Let’s count the reasons visitors flock to Orlando. There are the endless theme parks, the sprawling convention center and the proximity to world-class golf courses and the Kennedy Space Center. In 2016, 68 million visitors made it the nation’s top tourist destination.
I went for a less obvious purpose: to eat. But I was not optimistic about what I would encounter — I anticipated a lot of Mickey Mouse-shaped pancakes and candy apples.
I was wrong to be concerned. In and around the Magic Kingdom, I found first-rate homey Italian fare and an artisanal cocktail spot with thoughtful Southern dishes. Best of all, I discovered a destination sushi counter, manned by rising stars who have big plans for the future. And that’s just what’s there now; coming to Orlando in 2018 are restaurants from chefs Jose Andres and Wolfgang Puck and a wine bar by noted sommelier George Miliotes.
Here are my favorite finds.
Inside an unremarkable black box of a building in Orlando’s Audubon Park Garden district, the three young, ambitious chef-owners of Kadence deliver a smart, intimate and fun sushi omakase experience to customers arrayed around a nine-seat counter. Most of the fish served is shipped twice weekly from Japan, and those imports are supplemented with regional seafood. Highlights of a 10-course lunch ($55, including tax and gratuity) included kampachi with seaweed salt, o-toro with sea urchin miso, a dark, fish stock-fortified miso soup, and a delicate cheesecake flavored with yuzu. All these careful dishes were prepared and consumed against an upbeat soundtrack of hip-hop and rock, with friendly strangers sharing pours from their outsize sake bottles. Dinner ($145) can run to 18 courses.
Situated in a quiet corner of the J.W. Marriott Grande Lakes, Primo is the second outpost of the Italian farm-to-table restaurant established in Rockland, Maine, by celebrated chef Melissa Kelly. Using organic ingredients, many from an on-site garden, the chefs create solid, hearty Italian favorites such as seared gnocchi with fried sage ($17 for a half-portion, $30 for full) and a short list of wood-fired pizzas ($18-$22). The pork saltimbocca with a mushroom-Madeira jus ($34) is based on Kelly’s grandfather’s recipe. The room is warm and comfortable, the service polished and friendly. The Tuscany-intensive wine list offers plenty of food-friendly matches.
Named for a picturesque spot in Yosemite National Park, Artist Point is a Disney fine-dining sleeper hit. Located within Disney’s Wilderness Lodge hotel, the soaring space with an American West theme is as family-friendly as any Disney restaurant but quieter and more serene than most. The menu is heavily influenced by the Pacific Northwest: An amuse-bouche featured Washington apple and Oregon Cheddar and marionberry jam. Slow-roasted buffalo strip steak ($52) and Chinook cedar-planked salmon ($47) are among the signature entrees. There are also several steakhouse cuts of beef available, including an aged bone-in rib-eye and on-trend accompaniments such as roasted bone marrow, charred shishito peppers and chimichurri sauce. Northwest selections such as Argyle, Pacific Rim and L’Ecole No. 41 populate the wine list. Among the standout desserts is a petite seasonal milkshake (recently pumpkin-flavored, $11) that accompanies four compulsively delicious almond butter cookies.
Highball & Harvest
You may not expect “handcrafted, artisanal” anything as you survey your Disney-adjacent dining and drinking options, but Highball & Harvest has fashionably collated the current vogue for farm-to-table dining into a rustically elegant space at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes. Cocktails ($12-$24) are made with house-infused liquors (such as bourbon steeped with lavender and spiced honey) and embellished syrups and poured over custom ice cubes embedded with fruit and herbs. The food, generously proportioned and seasoned, is firmly rooted in the South, and local farms provide much of the kitchen’s produce, meat and eggs. Standouts include Southern Spread ($18), a shareable appetizer that includes pimiento cheese, smoked wahoo and pickled vegetables, and almond milk-braised pork belly. Don’t miss the desserts ($10-$12), which include seasonal fruit cobblers, house-made doughnuts and Key Lime tarts with orange-blossom meringue and pickled watermelon.
If a Disney character breakfast is a nonnegotiable part of your family travel plans, make sure it’s the Good Morning Breakfast with Goofy and his Pals at Ravello, the large, airy Italian restaurant on the ground floor of the lavish Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort. The extensive brunch menu includes freshly baked pastries, beef brisket hash, lemon ricotta pancakes with limoncello whipped cream, excellent strong coffee and properly mixed Bloody Marys. In the evenings, chef Fabrizio Schenardi presides over a well-executed seasonal Italian menu of wood-fired pizzas and pastas. Ravello’s California-intensive wine list also contains plenty of Tuscan and Piedmont reds, a nice list of Bordeaux and Burgundy and Champagnes, and greatest hits from Oregon, New Zealand and Spain. Complimentary photos with the visiting Disney characters (via digital download) are included in the cost of brunch ($46 adults, $24 kids ages 3-12).
OK, so you want something casual? Mother-daughter-son team Lana, Taissa and Phillip Rebroff began selling their sweet and savory hand pies and galettes at farmers markets in 2014 and moved to a brick-and-mortar space in Winter Park, Fla., in 2016. Phillip, a veteran chef and alum of Johnson & Wales, handles the savory menu, which includes roasted beet and deviled egg tartines ($10) and a roasted vegetable cassoulet. Lana and Taissa produce gorgeous pies and viennoiserie, including a sweet, substantial apple pie and moist, oversize S’more cookies.
Black Rooster Taqueria
“Real Talk: Gigantic burritos with a slab of sour cream and fountain sodas aren’t our gig,” reads the disclaimer on Black Rooster’s website. The gig at this taqueria, in the centrally located Mills 50 district, is tacos ($3.25-$4.75). The handmade tortillas are wrapped around tender achiote pork shoulder, seared carne asada, crisp-fried fish, and a deceptively meaty-tasting combination of smoked greens, shiitake mushrooms and plantains. Made-to-order guacamole ($6), ceviche ($9), meatball sopes ($3) and braised meat bowls ($10.50) garnished with vegetables, herbs and bright salsas round out the appealing menu, which also includes aguas frescas, Jarritos Mexican sodas, draft and bottled beer, and wine by the glass.
The Glass Knife
Open for just a few weeks, the Glass Knife, a cashless cafe in Winter Park, takes its name from the Depression-era glass cake knives collected by owner Steve Brown’s mother, Jacque, a passionate hobbyist baker. Under the direction of chef Stuart Whitfield, previously of Le Cirque and the Four Seasons, the shop offers whole cakes (prices vary) and cake by the slice ($8), including a silky red velvet, savory offerings such as chicken potpie ($9) and roasted tomato cheese soup ($6), craft coffee from Arkansas’s Onyx Coffee Lab and a display of Jacque’s knives in the communal center table.