Bar 17 Bistro: Elevated Standards
Bar 17 Bistro at Universal’s Aventura Hotel boasts great views and an inventive menu.
Orlando, with its wide profile and lack of physical height, is like a bulldog puppy: low to the ground, dashing out as far and fast at it can run. So our food scene has stuck to the ground floor, and restaurants with views are still a novelty, easily counted on a few fingers. The fireworks-lit decks outside Capa at the Four Seasons and California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary Resort; downtown Orlando skyline with drinks at ONE80 Skytop Lounge at the Amway Center; and… that’s it. Manuel’s on the 28th is long gone, Citrus Club’s 18th floor perspective of downtown is a members-only affair, and the rumored Circo Orlando high atop the still-in-development Hollywood Plaza vanished via bankruptcy.
But those yearning for a dining room with a view have a new winning choice at Universal Orlando. Bar 17 Bistro sits high atop the new Aventura Hotel, the latest Universal property at the moment (the two hotels of Endless Summer Resort are being built as we speak). The 17th floor lounge’s sharp-edged modern décor and enchanting views are matched by a casual, finely tuned menu courtesy of Executive Chef Mouhssine Benhamacht (“Mousse” to all), who looks far too young to have the depth of experience he brings to Orlando.
Benhamacht was raised in Teflit, Morocco, and has family to thank for his culinary curiosity; he grew up watching his father and grandfather, both butchers. It gave him a respect for not only the final product but what goes into a dish.
As Benhamacht says, “Greatness comes from a lot of small, perfect ingredients.” And nothing proves his point quite so well as a surprising menu item: fried rice. At $7, the deceptively simple dish is saturated with rich flavors, adding charred baby cornlets, crisp Brussels sprouts leaves, a fried egg and well-seared prosciutto ham to pan-fried rice. You may want to overlook it—but don’t.
Bar 17 Bistro
There are touches of China, Spain, France, Japan and the good old U.S. in his cooking at this sky-high locale—everything from bao buns (braised pork belly, splendid duck confit with turmeric citrus aioli, and even better firecracker shrimp with an orange chili glaze; $4 each) to simple but perfect prime rib grilled cheese with Vermouth cheddar (I believe the proper word is elegant; $14).
Most recently, Chef Benhamacht was exec at the quirky Meraki Market in San Francisco, following posts at New York’s Spice Market under legendary Chef Jean George Vongerichten; Loews Atlanta Hotel alongside Master Chef Olivier Gaupin; Napa’s Meritage Resort and Spa; and as chef de cuisine at Maritana Grille at the pink palace of The Don Cesar in St. Pete Beach. He’s learned lessons at each stop, and judging by the impressively cooked grilled Spanish octopus ($14), dressed with Catalonian almond romesco sauce and herb oil, he’s learned well. A simply plated tuna tartar atop a disc of seaweed salad and house-made pickled radish had the proper balance of tartness ($16). The most expensive item, a seared hanger steak with “pomme frites” offers proof of Benhamacht’s childhood understanding with beef ($26).
Glorious views (and unimpeded sunsets), a relaxing place for crafted after-theme-park cocktails until 2 a.m., and a well-considered menu from a talented chef…the only place for Bar 17 Bistro to go is up.
Bar 17 affords a westward view of the glowing Krakatau mountain at Volcano Bay. East are the lights of Fun Spot America with downtown Orlando in the distance. A look south reveals the ICON Orlando wheel and 450-foot-tall Orlando Starflyer. The attractions of Universal theme parks can be brilliantly seen due north (watch patiently for a flash of amber light; that’s the dragon above Gringott’s bank breathing fire).