Whether you follow the food fads or stick to the classics, prefer farm-fresh or fast food, raw or haute cuisine, Florida aims to satisfy every appetite by staying on the cutting edge of culinary creativity.
The following food experiences recently joined the state’s lineup of mouthwatering group dining options.
Helmed by up-and-coming James Beard nominees Tyler Brassil and Loren Falsone—who are also instructors at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School in Orlando—The Table (www.thetableorlando.com) in Orlando offers an intimate, pseudo-secret, private dining experience featuring a 22-person chef’s table and an ever-changing meal that can last three to four hours.
“Our restaurant is open to the public Friday and Saturday by reservation only, with private parties the rest of the week,” notes Dominick Tardugno, one of the restaurant’s partners. “The meal is all chef’s choice, and it’s five courses paired with five different wines.”
If time is limited, The Table also offers a three-course version, Tardugno adds.
The menu at The Table is determined by chance, depending on what’s available from the small farms, ranches and private boats the restaurant works with.
taste of italy
North of Orlando in Winter Park, popular local chef Brandon McGlamery recently opened his second area restaurant, Prato (www.prato-wp.com), and it has quickly evolved into one of the hottest reservations in town. Italian classics created here benefit from such authentic touches as wood-burning ovens imported from Italy, which give pizzas and baked dishes their signature, smoky finish. Similar to its sister restaurant, Luma on Park, Prato’s menu is enhanced by local produce, responsibly farmed meats and sustainable seafood. Meanwhile, window-paned doors, rustic design elements and year-round patio seating create a warm, inviting atmosphere.
The new venue is working toward the ability to host private functions, says Events Coordinator Katy Barrales; at the moment, total buyouts of the 150-seat dining room are available.
A New Wave in Dining
Costa d’Este Beach Resort, the Vero Beach hotel owned by singer Gloria Estefan and her producer husband Emilio, recently unveiled The Wave Kitchen & Bar (www.costadeste.com), an oceanfront dining space with a menu that is directly sourced from local farmers, fisherman and artisanal purveyors.
“[We] highlight the best culinary ingredients available in the region and support the local economy,” says Charles Nehme, the restaurant’s general manager.
An open kitchen turns out classic selections like center cut filet mignon and pork tenderloin, while diners are encouraged to customize entree selections with their choice of preparation style, sauce and temperature. The Wave also offers a tapas menu along with ceviche selections and Cuban specialties reflecting the culinary traditions of the owners.
Groups can opt for the semi-private “owner’s table” that seats up to 12.
“It’s separated from the restaurant by a beaded curtain and has its own cool vibe and funky feel,” says Monica Smiley, the property’s director of sales and marketing. “We’ve done wine dinners there for groups, but I recently had a group that was all men, and they wanted a beer dinner. They wanted beer with every course except dessert.”
Make Yourself At Home
Clay Conley, a star chef formerly of Miami’s Azul, recently opened Buccan (www.buccanpalmbeach.com) in Palm Beach, unveiling a world-focused menu that not only features ingredients from around the world but techniques from around the world, according to Averill Mackin Conley, spokeswoman for the restaurant.
“We offer an outstanding dining experience, but done in a way that’s free of pretense,” she says. “We wanted to create the feeling of going to a friend’s house and having everyone congregate in the kitchen.”
To that end, Buccan features an open exhibition kitchen and a core group of regulars who visit every week to savor a menu that includes dishes like shortrib empanadas, grilled lamb T-bones, pretzel-crusted Maine crab cakes and yogurt-marinated swordfish. Conley says the chef will also tweak the menu daily according to what’s fresh.
Buccan offers a semi-private area for groups, and buyouts are also possible.
Keep on Truckin’
The newest food craze to hit the Tampa Bay area is food trucks (www.tampagov.net/foodtruck)—and the mayor’s on board in a big way. These traveling food emporiums are fixtures around town and during the monthly Food Truck Fiesta in the city’s Gaslight Square Park, inaugurated by Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a reported food truck aficionado.
“It’s not only great food, but it’s an amazing draw for our downtown. It draws a couple thousand people,” Buckhorn says. “It’s been the best shot in the arm for downtown Tampa in a long time.”
If your group can’t be there for the festivities, held the first Wednesday of every month, not to worry—several of the food trucks have regular lunch stops and even cater to private group functions.
“We’re very flexible,” says Shelby Stroud, a rep for WickedWiches (www.wickedwiches.com), which drives a weekday lunch route followed by hungry diners who keep tabs on the truck via Facebook in order to catch favorites like the mac and cheese burger.
“If a group wanted a private event, we could do that,” she says.
Offering three permanent locations in the Tampa Bay area is the Taco Bus (www.taco-bus.com), which, true to its name, serves up authentic Mexican favorites from its bus windows, though the bus will cater and has different options, depending on the number of people attending, according to Aviva Bowman, director of marketing.
Adds Buckhorn: “Meeting planners would be well suited to take advantage of the food truck phenomenon. They’re really great chefs—they just happen to be working out of a truck.”
Set in trendy South Beach, the new Dutch (www.thedutchmiami.com) in the W South Beach Hotel & Residences was designed to be a place “to hang out and have a good time,” says Chef Andrew Carmellini, who created the original Dutch in SoHo and is now trying the same concept in SoBe.
Culinary influences at The Dutch literally span the globe—the Caribbean, Morocco, the Gulf Coast, the West Coast, Cuba and Italy. But there’s a hometown connection as well; Carmellini’s grandfather ran Miami Beach’s Surf Club back in the day, and Carmellini says childhood visits to his grandparents’ Little River home inspired much of the menu.
