cider, wine and Nitro coffee from Coterie on draft and in bottles and cans galore, it is the thirsty guest’s delight, all in one place.
CRITIC’S PICK: BEST DESSERTS
Mohsen Tehrani brings three generations of Iranian baking to Winter Springs in an industrial park shop filled with echoes of Tehran. Tiny chickpea flour, cardamom and pistachio nokhodchi cookies (btw, chickpea flour is gluten free); immensely satisfying barbari flatbread; rosewater and saffron flavored bamieh donuts and fried zulbia ribbon pastries—each exotic creation is another look into an often overlooked culture. Cream puffs, Swiss rolls, croissants and baklava merely hint at Tehrani’s other talents.
CRITIC’S PICK: BEST BREAKFAST
Nic & Luc Scratch Kitchen
Sometimes, simple is best. Chef Leroy Bautista turned his South Florida preserves-making business into a breakfast and lunch setting in Longwood, focused on clean and healthful eating. The menu showcases plant-based and farm-to-table: breads are from Olde Hearth Bread Co. a mere three miles away; produce comes from the area’s plethora of farmers markets. “People come in and want pancakes and full breakfasts, everything we don’t do. There has to be an alternative. I used to be 320 pounds, then I started to eat clean. It was miraculous.” The dining room shut temporarily mid-June, but Bautista still makes sweet creations like apricot lavender and mango habanero preserves; and savories like Trinidad scorpion pepper jelly and bacon jam to go with omelets and breakfast sandwiches, while his to-go box lunch (sandwich, house slaw and a cookie) keeps the pickup counter busy. His wife, Aurora, bakes preserve-filled pastry goodies like Nutella rolls and from-scratch lemon scones. Bautista also offers his kitchen as a commissary, with detailed guidelines on his website. Cocoa Brothers chocolate and iGarlicky Lebanese garlic sauce are just two benefiting from his business, and not just for breakfast.
CRITIC’S PICK: BEST PIZZA
This small, old-school Winter Park pizzeria gets its title from the rhythmically named Antonella Paradiso, whose husband, Francesco, is the pizzaiolo. Antonella’s brother, Leonardo LaCommare, is one of the chefs at Nonno’s in Altamonte Springs, the other being their father, Stefano LaCommare, who has practiced the art of Sicily-by-way-of-NYC Italian cooking in Central Florida for well over 20 years. Along with the standard offerings of pasta, multi-meat combo heroes and everything you can imagine parmigiana, Antonella’s turns out margarita, bianca and mushroom and pepperoni pizzas, laden with shredded cheese and tomato-tinted oil, that bring back memories of a sidewalk slice on the Grand Concourse in The Bronx.