Everything’s Just Ducky
Peabody’s Napa, with its innovative farm-to-fork cuisine, deserves ‘special place’ status.
There are certain places we reserve for special occasions. Birthdays, anniversaries, first dates and the remembrance of same require a treasured spot. But if one of your special spots was Dux at The Peabody Orlando, you’ve had to make other plans.
I don’t mean the famous ducks that waddle between the lobby fountain and the elevator that leads to their $100,000 penthouse; they still parade twice a day, led by their new duck master. I’m talking about the hotel’s former restaurant that shut its doors during a massive renovation last year. Dux was exceptional, and I’ll miss it. I’m happy to say, however, that the new standard bearer for innovative dining at The Peabody is called Napa, and it’s a winner.
There’s one word for the new Peabody: gigantic. The $450 million expansion added rooms, floors and acres of acreage. It takes quite a long time to walk from one end to the other (if you are so inclined), and it’s a good way to work up an appetite for the California-style items on the menu at Napa. The kitchen is led by chef Jared Gross, who has worked the hotel’s various restaurants since 1997 and comes to Napa from his job as chef de cuisine at the Peabody’s Italian steakhouse, Capriccio Grill. Gross is young enough to get excited by new twists on standard recipes, and seasoned enough to pull it off, such as the addition of a toasted truffle marshmallow topping to slow-simmered and sweet butternut squash soup ($8). I know how it sounds—trust me, it works.
Napa, the room, pretty well personifies upscale Northern California: polished dark wood, softly glowing lights, countless bottles of really good wine lining the walls. Napa, the kitchen, focuses on fresh ingredients and the farm-to-fork philosophy made popular by such West Coast chefs as Alice Waters and Thomas Keller long before the words local and sustainable began buzzing. The menu is an adaptable feast, fashioned around the freshest ingredients that neighborhood farms and suppliers can deliver at the time (Napa’s credo of “seasonal, local, organic, sustainable, whenever possible” is emblazoned on the menu), making a simple salad of multi-colored tomatoes from Sanford’s Waterkist Farms, house-made mozzarella and tangerine vinaigrette ($12) a blissful ode to local products.
Making mozzarella in the restaurant means they also have the byproduct of that process, ricotta, used to good effect in ricotta and crab cavatelli ($24), mixing soft cheese, fresh lump crab, rapini, Cippolini onions and chewy pancetta with a deep tomato confit and served over fresh pasta. The pasta was overcooked in my portion, but the flavors ran from mellow to sweet to slightly bitter and kept me interested.
Not everything comes from Florida, as seen in the choice of Angus beef from Colorado’s Meyer Ranch, although Gross says he’s investigating the superb meats available right here. Given his steakhouse background, you would expect the filet ($34) to be perfectly cooked, and it is, topped with an earthy white truffle butter and served with grilled asparagus and a rich thyme-infused mash of turnip, parsnip and carrot.
I’ve always been impressed by the seafood served at Peabody restaurants, and Napa keeps the streak intact with its black striped bass ($33), mild flaky flesh spiced up with cilantro cream. Peppery lump crab biscuits and a freshly made sweet corn pudding complete the plate. I actually would have liked some of those biscuits with the diver scallops ($23); while expertly pan-seared, the combination of white cauliflower purée and scallop, lightly drizzled with pistachio vinaigrette, needed something to kick it out of its paleness. Much zestier was the Maine lobster salad ($18), a generous serving of sweet crustacean pepped up with tangy grapefruit, sharp Napa cabbage and a flutter of Brussels sprout leaves.
As is the tradition at the Peabody, there is no duck on the menu—those marching mascots do have names, after all!—but you won’t miss it. There are many other treasures coming from the chefs at Napa, a spot worthy of replacing your special place.
ADDRESS 9801 International Drive, Orlando