This might come as a bit of a surprise to many, but Mount Dora's got some balls. Or perhaps it was just in the right place at the right time when it lured the state's most acclaimed chef to its sleepy streets, far from the burgeoning Olympic Village of celebrity chefs that is Disney Springs, where throngs flock for a rare glimpse of a TV hotshot, then settle in for a meal as fulfilling as a M. Night Shyamalan flick.
At 1921 by Norman Van Aken, modernism supplants the mouse ear as the prevailing motif, with borrowed works and furnishings from the Modernism Museum next door taking eye candy to a whole new level. More importantly, 1921's menu reflects a genuine attentiveness to the flora and fauna of the Sunshine State. Here, Van Aken acts as our very own Michel Bras, conceptualizing a refined menu inspired by the restaurant's immediate surroundings. "His food is in perfect accord with the place that he calls home," Van Aken once said of French legend Bras' cooking. In the case of 1921, the same could be said of Van Aken. He's buoyed by chef-prodigy Camilo Velasco hauling in produce from local farms and upholding the flurries of fusion in his dishes.
We feigned fainting after biting into dumplings ($12) filled with a mousse of Titusville spiny lobster and rock shrimp, but nearly do so for real when the country ham dashi touches our lips. Then ceviche of cobia ($14) in passion fruit juice: The musky essence of the passion fruit puts me in a deep reverie of childhood summers spent in tropical Tanzania, and I have no qualms slurping it down, torched cubes of sweet potato and all. We nibble on sesame-seeded hushpuppies ($7) served with chicken liver "butter" (a poor man's foie of sorts) and what's described as an Asian spice syrup, until a dazzler – whole Cape Canaveral white shrimp, Anson Mills grits ($13) and a fosse of spiced 'nduja vinaigrette and ramp butter – gets us all googly-eyed. The presentation is of the sort that gives Instagram its raison d'être (yes, I posted it), but the pickled gooseberries are a flavor coup de grace. We somehow retain focus to further indulge in a Ponce Inlet barrelfish, grilled and nested atop a charred Zellwood corn puree. This fish – dense, mildly flavored and a smidge overdone – isn't one to stand on its own, thus the enticing addition of potatoes, mussels, chorizo and a spooning-over of Van Aken's mer noire, an intricate sauce with a litany of ingredients, most notably cuttlefish ink.
The star of the mains is a pan-roasted duck breast ($35), which we enjoyed on a previous visit with duck confit, mole poblano and trumpet mushrooms. It's anointed in a guava-ancho jus and is, seriously, the best duck ever. Wood-fired ribeye ($45) doesn't stagger us, but we appreciate the pairing of potatoes and cauliflower casseroled in the Cali style (as in Cali, Colombia). The steak is festooned with crispy fried shallots and a sunny-side-up egg. Like the burger, the flatbreads and the denim-clad servers, the eggy coronation lends an approachability to 1921, which is intentional. Observation, though: Charging $26 for Korean fried chicken with Coca-Cola collards and mac and cheese kinda defeats the purpose.
Not so with the tres leches popsicle ($9), elegantly dressed with edible flowers, spiced pineapple and coconut meringue. It's poetry on a plate, and, in a restaurant run by Van Aken, that too is intentional. If Bras is, as David Rosengarten says, "our culinary DaVinci," then Van Aken is our culinary Kerouac, and Velasco his Cassady.
In 1921 the two of them, like a couple of dharma bums, take us on a trip through Florida old and new, then drop us off, shake our hands and head back out – on the road.