Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes, 4012 Central Florida Parkway | 407-393-4422 | highballandharvest.com | $$$$
If I told you I was eating truck-stop peanuts, listening to the Stones circa 1972, and reflecting on how the light sconces in my periphery resembled bug zappers, you’d never guess I was dining at the Ritz. Yet there we were, on the lower level of this grand dame of upscale hotel chains, sitting in the equally grand expanse of its remarkably accessible farm-to-table restaurant, getting our hands wet and sticky from prying open ham-hock-boiled whole peanuts ($6). Worry not, all you posh types – the Ritz-Carlton hasn’t rebranded itself as some lowbrow motor inn, nor has it eradicated any semblance of ritz; but inside the food-first, chef-centric Highball & Harvest, we caught nary a sight of any million-dollar troopers, let alone anyone trying hard to look like Gary Cooper. Servers garbed in checked shirts and jeans set a down-to-earth stylistic tone here, while the menu of modern Southern-inspired cuisine arguably does the same.
Yes, somewhere in Europe, six feet below ground, Messieurs César Ritz and Auguste Escoffier, his longtime chef, are rolling over in their graves. That said, H&H appears to possess exactly what today’s food-conscious millennials crave – local farm-fresh ingredients, competent execution, libations of the craft kind and relaxed environs. That you’d never guess we were dining at the Ritz was likely an intentional ploy on the part of the hotel’s brass. The place is capacious, yet comfortable, and even understatedly handsome.
Port Orange native Mark Jeffers helms the kitchen, just as he did at the Vineyard Grill, the restaurant’s predecessor, only this time he has the resort’s 7,000-square-foot garden – Whisper Creek Farm – at his disposal. (Products from other local farms, all listed on the menu, are utilized in Jeffers’ comforting dishes as well.) His smoky duck and andouille gumbo ($9) made a rousing and revelatory starter, even after we gorged on those boiled peanuts. On paper, the crab cake and fried green tomato ($16) appealed; on the table, even more so. The flavors of chunky crab, fried tomato, Cajun remoulade and corn chow-chow meshed nicely, but with all those competing textures, the structural failure of this dish was practically inevitable.
Booker’s skirt ($29), from the list of “Supper Plates,” was undoubtedly our favorite dish of the evening. The bourbon-marinated steak is dressed with a light chimichurri, served over a garlicky potato puree, and plated with a grilled corn-and-tomato salad with charred onion vinaigrette. Describing the flavors as harmonious would do the dish an injustice. It was more, I don’t know, symphonious! A bite of the blackened grouper ($31) alone was agreeable, but a thick hominy ragout with pickled okra and andouille sausage touched off a flavor storm of protest rather than reinforcing the fish’s qualities.
Biscuit-topped citrus shortcake ($9) set our jaws on pause, primarily because of the bitter kumquat comfit. The use of a seasonal (and local) fruit is commendable, but when a dessert is more sour than sweet, a line must be drawn. A separate serving of orange-blossom marshmallow and a scoop of grapefruit sorbet reflected the disparate focus of this “dessert.” Sticky toffee pudding ($9), while hardly Southern-inspired, was simply outstanding.
Service started off timely and professional, then floundered once we completed our mains. Our server seemed hurried and nearly presented us with the check before realizing we hadn’t ordered dessert. Further, instead of validating our parking stub, we were motioned over to the hostess stand to do it ourselves. Now, this may not be Norman’s, but polished service is an expectation, not a privilege, at the Ritz-Carlton. Without it, H&H’s brilliance stands to lose some of its luster.
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