At three decades and counting, Park Plaza Gardens continues to impress.
It’s very likely that someone you know has been eating at the Park Plaza Hotel since before you were born.
Built in 1922, the Park Plaza (originally the Hamilton Hotel) had a restaurant called the Hamilton Room in what is now the street-fronted café. It was considered the height of luxury, with linen tablecloths, waiters in starched white aprons and butter, lots of butter. The hotel was purchased in the ’70s and renamed by the Sprang family, who extended the restaurant into an open-air courtyard on what was a parking lot. In 1980, the Park Plaza Gardens concept was born, adding a glass-covered ceiling and an upscale but casual feel.
“PPG,” as habitués call it, has gone through some changes over the past 30 years, including the addition of “Chef Justin’s” to the name when Justin Plank ran the kitchen on his way between Disney and points north. Now just PPG again, the kitchen is under the command of executive chef John Tan, Plank’s former sous-chef, who has a deft hand at introducing new tastes while faithfully recreating old Park Plaza favorites.
I’m told by the management that the restaurant’s 30th anniversary promotion, which featured menu items and pricing from 1980, was a great success, bringing in nostalgic fans of broiled grapefruit, lobster thermidor and mussels mariniere, dishes not often seen in today’s restaurants. That promotion ended in October, so we have to settle for some well-executed dishes from the contemporary menu.
The room is still airy and sophisticated, the waiters are still liveried, and the cooking is at times as crisp as the tablecloths. Having honed his craft in his parents’ restaurant in Singapore, Chef Tan has learned to understand the American palate without leaving his love of Asian flavors behind. You can see his subtle hand in, for example, the anise-scented five-spice roasted pork tenderloin ($22), slow roasted until it practically falls apart at a glance, its deep and complex flavor offset by a sweet and slightly spicy mango salsa.
Ask for the crab cakes ($23) and be greeted by a panko-crusted patty of jumbo lump meat (from the tender and substantial back leg of the blue crab) complemented by the tang of fresh caper remoulade. It’s one of the better cakes in town.
With a history this long, the restaurant has regulars who’ve come to expect certain items, and those labeled “Signature” on the menu continue to have loyal followers. I don’t really get the fuss made over truffles, but I will admit to being a fan of the “Signature” truffle fried potatoes ($7), substantial French fries made even earthier by a generous topping of herbs, truffle oil and shaved Parmesan. The lunch menu offers more PPG traditions: prawns Provencal ($13), three shrimp so perfectly prepared they snap, served in a garlic, lemon and white wine sauce; and a curried chicken salad ($10), smolderingly yellow with curry spice and sweet with shredded coconut and black currants. This chicken salad is so popular that there would be an uprising in the streets of Winter Park if it were discontinued.
Entrées are generous and filling. Crab-stuffed grouper ($27) combines the flaky white fish with lump crab in a caper sauce with a good balance of salty and acidic, with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and a well-prepared jasmine rice added to the plate. The tenderloin filet ($29) is a tribute to the beef and a pleasure from start to finish.
A newly-appointed private dining space in the back of the atrium will be the home of themed dinners, including a Southern Decadence offering and an East-meets-West menu. That’s a John Tan creation I will be eager to try.
Even after all these years, there are people who pass by the hotel, and even have a drink in the café bar, who don’t realize there’s a solid and enjoyable restaurant just a few feet away. Poke your head through the door; you’ll be pleased by the discovery.
ADDRESS 319 Park Ave. S., Winter Park