When Brennan's of Houston started the whole chef's table phenomenon back in 1985, the thought was that a little cook-diner interaction in the kitchen (and not the kind doled out at the local Benihana) would offer patrons a glimpse into the world of the culinary artist, while providing a testing ground for the chef's creativity. Since then, the concept has been watered down, as happens to trends, though that hasn't prevented the local foodie trail from passing through Winter Garden, where the Chef's Table sits within the historically quaint walls of the Edgewater Hotel.
Chef's Tables, plural, might be a more apropos moniker for Kevin and Laurie Tarter's restaurant. The intimate dining room has about 10 tables, all in full or partial view of the kitchen where Kevin and sous-chef Crystal Womelsdorf, both alumni of Disney's California Grill, ply their craft. But intimate as it is, don't expect any cozy confabs with the chef, though a small window of banter opportunity does exist if Tarter serves a course at your table himself. On my visit, it was Womelsdorf serving the appetizer course, but the flourishes emerging from her kitchen were impressive nevertheless.
A three-course prix fixe menu ($46.99) puts the focus on quality, the proof being in the pudding that came in the form of a luscious foie gras crème brûlée. Green apples and goat cheese complete the flavor trifecta of this decadently creamy delicacy. Simplicity is a virtue in the torte; the earthy wild mushrooms and assertive gruyère cheese give weight to this flaky first course. A mushroom reduction and beurre blanc sauce validates Womelsdorf's ascension in the kitchen, temporary though it may have been.
Mains are also superbly, and confidently, executed. Two fat medallions of sesame-crusted, sushi-grade tuna were perfectly seared and elegantly propped on a bed of Asian slaw and noodles that lent a pleasant crunch to the dish. (You may find yourself asking for more wasabi mayonnaise.) Fire-grilled New York strip was lent flair by a blue cheese'red wine emulsion and well-whipped mashed potatoes. The Tarters are both budding sommeliers, so it's no surprise that wine pairings (an optional three-glass offering, $21.99) are thoughtfully listed for every dish. A fresh, delicate glass of Leon Beyer pinot blanc ($8) with the fish and a hearty Langhorne Crossing shiraz-cabernet ($8) with the steak proved ideal complements.
For the final course, berries sauté consist of an irresistible mix of blue-, black-, straw- and raspberries floating in a Grand Marnier sauce, along with a sweet biscuit and a dollop of vanilla ice cream. I didn't care much for the biscuit ' I would've preferred a spongy cake of some sort. The thick peanut butter crème anglaise made the chocolate soufflé a too-substantial meal-ender. If you fancy a savory fromage rather than a sweet finale, a modest five-cheese tasting course ($14.99) is also offered for your post-meal pleasure.
And pleasure is central at the Chef's Table. Kitchen creations aside, the wood floors and beautiful stained glass enhance the aesthetic gratification, and if you happen to dine here as the sun sets, you'll find yourself awash in a warm, luminescent glow ' although, sun or no sun, that's sure to happen anyway.