When Denise Spiegel from Orlando Convention & Visitors Bureau invited me on a culinary focused trip to Orlando, I’ll admit, I was skeptical. Orlando, Florida is not particularly well known for food. It’s thought of as a tourist town where you go for Mickey Mouse, not a fine dining experience.  Yet, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. There are some impressive people hard at work trying to change Orlando’s reputation and put their food on the map.

We arrived on Thursday at our host hotel, Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek 14100 Bonnet Creek Resort Lane, Orlando, FL 32821. (It’s actually the same shiny new hotel we stayed in for the Pillsbury Bake-Off.) It’s attached to the Waldorf Astoria Orlando and allows guests access to amenities at both. Both hotels have great pools (Hilton has a lazy river), and you can get a gorgeous view of their golf course and Disney from certain rooms.  To top it off, a martini glass full of Butterscotch Pudding arrived while I was unpacking and unwinding. Super smooth and decadent! What a treat!

Our welcome dinner was at La Luce by Donna Scala (inside Hilton Bonnet Creek) where we dined with the Director of Food and Beverage for both hotels, Francis Metais. Metais is a former chef who has worked with Paul Bocuse, he is a culinary veteran of the world. His glowing passion for food and abundant stories entertained us all night.


We started with a plate of cured meats (that sadly I couldn’t eat, but loved the aged provolone) and a beautiful pile of Frito Misto. Beyond the fresh seafood (again couldn’t eat), I enjoyed the string beans and fennel, all with a perfectly crisp crust.

frito misto 2

Francis, disappointed by not seeing his favorite fried olives and Marcona almonds, requested some for the table. As promised, the combination is truly divine, addictive bites that could have you down a bottle of wine before you knew it. The heat seems to turn on the juices and oils bringing the full impact of flavor to the surface.

fried olives and marcona almonds

Between courses Francis showed us amazing large prints of food he has worked with. The quality of the photos paired with his enthusiastic descriptions convinced me; born 20 to 30 years later, he would have been a blogger.

The Stone Fruit Salad is my favorite kind of salad: fruit, nut, and cheese, halved cherries, Marcona almonds, and goat cheese.

stone fruit salad

The pasta I chose was also a favorite shape, like a pappardelle with curly edges, Riccia con Bolognese. This was a deep and rich ragu that weighed too much on me.

riccia bolognese

Before I could eat two bites, Francis had added more to our dinner. He wanted us to try the Bucatini Amatriciana (one of Lon’s favorite pastas) which was delicious. I liked this plate more, where the tomato flavor was more pronounced, a nice acid to cut the rich bacon. I would have liked a touch more heat, but focus still switched to this plate.

There’s more. Francis wanted us to try one of their pizzas, the Bianca, with figs, gorgonzola dolce, caramelized onions, rucolo, and balsamic vinegar. Not usually a fan of white pizzas, I was blown away by the flavor and perfect balance of each ingredient, each pronounced but none over-powered.

fig and blue pizza

Stuffed, I still managed to eat 80% of my dessert, a fresh and deceivingly light Berry Shortcake.

Berry Shortcake

I have to admit my shock. This food was on par with a Manhattan dining experience (so are prices though). Little did I know that the next morning, I was in for a bigger surprise at Bull & Bear (inside Waldorf Astoria). The adorable Chef David Sears has also put in his time, working at the Ritz Carlton, Mandarin Hotel, and many more places places I can’t remember.

Chef David Sears 3

His passion and talent is clear in all the little touches, starting with an array of fresh juices, apple celery, carrot ginger, and watermelon.
(That’s Carol Cain aka NYCityMama in the background. More on my partners in gluttonous crime in the next post.)

fresh juices

Then there was the Truffled Honey Butter. I saw many at our table trying it on everything they could spread it on.

Truffled Honey Butter 2

Luckily, there was many options in the fresh bread basket. The truffle lovers had more in the truffle scones. Sweet and Savory Monkey Breads to satisfy each side (I loved the savory) and I will never pass up a croissant, especially one this airy with buttery fresh layers.

bread basket 2

Here, we were enjoying the food at the table with Manny Belete, General Manager of Bull & Bear. Manny is a true service and hospitality designer–a natural–and you can’t help but take notice of the presence and personality they are building here in Orlando. The Captains (sorry, I didn’t catch their names) were also a delight. Full service and not intrusive with nice jokes thrown in. The atmosphere is one I want to come back for and Lon to experience, and of course for the Tomahawk Steaks.

Look at the size of this Prime Certified Angus Beef. This is usually served at dinner for 2 for $95. What a steal!!!

Tomahauk Steak 3

Of course Chef David Sears cooked and seasoned it perfectly. We had our choice of eggs but sadly I can’t have my beloved runny yolks now. No matter. The steak was quite enough.

Steak & Eggs

Another little unexpected touch, a side of potato pancakes, the best soft stack I’ve had in a long time since this is one of those dishes that is most commonly done wrong. Most are bland, too oily or too dry, too starchy or too crumbly. Bravo.

potato pankcaes

As if I was not already impressed with the chef, he sent the perfect end to this meal. Some compressed melon, sorbet, a tiny cube of cake with a smear of freshly made yogurt was light and refreshing, and obviously beautiful.

compressed melon, sorbet, yogurt 3

Orlando was off to a great start and I am certainly coming around. Additional highlights came in little samples and from Keith Salwoski (Director of Public Relations and Promotions) who wanted us to try various offerings like the Cinnamon Sticky Bun served in their Muse Cafe.

Cinnamon Sticky Bun

With great people behind the scenes like Francis, Manny, and Chef David, and people like Keith promoting and Denise Spiegel organizing such great press trips, Orlando could soon become a noted food destination. Actually Bull & Bear in Orlando is better than I remember Bull & Bear being in NY.

There’s so much more to try in the next couple of days so I haven’t made a final verdict yet, but my expectations are changing…

posted by jessica at 11:59 AM Filed under Restaurants, Travel. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.