What’s in Orlando?
I’m stuck – car-less – at a conference on the (in)famous International Drive – the ark of chain restaurants: two of each kind.
Where. To. Eat?
Managing to escape for a couple of meals on my own, I took refuge at the Grand Lakes Resort. It’s a JW Marriot-Ritz Carlton twin pack – the first of its kind, and, as I was told, not the last of its kind (although, with economy in the crapper, I’m not holding my breath). Unlike the home office in Rockland, Maine, which is only open spring through fall, Primo in Orlando is opened all year (there is a terzo Primo in sunny Tucson, Arizona, which, I will venture, is also open all year).
Despite being hundreds of miles away from the Rockland restaurant, I got the sense that the food in Orlando was not terribly different from the food being served in Maine.
The chef graciously accommodated the request to arrange a tasting menu.
“Salad of Reds”
Porcini Mushroom Pappardelle
Caramelized Vidalia onion vinaigrette, pommes fondant, salad of arugula,
chanterelles, white asparagus and Burgundy truffles.
Grilled Long Island Duck Breast
Dried fig gnocchi with greens, turnips and carrots
Romaine lettuces with garlicky levain croutons, crispy bacon, soft boiled organic egg & white balsamic vinaigrette
“Peaches & Cream”
Yogurt panna cotta, brown sugar peach compote, and oatmeal almond crisp
What the restaurant lacks in physical charm, it does not lack in hospitality.
From the host stand to the floor staff, everyone I encountered was warm and welcoming, especially the restaurant’s manager. Polished, however, is not a word that comes to mind. At times, the wait staff could be a bit amateurish. At all times, it felt like work. Here, “E” is for effort.
The interior of the restaurant is not unattractive. Actually, it’s quite plush. But, one never escapes being reminded that one is in a hotel. Perhaps more damning, one never loses sight of the fact that one is dining in a hotel restaurant.
Primo is sectioned into a few different dining areas. For those who welcome the spectacle and accompanying noise and excitement of the kitchen, the tables in the “main” dining room that face the line are ideal. For intimacy, there are semi-circular booths in a lower-tier of the restaurant.
Is Primo primo?
The ingredients certainly are.
Though locavorism is the cornerstone of Kelly’s cooking philosophy, I’m not sure how much of the food at the Orlando location is sourced locally. The website says that the restaurant maintains its own organic gardens which supply the kitchen.
Whether or not (or to the extent) this is true, the vegetables were outstanding.
The “Farmer’s Salad” was a bit simplistic but iconic: mesclun, including frisee, softened by the silky yolk of a gently poached egg and tossed with garlicky “levain” croutons. The Salad of Reds on the other hand, was bold and exciting: red leaf lettuce, Picholine olives, roasted almonds and shaved Tuada cheese dressed with sherry vinaigrette (I’ve also seen a version of this on the Maine menu with Manchego – instead of Tuada – and figs). While I enjoyed the flavors and the textures of this salad, unfortunately, the vinaigrette was way over-salted.
So were the mussels, which might as well have been served with seawater. Actually, seawater would have been healthier. The “Chardonnay wine and garlic” broth that the mussels were served in was thick with butter. The two crisp toasts were equally as greasy. I could hardly eat more than a couple of bites before putting that dish to rest, which was unfortunate, since the mussels were quite plump and topped with a tuft of emerald-green pea tendrils.
The food here is billed as rustic Italian. Minor embellishments and refinements aside, I’d say that’s somewhat accurate.
Like the excellent produce I encountered, Primo’s Italian-prone dishes shined the brightest. There was a plate of beautifully grilled vegetables that I ordered as supplemental contorni. Asparagus, fennel, baby zucchini, squash, and mini carrots, sported a smoky char under a blanket of crunchy sea salt and glistened with olive oil.
Porcini Mushroom Pappardelle showcased the chef’s deft hand with pasta. The wide ribbons of pasta wove a velvety avenue around large pieces of meaty porcini and silky strips of sautéed spinach. Topped with a generous tent of shaved Pecorino and truffles, the aroma alone was immensely satisfying. Beefy, earthy, and paired with Layer Cake Primitivo, 2006, each bite was an umami bomb.
If the pappardelle was the apex of my meal, the dishes that followed initiated a slow descent into utter boredom. Perhaps not coincidentally, the pasta dish was the last of the recognizably Italian-leaning courses.
The Day Boat Scallop dish, which followed the pasta, was rudimentary at best. The scallop, nicely pan-seared, perched atop an ill-shaped and uncharacteristically soggy dome of “potato fondant.” The random assortment of accompaniments – Vidalia onion vinaigrette, greens, white asparagus, and fleshy chanterelles – was much more compelling. With no help from a nominal garnish of Burgundy truffles, these vegetables saved the dish from being completely prosaic.
The next course was more sound in composition, but lacked character. Grilled Long Island duck, all rosy and pink and garnished with an orchid (that did little to connote the rather earthy flavors on the plate), sadly accomplished little more than look pretty. Even the sauce should have been lovely, given its restrained presence. Unfortunately, it was devoid of any flavor of its own. I had been especially excited by the “fig gnocchi.” But they turned out to be disappointingly gummy. Once again, the accompanying vegetables – carrots, turnips, and grilled scallions – were the best part of this dish.
The meal petered out with a rather lackluster dessert. But not before I was served “Formaggi.” The Tuada shaved over truffled arugula and garnished with cubes of quince paste was my favorite of the three cheeses. That is not to say that the quenelle of Gorgonzola coated with honey (blue cheese and honey is one of my favorite couplings) and the torpedo of fresh goat cheese with balsamic and a sliver of strawberry (do strawberries grow in Orlando in early autumn?) weren’t good. They were very good. But the Tuada was better. Maybe it was because it took me back to the porcini pappardelle.
“Peaches & Cream,” which sounded exciting. In reality, the yogurt panna cotta served with syrupy brown sugar peach compote (and topped with the requisite hotel orchid) was, perhaps, the least interesting dish of the evening. It wasn’t poorly executed in any way. Even the peaches admirably held their own against the onslaught of dark brown sugar and spices (perhaps a bit a cinnamon?). But I’m having a hard time coming up with anything to say about this dessert otherwise.
The dinner had got off to an awkward start with an amuse bouche of “small dish of sweets: a couple of crudely-shapen nuggets of chocolate filled with peanut and feuilletine, a cut of pâté de fruit and a microscopic square of shortbread.
Melissa Kelly’s Primo (in Orlando) is no Ca Panisso to Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse. But, where the restaurant keeps things simple and traditional, it offers to those in (or stuck in, as it were) its neck of woods an excellent example of slower cooking. The ingredients are exemplary. Though none of them were magically transformed, none of them were abused or mistreated either.
Given the price, service and overall execution, I would much rather spend my time and money at Primo’s neighbor, Norman’s at the Ritz Carlton, which I shall blog about next. Though they are entirely different in cuisine and style, and Norman’s is slightly more expensive, Norman’s achieves that which Primo could, but doesn’t: excellent service and exciting and gripping flavors and presentations.
Executive Chef Melissa Kelly
4040 Central Florida Parkway
Orlando, Florida 32837