click to enlarge bartlettimage-market_on_magnolia-6292.jpg

Photo by Rob Bartlett

Downtowners have a new covetable foodie destination in Market on Magnolia 

Full court press

Let's be honest: Market on Magnolia is not really the food hall it's billed as. At least, not when you put it up against places like Manhattan's Chelsea Market or Essex Market, Ponce City Market in Atlanta, or even St. Petersburg's Locale Market. Food "courts" have a bad connotation: bourbon chicken samples and hours-old pizza under heat lamps. But I think it's fair to say that Market on Magnolia (not to be confused with HGTV god and goddess Chip and Joanna Gaines' Magnolia Market) could be well on its way to rebranding the food court, a place where each member of your lunchtime posse gets their pick of perfectly executed – and timed! – comestibles.

The space formerly occupied by the beloved Frank & Steins sports pub and eatery has maintained its casual digs, but now houses three different food "stalls" (the preferred vernacular of the food hall culture), including poke masters Da Kine Poke, a highly anticipated outpost of Gnarly Barley and a wood-fired pizza counter called 081 Wood Fired Pizza. Along the northern wall, a plethora of beer taps dispense local craft and microbrews, including suds from Red Cypress Brewery and Ten10, topped with a phalanx of TVs for happy hour and weekend sports viewing and pre-gaming before Magic and Orlando City matches.

I visited on a Thursday afternoon precisely at lunchtime and, while buzzing with patrons, the lines at each stall moved quickly enough to allow more than enough time to find a table, of which there are plenty, and eat leisurely. The lesson here: Fantastic fare can be fast.

Market on Magnolia's proprietors carefully chose their tenants as ideal for food enthusiasts on a time limit; all three food concepts can be prepared quickly. Poke takes seconds to assemble and no cooking is required, except for the rice, which expels its glutinous perfume from oversized rice cookers along the south windows. Wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizzas only cook for a few minutes before emerging blistered and bubbling, quickly garnished and sent to tables via food runner. The salads and sandwiches purveyed by Gnarly Barley are also easily assembled by deft, gloved hands.

Da Kine Poke's spicy-sweet El Diablo bowl ($13) came out almost immediately after ordering, and proved a perfectly satisfying sample of the raw fish fad. The tuna crudo sat atop a mound of nicely al dente short-grain rice with scallions, sliced avocado and a smattering of spicy mayo and sriracha salt – enough to make a difference. The crispy fried onions and toasted rice added crunch to an otherwise-silky mouthfeel. The stall also offers the option of building your own poke bowl (starting at $9), outside of their four signature combinations.

There are finally some pizzerias to be proud of in Orlando, and 081 Wood Fired Pizza is a new add to the roster with near-perfect pies. The Vegetale ($15) should be everyone's new favorite slice, though. Far from Spartan, the pizza is piled with vegetables both in their natural state, like perky arugula, and treated so as to be better versions of themselves, like balsamic marinated cipollini onions and portobello mushrooms. The lemon spritz, generously shaved Parmigiano, and olive oil drizzle imparts a sweet scent of summer. It's no exaggeration to say I could imagine myself on a picnic bench atop rolling Tuscan hills enjoying this invention. Alas, Church Street is just steps away. The only fault to this packed pie is that the traditional Neapolitan crust (read: ultra thin) is no structural match for the weight of the toppings.

Dessert is basically nonexistent, so if you've got the sugar sweats, head under the Plaza building to Mochi for froyo or, better yet, take a walk down North Orange to Insomnia Cookies.

The "market" moniker is also a bit of a puzzler. The only justification I can come up with is alliteration, since there aren't any items for sale other than food at the stalls. There's no produce or nonperishables for sale, and the only prepared foods worthy to take home are 081's prepared pasta and potato salads, which are sadly forgettable.

That pizza, though!


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