As large group dinners go, it doesn't get much better than a six-course gourmet affair spearheaded by eight local celebrity chefs, with each course paired by vintages from Rioja, Spain, and dessert complemented by a crisp glass of Spanish cava.
Smoked Ocala rabbit tortelli, Pine Island shrimp sugo, romanesco conserva and hazelnut granola, anyone?
Such was the evening Meetings Focus was recently treated to in—surprise! — Winter Park, Fla., part of the Greater Orlando area. There's more to Central Florida than Mickey nowadays, namely a blossoming culinary scene that is turning heads.
So much so that Orlando was chosen for the live press conference announcement Feb. 19 of the 2014 Restaurant and Chef Semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation Awards, the culinary industry's most prestigious recognition program.
"We know that our culinary scene has been growing tremendously, but to have James Beard for the first time announce their semifinalists outside of New York City is big, and picking Orlando is a testimony to how they feel Orlando is evolving," said George Aguel, president and CEO of Visit Orlando after the conference.
Evolving indeed, as four Orlando-area chefs were announced as semifinalists during the event in February, and in the prior year, Orlando had six semifinalists announced in the competition, more than any city in Florida and more than any city in the Southeast.
"We have an incredible culinary community that is leading the way in terms of sourcing their food. It's not as well known as it could be, so James Beard is helping us tell the story," Aguel said.
Aside from the deliciously divine, six-course "Friends of James Beard Benefit Dinner and Auction" at The Alfond Inn, an elegantly cool new boutique hotel in Winter Park, our trip included indulging in all things trending food and drink-wise in the area, such as some standout restaurants, all of which accommodate group dining. Following is a roundup.
The Rusty Spoon: Originally from Iowa, Kathleen Blake, James Beard-nominated chef and proprietor of The Rusty Spoon, fuses her Midwestern heritage with European culinary techniques and a focus on farm-to-table American cuisine. Her rustic and hip establishment turns out dishes like stuffed eggs, a butcher's plate with local charcuterie and pickeled delights, and coffee-rubbed and grilled grassfed culotte steak.
Hamilton's Kitchen: The signature restaurant of The Alfond Inn is spearheaded by chef Christopher Windus, who earned "Best New Chef" status in a local magazine. His Southern-inspired dishes utilizing locally sourced ingredients include shrimp and grits, salt-roasted beets and braised short rib.
Cask & Larder: Beer brewed on-site and hearty "Southern public house"-style cuisine characterize this neighborhood gem, the second restaurant from James Beard-nominated chefs Julie and James Petrakis, who also own another local hot spot, Ravenous Pig. Favorites here included Nashville hot chicken with mac and cheese, and country ham with ale mustard, pepper jelly and biscuits.
Scratch: A modern American tapas restaurant with whimsical decor, much of it unique vintage kitchen items, Scratch is a treat for adventurous foodies. Tapas such as Mediterranean sea bass filet with citrus-thyme marinade and potato and fennel hash, along with pork belly adobo were highlights.