In addition to an oyster bar that includes East and West Coast oysters prepared in a variety of ways, the menu reflects decades of Miami cuisine, from aged steaks to steamed yellowtail snapper in Southeast Asian ginger broth.
Indoor and terrace seating is available, along with a private dining room for gatherings of up to 14.
fruits of the Sea
Downtown Miami got a visit from the ocean recently—the new Mare Nostrum (www.marenostrumrestaurant.com), set in the Brickell District, one of the city’s emerging culinary neighborhoods. As the name implies, Mare Nostrum (Latin for “our sea”) is all about fish, with local catches augmented by daily shipments of bluefin “Toro” tuna, langoustines, branzino (Mediterranean seabass), dorada and other European specialties. A prominent seafood display centered around an iced raw bar overflows with stone crab, red shrimp, oysters, whole fresh fish and other seafood.
For landlubbers, Mare Nostrum makes its own pasta in-house, including fettuccine, capellini and gnocchi, while chicken, pork. lamb and steak also are served.
The restaurant offers a private dining room for up to 15, and the catering department will work with planners to create prix fixe or a la carte menus.
The chill is on the inside at Tundra (www.tundrarestaurant.com), a new Fort Lauderdale eatery launched by David Berman, a chef and ice sculptor who has created a winter wonderland in the middle of the subtropics, complete with ice sculptures—the restaurant goes through 10,000 pounds of ice a week—icicle-shaped chandeliers and other frosty design elements. Meanwhile, dishes like ahi tuna and lobster avocado salad are served on ice plates, while spirits are smoking, literally—they arrive on a cloud of dry ice.
You can order off the eclectic menu or try a taste tour of “Tundratizers,” including meatballs, ceviche and lobster. A dessert tour includes flambeed chocolate cheese flan, fruit strudel and a decadent Swiss chocolate brownie.
If groups want to chill in private, the restaurant can close off certain areas for them.
restaurant du jour
Making its debut in late 2011 was the East End Brasserie (www.eastendbrasserie.com) at the Atlantic Resort & Spa in Fort Lauderdale, set by the sea on the hotel’s ground level. While the oceanfront views are pure South Florida, the new restaurant’s menu recalls a casual French bistro, with baguette sandwiches, salads, entrees like bouillabaisse and an artisanal cheese cart. Weekend brunches are held from 11-3. Group areas can be created.
Changes in Latitudes
New on the scene in Naples is Latitude (www.latitudenaples.com), which took over the space formerly occupied by Cafe Italia in the Naples Walk shopping center and filled it with Florida fusion cuisine, a piano bar and live nightly performances. Reflecting influences from Hawaii, Germany and Asia, the menu includes everything from sesame-seared ahi tuna steak to hearty German-style pork chops and pasta with a Kobe beef Bolognese sauce.
A private dining room can accommodate up to 50.
Surf and Turf
Newly opened on Seacrest Beach in Northwest Florida, Bentley’s (www.bentleys30a.com) is a steak lover’s nirvana of Black Angus cuts ranging from five- to eight-ounce filet mignons to 18-ounce porterhouses and 24-ounce ribeyes. You can pair your steak with a choice of Dungeness crab, Maine and Florida lobster and stone crab in season, or enjoy a variety of stand-alone seafood dishes.
“One of our specialties is the quarter-pound shrimp,” says Amy Kilgore, manager of the restaurant. “You can do those stuffed, coconut-style, or have them in a spicy Louis sauce.”
Other specialties include lobster and shrimp cakes and local fish served broiled, blackened or “in the weeds” with cream of spinach. Meanwhile, the more adventurous might go for gator tail or the flaming duck and lamb “lollipops” combo platter.
Groups are accommodated in a private room for 20 and the restaurant’s semi-private upper deck for 42. Relax before or after dinner at the adjacent Maddog’s 30A martini and oyster bar.
Many Northeast Florida restaurants are all about farm-to-table cuisine, a back-to-basics approach featuring locally produced foods, beer and wine as well as artisan chocolates and fresh cheese.
Newly opened at the Renaissance World Golf Resort in St. Augustine, Villagio Italian Grille (www.myvillagio.com) reflects this philosophy with “farm-to-fork” fare that draws from the region’s bounty, including fresh local fish and hydroponically grown produce at the restaurant’s own farm, one mile away.
The made-from-scratch menu includes a range of pastas, flatbreads, paninis, fish plates, steaks and family-style Italian fare, with a wine list that includes both classic and new labels along with a range of Italian varietals.
Groups, meanwhile, can gather in a private space that seats about 30, while another 60 can be accommodated for dinner in a semi-private lounge area.
“We also have a huge outdoor space that holds over 500,” notes Bridget Engel, Villagio’s group sales director. “We have a convention center on-property here and a full banquet department, so we can handle any size group.”
In a culinary world filled with foams and foie gras, V. Kelly’s GastroPub (www.sawgrassmarriott.com), set within the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa in Ponte Vedra Beach, completely revamped its menu last fall, inaugurating a new era of simplicity with foods that are farmed, fished and sourced locally and dishes that include comfort classics with inventive twists.
New menu items include Minorcan fish chowder and Cedar Key clams made with smoked bacon and served with Jacksonville’s Landshark lager, along with an array of artisanal burgers, including toppers like fried green tomatoes, goat cheese and arugula.
“We’re excited to offer locally sourced ingredients,” says David Scalisce, the restaurant’s executive chef. “It’s a great opportunity to showcase the wonderful food and beer from our community.”
V. Kelly’s Gastro Pub is available for a group buyout.