Big egos and big personalities are baked into the restaurant business, be it narcissistic chefs, conceited restaurant owners or (pregnant pause) bloviating food writers. That pride has led to behavior that’s put many in the industry in hot water — a few in this very town. But the story told by a worker at Salt & the Cellar, the pricey restaurant by chef-mogul Akira Back, who has more than 20 restaurants all over the world, inside Kissimmee’s ultra-luxe Ette Hotel, took the proverbial cake. We’ll get to more on that story later in the review; suffice it to say that he was quite … adamant about guests trying some of his favorite dishes. On our visit, Back wasn’t present — possibly he was at another one of his restaurants in Vegas or Seoul, or perhaps hand-feeding Elon Musk his “super-advanced” ssamjang dry-aged beef.
In all fairness, had Back shoved his signature tuna pizza ($32) into my gob, I would’ve gladly acquiesced. The light, crackly tortilla laid with gossamer folds of raw tuna, white truffle oil and micro shiso was made semi-famous at his Yellowtail restaurant in the Bellagio Hotel, and it’ll likely be semi-famous here. The tacos ($24) of A5 wagyu, gochujang, tomato ponzu and micro cilantro in wonton shells, or the grilled, miso-glazed eggplant ($15) were gorgeously embellished with edible flowers, chives and sesame seeds. We needed no pushing to enjoy the side of veg fried rice ($14), specked with crispy kernels on our first visit, though it was lacking when we ordered it again a few weeks later.
The menu’s fusion of Mediterranean and Asian flavors plays into Ette’s ethic as a “wellness” hotel. That means it’s an alcohol-free destination, though you’re free to bring your own wine to the restaurant. Best of all, there’s no corkage fee. But the servers didn’t seem very adept at the various aspects of wine service. For one, our pinot blanc wasn’t chilled. Then they had trouble finding our Beaujolais, which was stored somewhere behind the mocktail bar. When they did locate it, our server nearly poured some into a glass already half-filled with pinot blanc.
And that’s the knock against this restaurant, where starters average $32 and prices for entrees range from $39 to $195. Servers not only lack the polish expected of a five-star hotel, but aren’t familiar with dish ingredients or sourcing. A few internal discussions were needed to determine that Salt & the Cellar’s steaks are from Creekstone Farms and that the A5 wagyu in the tacos is from Hokkaido. That’s the sort of info that should be printed on the menu. Servers also dress like spa attendants — white pants, white shoes, white shirts, beige vests — so food stains have nowhere to hide.
Back to those steaks: The 14-ounce NY strip ($66) is sliced and served with five different salts — black truffle, hickory, espresso, grape skin and pink Himalayan. We also got the wasabi-kizami butter ($5), but the soy-marinated horseradish didn’t quite mesh with the meat, so just stick to the salts, served in seashells. The miso black cod ($42) with yuzu foam and pickled cauliflower drew a mixed response. “Too sweet,” said one guest. I felt the version served at Ootoya in Thornton Park was a lot more Nobu-worthy — and $15 cheaper. The Jidori chicken ($39) had a lovely garlic-maple soy pooling around a base of mashed potatoes. Jidori, in case you’re wondering, is to chicken as wagyu is to beef. The flavor is rich and chickeny, but Jidori or no Jidori, it’s hard to justify paying $39 for chicken and mashed potatoes with a side of kimchi Brussels sprouts.
Granted, most of the restaurant’s clientele don’t seem bothered by the menu’s steep prices — in fact, they seem quite content doling out $18-$25 for mocktails that play up liquid-nitro theatrics and unique presentations. Desserts are just as poncy, be they pucks of yuzu curd, strawberry gelato and sable crumble covered by a sugar net ($18), or a “cigar” ($18) fashioned from dark chocolate filled with blondie and passion fruit and served in an ashtray with cacao “ash.”
And about the gossip we alluded to in the first paragraph? Seems chef Back swaggered up to tables unannounced during Salt & the Cellar’s soft opening and shoved food right into the yaps of some bewildered and unsuspecting patrons. “Nobody knew who he was,” said the worker in hushed tones. “They were like, what the fuck!?” “I would’ve shoved it right back in his face,” said one of my dining comrades, and we all shared an incredulous laugh.
No question, the food here aims for lofty heights, and on many occasions, reaches them. But the service? Well, it appears to be languishing in the cellar.