The new Sear+Sea Woodfire Grill at J.W. Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek
With a passionate chef and a stellar gin selection, Sear + Sea Woodfire Grill and its Lobby Bar are making a splash.
The JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek was poised to debut on the Central Florida scene in March 2020, bringing new upscale dining options to the Disney area. And then COVID-19 happened.
Ultimately, the pandemic led to a delay, and the resort, situated on the edge of Disney property, quietly opened in July of last year—and with it, the hotel’s signature restaurant, Sear + Sea Woodfire Grill. The circumstances, as with many of 2020’s events, proved to be a mixed bag of curses and blessings, Chef de Cuisine Alex Pyser shares. “Closing down right before our grand opening, there were a lot of things that we needed to work out,” he recalls. While many of the team members who opened the restaurant had experience, this was still a brand new restaurant. There were processes to learn, relationships to forge. Having that slow period gave Pyser a chance to tweak the menu and work the kinks out. He jumped right in.
Early on during menu development, the chef’s office was a room in a trailer on a construction site. There was no kitchen to test in, no plates to build dishes on. But the show had to go on. “So, I’d come in with colored pencils, and I’d literally draw the dishes.”
The concept of Sear + Sea—part steak, part seafood—came from corporate, but Pyser was eager to get in there and create something special. When he was hired, “We had a menu that was drafted. Words on paper. It was up to us to take the words and create the reality behind them and work through the different sourcing of ingredients, and what dishes we wanted to be the focal point.”
Using local suppliers was important to him. “We wanted to stick with as many local purveyors and ingredients as we possibly could,” he says. “I want to source local Florida fish. The red snapper is coming out of Vero Beach or Pompano Beach or Destin. I’m able to source those fish every week right off of a truck.” And he prefers to buy fish whole for the restaurant. “Fabricating it and using every part of it is important to me. And all of that comes from local fishermen. It’s supporting the local businesses, as much as we can throughout the area.”
During my first visit to the resort, I was struck with the serenity that the entire property inspires, with its sleek, modern finishes in wood and stone and abundant natural light. Directly ahead as you enter the lobby from the drive, you get your first glimpse of Sear + Sea Bar.
Don’t dismiss this as just another hotel watering hole: it’s special. Sure, the capable and friendly bar staff are more than happy to make you any standard cocktail you desire. But the real treasure lies in the bar’s extensive—and that’s an understatement—gin program. Gin enthusiasts will find more than 100 examples of the spirit from around the world available for sampling in cocktails, mixed simply with soda or tonic—or even sipped neat. The collection is the largest in Central Florida, the staff believes.
Guests eager to learn can build their knowledge by partaking in gin flights. The bartenders will chat with you to discover a little more about your likes and preferences, and the two of you can go from there. They can also suggest the perfect gin for your martini, or tell you which mixer goes best with your choice. For my part, after an agreeable evening exploring the extensive menu (which also has a handy timeline of gin history printed on the reverse), I am now on the hunt for Whitley Neill Quince Gin; thanks to bartender Nate, I am fully obsessed with obtaining a bottle of this slightly sweet gin that sips more like a liqueur than a liquor.
On a separate visit to enjoy dinner, I was keen to journey through the menu, and I asked Pyser to choose the dishes that I’d sample. After he queried me about my preferences, he opted for a selection of courses that were more Sea and less Sear—but that was perfectly fine with me.
Gin also figures prominently in the restaurant’s menu, so I began with one of the cocktails featuring that spirit, the Rosemary Beret, a delicate blend of Hendrick’s Gin, torched rosemary, raspberry and lemon. One look at it, and you might imagine that it contains egg white to produce that delicate foam crown. However, the bartenders use aquafaba instead, the liquid from canned chickpeas, to produce the froth. Guests with egg sensitivities or who follow a vegan diet need not fear.
Next, I sampled the Octopus. While I realize it’s is a very popular dish—it seems to be on practically every menu these days—it’s not something that I love. I just don’t appreciate the texture. But Pyser suggested that I give his version a try, and I agreed. I have to admit, he was right; I didn’t find the texture to be too chewy, and the accompanying chimichurri and aji amarillo made for a beautiful plate and a tasty combination. His method of preparation, which includes salting the octopus, seems to be the secret. If you’ve ever shied away from ordering it but want to, give it a try here.
My favorite dish of the evening, however, was the Tuna Crudo. This is one of the few plates that you’ll find on both the bar and restaurant menu, and here’s where we begin to explore the use of gin throughout both bar and restaurant.
There was a desire to tie the bar and the restaurant together—and gin was the bridge. For the crudo, the fish is soaked in gin for 30-45 minutes before being treated with a cure that includes juniper and pink peppercorns. As a result, the clean flavor of the tuna takes on the botanicals of the gin. The crudo is topped with a bit of caviar and finger lime fruit—tiny pellets of sour flavor that burst on the tongue—before being blanketed with an ethereal layer of lemon foam. “It adds just a touch of modesty, if you will,” explains Pyser.
Gin also pops up in the restaurant’s pepper. “All of our peppercorns are soaked in gin for 48 hours and then dehydrated. Our steaks are seasoned in the gin pepper, and our tableside pepper service uses our gin-infused peppercorns,” Pyser says.
While I enjoyed one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, the Olive Oil-Poached Halibut, as my entree, you’ll also find an excellent Branzino on the menu as well as a selection of steaks ranging from an eight-ounce Filet Mignon to a 38-ounce Tomahawk Ribeye. Accompaniments are thoughtful and delicious. While I didn’t try the Branzino on this visit, Pyser prepared some of the Crispy Quinoa that he was serving with the dish at the time, and both in terms of flavor and texture, it was exceptional.
That attention to detail seems to be what elevates the food here. For example, one of the restaurant’s most popular side dishes is Pimento Mac & Cheese. It sounds simple enough, but every component of the dish is scratch-made—right down to the rigatoni. “I came from Italian kitchens, and making pasta was just part of your day,” says Pyser. “So even though it’s just one item, we still wanted to take the time to make a good semolina pasta dough, for that rigatoni, for that one side dish.”
As business continues to grow, Pyser also looks forward to offering a “secret menu” of specialties—something he’s able to do, in part, because of his commitment to ordering only whole fish. Take for instance snapper collar, which he regularly offers to regulars as something extra, or because they know to ask for it. “It’s my absolute most favorite part of the fish, and it’s not something that will go on the menu,” he explains, because there are only two collars to every fish. Still, it’s a fun way to delight his guests.
And that really embodies my experience at Sear + Sea: this is a team who cares. From the thoughtful sourcing of local ingredients, to the way plates are built, there’s an attention to detail that you might not expect from a resort hotel. Chef Pyser is crafting an intimate dining experience for guests that is sure to be a memorable part of a visit for the local or visitor alike. And as our tourism industry continues to rebound, I think we can continue to see exciting things from this restaurant.