April 7, 2013

Ravenous Pigs And Rusty Spoons

The trip to Orlando that I took last weekend to watch the Wizards and kick back for a few days was one of the least planned trips in recent memory for me. There was minimal research completed; the only maps I took were four letter size printouts from Google Maps; and I didn't really understand when the places I wanted to visit were open until I checked on my iPad the day before. I just figured vacationing in Orlando wouldn't be that complicated and wouldn't require the down-to-the-minute scheduling that I usually employ when traveling.

The lack of planning theme for this trip extended to picking restaurants, but for a totally different reason. My memories of Orlando food from my last vacation there in 1999 involved chain sit-down restaurants similar to Applebee's and Chili's or unspectacular one off establishments like the places in downtown Celebration. Call me cynical on this one, but my expectations of dining in the Orlando area was that I would do well to steer clear of Sizzler and Ponderosa type steakhouses and just take my chances with whatever I could find.

Planning where to eat on vacation is important to me, mostly because I have high expectations for restaurant food. When I first started traveling on my own after college, I sought out brewpubs or breweries that served food since the food didn't matter much to me, but the beer was really important. Now that I can cook fairly good food on a regular basis, I try to find restuarants which will serve food equal to or better than what I can make at home. This has proved to be a tall order on some trips and lately I've turned more and more to food critics and food bloggers for guidance. But on this trip I didn't do any of that; I just took my chances. So imagine my surprise when I found not one, but two, really excellent restaurants on back to back days, making this quick trip down south a culinary trip to remember.

Right before the Wizards game Friday night, we ate at The Rusty Spoon, which was literally the first restaurant we saw after exiting the parking garage we found. Total random choice. Dinner consisted of stuffed eggs, a lamb sandwich and a couple (ok...three) Bell's Oberon ales. The eggs were a nice starter, filled with herbs, pickles and sundried tomatoes. Not a deviled egg  per se but a nice salty and sweet twist on a deviled egg dish.

The lamb sandwich was one of the best sandwiches I've had in a while, served with an onion-golden raisin jam and homemade ricotta salata on a toasted Moroccan roll. It was sweet and buttery without being greasy, the jam added some wonderful sweetness and the ricotta lightened the whole dish up. I was completely not prepared to blog about this meal so didn't take any pictures but trust me, the sandwich looked as good as it tasted. If I lived in Orlando, I'd hit this place up a lot before basketball games. Better than anything around Verizon Center that I have been to. If you are ever in downtown Orlando, I recommend you head over here for a meal.

The Ravenous Pig's open kitchen.
But before and after we found The Rusty Spoon, we found The Ravenous Pig. I literally picked this place off a double sided list of restaurant names we were handed by our hotel's front desk. Another total random choice. The list had me at "ravenous", "pig" and "gastropub". After walking for a little while and discovering it wasn't within walking distance, we headed back to the hotel, got in the car and drove to Winter Park, finally finding the place in a nondescript sort of strip mall type building close to the road. Not inspiring on the outside.

The interior, however, is well designed and light filled so it looked like a good spot to have lunch once we got inside. The menu had some interesting choices and the beer list had some great brews. Because the starters seemed more appetizing than the main dishes, we went with four of those: deviled eggs, house-made soft pretzels, rock shrimp tacos and smoked oyster hushpuppies. The eggs were a good start, although not as good in my opinion as the eggs we would have the next day at The Rusty Spoon; a little more salumi bits would have added more pork and salt and more taste. The pretzels were tasty but overall probably the least impressive dish we ordered; the taleggio-porter fondue served with the pretzels went really well with the shoestring fries we would order later.

The Ravenous Pig's beer list. Take a wild guess what I went for here. Hard to pass up Ommegang beers.
But the tacos and hushpuppies were real stars. Both struck a wonderful balance between sweet, creamy, fatty, acidic and spicy. The rock shrimp were battered but not too much to stop the sweetness of the shrimp shining through. The avocado creme fraiche drizzled on top was creamy and the cabbage slaw and pickled jalapenos added crunch and heat.

I've always been a little fascinated with hushpuppies and so have had them almost every chance I get and I've always been disappointed; I even made some disappointing ones at home once. They are completely American; there's no way we have anything like these things in my homeland of England although I probably first had hushpuppies ironically at Arthur Treacher's. The Ravenous Pig's hushpuppies justified my years of eating bad deep fried balls of cornmeal. They were moist, not dry, and sweet from kernels of corn in the mix. The orange-ghost chile aioli and hot sauce gastrique added some heat but didn't kill your palate, like anything with ghost chiles can do, and the pickled green tomatoes added some acidity and lightened the dish.

Our four starters were delicious enough that we actually ordered a lamb B.L.T. (a little bread heavy) with shoestring fries to top the meal off before we waddled back to our hotel with that lunch as the last meal of the day.

Shrimp and grits! With Ommegang's Rare Vos, of course.
As if lunch wasn't enough (and it wasn't), we decided a second Ravenous Pig trip on our three day trip was totally appropriate so we returned Saturday night for a quick dinner at their back bar in front of the restaurant's open kitchen. The octopus appetizer with hints of chorizo, harrisa and chile was a perfect lead in to a creamy and sweet shrimp and grits dish with a twist. Smaller royal red shrimp were used rather than larger head on jumbo shrimp I'm used to and the tomato chutney and chorizo oil made the dish different enough that I was glad I had it.

And to top the meal off, I had dessert: a cold coconut rice pudding with blueberry compote in the bottom of the dish with a scoop of chantilly cream resting on caramelized sugar cap (a la creme brûlée). Just incredible!

I'm not sure that I've been more pleasantly surprised with my choice of eats on a trip ever. When I get back to Orlando next, I'll definitely find my way back to one or both of these places for a second or third go-round. My opinion of the culinary scene in central Florida is changed forever and for the better. If anybody reading this is in the area, please check out one of these places. You won't be disappointed.

The remains of lunch (from left to right): empty hushpuppies bowl, Ommegang Rare Vos, orange-ghost chile aioli (behind the Ommegang), empty rock shrimp tacos plate, hushpuppy ready to be eaten, taleggio-porter fondue metal ramekin, whole grain mustard ramekin, shoestring fries.

No comments:

Post a Comment