Orlando's ability to create and attract "stars" goes for acclaimed cuisine celebrities just as well as sports and music figures.
Chefs Paul Bocuse and Gaston Lenotre call Epcot their Florida home; Todd English is moving in to the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel; Roy Yamaguchi holds sway on Sand Lake Road; and we've all been exposed to Emeril and Wolfgang Puck. Slightly lower on the fame scale, but no less talented, is Melissa Kelly, the guiding hand behind Primo at the JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes.
The massive Grande Lakes complex also includes The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, home of Norman's, the signature restaurant headed by fellow James Beard Award winner Norman Van Aken; Kelly was named "Best Chef: Northeast."
This Primo is the second location for the renowned chef, who opened her Rockland, Maine, location in 1999 to critical acclaim. While Kelly's "down east" spot is a fairly simple affair in a Victorian house, the Orlando version reflects its massive surroundings. In a deep-colored room with semi-William Morris wallpaper and organic-looking chandeliers, you're confronted with a dizzying assortment of salad knives, fish forks and several sizes of dessert spoons. The cutlery is only slightly more complex than the food.
Kelly and chef de cuisine Kathleen Blake are well-versed in the ways of organic foods -- in fact, there's an organic garden on the premises -- and the menu varies with available supplies. The stuffed squash blossom starter ($10) was immensely pleasurable: crispy flowers filled with creamy ricotta and drizzled with balsamic vinegar. Too bad there were only two. Fried calamari ($11) used tender ring slices and spicy tentacles dressed with cress and citrus.
It isn't often you encounter a new experience, which I did with the sturgeon entree ($28). Sturgeon are huge, dense beasts, and my serving had a firm texture more like chicken than fish, with a flavor that only comes from cold-water catches. It was served alongside a baby artichoke half-filled with tomato couscous and a braised slice of escarole (impossible to cut with the fish knife).
Beautiful women and young men with spiky hair make up the well-trained staff, and do their jobs well. The only downside that comes to mind is the price: Dinner for two easily rises to more than $100. The Maine lobster ($32) -- while interestingly served with handmade pansoti (similar to ravioli) stuffed with squash -- is not the expected full shellfish but some chunks and a few deshelled claws, which seems a bit expensive.
There's thought behind the cuisine, and the excellent food isn't simply trendy -- Melissa Kelly has earned her fame.