Puttin’ on the Ritz, Y’all

At Highball & Harvest, Chef Mark Jeffers serves up scrumptious Southern fare in posh surroundings.

Back in a simpler time, restaurants were named after their owners. Manny’s, Vick’s, Chef Henry’s. Then the urge to conjure up evocative images took over: the throwback to royal Britain of Victoria & Albert’s; Memories of India; Fiddler’s Green.

These days the sign above the door can take a moment to puzzle out. Txokos. Tchoup Chop. Se7en Bites. Highball & Harvest, the latest addition to the collection of excellent restaurants at Grande Lakes Orlando (Norman’s, Primo) is an exceptional (and quite literal) new proponent of field-to-table dining, but there’s more behind the title than cocktails.

The chicken and dumplings features braised breast atop gnocchi.

The first “H” in Highball & Harvest refers not just to distilled delights but also to the railroading history of our area, when the Florida Midland Railway ran near the property and a clear, unobstructed stretch of track was called a highball. H&H sits in the posh Ritz-Carlton Orlando hotel, replacing the former Vineyard Grill with a club-like atmosphere of dark wood and images from Florida’s past. The wraparound marble bar features a drinks menu reminiscent of a rail station timetable, and the attached raw bar serves up exquisite oysters from local and seasonal cold-water sources. Much produce comes from the 13,000-square-foot Whisper Creek Farm on Grande Lakes property.

Chef de Cuisine Mark Jeffers grew up in Port Orange, and credits his mother with inspiring him to embrace the kitchen. “My mom, not being the best cook” he says, “would tell me ‘if you don’t like it, make it yourself.’ So I did.” Excursions to North Carolina and New Orleans, and a degree from Orlando’s Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, led to the unfortunately short-lived Adair’s in College Park (great she-crab soup) and finally to the Ritz-Carlton Orlando. 

Jeffers says he’s a student of Southern food history, and looks to the past in order to move forward. His chicken and dumplings ($28) leaves behind the saucy stew with “goopy dumplings” (as Jeffers describes the tradition); instead a braised breast with herb gnocchi is served in thyme gravy velouté, a light, roux-thickened broth that lets the other ingredients shine through. 

Highball & Harvest
Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes 
4012 Central Florida Parkway, Orlando
Entrees: $16-$32

The intensely flavored shrimp and grits ($16/25) uses tender Canaveral red shrimp in season over hearty Anson Mills grits from South Carolina and a fennel and charred tomato sauce that adds smoke and licorice notes.

The touches of preserving throughout the menu are all Jeffers’ creations: corn chow-chow on the crab cake; fried pickle slices; pickled watermelon rind and green tomato chutney. The Southern Spread ($16) is a combination pimento cheese, a tongue-awakening assortment of pickles and superb smoked fish dip, all served in a metal tackle box with crispy breads. Jeffers smokes brisket ($18) not from beef, but tender and rich lamb, a la west Texas, and serves it with “baked beans” made with boiled peanuts that have nothing to do with those muddy goober peas sold roadside.

Much is made of the novel cask wine system, which delivers as many as 16 domestic varieties from stainless steel casks straight to the glass and eliminates bottles; in fact, the eager explanations seemed almost apologetic, as if the Ritz clientele would be put off by the thought of wine on tap. Time, I’m sure, will temper the intensity.

There’s no doubting the talent steering the menu at Highball & Harvest. We should all thank Mrs. Jeffers for sending her son to the kitchen. 

The Kick of a Mule

I’m not usually a mixed-drink person, but among H&H’s crafted cocktails, replete with small batch liquors and hand-muddled herbs, the Doc Holliday and its copper mug caught my eye. Made with Tito’s corn vodka from Texas, a dollop of blueberry jam and superb house-made ginger beer, it is a Florida mule, if you will, and dangerously refreshing.

Categories: Reviews