There was a time not long ago, when vacation hotspots like Vegas and Orlando were frequented for the entertainment, and not much else. Food was an expensive necessity to power you through a long day of line-standing, or gambling, and most people didn't put too much thought into planning their meals.
The culinary landscape has changed dramatically accross the nation during the past two decades, but perhaps the change has been most dramatic at tourist destinations like Orlando, where changing consumer interests has driven a flourishing food scene.
September is Magical Dining Month in Orlando, Florida, and the Orlando Conventions and Visitors Bureau was nice enough to bring myself and five other food writers down to Florida for a few days to check out the best food the city has to offer.
We're staying at the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, in suites that are are larger than my entire apartment. The service is excellent, and the rooms are clean and well appointed, though personally, my tastes run a bit more modern than I can expect a Hilton to provide.
The real hook here, is the "lazy river" right outside, that carries you around a serpentine pool with its gentle current. At least that's what I thought, the last time I was here in April. As it turns out the real star of the hotel is La Luce (pronounced la luchay) by Donna Scala.
Donna Scala is a chef and restauranteur that ran some of my favorite restaurants while I was growing up in Napa. Eateries like Bistro Don Giovanni in Yountville, and Scala's Bistro in San Francisco, were some of the first "fancy" restaurants I ate at. They helped open my eyes to the world of cuisine outside my mother's kitchen.
I was both excited and skeptical about trying out Scala's outpost so far away from home. But as the smiling host escorted us through the restaurant, and into a private room, I got a very good feeling about the meal that I was about to consume.
There we met Francis Metais, the Director of Food and Beverage for both the Hilton, and Waldorf Astoria here at Bonnet Creek. To me, he seemed like a cordial man with a French accent, who was pitching us the merits of the restaurants on-site. At least that's what I saw, until he brought out a portfolio of dishes he's created during his years as a chef. As he drew each poster-sized print from his portfolio, he beamed with pride, and took on a child-like enthusiasm as he explained each dish.
This is a man who who is passionate about food, I realized. Content that I was in the hands of someone who took food very seriously, the courses came out, one after the other, paired with remarkable wines that put a smile on my face. The meal was delicious, even by New York standards, and getting started on such a high note set the bar quite high for the meals that will follow. Check out some of the dishes I sampled below:
We started with a plate of Antipasti Misti, which had a tasty array of salame, mortadella, roasted pepper, olives, provolone and garlic toast. The quality of each item was top-notch, but that's to be expected given that most of it was sourced outside the restaurant.
The Fritto Misto with calamari, rock shrimp, fennel, onions, green beans, was solid, with a substantial crust that maintained a durable crunch, right-up until the last green bean was liberated from the plate. The spicy aioli on the other hand, tasted like spicy mayonnaise, and felt like it might have been trying a little too hard to be fusion. The Zonin Prosecco from Veneto however, was perfect, with a clean bubbly finish that left my palette cleansed and ready for another bite of fried happiness.
These fried Spanish olives with Marcona almonds were some of the best olives I've ever had. The high temperature magically concentrated the umami in the olive and gave them an almost cheese-like flavor, which complimented the oil roasted almonds perfectly. If I could have a bowl of these every night with a glass of wine (or even a beer), I'd be a very happy man.
Next, I had a stone fruit salad with mixed greens, cherries, goat cheese, Marcona almonds, and a Moscatel Vinaigrette. It was a summery, refreshing course following the fried food, but it tasted and presented like the salads I've been making at home all summer. Delicious, to be sure, but nothing ground-breaking or particularly compelling.
For my entree, I chose the Riccia con Bolognese. Riccia is a wide, ruffle edged pasta, that looks like narrow lasagna noodles. The Bolognese sauce was unprovocative, and failed to blow my mind. It was upstaged by the Bucatini Amatriciana that I got a small plateful of, and the Pizze Bianca with figs, arugula, sweet gorgonzola, caramelized onions, and a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar.
The pizza had a thin crust that was full of flavor, with just the right balance of chew and crunch. The toppings balanced sweet, savory, creamy and tart flavors perfectly and cut through the richness with the fresh arugula that covered the pie.
By dessert, the sun had set and the lighting was a little too dim to get a good photo, but this was one of the best parts of the meal. The fresh berries were served on a sweet biscuit-like shortbread that was covered in sweetened reduced cream that was reminiscent of my favorite combo of berries in sweetened condensed milk. It was a simple take on a classic dessert, but had just enough innovation to make it something new and interesting for me.
Thanks to the chef and staff at La Luce, we had a wonderful meal that was the perfect start to what's sure to be a weekend of decadent eating. My sentiment about this restaurant is perhaps best summed up by this photo of Carol from NY City Mama
La Luce by Donna Scala (menu)
(inside the Hilton Orlando at Bonnet Creek)
14100 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.