At Earls, Chef Simon Zanotto’s energy is reflected in the delicious diversity of the menu, from avocado toast to chicken and ribs.
Having written about food in Orlando for quite some time, I think I’m safe in saying that we’ve never had a Canadian football-playing, opera-singing, ex-musical theater performing chef. Until now.
Meet Simon Zanotto, executive chef at Earls Kitchen + Bar, where he oversees a menu of far-reaching ambitions inspired by original founder Leroy Fuller’s world travels, including everything from sushi, fish tacos and fettuccini Alfredo to potato curry, ribs and Korean bibimbap rice bowls.
The 28-year-old Barnaby, British Columbia, native has been in Orlando since June but with Earls since he was 17. While fielding a football scholarship he moved into a theatrical track and studied opera—Zanotto earned a music scholarship and trod the stage while recording a Christmas album and working at Earls. All at the same time, during which he also attended culinary school. At 23, he became head chef at the flagship Vancouver Earls. “My life is a full plate,” says the energetic Zanotto, who scans the restaurant and fidgets in his seat while talking.
“We bake bread here every morning,” he says. “The only thing we don’t do in-house is ice cream—good, creamy vanilla gelato. And the fries; we have them made to our recipe.’’
Zanotto points out the avocado “Super Toast” ($11), a simple affair of smashed avocado with mini tomatoes and a touch of sriracha on a slice of baguette. A little bit of heat, a touch of acid from the tomato, good crunchy bread; it’s a good starter and if you start with this you’re off to a great meal. “Our menu is honest,” Zanotto says. “What you read is what you’re getting.”
A combo platter of ribs and chicken ($35 full; $25 half) offers 3½-hour-braised pork ribs so tender that a sharp knock on the plate is enough to separate meat from bone, along with a blackened chicken breast still glistening from the pan. Simple fresh-cut cabbage and new potatoes dressed in a multitude of bacon complete the meal, and it’s a winner.
Earls Kitchen + Bar
The Earls chain started out as a Vancouver burger and beer place in 1983, and burgers still play an important part. Ground Black Angus beef from Creekstone Farms in Kansas, grilled to a crisp exterior and served with thick, streaky bacon (not the Canadian kind) and sweet and salty house-made pickles on a dark brioche bun makes for one fine burger ($14.75). It’s perhaps the only time I haven’t been insulted with a soggy sweet brioche; this one is dense and hearty, a great match to the substantial beef.
There’s a Californian feel to this Canadian concern, The Mall at Millenia being its 68th location. Local artists like muralist Andrew Spear and photographer Bryan Soderlind are represented throughout the massive multi-level restaurant, eclectic with wood and marble, slatted benches and leather seats. The bar is surrounded by a stadium’s worth of TV screens at the front and one of the largest open kitchens I’ve ever seen, with grills, salad, sushi and bakery stations for as many as 20 cooks.
The multicultural menu comes from a fascinating concept, a test kitchen at headquarters that tries out as many as 20 recipes a week on the public before migrating them to the restaurants, which in turn become test kitchens for Earls’ guests. Clam chowder, chimichurri steak and kung pao chicken on the same table might open someone up to new experiences. And what’s bad about that… especially when it’s done this well?
Have a drink, eh?
Earls Orlando is one of the largest restaurants in the chain. And with a big space comes a big cocktail menu, the most adorable offering being the Bees Knees, a concoction of Aviation gin from Oregon, Cointreau, bitters, lemon and honey, served in a honey bear-shaped glass. Pitchers of Paloma cocktails—Espolon Reposado tequila and Mexican grapefruit soda—are particularly popular.