2021 Dining Awards: Editor’s Choice Part 1

Our Editor makes selections from around Central Florida.

Orlando Dining Trends | Editor’s Choice 1 | Editor’s Choice 2 | Readers’ Choice List | In Memoriam: Chuck Cobb | In Memoriam: Francisco “Chico” Mendonça

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(ROBERTO GONZALEZ)

Editor’s Choice: Best Restaurant

The Osprey

theospreyorlando.com

When Jason and Sue Chin first opened The Osprey in March of 2015, they wanted to create a place to express their culinary passion outside of their first successful venture, Seito Sushi, which had been founded by Jason’s father. The young married couple, who met at Seito, travelled extensively, and were exposed to the rich food scenes in other parts of the country—especially Chicago.

Travel sparked inspiration: “Why didn’t we have something like this in Orlando?” Jason recalls thinking. “Maybe we need to do it. Maybe it needs to be us doing cool concepts,” like they were seeing in other major U.S. cities, he adds.

The couple were already passionate about exploring cuisines. “Jason had so many ideas of what he wanted to do, culinary-wise, but we were limited because Seito is a Japanese concept,” says Sue. They felt they couldn’t really venture outside of that framework.

From that idea, The Osprey Tavern was born—a place where Jason could step out on his own and try something different. It was also important to the couple to start their next venture in Baldwin Park, where Seito had thrived.

Finding their focus took a little time, however.

Originally known as The Osprey Tavern, Jason explains that “we called it a tavern to give it that neighborhood feel, but a bit more special than what most people would think of as a tavern. We wanted to take a more elevated approach,” he says, and cites The Gramercy Tavern in New York as one of their guiding influences. “We wanted it to be seasonal and chef-driven.”

In hindsight, the couple think they were a bit ambitious, and ultimately decided to narrow the scope of the restaurant from gastropub, honing in on seafood as their centerpiece, adding that focusing on seafood was always their intention.

“That’s why we named it ‘The Osprey,’ after a water bird,” explains Sue.

Jason is quick to agree. “One thing I knew we wanted from the very beginning: oysters. The oyster bar was not an afterthought; front and center, we wanted to have a nice display, have all of these beautiful oysters on ice. Because I love them,” Jason says, with a laugh. “It’s one of the perfect foods.” But being a seafood concept felt too risky to them.

It took a pandemic to change that.

While closed, they decided it was the right time to change direction. “We had an ‘aha’ moment,” explains Jason. “We were trying to be all things to all people. We thought, ‘Now’s the time to change it.’”

And the result has been truly delicious, with dishes such as Whole Yellowtail Snapper served on a bed of crunchy carrot salad; Hearth Roasted Shrimp with pimenton butter and marble potatoes; and Mussels kissed with the brightness of harissa and toast to sop up the irresistible broth.

Michael Cooper, pictured above, was tapped as executive chef in 2020. His philosophy of sourcing local and sustainable ingredients, especially seafood, was the perfect match for the restaurant’s new direction. “There’s so much stuff that you can get locally that’s good quality. It might be more expensive” than farmed supermarket seafood, he says. “But it’s worth it. That just makes you work a little harder to use everything, to make it worthwhile.”

Chef Cooper has worked in kitchens since he was 14, including a long stint at Luma on Park, from 2011 until the time they closed in 2020. While there, he moved up from line cook to chef de cuisine. He enjoys the freedom he has at The Osprey to execute his vision for the restaurant.

Regarding the shift to a seafood-centric menu, Chef Cooper and his team are striving for excellence. His next big undertaking: the Monterey Bay’s sustainability certificate for restaurants. “It’s something we’ve been working towards, to make sure that our menu is not only mostly local Florida fish that people can recognize and name, but also that it’s sustainably sourced.”

Because of the emphasis on sustainability, he’s quick to put one false notion to rest: Not all farmed fish is bad for the environment. “There are some local Florida fish farms that do pompano, and Blue House Salmon in Homestead is really great. It’s just a desire to get people to eat more seafood, but in a more responsible way.”

A year later, with a new executive chef driving a new direction, and with dining out more or less recovered from the height of COVID-19 shutdowns, I ask Jason what the result of this seismic shift has been. Deep satisfaction, he says. “We’re very happy with where we are. Seeing a menu that just makes so much more sense. The restaurant has found its soul.” —Brooke Fehr

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(ROBERTO GONZALEZ)

Editor’s Choice: Best Chef

Jason Campbell, Luke’s Kitchen and Bar

eatatlukes.com

Jason Campbell, executive chef at Luke’s Kitchen and Bar, is no stranger to the upper echelons of chef-dom. But his journey there begins right here.

