Steak and seafood is The Palm’s bread and butter, and the venerable restaurant at Hard Rock Hotel excels at both.
I love a restaurant with history. We’ve got our own enduring favorites, places like Le Coq au Vin, Lee & Rick’s and Linda’s La Cantina that have been part of our dining scene for 30 years or more (in some cases, much, much more), and longevity usually means that they’re doing something right.
The Palm, located in the Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando Resort, opened in 2000. And while its local story as “a classic American steak house,” as general manager Michael Martin calls it, began a mere 13 years ago, the back story of a restaurant that prides itself on outstanding beef and seafood can be found in 1926 New York City.
The tale of its origin, heartily shared by manager and server alike, is that Pio Bozzi and John Ganzi arrived in New York from Italy in the 1920s, wanting to open a restaurant called Parma, after their hometown. The person in the license registry office misheard “Palm” in their accents, and a name was born. It’s the kind of legend you want to be true. That first location on Second Avenue near Grand Central Station still exists, and the original menu has changed little from those times and is shared by all the 30 other outstretched Palms, as far-flung as London and Mexico City. The grandsons of Bozzi and Ganzi now run the organization.
Shrimp Bruno is a seafood standout.
Walking into The Palm in the Hard Rock is an odd, time-warp experience. Posters of Moby Grape and Jimi Hendrix in the hallway and a display of one of Madonna’s stage outfits don’t prepare you for the wood-lined booths and low-lit elegance of the 200-seat space. Caricature sketches on the walls re-create the original restaurant’s décor, with personalities and cartoon characters from the ’20s and ’30s interspersed with local, modern-day regular diners. I’m afraid to say I didn’t recognize most of either variety: cartoonist and radio performer William “Jolly Bill” Steinke was just as unfamiliar as the happy-looking Orlandoan faces I could spot from my table.
But I could relate to the menu. Simple and well-done is the rule, and there are fewer items than you might expect from a sophisticated restaurant, but each one has earned its place.
Start out with tomato Capri ($13.90), what would be called a caprese salad these days, a juicy thick slice of beefsteak tomato layered on imported buffalo mozzarella. It’s a classic dish that is all about balance and contrast between the acid and fruitiness of the tomato and the silky texture of the cheese—unfortunately, I found a bit too much Balsamic vinegar in how it was served. Ask for the dressing on the side.
So much for missteps. The “Jumbo Lump” crab cake ($13.90) is just that, beautiful sweet shellfish in a preparation of celery and light, Old Bay-seasoned dressing. It’s an elegant dish and a bargain at the price. Seared ahi tuna ($19.30) is treated like sushi, with a bit of seaweed salad and wasabi on the side of the deep ruby red, high-grade fish. Shrimp Bruno ($16.90), three butterflied and breaded shrimp sautéed in a Dijon mustard sauce, shows off the richly flavored shrimp well. I’d be happy just ordering starters here.
But then I’d miss the main attraction.
Even if The Palm served only two items—the 9-ounce filet mignon and Nova Scotia lobster tail—it would be a must-visit restaurant. The large 15-ounce lobster ($56.90) is grilled with butter and a light breadcrumb topping. The meat served above the split shell makes for some lovely show business, and it was among the best lobster I’ve ever had, anywhere. New York strip, ribeye and enormous burgers share the steak list, but my choice is always filet. The steak ($44.90) hit all the clichéd selling points: tender, juicy, flavorful, but they were all true. A great char on the outside, an interior that is tender without being mushy (you know the kind) and a real flavor of beef, almost gamey in a good way, yet another throwback to simpler times.
The kitchen is very fast—I guess when your repertoire fits on two pages, things go quickly. The “10,000-Hour Rule” proposed by author Malcolm Gladwell says that expertise and success come from practicing something for 10,000 hours. Even a rough estimate says that the Palm kitchen hit that number many, many years ago, and the restaurant easily proves its expertise.
A great steak house means great side dishes. Scratch, made in-house, the expected standards—creamed spinach, hash browns—aare both here, but the three-cheese potatoes au gratin ($11.90) excels as the perfect comfort food; creamy, dense and alive with good cheese, indeed. The family-style portions are enough to share, but you might not want to.
5800 Universal Blvd.
(in the Hard Rock Hotel), Orlando
If you’re stuck in the same comfortable, but perhaps boring, spot known as your “favorite restaurant,’’ the eighth annual Orlando Magical Dining Month might open your taste buds to some new options. The 63 participating restaurants are offering a special three-course menu, laying out a sampling of the area’s best.
No lunches or staggered price points this year; dinner for $33 is the choice, but what choices you’ll have! Grand hotel eateries are participating: For example, Everglades Restaurant at the Rosen Centre offers Alligator Bay chowder, filet of venison wrapped in bacon (right), and a decadent double chocolate fudge “overload” cake. And Orlando magazine Dining Award winner deep blu seafood grille at the Wyndham Grand tempts with a lobster bisque, tiger shrimp linguine and chocolate mousse cake combo.
For a more intimate experience, Maxine’s on Shine, The Boheme and Park Plaza Gardens are on the Magical list, and this is the perfect opportunity to sample fare from featured superstar chefs Todd English and Emeril Lagasse and compare them with our own celebrities at K, Luma on Park and Chez Vincent.
One dollar from each meal goes to the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Florida; last year the promotion raised almost $68,000 for charity. Orlando Magical Dining Month runs September 1-30; check out some of the menus beginning on page 88. Full details and menus can be found at visitorlando.com/magicaldining.
– Joseph Hayes