Legoland Florida, SeaWorld's One Ocean killer whale show, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal's Islands of Adventure — greater Orlando has a number of new additions that draw Tampa Bay area crowds. Based on a couple of recent trips east on I-4, there are some new restaurants that should prove just as magnetic. The Table Orlando near Sand Lake Road brings a stylish new five-course supper-club concept; Prato in Winter Park showcases Italian and Spanish fare featuring lots of locally sourced ingredients; and Hawkers in Orlando's Little Vietnam neighborhood draws together Malay, Chinese, Viet and Indian street foods.
The Table Orlando
Loren Falsone and co-owner/husband Tyler Brassil each bring impressive resumes to Restaurant Row's most exciting new dining concept. In 2000, Falsone was named one of Food & Wine's Top Ten Chefs while she was owner of Empire Restaurant in Providence, R.I., which Condé Nast Traveler deemed one of the "top tables in the world" that year. She moved to Florida to become the executive chef at Seasons 52. Brassil opened 15 restaurants in his career before becoming a chef instructor at Le Cordon Bleu in Orlando, where Falsone also now teaches classes.
The idea for the Table coalesced around Valentine's Day in 2009. Loving to throw lavish dinner parties but hating the expense, they wondered if they could charge money — maybe a $50 donation for a many-course dinner paired with wines? They took all the table in their house and put them end to end to form one long communal table. And people loved it.
Fast-forward a couple of years and the table in question is now a 22-foot by 5 1/2-foot table made of swirly Brazilian granite under a dramatic, dangly glass chandelier. It seats 22 people. Customers can reserve the entire space for special parties, or pay $100 for a set five-course meal, each course paired with wines, and enjoy a Friday or Saturday evening with a bunch of other people. Those people may be strangers at the beginning of the evening, but if our experience is any indication, by meals' end they are friends (well, maybe the people way at the other end of the table are still just acquaintances).
Falsone is the main force in the kitchen, with a tremendous eye for unexpected but symbiotic pairings. Our meal began with a smoked "artichoke stuffed artichoke," a puree of artichoke heart and acorn squash filling the center of a perfect braised artichoke, the leaves pulling out to be waggled in a perfect shallot and local herb vinaigrette. A bracing Domaine Michel Girard 2010 Sancerre disproved the old "artichokes and wine don't marry" saw.
A fisherman friend goes out daily on Falsone's behalf, hauling in whatever the day's catch happens to be for her inspiration: on our visit, a black grouper capped with a puffy custard and paired with local greens, a crunchy/tangy celeriac salad and a flurry of shaved black truffle (this with a 2009 Oregon pinot from Expression 44, which nabbed a 92 from Wine Spectator). Courses and corresponding wines proceeded, with Falsone and Brassil explicating the food and Dominick Tardugno discussing the wines. Meanwhile, the young man on the left chatted about business trips to China with the older man opposite me; the family from Chicago debated the merits of the Chi-Town 'burbs with my mom. In short, we were getting to know each other, the magical by-product of an enormously good meal.
Opened on Nov. 15 and already the happening place to be in Winter Park, Prato is a new project from the team behind the nearby Luma on Park. With an Acunto wood-burning oven from Naples, Italy, chef Brandon McGlamery (who has done stints at French Laundry, Chez Panisse and Jardiniere in California) offers a focused one-page menu of pizzas, pastas and antipasti.
There are some show-stoppers, but the setting may upstage what's on the plate from time to time. A huge bar anchors the room, which offers full-length window-paned doors that open to the street for sidewalk dining. Exposed brick and an original wood-beamed ceiling lend a rustic element to what is otherwise a chic, contemporary design. And this place gets loud, bristling with hipper-than-thou energy.
The all-Italian-and-Spanish wine list broken down by region provides some unusual libations (a small quibble, but the vintage years should probably be listed), with an added cocktail list of Italo-centric offerings (limoncello and Aperol featured prominently). Pair a fizzy prosecco or a flinty and fresh Gavi di Gavi with a trio of chicken liver bruschetta ($8), the plush liver gussied up with a drape of lardo and a few squiggles of pickled shallot. This contrasts nicely with a more bracing bowl of sliced yellowfin jumbled together with Thai chilies, purple basil, citrus and what seemed like matchsticks of raw chiogga beet ($14), which is what I ate before getting serious with a bowl of tagliatelle sauced demurely with ground Long Island duck in a rich, winey sauce.
A tiny orange card appears at dessert time, quiet and understated. Only a few options, but a velvety chocolate budino ($6) and a buttermilk panna cotta with berries ($6), both served in hinged-lid glass jars, confirm that Prato is worth visiting pronto.
The oldest of our trio, opened in March, Hawkers is every bit as edgy as Prato and as novel a concept as the Table, only at a fraction of the cost. With nothing more than $6.50, Hawkers aims to re-create the street foods found all over Asia, usually sold via exuberant call or chant by sidewalk peddlers. Allen and Alex Lo, Danny Ho, Wayne Yung and Kaleb Harrell each bring a different expertise to bear in the kitchen, with dishes that seem like spot-on replicas of street snacks found in Hong Kong, mainland China, Vietnam and Malaysia/Singapore. This last area is what charmed me most — so few restaurants in our area purvey exotic curry laksa or roti prata.
The vibe is fun and young, a stodgy old Chinese restaurant having been gutted and reconceived with concrete floors, corrugated aluminum wainscoting and a bold color scheme. High and low tables are kitted out with stacks of white plates, signaling this is a sharing-type place. It looks ripe for franchising (and in fact Allen Lo mentioned Tampa as the site of a possible second outpost).
It's easy to order too much, but nothing will break the bank: Lightly battered green beans ($4.50) are crisp and addictive (but would be even better with a punchy sauce, maybe a citrusy ponzu?); Malaysian roti flatbread ($3) comes with a generous bowl of savory curry dipping sauce.
Roasted duck tacos ($5 for three) read like grab-and-go Peking duck without all the pageantry, just pancake, sliced duck, hoisin, a few scallions and boom, and banh mi sliders ($5-$6) bring untraditional spins on the classic Vietnamese sandwich. The Korean bulgogi beef was a great idea, but a little more razzle-dazzle of chilies, pickled daikon and fresh herbs would have elevated it to knockout status. Still, Hawkers, a different kind of theme park entirely, is one of three seriously good new reasons to head to Orlando.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. She dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.