After a decadent dinner at La Luce by Donna Scala, I figured that Bonnet Creek had offered us the best they had to offer. I was wrong.
The Hilton Orlando at Bonnet Creek is a massive new complex, complete with it's own convention center, lazy river, and adjoining golf course. The property is also home to the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, Hilton's flagship brand, and the first to bear the Waldorf name outside the eponymous New York landmark. As you walk through the convention center and into the Waldorf, the carpet and vanilla walls give way to marble tile, moulded ceilings, and original artwork hanging on the walls, making you abruptly aware that you're not in the Hilton any longer.
Don't get me wrong, the Hilton is a grand hotel, but entering the Waldorf is like stepping through a portal into another realm of opulence. It's as though you've entered an alternate reality, were signature elements from the original, like the clock tower and Sir Harry's Bar, were blended with a dose of contemporary styling, and relocated to Central Florida. It works in its own way, but it will never be accused of outclassing the original.
Another institution transplanted from the Big Apple is the Bull Bear Restaurant. In New York, it's known as the kind of steakhouse where Wall Street types do deals, and the private wine library provides the perfect venue for back-room deals. You may not see many Armani suits wandering around the Waldorf in Orlando, but they've recreated the wine library there, and we were treated to one of the best meals I've ever eaten before 11am.
The Waldorf Astoria puts a focus on personalized service, and the Bull Bear is no exception, with table-side preparations such as the Caesar salad and the 36 day aged, 38 ounce "Tomahawk" certified Angus Prime steak, which comes attached to an entire rib, reminiscent of a scene out of the Flintstones. Manny Belete, the general manager at Bull Bear believes that dining there should be "part of a journey", and to that end, the table-side prep really draws you into the experience, giving you a front row seat into something that's usually done behind the closed doors of a kitchen.
While Bull Bear is only open for dinner, Chef David Sears shrugged off a descent night sleep, and cooked a brunch menu for us. At first, the thought of going to a steakhouse for breakfast seemed odd, but upon further reflection it made a lot of sense -- breakfast is the most important meal of the day afterall. It made even more sense after devouring the chef's meal, which included the best bread basket I've ever had, steak and eggs, potato pancakes, and compressed melon with home-made yogurt.
Trio of Juices** - I don't like carrot juice, and I'm not a big fan of ginger, but I had two glasses of the carrot ginger juice. The watermelon juice speaks for itself, and the gem of the trio was the apple celery juice. Those of you who have been following my other blog know how much I love making cocktails out of celery, but chef Sears paired the celery with fresh pressed apple juice, and they're a green match made in heaven.
Bread Basket ** - This was the best bread basket I've ever had. There was a savory monkey bread, a sweet monkey bread, black truffle scones, and croissants, served with jams, butter and black truffle butter. The freshly baked croissants were delicious, yet they were the least tasty part of the whole basket. The savory monkey bread was pillowy soft and flavorful, while the sweet monkey bread had a dense, crusty texture that was pleasantly sweet and perfumed intensely with cinnamon.
But the real star of the basket was the black truffle scone. Ensconced in a golden buttery crust was a tender, moist scone that would have been delicious plain. But this was no ordinary scone. This was a black truffle scone served with truffle butter! The butter had a honey-kissed sweetness that balanced out the savory scone, and had me slathering it all-over everything. This butter would have made the tablecloth taste good, and when we ran out of bread, I seriously contemplated taking a spoon to the remaining butter.
At this point, I was getting full, but the main attraction was still to come. Two carts were rolled in, each holding two giant Tomahawk steaks still clinging to an entire rib. After lots of "Ooooing" and "Aaaaaing", and the click-clack of camera's firing, the captain got to work slicing the steaks for us.
Steak and Eggs** - Three eggs done sunny-side up, served with a slice of the Tomahawk, a 38 ounce Certified Angus Prime steak that's been aged for 36 days. The meat was cooked perfectly rare, with a salty browned crust, and a tender interior that had the nutty flavor of a good dry-aged steak. To give you an idea of the quality of the meat, this stuff costs the restaurant $37 per pound!
Unfortunately, modesty got the better of me, and I didn't ask for the bone. The most flavorful bits are along the bone, and it would have made for a pretty sweet photo, but gnawing on a whole cow rib just didn't seem like a very couth thing to do at the Waldorf Astoria.
Potato Pancakes** - A side of homefries or hash browns would have been just fine, alongside my steak and eggs, but this was a Waldorf restaurant, so Chef Sears prepared a stack of potato pancakes. They were more dense than a regular pancake, but still tender enough to cut with a fork, and they made the perfect sponge to sop up the meat juice and egg yolk that had collected at the bottom of my plate. They were also pretty darned tasty with the truffle butter, that managed to linger around on the table after other items were taken away (I think the waiter was worried I might chop his fingers off if he tried to take away the butter)
Because no meal is complete without dessert, Chef Sears prepared a plate of compressed melon, with melon sorbet, and home-made yogurt, topped with micro-cilantro, salt and a drizzle of reduced lemon vincotto. It was the perfect light finish to a heavy meal, and the home-made yogurt was good enough to lick off the plate. In case you're wondering, compressed melon is made by subjecting melon to a vacuum, which changes the texture of the melon from crisp, to something more meaty. It also lets you infuse the melon with other flavors, though I'm pretty sure this was just plain melon.
On my other blog, I often muse about why anyone would eat at a steakhouse when it's so easy to make a good steak at home. Dining at Bull Bear in the Waldorf Astoria made the reason pretty clear to me. It's about the sides and the service. To quote Chef Sears: "We don't make plates, we design them". While having two captains and the chef wait on us, under the watchful gaze of the manager, probably influenced our experience, I learned that there's an art to serving a good steak, just like any other culinary endeavor.
Bull Bear Restaurant** (menu)
(inside the Waldorf Astoria Orlando)
14200 Bonnet Creek Resort Lane.
Orlando FL 32821.
Full disclosure: The Orlando CVB is covering all expenses for this trip. While I strive to provide you with honest, unfiltered opinions on this site, the federal government requires that I disclose this relationship with you.