The Orlando native attended culinary school at the now-shuttered Le Cordon Bleu Orlando  before working in some of Orlando’s most notable—albeit a bit uninspiring—kitchens. His career took a sharp turn in the right direction, however, when he dined at Ravenous Pig. Blown away by the meal, he asked if they were hiring. They were. He joined the team and worked his way up to sous chef. “It was a huge stepping stone for me. I was working in one of the city’s best restaurants and I was a sous chef.”

Soon, however, his path took another turn—this time, because his wife was transferred with her job to Cincinnati. There, Campbell went to work for 21C Hotels as a sous chef at their restaurant, Metropol. He continued to climb and attained the role of chef de cuisine. The company then approached Campbell and offered him the chance to become the executive chef at a new 21C Hotel opening in Oklahoma City.

While the professional challenges and growth were exciting and fulfilling, Campbell had a desire to move back home, and started looking for an opportunity. Reconnecting with James and Julie Petrakis at Ravenous Pig led to an introduction to Chef-Partner Brandon McGlamery at Luke’s—and the rest is history.

Campbell sees the journey as coming full circle. “It’s very good to leave and see other things, but I really wanted to cook back in my hometown again.”

His commitment to cooking with seasonal, local ingredients is the spark that ignites magic in his kitchen. “Cooking seasonally is the way I was brought up. It helps us stay creative, stay moving forward, testing ourselves to see what we can do with the same ingredient we had last year, but that’s approachable and fun and a little bit different. We look forward to every season,” he shares.

That approach provides inspiration for guests, and for his team. “You don’t always have to do the same thing. You can switch the ingredients up, having new menu items on your station,” he explains. “That’s exciting. That creates great morale in the kitchen. And great morale leads to great things. I think keeping them excited, keeping it fresh is part of that inspiration. Because when they get excited, I get excited.”

Mentoring his team is at the core of his belief system. “Somebody took time with me to get me where I am today,” so he wants to do that, too. “It’s that ‘pay it forward’ idea. Our industry can only get better if we continue to do these things.” —B.F.

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(ROBERTO GONZALEZ)

Editor’s Choice: Best Brunch; Readers’ Choice: Best Restaurant

Reel Fish Coastal Kitchen and Bar

reelfishcoastal.com

Walk up to Reel Fish Coastal Kitchen and Bar in Winter Park, and you feel like you’ve somehow been transported to any number of Florida sleepy coastal towns, where the fish on your plate was swimming in nearby waters just a little while ago. With special attention given to sustainability, the locally-owned restaurant prides itself on offering the freshest fish and seafood available, specializing in locally-sourced Florida catches from both the Atlantic and Gulf. Oysters are a particular specialty and come three ways: Raw, Roasted or Rockefeller. At any given time, look for 6-12 different varieties on the menu, including options such as Saucy Ladies, Panacea and more. But Taco Tuesdays, Get Reel Happy Hours and daily Blackboard Specials offer plenty to write home about as well.

While our readers have identified Reel Fish as their pick for favorite restaurant, we’re especially fond of their brunch, with its emphasis on delectable seafood-centric, breakfast-y dishes. Shrimp and Grits, that darling of Southern menus any time of day, is especially notable here, with the addition of sweet Mayport shrimp and flavorful Tasso ham gravy. But the Crab Benedict and Shrimp and Avocado Toast are equally delightful. BOGO brunch drink specials help to get the party started, and ensure its continuation into lazy weekend afternoons. —B.F.

Monroe, A Restaurant By Good Salt, Interiors , Photo By Roberto Gonzalez

(ROBERTO GONZALEZ)

Editor’s Choice: Best Newcomer

The Monroe

themonroeorlando.com

When Jason and Sue Chin set out to create a new restaurant concept in Creative Village, they didn’t know that they’d be battling slowdowns on every front, thanks to COVID-19. The massive development project, which lies in Parramore and is home to Downtown campuses for both UCF and Valencia State College, experienced delays due to everything from lockdowns to labor shortages to supply chain interruptions. Undaunted, the project moved forward, and the beautiful space opened earlier this year to positive reviews. The lower price point of plates and the convivial, community-driven vibe have been a draw for both foot traffic—the restaurant is located on the first floor of the Julian Apartments—as well as drawing in diners from neighborhoods close by, like College Park.

It really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The space, at once upscale and comfortable, is welcoming, and so are the dishes coming out of Executive Chef Josh Oakley’s kitchen. (Oakley is pictured above.) More comfort food than Southern, diners will delight in playful riffs on nostalgic favorites. You’ll find everything from the wildly popular Pastrami Corn Dogs, to Fried Chicken Plates, to the Chicken Soup, made even more comforting with chewy udon noodles. Recently, the chic spot has added lunch service, which joins the all-day coffee bar as well as happy hour and dinner. Next up will be an outdoor dining area featuring a separate menu, and will take advantage of its prime location across from a new park. Look for whimsical pop-ups in the future as well—events that are near and dear to the hearts of the folks at Good Salt Group, creators of The Monroe. —B.F.

