146 W. Plant St., Winter Garden | 407-654-5889 | alfrescowintergarden.com | $$$
There’s no questioning the pedigree of the foursome behind Winter Garden’s alFresco – chefs Edwin Martinez and Rob Gioia were, respectively, executive chefs for Villa de Flora and Sunset Sam Fish Camp at the Gaylord Palms Hotel. Lynn Kasten was the director of food and beverage, and Melissa Gioia managed most of the restaurants at the same hotel. What I do question is the restaurant’s appellation – “alFresco” seems to be a bit of a misnomer considering there’s really no outdoor or open-air dining space, so we’ll overlook the “al” and focus on the “fresco,” as keeping it fresh seems to be the foundational ethic of this merry band of culinarians.
The “aqua-dynamic” garden on the roof of the renovated historic building, where various produce, herbs and even fish are grown and farmed by Green Sky Growers, is a testament to the restaurant’s dedication to sourcing local and sustainable ingredients. What they don’t get from their roof, they’ll source from local farms (including Lake Meadow Naturals), bakers (Douce France Bakery) and suppliers (the lady who makes their flan and tres leches cake). In fact, the kitchen only has one small freezer, and it’s used to stock desserts, which negates leftover ingredients.
The grilled chicken spiedini ($8) was notable not for the skewer of citrus-marinated chicken, fine in its own right, but for the fattoush salad on which it sat. Martinez’s version, with its medley of vegetables including red and yellow heirloom tomatoes, green beans, eggplant and peppers, gave the starter its true appeal. Another starter, chorizo al vino ($7), is a traditional tapas item of mild, smoky Spanish chorizo (not spicy Mexican) in a light sauce fashioned from shallots and tempranillo wine. Both starters were impressive, and when we were done, the marinated olives ($5) served in a longboat dish provided sufficient pecking power to hold us until our mains showed up.
When they arrived, we took a moment to marvel at the crisp skin of the pan-seared cobia ($27), a special for the evening, then savored every soft crunch. The fish came atop a heap of Israeli couscous – an ideal complement to the mild fish. While the plate of cavatelli and braised short ribs ($18), crowned with a large basil leaf from the rooftop garden, could’ve used more salt, that hardly took away from the comforting aspects of the pasta dish. Biting into the plush shreds of beef elicited a string of happy grunts and ecstatic eye-rolls, though things quieted down considerably after sampling the lousy passionfruit flan ($6). The dessert’s rough texture – more grainy than smooth – earned it failing marks, but thankfully a luscious chocolate tres leches ($6) prevented this match from ending on a double fault.
I should note that the restaurant’s accomplished servers ensure proper pacing. They seem well aware of how annoying it is when entrees arrive just as you’re halfway through your appetizers, or when servers subtly pressure patrons in order to turn a table.
No, ensconced in alFresco’s upscale, modern digs, we felt thoroughly relaxed, even if we were one of the last parties to exit the restaurant. It’s the sort of vibe Kasten is keen on fostering at alFresco, and in the current restaurant climate, that’s a breath of fresh air.
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