Where is the best gourmet restaurant in Florida?
Can the answer really be … Disney World?
That’s what the Zagat guide, AAA’s Five Diamond Awards, and the gourmet site, Gayot, all seem to believe, but I am unconvinced. Time to gas up the Subaru, zoom up I-4, and investigate for myself.
Following the roadway’s labyrinthian twists and turns into the world of Mickey and Minnie, my dining companion and I arrive at the Grand Floridian Resort, with its throwback architecture worthy of a Henry B. Plant hotel; it’s Disney’s version of the Belleview Biltmore.
Victoria and Albert’s is tucked away on the second floor, down a corridor lined with handsome striped wallpaper and hung with old maps of Florida. The sound of a live harp lures us into the formal dining room, which has only 20 tables. But we’re headed for an even more intimate space: the adjacent inner sanctum of Queen Victoria’s Room, where just four über-romantic tables flank the fireplace. There, above the mantle, the young queen and her consort watch over the elegant chandeliered proceedings. The wait staff is costumed in Disney’s version of Dickensian London: men in pale blue tails and women in dusty rose ensembles with puffy sleeves and long skirts. Luckily, there are no singing teapots or crooning candles. Diners are presented with a huge leather-bound tome that, when opened, reveals a personalized welcome (your name here) under a coat of arms proclaiming “spem reduxit” (hope restored). The historical graphic could easily have been conjured up by a Disney animation crew. An Atlantic salmon swims under the uppermost crown and is flanked by two white-tailed, eight-point bucks dancing on their hind legs in a field of savory fiddlehead ferns.
I arrive forewarned by Zagat that “you may ‘need to hock one of your kids’ to pay,” so we decide to share a wine pairing. This turns out to be a good strategy; the staff splits each of nine 3-oz. servings, providing plenty of vino to experience the peerless food-wine alchemy without needing to deprive a designated driver. Spread out over a four-hour meal, the half-pours leave you alert and ready to return home safely. However, the menu offers other temptations. We skip the lure of extra caviar at $100+, but we do opt to go halves on the other two options. When else will we encounter wild turbot (+$30) or Iwate beef (+$45)?
So, the decisions are made; we sit back and wait for Chef de Cuisine Scott Hunnel’s magic to begin.
Our amuse-bouche arrives in a 1-oz. caviar glass jar filled with succulent Maine lobster salad, topped with a glistening layer of nutty Siberian osetra caviar. When you dip the tiny mother of pearl caviar spoon into the salad and take a bite, the silky eggs pop and melt in your mouth with the lush lobster. Crisp Piper Heidsieck Brut Champagne is the classic match. Print space limits my beverage discussion, so check online for notes on the truly exquisite wine pairings and world-class coffee and tea service, amenities that are not always provided even at the finest restaurants.
Our palates are ready for the meaty octopus, slowly braised till tender, then griddled “à la plancha.” Chef Hunnel’s gorgeous plating delicately places the cephalopod slices on a tangy black garlic aioli along with tiny chunks of fingerling potatoes and artichoke hearts, and tops it all with splendid crisp micro greens. A luscious schmear of baba ganoush with olive oil drizzle and a perfect corner triangle of house-smoked paprika complete the flavor mélange.
When a smoke-filled bell jar on a clear pedestal is placed before you, it rivets your focus. The server slowly lifts the glass and the swirling smoke hits your nose. Finally, your eyes catch a glimpse of a Niman Ranch lamb nugget trio as the smoke clears. A scrumptious Fuji apple-curry dressing clings to the tender lamb. Tiny green salad leaves sit upon wafer-thin radish slices to add a contrasting crunch.
A fennel pollen-crusted seared diver scallop is enveloped by fragrant, creamy fennel and leek beurre blanc. The caramelized mollusk seemingly floats in a large scallop shell sitting in a serving bowl carved from red Himalayan salt that might as well be translucent pink alabaster. It’s as luscious as it is beautiful.
Our extra course tops fresh wilted spinach with a shiny filet of rare wild turbot. The delicate fish is paired with toasted, briny capers and tiny ripe red tomato cubes that peak through tangy beurre blanc laced with preserved Meyer lemon. It’s a triumph of special ingredients and impeccable technique.
Speaking of technique, the luscious arugula-polenta stuffed agnolotti pasta “pillows” would make perfectionist chef Thomas Keller proud. And the crispy squab troika (leg, breast, thigh) balanced by the sweet-tart cherry jus is a master class in cooking and serving game birds.
A small, juicy, medium rare filet of lean Colorado bison shares a wide shallow china dish with caramelized shallots and fingerlings, micro Brussels sprouts and brunoise cut turnips, swimming in a surprising sweet and savory caraway seed vinaigrette. Our palates are humming.
Out pops Matthew, a tall, svelte sous chef, dressed in gleaming white with black buttons and a towering chef’s toque. He pushes a rolling cart with an enormous sterling silver tray outfitted with a shiny, sizzling black stone and all the attendant paraphernalia to sear Australian style Kobe (a Wagyu-Angus hybrid) beef tenderloin tableside. The finished beef sits on bits of glazed tofu, tiny enoki mushrooms, and baby carrots with just a touch of green. Our server grates bottarga, a cured fish roe delicacy that joins fresh wasabi as DIY condiments. With a flourish, a small sterling silver dome on the plate rises to unveil the evening’s special Iwate beef add-on. Even at 10 bucks an unforgettable bite, it’s worth it — more akin to foie gras than filet mignon. The server completes the plate by pouring ethereal tamarind veal jus that snakes its way around the beef.
A fabulous, varied selection from V&A’s cheese trolley follows, with impeccable accompaniments, paving the way for pastry chef Erich Herbitschek’s magic. His Peruvian chocolate timbale with roasted white chocolate gelato, cocoa nibs and 24 carat gold leaf is wonderful, but nothing I haven’t seen before. It’s the preceding dessert that blows me away with its stunning flavors and sense of innovation.
The apple quark panna cotta is simply breathtaking in taste and presentation. Sweet warm apple slices, each with a pencil-thin brûléed edge, sit on a rectangular sheet of slightly tart red current gelee. A trio of airy siphoned calvados-tinged sponge cake nuggets — the size of tater tots — dot the plate. The upper left corner of the large, flat squarish dish has a vertical spun sugar “window pane” with blotches of green apple. Left center is a crisp almond cookie oval that serves as the base for sweet silky panna cotta made with quark (think soft cream cheese), which is topped by a green apple bubble sphere with a liquid core that explodes in your mouth. The result resembles a thick fried green egg right out of Dr. Seuss. A line of progressively larger green applesauce dots anchors the bottom, while dark green granulated basil sugar looks like a candy sandstorm has blown over the top of the plate. It’s a triumphant dish I will never forget.
Victoria and Albert’s 10-course degustation-wine pairing experience is worthy of Michelin stars and, short of trailblazing meals at Chicago’s Alinea or Modena’s Osteria Francescana, one of the most satisfying meals in my experience. The cost marks it as a very special celebration destination, but it’s closer than you think and worth saving for.
As promised, it’s Florida’s best restaurant.
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