Unreserved Beer Garden At Jw Marriott Bonnett Creek, Photo By Roberto Gonzalez

(ROBERTO GONZALEZ)

Editor’s Choice: Best Outdoor Dining

JW Marriott Bonnet Creek

marriott.com

Outdoor dining is more than just a fad these days; for many diners, it’s become the status quo for enjoying dinner out safely. Fortunately, we have some beautiful al fresco options to choose from. In a crowded field, however, JW Marriott Bonnet Creek sets a high bar. Each of its restaurants offers outdoor seating in a luxurious environment. On the ground floor, guests of Unreserved Food Bazaar or Unreserved Beer Garden can sit poolside, sheltered by the terrace above and shaded by umbrellas. Sear + Sea, the hotel’s signature dining restaurant, offers a wide terrace overlooking the ground level and plenty of space for guests. But the piece de resistance is illume, the property’s ninth floor rooftop terrace, offering Japanese cuisine and craft cocktails with a view of nearby Disney fireworks. Whether grabbing a beer, hankering for a steak, or tucking into sushi, you’ll find seating under the stars that’s perfect for every occasion. —B.F.

 

Editor’s Choice: Best Takeout

Hawkers

eathawkers.com

Named for the street vendors who serve authentic dishes throughout Asia, Hawkers delivers the eclectic energy of these vibrant markets in their Mills 50 and Windermere locations. From skewers to dim sum and noodles, there’s much to explore. Start with the Roti Canai and the Seoul Hot Chicken Baos, which are as fluffy as they are flavorful. To taste family recipes, opt for either Chee Cheng’s Char Kway Teow, a Malaysian classic and founders’ favorite; Yaki Udon, a spicy dish served with thick noodles and a savory sauce; or Pad Thai, a Hawkers staple. One of Hawkers’ greatest perks is its takeout arrangement. Available for both pickup and delivery via DoorDash, the food travels exceptionally well — that is, it isn’t packaged in your typical Styrofoam to-go containers. Instead, special care is taken to ensure the food quality is the same you’d receive when dining at the restaurant. Dishes without broths and sauces are packaged in sturdy cardboard boxes, making you feel like you’re unwrapping a food present each time you order. For menu items with sauces, like the fan-favorite Roti Canai, or broths, such as the noodle soups, liquids are packaged separately in containers with airtight lids. So even if you need to make a quick stop in traffic, you know your food is safe. The best part? The orders are always correct, so you won’t dig to the bottom of the bag to find something missing, like the Jo-hé Bag o’ Donuts for the ride home. —Jessica Swannie

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(ROBERTO GONZALEZ)

Editor’s Choice: Best Rooftop Dining

Skybar, AC Hotel Orlando

marriott.com

Soar above Orlando’s busy streets and leave the hustle and bustle behind at AC Orlando’s SkyBar for some of the best rooftop dining and drinking that Orlando has to offer. Situated right in the middle of the action, it’s the perfect place to meet for drinks before or after a show, or to enjoy one of the sexiest brunches that the city has to offer. The menu features exotic flavors and tapas-style dishes, inspired by Spain—the birthplace of the AC brand. For lunch and dinner, have a cocktail and snack on olives or Marcona almonds, or treat yourself to small plates such as Roasted Cauliflower or a Cazuela featuring either meatballs or herbed cheese and sundried tomatoes. More substantial offerings include the Flat Iron Steak and burgers made with your choice of beef or a Beyond Meat patty. Or indulge in the Sunday Elevated Brunch, the perfect way to kick off the week. Raise a mimosa (or two) with your pals as you indulge in decadent Creme Brulee French Toast, or the super fun Crispy Chicken and Churros. Look for themed brunches to launch this winter. —B.F.

 

Editor’s Choice: Best New Hotel Restaurant

Knife & Spoon, Ritz-Carlton, Grande Lakes

ritzcarlton.com

Knife & Spoon debuted at The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes just over a year ago, and has been making quiet culinary waves ever since. Created by Chef John Tesar of “Top Chef” fame, the restaurant is helmed day to day by another TC alumnus, Gerald Sombright. Tesar, who also owns restaurants in Texas, set out to create a steakhouse concept that was a cut above. The distinguishing difference is the dry-aging process that he uses on his beef, sourced from 44 Farms in Texas. (The restaurant also offers HeartBrand Akaushi beef as well.) With options for 45-day dry-aged beef being just the tip of the iceberg, guests can go for something extra special with 60-, 90-, 150-, and 240-day aged options, as well as non-aged beef. Steak is only half of the equation, however. Tesar and Sombright also show deft treatment of seafood with dishes such as King Crab “Scampi” and Jumbo Lump Crab Creole. Creativity meets the refined-yet-relaxed ambiance of The Ritz. You can’t go wrong. —B.F.

Categories: Dining, Dining Awards, Food & Drink