The Spanish mainstay is the star at Fuego, which offers a tasty selection of hot and cold dishes at its dining room inside Celebration’s Meliá hotel.
Theme park visitors looking for a quiet alternative to dining at the parks have a number of choices in the manicured and polished confines of Celebration, the New England-themed, Disney-created community in Kissimmee. Columbia, Thai Thani, even the Bar and Grill at the Bohemian Hotel offer interesting choices without the fantasy hoopla.
And there’s another hotel in Celebration, the Meliá, which has within its urban tailored walls a worthwhile restaurant called Fuego, offering cold and hot plates, both large and small, in the Spanish style.
You may be excused for not knowing about it. The hotel’s secluded location, some minutes away from downtown Celebration, is both an advantage and a hurdle for the restaurant, which offers a stylish dining destination for its base of hotel guests while trying to attract outside visitors.
Martini glasses provide an eye-opening presentation for the fish, shrimp and vegetable ceviche.
Originally called the Mona Lisa, the hotel was built in 2008 as a condominium resort, but crashed during the recession and was purchased by the Spanish Meliá hotel chain in 2011. Outside the U.S., Meliá operates more than 350 hotels as far flung as Cuba, Dubai, China and Tanzania. The Celebration site is, aside from a New York City location under construction, the company’s only stateside property.
The dining room space, used as a meeting room during Mona Lisa’s reign, opened as Fuego last November.
If you want a quiet meal in a fine restaurant, book an early evening table. You’ll likely be able to grab any one (or two, or a dozen) of the 70 seats. Most of Fuego’s customers are hotel guests, who breakfast early and head to the theme parks, returning in grand European and South American fashion for dinner well after 9 p.m., when the restaurant gets very packed very quickly.
Fuego’s executive chef, Timothy Schumacher, is a Miami native who began his restaurant career washing dishes on Sanibel Island, eventually moving to the Sheraton Safari hotel in Orlando and Via Napoli at Epcot before joining Meliá. He traveled to the hotel’s Mexican properties to get a feel for small plates, the tapas of Spain and botanas of Mexico. It was difficult to choose among the variety of hot dishes, so I went the inclusive route and ordered all six of them.
Albóndigas de cordero ($6) three attractive lamb meatballs, the moist and aromatic meat blended with sharp cheese, garlic and a generous measure of rosemary, are presented in a dark porcini sauce. Camarónes al ajillo ($8) looks like a plate of shrimp scampi, medium shellfish swimming in a pool of browned garlic and olive oil, but without the overbearing salt level that ruins the dish elsewhere. Good for dipping the lovely yeasty rolls (“Italian bread in a Spanish restaurant,” our waiter said with a laugh). The pulpoa la Gallega ($6) is a quintessential Spanish tapa, disks of tender poached octopus glistening with olive oil and mingled with firm potato wedges in a splash of sherry. A bit of peppery heat would have made it perfect. Other offerings include the tender Spanish version of fried calamari (breaded but not crispy; $7), a very popular garlic-infused mushroom dish ($4), and ham or chicken croquetas ($5).
The selection of warm tapas are available in larger entrée or side dish sizes for an additional cost (I’d definitely choose those lamb meatballs in a bigger portion), and there are also some well-executed platos pricipales, including chicken Scaloppini ($19) that covers tender cutlets in earthy garlic and Kalamata olives, and a grilled ribeye ($28), rubbed with hot and smoky Spanish spices, that would be at home in Galicia.
A remnant of the Mona Lisa, a 10-foot high stucco rendition of DaVinci’s famous beguiler’s face, graces a wall of the lobby, observing the front desk, and I’d wager probably unnerving the staff. Steel and dark wood dominate the restaurant, located at the top of an arching staircase, with an outdoor terrace that overlooks the pool. Service is attentive and accommodating (the people at the front desk still find diners not staying at the hotel a puzzle and sort of point silently at the staircase), and a good, potentially private meal is almost guaranteed.
The customary tapas menu is made up of cold dishes alongside warm, and Fuego’s selección frío is a perfect way to start the evening. A martini glass filled with fish, shrimp and vegetable ceviche ($7) is tart with citrus juice and alive with fresh flavors, and deep ruby-red slices of tuna carpaccio ($8) warm on the tongue like the finest sushi.