Eatin’ at the Ritz: The Culinary Side of Orlando

By Jan Schroder

Quick – think of the words “Orlando” and “food” and what do you think of? Chances are it is something gooey, fried or on a stick, eaten on the run while racing to the next attraction at a theme park. Well, lucky girl that I am, I got to experience a whole other culinary side of Orlando last week when I stayed at Grande Lakes Orlando.

Chef Sean Woods, Executive Chef at The Ritz Orlando. He told us he never has a bad hair day because he never takes off his toque.

This resort consists of The Ritz-Carlton on one side and a JW Marriott on the other, combining in one huge gorgeous, luxurious resort. More on my stay later – this post is all about the food. And yes, I have visual aids – photos I took with my iPhone of a few of my meals.

Our first meal was one of the more memorable ones of my life – at the Chef’s Table in the Ritz-Carlton. I love taking a peak at hotel and restaurant kitchens. They seem such magical places and I marvel at how hordes of white-coated people can create such wonders out of seeming chaos.

This kitchen was relatively quiet, however, and our table was tucked back inside the kitchen. It was a very long table beautifully set with the most elongated stemware and silverware I’d ever seen. It was uber elegant, but I was a little concerned that my occasional clumsiness would result in spillage and massive loss of dignity, but I made it through the meal just fine.

Our meal was prepared by Sean Woods, who is Executive Chef of The Ritz- Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes. He has worked for the Ritz for 17 years, and has been part of the opening team for 10 Ritz hotels. His enthusiasm for the Ritz and for cooking is only matched by his skill. He entertained us with stories between courses, while introducing us to other skilled members of his staff, many of whom have worked with him for years.

I sat and enjoyed being firmly in my happy place. Seriously, I hardly ever even get to go out to lunch – usually making it through the day eating leftovers while watching the hairstyle portion of “What Not to Wear” on the days I work at home. And now I’m sitting in at the Chef’s Table at The Ritz? I felt not unlike our nearby princess Cinderella, transported to a wonderland but without any pesky stepsisters or disappearing footwear.

So here are photos of our expertly prepared and presented lunch:

Course One: Heirloom tomatoes with fresh mozzarella cheese. The swab of pesto on the side the of plate added color and a wonderful flavor. Two of my favorite words are "heirloom" and "tomato."

Course Two: Chicken Roulade with Proscuitto and an Oatmeal Crust, Butternut Squash Ravioli with Broccolini and Sea Bass with an Eggplant Balsamic Glaze (I think that was right. By then my mind was drifting away to which part to eat first. And doesn't even my plate look happy? That glaze is totally in the shape of a smile.)

Ahh, the cheesecake with strawberries. As a childhood chubby, I have always had to watch my weight. And I'd much rather watch it go down than go up so I rarely eat dessert, as most of them are NWC. Not worth the calories. But this, this was the best cheesecake I've ever had - a plateful of creamy goodness that was a melody on my tongue. Only by exercising every ounce of restraint did I not finish the entire thing. Let's just say a majority of it was consumed. And I don't regret a bite.

The next night we had an amazing dinner at Primo, which is on the JW Marriott side of the resort. The original Primo is in Maine, where James Beard Award-winner Melissa Kelly is Executive Chef. But before going into the restaurant we had a stop and a bite to eat in the lovely organic herb garden used by the chefs daily.

The organic herb garden at Primo

The chefs had prepared a few appetizers for us to enjoy in the garden and I was happy to oblige. Eating freshly prepared food outside is one of my favorite activities. We enjoyed a selection of roasted vegetables, freshly baked breads and some rosemary almonds from Chef Melissa’s book Mediterranean Women Stay Slim Too: Eating to be Sexy, Fit and Fabulous.

We were puzzled by one item, however. They looked like small nuts, but the innards were oozing something. Chef Juan told us there were green almonds, with a bit of olive oil dribbled on them. You may sometimes see them as a salad ingredient.

A lively, delicious dinner ensued and we had a table right by the open kitchen. I was having too much fun to take any photos, but the meal was memorable for me in that I ordered Beet Salad for an appetizer. My husband and I have a beet battle in our household, with me falling firmly on the anti-beet side. But when you put a warm goat cheese tart underneath your beets, and fresh lettuce on top – well, let’s just say I had to switch to the other side.

For our last dinner we had dinner at Norman‘s, a beautiful restaurant overlooking the golf course on The Ritz-Carlton side.  Here Chef Norman Van Aken serves his fusion of Latin, Caribbean and Asian recipes. We were treated to a tasting menu, which is way good for indecisive people like me who become overwhelmed with an extensive menu because I like just about everything.  This time we just had to make a few choices.

First course: Yuca Stuffed Crispy Shrimp. The purplish stuff is Nicaraguan slaw and it also had habanero tartar sauce.

Course two: Pan-cooked Fillet of Key West Yellowtail with asparagus spears and mashed potatoes with citrus butter sauce. And this was just the fish course!

Course three: Chimmichurri Marinated and Roasted Mignon of Beef with potato torta, mushrooms, red wine reduction and bernaise sauce. Okay, so I took a few bites before I remembered to take the photo.

Course four: By this time I'd totally forgotten about the artisanal cheese course! And yes, again I took a few bites before the photo. Umm, I'm sensing a pattern here - more food intake equal less attention to anything else.

Course five: Havana Banana Split with chilies, rhum-flamed bananas and macadamia nut brittle ice cream. I did my best on this course but wasn't able to finish it. C'mon - this was course number five!

Listen, I’m about Disney and all the other fantasy worlds available in Orlando. But if you want true culinary magnificence, fulfill your foodie fantasies at Grande Lakes.

This entry was published on June 15, 2010 at 6:19 pm. It’s filed under Jan Schroder, Orlando and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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